Each of the last three musicals and concerts—A Little Night Music, Carousel, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers—have had two things in common: good music and bad messages.
A Little Night Music was an exceptionally good musical. Although arguably too mature for a high school cast, it was witty and thought-provoking. Even more noticeable was its extraordinary score. However, it also contained some highly questionable themes. The most notable of these was the unwillingness of 18-year-old Anne to have sex with her husband, the middle-aged protagonist, Fredrik. This questionable relationship is exemplified in the songs “Now” and “Soon.” In “Now,” Fredrik considers how he can force Anne to have sex with him. Though his plans are humorously presented, he is effectively considering raping her. In “Soon,” Anne promises that she will “all too soon” consent to sleep with him, though clearly she does not feel ready. Rape and being pressured to have sex are very real and relevant issues, whether or not two people are married, and these songs not only fail to recognize that fact, but portray intramarital rape as acceptable. They promote the idea that a spouse owes their partner sex—a dangerous and offensive concept.
Carousel, the concert performed this fall, found itself in a similar position to A Little Night Music—the music was beautiful but it had similarly problematic ideas. As an ironic conclusion to YWCA’s annual Week Without Violence, it presented a highly dysfunctional couple in an abusive relationship. Despite her husband Billy hitting her, the female protagonist Julie says that she must stay with him because she loves him and sees the good in him. Later in “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?” she tells her friend Carrie, who is also also having relationship issues, that “he’s your feller and you love him” despite anything that may happen. These are toxic messages. Domestic violence accounted for 21 percent of violent crime between 2003 and 2012, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. The National Center of Injury Prevention and Control reports that in 2014, about one tenth of high school students claim to have been physically abused by a partner. Domestic violence is present and relevant, even among high schoolers, and a musical that validates and romanticizes abusive relationships as what one endures for love is dangerous and completely unacceptable.
In some aspects, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a lot of fun. The music was enjoyable and the performance was lively. However, it was also the most sexist musical so far. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers centers around seven brothers living in Oregon in the 1850s. The men briefly meet seven women at a town dance and kidnap them with the intentions of making them their wives. This plot is a blatant human rights violation on many levels and portraying it as acceptable, even humorous, is sexist and offensive. The trivialization of the experiences of victims as lighthearted and humorous is disrespectful, and inappropriate for a high school production. Bride kidnapping is an inhumane practice that affects thousands upon thousands of girls around the world. It is still legal in many countries, such as Rwanda and Moldova, and even in places where it is not, such as India and Mexica, it still is quite common and, according to Human Rights Watch, goes unprosecuted. In Kyrgyzstan, bride kidnapping accounts for one in two marriages (2007 Central Asian Survey) and one in five in Uzbekistan. Bride kidnaping is not light, humorous, or even obsolete. Rather, it is a reality that women face all over the world, and making light of it is glaringly disrespectful.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers promotes rape culture and depicts women’s enjoyment in being violated by men. It portrays women as conquerable objects and normalizes the patriarchal domination that is too often shown as acceptable in society today. Directly prior to the kidnapping, the song “Sobbin’ Women” describes the rape of the Sabine women. The brothers sing “Treat [women] rough like them there Romans do or else they’ll think you’re tetched,” and “[the women] acted angry and annoyed but secretly they was overjoyed.” When one brother sang “someday women folk’ll have rights” the other brothers responded with a resounding “HA!” This song not only treats women as inferior to men, but encourages blatantly disregarding their wishes and advances the idea that women enjoy being used in this way. The musical goes on to further promote this message. Rather than remaining angry at the boys for kidnaping them, the girls are in fact flattered by this “gesture,” and go on to fall in love with their captors, later refusing to return to their families and the “dreary town boys.” The brothers are, thus, rewarded for kidnapping the girls. The objectification of women is also an issue here, in that the men are treating the women as property. The brothers often refer to establishing their relationships with the women as “staking their claim,” as if the women are pieces of land. Prior to the kidnapping they compare courting to hunting, again treating women as seizable objects, suggesting that one “cuddles up, she moves away, and then strategy comes into play.”
Yes, these three musicals had artistic merit. They were entertaining, had good music, and were well-performed. However, they also promoted dangerous and negative ideas. Promoting rape, domestic violence, and sexism is simply never okay. There are musicals out there that have both good music and good messages, and there is no reason that those could not have been chosen instead.