BWW Jr: Mama Will Decide: Knowing What's Appropriate
Welcome to the very first installment of Mama Will Decide- BroadwayWorld's exclusive column from Remy Holzer. Be sure to check back monthly as she dives deep into the worlds of theatre, motherhood, and where the two intersect.
"How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman..."
So begins, as we all know, a musical that has, perhaps unexpectedly, enjoyed more popularity among children than any other in recent history. And yet, even in its first moments, the show confronts children with words they (especially younger children) may not have heard before and may not understand. When a group of small children in our elementary school talent show performed this song, they sang "bastard" but labeled Hamilton the son of "a girl and a Scotsman." I don't know what parental or directorial input led to this alteration, but I do wonder what the children thought about it, both the original and the substitute lyric.
When I asked some of my closest friends their advice on what subjects I should cover in this new column, many of them suggested some version of this theme: inappropriate content in shows, and how to manage that as the mother of a curious and omnivorous Broadway-loving child. Let me explain. My eleven-year-old son Charles is, to put it mildly, obsessed with Broadway. He spends all of his free time thinking about it in some way, whether it is reading about Broadway history, reading current Broadway news and reviews, listening to CDs, writing his own blog about Broadway, talking about shows, reading plays, writing his songs and plays, participating in shows at theater camp or in after-school programs, or acting as one of BroadwayWorld's own Kid Critics. Because of his incredibly voracious and wide-ranging interest in theater, he is constantly encountering subject matter that is "inappropriate" to varying degrees. "Inappropriate," in fact, is a word that comes up with great frequency in my household.
Certainly, in an atmosphere when the news constantly churns up as much disturbing sexual content as any Kander and Ebb show, the appropriateness of Broadway shows is not the main issue facing our children. However, for our children who love Broadway shows above all else and are deeply absorbed in them, it makes sense to monitor this as well as we can, making our own rules up along the way. Or at least that's what I've done.
There are two kinds of children: those who will ignore content they don't understand, or at least accept a vague, "we'll talk about it later" kind of answer-and those who won't. My son is firmly in the latter category. I can practically see antennae rising on his head the moment any vaguely suggestive or disturbing phrase occurs in a show. A lewd joke? He gives me a quick glance, and I know there will be questions later, no matter how many lines in the show succeed it. He always remembers. And he requires a real answer.
His Broadway habit has led to many awkward and unexpected questions. When my son was about 8, he was reading about the show 42nd Street in a book by one of his favorite critics, Peter Filichia. There are certain shows we had agreed that he should avoid reading about in detail: A Chorus Line and The Book of Mormon, for example. But I had seen 42nd Street in both its Broadway incarnations and the original film version, and knew it to be a fairly "appropriate" backstage musical. A few minutes later, he asked me what "abortion" meant. How did this come up? Apparently there was a subplot about abortion in the novel that served as the basis for the show. It was not included in the show, but it was included in a comprehensive discussion of the making of the show. Because his aunt had worked there, he was aware of the public health role of what he had at first called "Planet Parenthood"...but now it was time for a talk. And, since I knew it would be unfair to stop Charles from reading books by Filichia and other Broadway authors he admired, I had to brace myself for more such experiences.
But these conversations can be fruitful, and, as I've learned to tell myself, children encounter all kinds of content that parents can't control, whether it's in the schoolyard, in newspaper headlines, or just on the street. But parents do have a say in what shows their children go to, and preparation is always a good idea, whether it's checking reviews or summaries for the plot of a show or discussing issues that might be confusing or disturbing beforehand. For example, before we saw Fiddler on the Roof, we discussed pogroms and at least a little about Jewish life in Eastern Europe at the time. Charles went on to read Sholom Aleichem's Tevye stories with his father; however, these take some dark plot turns that are not covered in the musical. (Let's just remember those youngest two sisters as the girls who head to America with their parents at the end of the show.)
My son is always very interested in shows that have adult content, since he is interested in all of Broadway and has read about shows from all eras. One show I have put off is one of my personal favorites, Chicago. I know Charles will love it when he sees it, but pretty much all of it is sex and violence. He's old enough to appreciate the cynicism of it and not take it too literally, but there's really nothing else in the storyline. He has listened to some of the songs, but I've skipped ones that have a lot of narrative content. ("The Cell Block Tango" is a definite no.) Similarly, he's heard some songs from Company, most from Follies, and a very few from Sweeney Todd. Sunday in the Park with George, which we saw, is one of his favorite musicals; he's one of the biggest Sondheim fans who has yet to experience some of his greatest (but most inappropriate) songs. I do have reservations about Into the Woods and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum-though the sexism of the latter is probably quite familiar to Charles, a fan of mid-twentieth-century TV sitcoms (but that's another conversation).
But because I respect his great interest, I'(M) Willing to make more compromises than I might have thought when he was very young. For example, we have an agreement that if there is a major revival of Company, he can see it. Even as I write this, though, I cringe thinking of "the kind of girl you can't send through the mails," etc. An adult I know saw A Chorus Line at a very young age. When she arrived, accompanied by her father, an usher tried to prevent her from seeing the show. Her father explained that she already knew all the songs, which she then demonstrated to the usher, who allowed her to take her seat. But perhaps she didn't ask endless, pointed questions about the content after hearing the songs or seeing the show.
Some children ask, some brood, and some overlook; parents can tailor their choices of shows to their children's reactive styles. Some children love shows that are based on material familiar to children-children's TV, animated movies, famous characters. Shows like this are usually at least intended to be "safe" for all audiences. Revivals are often a safe bet, but certainly not always. For example, Kiss Me Kate should appeal to show-loving kids, and the changes made to the material could prompt some interesting discussion. The revival of Oklahoma!, on the other hand, is even darker than the original, and emphasizes the violence of the story in a way that is likely to be intriguing to adults but upsetting to children. Again, all depends on the individual. One young child I know was so upset by the loud thunderstorm effects in the Broadway Mary Poppins that she had to leave the theater. On the other hand, 10-year-olds I know have seen and enjoyed Dear Evan Hansen, a story whose serious and disturbing themes seem best suited to high school students at the youngest. But children who love sad YA novels, for example, would probably love it. Kids who are curious about Shakespeare would have fun at Kiss Me Kate. Kids fascinated by social dynamics in school should enjoy Mean Girls. Kids who love classic musicals and movies would love My Fair Lady. The important thing is to encourage your children's love of theater, allow it to take them to new places, and, as much as you see fit, prevent it from taking them too far.