A conversation about high school theater

by Anna Popnikolova, editor-in-chief

Upon finding out that the spring musical this year was designated as the Broadway musical written by Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows, and Frank Loesser, I did a bit of research and got my hands on a script PDF of “Guys and Dolls”. As the title suggests, the play is a story about “Guys” and “Dolls”—what this means is that, throughout the entirety of the show, all the female characters were referred to as “doll,” directly, and “dolls,” in conversation. I don’t think that my feminist beliefs are particularly radical—I don’t want to be misconstrued—but I don’t think that the problem here is very difficult to see, at all. I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain why referring to women and girls as “dolls,” is not ideal, especially for our day and age. 

Had that been this show’s only offense, I would have let it slide. Unfortunately, the issues with the treatment of women only go on. The concept of betting on getting a girl is not foreign to us, and it certainly hasn’t expired yet:She’s All That,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,”The Ugly Truth,” and the list goes on. Of course, just because the trope somehow continues to prevail, does not mean that it should—though a mission in trying to eradicate misogynistic romantic comedies would likely kill off the entire genre—and “Guys and Dolls” should be no different. 

It’s important to note that, while the show is written in a different time and heavily enforces gender stereotypes, the director of the theater group which performed “Guys and Dolls” managed to combat these stereotypes. Several of the “gamblers,” which were intended to be male actors were played by female actors—which I, as an insufferable feminist, appreciated greatly. It’s safe to say that my favorite part of the show may as well have been all the suits and suspenders; and the fact that they were not restricted to gender. 

I’ve read articles that describe the musical as controversial and sexist and I’ve read articles that say the show is empowering and combatting sexism, and I suppose both sides have viable arguments. Because I see both perspectives, my main argument isn’t whether the show is unacceptably sexist or not; my argument is whether “Guys and Dolls” is an appropriate show for a teenage cast and a PG audience. In some aspects, I understand the humor and aesthetic appeal: the songs are great, the costumes and set are gorgeous, and the characters are engaging. In other aspects, I do not believe that the show was an appropriate choice for this high school’s production, at least not without heavier modification than was made in this production. 

Past antiquated language, the show involved what I consider a double standard. Junior Chloe Girvin’s character, Sarah Brown, takes an impromptu trip to Cuba with Sky Masterson, played by senior Anthony Fox, as part of his thousand-dollar bet with Nathan Detroit, during which she ends up drinking alcohol. The first problem with this scene is that Sarah doesn’t actually know she’s drinking—and Sarah is an uptight mission leader devout Christian, who likely would not be getting drunk if she had any say in the situation, but her drink is ordered by Sky Masterson. Sarah then proceeds to dance on stage and follows Sky outside in the next scene, still implied to be tipsy. 

Earlier this year before when the fall play entered rehearsals, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” was in rehearsals, the cast and directors of the show were asked to remove an on-stage drinking scene, which was — I believe, appropriately — deemed inappropriate for a teenage actor to portray. In my opinion, if Diogo Dias’s character, Ed, was not permitted to have a drink onstage, and the directors of “Almost, Maine” got in trouble for Buccino’s drinking scene, then Girvin’s character, Sarah, shouldn’t have been implicitly inebriated onstage — non-consensually, at that!

I understand that shows, especially copyrighted shows, are difficult to change, the actors in the scene did very well, and the song was very catchy. I can excuse the circumstances and the writing with the explanation that the show was written in different times, and intended to be performed by adults. I will give credit, however, where it is due. 

This scene, originally, involves several lines which make it clear that Sarah’s drink contained Bacardi, which is a kind of rum, whereas the modified scene only implies alcoholic content, and can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. The way in which I interpreted the scene, along with most of my party, was that Sarah Brown was drunk on the stage. That being said, I suppose she could have not been drunk, but in love.The original scene also contains a drunken brawl during which a jealous Sarah ends up in a fight with a Cuban dancer, and I appreciate the modification not to include this segment of the scene. 

To be frank, the drinking scene would have been fine by me had it not upheld what I believe to be a double standard. Drama Club could not include a drinking scene for a character who is meant to be an alcoholic, but the musical could include a drinking scene, so long as it had a cute musical number to go with it.

The most problematic aspect of the show to me was the “Hot Box” dances. These scenes involve Adelaide and the “Hot Box Cuties,” performing on stage in two scenes; and would have been great had the dancers themselves not been teenage girls. 

