The colors were astounding.
As Lolo, Dodo, Jou-jou, Clo-clo, Margot, and Frou-frou exposed their ankles, lifted their frilly skirts, shook their bosoms, and danced gaily around the stage, I was most astounded by the colors of the set. At the evening performance of the Merry Widow, an opera with a full symphony, I sat in the center balcony absorbing the music and color, the very spectacle of the impressive show.
I tend to rate productions in multiple categories, my internal critic going down the checklist. It makes it easier for me to sort it out. A movie, for example, may be brilliantly filmed yet have terrible actors, or may have beautiful imagery and a terrible story.
I surveyed the Merry Widow carefully. The costumes and sets were stunning. The actors were top notch, selling their characters with full commitment, silliness and seriousness, lust and love, and I had laughed out loud many times. The vocal performances and the symphony took my breath and raised gooseflesh on my arms and neck; a few of the soft high notes in the operatic solos left me gasping, my hand on my heart in pure fulfillment. And the show itself, written over a hundred years ago, was, frankly, hilarious and relevant, for the most part. This was a top-notch production, and I was having a blast.
I sat next to my colleague and friend, Kara, and we made comments throughout the show, poking fun at the roles of the women in the show. It was written in a different time, when women were seen as acquisitions, annoyances, or trophies. So when Valencienne sings about being a virtuous wife even as she cheats on her husband, it’s easy to smile and laugh. And when the dancing girls strut about the stage, singing of how they can woo married men away from their wives, it was easy to laugh.
But I had to grimace in discomfort when a group of male characters sang about women in politics, and how men generously gave them the right to vote yet women still grew discontent and had opinions. I still laughed, but I grew a bit more uncomfortable.
And then came the song about women directly. A group of male characters (all hilarious) step on the stage to discuss the problem of women in their lives.
“It’s a problem how to manage willful women when the bloom of youth is gone”, one sings. Then, in song, the men pontificate on all of the different ways women can be impossible. One likes fashion too much, another is too focused on romance, another is too moody and inconsistent, another frigid and opinionated. After they finish classifying the women in derogatory categories, the men decide, as a group, that they can never do enough to possibly satisfy a woman, but that women have enough assets to be worth the aggravation.
The production ends when (warning: 100 year old spoilers!) the wealthy widow, Hanna Glawari, who has an untold fortune left to her by her deceased husband, finds true love with Danilo Danilovitsch, a whiny drunkard statesman who has spent the entire production espousing his philosophy of making love to many, proposing to some, but marrying none. And although Danilo likes Lolo, Dodo, Jou-jou, Clo-clo, Margot, and Frou-frou all very much, he decides to marry the widow. But wait! The dead husband’s will states Margot loses her entire fortune if she marries another. Oh well, they will marry anyway, because she needs to be with a man more than she needs riches.
Kara turned to me, shock on her face. “Wait. Why couldn’t they have just lived together and shared the money?”
We shared a good laugh as we walked out of the show, delighted with the production and yet disgusted with the utter patriarchy of it all. “Wow, that was awfully… misogynistic.” I said. My mind raced to early Disney movie productions, where each princess finds love in the arms of a man before her destiny is fulfilled and happy ending written. More modern Disney productions feature women a bit more liberated and complex.
Then I thought of watching the old 1950s musical movie, Gigi, with friends a few weeks ago, when Maurice Chevalier, then an older man with a cane, walks around a promenade looking at little girls and singing about how they will all grow up to be beautiful and complicated women.
I wonder how many songs have been written over the years about how aggravating, impossible, and difficult women are, only to decide in the end that they are beautiful enough to be worth it. There must be dozens.
Kara and I had a good laugh, then headed our respective ways. Later, I told a friend about the production.
“How did you like it?” he asked.
I smiled, the music still playing in my head. “It was fantastic, but perhaps slightly mistitled. Maybe they should call it the Misogynistic Merry Widow.”