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Howard Sherman: Theatre’s canon is being rewritten daily to reflect changing times

Is My Fair Lady a budding romance that leads to equality between two people of different classes – or is it a document of a man moulding a woman into his ideal, for his own ends? Dominic West and Carly Bawden in a 2012 production of the musical. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Earlier this week, Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post about the disconcerting experience of viewing films and TV shows that she loved years ago, only to find them problematic and troubling from today’s perspective. Among those cited were The West Wing, Mad About You, Sixteen Candles, and Say Anything.

This was preceded by Michael Paulson’s feature in the New York Times that explored how some classic stage musicals, including one coming soon to Broadway, may be viewed in this era of the #MeToo movement.

Will audiences not already in love with My Fair Lady find the relationship between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle a budding romance that leads to equality between two people of different classes – or is it a document of a man moulding a woman into his ideal, for his own ends? Shaw’s own ending for Pygmalion in fact suggested how problematic the relationship had been.

Of course the difference between, for example, Sixteen Candles on film and Carousel on stage is that the former is a fixed and final version of that particular story, while the latter is being staged anew (though a film exists).

Even though the Carousel text and score presumably remain unchanged more than a half century after they were written, a fresh production, and the sensibilities that inform it, will be new.

In Sixteen Candles, Molly Ringwald is forever 16 and her Asian classmate is still an egregious, offensive stereotype. How the dynamic of domestic violence will be staged and contextualised in Broadway’s new Carousel (opening April 12, 2018) remains to be seen.

As the national dialogue around gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, disability and other factors is continually evolving, the theatrical canon is being rewritten daily. For example, recent events suggest the era of Neil LaBute is, at least for now, in rapid decline. First New York’s MCC Theater severed ties with the playwright after nearly a dozen productions. Then the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles cancelled a production of his play Fat Pig.

That’s not to say all companies are showing a greater understanding of current societal mores. Just last week, in a casting notice for a production of Mame, a Massachusetts theatre indicated that one character would be expected to use a Chinese accent – even though that character is of Japanese heritage. Whether such an accent, surely part of the original production, is essential today doesn’t appear to have even been considered.

Certainly some audiences have no problem seeing shows staged just the way they used to be. Indeed, sharing Paulson’s article on Twitter prompted a few people to ask whether I was proposing no more Rodgers and Hammerstein. There was a rush to defend work that was not under attack.

However, just because a work has been defined as a classic does not mean it is immune to criticism. Plenty of other audience members are demanding not to be fed the same old diet of retrograde ideas rooted in the primacy of white male stories and storytellers.

This is not to advocate the exclusion of any writers or material. But because theatrical work must always be newly staged – whether written last month or last century – those putting it on need to understand how it sits in today’s society, and make their choices accordingly.

This week in US theatre

The premiere of Queens, the story of two generations of immigrant women, from Cost of Living and Ironbound playwright Martyna Majok, opens Monday at Lincoln Center Theater. Danya Taymor directs.

Perhaps echoing its hero’s own picaresque journey, Bruce Norris’ The Low Road has made the trip from the Royal Court in London to the Public Theater in New York. Michael Greif directs the show’s expansive cast, which includes Daniel Davis, Crystal A Dickinson, Harriet Harris and Chukwudi Iwuji. It opens on Wednesday.

Good for Otto, the new play from David Rabe at the New Group, boasts a cast of familiar and accomplished actors, with F Murray Abraham, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Rhea Perlman among the 14-member company. Scott Elliott directs the story of a rural mental health centre, which opens Thursday (March 8, 2018).