Monday, July 25, 2005

Bad Courtship Tips From Musicals

Sorry for the under-blogging lately.

While I try to write up something longer/better/nicer, here's an incredibly inappropriate, but fast, post. A year or so ago I did a post quoting passages from Cole Porter lyrics which would now be considered -- well, actually, they always were -- horribly insensitive to all races and even sexual orientations ("Hail, queen of fairyland, how's Hollywood?"). By lack of popular demand, I thought I would dig up some quotes showing the strange obsession of the great musical-theatre lyricists with men hitting women.

Everybody remembers and still arguest about the wife-beating stuff in Carousel, but that's actually a fairly palatable version of the subject, given that Billy Bigelow hitting his wife and daughter is treated as a bad thing (he's pretty much damned for it, after all). What's astounding is how often this was treated not seriously, but as a throwaway joke. Starting with Hammerstein, ten years after Carousel, in a song from Pipe Dream:

Stand up to the girl like a guy,
Stand up to the girl like a guy,
And tell her to behave herself
Or you'll put a mouse on her eye.

Carolyn Leigh got into the act in Wildcat when she had the hero sing to Lucille Ball:

If you were a smelt, I wouldn't mind,
Givin' you a belt, I wouldn't mind,
If I thought that you would learn a lesson from the welt, I wouldn't mind.

Alan Jay Lerner, of "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?" fame, did it several times in the course of one song from 1979's "Carmelina":

Am I mad? Could I violently mistreat her?
Yes, I could, indeed I could.
Would I crush one delicious centimetre?
Oh, my God, of course I would.

And of course, the best-known and oftenest-replaced "joke" from a musical, from "The Very Next Man" in Fiorello!:

And if he likes me,
Who cares how frequently he strikes me?
I'll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling
Just for the privilege of wearing his ring.

In context, this is actually not a bad nor even a particularly offensive line, because it just expresses, hyperbolically, the theme of the song: that if the hero won't love the singer, then she'll find someone -- anyone -- who will love her. You could probably get away with a joke like that in a modern play; there's a huge amount of politically-incorrect humor now, to the point that (as I said in an earlier post) un-PC is the new PC. But you can do that in a new play because audiences know that the un-PC jokes are just there for shock value; whereas with an older play, we're never sure if the jokes are supposed to be shocking or (as in the case of most of the quotes before the Fiorello! quote) they're just genuinely insensitive.

Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist of Fiorello! explained the changing reactions to that line:

In 1959, people understood that Marie was very angry with Fiorello, that he regarded her as no more than a piece of office furniture. So she wanted to quit. When she sang, she was being sardonic and not realistic. Over the years, especially as feminism has raised everybody's consciousness to the fact that battered women was not a joke, this was a reality we all had to face. Over the years, when I'd hear that line, it'd make me very uncomfortable. Then I saw a 25th anniversary production at Yale, and several women booed at the actress playing Marie when she sang those lines, and I realized it was time to change the lyric.

Oddly enough, Cole Porter, whose lyrics abound in jokes that would provoke boos today, didn't make a lot of jokes of this particular type. In fact, he gets through the song "Find Me a Primitive Man" without a single joke about wanting to be abused or any such thing. Though there is one example that I quoted in the other post, and you could make an argment for this one as somewhat queasy-making:

Ever since that magic moment
When I found your "No, no, no" meant
I've become a mess.

Finally, I should add that none of this stuff is quite as bad as the beloved family classic The Philadelphia Story, where there are about half-a-dozen jokes about the fact that the hero used to hit the heroine, and at the end she gets back together with him and is made to feel lucky for getting him back. Ah, wholesome old entertainment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think your reasoning on the line "hail Queen of Fairyland, how's Hollywood?" may be a little specious, unless you saw the actual production. From the libretto and vocal material, the line comes in the midst of various female embodiments of US states being presented, so there's no reason to suspect that "queen" means anything more than a female monarch. I'd always assumed a link between Coronado in CA, which I think was referred to by L. Frank Baum as "Queen of Fairyland" (the name means "the crowned one"), and Hollywood, also in CA, and also connected with Baum's literary and filmic "magic".