—Originally written June 20, 2016—
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who always go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls saw the 5th Avenue Theatre’s revisal of Lerner and Loewe’s troubled musical “Paint Your Wagon.” Let’s hear what they had to say on their way back from the theater…
The crowds were on their feet as Robert Cuccioli came out for the final bow, but all three of the girls were still sitting down in their seats. Gwen was considering standing up, purely for a better view, but one glance over to Eleanor was evidence enough of how concretely glued to her seat her friends were, and she remained sitting.
As they stood and the house lights rose, Dania turned to the other two.
“No words until we are safely away from the theatre.”
“Duh,” came Eleanor’s response.
Gwen sighed. She had had to talk the other two into going to this one. Knowing nothing about the show aside from the 5th Avenue’s mission to commission a revitalized book for this troubled musical about white men, she had hoped that a new libretto and Lerner and Loewe’s famously powerful score would be enough to carry the production for her friends. But even the most liberal analysis of the show – or, rather, especially under the most liberal analysis of the show – the new script posed more questions than it answered, and the new score, while powerful, had its share of unnecessary moments. At least the production sounded pretty.
The crowd was abuzz with quiet murmuring to each other as they made their way to the lobby. Behind her, Gwen heard an elderly couple comparing the musical to its 1969 film adaptation – wondering which character was the equivalent to the one Clint Eastwood played. Unaware of the film, Gwen couldn’t answer the question herself.
On the street, Eleanor was the first to speak.
“How far is one hundred yards from the theatre?” she asked. “Is it that lamppost? Or that blue car parked on the sidewalk there?” She pointed ahead, in the direction they would soon be walking.
“How about we wait until we get at least over this hill here?” Gwen said, brokering a peace to a fight not yet started.
“Fine,” Eleanor rumbled. Dania cast her eyes to the ground.
The girls walked along the titular 5th Avenue away from the theatre, as the theatre emptied out behind them. Eleanor walked quickly, and Gwen and Dania tried to keep up with her step. Red lights slowed Eleanor down and helped her friends catch up to her. Eventually, after what seemed like entire minutes of silent walking, Eleanor spoke again.
“Are we at the top of this hill?”
“Pretty much,” Gwen responded, and braced herself for whatever Eleanor had to say.
“Well,” Eleanor began, with a flourish in her voice that implied she had flipped a mink stole over her shoulder in her mind, “what did you say about them rewriting the book?”
“The 5th commissioned a new writer to completely rewrite the libretto for the show,” Gwen explained. “New story, new characters, more non-white people…”
“But still predominantly men,” Eleanor pointed out.
“Yes, still predominantly men,” Gwen said. “I don’t think the 5th was thinking about that part. More the multiculturalism of the Gold Rush, but still…”
Gwen didn’t need to finish. Eleanor was already on a roll.
“Why even do a show with this few roles for women? And all of them only exist in relation to men! They’re wives, or lovers, or dancers. None of them are actually given any agency to do anything! And there’s even a bride auction in the show out of nowhere!” Eleanor paused to breathe. “Even the dancer girls don’t even appear until Act II. There’s an entire song in Act I that’s just all about hetrosexual men lusting over the idea of women! What the fuck!”
Dania’s eyes fastened harder on the ground. Her lips flattened in a sheepish look of what do i do…
“Sure, sure, the script still doesn’t have more female roles,” Gwen started. “But it does have a more ethnically diverse cast than the original did. With the two black guys and the Latino sidekick and…”
“Yeah, yeah, but it’s all in relation to white racists. Even the central dude is entirely racist in the final third for no real reason. And that dick who runs the gambling parlor!”
“Louis Hobson is great, but even this made me hate him,” Gwen said.
“Why even throw that many ethnic slurs into the show?” Eleanor continued. “Just to prove he’s a racist? I think we can understand that after one of them.”
“…at least they were evenly distributed to both the Mexican and the Irishman?” came Gwen’s weak reply.
“Whatever,” Eleanor said dismissively. “Just a lazy, uneducated show.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest.
“Nice music, though,” Eleanor added after a moment.
“So what did you think, Dania?” Gwen said, trying to reboot the conversation.
“Um…” Dania stared at Eleanor, trying to gague what she could say that wouldn’t trigger a response.
“I liked the music, too,” Dania began. “I don’t know this score – like, at all…”
“Neither do I,” Gwen said.
“But, you know…” Dania continued, treading lightly. “I thought the music was…actually really good.”
“I like that kind of western, southern style of music, with lots of guitar and drum and things like that. It sounds like there’s a lot of energy to everything that’s going on. Which is nice…”
Dania hesitated, but continued. “…especially considering how little the pacing does in the speaking scenes.”
