It’s been a hell of a month, hasn’t it?
This blog has a strict No Politics Rule. I try to keep things light, and relate everything to musical theatre writing. So, I’ll start with this embarrassing story. There was a rare opportunity for my wife and I to watch something on television together, and she said she wanted to see 13. And I thought, great, there’s a presentation of a Jason Robert Brown musical I’ve never seen. Well, I thought Parade was depressing, but this took the cake: It was Ava DuVernay’s documentary about how the criminal justice system disproportionately incarcerates black people. We learned a disturbing history of justice injudiciously applied.
So, that’s a bit of a mea culpa, and June has become a month full of confessionals. I’ve read many people of color talk about horrific experiences in the theatre, and some white people have called themselves out on their own past behavior. The hope is that the theatre biz evolves into something with far less bigotry, but, as one white dude noted, “I’m a casting director; it’s my job to discriminate.”
My wife Joy, as you may know, has led by example, casting people of color and opening minds. Me, I’m a writer, and the very least we writers can do is to stop insisting that our characters must be caucasian when there’s no legitimate need. “Whiteness” – a word I pointed included in a translation of a musical theatre lyric once – is rarely essential. Leo Frank, in that depressing JRB show, is one of the few characters I can think of whom the audience needs to believe is pale. And Hamilton succeeds marvelously in casting people of color as America’s white Founding Fathers. But now I feel myself delaying launching into my mea culpa.
One of Lehman Engel’s assignments, in the first year of his BMI workshop, was to create a comedy song based on something in a newspaper. In the late 1980s, the Olympics were held in Seoul, South Korea. Now, every Olympics faces a delicate problem: some of the foods commonly eaten in the host country are occasionally considered, well, gross, by visitors from other places. I read an article about one such delicacy. In Korea, the newspaper said, people eat dogs. Something clicked. My New York neighborhood, at the time, was filled with restaurants serving cuisine of all the major Asian nations, but not Korea. Why was that? And might there be a possible subject for a comedy song? That’s often my main question.
Gleefully, I ran to my encyclopedia (for this was still the 80s) for a list of dog breeds. And then I poured on the puns and trick rhymes, with an eye towards coming up with sort of a comic jingle for a Korean restaurant.
We’ll serve ’em Seoul food…
If the food’s a bit too spicy, don’t start to pout
Dalmatian will put the fire out
Should a Boxer hit you and you feel hung over
Take the hair of the dog that bit you and swallow some of Rover
We’ll serve ’em Seoul food and sell it with beer
That delicately peppered German shepherd pie
Or some Beagle on a bagel, I mean, it is to die
Served with a cream cheese schmeer
Collie tamale and poodle-filled strudel
Dachshund au gratin and shi-tsu with noodle
When I played Seoul Food for friends and relatives, they howled with laughter. Which leads a writer to believe he’s done something right. My father (who died a year ago today) was a huge fan of the song, and so was a friend who practically doubled over with enthusiasm. A couple of years later, she and I were in a room with a piano, for the developmental sessions for The Company of Women. The assembled improvisers were all female, but an effort had been made to work with a diverse group: they were young and old, rich and struggling, black, white and hispanic. The show, and its unusual first step towards creation, had been my idea, and my old friend wanted me to share an original song to introduce my songwriting abilities to the company. And she had a specific song in mind: Seoul Food.
Gales of laughter rocked the rehearsal room, but Julie, our black actress, didn’t crack a smile. “Thank God I’m not Korean,” she said, “but then, if I was, you probably wouldn’t have played it.” There ensued some discussion in which people disagreed as to whether the song is offensive, but Julie’s words made me see my silly tune in a whole new way. There was no getting around it: Seoul Food was poking fun at an entire ethnic group for a specific cultural practice. Before long, I’d rewritten the song so there were no references to Korea. The revised Dog Food was a context-free advertisement for a restaurant of no particular ethnicity where, if you couldn’t finish all your Toto tofu, they send you home with a doggie bag.
My father was disappointed, thinking I’d caved to political correctness. He often told me how much he liked the song, in its earlier draft. Our actress from Puerto Rico included the revised number in her next show, a revue of my songs.
In a way, today, I’m bowing to the industry-wide pressure to confess my sins. One part of me thinks there’s little value to this admission of something I did more than three decades ago. I’m wary of virtue signaling, or for it to seem like I’m some wonderful person who got woke and you should follow my example.
I was trying to be funny, and maturing involves an awareness of how certain jokes might hit certain ears. Back in college, I had a tone-deaf moment, alone with my black roommate. He was a couple of years younger, and our dorm room was the first time he’d lived away from home. So, he asked me how to do laundry and I said I didn’t know much. “First, I separate; then, I add a half-cup of bleach when I’m doing my whites. But I’m never certain how to handle the coloreds.” He glared at me, hard.