I Hate Men: An Analysis of Relationship Dynamics in Revivals of Golden Age Broadway Musicals

Luke Molloy

Carousel. Kiss Me, Kate. My Fair Lady. All considered masterworks of the Golden Age of Broadway musical theatre, all with plot points that can definitely be considered sexist and stereotypical. It is easy for us now in 2021 to recognize the insensitive portrayal of women in media in the first half of the twentieth century, and it would be simple enough to call these shows a product of their time and move on. However, a problem arises when audiences are interested in attending revived versions of these shows, and these musicals need to be updated to serve a present day theatergoer’s palate. Should the script be altered so that unsettling and uncomfortable plot points are removed? Should a production be presented as originally written and accepted as a product of its era? Or has the time come to stop producing these shows in any way, and leave them behind for only historical reference? This paper will discuss these three shows that were revived on Broadway between 2018 and 2019 – Carousel, Kiss Me, Kate, and My Fair Lady – in terms of the environment in which they were created and how that environment is different from that of modern theatre.

In a 2018 New York Times article written by Michael Paulson titled, “The Problem With Broadway Revivals: They Revive Gender Stereotypes, Too”, composer Georgia Stitt is quoted saying, “It’s frustrating that the material people seem to want to throw their energy into is old properties where women have no agency, and then there is the real scarcity of women on the creative teams… are these the shows I’m going to take my 12-year-old daughter to?” Ms. Stitt alludes to two specific problems here – the portrayal of women as characters with no real strength or power, and the fact that the directors of these revivals – and most of the members of the creative team – are almost always men. In fact, all three productions referred to in this paper were written, directed, choreographed, and conducted by white men. It is irresponsible and ignorant to produce shows involving such topics as sexism and domestic violence using only male input, yet that is exactly how it continues to be on The Great White Way.

Carousel is a musical written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, featuring such standards as “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It also features several disputable moments regarding the acceptance of domestic violence. One of these is the song “What’s the Use of Wonderin’,” which Julie Jordan comforts Carrie Pipperidge after an exchange with her husband. The main refrain is “What’s the use of wondering if he’s good or if he’s bad / He’s your fella and you love him, that’s all there is to that.” Julie has already confessed to being hit by her husband Billy, and has decided that, now that she’s married, she is past the time where she can try to change his ways. Later in the show, Billy visits his daughter from heaven, and, upon her rejection of his gift, slaps her across the hand (or in more recent revivals, the face). After he leaves, his daughter, Louise, tells Julie that the slap felt like a kiss, and Julie understands exactly what she means.

The main issue that modern audiences take with Carousel today is with the portrayal of domestic violence. Specifically, Julie’s continued acceptance of Billy’s violence as just another part of marriage, and Billy’s final redemption even though it may be undeserving. Tim Carter, the author of a Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, is quoted in the New York Times on this topic, saying,

It is almost impossible to rescue the show from Julie Jordan’s apparent acceptance of domestic abuse… The only sensible solution — in my view — is to accept the problem and then engage with it, rather than, say, sanitizing the work to remove the problem in the first place. Otherwise there’s no end to it. (Paulson, “The Problem with Broadway Revivals”)
Billy’s domestic violence is key to the story. In another musical where this wasn’t a necessary plot point, it would probably be best to cut it out entirely, but since the story cannot fully resolve without the domestic violence being included, the options are either to stay away from performing the show entirely, or figure out a way to address the abuse head-on. A future production could also find a way to point out the flaws in Julie’s thinking – not necessarily changing her character, but finding a way to show that she is wrong to think in the mindset that she does.

While these plot points are problematic, it is important to recognize the historical value of Carousel. As Patricia Álvarez Caldas notes in her paper, “What’s the Use of Wondering If He’s Good or Bad?: Carousel and the Presentation of Domestic Violence in Musicals,”

