When I volunteered to take the 4th of July editoral, I wasn't entirely sure where I was going with it. I knew we had to have a special post, but I didn't know about what... until I went to see Bandstand in the theatres.
I've always thought of theatre as a balanced place. A place where we hear both sides of the story, usually in song. A place where we have the Tonight quintet, Your Fault, and What's The Use Of Wondering and Soliloquy in the same show. So I was surprised that Bandstand... showed none of that. It showed what these men had gone through, but not why. The closest thing I've seen on Broadway to show a balanced real war is Allegiance, but it also portrayed the bad guys as the Americans, and if there is a time where you'll score political points for taking aim at the American military, it's not now. It ran for barely more than 100 performances before closing.
I'm also a fan of Hamilton, and while I moved mountains and listened to every word attentively and wept through act two, it was not lost on me that the British are nothing more of a punchline. It's never asked why they're doing this, or who we should be rooting for. Perhaps they expect our third grade history class and what we've done in the name of freedom to have already sold on us on that idea, or to just have a general sense of patriotism that sells us on anything the military does, but there's a lot of shame in the history of the United States, Allegiance just being one of the first ones to point it out.
And that's not even addressing women in these musicals. While Hamilton has no problem with gender play in the ensemble, the actual historical women they focus on are barely more than fleshed out tropes- the Mother Mary wife figure, the sexy seductress, and the woman who'll build the world in her heels and doesn't mind getting the hem of her dress muddy.
Bandstand is even worse. While it technically passes the Bechdel Test, the only significant female figure is Julia- a woman who, in addition, to her own burden of the loss of her husband, feels like it's her responsibility to find absolution for the boys, to give them peace, whilst putting her own feelings and struggles in the backseat, as if the only way she could have contributed to the war was by letting her husband enlist.
When I asked Preston Max Allen and Jessica Kahkosha, co-collaborators on a new show still in workshops called Agent 355, about this female erasure, this is the response I was given:
AGENT 355 is, in many ways, a response to the removal of women from stories they were and are very much a part of. That's what drew me to the story in the first place - that these five male Culper Ring members were identified, but a "355" (lady) who was integral to their success has forever gone unknown. We get an opportunity to point out, first of all, that this erasure happens commonly. Not just in this narrative, but likely most historical narratives out there. So hopefully it'll inspire people to look into events they thought they knew and discover that women were a major part of them. Additionally, by exploring the identity of 355 in this show, we get to discuss multiple women who were fighting in the Revolutionary War in whatever way they could. A lot of it was incredibly clever, incredibly resourceful, and so deeply important. Many of these women couldn't be on the battlefield - they had to protect their homes and their families, often alone - and the ways in which they did that were extraordinary battles in themselves that deserve focus.
While I had their attention, I also asked about the presentation of the British forces, as discussed above and was abslolutely delighted by their answer!
We definitely try to represent the British as a more than just brutal "others" trying to wipe out the "heroes." They have conflict within themselves - they feel they're fighting for a just cause and have as much right to defend their honor as the Americans. If we don't flesh out their humanity and intention, we're doing a disservice to all of our characters on both sides.
As a nation, we certainly love ourselves a good hero story. I'm certainly no exception to this- I'm a direct descendent of the first policeman to die in the line of duty in the state if Utah and if you stay still long enough, I'll probably try to tell you about it. But I know what he was fighting against, he was fighting against a capsized wagon and rushing water. Perhaps, if we were more willing to look at the whole picture, about what we were fighting and why, if we understood our history- we would find some hot button issues such as the confederate flag a little less hot.
(Hamilton photo credit is Joan Marcus, Bandstand photo credit is Jeremy Daniel, and Agent 355 photo credit is Liz Smalls.)