Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim once said, “I am always conscious of what the actor may ask me. I have a defense for nearly every line in a song.” The negative response to Occidental’s recent production of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” (ALNM) has come to the attention of some of the students in the Theater department. We, the students, would like to respond as best we can. Like the musical’s acclaimed composer and lyricist, we too have a defense.
To preface, we support the faculty in the Occidental theater department and, although the department has flaws like any other, we are committed to working with the faculty to better the department. We also want to say outright that we respect all opinions within the theater department and the Occidental community at large. The following viewpoints belong to the twelve students who have signed this article. They do not represent the entire Occidental Theater community.
Sexism in “A Little Night Music“
Kobe Cancel, an theater major, wrote in his Letter to the Editor, “The musical is, quite simply, rampantly sexist.” While the musical deals with the issue of sexism, the positionality it takes on women, is far from sexist.
The show provides artists with an array of female characters, each at different stages in their lives. The elderly dowager, Madame Armfeldt, reflects on her regrets as well as the joyous experiences of her younger days. She parallels Petra, the free-spirited maid, who contrasts the constrained nature of the upper-class women of the show, exemplifying how fulfilling life can be when you let go of your inhibitions. Desiree is unapologetic about having had a child out of wedlock, a situation that would have been highly controversial in 1900s Sweden, and still might be argued to disrupt a social norm that stands in today’s society. Charlotte and Anne represent two different types of women, each with their own goals and desires. The relevancy of these goals and desires still permeate contemporary society. Frederika, Desiree’s 13-year-old daughter, is educated and “broad-minded,” an unusual statement for a woman of this time period. Through the play, we see her develop her own sense of values by observing the foolishness of the other characters.
Moreover, the strength and intelligence of the women in the show, in addition to their flawed nature, inherent in all human beings, exposes and positions the men in the show as foolish and simplistic. The musical is about female empowerment. It looks to show how buffoonish men are, reducing them to sex-obsessed beings, whereas the women are more complex.
Cancel pays specific attention to Fredrik’s first song (“Now”) in his letter. In the musical piece, Fredrik expresses his frustration with the lack of sexual engagement with his wife. The song stands to be less of a rumination on how to rape your spouse and more of an idiotic expression of vexation; Fredrik ultimately concludes forcing his wife into anything would not result in his true desire: a loving relationship with his wife. Furthermore, in “You Must Meet My Wife,” Fredrik sings, “You can’t force a flower…” referring to Anne’s virginity. It’s a moment when he realizes his faults in “Now.” He can’t actually force his wife to do anything she doesn’t want to do. This shows character growth and debunks any support in raping his wife for his own satisfaction. The male musical numbers exemplify the position of men, marking them as foolish, whereas the female musical numbers really carry the weight of the show.
In addition, it is important to note that just because we are singing about sexist ideals, does not mean we support or condone them. It means we are examining those issues. Whether that is in a way that everyone feels is productive is up for discussion, but we are examining them nonetheless. To call the musical “rampantly sexist” while blatantly disregarding the strong female characters is intellectually dishonest, and it ignores the substance ALNM has to offer with its well-developed, intelligent, female characters.
In his letter, Cancel wrote, “…the production should go beyond realism and historical accuracy. Instead of prioritizing white, upper class, male narratives for the sake of realism (which may deter actors of different narratives from auditioning if they feel unwelcomed), our production should, as many theaters often do, stray from the source material to create its own, unique take.”
To begin, the department paid for the rights to the musical through Music Theatre International (MTI). Regarding the script, MTI’s Terms and Conditions read, “When you are granted a performance license by MTI, by law, the show you license must be performed ‘as is.’ You have no right to make any changes at all unless you have obtained prior written permission from MTI to do so.”
Cancel cites Shakespeare as being a type of theater that is frequently recontextualized, however, it is important to note that Shakespeare is in the public domain, and all contemporary musicals, such as ALNM, are protected under copyright laws. Changing the script to make it more “friendly” would have changed the intent of the show, thus violating the terms and conditions of the licensing agreement. Sondheim and Wheeler chose the words and lyrics for a reason, and it is the responsibility of the director and the actors to uphold the integrity of the show by doing the material on the page.
