This is one I've been wanting to do for awhile, but always holding back. Domestic abuse is a serious topic and I felt that if I couldn't do it justice, then I shouldn't do anything at all. However, after seeing Summer: The Donna Summer Musical with my mother, I've now felt like speaking out in the wrong way may be better than doing nothing at all.
My two main cases are Carousel and Waitress, which I'm sure we're all familiar with, but we may not all be familiar with Summer, so I'll start there. Summer is the story of Donna Summer, and how she went from being a little girl all the way to being disco/pop icon Donna Summer, through three versions of her- Duckling Donna, Disco Donna, and Diva Donna. It's not told in chronological order, more in a loose way to tell her story.
However, a very upsetting part of that story is when she's just moved back from Germany and a superfan from there has followed her back. They're in a relationship, but he's very possessive and jealous and when Donna starts having feelings for a guitarist she works with, he shows up at her house... with a gun. Donna manages to call the police and even says the more upsetting line "I don't remember the address- It's Donna Summer- the police have been here before." And eventually the police do arrive and arrest him, while the other Donnas are singing "No More Tears (Enough is Enough)". And then Disco Donna tells us he was deported- with a smile on her face.
The entire thing happens so quickly, and is given almost none of the gravity it deserves. I get it, we're in a one act musical and most of us are just here to listen to covers, but domestic abuse is something we have to start taking seriously. Unlike speaking out about portrayal of domestic abuse, domestic abuse is unique in that doing the right thing in the wrong way is often worse than doing nothing at all. The sequence left a bad taste in my mouth. Someone pointing a gun at you with the intent of killing you isn't something light that can just be put to a pop number and glossed over in two minutes at best. That kind of thing is traumatic and has long lasting ramifications that need to be shown and dealt with.
Another show that doesn't really show or deal with it is Carousel. Julie does confide that Billy hit her, but since we never see it on stage, we don't know if it's happened more than the one time she admits to. However, then she does the most egregious thing a portrayal of domestic abuse can, in my eyes, do. She sings a sweet little melody called What's The Use Of Wondering in which she defends her actions, and no one calls her on it. No one says "Julie, listen. You are not his property and it's not okay that he treats you like that."
Even worse is after he dies and comes back, fifteen years later, to try and do a good deed to get into heaven. At this point Julie is raising their daughter, Louise, and he tries to make good with her. He talks to her a bit and then tries to give her a star he stole from heaven. Louise, having some sense in her, refuses the star from the strange man. Unfortunately, this enrages him and he hits her hand. Now, while a hit on the hand may not be as severe as a hit across the face, my dad is a school bus driver and not even a week into this school year, a boy on his bus hit a girl's hand and it bruised and her father contemplated legal action. Now that boy has to sit directly behind my dad for the rest of the year, because that kind of thing is still physical and it still serious.
A hit is a hit. There's no way around there. But that's not even the worst part. The most appalling, skin-crawling line is still coming up. Billy runs off, leaving Louise crying, and Julie rushes out to her daughter. Louise tries to tell her what happened but then asks "Is it possible for someone to hit you, and for it not to hurt at all? To feel like a kiss?" (Paraphrased, I don't hate myself enough to look up the exact line.) And Julie stunningly agrees. And I'm the asshole at parties when I say I think Carousel is one of the most anti-female and worst musicals ever written. (Also, he gets into heaven at the end. Apparently God is cool with abusers.)
In stark contrast to Carousel is Waitress. Waitress is similar to Carousel in many ways, Jessie Mueller received a Tony nomination for both, Jenna and Julie are similar names, and both use the "He's just going through a hard time right now." excuse to defend their husbands. And that's where the similarities end, and the blessed differences begin.
When Jenna tries to say he's going through a hard time, someone actually does call her on it. Becky, a fellow waitress at the diner, says "How long is that excuse going to last?". The relationships that really ground the show are not ones with men, but the ones Jenna has with her best friends, Becky and Dawn, who when she finds out she's pregnant are nothing but supportive, from offering to let her move in with them to get away from Earl to even just pleading with her not to go when a furious Earl shows up at a party and tells Jenna she has thirty seconds to say her goodbyes.
And at the end, Jenna does it. With no net, she takes the leap and kicks Earl out, telling him if he ever comes within thirty yards of her and her baby, she will flatten his sorry ass and she will enjoy doing it. (A line that often gets applause because if there's one thing the audiences of today actually want, it's strong women.) She actively makes the choice that she is better alone than with him, rather than Julie or Donna, both who are left alone due to external circumstances.
People can make all the excuses to defend Carousel they want. They can say Julie is a strong character because she raises her daughter alone. They can say that I'm misunderstanding it for whatever reason. But at the end of the day, those feel just as hollow as the going through a hard time excuse. There is never an acceptable reason to portray domestic abuse as anything other than evil. I get that when Rodgers and Hammerstein were born, domestic abuse was still legal, and when they wrote the script, marital rape was still ages away from being criminalized, but product of their time is no excuse to make it a product of ours.
If we want to present shows like that, we need to take a good solid look at the script and make serious changes. The theatre is a place to escape trouble, not to be shown even worse problematic things. If the show is about domestic abuse and doesn't empower domestic abuser survivors, then we, as a community, are failing, and it's on all of us.
(Photo credit: Kevin Berne, Julieta Cervantes, and Evgenia Eliseeva.)