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Thanks for the Incompetence!

What show has Filichia shaken by yet oddly grateful for the historically inaccurate spectacle onstage? logo
Sharon Wilkins and Jonathan Hadary in All Shook Up
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In a season that has brought us plenty of incompetence on the musical stage, All Shook Up is a show that made me happy, thanks to its own peculiar and particular brand of incompetence. In a way, I'm delighted that book writer Joe DiPietro and director Christopher Ashley did such terrible work on the show.

According to the program, the new musical is set "during the summer of 1955" in "a small you-never-heard-of-it town somewhere in the Midwest." While the mini-overture is playing, a projection is flashed on the scrim that tells us we're in "the middle of a square state." So imagine my surprise in Act I, Scene Two, when Jonathan Hadary is having a heart-to-heart conversation with Sharon Wilkins, who owns a roadside nightclub. Just in case you don't know these two performers -- though I hope and trust that you do -- let me point out that Hadary is white and Wilkins is black. And they're talking to each other like wonderful neighbors? In a "square state" in 1955? How did a black woman wind up owning a nightclub in such a time and place, anyway? If she did, wouldn't it cater to blacks only, either because only blacks would want to go there or because blacks wouldn't be allowed in the white places?

The villain of All Shook Up is Mayor Matilda Hyde, who must have greatly influenced Reverend Shaw Moore in Footloose. She too is fascistic in the way she runs the town, applying her own strait-laced values. "No public necking, no tight pants," she proclaims. When Chad (read: Elvis Presley) arrives in town, she proclaims him "the devil in disguise." So do four of her councilwomen -- two of whom are white, two of whom are black. In a "square state" in 1955? (I'll give them that a woman could be elected mayor, for that first happened in 1921.)

All Shook Up is somewhat inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. (That's right, yet another Twelfth Night musical. I count this as the sixth, after Your Own Thing, Love and Let Love, Music Is, Play On, and Illyria. So much for what All Shook Up states in its ads: "The story is all new.") So when Chad doesn't notice Natalie and her pal Dennis tells her that guys really prefer to hang out with guys, Natalie dresses like a guy and becomes Ed -- and Chad comes to like "him" quite a bit. Chad then must come to terms with the possibility of his being homosexual, and though he does struggle with that for about a third of the second act, he eventually accepts that he's going to have a sexual relationship with Ed. Really? In a "square state" in 1955?

While I didn't grow up in the Midwest, I did grow up in Massachusetts, a state that was considered pretty square in the '50s. You may have heard -- or may remember -- the famous expression "Banned in Boston." That was still happening back then. Granted, I was only eight years old when 1955 began, so I wasn't in the midst of too many adult situations. But I can assure you that when a white man was with a black woman in a café, the two didn't speak to each other. Not a word. If a white was walking down the street and saw a black walking up the street, neither would speak to the other. Even eight years later in 1963, when I was working at my first after-school job in a toy store, I recall a new employee asking, in all earnestness, "Are colored people allowed in here? Should we wait on them?" This was the same year that James Meredith wanted to go to the University of Mississippi, thereby prompting riots in which people died. About a decade after that, All in the Family -- the nation's top-rated TV series -- had an episode in which Archie Bunker didn't want to drink from a glass that Sammy Davis, Jr. had used. But here are Jonathan Hadary and Sharon Wilkins making nice in a bar!

Keep in mind that 1955 was 13 long years before 1968, when The Boys in the Band debuted Off-Broadway. Today's gays are quick to damn that play because of such lines as "You show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse," and "If only we didn't hate ourselves so much." But, like it or not, that's the way things were back then. Gays had a terrible self-image because they were taught to, and they didn't come out of the closet because they were kept there. In the summer of 1955, Rock Hudson was already a star and was filming one of his most famous movies (Giant), but he sure did't publicly announce his homosexuality the way Chad does to the town in All Shook Up. (In fact, Hudson never did.)

So why am I not furious at DiPietro and Ashley for their incompetence? Because I realize that they're young men who weren't hanging around cafés in 1955 and don't know what America was like for blacks and gays in those days. They can't fathom that there was a time when blacks wouldn't talk to whites, let alone touch them, and that gay men couldn't even hint, let alone admit, that they ever had a sexual feeling for any man. DiPietro and Ashley have spent their adulthood in a far more tolerant time, and with that as their point of reference, they can't begin to know what it was really like in the comparative dark ages. Granted, their myopia has resulted in a lousy musical, but I'm glad that we now live in a more open-minded world where people have no idea how narrow-minded it once was.

Am I being sarcastic? Not really -- and not not really, either. Of course, a writer and director have the responsibility to find out every possible piece of information about the era in which they've set their show. I would have admired and respected both men much more had they done their homework and put a real 1955 Midwest town on stage. That Elvis's music changed things could still be their theme; in fact, if we had been introduced to a town where blacks and whites never talk in Act I, Scene One but come to do so by Act II, Scene Six, the show would have been much stronger. But DiPietro and Ashley seem to have no idea how bad things were, and this shows how far we've come.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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