Jeffrey Eric Jenkins*
In the angry social and political climate pervasive during the 2017-18 theatre season in New York, the rise of the #MeToo movement reawakened a sense that justice was long overdue for those who suffered sexual harassment and worse. Meanwhile, Broadway struggled to present classic (and new) musical works that were fraught with negative stereotypes. At mid-season, a shooting at a high school in Florida galvanized activists–and theatre students–in ways that offered some small sense of hope for the future.
Keywords: Musical theatre, Broadway musicals, #MeToo, Parkland shooting, Carousel, My Fair Lady, Tootsie, Kiss Me, Kate, #NeverAgain
We Americans are unhappy. We are not happy about America. We are not happy about ourselves in relation to America. We are nervous—or gloomy—or apathetic.
When Henry Luce published “The American Century” in Life magazine in February 1941, it was meant as a clarion call for the United States to take its place among nations as a promoter of freedom and defender of liberty. In Luce’s essay, one may discern echoes of Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 speech to Congress as the United States prepared for war to make the world “safe for democracy.” President Wilson argued:
Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and freedom of nations can make them.
Luce’s “American Century” essay, published nearly a year before the United States’ entry into World War II, struck a resonant chord with the American public. After publication in Luce’s popular magazine, Life, tens of thousands of copies of the essay were reprinted in pamphlet form.
It is worth noting that, despite the essay’s popularity, it arose at a time when isolationism was the rule of the day as the forces of fascist imperialism arrayed themselves across the globe. “America first,” which was a key element in the inaugural speech and policies of President Donald J. Trump, had its deepest roots in the resistance to American involvement in World War II through the America First Committee, a widely popular group later condemned as anti-Semitic and pro-fascist.
Over the ensuing decades, the idea of American Century came to represent much more than Luce’s 1941 interventionist ideal, which was disseminated as the country looked warily at events unfolding in Europe and across Asia. “American Century” evolved into a spirit of noblesse oblige, perhaps lodged in Woodrow Wilson’s pre-World War I speech, which is no small irony given the post-World War II myths America has constructed about democracy, meritocracy and upward mobility. When Luce died in 1967, many of his ideals about international engagement had come to fruition to the extent that the United States was enmeshed in the Vietnam War, a quagmire that would destroy the president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who had otherwise led the country toward more racial justice and social equality.
What do the interventionist theories of a powerful publisher in the mid-twentieth century have to do with tolerance and intolerance in American theatre?
It seems fitting that the beginning of Luce’s imperial call from the 1940s describes the American mood of today—except, perhaps, for that part about “apathy.” There has always been a tension between tolerance and intolerance in American culture. People who escaped England in order to worship as they saw fit planted the seeds of the country in Massachusetts. After they landed in America, however, those same settlers oppressed others who did not conform to newly established religious codes. So “freedom of religion” in those early days meant “my freedom of religion, not yours.”
Those who advocate for democratic freedoms today may be often shocked by raw, uncivil political behavior in the United States. But there is a long history in our pluralistic culture of rage at those who might be identified as the “other.” It was readily apparent when white nationalists marched in 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, among other things, “The Jews will not replace us. Blacks will not replace us. Immigrants will not replace us.” It may be that the current president has given license, to those who enjoy the privileges of being white, to rage at those who seek equity.
Playwright Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, addressed some of these issues in a 1993 essay on tolerance. Virtually all of his concerns are as vital today as they were more than 25 years ago, when he wrote:
Tolerance has its uses, but not all of them are good. It seems to me that frequently when people are asked to tolerate one another, something is wrong that Tolerance will not fix. Tolerance as a virtue derives from the humanist notion that we are all, as the old saying goes, brothers under the skin; and in this bland, unobjectionable assertion is much that can be objected to. We are divided not simply by “intolerance” but by brutal discrepancies in wealth and power; the qualities that distinguish us from each other are not simply surface irrelevancies but our histories and cultures; and we aren’t all “brothers.” . . . Toleration is necessary when power is unequal; if you have power, you will not need to be tolerated.
