“It’s problematic,” my millennial co-star whispered grimly. “The misogyny in this musical.”
“Which moment of misogyny?” I asked cautiously.
We were sitting in the corner of the theater, on the first day of rehearsal for the current revival of Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s 1965 musical “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” now playing at the Irish Repertory Theater.
“The misogyny in his immediately deciding he loves her,” my colleague continued, “and then she lets him — that’s where it’s problematic.”
I was beginning work on the part of Daisy Gamble, and the young actress, playing a supporting role, was repulsed at what she saw as the play’s gender stereotyping. Daisy, a forlorn secretary from Queens, comes to understand her “past life” thanks to a hypnotherapist — a male one, of course — who finds inside her another woman from a previous era.
I vibrated to her anxieties. When we had confronted the script at the first read-through, I had been aghast at attitudes that belonged more to the 1860s than the 1960s. At one point, Dr. Bruckner, the hypnotist-psychiatrist has this to say: “What a masterpiece of perversity a woman is. … Oh, God! Why did you not make women first, when you were fresh?”
We all stopped cold. Some of the younger people involved in the production were still shaking their heads a week later.
Of course, I have spent most of my life exploring classic musical theater roles for women, which often turn out to be, when you inspect them, well, problematic and, yes, misogynistic.
I have played Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” both in her slipper-fetching mode and once in a production in which she majestically did not.
Just last year, in a production of “Kiss Me, Kate,” I had been turned over the knee of my baritone co-star to receive the famous wallops that the script dictates, becoming in an instant the iconic poster image for the show. Really? I thought, while prone. What will my three preteen daughters in the audience make of this?
Being hypnotized by a white male doctor who manipulates you while you are unconscious and then falls in love with your lost 18th-century self may seem to be a choice exhibit of the unacceptable — right up there with the spirited woman in “Kiss Me, Kate” being spanked for her spiritedness.
But experience tells me that, like controversial but classic parts in the straight theater, the best women’s roles in classic musicals are rich and still worth exploring. They can respond to new kinds of energy informed by our new wisdoms.
Perhaps having once been bent over the baritone’s knee, I can offer a few insights not available to those who haven’t.
It Takes Two to Tussle
Take that scene in “Kiss Me, Kate.” The role is Lilli, a middle-aged actress with a faltering career who reunites with her producer/actor ex-husband to perform in a musical version of “Taming of the Shrew.” T he chemistry in their marriage is instantly revived; t he common perception is that both Shakespeare’s Kate and the equally-fiery Lilli are tamed.
Immersed in the part, I came to see the musical as a love song to a woman and her work. Lilli, like most other middle-aged actresses I know, longs to reconnect with her profession. With her former husband, Fred, involved with another woman, she does what all actors do — transfers her fury and fire into performance, speaking her truth through the words of her character.
By her final monologue, she reclaims her power by reclaiming her identity as an artist. (Of the rear-slapping, I will add that these roles are written as two mature performers with an excess of ego and bluster, and Lilli isn’t exactly unafraid to throw things, including chairs and punches. An actress and actor keeping that in mind can play it with consensual relish.)
In beginning to explore Daisy Gamble with my current director, the amazing Charlotte Moore — for three decades the artistic director of the Irish Rep — I sensed that there were ways to play the part far from the passive stereotypes the script suggests. Daisy, neurotic and frustrated and unemployed, goes into therapy with a domineering doctor who hypnotizes her, ostensibly to help her quit smoking.
In therapy, the doctor discovers that without knowing it herself, Daisy had a past life, a complex and interesting existence…