In the Boomerang article, dated June 17, several allegations about the June 15 performance of “The Fantasticks’ were quoted in the paper. We would like to address these statements.
Theatre is a vehicle for education and communication. Watching live theatre touches our emotions and thoughts in a way that we can only process based our own experience. For some of us, the Fantasticks (having opened in 1960) has always been playing, off Broadway and elsewhere; it's the world's longest-running musical, frequently produced, universal in its core story, and typically enjoyed by all ages. Different from the responses we may have to television or digital media, live performance impacts us in a more visceral way. This is the magic of theatre, but as we are periodically reminded, it comes with the potential to offend.
UW Theatre and Dance’s current production, “The Fantasticks,” presents a musical about two young lovers who see the world as a patchwork fantasy based on information they have gleaned from romance novels, adventure stories, and references to works of art. These tropes present stereotypes, and even caricatures, from specific historical periods. The story follows the pair as they discover the difference between fantasy and reality and build a lasting relationship. The play functions as a critique of the lovers’ untested and unrealistic perspectives of the world, as well as a celebration of love.
“The Fantasticks” was pivotal in the history of the American musical theatre, a departure from the excess of the time, and led to the development of future works. This musical may not always represent the overarching values of society or our personal values, but it can help us to reflect on such. We can laugh, cry, and take offense, as stereotypes and caricatures present difficult representations of our realities and ideals, and others’ perceptions.
In their director's guide, authors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt acknowledge that they "borrowed theatrical devices from many cultures and many times," including the Greek Chorus, Italian Commedia dell 'Arte stock characters and staging, the invisible properties man "from the Oriental theatre,” and "the robust traditions of our homegrown American musical comedy."
The challenge, then, in producing historical works is to help audiences to understand their context. For example, we can only assume that the reference to alleged “rape jokes” in the June 17th Boomerang article grows out of a misunderstanding of the two uses of the word in the musical. "It Depends On What You Pay,” the musical number in which a proposed fake abduction of the girl is pitched to the parents as a means of bringing the lovers together, was in the original production "the Rape ballet” and although that word was intended to be used in its archaic sense of “abduct” (such as in Alexander Pope’s poem, The Rape of the Lock), that is not what the modern ear hears. Thus, the song was updated in the mid-1990’s. The girl also refers to the “Rape of the Sabine Women,” an incident from Roman mythology that has been depicted by many early Renaissance painters, which epitomizes the foolishness of her romantic ideals. Other language, such as the frequent use of 'gay' to mean happy, is usually deemed obviously dated, but harmlessly quaint.
The use of "Indians" as stock characters, alongside pirates and bandits, as a shortcut for exotic and dangerous outsiders, is now coming to the fore as problematic. Whether it is unquestioned, as in Peter Pan productions the world over, or painfully obvious, as it was for our audiences on opening night, this kind of portrayal deserves consideration. In this case, it is an actor playing a two-bit actor playing a stock character from his traveling troupe, and truly reductive and indicative: a caricature. With historical productions, we see a “point in time” that is different from our own, and character portrayals that can be painful to watch to 21st century audiences.
While, professionally, we are bound to present works “as written,” and cannot take undue or illegal liberties with a script, we recognize that we failed to provide sufficient context for this scene and the play to prospective audience members. We immediately produced program notes for future performances to address this error.
We regret the discomfort that this scene in the opening night performance caused the Native American students and other audience attending, and honor the validity of their response and their protest. We are sympathetic to their perspective.
The cast and the crew were shocked and saddened, and wished that they would have had the opportunity to have a dialogue with these students. We invite future conversations with all members of the community.
As a department, our primary responsibility is to support our students and their work. In a meeting with the cast members of the production, we discussed whether to close the show because of the prevalence of this issue in social media and the resultant newspaper article, and how this might impact their commitment to the work and their performance. The performances scheduled for the state, sadly, will be cancelled. We want to focus on the Laramie community, provide a time for dialogue and for people to have the opportunity to see the performance for themselves.
The performers’ response was vehement and unified. “As actors we stand behind the integrity of this production. It comes from a place of love. We look forward to sharing this beautifully simple love story with all of our audiences.”
“The Fantasticks” is a show about love – the naive love that sees no flaws, and the world-wise love that comes from a mixture of experience and knowledge. We know that there are flaws in the play, but it contains a message of hope and inclusion, delivered through the simplest elements of theatrical magic. We hope you will feel the same.
We encourage you to support the company members in this production, and if you come please understand that “The Fantasticks” presents elements that are clearly sensitive, but are not intended to offend.