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May 15th, 2012

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes + Rantlet

Which brings us to Sunday.  We already had plans for the evening, but when Ellen's Uncle Ron said he had an extra ticket to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at Encores! (1) I jumped at the chance  I'm slightly more enthusiastic about musicals than Ellen and the Times had given it (and Megan Hilty, who played Ivy on Smash, and plays Lorelei Lee here) a glowing review, so I went.

And I'm glad I did.  I saw the movie with Marilyn Monroe, approximately a million years ago, and remember being mesmerized by the glowing innocence she brought to everything she did.  But I didn't remember what actually happens.  Or (with the exception of the iconic "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend") any of the music.  So I was happily ignorant of what to expect.  Except a truly professional production (which I got), and some great performances (ditto).  Jules Styne and Leo Robin aren't exactly Cole Porter or Stephen Sondheim, but they deliver catchy tunes (I liked "I'm Just A Little Girl From Little Rock") and some clever lyrics (the funny better than the romantic, for my money).  By the time we saw it, all the principals had put down the scripts Encore! actors customarily carry through the whole show (since they've only had a week to learn it, and have a lot of blocking and dance moves to remember), and were doing the whole thing from memory.  The dances are spectacular, the costumes remarkably posh for what is supposed to be a semi-staged reading, and the performances polished, energetic, and engaged--especially Megan Hilty, whose Lorelei Lee falls somewhere between her Amy on Smash (2) and what I imagine her Glinda must have been like in Wicked:  ruthless but with a core of genuine sweetness, hard because she needs to be. 

In short, I had a good time.  But I came out of the theater feeling, well, uncomfortable.

Uncle Ron loved it.  When I said I found it a bit dated in bad ways, he looked so alarmed, I segued right into how much I'd loved Hilty's performance and the dancing (truth).  But I can tell you, right? 

Writing about it on the train (3), I realized I had some of the same issues about it I had with How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.  Yes, it's a light-hearted satire.  Yes, every single character in it is a more or less featureless stereotype of a stock comic character (dumb blonde, alcoholic rich lady, chorine with a heart of gold, hen-pecked husband with roving eye, battle-axe wife, up-tight mama's boy, self-absorbed inventor, workoholic rich boy, stern parent.  Yes, the tunes are hummable and most of the lyrics are cute and funny.  Yes, what little common sense is demonstrated by any of the characters resides entirely with the women, who are also shown as working very hard for what they want.  Which is, of course, the silly, blind, head-in-the-clouds, unpractical, vain, self-centered (but very rich) men we've all just been laughing at.  Because that was the world Anita Loos was writing about in her 1932 novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the world America was eager to get back to after the social upheavals of WWII.  Lorelei Lee is practical and self-sufficient out of economic necessity.  What she wants is to be taken care of.  Love is a means, not an end.  The way Megan Hilty plays her, she expects men to come and go, and doesn't much mind when they do, as long as they leave diamonds behind them. I find it hard to believe she loves or trusts her Gus any more than the other men she flutters and pouts at. There's a hardness in her smile, a calculation in her innocence.  The way Monroe played her, I was afraid for Lorelei.  The way Hilty plays her, I'm more afraid for Gus.

Which is all true, but nothing I can't deal with.  I am no stranger to historical cultural relativism.  It takes more than a little cynical mysogyny to give me emotional indigestion.  And yet that's what I had.  I felt it when I saw How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, too.  I suspect some of my discomfort comes from my fear that contemporary culture is being pushed towards the social attitudes that color those mid-century musicals (4).  They present themselves as innocent, light-hearted, charming, silly, but when it comes right down to it, their basic assumptions are none of these things.  They tell us that woman is nothing without a man, that marriage is primarily a financial transaction, that marriage turns women into controlling battle-axes or alcoholics and men into fashion accessories, spineless yes-men, or cheating sneaks.  They glorify a world in which beauty, riches, and position are everything, kindness and learning opportunities for comedy, and racial and cultural stereotypes abound.  During the Brazil number, I didn't know where to look, and that's a fact.

So yeah.  Mixed feelings about the play.  Not a single reservation about any of the performances or the staging.  I bet it ends up on Broadway, with better costumes for the chorus and more scenery.  And I might even go see it again, even if I don't really like diamonds. (5)




(1) They do obscure and/or impossible to mount In This Economic Climate musicals, mostly from more than 50 years ago.  We saw Juno there, and Fanny.  It's always a real education.

(2) Currently the only TV program we watch, and boy, are we addicted.  Having started half-way through, we now have to go and see the beginning.  Luckily, we're used to watching stuff inside-out.

(3) Where I was meeting Ellen for dinner before we went to see yet another play, which I'll write about when I've had a chance to think about it a little more.

(4) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was written in 1932, made into a musical in 1949.

(5)  I wish I knew how to do superscripts, because I love writing footnotes.

ET get Ivy's name right and repatriate a lost verb in the second sentence.

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