Thursday, January 15, 2015

Honeymoon in Vegas: It's a Bad Day for Musical Theater

The rest of the critics are going to talk about Honeymoon in Vegas as a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-tries-to-get-girl-back story.  They'll rightly celebrate the effervescent cast (Brynn O'Malley and Rob McClure for every show!) and maybe even talk about the music or staging.  But I can't write that kind of review.  I can't embrace mindless entertainment when it's oppressing people.  I won't qualify my tolerance for racism or misogyny by deigning to say it's "just a little bit" problematic.

There was a time when I thought I could let some things slide.  I even tried to convince myself that oppressing women via musical theater is just "as per usual" so really what do I have to call this show out on.  It's like every show--women are objects, pawns, and demanding shrews who just want to get married.  But then I decided nope.  This is a new musical on Broadway.  It's not laden with a historic book a rights owner won't tinker with.  It's not a product of another era.  It was made for today's audiences with a living creative team who I suspect know some women and may even from time to time like women.  So no matter how much I loved Brynn O'Malley and Rob McClure, the show lets all of us down. 

Jason Robert Brown has written the music and lyrics.  Andrew Bergman wrote the book.  Gary Griffin directed. So we know who the buck stops with.

To set things up, I never saw the movie so this was my first exposure to the story.

Jack (Rob McClure) and Betsy (Brynn O'Malley) are in love. He sings a song about being in love with her.  She sings a song that's like a sequel to How to Succeed In Business's New Rochelle about wanting/needing to get married. For five years they have not gotten married because of a curse Jack's mother (Nancy Opel) put on him on her deathbed. He's scared to commit and his mother's ghost continues to haunt him every time he gets close. Finally Jack and Betsy get on a plane for Vegas to get married.  Fine.  Women just want to get married.  Men are scared to get married.  I'm mostly just bored at this point in the show but my blood hasn't started boiling yet because I am so conditioned that this isn't really a big deal.

But Jack gets sidetracked again while in Vegas by a gambler Tommy (Tony Danza). Jack loses to Tommy big and Tommy makes an indecent proposal. Jack's debt will be paid if Betsy spends the weekend with Tommy.  Betsy just happens to look a lot like Tommy's dead wife and he has an instant attraction to her.  AND SO JACK AGREES.

The entire plot of the story hinges on a woman being given to another man to settle a gambling debt.  There's some family friendly language about how their won't be any "funny business" or some other coded language that means she doesn't HAVE to sleep with Tommy.  This is a family show on Broadway after all.  But make no mistake, she has been sold to a man by another man for a $58,000 debt.  Her willingness to go along with that gets played off as spite to begin with but then when she thinks about what she has done and cools off from the situation and tries to challenge Tommy he becomes threatening. Good family entertainment.

So this is the premise and the plot requires this.  But my question is why do we need this material now? Why do we need this story now?Is this is your idea of light entertainment...fun escapism, well I don't want to go on vacation with you.

To double-down on the issues of female trafficking and female dis-empowerment, the creative team then decided to add a layer of racism to the show which is where I really lost all ability to engage with the show. 

The story shifts to Hawaii.  There is a subplot about trying to get Jack to be unfaithful with a girl named Mahi.  Mahi is not doing this of her own free will.  She's forced to "play" a character (though the fact that she's playing a character is murky and unclear for most of the show).  But the character she plays is an Asian girl who rubs her breasts on Jack and in pidgin English asks for "Friki-Friki." I feel disgusting even writing those words.  I don't know how an entire song got written and tried out without anyone raising a hand to question this.  At this point in the show, I started to look around.  Was I the only person seeing this?  Was this playing at a racist frequency only I could hear? Nope this audience totally thinks it's funny and fine for this to be happening. They are laughing at this girl.  Whether she's a character in the show putting on a character or not, her accent and her sex-crazed nature are the point of the joke.  It's lazy and insulting and the audience is laughing at it. It's gross and I want to die.

I mean putting aside the massive feminist problems here with poor Mahi (again another woman with no agency) there is no reason why she needed to speak pidgin English.  Frankly she could have just asked him to get "freaky" with her like a person without resorting to caricature accents.  I can't even believe I have to say this.  I can't even believe this is the kind of song someone is writing in the 21st century. I can't believe no one looked at Jason Robert Brown told him to put this song in a drawer and burn it. 

There's a whole other scene with poor Mahi and a secret spiritual place that she takes Jack to that is filled with Polynesian-esque statuary.  There's no reason this point in the story needed to use anything besides a non-denominational ghost to resolve the plot point this scene attempts to address. 

Listen I'm thrilled that the story moves to Hawaii and Asian actors are characters in a musical.  Yay for employing diverse casts! But this is not a musical from 1946 and we could all live with a musical that treats Hawaiian/Polynesian culture with more sensitivity than our racist grandparents or a Brady Bunch episode from 1974. These racist tropes did not need to be used.  The second act could have just been slapstick absurdities keeping boy and girl apart.  There was no need to drift into weird cultural appropriation unless your purpose is to use that culture and othering to make fun of it.  WHICH IS WHAT YOU ARE DOING. 

And you cannot ignore a long history of insulting caricatures of Asian characters in our stage, film, and television history.  This feels like it is just participating in that for some of the cheapest laughs possible.

I know it is easier to let things slide and to say it's just a dumb musical.  It's light entertainment.  Relax.  But I'm less and less willing to ignore things that really upset me and in a world where there are still representation and visibility issues for performers of color I can't just let this go.  Kids could be watching this--kids who might think it is ok to laugh at people's accents.  Having grown up in a family where English was not everyone's first language I'm going to be sensitive to this.  Moreover, when it's on the biggest stage we have in theater and it's perpetuating racist attitudes I'm troubled.  I know I am not alone.  Others have written about this too because it's not okay.


2 comments:

  1. Thank You! Another symptom of the malaise eating at theatre today. Check out my blog @Just Because you can doesn't mean you should.
    t

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  2. I am so glad you wrote this, I went to see this show with a group of women who were thrilled with it, and the music is great, and the performances are solid, but I walked out of the theatre disgusted with the world. The part that made me the maddest was when he postpones the wedding to play poker, and makes it up to her by handing her his credit card. If I wasn't trapped in the center I would have walked out

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