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Theater: The Thing About Revivals

By Wendy Caster
arttimesjournal March 17, 2018

Periodically, old shows with iffy depictions of women are revived on Broadway. People, mostly but not all women, complain about those depictions. Then other people complain about the complaints. Rinse and repeat.

(I’m assuming that readers are familiar with these shows; if not, summaries can be found on Wikipedia. Also, there are spoilers below.)

The following are being revived on Broadway:


The New York Times recently featured an article on people’s responses to the depiction and treatment of women in these revivals. It attracted nearly 400 comments. All the usual arguments were raised on both sides.

For the record, I think it’s fine that these shows are being produced; it’s the producers’ business, plus I’m committed to free speech. I do, however, wish that more money was spent on new work. Even more, I wish that people could discuss this controversy (and all the others in the world!) civilly, openly, and honestly, with no name-calling. Here are some specifics.



First let’s take a look at the opinions expressed in the article itself.

Michael Paulson (author of the article) says: “[Elements] of the stories … are prompting new scrutiny at this #MeToo moment.”

I say: New scrutiny? Nope. Many people, mostly but not only women, have scrutinized these shows since they were brand new.

Carole Rothman, artistic director, Second Stage Theater says: “So the music is beautiful. Does that mean you want to spend $20 million producing it?”

I say: Well, someone does. They who pay the piper call the tune, and this season, piper-callers have seen fit to do these shows.

Georgia Stitt, composer, lyricist, musician: “[Then] there is the real scarcity of women on the creative teams.”

I say: Yeah, what’s that about? Why are women’s voices still being ignored?

Scott Rudin, speaking of Carousel: “Julie does not stand for every woman, and Louise [Julie’s daughter] does not stand for every teenage girl.”

I say: That’s true.

Scott Rudin, lead producer, Carousel: “The job of a play or a musical is not to answer a question, it’s to ask a question.”

I say: Does anyone find this as bogus as I do? It seems a complete abdication of responsibility, especially since the issue at hand is answers that many people find offensive.

Bartlett Sher, director, My Fair Lady: “You watch sitcoms and you’re like, how did we ever get away with that? But strangely with Shaw, his sensitivities are so profound that you don’t feel that.”

I say: Who’s “you” in Sher’s statements? The whole point of this discussion is that many women do “feel that.”

Julie Andrews, the original Eliza: “Oh gosh — [My Fair Lady] is very, very sexist.”

I say: Who am I to argue with Julie Andrews?



And now let’s take a look at the opinions expressed in the comments section. (So many people said similar things that I’ve consolidated their comments.)

The commenters say: Shows shouldn’t be censored just because they reflect the values of the past.

I say: Of course not! But this is a total straw man. No one is suggesting censorship. These shows are done all the time, all over the world. If that’s censorship, I know many contemporary writers who would gladly sign on.

The commenters say: These shows are, and I quote, “Orwellian,” “Soviet-style,” like “Mao's Cultural Revolution” and “similar to Soviet Commissars.”

I say: Oh, please. More straw men here.

  1. Citizens, not the government, are criticizing the shows.

  2. No one is being forced to rewrite their work.

  3. No one is being forced to watch something they don’t want to watch.

  4. No work is being censored.

  5. No one is risking their life or liberty by participating in this discussion.

In fact, this very controversy is an excellent example of robust free speech, which is the exact opposite of “Orwellian,” “Soviet-style,” like “Mao's Cultural Revolution,” or “similar to Soviet Commissars.”

The commenters say: Yesterday’s shows should be judged by yesterday’s values.

I say: On the face of it, this makes sense, except for one problem: who gets to say what “yesterday’s values” were? Many women were offended or annoyed by these shows back when they were new and in the years since. In the early 1960s, the mothers in my neighborhood called “bullshit” (and worse) on Carousel and My Fair Lady. Over 50 years ago.

Every era includes a large variety of opinions and values, but not all are included in the annals of history. For example, many people claim we shouldn’t judge Thomas Jefferson for having slaves because slavery was the “value” of his time and place. Yet in that very same time and place, millions of people recognized that slavery was disgusting and reprehensible. Certainly the millions of slaves recognized that!

The commenters say: We shouldn’t reinterpret classics to reflect today’s values—or should we?

My Fair Lady

I say: This one is intriguing. In the New York Times, people offered a range of interpretations of the final scene of My Fair Lady. As you probably remember, after much fighting and Eliza’s leaving, Eliza returns to Higgins. Higgins says, in his inimitably charming way, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” Some people interpret this as Eliza giving up her power and independence. Some people see it as ambiguous. Personally, I always wished that Eliza would pick up the slippers and hurl them at Higgins’ head.

It’s a good idea to go back to the text. But which text? In George Bernard Shaw’s original play Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based, Eliza and Higgins do not end up together. In fact, Shaw wrote a rather long essay to emphasize that Eliza ends up with Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who isn’t that much of an improvement. (He’s more romantic, but he’ll never make a living.) For the movie version of Pygmalion, the producers wanted a happy ending, and Shaw allowed a final scene similar to the one that was then used in My Fair Lady. In other words, the ending is not exactly written in stone.

Here are some of the possible versions of that final scene discussed in the comments section:

I love these ideas. All of them are supported by the text, and many make the ending much more interesting.

Anyway, we interpret things according to today’s values all the time. We can’t help it. Today is where we live.

The commenters say: The women are clearly strong in these musicals and arguably superior to the men.

I say: I agree. So why should I be glad to watch them accept abuse from those men?

The commenters say: We have to do old musicals because none of the new ones are any good.

I say: Hamilton. Dear Evan Hansen. Wicked. Next to Normal. The Band’s Visit. Caroline, or Change. Avenue Q. A Man of No Importance. Light in the Piazza. Fun Home. Hairspray. Hello Again. Jerry Springer: The Opera. Spamalot. Spring Awakening. Once.



The commenters say: “I wish critics would relax sometimes.” “Oh my god—take a breath.” “Grow up, everybody!!!” “Get a grip.” “Oh Please! Enough already!” “My God...can't we just go to an old show and enjoy it? These are period pieces. Lighten up and have a good time.”

I say: The people who make these comments completely ignore the actual content of other people’s complaints. Instead, they suggest that the people they disagree with are uptight, immature, hysterical, and over-serious. They don’t say anything useful or present a point of view. Instead, they say, “If you just relaxed and grew up, you’d agree with me.”

Speaking for myself (and I suspect many people would agree with me), I cannot just sit back and enjoy a show that doesn’t respect me. Nor can I just sit back and enjoy a show that makes me invisible or insults me.

And why should I?


( Wendy Caster is an award-winning writer living in New York City. Her reviews appear regularly on the blog Show Showdown. Her short plays You Look Just Like Him and The Morning After were performed as part of Estrogenius festivals. Her published works include short stories, essays, and one book. )