Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Challenging family values on both coasts

[The following is a rewrite of one of my earliest posts, which I wrote when I first started the blog. I've polished it a bit, but am re-doing it here, since I think it has a certain relevance this Oscar year.] In 2004, I saw Disney's on-stage version of The Lion King, which had been hugely successful on Broadway, and I just hated it. As you may recall, the charmless plot opens with a ridiculous scene of prey animals worshipping their predator, and then goes downhill from there, focusing on cubs with attitude. It's true that the stage show offers impressive puppets and costumes but, after ten minutes of that, you're left with an icky plot line; bad dialogue; soggy, politically-correct lyrics; lousy (but loud) music; and dancing that looks as if it was choreographed by an aerobics teacher. Underlying all these specific grievances, I just feel that there is something a little bit unwholesome about the Lion King, something anti-family. At about the same time in 2004 that I saw The Lion King, I also saw PBS' six part show about Broadway's musical history. The show's first four episodes are really great fun, since they take one all the way back to the Ziegfeld era. The last two episodes are pretty much devoted to the openly gay Stephen Sondheim and modern Broadway Disney-fication and big corporate shows (Les Miz, etc.). These same last episodes also cover the impact AIDS has had on Broadway. One of the people interviewed said that AIDS devastated Broadway, because Broadway "is gay men." And that statement struck me, because that was not always true about Broadway. Thinking back to Broadway from the turn of the century through the early (even late) 50s, Broadway may have had its share of gay men, but it certainly wasn't "about" them. To begin with, the producers and directors, men such as Ziegfeld, Irving Berlin, and Bob Fosse, certainly weren't gay. Likewise, the composers during Broadway's heyday were, for the most part, heterosexual. Think of big names such as Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Richard Rogers, and Dorothy Fields. The same heterosexuality holds true for the big name Broadway performers from the 20s through the 50s, men such as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Eddie Cantor, John Raitt, and W.C. Fields. I haven't forgotten that some famous talents were indeed gay. For example, the extraordinarily talented Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter were both gay, and both men led difficult lives try to hide their sexual orientation. Nor am I ignoring the fact that some Broadway hits, which we view today as innocent and innocuous, were considered hardhitting for their times. Two easy examples are Showboat, which, in 1927, tackled racism, and Finian's Rainbow which did the same thing twenty years later. I'm also not saying that classic Broadway performers and creative talents lived wholesome lives (Kaufman and Ziegfeld, for example, were both notorious womanizers). Indeed, I'd hate to examine the private lives of many of the talents I named above. Nevertheless, for the most part, they lived lives that were at least superficially in synch with middle-America (that is, marriage and children), and their shows were in synch with these same values. One can't say the same thing about recent Broadway offerings. Without in any way challenging the quality or craftsmanship of the shows, I'm not sure there is anything charming or uplifting about Urinetown, The Full Monty, Sweeney Todd, Assassins, Chicago, and Rent. I'm not saying here that art always portray life in an artificially sunny, pure way. Artists have always used their medium to help challenge and broaden their audiences. I do feel, though, that the Coastal art communities have gone out of their way in the past twenty or thirty years to portray middle-class American life as banal and evil (think American Beauty, the critically acclaimed movie), and the fringe lifestyle as normal and joyous. And this lopsided view is every bit as dishonest as one that paints everything in halcyon "Father Knows Best" colors. I'm also not saying that gay men should be driven out of entertainment, or forced back into the closet. Perish the thought. Frankly, I don't think it's a coincidence that so many gay men are drawn to the performing arts. It seems to provide a haven and an outlet for young men who fit uneasily into the regular world. However, I do think that if Broadway wants to retain its relevance and popularity, it would do well to imagine an audience beyond the threater groupies clustering around Times Square. Indeed, although I find the Disney Broadway shows charmless (see how I started this post), they did in fact revitalize Broadway by bringing it back to its mainstream-ish roots. Talking to Technorati: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,