The word “Box” is often used as slang for a vulva or a vagina. Whether this was the intent of the original authors is unknown but debatable. Now, the Hot Box is never explicitly described as a strip club. In passing, I’ve referred to it as such, but it’s not exactly a strip club, and the girls performing in it are not exactly stripping. In most scripts and summaries, the Hot Box is referred to as a cabaret club or nightclub. But a club that has dancers in sparkly leotards—in some shows, corsets and thigh-high stockings—with men sitting around tables watching them is usually…  a certain type of club. The implication was more burlesque-esque, and I believe that it was too mature for a high school production: the implication of teenage girls acting like exotic dancers rubs me the wrong way. Similar to the on-stage drinking, had this been an adult production, I would have had no problem; in fact, I would be enthusiastic about it. I’m not calling for the complete removal of the scenes altogether, I’m just suggesting that there might have been a better way to go about the scene.

I’ll note that I liked the songs of the Hot Box dances, especially the second one, and I thought that the Hot Box set was adorable. I was very impressed with the quality of the set this year and the Hot Box set was, by far, my favorite, with a cute LED sign and the backlit stage.

Despite the implications, I think the scene had the potential to be PG; despite my aforementioned reservations. Perhaps, if the girls hadn’t been dressed only in leotards in the first dance and stripped down to their bloomers in the second one. A quick fix might have been some yellow tutus in the Bushel and A Peck song, for example. That being said, I’ve been made aware since the show that the costumes we saw on stage were actually modest versions of the costumes as they had originally arrived. That being said, I don’t think the scene would have decreased in quality and entertainment had the costumes been a little different in the first place. Here, I want to explain—I’m not an advocate for excessive modesty or a restrictive dress code; I believe girls should be able to wear whatever they feel comfortable wearing. That being said, I don’t think that teenage girls in leotards or bloomers doing an implied-burlesque dance is the most appropriate way that the scene could have been designed. I also don’t know what the comfort level of the girls on stage actually was. I know I would not have been comfortable doing those dances in those costumes. From what I’ve seen online, a lot of productions of “Guys and Dolls” take liberties when it comes to the Hot Box girls and their costumes—why couldn’t our liberties have been a little more appropriate? 

Of course, my opinion is my opinion. I’ve heard others who agree with me wholeheartedly, and others who think that the scene is up for interpretation. Some are vehemently against the burlesque scene, and many others don’t see a big issue with it. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, as always. 

Separate from this specific production of “Guys and Dolls,” I have some thoughts on the show itself. When I left the first night I watched the show, I felt like there was no closure at the end of the musical. This has nothing to do with the actors or the director or Nantucket High School at all—this problem is purely between me and the writers. It is fully possible that this was simply lost on me between 70 years of sociopolitical advancement, but I didn’t understand how Sarah and Adelaide could be having such big problems with Nathan and Sky, and then all of a sudden sing a song, get married, and take their bows. The last song was Marry the Man Today, which basically ends with Sarah and Adelaide deciding to marry Sky and Nathan, despite all of their red flags. The song, from my 21st-century perspective, is about realizing that a guy won’t change before marriage and hoping that they can coerce their respective guys into behaving the way they want after they are married. 

The humor was anachronistic, given our 21st-century ideals, and seemed more appealing to a much older audience. I disagree with the message, which I interpreted as: if the man you’re in a relationship with has a gambling addiction, often commits crimes, and refuses to change despite your discomfort with his bad habits, just marry him anyway! Maybe he will never change, but maybe, after years of grief and “headaches”, he might just!

Something about this callow message just doesn’t sit right with me—and I’d hope that no one participating in or watching “Guys and Dolls” uses the musical for relationship advice, because I can almost guarantee that it will not end happily. 

On the happier side of happy endings, there is no denying that the cast and crew of the show did a spectacular job on stage. I’d like to praise all of the students who participated: for their performance, the beautiful set and costumes, and a pretty pleasant viewing experience. Overall, the show was great, and there is no question that the show was put on by a talented group of kids, who will continue to put on great shows—whether at Nantucket High, or wherever the wind takes them after their graduation. 

Despite my qualms with the drinking, the burlesque, and the questionable message, I can understand that the show is dated, and the humor is coarse at moments because of the time period it was written in and the time period it is portraying. Regardless of whether art is made in a studio, written on a page, or performed on a stage; I believe that art is always open for interpretation and should inspire conversation. My intent here has never been and never will be to undermine such an entertaining theater production, or such an impressive cast of performers, as I mentioned before. My intent here is to suggest that, in the future, there are certain things which — may have been overlooked — we should take into consideration before purchasing the rights for a script. What message are we trying to give to our audience? Is the message of this show relevant to our day and age? 

Fostering discussion and a wide range of opinions are a part of any art form, and should be welcomed. I’m happy that we are able to open up a discussion about what type of art we want to perform—and I think that the conversation about high school entertainment is a complex, very interesting, and very important one to have. 

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