Written by Victoria Myers
December 1st, 2016
For the last six months, The Interval has been working on a study, headed by Danielle Feder, about bias in theatre reviews; how work by women is described as compared to work by men, what adjectives are used, how the artists themselves are described. Danielle’s comprehensive study will be published this spring, but on Monday, The New Yorker published a review of Sweet Charity by Hilton Als that was too blatantly sexist to not go refuted. The majority of the sexism was leveled at the show’s director, Leigh Silverman, whom I profiled this summer and whom The Interval recently helped honor at The 24 Hour Plays. Hilton Als’ review is remarkable not only for the depth and breadth of its sexism, but also for his disregard for actual criticism and facts in pursuit of his own misogynistic agenda.
His thesis is that Silverman is too serious; she wants her shows to have moral purpose; and sometimes a play is just a play (that isn’t a hyperbolic summary—those are actually his words). Singling out a woman for her seriousness is a lot like singling her out for her ambition—the two words are deeply intertwined—and it implies that it is unnatural, it is dirty, and it is something she should work on if she ever wants to be liked (“liked” being a crutch for those who don’t want to attribute that other, more powerful verb to women: respected). It also reeks of the kind of patronizing that defines seriousness as a trait that needs to be handed to women by men who can then, in turn, arbitrarily turn around and decide, “No, now you’re too much.” It fails to pass the canary-in-a-coal-mine sexism test: would a man be criticized for being too serious, for wanting his work to count? It appears Hilton Als does not level that claim against male directors. In fact, in Als’ review of The Color Purple, he praises director John Doyle for his “visionary capabilities” and for “a theatrical world that’s fresh, vital, and unexpected.” Sam Gold is not accused of taking Fun Home too seriously, and in that same piece, despite commenting that it’s clear Bartlett Sher wants The King and I to be “important,” he is not singled out for being too serious about his work.
Now maybe Als took the phrase “fun, laughs, good time” very literally, and just views Sweet Charity as a musical comedy that should be no more than a fun and diverting two and a half hours. Well, that doesn’t quite seem to be his view of musical comedy; he likes them serious and relevant. He was left utterly cold and bored by another musical, “whose lack of relevance ends up being its prime source of interest and ‘entertainment’.” That musical was On the Twentieth Century. He also asserted, “A nostalgia-based production has to have some relation to the present if it’s going to draw in contemporary audiences,” about Nice Work If You Can Get It. It seems the only musical comedy he has recently enjoyed is Anything Goes—he liked that it was made more relevant and gritty (it is worth noting that Anything Goes was directed by a woman, Kathleen Marshall, but he only mentions her in the last paragraph of his review). Even in his Sweet Charity review, he takes a shot at “Tin Pan Alley cheapness or sentimentality,” and acknowledges Bob Fosse as someone who liked his shows with a certain amount of gravitas and sophistication.
But Leigh Silverman is too serious because… If you were waiting for him to back up his sexist claim with some sort of reasoning, I hope you didn’t hold your breath. He doesn’t manage to give one concrete example of how her “too serious” work and her “moral stance” manifest themselves in the production. This is no small matter. He is expected to support his assertions—it is not a critic’s job to merely have an opinion, but to present an educated argument. Meanwhile, here are some things he did have time for:
— Using a cornucopia of sexist adjectives like “stern,” “strict,” and “joyless.” (Again, without any actual examples).
— Using the phrase “woman’s director” and then telling us it’s okay because he means it in “the old M-G-M George Cukor sense.” (For those who did not spend their childhoods reading about Katharine Hepburn, this is still totally sexist).
— Remarking on the physical appearance of the ensemble.
— Using the words “open-chested” and “bounce” in the same sentence.
— Including Sutton Foster’s age for no reason.
— Using the phrase “Foster’s charm is not cloying; it’s as clear and unaffected as her complexion.”
He also finds time to inexplicably pit women against each other by comparing Sutton Foster to Kelli O’Hara who, last time I checked, is not nor has ever been in Sweet Charity. Safe to say, his lack of supporting evidence for any of his claims was not the result of a word count issue.
Now, if you thought his critical lack of due diligence ended there, you would be wrong. While he can’t be bothered to give specifics about Silverman’s direction of Sweet Charity, he plays it fast and loose with the facts of her career in an effort to support his sexist thesis. He manages to overlook any production she directed that doesn’t fit with his view of her: Tumacho, a comedy from this summer, is not mentioned; The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is not mentioned; Chinglish, by a male playwright and with a male protagonist, isn’t mentioned; Well, a Tony nominated play under her direction, is mentioned but only as a parenthetical to a remark about Lisa Kron; and most conspicuously not mentioned is Violet, the musical for which Silverman was Tony-nominated and which also starred Sutton Foster (clearly, a show that would have no relevance here). In his “woman’s director” section he, “imagine[s], Silverman is useful to stars who want a clear eye and a firm hand when it comes to editing out their excesses.” Perhaps, he should have read some interviews with actors who have appeared in her productions, as a fairly universal experience among them is a feeling that her direction encourages them to be more free, more themselves—this is something that Sutton Foster is on record as having said many times. He concedes, “But I can see why Silverman got the job,” which is not only condescending, but factually inaccurate. The New Group was not a company in search of a director for Sweet Charity. This production was conceived and spearheaded by Leigh Silverman and Sutton Foster as a team, then brought to The New Group, something the company has made no secret of.