Eleanor nodded in agreement, but that was her only response. Dania continued.
“I liked the lead guy. Or, the guy who ended up being the lead guy after the show decided he was the lead guy. Because for the first few scenes I didn’t know who actually mattered and who didn’t.”
“I arguably still don’t,” Gwen added. “Was I supposed to be following the plot about the two black guys? Because all that plot was was the selling of hats and then buying his freedom.”
“Exactly,” Dania said. “The most I cared about after Ben and Cayla was the plot about the Chinese miners, and even then, it was pretty predictable.”
“I liked them a lot, though,” Gwen said. “Especially Billy, or whatever his original name was that was said once. The arguments for assimilation versus retaining culture I thought were handled…well, not even-handedly, but at least made interesting to watch. But you’re right, I did know exactly where it was going.”
“I wasn’t a big fan of the “let’s all listen to our friends bang in a tent” part of the show…” Dania said, looking back to the ground.
“That was just awkward,” Gwen said. “In fact, everything with Ben and Cayla until we got into Act II, with the Mormons and getting married and…”
Eleanor clasped her hands together. “Sell me! Sell me!” she quoted, before tossing her hands down dismissively.
“Yeah, that was painful,” Gwen said. “But, strangely, I really liked the song Armando sang during that part. The “Another Autumn” song?”
“Oh yeah!” Dania remembered. “That one was beautiful. Most of the music was. And he has a gorgeous voice! And he’s cute, on top of that.”
“You know what?” Gwen said, her eyes brightening. “I’m really not one for those kind of “we know each other for five minutes and now we’re immediately in love” romance stories…”
She looked over towards Eleanor. “I don’t think any of us are.”
“Eh, if they’re all cute and loving, it works,” Dania allowed.
“But for what it’s worth, the love story between Armando and Jennifer…” Gwen said. She pouted a lip and curled her fingers into a thumbs up. “I bought it. It was really sweet.”
“Oh, was that the, uh…” Dania took her program out again, looking at the song list. “I Talk To The Trees?”
“Yes, where they were dancing together and it was a samba?”
“I thought it was cute!”
“I questioned why every song with Armando in it became a samba,” Gwen said, her eyes narrowing. “But I did like that song.”
“But it only existed in relation to how Ben would react to it. Like…” Eleanor said, stumbling over words. “The whole thing still centered on some white dude, and including more minority voices, regardless of the stage time they have, doesn’t matter if the narrative is still focused on white people acting like jerks to them. And what happened to William?”
“Who was William?” Dania asked.
“The irish bigot who kept gambling his savings away. Did the crowd actually string him up, or what happened there?”
Gwen thought for a moment. “Was he not in the epilogue?”
“No! He just disappeared!”
“Woah,” Dania said. “Maybe that means they got him.”
“I’d hope so.”
“Wish they’d shown something. Or at least mentioned him.” Gwen fell silent, and the trio walked along quietly. “But I really liked the song about him gambling his savings away – ‘Gold Fever,’ I think it was called.”
“Right, that one,” Dania said. “It was really energetic.”
“And of course,” Gwen said, “‘They Call The Wind Maria,’ which does not normally sound like that.”
“I thought you hadn’t heard it before.”
“I know that song,” Gwen explained. “It’s sung like a hymnal usually, and it’s an American folk tune by now. But that version was much more interesting to watch.”
As Gwen and Dania continued to trade their favorite moments in the score, Gwen realized that Eleanor had fallen strangely quiet all of a sudden. While her mouth didn’t move, her eyes were ablaze in thought, digging back through the show in her mind, picking things apart, adjusting expectations, altering her perceptions…
“Wait,” Eleanor said, suddenly. “If I think about it like an opera, I like it more.”
The other girls stopped walking and looked back at Eleanor.
“What does that mean?” Gwen asked.
“No, think about it,” Eleanor said. “Opera. It’s all about music, not about content. The content only exists so the music has a subject. It’s problematic, but it sounds good. The sets and costumes look cool but don’t distract from the score. The styles can be manipulated for new performers, and with new weird directors…”
“Oh my God,” Gwen said, suddenly. “It’s a folk opera. It’s Susannah and Porgy and Bess.”
“I mean, kind of,” Eleanor said.
“Well, it’s worse than both of those,” Gwen admitted.
“But if you think of it as an opera, a lot of the problems I pointed out don’t matter,” Eleanor said. “I could just enjoy the music alone.”
“But it wasn’t an opera,” Dania said.
“Yeah,” Eleanor sighed. “That’s the problem.”
“You can always think of it as one,” Gwen said.
“True,” Eleanor replied. “But will everyone else?