Regarding the issue of marriage, musicals and comedies always favoured a conservative view of gender roles, a fact that acquired greater relevance during this decade. The portrayal of the ‘American family’ was at the core of the American Dream, and it stood as a symbol of democracy and freedom in the nation. Although many films showed different sorts of gender problems, Carousel was the only one that tackled the issue of domestic violence so openly. (Caldas, 27).
Even though today Carousel is criticized for portraying a woman who is unable to leave a relationship of domestic violence, unfortunately, that is a very real situation for many women. In regards to how the 2018 revival handled the situation, producer Scott Rudin has the answer: “Half of the great works depict troubled relationships, and I don’t think it makes any sense to whitewash them… We’re going to do it as written — it’s what they wrote, and it’s the truth of the character. Julie does not stand for every woman, and Louise does not stand for every teenage girl” (Paulson). Julie is not a character to aspire to, and neither is Billy Bigelow – they are not paragons of the perfect person, but merely characters in a story, and they should not be interpreted as anything more than that.
Kiss Me, Kate deals further with the issue of domestic violence, and the recent 2019 revival handled its issues differently than the 2018 revival of Carousel. The musical is based on William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, whose title already tells you of how the leading lady is thought. A show-within-a-show, actress Lilli Vanessi plays Katharine in a production of Shrew opposite her husband, Fred Graham, as Petruchio. The two bicker throughout the show, when towards the end of Act I, Lilli discovers there has been a miscommunication and, upset with Frank, proceeds to slap him several times. Fred’s response is to put her over his knee and spank her, onstage, in front of the audience. Lilli is rightly furious! and vows to never speak to Fred again. Yet, at the end of the show, Petruchio commands Kate to “tell these headstrong women what duty they do owe their lords and husbands.” Kate sings her final song, “I Am Ashamed that Women are So Simple”, which includes the lines “So, wife, hold your temper and meekly put / Your hand ‘neath the sole of your husband’s foot.” Lilli and Fred reconcile, and all ends happily ever after. But, as in Carousel, the abusive husband has gotten off easy, and the wife has made all of the sacrifices and submitted herself to his wishes.

It is here that we see a major departure from previous versions of Kate, as the song is retitled “I Am Ashamed That People are So Simple,” no longer zeroing in on women for their simplicity. In fact, a side by side comparison of the lyrics reveals that only 4 of 14 lines are the same as previous versions, with others slightly changed and about half of them being brand new lines by co-librettist Amanda Green. In an interview with Ms. Green by The Interval, she comments on the process of updating material, saying,

I took away the stuff I thought wasn’t delightful, things that would prevent an audience’s enjoyment of it, [so that] you don’t feel that a woman character is condescended to, trapped, abused, or silently taking abuse. I put in moments for her to quip back where there were none. That way you are allowing the audience to have a good time and not be tripped up by language, and you’re honoring the characters (Myers, “Amanda Green”).
Bailey Sincox explains one lyric change in particular in her article “Resistance and Reconciliation in Roundabout’s ‘Feminist Update’ to Kiss Me, Kate,” saying,

Green addresses them to everyone on the stage and, indeed, in the house. She replaces the “weaker sex” narrative of Porter’s second stanza with a more general narrative of human frailty, and threads a new theme of “love” through each of the three verses as a substitute for Porter and Shakespeare’s theme of wifely submission. Most importantly, she makes “war,” “rule,” “supremacy,” “sway,” and “temper” — pejoratives in Shakespeare and Porter for Kate’s subversion of societal norms — mean something new: pejoratives for partisan squabbling (Sincox 11).
Such reworkings of material by as esteemed a lyricist as Cole Porter were not taken positively by all members of the populace, who believe Porter’s lyrics should have remained in place as originally written. However, Times critic Jesse Green addresses these detractors specifically in his review of the piece, saying:

Purists may squawk — though similar changes have long since shown up in feminist productions of ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’ For me, the adjustments, especially Ms. Green’s and Ms. O’Hara’s, are completely successful. They not only reorient the story as a warning to all sexes, but also provide a workaround for a musical that our cancel culture seemed ready to throw on the bonfire of the inanities.
Jesse Green is unwilling to throw out the piece as a whole. His solution here is not to cease any remounting of the musical, but to revisit the material at each revival and decide if changes need to be made.
Finally, My Fair Lady has long been lauded as one of the finest pieces of musical comedy in the history of the genre, while being a deeply problematic story about a narcissistic misogynist who deceives a poor woman into becoming a part of a bet with his friend. As Michael Paulson notes in his article, “Critiques of ‘My Fair Lady’ have focused not only on the show’s final exchange, but on the Pygmalion narrative itself: a man transforming a woman to meet his standards. Not to mention Henry’s bullying tone with Eliza, and her return to him at the end of the show.” Already, this article describes several key issues with Henry and Eliza’s relationship dynamic. In the Lerner and Loewe musical (which differs in its ending from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion), Eliza returns to Higgins’ study in the end, deciding not to marry Freddy and (assumedly) back to begin a relationship with Professor Higgins. The final line that Higgins speaks to Eliza is, infamously, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” This is not the sound of a man who has been through three hours of self-improvement, and it seems like he has not grown at all by the end of the play.

