Yes, Some Musicals Are Unwoke. That’s Not a Writ to Rewrite Them.
The Encores! series at New York City Center has, a program for the new season reads, “staged weeklong revivals of rarely seen musicals from the Broadway canon” for nearly three decades. It does such a great job that a revival can jump the rails back to Broadway: The current run of “Chicago” started as an Encores! revival and has been going (minus the pandemic break) for around a quarter century. The three Encores! shows each year have become a kind of ritual for many New York theatergoers, and the appeal is obvious: Every now and then, it’s both entertaining and edifying to dust off an old show and give it another look.
But the artistic director of Encores!, Lear deBessonet, named to that role shortly before the pandemic, appears to have something a bit different in mind. Quoted in the program, she said Encores!:
I’m not sure I do.
Nor what the producing creative director Clint Ramos had to say: “I’m excited to be bringing a practitioner’s point of view as well as a social justice approach,” adding, “History is written by the powerful, so it’s not just about looking back, but how we look back. With ‘The Tap Dance Kid’” — this season’s first production — “we are expanding the definition of a hidden gem.” Its director, Kenny Leon, added, “You have to speak to the audience sitting in the seats today” because “we’re not creating museum pieces.”
As if a museum piece is inherently a mistake. Even though museum pieces are pretty much what Encores! has been pulling out of the proverbial crates all these years — indeed, “museum pieces” is what “Encores!” implies. But per deBessonet, “We knew that the mission was going to grow into its next stage of evolution.” In other words, apparently, Encores! hasn’t been woke enough, and the job is to correct this supposed flaw.
In “The Tap Dance Kid” — based on Louise Fitzhugh’s novel “Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change” and staged on Broadway in 1983 — about an upper-middle-class Black family, one of the leads is a nerdy and heavier-set teenage daughter who wants to be a lawyer. The problems that the character, Emma, encounters because of her size were inherent to the plot and woven into the lyrics of her songs. In “Four Strikes Against Me,” she sings: “Four strikes against me/Why don’t they open their eyes?/It’s the worst rotten luck being hopelessly stuck/with my gender, my color, my age and my size.” Her challenges aren’t identical to those I had growing up, but the Emma of the novel was the closest literary analog that I had as a nerdy, awkward Black teenager myself. Legions of Black kids in the 1970s and ’80s could relate.
But Encores! cast a thinner actress. I can think of reasons they might have made that decision, and it might be understandable to a degree, but it dilutes part of the character’s raison d’être and sidesteps one of the issues presented in the original (and might have denied another actress an opportunity to play the part). Why not just revise the script a bit, if needed, but otherwise leave the role intact?
Another example is “The Life,” about Times Square sex workers in the 1980s, which had its debut on Broadway in 1997, not all that long ago. Encores! has brought in Billy Porter — of “Pose” and “Kinky Boots” fame — to adapt and direct its revival of “The Life” that opens next month. Asked about his insistence on having the right, creatively, to rewrite portions of the show’s book, and if, specifically, he was “creating radical empathy,” Porter said:
But why does this show, to be worthy of an Encores! reprise, have to operate on the literary level of David Simon’s HBO series about this setting, “The Deuce”? How would it harm us to see the show staged according to the script that Broadway audiences enjoyed 25 years ago? Why doesn’t it suffice to make clear, perhaps with a disclaimer in the program, that the Encores! team does not endorse certain attitudes of earlier times, but still thinks that the revived piece is worthy of a revival that hews as closely as possible to the original?
Apparently, that’s not enough anymore. The goal seems to be moving toward tailoring these old shows to connect with the concerns and assumptions of today’s theatergoers. But Encores! should be about actually looking at aspects of the artistic past, including imperfections, regardless of their utility or contemporaneity, and if that mission is jettisoned, I, for one, will regret it.
Especially because the guiding light of the revisions, one senses, will be a special commitment to upending dominant narratives; battling size discrimination or highlighting the structural inequalities that can lead someone to become a sex worker. These are important concerns, and New York is bursting with theater that contests dominant narratives, as it should be. But must this also be the mission of one of the rare companies with the resources to annually mount multiple full-scale presentations of older, perhaps forgotten yet valuable works of American musical theater?
Jed Perl’s “Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts” is useful in showing the problems with thinking of social justice as inherent to serious art rather than one of many forms it may take. As he explains, artistic works are properly “the products of a process that stands apart from so much of our social, economic and political life” because “they move us and excite us unlike anything else in our lives.” If, he argues, we approach them as conservative, L.G.B.T., Black or feminist, we have “failed to account for their free-standing value.”
And in any case, Encores! has not been entirely unwoke before now. As Playbill reported in 1999, its revival of 1937’s “Babes in Arms,” included “a lyrically revised version of a song called ‘All Dark People,’ now listed as ‘Light on Our Feet,’” which originally had the line “‘All dark people is light on their feet.’” Even a museum must adjust to incontestable advances in intellectual and moral development. But does Encores! have to be overhauled in order to make old musicals relevant to today’s progressive sensibilities?
Of course, the world will keep spinning if New Yorkers like me don’t get to have their Encores! fix a few times a year — I won’t be attending re-examinations, as opposed to reproductions, of old musicals. But this regime change is symptomatic of something that has acquired ever stronger purchase in the arts in recent years. There is a growing mood that seems to see almost anything created longer than about 10 minutes ago as a suspicious token of a noninclusive past.
It’s bad enough that on the political right, a degree of comfort with book-banning seems to be taking hold. An idea from the left that good art must seek social justice strikes me as a not entirely different quest to erase the past.
Some might think I’m overreacting, but this is a pattern: If old musicals are problematic, if the mechanics of European music theory are tagged as intrinsically white, if several Dr. Seuss books have to be withdrawn from publication, how long will it be before we’re encouraged to reject almost any movie from before, say, 1960 as irredeemable in its reflection of a society in which white hegemony was unquestioned?
There is a short step from this to evaluating art more for its effectiveness in questioning abuses of power than its aesthetic value. Even to an idea — that perhaps has taken hold already — of challenging straight white male power as a kind of artistic beauty in itself. The idea that we acknowledge backwardnesses of the past while still engaging what was valuable about it becomes obsolete. Increasingly, we’re told that the smart take is to simply junk that which doesn’t speak to contemporaneity.
That’s too simplistic, though, and teaches us to ignore so much that remains valuable despite the sins of the past and many of the people in it. To question society’s biases and structural inequalities is enlightened. To make this questioning the central focus of artistic endeavor is blinkered — not to mention suspiciously easy, offering reasons to wave things away without having done the work of engaging with or thinking about them. Humanity is so very much richer, and so very much more challenging, than disproportions in power and the ills they can lead to. To go narrow makes us smaller.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”