Here is a question from Tootsie, the Broadway musical about an out-of-work actor who cross-dresses for success: “At a time when women are literally clutching their power back from between the legs of men, you have the audacity to take a job away from one by perpetrating one?” That line sticks out for a few reasons.
Is that really a power women are interested in?
It’s actually a pretty good question.
As Broadway increasingly depends on movie adaptations and snazzy revivals, creators have a new job to do (not that all of them do it): revising original material so that it won’t affront a contemporary audience and proving that making a script more sensitive doesn’t make it any less trenchant or funny. Book updates typically remove racist or homophobic language and improve some, though usually not all, of the more obvious sexism. Lyrics are often receive a tweak, too. But many musicals that aim for woke are still half-asleep. Like Tootsie, a well-intentioned show, arguably funnier than the 1982 film that inspired it. It tamped down the gay panic and made its male protagonist reckon with his actions. And yet it still couldn’t manage a fully dimensional female lead.
Tootsie’s interventions, if not entirely successful, were more benign and less crude than a couple of other movie-to musical adaptations, King Kong and Pretty Woman, both of which close this month. King Kong, a cynical exercise built around a gigantic and admittedly fantastic simian puppet, attempts to undo some of the racism and rapiness of the original film by casting an actor of color, Christiani Pitts, as the actress Ann Darrow and desexualizing that character. But in creating a bond between a black character and the ape and having that ape teach her how to roar, Jack Thorne’s book trades in a worrying primitivism.
King Kong hasn’t bothered to assign Ann character traits other than vaguely plucky. Then again its other characters are equally thin. Pretty Woman, a high water mark of the tasteless and the tone deaf, has managed a fully rounded character with identifiable hopes and dreams. It’s not Vivian, the titular looker. She isn’t even the protagonist. Her vagina is merely the means by which Edward, a venture capitalist, can grow. Shockingly little attention has been paid to how a story about a sex worker without apparent agency will play now. (To half capacity, most weeks.) In what is seemingly the evening’s only recuperative effort, Garry Marshall and JF Lawton’s book now has Vivian rescue herself by beating up a won’t-take-no-for-an-answer john. It’s a macho move and a wrongheaded one, equating empowerment with violence.
A similar problem beset the recently closed revival of Kiss Me, Kate, though Amanda Green’s updates to Bella and Samuel Spewack’s book and Cole Porter’s lyrics are mostly canny and thoughtful. In the original, when the actor Lilli won’t submit to her director and scene partner, Fred, he spanks her onstage. In this version, Lilli literally kicks his ass and in the next scene neither can sit down, which softens the violence against women, but still doesn’t feel like an improvement.
Yet it beats last season’s Carousel, which acknowledged that its wife-beater hero and its he-hit-me-and-it-felt-like-a-kiss book might be a problem and then did nothing about it directorially. By contrast, Daniel Fish’s daring reworking of Oklahoma! manages to offer full voice and interiority to all its characters (admittedly Rodgers and Hammerstein got pretty far on their own), while still delighting in its joyous songs. Without changing a line, it also shows how a culture of male entitlement and easy gun access poisons a whole community, frontier or otherwise. And Bartlett Sher’s My Fair Lady, which closed this spring, lifted an odd line and scene from the 1938 Pygmalion movie, the better to expose the feminism already encoded in the show’s DNA, showing how Eliza’s path to selfhood didn’t include submitting to a man who couldn’t admit to loving her. He could get his own slippers.
I thought about these various interventions last month at Moulin Rouge!, another adaptation of a popular film. The musical, with a book by John Logan, lowered some red flags, while doing a can-can dance with others. Like Baz Luhrmann’s original, it apparently centers on Satine, a celebrated actress and cabaret star, and the men who love her, Christian, a penniless songwriter, and the Duke of Monroth, a penniful nobleman and producer.
But in this version, directed by Alex Timbers, the musical that Christian is writing is no longer set in India, a move that dodges brownface and cultural appropriation. The sexuality and the barely-there costumes are now equal opportunity. The musical wisely replaces the movie’s titillating attempted rape with Satine’s open-eyed, if unenthusiastic acquiescence. It even gives her a semi-noble motive. She will boff the Duke (now younger and hotter and a lot less insane) not only for his money, but also to save the nightclub.
Yet the musical hasn’t bothered to give the toughened up Satine her own ambitions –something even the movie managed, with that Satine’s dreams of becoming a real actor — or to make her character as active as the men competing for her body. She lives, and conveniently dies, as inspiration and object.
The following Broadway season is still in flux and there are plenty of new plays and musicals – Slave Play, Six, The Inheritance, Jagged Little Pill – that don’t have to worry about updates. But with works such as Mrs Doubtfire and Some Like It Hot in development, more movie-to-musical adaptations about guys with talents for transvestitism, and The Devil Wears Prada, which used feminist buzzwords while leaning into gender stereotypes (to say nothing of Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, the Michael Jackson musical that must decide whether or not to reckon with accusations of Jackson’s serial abuse), creators will have to decide how or if they will improve on the originals. If Broadway wants credit for being woke, maybe it should set its alarm earlier.