Ya got trouble in River City! Not in the pool hall of The Music Man, but right here in Los Alamos. LAHS kids might put on a dance show … and you know what dancing leads to.
I found myself bemused by Valerie Shelley’s exquisite channeling of the stoggy villains in Footloose — Americans of all ages rooted for the dancing kids to have it over on the stiff prudes in that hit movie. Harper Valley PTA‘s have always worried about Elvis and the Beatles corrupting our youth with shaking hips. You can bite into her delicious wrath here, here, and here.
A quick trip to YouTube will show you a multitude of high school performances of the Cell Block Tango from the musical Chicago – and those definitely are not “pornographic” (as excoriated by Ms. Shelley). Mon dieu, the lyrics have a double entendre regarding a split leg dance move! In comparison, Shakespeare’s 13-year-old Juliet consummates her marriage with an older man, and giggles Victorian innuendo of anticipated climax; Romeo’s puns visualize anatomical conjunction; the Montagues relish non-consensual action. The Bard is rougher and more explicit than the Tango’s baudy three word lyric. It goes without saying, Shakespeare’s plays often and laboriously contemplate why certain persons deserve murder. On a completely unrelated aside, did everyone enjoy Spielberg’s PG-13 West Side Story?
Real prisons are of course no laughing matter but that doesn’t keep us from enjoying comedies like Hogan’s Heros, or Orange is the New Black. A dance set there is surely as realistic and ghastly as Jail House Rock.
So dispensing with “dirty dancing”, innuendo and jail, let’s get to the Tootsie Pop center: Ms. Shelley’s claim that it celebrates domestic violence. That is indeed a sensitive topic, whether it’s by a Depp or a Heard. So I immediately empathized with Ms. Shelley’s grave concern, when she mistook this dance as glorifying domestic violence. In fact it 100% conveys the opposite notion, and is effective at disarming the understandable visceral discomfort of the topic as well.
Thus despite the gentle mocking I have offered above I want to address this complaint seriously now, as I believe Ms. Shelley was sincerely moved to express her discomfort despite her misapprehension.
The musical Chicago follows the classic Greek tragedy in which immutable character flaws seal fate. The audience knows the main character is delusional because she has no remorse and sees death as her ticket to fame. The job of the Tango is to broaden this theme from the lead’s specific personal flaws to a societal scope: female murderers self righteously proclaiming they were justified — while the audience is left appalled by their naked self-deception when the victim is blamed for popping gum. (“Pop” is literally the first word of the song). The brilliance of the staging is that gender inversion of the odious refrain “she had it coming” reveals how pathetic it is. Deftly decontextualized, any justification of domestic violence high or low is firmly rejected with no need to provoke sensitive audience members with graphic portrayal.
If I were the LAHS director, I think I’d introduce the number by remarking that the energy of the noir dance and its gallows humor should not be mistaken to make light of domestic violence or murder, but instead it is a powerful rebuke. This entertaining satire exploits role-reversal to expose how delusional it is for any party to find cause to harm or evade remorse through self righteous anger. Shakespeare probably could have used more of this, now that I think about it.
Nor is this musical number a cringy anachronism, since its message remains current and needing emphasis. Recently, the TV show Glee, a hit show among both teenagers and adults, made this same point. Trying to educate the Glee girls about domestic violence, their instructor assigns them to sing a song about women getting out of abusive relationships. But when the girls perform Cell Block Tango where the female revenge is taken at face value, the apoplectic teachers tell them that they completely missed the point of the assignment, and explain the song exposes derangement not justice or escape via the deliberate obviousness of the women’s trivial rationales.
Ms. Shelley also lofts the canard of sacrilege. She incorrectly informs that “Mormon” is a slur and invoking “multiple wives” is a pernicious attack on the LDS church. But absent historical revisionism, Mormons were a real, proud, and pioneering group, and historically multiple wives were no shame. The song does not attack the church: it is not implied the LDS condones multiple wives, and it does not conflate present or past Mormons with the church. Moreover, she gets the song’s lament wrong. The husband was not murdered over religion, but “he had it coming” because he duped her by claiming to be single.
So was Valerie Shelley putting us on with a publicity stunt by embodying the minister in Footloose and gently mocking self-appointed prudes with a healthy serving of Harper Valley hypocrisy? Bravissimo! I am reminded ofJonathan Swift.
Sadly, satire is sometimes lost: Spike Lee said he was forced to read aloud the definition of the word satire to the audience in the opening scene of his movie Bamboozled. Its unspoken condemnation of black-face via the brilliant inversion of African American actors in black-face makeup wooshed over too many heads. In the same vein, the Cell Block Tango’s final, and repeated, lyric belabors its self-reflexive sarcasm, daring the audience “Can you tell us we were wrong?”
With all this great publicity, I hope everyone will turn out for a “wickedly” good performance. I stand in solidarity with the director’s choice of this classic, much beloved, enjoyable and educational material. Thank you to the school administration for equanimity under Henny Penny Fire and Brimstone. I look forward to applauding the kids at their performance.