Season of Discontent
In 2017, during a talk on theatre and populism at a conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, I expressed concern that a rising population of angry artists—some well-established—sought to overthrow whatever stood in their paths, including theatre critics who write reviews deemed unacceptable because a reviewer is alleged to be biased, bigoted or otherwise discriminatory toward underrepresented populations. Indeed, as that 2017–18 “season of discontent” gave way to the 2018–19 season, one New York Times critic found himself apologizing for snide remarks made about gender fluidity in a musical that toyed with gender conventions. That story is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is informed by the cultural derangement in which we currently find our “American” selves. Before exploring those tensions and the way they play out in American theatre today, it must be first acknowledged how dramatically the cultural landscape has shifted in the United States.
Just hours after the conference on theatre and populism in Tbilisi, the New York Times published a massive exposé on film producer Harvey Weinstein alleging a consistent pattern of sexually abusive behavior that included various allegations of assault and rape.
Within weeks, allegations and outrage mounted against Weinstein, which led to his ouster from the film company he founded and his ostracism from every organization with which he had been affiliated. Across the nation, a dam had burst as women in every walk of life were suddenly, belatedly given voice and agency. Many famous, powerful men who had taken advantage of those over whom they had power found their careers swept away by the rising tide.
On October 15, about ten days after the Weinstein article, performer Alyssa Milano tweeted the suggestion that created the now-famous hash tag, which was an outgrowth of the “Me Too Movement” created by community organizer Tarana Burke in 2006. In the ensuing months, those who faced a reckoning in wave after wave of #MeToo revelations included a litany of well-known men in the media, the arts and in politics.
From the perspective of theatre critics, of course, it is likely every season could be viewed as a “season of discontent.” But there was something special about 2017–18. Maybe it had something to do with fact that the President of the United States was known to be a serial abuser of women and was on tape boasting about an assaultive prowess conferred on him by virtue of the fact that he is famous. These are not so-called “alternative facts.” They are truths that are verifiable. Perhaps the anger of artists had something to do with language that emboldened bigots to be more public in their comments and actions. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine another president who could equivocate before finally condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazis after a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
It was during such a roiling cultural moment that the 2017–18 theatre season unfolded. Tensions were heightened mid-season by a 2018 Valentine’s Day shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. During the past decade, there had been a steady, and alarming, increase in the number of shootings at K-12 schools. In 2018, there were 116 of these violent events, well more than double the previous year. There was a slight decline in 2019, but that year’s 111 school shootings were still more than double the number from 2017. Combined, 2018 and 2019 account for nearly half of all school shootings in the past ten years, which may be testament to a culture spiraling violently out of control under unstable leadership. Before 2018, the previous peak since 2010 was 54 school shootings in 2017, the first year of the current presidential administration.
The horrific Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, which claimed the lives of 17 students and staff, became the deadliest high school shooting in American history as it propelled a group of Parkland high-school students into the spotlight when they demanded a safe, secure, and gun-free educational environment. The young people were generally calm, composed, and well-spoken when addressing the media. They were immediately attacked by elements of right-wing media as “professionals” brought in as “crisis actors.” The claim was merely a conspiracy theory and it was quickly debunked, yet it continued to find a propagative audience among online entities—one is reluctant to call them “people,” or even “trolls,” given the unabashed falsehoods they spread in the interest of undermining verifiable information.
Attacks on the student activists, whose rallying cry became “#Never Again,” were ultimately weakened by the students’ wise use of social media, which unleashed a protest movement that spread throughout the land. The movement culminated in “March for Our Lives” rallies on March 24, 2018, in Washington, DC, and throughout the country when the students decided that asking for safety in schools should be a non-partisan concept.
Subject or Object?
It was not long after the Parkland shooting that a rising issue of gender politics caught the attention of Michael Paulson, theatre reporter of the New York Times. Paulson noted that three planned major revivals of classic Broadway musicals had domestic abuse and subservient female roles at their core:
Billy Bigelow hits Julie Jordan. Henry Higgins molds Eliza Doolittle. Fred tames Lilli. And Edward rescues Vivian. . . . Amid a national reckoning with sexual harassment and misconduct, Broadway is mounting a cluster of musicals this season and next that, some theatergoers already contend, romanticize problematic relationships between women and men.
