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Mark Shenton: Reinterpreting ‘problematic’ classics keeps them alive

Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady at the Lincoln Center – the production emphasises Doolittle's determination and independence. Photo: Joan Marcus
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When The King and I opened at the London Palladium earlier this month, more than one critic trotted out the current favourite critical shorthand, labelling it “problematic”. Michael Billington’s review for the Guardian concluded: “The musical itself remains a problem to be solved as much as a show to be enjoyed.”

For Andrzej Lukowski of Time Out, the show is “kind of racist, but difficult to entirely hold to modern standards”. He admits that in 1951, the show might have seemed mildly progressive, then adds: “In 2018, the hyper-orientalist depiction of the kingdom of Siam…is frequently cringeworthy, not least for the bits in which Kelli O’Hara’s sparky British governess Anna frets at how unprogressive the place is. Lest we forget, at the time (it’s set in 1862) Britain didn’t allow any women to vote, and enjoyed massacres, corsets and tossing its poorer citizens into workhouses.”

This historical perspective is valuable in contextualising both where it has come from and understanding some of the difficulties it presents today. As Lukowski also says: “If [The King and I] is going to stay in the canon, it’s going to have to keep up with the times – if Shakespeare can do it, then Rodgers and Hammerstein should as well.”

One way is through casting. Just as it has become untenable for a white actor to ‘black up’ to play Othello, it is no longer viable for The King and I to be staged with an inauthentic cast.

Similarly, there was recently a furore when Sierra Boggess was cast for this summer’s BBC Prom as the Puerto Rican Maria in West Side Story; she later withdrew, stating: “I’ve realised that if I were to do this concert, it would once again deny Latinas the opportunity to sing this score, as well as deny the importance of seeing themselves represented on stage.”

Casting matters. As Tim Bano noted in his review of The King and I for The Stage: “When you look at the magnificent ensemble on stage two things become very apparent: East Asian actors are disgracefully under-represented on West End stages, and any excuse about the talent not being there is rubbish. Representation matters incalculably. Not least because, here, by having actors with Asian heritage play these roles it rebalances the show to be less focused through the Western eyes of Anna.”

The King and I review at London Palladium – ‘an opulent and intelligent revival’

But the way these shows are approached also transcends the casting.

As Paul Taylor wrote in the Independent: “There’s a smack of imperial condescension to this story… [director] Bartlett Sher suggests that the situation is more nuanced than that. He is no doctrinaire revisionist, imposing changes from without. He works from inside the material, sensitising you by his direction to what you hadn’t quite registered was already there.”

Last week I saw an Off-Broadway revival of the 1965 musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, whose star Melissa Errico recently wrote of its own difficulties. She reported an exchange she had on the first day of rehearsals in which her millennial co-star said to her: “It’s problematic, the misogyny in this musical.” And Errico, a stunning singer of the old school, points out: “I have spent most of my life exploring classic musical theatre roles for women, which, when you inspect them, often turn out to be problematic and misogynistic.”

But the way to address it lies in finding a key inside the material itself to unlock it. Errico quotes a lyric from her character’s first song, Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here: “Wake up / Bestir yourself / It’s time that you disinter yourself!” and says: “Bestir yourself! There was the woman I was excited to portray.”

It is exactly the sense of agency that Sher and his star Lauren Ambrose locate in Eliza Doolittle in his Lincoln Center revival of My Fair Lady: she’s a determined, resolute woman who seeks out Henry Higgins to give her elocution classes so she can be transformed from Covent Garden flower girl to be able to work in a shop. But she finds a lot more independence on the way, and finally walks out on Higgins to assert it, triumphantly.

Broadway’s musical golden age is also currently thrillingly celebrated with Carousel, another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, from 1947, which contains scenes of domestic violence – and an apparent justification for it – that can be equally difficult for modern audiences to accept.

In a review for Deadline, Greg Evans reports an overheard conversation: “Problematic is the generous description overheard from one patron about a life lesson or two embedded in Carousel, but feel free to use stronger language. Odious works.” Yet he adds that the contradiction of the show is that it is “without question, among the most radiantly beautiful musicals ever created, its songs a series of flawless gems”.

These shows are important – but we can’t be uncritical of them. When an all-new Broadway version of West Side Story was recently announced that Ivo van Hove will direct with new choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, its lyricist Stephen Sondheim said: “What keeps theatre alive over time is reinterpretation, and when that reinterpretation is as invigorating as [Ivo van Hove’s] productions of A View from the Bridge and The Crucible, it makes for something to look forward to with excitement.”

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