Saturday, October 21, 2017


This week David Henry Hwang's Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly returns to Broadway. Excavating the trope of the innocent, subservient (and doomed) geisha of Puccini's opera  is particularly timely, given that the Madama Butterfly-inspired Miss Saigon is playing five blocks away.

The juxtaposition raises a question: can we ever put the geisha/china doll stereotype to rest? Should we? Does it have any value?

Ever since I first saw Lea Salonga in the original West End production, Miss Saigon has been my favorite of the British megamusicals. I was studying opera in London, renting a cold, damp room from former squatters who introduced me to Socialism and conceptual art. So Miss Saigon's indictment of the U.S.'s involvement in what the Vietnamese call "The American War" resonated with me. I followed the controversy surrounding Jonathan Pryce playing the Engineer in yellowface and chufound the show much more moving when I saw an Asian actor in the role on the U.S. national tour.

As Pong in Seattle Opera's TURANDOT, with soprano Jane Eaglen, 1996

And an opera singer I still put on eyeliner to play Asian characters in Turandot and The Mikado, and was ready on a moment's notice to go on as  Goro in Madama Butterfly, the prototype for Miss Saigon's Engineer. I wish I could say I thought about the ramifications, but I didn't. (This message is brought to you by White Privilege...)
As the Emperor of China in Portland Opera's TURANDOT, 2003

My world view shifted when I was asked to join the team creating Allegiance, a job where I was often the only white person in the room. Helping George Takei tell the story of the Japanese-American internment was an honor. Getting to know composer-lyricist Jay Kuo, Lea Salonga, Telly Leung and the entire Allegiance family was a life-changing experience.

ALLEGIANCE Opening Night with George & Lea - November 8, 2015
One of those changes was how Allegiance ruined Madama Butterfly and Miss Saigon for me, as well as the musical I used to view as my all-time favorite, The King and I.

As much as I wanted to, I couldn't enjoy the Lincoln Center revival of The King and I, unable to get past the narrative of the white savior solving the problems of barbaric Asian men and the women they enslave; the solution, of course, being the death of Asian characters.

You can't rewrite The King and I, but Hammerstein's script is so complexly rendered, I wonder whether it's possible to at least emphasize its humanist values over its condescending colonialism. For instance, Mrs. Anna sings "If you become a teacher, by your students you'll be taught," but the narrative of the choreography continues to be as much about Mrs. Anna teaching Western behavior as it is about being taught Eastern customs.

The song is called "Getting to Know YOU," not "Getting to Know ME." 

Mrs. Anna demonstrating Cultural Imperialism
But as a civil rights-minded liberal who unquestioningly donned yellowface, I can understand the blinders of white privilege. With no Asians on The King and I leadership team, there was no advocate for the Asian perspective.

The same issues dominate Miss Saigon. As sympathetic as the character of Kim is, she ultimately kills herself so a white American couple can raise her child. There are a host of reasons why Miss Saigon and The King and I played over 7,500 performances combined on Broadway while Allegiance played 111, but based on responses we received, our plot reversal on the white savior narrative contributed.

So I haven't been able to bring myself to see Miss Saigon, despite it featuring four Allegiance alumni I admire and care about, including--ironically--Katie Rose Clarke, the lone white woman from the original cast of Allegiance.

This week also marks the one hundredth anniversary of the first British megamusical to open on Broadway. Chu Chin Chow ran for over five years in the West End, a record that held until the 1950s. Its success was due in part to its scantily clad "slave girls," who were particularly popular with WWI soldiers on leave.

The Ladies of the Chorus, CHU CHIN CHOW - 1917
The Ladies of the Chorus, MISS SAIGON - 2017

A hundred years from now, will the bulk of the resumes of Asian musical theater actresses still be made up of sex slaves? Does the employment of Asian American actors in any role outweigh the negative stereotypes? Can these works be interpreted to reflect a more enlightened perspective of gender and race?

I'll be at M. Butterfly's opening night. I'm still deciding whether I should see Miss Saigon.

And that, my friends, is The Gospel According to Marc. 

Monday, October 16, 2017


With prototypes of The Great Wall of Trump being built in California, I'm reminded of the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell: "You can tell what's informing a society by what the tallest building is." As with my usual synesthetic logic, the two ideas are not as unrelated as they seem. 