The 1945 musical Carousel, by the famed team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, may have been the most problematic of the 2018 lot with a leading male character, Billy Bigelow, who hits his wife when he cannot reason with her. Carousel produces an unsettling #MeToo paradox in that the musical consistently discomfits its audience even as it demonstrates an extraordinary power to move and uplift its spectators.
Carousel has long been considered a “problem work,” due to its inherent thematic lodged in domestic violence. It is not merely that Billy hits his wife, Julie, but that the violent act—although surely repugnant even when it was employed in the underlying source material of Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 Liliom—comes very nearly to symbolize an act of love.
In the denouement, heavenly forces finally forgive the dead Billy when he finds a way to let his daughter know that she is loved and that his spirit lives on in her. In the process of doing so, however, Billy appears before his daughter to talk with her—and then slaps her when she disagrees with him. According to critic Laurie Winer, director Jack O’Brien deleted controversial dialogue from the 2018 production that essentially excused Billy’s violence as not hurtful. Even that change to the script, however, did not fully undermine the musical’s ability to induce wincing, cringing and verbal interjections from the audience in response to Billy’s abusive behavior.
In the 2018 production, Billy was played by Joshua Henry, a superb African American singer and actor—which created an even more tension-filled dynamic because such stereotypical brutality then came with a racial component. The result was a work of enormous emotional power that critics embraced in delicate fashion so as not to appear to celebrate domestic violence.
The musical asks its audience to consider whether it is possible to redeem oneself through eventual good actions. In America, the land of forgiveness, of second chances and third acts, this question lingered like a stale aroma—despite being as close to a perfect production of the musical as its audience is likely to see. One wonders when (or if) it might have another such high-profile production. And one is made to ponder what might happen to forgiveness and second chances in a culture that is, across the spectrum, “mad as hell.”
In addition to concerns raised by Billy Bigelow’s onstage actions, there was a #MeToo scandal that tainted Carousel when the celebrated ballet dancer Amar Ramasar, who brilliantly performed the role of villainous Jigger Craigin in Carousel, was fired from the prestigious New York City Ballet the day before Carousel closed on Broadway. Ramasar was alleged to have participated in swapping sexually explicit photos of female dancers with other City Ballet male dancers, one of whom was also terminated.
This news came several months after ballet master Peter Martins was pressed to retire from City Ballet in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment against him, which Martins vehemently denied and the company’s board took pains to state publicly that it had not corroborated allegations against the former leader. In the new world where the voices of female victims were being heard (and believed), it is interesting to note how City Ballet made one controversy disappear while overstepping its authority in another case.
According to the dancers’ union at the time of the firing, there would be a challenge to the dismissals, which the union said were due “entirely to non-work related activity and do not rise to the level of ‘just cause’ termination.” In April 2019, the ballet company was ordered to reinstate the terminated dancers following an arbitration process that was closely watched by other arts companies for potential precedents that might be set. Ramasar stated he would return to the company after receiving mandatory counseling. He continues to be a figure of controversy as this essay is published.
It was not just Carousel that raised eyebrows with its challenging themes and potential embarrassments in human resources: revivals of My Fair Lady and Kiss Me, Kate were also on the Broadway agenda. As Paulson noted in the Times,
each of the female protagonists [in these works] has her own strength—strength that in some cases changes the men in their lives. But elements of the stories—and the fact that all four productions are being directed and choreographed by men—are prompting new scrutiny at this #MeToo moment.
It became apparent that these retrograde works not only grated on the nerves of artists for sociopolitical reasons: the creative staffing was also frustrating. Paulson quoted a tweet from several months earlier in which composer Georgia Stitt lamented:
With respect to the creatives who will be employed by these projects, I will say I’m concerned about a Broadway season that includes Pretty Woman, Carousel and My Fair Lady all at the same time. . . . [I]s the correct message really “women are there to be rescued”?
Contrary to what Stitt asserted, the three productions were spread over the breadth of two seasons, but her point remains valid. Male characters narratively drive the three musicals Stitt referenced, despite a purported female subjectivity present in them.
