—Originally written July 25, 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 and movies together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls saw the national tour of the Tony-winning musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” Let’s hear what they had to say about the musical…
“Well,” Eleanor said, as they began to rise to make their way out of the theatre.
“Hm.” Gwen added. She was grabbing her coat and trying to fold the program so it would fit into her purse. As she slowly walked out the long aisle towards the lobby, shuffling behind older audience members moving slowly, Gwen glanced back towards the inventive set design on the stage. The Edwardian Toy Theater in the center of the stage stuck out, gaudily designed, against the red curtain backdrop and the tall dark flats with outlines of mansions forming the wings. Or, rather, the singular wing, at the front of the stage. It was all very cutely designed, an over exaggerated and hand-drawn style that edged closer to animation when the screen at the back of the theatre turned on to show the backgrounds for each scene. It was simply made, but anything but simple in design.
Gwen kept the Toy Theater in her mind as they walked outside the 5th Avenue Theatre and continued up the street, towards the parking garage behind Benihana where Dania’s car was parked.
“I thought it was very cute,” Dania said. “The guy playing all the dead people was a smart little gimmick for the show, and he did a nice job making them all funny in different ways.”
“He did a fine job with all of them,” Gwen agreed. “Though it was a bit weird to advertise that he plays eight different roles when he really only has significant things to do for five or six of them. Not all of them have songs.”
“Well, there’s the first one, the priest, who doesn’t sing,” Dania said. “But he was one of my favorite ones of all the D’ysquiths.”
“I liked his death, especially since it made great use of that screen in the back as more than just a very expensive backdrop,” Gwen said. As she said it, she tried to remember another moment when that digitized backdrop had been used as part of the scene rather than just a background for it. She thought, but came up without another example.
“And the actor woman didn’t sing, but she…”
“She was one of my favorite ones,” Gwen cut her off. “Of course she dies during Hedda Gabler, that’s a brilliant parallel, with the rising through social class and everything.”
“Oh yeah,” Eleanor said. “That parallel, right…” Dania laughed.
“Okay, it’s not obvious, or necessary,” Gwen said. “But they know. They know.”
“I thought it would be funnier,” Eleanor said.
“It was pretty funny,” Dania said.
“Sure, but…” Eleanor tried to put what she was feeling into words. “Like, I really liked it, and thought it was funny, but…it was just a very different kind of funny. You know? Like there was something else in there that wasn’t coming out.”
“It’s a very reserved kind of comedy,” Gwen explained. “Like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, very British. All the comedy is in the text of the show, you just have to deliver it cleanly and directly.”
“That might explain it, then,” Eleanor said. “Because I was definitely having trouble understanding what people were saying during the entire show.”
“It’s all very fast,” Gwen said, thinking of the various patter songs in the show.
“They could still be clearer. Diction or whatever,” Eleanor said. “Like the girl’s song, the first one, ‘don’t you just love me in pink?’ That one?”
“Sibella’s song, yes?”
“Yeah,” Eleanor said. She passed a hand over her head. “The whole thing. Didn’t get a word of what was said. Just a bunch of words without any connection.”
“I suppose so,” Gwen said. “I definitely remember laughing more at the other girl’s song – the one on the swing, about living inside out and all that. I laughed more when I heard the cast recording, and I could clearly hear everything.”
“I’m just weirded out that there were only two female roles in the show,” Dania said. “Like, does the show pass the Bechdel test or anything? I know that Miss Shingle is there too, but she’s different.”
“I don’t know if it passes or not,” Eleanor said. “ I definitely did notice the all-white cast, and all-white-all-male creative team. And I kept trying to put that out of my mind during the show.”
“True, true,” Gwen said. “Though you might be able to say that each of the D’ysquith family members is a different parody of how rich people can be terrible. I suppose you could expand that to ‘how right white people can be awful.’” Gwen shifted the lens she was remembering the show from. “Perhaps the whole thing is a comment on white culture and how the rich are endlessly rude to everyone that isn’t them.”
“I don’t think anyone is thinking that deep into it,” Eleanor said. “It’s just a simple little comedy.”
“If they’re trying to make a statement,” Dania asked, “couldn’t they do it with not an all-white cast? Even the ensemble, they could be non-white. Right? Am I wrong?”
“You’re not,” Gwen confirmed. “Still, though, you could say that each D’ysquith is a character flaw of the rich. The red-coat-one and his disdain for the poor…”
“Was that Aldabert D’ysquith?” Dania asked. “Or Asquith D’yqsuith?”
“I don’t know, I gave up on names halfway through,” Gwen admitted. The last name, she had quickly determined, was all that mattered. “So he hates the poor, the straw-hat one acts like a dick to women, the pastor could be devout religious belief…”
“Is that a rich thing?” Eleanor asked.
“Well, expand it to white rich people, and maybe.”