From the 13th century thru the 19th, the tallest building in the world were European cathedrals, built by the same kindly folks who sponsored The Crusades. In 1901, Philadelphia City Hall became the first secular building to hold the title of "the world's tallest," a fitting tribute to the founding of the U.S.'s democracy that, tellingly, was soon eclipsed by monuments to American capitalism: Metropolitan Life, Woolworth, Bank of Manhattan, Chrysler, Sears. (This 2:30 minute video visually demonstrates the rise.)

God was out; Mammon was in.

Since 1998, the U.S.'s symbolic height in the world has been challenged by the literal rise of buildings in the Middle and Far East, which now contain nine of the ten world's tallest buildings. But one in particular, the Makkah Royal Clock Tower in Saudi Arabia, reveals a sinister 9/11 story that I've not seen reported.

The degree of the Saudi government's support of the 19 terrorists (15 of whom were Saudi), is a developing story. What's missing from the discussion are these facts: 

1) On January 9, 2002, while workers were still hauling debris from the smoldering wreckage at Ground Zero, the Saudi government cleared a site in the heart of Mecca. 

2) They hired the construction firm Saudi Binladen Group, run by the brothers of Osama bin Laden, to construct what would become the third tallest building in the world, the Makkah Royal Clock Tower. 

3) That building now serves as a Fairmont hotel for Muslim pilgrims, re-uniting God and Mammon in way not seen since the Crusades. The tower features the largest clock face in the world. On two sides read the words, "God is Great"; on the other two, "Quran."

In other words, it's entirely possible that the Saudis destroyed an American monument to world financial power to then build a taller tower in the name of Allah. 

The message couldn't be clearer, the Islamic world announcing, "It's our time."

Tall buildings aren't necessarily an indicator of actual power, but they are an assertion of it. Paradoxically, skyscraper construction frequently signals an impending economic collapse, a phenomenon economists only half-jokingly call "the skyscraper index." Like the Empire State Building, many are planned during boom times, but don't reach completion until the inevitable bust. When the Empire State Building opened in 1931, it had so many vacancies, critics called it "The Empty State Building." 

So does size matter? And it doesn't take Freud to figure out that all these phallic buildings are an architectural dick-wagging contest.  Maybe it's a coincidence, but the tallest building designed by a woman, The Aqua in Chicago, is uncommonly curvaceous and 100% residential, the design equivalent of "barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen." Forget the glass ceiling; the Aqua doesn't even rank in the top ten tallest in Chicago or even the top 50 in the U.S. 

But since World War II, there has been an ongoing shrinkage in the U.S.'s erection of skyscrapers. In 1946, the year Donald Trump was born, 68 out of 70 of the world's tallest buildings were in the United States. As of today, that number has dropped to 19. 

So is it any wonder that, amidst the anxiety about our status in the world, we'd elect a real estate developer who promises to make us great again, in part by building a wall?

Consider this: to the best of my knowledge, out of the 500 tallest buildings in the entire world, only five are named for a living person. Four of them are Trump.

The other is Bloomberg.

And that, my friends, is The Gospel According to Marc

Monday, October 9, 2017


In the space of 36 hours, the innertube is all-a-twitter about the trailers for Justice League, Thor: Ragnarok and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  In other entertainment news, Harvey Weinstein announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency because that's the only job a sexual predator can get and not be fired.

So you may not have noticed that the musical The Band's Visit began previews on Broadway. But this little-show-that-could has more to do with the DC, Marvel and Weinstein Universes than it would appear.

Sidenote: Here are the best parts of the DC and Marvel trailers:

I don't know what "Ragnarok" means, but I'd like to find out.

The action these trailers are packing speaks volumes about our country's collective consciousness. The trailer for Justice League (a/k/a We Hope We're as Big as The Avengers) runs 2:48 seconds during which we witness approximately 20 acts of violence--on average, about one every 8.5 seconds. The 30-second trailer for Thor: Fraggle Rock packs in about 8 acts of violence, averaging one every 4 seconds. And I couldn't even count how many shots are fired in the Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer. I know, the argument against movie and comic book violence is as old as the genres themselves, but in this moment in our history is entertainment about death and destruction, well, destructive?

Wait--it gets worse. This fall, Justice League (a/k/a Sure, Batman vs Superman sucked, but you loved Wonder Woman, Right?) joins three other movies portraying vigilante justice: American Assassin, The Foreigner and Death Wish. In case the message isn't clear, the Justice League trailer spells it out for us, with a newscaster intoning, "Violence, acts of war and terrorism are all on the rise," followed by this subtle newspaper headline:

Compare that kind of fear-mongering to The Band's Visit, a story about enemies coming together when an Egyptian police band gets stranded in the Israeli desert. There's no trailer yet with highlights, but you can hear the divine Katrina Lenk sing "Omar Sharif" here.