Carousel and My Fair Lady opened a week apart in spring 2018. Despite being far the superior work, Carousel survived only through the summer and closed in September. Director Bartlet Sher’s My Fair Lady, on the other hand, managed a respectable run of nearly fifteen months and 509 performances. Director O’Brien’s Carousel challenged its audience not to look away from the unseemly lives of working-class New Englanders: boy meets girl, girl gets pregnant, both lose their jobs, boy commits suicide, ghost of boy seeks redemption. My Fair Lady, however, in which an older member of the upper class wagers that he can train a grubby young girl to become a presentable lady, was made more palatable by casting actors who were not so different in age, which eliminated some of the creepy factor inherent in such a relationship. In its final moments, as critic Chris Jones noted in the Chicago Tribune, “the famous final scene of the production will send shivers down the spine of anyone who has ever gone back to the home of an old lover to pick up their things. It is just that mutually unpleasant.”
Eliza Doolittle emerges from the scene, breaks the fourth wall and departs through the audience toward who-knows-where, or what. The production held any notions of “love” at a distance (or embraced them ironically) and survived long enough to see a change of several key cast members before its closure in the summer of 2019.
Still, the questions raised by composer Stitt resonated. Why were the creative teams for these shows led my men? Would there not be a value in having a woman director or choreographer? Might not a woman’s perspective in the conceptual stages have informed issues differently? In an American Theatre article that used the term “season of discontent” in its subtitle, Diep Tran examined “the scarcity of women on the creative teams.”
Tran was particularly trenchant in one passage of her article:
If we’re going to stage these retrograde works and “reinvent” them for the 21st century, why are men the only ones being given the opportunity to do the rethinking—to give these old properties a “feminist twist”? Are male artists the only ones who get to define feminism in theatre in 2018?
We are well beyond that 2017–18 “season of discontent” now, but the discontent showed little sign of abating as 2018 continued to unfold. Although Pretty Woman opened a couple of months after the end of 2017–18 season, it also reflects composer Stitt’s comments about creative staffing. The musical is based on the 1990 Richard Gere film of the same name that made Julia Roberts a star and earned $463 million globally at the box office. The Broadway production opened to lukewarm reviews, likely due to the musical’s virtual moment-by-moment duplication of the film, in addition to its tacky “prostitute and prince rescue one another” conceit. Despite critical digs, however, it routinely operated at more than 90 percent capacity for its first six months. These early numbers probably reflect advance ticket sales as opposed to the impact of reviews.
A visit to the production in mid-October 2018 revealed a strong appetite by (some) women for the prostitute-to-princess dynamic. The audience appeared to be overwhelmingly female, with young women in their twenties and thirties filling the less-expensive seats of the balcony. It was as unsettling a sight as is Pretty Woman’s notion of a romantic ideal. The production played for slightly more than a year, but, after the enthusiasm of the first few months, the musical underperformed financially for the rest of its run. Perhaps Broadway’s penchant for nostalgia needs an attitude adjustment in an era when discontent has become the “new normal.”
It should be clear, then, that Stitt’s frustration deserves the focus of the theatre industry. Let Linda Loman’s cri de coeur be turned to another purpose: perhaps “attention must be paid” to someone other than a man. By the time Kiss Me, Kate opened in March 2019, the #MeToo movement was well into its second year as a cause célèbre and at least a modicum of attention was paid to the gender topics in play. The 1948 musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, by Cole Porter and Sam and Bella Spewack, received a bit of a literary facelift before it met its audience.
Amanda Green, a composer and lyricist with several Broadway credits, was hired to provide “additional material” to the production. Those additions included changing outdated, sexist language and otherwise softening the battle of the sexes for consumption in the Age of Trump. The Broadway critics practically breathed a collective sigh of relief that, as Peter Marks of the Washington Post put it, the “cringe factor” was mostly kept “at bay.” The great Kelli O’Hara is always a wonder to behold with her lush, seemingly effortless soprano, but the attempt to achieve more gender parity held much of the romantic chemistry between the leads at arm’s length, which left one wondering: Why bother?
