Over the past few weeks there have been a whole slew of conversations, sparked by recent demonstrations and unrest, about structural and systemic racism in the American theater. There’s been story after story about discriminatory practices, conscious or unconscious, by theater companies. Stories about toxic environments in rehearsal rooms and graduate programs. Calls for greater representation both in terms of the artists onstage and backstage, and the critics employed to guide the discussion about them. Earnest discussions by the boards of companies large and small as to how to address all these issues.
I’m not going to get into the details of most of these here. In the first place, it’s not my place to speak about much of this – there’s plenty of first-hand accounts of all of this and you really need to sit down and read them. And to the extent that I am a part of those earnest discussions, what I do and what all these companies actually do matters far more than what we say, especially if what we say is just rhetoric in our own defense. But that said, there’s one attempt to correct long-standing racist practices in the theater that I just learned about this week, although it happened some time ago, and it’s so incredible that it must be shared.
I saw Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me A Tenor at Syracuse Stage sometime in 1990 or 1991; by that point the script was five years old or so and had been an award-winning hit on the West End and on Broadway. That level of accolade is kind of extraordinary when you stop and think about it, considering that it’s just a goofy sex farce, full of pratfalls and broad characterizations and mistaken identity. That element of mistaken identity is, of course, the problematic aspect of the play – the plot involves protagonist Max impersonating legendary opera tenor Tito Morelli by stepping into his costume for that evening’s performance of Verdi’s Otello, which, being based on Shakespeare’s classic Moor, requires donning blackface.
Or at least it used to, because the version of the play you’ll see today is not the version I saw at Syracuse stage, or the version from the original Broadway production OR its revival. (Yes, the play I just described has had two Broadway productions. Make of that what you will.) Realizing that the blackface tradition is so fraught, so hurtful, as to make a frothy comedy pretty much impossible, the characters now dress as the title role of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. So, whiteface and clown makeup instead of the Moor of Venice.
This revision was done in 2019.
That’s right, it took over thirty years for Ken Ludwig to make a revision, or be asked to make a revision, to make the play less awkward, less potentially hurtful. And the thing of it is, the thing that really makes my head spin, is that it took so long to make a revision that’s exponentially funnier and makes for a better play.
As I said, Lend Me a Tenor is a goofy sex farce at its heart. It has big bold characters and plot points and is geared towards a general audience. But Otello isn’t a general audience sort of a reference. You might know the Shakespeare play, sure (I hope you do), but opera’s a more rarified thing. Otello’s a great opera, sure – on the short list of the greatest, in fact – but it’s not one where the general audience knows the hit tunes. Whereas everybody who’s ever seen a mob movie or watched Saturday morning cartoons knows the big tenor aria from Pagliacci, making it a far better reference for the play’s purposes. Moreover, anybody who does know the score to Otello immediately gets taken out of the world of the play the second it’s “sung” in the play. The title role in Otello is one of the single most brutally taxing roles in all of opera, you see – a large part of the reason the blackface tradition for it lasted so long in opera is that there’s never move than a handful of tenors in the world who can successfully sing the thing. (Not an excuse for doing it in the first place, but part of the explanation for why changing the practice would be so daunting a task.) But Max, Lend Me A Tenor’s protagonist, is supposed to have been studying in secret and has never performed in public before. Could somebody in that position belt out Al Capone’s favorite aria? It’s a stretch, but it’s not completely impossible. But could they sing Otello?! PAVAROTTI couldn’t sing Otello!
So there are two things to consider. The good news is that fixing racial injustices and bad practices in the theater isn’t just the right thing to do, but it results in demonstrably better theater. The bad news is that it took three decades for celebrated theater professionals to realize this. The work is necessary, and in my heart of hearts I don’t believe it’s that hard – but clearly there’s a lot of procrastination going on.