I love The Fantasticks. It's such a perfect little jewel box of a show. It's full of beautiful music, clever-yet-simple lyrics, and a book that is nothing short of poetry.
I was, however, skeptical when the recent revival opened. After a record-breaking 42-year run, was there anyone who hadn't seen this show? Well, the revival appear
s to be attracting enough of a crowd to sustain it, and has even generated a new cast recording.
Overall, it's very well done. But I was intrigued by the new lyrics to "It Depends on What You Pay." Those familiar with the show will recall that this is the song that introduces the fake "rape" of Luisa, the ingenue. Here's a sample lyric:
You can get the rape emphatic
You can get the rape polite
You can get the rape with Indians
A truly charming site.
The song employs the word "rape" in a slightly archaic sense, that of an abduction. In 1960, when the show debuted, this didn't turn anyone's head. But the word "rape" has a far more sinister feel to it these days, given our modern sensibilities and sensitivities. The song is essentially the same in feel, but substantially changed in terms of the actual words. A sample:
An abduction that's emphatic
An abduction that's polite
An abduction done with Indians
A truly charming site.
In my course at the Conservatory, I talk a lot about "updating" shows to accommodate changes in social mores and standards. I even include an essay on the midterm that asks the students to discuss and defend their attitudes towards such changes. Examples include:
- Changing the very first word of Show Boat from the n-word to "colored folks"
- Adding the word "no" to Carousel after Julie tells her daughter that sometimes someone can hit you but you don't feel a thing
- Eliminating the song "I'm an Indian, Too" from Annie Get Your Gun
- Eliminating the song "Western People Funny" from The King & I
- Cutting either "An English Teacher" from Bye Bye Birdie or "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying because of their sexist connotations
The answer, I think, is complex. You could view these shows as products of their respective times, and argue that bowlderizing them is tantamount to forgiving the racism or sexism or other social ill. But you could also say that by leaving the shows untouched you risk alienating your audience.
For me the bottom line is whether the item in question is dramatically important. The first word of Show Boat should indeed be the n-word, because that's a very important detail that illustrates the racism inherent in the very message of the show. But I'm all for cutting "Western People Funny" and "I'm an Indian, Too" because they're really just unnecessary, throwaway songs.
As for "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm," that's part of the satire of the show, and "An English Teacher" effectively demonstrates a prevailing attitude at the time when the show was produced, and indeed is set.
But anyway, back to The Fantasticks, I'm glad they were able to find a way to keep the rape song, albeit in much altered form, but I still miss the innocence and simplicity of the old version.