Make Broadway Choruses Great Again

I fear that you’ve been lied to all these years.

No doubt you’re under the assumption that actors, and performing artists in generals, are reliable and orthodox leftists when it comes to their politics. You’ve seen decades of clips of celebrities advocating for liberal causes; you’ve heard them referred to as a liberal elite countless times. (Often with something like “snowflake” attached as an epithet beforehand, because 2018 is horrifying.) And certainly, when it comes to obvious issues that affect them personally, like arts funding or LGBT rights, this tends to be the case. But under the right set of circumstances, I’m sorry to say that these good lefties can and will turn into an angry populist-right mob the likes of which Steve Bannon can only dream about.

Earlier this month, the Actors Equity Association’s National Council voted to rename the object of a decades-old ceremony, the Gypsy Robe. (Read more about that decision here.) Each Broadway opening night, it’s awarded to the chorus member with the most professional credits in that particular show. The ceremony started in 1950, at a time when chorus dancers were frequently and colloquially referred to as “gypsies.” The word, however, is an ethnic slur, an insult against the Roma people. To my knowledge, no member of that community has registered a complaint, but the Council decided it was out of place and inappropriate in 2018. The ceremony isn’t ending by any means – it gets more and more attention, the ceremony more and more elaborate, with every passing year and show. But it will have some sort of new name – the “Chorus Robe,” or the “Legacy Robe,” or whatever – in the near future.

And over this, people have gone insane.

Good lefty actor types, with their Hillary or Bernie buttons still adorning their PBS totebags, have taken to social media to denounce their union, their abandonment of the past, and the “hypersensitivity” of our age in general. (Take a look around you – does it really seem like the world is getting more sensitive?) They’re using language terrifyingly similar to those other angry mobs of people on the internet. They’re invoking that old standby “tradition,” even though the actual tradition of referring to chorus dancers as “gypsies” is itself long gone. (There used to be “gypsy run-thrus,” open dress rehearsals where cast members of other shows could come and see their friends – when’s the last time that happened?) They’re using memes, for god’s sake. MEMES. And like all memes, they’re based on faulty logic and poor reasoning. Like the complaint “What’s next? Do we have to rename the musical Gypsy now?” That’s an argument based on false equivalency – the title of that show is a character’s stage name, not a description of who they are. We’re not supposed to be the ones making arguments that sloppily, that angrily. And yet my timeline is offering up innumerable examples to the contrary, and it has been depressing and horrifying to see.

True, you can argue that the word "gypsy" itself has been used colloquially over the years to refer to vagabonds in general, and people move from job to job frequently (like, y'know, actors), and that it's evolved from its original roots as an ethnic slur.  But stop and think – how is that a good thing?  Are we really so inured to our capacity to racism that, after a while, we simply stop noticing that we're doing it?

I don’t think the robe was an issue demanding to be addressed right this very second; it’s entirely fair to say it’s a form of virtue signaling (even though I despise that term) to demonstrate that we actually do care about the values of tolerance and acceptance our union claims to live by. But what on earth is wrong with that?

And can we really say that, if the name of this garment had been changed twenty or thirty years ago, anybody would care about it today? The tradition would still be chugging along just fine, the chorus folk would still be standing in a circle, and one of their members would still be wearing a cartoonishly overdesigned piece of finery and ritually blessing them, photographers from Playbill at the ready. The word “gypsy” would be attached as a piece of trivia, nothing more. Nobody would care.

Why do they care now?

Fear, of course, fear that the world of their childhood is gone and never coming back. And since childhood is presumably when they sat down and listened to their first Broadway cast album, they’re especially apprehensive about changes in this particular sphere. But the worlds of all of our childhoods are gone. That always happens. The question is whether the world that replaces it is a better one.

And this hysteria isn’t a good answer.

Let’s do better, everybody.

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