A WOKE “THE MUSIC MAN”
“The Rock, whose deeds are perfect, Yea, all God’s ways are just.” (Deuteronomy 32:4)
Many of you know that I love Broadway musicals. And my favorite show is the 1957 classic The Music Man. Written by the late Meredith Willson, it opened on Broadway starring the late Robert Preston and the late Barbara Cook. It tells the story of a con-artist salesman in 1912 small town, Iowa, selling band instruments and uniforms with a promise of creating a boy’s band. His plan is to take the money and run. But his plans are cut short when he falls in love with the local piano teacher–librarian.
I have watched the show on Broadway, with touring companies, at community theater productions, at high school productions, and of course, the 1962 movie starring Preston. My wife and I danced our first dance at our wedding to the love song at the end of the play, “Till There Was You.” In a synagogue talent show, I performed “You Got Trouble.” So, when the new revival opened on Broadway starring two wonderful performers Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, I desperately wanted to see it. But considering the cost, I did the next best thing. I bought the new cast album.
I know the show inside out, so listening to the album, I realized that the revival made changes, creating a show more in keeping with modern sensitivities. To use a term that has become somewhat derogatory, the new version of the show has become more “woke.” Woke refers to a hyper-sensitivity to any scenes or song lyrics that might be offensive to various protected groups – blacks, women, gays, native-Americans, disabled people, etc. (Note that Jews are never included in the woke list.) The original play contained scenes that would be disturbing to native-Americans and immigrants and had to be removed. But there were other changes.
Someone must have felt that the classic song “You Got Trouble” contained lyrics that may be disturbing to blacks. When Professor Harold Hill tries to warn the townspeople of the danger of a pool table in their community, he speaks of the young people being swept up by “ragtime shameless music that will grab your son, your daughter, with the arms of a jungle animal instinct.” The new version changes the words to “modern music” that will “drag your son, your daughter, down to the depths of a syncopated frenzy.” The change is minor, but I believe the original would have been scarier to these small-town Iowans.
A more obvious change is in the second act dance number “Shipoopi.” In the original, the song is about trying to get the girl who is hard to get. The lyrics have been totally transformed by lyricists of the show Hairspray. Now it is about the men “who’ll wait till a girl says when.” That sentiment seems to be more at place after the modern “me-too” movement than 1912 Iowa. The show has been modernized in a way that ignores the fact, the ethics of the past are not the ethics of today.
That brings me to the problem of the woke culture, so popular on the left and distained by the right. It judges the past by the standards of today. Thomas Jefferson was a great man who penned the Declaration of Independence. But yes, he owned slaves, and even impregnated some. In his day and age, that was not unusual. By today’s standards that is unacceptable. But to dismiss Jefferson, or to use the frequent word, cancel Jefferson, is wrong. Ethics change, but we need to be careful about judging the past. My grandparents were wonderful people who could not conceive that their grandson, the rabbi, would one day perform a gay marriage. Our ethical sensitivities have changed.
This week’s portion speaks of a perfect God. God is unchangeable. But we mere mortals are changeable. Our ethical ideas evolve over time. What was acceptable in 1912 Iowa may not be acceptable in 2022 Manhattan. But how far do we go in rewriting the past to meet the standards of today? The Jackman-Foster version of the show is excellent. I wish I could fly to New York and see it. But perhaps the old version was closer to Meredith Willson’s memory of growing up in small town Iowa. Let us not judge the past by the standards of the present.