Every musical is flawed, but the educational and artistic opportunities afforded to students in doing a show like ALNM supersedes the flaws and allows us to examine the misgivings and learn from them. As an artist, you have to learn to navigate through material that is controversial. We believe the company worked hard to do just that.
Diverse and Equitable Theater
The original Letter to the Editor addresses the idea that Occidental College theater is not diverse. Cancel wrote, “One problem, specific to this production, is the issue of race and casting.” Four people of color auditioned for this production. Three of the four people were cast. Two of the people of color in the show do play maids; however, one of them, Ada Flavin (Class of 2017, Colombian-American, Theater/Spanish Double Major) spoke with us about her experience, explaining that after not receiving a callback for a singing/speaking role, she met with the director (Professor John Bouchard) and asked how she could remain involved in the production; he informed her of several available non-speaking roles, including that of a maid.
“I asked to be in the show,” Flavin explained. “[Professor Bouchard] didn’t cast me as Malla because he said, ‘Oh, she’s a Latina, perfect, she can play the maid.’ He cast me because I asked him.”
In addition, Flavin wanted to address her being used in the first letter without being consulted on her position regarding the situation. She said, “Through [the author’s] insistence on ‘speaking up’ for the POC in the cast, they have effectively silenced us. They say, ‘It’s all good, I will defend you and make sure this doesn’t happen to you.’ Well, it didn’t happen to begin with.”
Ironically, Cancel’s letter prioritizes white, upper-class male narratives by only making reference to ALNM. This ignores the non-white male narratives the Theater Department has produced this year, including “Intimate Apparel,” written by an African-American Woman with a majority female and POC cast and female director, and the collaborative production “If It Happened to You,” which featured twelve students telling narratives from their own lives and examining different difficult issues through these stories. The letter’s highly selective critique of the theater department’s productions demeans the culturally relevant work that Professor Kozinn did last semester on “Intimate Apparel“ and Professor Meade is currently doing this semester with “Rhinoceros” (a political satire). By refusing to recognize the work of Professors Kozinn and Meade, Professor Bouchard’s work is prioritized and the female professors in our department are silenced.
In the end, there is a bigger issue at stake: diversity within the theater major itself. It’s a concern the department seems aware of, but it is one that cannot be changed overnight. As a small department at a small liberal arts college, appealing to a more diverse demographic is a mission that must be worked on thoroughly in the coming years. However, as a larger systemic issue, ALNM cannot solely take the fall for this problem.
Relevancy and Final Thoughts
Peter Brook once said, “Drama is exposure; it is confrontation; it is contradiction and it leads to analysis, construction, recognition and eventually to an awakening of understanding.” That’s exactly what ALNM provides for our community. As far as the relevancy is concerned, ALNM offers multidimensional characters, especially female characters, to examine. “Everyday a Little Death” may be relevant to our First Lady or a student in your 10 a.m. class, “Soon” may be relevant to your little sister or your roommate. Overall, the themes of sexuality, sexism, elitism, fidelity and romance are as applicable now, as they were in 1900s Sweden. The show may not offer direct commentary and resolve on each issue, but it certainly explores each and provides space for us to extrapolate our own meanings, which is a compelling part of why art is so important.
We hope that the controversy will not discourage students from attending shows in the theater department in the future. In fact, we hope it compels students to come and form their own opinions regarding our productions. While we would ask you to come see “A Little Night Music” and support the theater department, the show has closed (there is one more performance during senior week that we would encourage you to come see if you will be on campus). “Rhinoceros,” however, opens this Friday and we would appreciate people attending the show in support of the theater department.
Ada Flavin (senior), Alexander Waxler (junior), Anisha Banerjee (senior), Billy Schmidt (senior), Isabel Schwartzberg (sophomore), Elena Sanchez (junior), Eliana Sternin (sophomore), Natalie Makel (junior), Nicholas Justice (senior), Rachel Goodman (sophomore), Richard H. Via (sophomore), Tasha Spear (senior)