A few weeks after Kiss Me, Kate made its latest Broadway bow, a musical version of another film opened with Tootsie, which starred Dustin Hoffman in the 1982 original. In a related twist, several women had marked Hoffman as a serial harasser not long after the initial allegations about Weinstein in 2017. Hoffman apologized after the first allegation, but others arose in the weeks to follow.
The musical by composer-lyricist David Yazbek and librettist Robert Horn re-invented the film’s premise slightly by making the story about a theatre actor who cannot find work—because he is a difficult collaborator—until he dresses as a woman. Mindful of the #MeToo moment in which it was being developed, the again-all-male creative team managed to cobble a work that gave critics a laugh—a more or less appropriate laugh, that is.
New York Times critic Jesse Green plucked the right notes when he wrote:
Let me tell you instead what’s right. It’s a musical. And it’s a comedy . . . That might seem like faint praise. But over the decades, the genre that brought us Guys and Dolls has withered into a damp tangle of wan jokes floating in a slick of ditties. With few exceptions . . . musical comedies today are comedic only in the sense that the protagonist doesn’t croak, and musical only in the sense that he does.
“Faint praise,” indeed. The production went on to receive Tony Awards for its joke-filled book and for Santino Fontana’s bravura performance as the lead, but it never caught on fully with audiences and closed in January 2020 after fewer than nine months. One cannot help but wonder what will be the next bit of retrograde nostalgia to be converted into a “new” museum piece.
As the 2017–18 season of discontent in the era of #MeToo drew to a close, the Broadway theatre community reached out to the students at the high school in Parkland, Florida, where the violent massacre had occurred. A group of the students were invited to join the Tony Awards broadcast and to perform a song from Jonathan Larsen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Rent. The number they chose was the now-classic “Seasons of Love,” which evolved in their performance from a lovely standard to an anthem about the healing possibility of the theatre. It is safe to say that there was not a dry eye to be found by anyone watching the broadcast.
In the passion and the performance of these teenagers, the discontents of the season melted a little and seemed to offer hope for the future as we grapple with difficult challenges. Amid the political and social chaos of the past several years, a glimmer of hope provided by a group of high-school students performing a theatrical anthem on national television is not the likely antidote to what ails us. It simply lets us lift our eyes and our hearts for a few minutes. Anger and vilification all along the political spectrum seems aimed to incite civil strife, to create confusion that allows democracy and free expression to be consistently undermined.
What would Henry Luce, promoter of the “American Century,” of international engagement and the spreading of “American values,” say today? Would he find us now, as he did in 1941, unhappy, nervous, gloomy, apathetic? Certainly, there is still a kind of apathy: the 2018 midterm election set a record of 53 percent participation; it was the highest turnout in the last four decades of tracking. And yet, with that high turnout, 47 percent sat on their hands and took no action.
If the United States is to have a place among nations, and it must, action needs to be taken to make certain that our pluralistic society becomes ever more inclusive and equitable. The general election of 2020 will tell us once and for all a potent truth about our country. We are either the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” or we are a country disintegrating into the greatest crisis since our founding.
Will the dream come true that lives in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton? It’s a dream in which every person has a chance to make his, her, or their way—and it seems a little out of step with events that have happened since Hamilton became a major hit. Or is it all, as Eugene O’Neill might have said, merely a pipe dream? What will be the next American Century?
NOTE: An earlier version of this paper was presented at IATC’s 2018 World Congress conference Performing Arts Today: Freedom and (In)tolerance, which took place in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Henry R. Luce, “The American Century,” Diplomatic History, vol. 23, no. 2, Spring 1999, p.159.
Qtd. in “Text of the President’s Address,” New York Times, 3 Apr. 1917, p. 1.
While beyond the purview of this talk, it is worth noting that Henry Wallace, then Vice President of the United States, issued a manifesto for the “Century of the Common Man” at an event on 8 May 1942.
Tony Kushner, “Some Questions About Tolerance,” Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness, Theatre Communications Group, 1995, pp. 42–43.
Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, “Sexual Misconduct Claims Trail a Hollywood Mogul,” New York Times, 5 Oct. 2017, p. A1.
Emily Shugerman, “Me Too: Why Are Women Sharing Stories of Sexual Assault and How Did It Start?, ” The Independent, 17 Oct. 2017.
Daniel Victor, “‘Access Hollywood’ Reminds Trump: ‘The Tape Is Very Real,’” The New York Times, 28 Nov. 2017.
Glenn Thrush, “New Outcry as Trump Rebukes Charlottesville Racists 2 Days Later,” The New York Times, 15 Aug. 2017, p. A1.
“Incidents by Year, 2010-19,” K-12 School Shooting Database, Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School, accessed 2 February 2020, https://www.chds.us/ssdb/category/shooting-incidents-2010-present/.
Angie Drobnic Holan and Amy Sherman, “PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year: Online Smear Machine Tries to Take Down Parkland Students,” Politifact.com, 11 December 2018; Craig Timberg and Drew Harwell, “We Studied Thousands of Anonymous Posts about the Parkland Attack—and Found a Conspiracy in the Making,” The Washington Post, 27 Feb. 2018; William M. Grynbaum, “Dubious Theories on Shooting In Florida Find an Audience,” The New York Times, 21 Feb. 2018, p. B4.
Emily Witt, “How the Survivors of Parkland Began the Never Again Movement,” The New Yorker, 19 Feb. 2018; Dakin Andone, “They Led a National March. Now Parkland Students Return to a School They Say ‘Feels Like Jail,’” CNN.com. An engineering professor in Pennsylvania, who was granted anonymity by the author of this paper, tells the story of holding a laboratory class on the day following the shooting. At the time, faculty members everywhere were reaching out to students and discussing how traumatic events may elicit a need to support to feel safe and secure. Amid this atmosphere, the professor’s lab assistant, a white man of middle age, walked into the class wearing a shirt emblazoned with the National Rifle Association’s logo, which created a tension unlike the teacher had ever experienced.
Michael Cooper and Robin Pogrebin, “New York City Ballet Fires 2 Dancers Involved in Sharing Explicit Photos,” New York Times, 16 Sept. 2018, p. A25. For background on the stormy history of the Peter Martins’ reign at New York City Ballet, see also, Joan Acocella, “What Went Wrong at New York City Ballet,” The New Yorker, 11 Feb. 2019.
Ibid.; Michael Cooper, “A #MeToo Overstep,” New York Times, 20 Apr. 2019, p. C1.
Michael Paulson, “Stereotypes? But They’re Classics.” New York Times, 24 Feb. 2018, p. AR18.
Qtd. in Paulson.
Chris Jones, “No Changes of Heart at All in This Chilly ‘My Fair Lady’ at Lincoln Center on Broadway,” Chicago Tribune, 19 Apr. 2018.
Diep Tran, “Kiss Me, My Fair Carousel Woman: Now Is the Season of Our Discontent,” American Theatre, 6 Apr. 2018.
Peter Marks, “On Broadway, I Just Saw My First ‘Kiss Me, Kate.’ It Was Worth the Wait,” Washington Post, 14 Mar. 2019.
John Carucci, “Three of Hoffman’s Accusers Explain Why They Decided to Talk Now,” AP News, 20 Dec. 2017.
Jesse Green, “Filling Big Heels with Big Laughs,” New York Times, 24 Apr. 2019, p. C1.
Jordan Misra, “Voter Turnout Rates Among All Voting Age and Major Racial and Ethnic Groups Were Higher Than in 2014,” United States Census Bureau, April 23, 2019.
*Jeffrey Eric Jenkins is Professor of Theatre at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He served as Head of the Department of Theatre from 2012 to 2017 and set the department on a course that resulted in greatly enhanced engagement with online education, financial stability, and improved national rankings. With his creative partner, director Daniel Sullivan, Jenkins has provided new plays with fully realized productions, including works by David Auburn and Donald Margulies. Executive editor of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques, he has written hundreds of articles for major newspapers, reference books and scholarly journals. Jenkins has published nine books and served three terms as vice president of AICT-IATC.