He also seems intent on not engaging with any cultural context for the production, which is, again, a departure from former reviews in which he bangs the drum for “relevance, relevance, relevance!” There are, of course, some critics who favor looking at a piece of work in isolation (although we’ve already established that he neglected to provide any specific examples to his claims) or who only like to look at the work only in relation to other work, but that seems like a stretch for a man who, again, wanted there to be contemporary social relevance to Nice Work If You Can Get It. Indeed, asking, “Why is this work significant to the times we live in?” is a vital part of criticism, a vital part of musical revivals, and a vital part of this production of Sweet Charity. Of course, by asking the question, “What does a production about a woman trapped in her circumstances, directed by a woman, mean in 2016?” he might have to wrestle with the answer. And that would mean the show does have a moral purpose—and Hilton Als seems very afraid of Leigh Silverman’s morals.
And it is perhaps his rebuke of her “moral purpose” that I find most insidious of all. Part of what makes it so troubling is that he feels so entitled to comment on her “moral stance” without ever saying what it is (seriousness doesn’t live on the morality axis). Her morals are simply wrong and bad. The only nod he ever gives towards clarifying is saying her moral stance is “small.” Small. It is hard to read that and not be reminded of every time a woman has been called hard-working but not a genius; of every time men have been turned to for the answers; of every time a girl was told she could be President only to be told, “No, not yet.” Further, he throws in a reference to “Pilgrim’s Progress,” framing Sweet Charity through the lens of Christianity. Now maybe it’s the swastikas that keep popping up, or the people doing the Nazi salute, or seeing a pull quote about Jews from a Rolling Stone piece on the alt-right that was eerily similar to quotes about Jews from a New York Times piece on liberal college students, but it is hard to see the name Silverman repeated so many times next to phrases about her bad, small morals and not wonder if there are other sinister forces at work (Als makes some questionable, if unclear, remarks about Jews in his reviews of Falsettos and Fish in the Dark, a show he, ironically, criticized for its sexism). We are left to make our own assumptions about what, exactly, is so wrong about Leigh Silverman having morals and wanting her shows to have purpose. It is pernicious both as a statement in isolation and in its execution. And the questions The New Yorker should be posing right now are: Should we have published this review?
On November 14th, I sat with the all female staff of The Interval and watched Leigh accept The Inspiration Award from The 24 Hour Plays. With the outcome of the Presidential election, it was a somber night. But while Facebook feeds were filling with dread; with people sad Donald Trump won, but happy Hillary Clinton lost; with arguments over safety pins; and with people who suddenly liked Hillary so much more now that she would never be President, at the American Airlines Theatre, Leigh Silverman said, “To the women here tonight I beg you, help me and let me help you stand up to this new government-sanctioned misogyny. We must not let this shred us,” and to “Find your voice,” and “Get loud.”
For the last few weeks, the theatre community has been discussing what to do now and what the purpose of art is in today’s world. These conversations run the gamut from productive to solipsism, wrapped in overuse of the word empathy, but it is never not useful to acknowledge the world you live in. I have a conflicted relationship to the idea of, “now we must make great art!” There was a lot of great art made during the Weimar Republic. During World War II, France made efforts to save its art because the marks of a civilization are its culture, but while evacuating the Louvre, France did nothing to save the lives of its Jewish citizens. Yet what are we all fighting for if not for the rights of people to live their lives and pursue their ambitions? However you do that and think that should be done, something that I think spans many schools of thoughts is a philosophy articulated by Viktor Frankl, himself a Holocaust survivor, which is in order to survive—really survive—one must have a purpose. So whatever you do, if you’re going to do it, you owe it to the people who came before you and those who will come after to do it well, do it seriously, and do it with purpose. And yes, one thing that can be said irrefutably about Leigh Silverman is that she has a purpose, both as a human being and as a director—the manifestation of that is her doing her job.
Leigh Silverman has an almost unparelled record of support for other women and other artists in the theatre community. When the world is a scary place, she tells a room to “Get loud,” and then she gets to work. When she says she will stand up to misogyny and she will help you do it too, she means it. I’m not sure that my morality is worth much to anyone, but I do know this: it is the moral thing for me to be standing with her now. Seriously.
For anyone who was equally disturbed by the sexism in Hilton Als review, I and everyone at The Interval urge you to send a letter to The New Yorker at firstname.lastname@example.org along with your name, address, and phone number.