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.