Downtown, Where Your Life’s A Joke

15 04 2010

I recently wrote a critique of the musical Little Shop of Horrors for my Theatre 101 class. There was a lot to talk about (acting, staging, lighting, scenery, etc.) so I didn’t get to mention this, but I noticed something very odd in how the musical deals with class issues. There are two songs that deal with this, and one of them is pretty awesome, while the other one… fails kinda hard.

The entire thing takes place in a low-income neighborhood- Skid Row. The protagonist is (originally) poor, as are all the sympathetic characters. The one professional character is Orin, the sadistic dentist (who has one of the best villain songs EVER, but that’s another matter). One of the first songs, the awesome one, deals with working-class life in a shitty neighborhood, and it’s great. Not just because it’s catchy and, in the production I saw, incredibly well-staged, but because it is not funny. At all. It’s a day-in-the-life song about minimum-wage jobs and bad neighborhoods. “Eating all your lunches at the hot dog carts/The bosses take your money and they break your heart.”The characters’ lives are crap, and that is taken seriously.  The song ends with Seymour and Audrey singing their lungs out about their desire to escape. It’s a really awesome number that stays with you.

And then not long after that, there is fail. Audrey gets the song “Somewhere That’s Green,” where she sings about her dreams for a better life. It’s not a bad tune, and it could be a very touching scene… except it’s played for comedic value. Her ideal life is still depicted as distinctly unbourgeoise:

A matchbox of our own
A fence of real chain link,
A grill out on the patio
Disposal in the sink
A washer and a dryer and an ironing machine
In a tract house that we share
Somewhere that’s green.

This is a JOKE. People in the theatre laughed. Oh, she has to go to the Laundromat, because she doesn’t have enough money for a washing machine! A real chain link fence! Hur hur hur! She’s poor and that’s funny, because I’m not! You fucking assholes. And you fucking assholes Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. I don’t care which of you wrote this, but it’s not, technically speaking, funny.

(Disclaimer: I have only seen the one production, so perhaps this is supposed to be a lovely and sentimental number, which this director fucked up somehow. Or maybe the audience was just laughing because they are a a fucking group of douches. If that is the case, I apologize.)

And you know, it’s really entertaining for me, too, to go to the theatre and be surrounded by people laughing at the same kind of slurs I’ve heard all my life- you walk to school barefoot because you’re too poor to buy shoes, you think the garbage man’s a waiter, you wash your clothes in your neighbor’s sink- yeah, that really made my night. Whoever is responsible for this? FAIL.

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3 responses

15 04 2010
Melissa

Nope, you’re right. That’s pretty much exactly how the song’s supposed to go.

19 04 2010
Jha

D: I’ve never seen the musical before, or heard it myself, but it seems to me that it’s possible to sing those lyrics without the comedic value, and it’s just D:-inducing that people laughed, even moreso that it’s supposed to be comical.

30 04 2010
Genevieve

Well, true, to everything you said. But my guess is that the writer’s intention was, yes, to make the audience laugh, but also to make them think about why they’re laughing, perhaps making them uncomfortable. I know playwrights (an example is Christopher Durang) who purposely break societal rules and do things that are oh-so-inappropriate in order to make people laugh, while at the same time, wonder why they’re laughing, which leads to questioning themselves about the laughing in the first place. If some of these plays were taken as representation of the ideal and truth, we would have a problem. It’s really more about what it evokes in the audience.
I’m not saying that this is necessarily the intention, but the very fact that you’re questioning all this is pretty intentional.

And comedy stems from pain. Little Shop is based so much on things that aren’t funny- divides in class, abusive relationships, the lengths people go to get fame and fortune- that the fact that it is made into something comedic is really amazing. It’s black comedy, which means it’s intentionally based on the cold, hard, awful truths, padded with some laughs.

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