Sidenote: Have you ever considered how radical the onscreen romance between the Egyptian Sharif and Jewish Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl was? The movie came out just fourteen months after the Six Days War.

I'm excited to see The Band's Visit, written by two of my favorite theater artists, composer-lyricist David Yazbek and playwright Itamar Moses. Given that the most successful new musicals of the past two seasons are human-scale stories (Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away from this past season, and Hamilton and Waitress from the season before), I hope that The Band's Visit continues that trend.

But more than any previous season, Hollywood's blockbuster mentality is encroaching on Broadway's territory, with three multi-billion dollar franchises taking the stage: Harry Potter, Frozen and Spongebob Squarepants. While these are all stories that celebrate the triumph of soft power over hard, I worry that any show that already has successful theme park attractions will overpower the little guys.

So is there a future for substantive, thought-provoking theater on Broadway? Well, also opening this season on Broadway is a new Hershey Store that's three times larger to enhance the "immersive, sensory experience." For chocolate that may contain the same chemical as puke.

Can Thor: Crock of Schlock be far behind?

And that, my friends, is The Gospel According to Marc

Monday, October 2, 2017


Why, when Secretary of Education  Betsy DeVos made it easier last week for college sexual predators to get off (both legally and sexually), did I suddenly think of the musical WAITRESS?

Like much of my logic, it doesn’t appear to make sense. WAITRESS is a female empowerment story created by Broadway’s first all-female creative team. Its producers are good citizens, once again supporting the Susan G. Komen Foundation with its #WaitressPieChallenge. And, unlike the Trump administration, WAITRESS doesn't suck.

So what’s the connection?

July, 2016: intermission at WAITRESS. I’m chaperoning students from the NYU High School Program where I teach musical theater history every summer. Some of my kids are on the merch line, buying posters and T-shirts because that’s what musical theater kids do, particularly those whose parents can afford NYU tuition. One of them of buys me an overpriced-but-not-unsatisfying mini-pie. We all agree that Sara Bareilles’s effervescent score is the star of the show.

I turn to the one boy in the group, an earnest, intelligent kid who always looks like he’s trying to solve a math problem, and see instantly that he’s troubled. “What’s wrong?” I ask.

“I’m confused,” he says, “That shy, skinny waitress went on a blind date and decided that she didn’t want to see him again. But then he shows up at her job.  And when she tells him to leave, he doesn’t.” His eyes are puddly, his voice actually shaking. “Doesn’t ‘No’ mean ‘No?’”

Suddenly, I’m Toby in SWEENEY TODD, discovering a hair in the meat pie.

He’s right. The character, Ogie, even sings a song called “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” in which he declares “Wherever you go, I won’t be far to follow” and likens Dawn, the waitress, to a stray cat who “played hard to get, hissing while she scratched me / What she was trying to say was ‘Ogie come and catch me.’”

The song gets the biggest applause in the first act. Instead of a restraining order, Ogie gets another date. I’m not sure how to respond, so I turn to the girls and ask them how they felt.

“Yeah, I guess he was kinda stalker-y,” one says, “but he was so cute and funny.” All the other girls agree.

And now Toby discovers the fingernail in the pie…

The lights flash and I return to my seat, gobsmacked. As a feminist ally, I’m ashamed I missed this lapse in artistic judgment, along with my female students, the contented audience and the historic all-female creative team itself. And I’m impressed with the sensitivity and insight of one rising high school senior.

That young man just entered college at the same time as Malia Obama, whose father’s campus sexual assault guidelines are being eviscerated by Betsy DeVos. I feel reasonably confident neither of them will personally suffer as a result, but I worry about my young female students from the merch line. Will they trust a predator just because he’s cute and funny? Will those predators be emboldened now that the Grabber-in-Chief is in office?

This past Friday, Kent State University reported a 300% increase in forcible sexual offenses in residence halls. Since the FBI also ranked the school the 11th safest campus in the nation by the FBI, it’s reasonable to assume that the rise represents increasing reporting as a result of the Obama policies.

And where does WAITRESS fit in the equation? Next month, its national tour opens in Cleveland, just 40 miles from Kent State. It’s not too late for the show to alter its message. Yes, drama requires conflict and obstacles, but surely there’s a way to ensure the show isn’t endorsing stalking as an ingredient in a musical “baked from the heart.”

As with the Obama policy, the necessary changes are just a few words. But a few words can make a world of difference.

And that, my friends, is The Gospel According to Marc.