24 March 2014

A Thoroughly Modern Debate

The theater program at my old high school has been making news—indeed, prominent news in the Boston Globe—with a production of Thoroughly Modern Millie.

As the show was in preparation and then nearing its premiere, Asian-American parents and teachers complained that it would present old-fashioned stereotypes of Chinese immigrants into the U.S.

Which it does. When I saw this musical at the Kennedy Center in Washington a few years back, I was surprised by how much the story relied on hoary ideas of the threat of “white slavery” and Chinese laundries.

Of course, Thoroughly Modern Millie was always a deliberately old-fashioned tale, its title ironic from the start. It began as a 1967 movie spoofing the 1920s. The 2002 stage adaptation was an even broader spoof on the 1920s—including the racial attitudes of that time.

The show was developed in years when much of American pop culture was supposed to be ingested ironically. The team adapting the movie into a 21st-century stage show seems to have tried to make clear that they were portraying those bigoted notions of the 1920s only to laugh at them. Or at least audiences could come away telling themselves that.

One of the second act’s laughs comes from the audience’s recognition that “Muqin,” a song the Chinese laundry workers are singing about their mother, has the same tune as “My Mammy.” (My grandmother loved that moment because she finally recognized something.) Does that moment convey the realization that all people are the same at heart? Or that it’s funny to hear Chinese syllables in place of English? The show seemed to both ride on ethnic humor and assure us that we all know better now.

Some of the stage show creators’ thoroughly modern tweaks can’t be discussed without giving away details of their ending. Most notably, ***SPOILER*** one of the laundry workers ends up rescuing the second female lead and thus becoming the second male lead—a significant figure in the American musical comedy form. That was a change from the 1963 movie, not to mention from 1920s America. (New York never had “anti-miscegenation” laws, but many people there would still have frowned on such an “interracial” relationship, and the young woman could have lost her US citizenship.)

Presenting a stereotypical characterization for a extended stretch, only to reveal hidden depths, is a risky dramatic ploy. Back here I described how the producers of the Young Justice TV show did it with the character of Miss Martian, prompting internet rants about her silly female behavior before the show revealed just why she was conforming to that stereotype. It was impossible for the producers to respond to those complaints without giving away an important moment of the story they’d crafted and thus an important comment on adolescent behavior. Such examples raise the question of just how much of a work of art we have to take in before passing judgment on it.

In this case, I did see the modern Thoroughly Modern Millie without knowing what to expect, and I did find it problematic. Despite its many roles for dancing girls (always a plus in youth theater), it’s surprising to see the show getting so many school productions.

No comments: