There are few things more dialectically riveting in the theater than a great musical actor standing downstage-center, in the demarcating glow of a spotlight, and singing her heart out. It’s a spectacle at once intimate and grandly histrionic, advancing the plot and removed from it. The character shares her innermost thoughts; the actor radiantly shows off her chops. The female leads in two Broadway revivals are blazing through such numbers eight times a week these days, both in unorthodox takes: Jessie Mueller as Julie Jordan in Carousel and Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
A certain critical consternation awaited these productions, with good reason. Here, as several commentators have noted, are shows (along with the upcoming Pretty Woman and next season’s Kiss Me Kate), written by men and directed by men and based on source material mostly by men, whose female protagonists can seem to succumb cheerily to being beaten, bullied, rescued, or tamed by their male counterparts. A measure of these times of debate over what to do with historical expressions that now seem dishonorable, the revivals of Carousel (Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1945) and My Fair Lady (Lerner and Loewe, 1956) opened in mid-April, the same week that New York City, in response to protests, removed a statue from Central Park of one J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century surgeon who operated on female slaves without anesthesia or consent. Should sexist old shows—notwithstanding charms like Carousel’s soaring score or My Fair Lady’s high entertainment quotient—meet a similar fate? Should they be knocked from the repertoire?
Not necessarily. Theater is made of flesh and voice, not of marble or bronze, and when live human beings embody theatrical roles, they bring perspectives, quirks, critiques, and sheer virtuosity that can contribute to contesting a show’s hoary elements. And there’s no great risk in trying. Unlike a statue, a play can’t be smashed irretrievably to smithereens. Even the clumsiest staging or most boneheaded interpretation cannot define a show; someone else can come along and make another production.
Artists and scholars have been thinking about how to grapple with the apparent misogyny in the masterful midcentury musicals since long before me too became a hashtag. Meanwhile, the tight licensing grip that creators (or their estates) have long maintained, demanding absolute fidelity to the original stage versions of their works, has started to loosen, allowing—to cite just a few examples—a female Bobbi in Marianne Elliott’s upcoming London production of Company; new choreography by Hofesh Shechter for the most recent Broadway revival, in 2015, of Fiddler on the Roof; and same-sex couples as the parallel romantic pairs in Bill Rauch’s version of Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. So the questions for the “golden age” musicals now on Broadway—as for any production, anywhere—must be: Why now? And, especially, how now?