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  • Jake Lewis

"Cancel culture" and theatre

Updated: Apr 3


You may have heard of "cancel culture," a purportedly liberal-led conspiracy to remove from culture anything that might be remotely un-PC. From the completely uninformed accusation of Dr. Seuss being nixed, to the totally understandable repulsion aimed at J.K. Rowling, what no one has really set their sites on in this debate is theatre.


Within the theatre community, you will find people who believe certain plays or musicals need to be "canceled" due to problematic themes, but to most people, theate has remained relatively untouched. I assume the reason for this is mostly because, despite occasional mainstream successes like Hamilton, it has always been "the other" in terms of mass entertainment.

There are several shows I take issue with, but read this clearly: I would never advocate to have them "canceled."


Take, for instance, the musicals Carousel or Grease. In both, there is rampant sexism, misogyny, and if you look closely, insinuations of rape. (i.e. "Did she put up a fight?" is asked in the lyrics to "Summer Nights" when Danny is recollecting making out with Sandy.)


In both cases, I have heard people say "they are products of their time, and should be viewed as such." And while this is true, I would counter by saying most people who see Grease! don't leave it afterwards having a discussion about how it's not really a good thing thatr a woman completely changes her appearance to be accepted by a man (while he does little to nothing in return). Wtih Grease! in particular, because of its widespread appeal, and its frequency of being performed at middle and high schools, young people might see the ending as NBD, and think it's perfectly acceptable.


Carousel focuses on a really terrible main character, perhaps the biggest anti-hero in Broadway history, Billy Bigelow, who, throughout the show, is verbally and physically abusive. And what happens to him? ***SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!*** He dies, yes, and maybe that is karma, but to the woman scorned, he remains the love ofher life. Yikes, Somehow too, audiences (myself excluded) forgive him for his foul deeds, and find the show largely heart-warming, when, in my eyes, it's more heartbreaking, up there with Shakespeare's tragedies. (It doesn't help that Rogers & Hammerstein's score is so sweeping and beautiful, too). However, I don't think the original writer's intention was to make the audience exit the theatre feeling disturbed by what has just played out, but uplifted.


But do I think these shows should be banned and never performed again? Of course not.


What I DO think should happen is that theatre creators need to find some ways to present these plots and themes as something to be aware of, whether it's a note in the program, an announcement before the show, a talkback after the performance, or, even updating the scripts to be more tolerant (i.e. less racist/sexist/what have you).


This has, in fact, been done already. In the latest iteration of Annie Get Your Gun, the "Indians as comedic buffoons" has been toned down; and in the latest revival of Damn Yankees, Applegate's lyric about "Indians dragging/an empty covered wagon" after scalping the travelers has been changed. If Disney can amend "Arabian Nights" in Aladdin so it's less offensive to Middle Easterners, than anyone can.


Theatre is a powerful tool to deliver important messages about our world and our times to actors and audiences alike. As such, I believe we theatre creators have a responsibility to give honest yet sensitive portrayals and performances in the work we produce.

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