“Then the hunter is the male necessity to show off strength, the actress is pride of wanting people to pay attention to you even when you have no idea what you are doing, the other woman is the desire for “exotic” cultures…”
“Ugh, I hated that entire song,” Eleanor said, pushing her head into her hands.
“I could see you were squirming, especially when they were like, ‘go to plague-wracked India!’”
“Yeah, how d’you think I felt?” Dania asked.
“You as well.”
“It was like this very random little pocket of crazy racism in the middle of this otherwise not-really-about-that show,” Dania said.
“I believe it’s supposed to be bad, that you’re supposed to dislike her and the other D’ysquiths, and so on,” Gwen tried to clarify. “But it’s still just a little…um…”
“Let’s go with ‘uncomfortable to watch for reasons I don’t think they intended.’”
“I mean, that is kind of the thing with the show, really,” Eleanor said. “It makes this random dive into being about fetishization of non-western culture, and then you think, ‘man, that’s kind of out of place.’ But, like…what is in place for this show?”
“What do you mean?” Gwen asked.
“The show has a plot, right?” Eleanor was trying to piece together the things that had bothered her about the show. “And the songs are clever and the trick with one guy playing all the D’ysquiths is cool. But what does it all lead to?”
“He becomes the earl?” Dania suggested.
“I know he becomes the earl,” Eleanor responded. “But what else? It just kind of ends. There’s not really a moral or a message or an…impact…you know what I mean?”
“No, I actually do understand you now,” Gwen said. Eleanor had inadvertently stumbled into the exact point that she had but was avoiding mentioning to the other two. But with it in the open now, there was no reason not to bring it up.
“There’s really nothing of social weight to the show at all,” Gwen began. “It’s very smartly written, and the dialogue and songs are clever and full of well-crafted humor. And the production is, for the most part, well directed and designed. I mean, the Edwardian Toy Theater idea is the right kind of hilarious framing device it needs.”
“I didn’t get that,” Dania said. “Was it supposed to be like a play-within-a-play? Is it just his book acted out at the end?”
“It’s not airtight, but it doesn’t have to be,” Gwen said, doubting that statement but standing by it regardless. It felt accurate. “Everything in the show works the way it is supposed to. But when you leave at the end, there really is nothing to glean from it other than its own story. No moral, no social import, nothing to really say about the – “
“The human condition?” Eleanor and Dania both repeated.
“It’s a cliché, but it’s true,” Gwen said. “Theatre tells us about the world we live in. This show doesn’t really do that. It just gives us a story. Nothing more.”
“But other musicals do that,” Dania said. “Plenty of musicals don’t have a really strong moral or message to them.”
“But all of them have something to say about the world, even if it’s just something like…I don’t know…” Gwen tried to think of an incredibly overdone moral.
“Love is hard but worth it?” Eleanor suggested.
“Sure,” Gwen said. “That’s universal. That’s what the show is missing, something universal. Something we can all relate to if we were in the situation.”
“Does it want to say that we’d do the same if we were in the same situation?” Dania said. “That we’d all kill eight people in order to be higher status?”
“Well, would you?” Eleanor asked.
“Only if they’re all white men,” Dania said, matter-of-factly.
“Such an intricate and smart script for just a silly little comedy,” Gwen mused. “Very Gilbert and Sullivan, now that I think about it more. Even the patter songs and the self-referential humor.”
“It’s like the cotton candy of a musical, right?” Eleanor asked, filling in Gwen’s metaphor. “Very fun and tasty, but not very filling.”
“Yes. Yes!” Gwen said, feeling the metaphor click into place in her argument. “It leaves you wanting more, but not more of it, specifically. You don’t necessarily want to see it again, but you want to see it be…more, you know? You wish there was more to it.”
“That it had more teeth.”
“I still liked it,” Dania said. “Even if it’s only cotton candy.”
“I did, too,” Gwen said. “I’m not pretentious enough to say, ‘oh, it’s not tackling complex issues of man’s inhumanity to man, PASS.’ I enjoy it for what it is. Simple and well written.”
“I guess I did too,” Eleanor said, settling on one side of a fence she had been walking on. “There wasn’t really anything I didn’t like in it – except the small bits of cultural insensitivity – but I thought even that wasn’t really meant in a negative joking spirit. The show is just completely ridiculous, so the level to which the fetishization is taken is played for comedy rather than the fetishization itself.”
“Not that millenials won’t still get angry if they see it and blame it for racism,” Dania said.
“Oh, God, never show this play to anyone from Tumblr,” Gwen said after only a moment. “With only two women, all-white actors, rich British people, cultural exoticism, and terrible puns, this show would get thrown in front of the PC-culture firing squad within the week.”
“And the bullets probably wouldn’t even hurt it,” Eleanor said.
“You can’t really shoot cotton candy,” Dania concluded.