Modern audiences do not feel right about Eliza returning to Henry at the end of the show as it was originally written because it shows a willingness be subservient to a man who shows no inclination towards self improvement. In fact, it was never Shaw’s intention in the play for the two of them to have a romantic relationship. According to an article by Corby Kummer in The Atlantic, “Shaw wrote an epilogue to a 1916 edition of the play in which he reiterated that Higgins would never marry—as any sensible man with a sufficiently rich, cultured mother, he said, would never bother to do. Instead, Eliza married Freddy… His relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.” It was only in a 1939 film adaptation and the subsequent musical that the now-famous ending became a part of the play’s lore. For the 2018 revival, director Bartlett Sher decided that this ending was no longer acceptable, and so, as with Kiss Me, Kate, changes were made. Kummer continues in his article,

We don’t know what to make of the last moment. Eliza touches Higgins’s cheek, turns sharply away from him, and, true to Shaw’s original note that she “sweeps out,” resolutely strides up the aisle, eyes raised toward a very uncertain future that will not include him… In Sher’s production there is no sexual spark between Eliza and Higgins. They will ever lead parallel lives, if always tied to each other by having mastered an enormous challenge together—all as Shaw intended… (Kummer, “How Do Carousel and My Fair Lady Fare in 2018?”).
In this case in particular, edits are easy to make as we are not necessarily dealing with a romantic relationship as in Carousel and Kiss Me, Kate. My Fair Lady can be staged to have the air of romance between Eliza and Henry, but it does not have to be, and Sher’s refusal to show a romantic storyline allows for the audience to support Eliza’s exit without worrying about the romantic ramifications of their relationship. It also has a hint more feminist energy as Eliza leaves and walks out the door at the end, rather than the curtain falling as she is still in the professor’s study. And, interestingly, this is how the original playwright had hoped the story would go, rather than later adaptations which added more romance in. It was always sort of a rule of the musical comedy that the show would not work unless there are incompatible romantic leads that we are interested in seeing grow to love each other. That is how My Fair Lady was staged for many decades, but it could be that 21st-century audiences are not bound to this model and we can start to move away from it in future revivals.

This essay began with a number of questions that have been answered in regards to these most recent revivals. It seems that an overwhelming majority in the theatre want to see these shows continue to be produced, rather than lay on the dust heap of history. Therefore, the questions moving forward will continue to revolve around whether musicals should be preserved and performed as they were intended to be seen by their original writers, as with the 2018 Carousel revival, or if they should updated to better resonate with present-day audiences, even if that involves changing lyrics (2019’s Kiss Me Kate) or even the entire ending (2018’s My Fair Lady). Also, though not directly addressed in this essay except for a brief mention at the beginning, many feel that it is past time for women to be included on the creative teams of every Broadway show, and it was a shame that was not the case for any of these three shows (while Amanda Green’s contributions are applauded, she only had a small hand in shaping the way the material was presented). This kind of work will continue for every show that enters – or reenters – the zeitgeist moving forward.


Caldas, Patricia Álvarez. “What’s the Use of Wondering If He’s Good or Bad?: Carousel and the Presentation of Domestic Violence in Musicals.” Investigaciones Feministas, vol. 3, 2012, pp. 23–32., https://doi.org/10.5209.

Green, Jesse. “Review: A Fair Fight Makes ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ Lovable Again.” The New York
, The New York Times, 15 Mar. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/14/ theater/kiss-me-kate-review.html.

Kummer, Corby. “How Do ‘Carousel’ and ‘My Fair Lady’ Fare in 2018?” The Atlantic, Atlantic
Media Company, 8 July 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/ 2018/07/my-fair-lady-carousel-review/563102/.

Myers, Victoria. “Amanda Green on Kiss Me, Kate and More.” The Interval, 21 May 2019, https://www.theintervalny.com/interviews/2019/05/amanda-green-on-kiss-me-kate-and- more/.

Paulson, Michael. “The Problem with Broadway Revivals: They Revive Gender Stereotypes,
Too.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Feb. 2018, https:// www.nytimes.com/2018/02/22/theater/gender-stereotypes-carousel-my-fair-lady-pretty- woman.html.

Sincox, Bailey. “Resistance and Reconciliation in Roundabout’s‘Feminist Update’ to Kiss Me,
Kate.” Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation, vol. 13,
no. 2, 2020, pp. 1–14.