Respect: A Musical Journey of Women is a theater piece conceived by one Dorothy Marcic, a highly accomplished professor at Vanderbilt University's graduate school of management, a former Fulbright scholar, a diplomat and author, who, over years of teaching, began exploring music as a learning tool and catalyst for studying the depiction of women in society. Her seminars in leadership training that utilized top-40 pop music morphed into a book on the subject, which then became a one-woman show. She eventually developed it into a four-woman musical revue purporting to be a sociological treatise on the status of womanhood over the last hundred years of American civilization, as seen through its popular songs.
As a lover of popular music, a fan of musical revues, the father of two daughters and a member of the post-feminist generation of men who grew up in a culture that supports the equality of women in all phases of life, I expected to be enlightened and entertained by this mixture of scholarship and performance. I hoped to gain, as Marcic suggests in the show's program, "new insights into myself as I watched and listened."
It didn't take long, however, before Respect had me on a defensive edge. The house lights had barely dimmed when a female voice came over the loud speakers, reminding any men in the audience to please refrain from "checking sports scores during the show." Now, I knew coming in that the night was going to have a decidedly pro-female contour, but I quickly discovered that the mild opening insult to my manhood — the suggestion that I couldn't possibly be interested in anything cultural or vaguely "artsy" — was going to be a recurring leitmotif of the evening's proceedings. I also realized that such passive-aggressive stereotyping of my sex was meant as a joke — maybe.
Indeed, as the performance progressed it became more and more clear that Marcic has many issues more suited to a therapist's couch than a theatrical stage. Her alter ego — the show's narrator — readily admits during one of her soliloquies to being angry with men, and it is that anger which permeates the show in ways both insidious and blatant. And I noticed that I was beginning to take more and more umbrage.
For instance, Marcic informs us that both her father and grandfather absented themselves from home for long periods, leaving her mother and grandmother to raise the children alone. She also tells us about an uncle who ran off with another woman, only to come crawling back two years later. So, when she later reveals that her husband died on her, leaving her to raise their three daughters by herself, the implication is unmistakable: He was just another man selfishly neglecting his duties as father and husband.
It turns out that all of Marcic's men come across as duplicitous and self-centered. In a routine built around the 1950s hit "Sweet Talkin' Guy," for example, pictures of men women love to hate — Eddie Fisher, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, O.J. Simpson and others — flash across the two projection screens hung above the set. Boyfriends are only out to get one thing in "What's Love Got to Do With It"; men only want to control and belittle in "Someone to Watch Over Me"; and, let's face it, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."
In an odd twist, the only man that Marcic doesn't denigrate is Martin Luther King Jr., during a somewhat baffling section on civil rights — even though Dr. King's own extramarital affairs are the stuff of historical record.
So, while Respect's singers dutifully and pleasantly coo and cavort through dozens of upbeat song-and-dance routines, the subtext of the show suggests a darker message: Men are bad, women are good. While no one can argue that men have been the primary agents of the subjugation of women over time (who else is there?), it is intellectually dishonest to take songs out of context in order to back up a subjective assertion (the beautiful ballad "As Long as He Needs Me" from Oliver is used to explain how one of Marcic's relatives "gave up her power to a man") or to offer up a flimsy premise as accepted fact ("Betty Boop became the ideal woman of the Thirties") in order to have a straw (wo)man to rail against.
Playing shamelessly to women's need to get even, the show reaches its bathetic nadir when Marcic's character sings the hugely popular "In My Daughter's Eyes," while images of darling young girls flash across the screens. You'd have to read the program's song credits to know that this somewhat kitschy paean to the generational bequeathing of the feminist credo from mother to offspring was actually written by a man, because making it apparent would suggest that males in Marcic's world might have a scrap of warmth or sympathy for their sisters' plight, undermining the revue's necessary undercurrent of seething resentment.
I suppose that I can be accused of being oversensitive, but reverse sexism is still as odious as its twin. I thought that we were well past the age of broad stereotyping of either sex or bashing one another's gender for the sake of solidarity or historical rationalization. In the long run, though, Respect is more a calculated marketing phenomenon than a legitimate work of art, and it really doesn't deserve the "respect" that its creator evidently desires.
It will likely be successful with its target audience of middle-aged and older women, who may enjoy the vicarious purging of pent-up female anger in the guise of an entertaining evening of song. But those same gals shouldn't get upset if, after the show, their menfolk take them for a snack at the local Hooters, claiming they are only going there for the wings and the spicy hot sauce.
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We can all be rich! All we have to do is write a musical that strings together gross, exaggerated stereotypes about men, charge a staggering $38.50 per ticket and pander it to middle-aged white women. Case in point — at intermission during Respect: A Musical Journey of Women, there were three people in line for the bar, and 15 in line for the merchandise — feather boas have a huge profit margin.
The creators of Respect sell their show as a musical tracking of the role of women in society in the last century as represented by the pop music of the time, and they waste an opportunity to be significant. The musical uses the author's life, relayed by the show's narrator, to move the story along. The historical figures highlighted are Coco Chanel, Betty Boop, Rosie the Riveter and Rosa Parks. The latter is presented in such a stark contrast to the rest of the musical that the civil-rights lesson can't help but be seen as insincere and forced.
We learn that the author's mother and grandmother were abused by their men who left them to raise their children alone, and that she herself lost her virginity to a young man who never spoke to her again. Keep in mind that, during the proceedings, women are literally weeping in the audience. As the song "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" (from The Sound of Music) is maniacally danced through, the screens above the stage flashed Monica Lewinsky's intern snapshot. Women in the audience snorted and chortled, punching each other in the arm. Not only was Lewinsky not alive circa 1965, she was neither 16 during her infamous affair nor naive. The bit was just another lowest- common-denominator, cheap-laughs piece of business.
Fifteen seconds of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" as well as Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It" did not pull the audience through the year 2000. And you can't just say, "We went from being the property of our husbands to being the presidents of corporations," at the end of the show and call that a complete statement on feminism.
Respect, like Menopause, the Musical before it, originated in Central Florida and is enjoying international exposure with performances in Boston, Detroit and Australia. The actresses/singers have fine musical- theater voices, and they are well-rehearsed and endearing. The backing band is sound and right on time. The production is dynamic and moves along nicely. The fault of Respect lies in the concept itself, which forsakes the opportunity to teach all genders something, instead giving women who have given up on ever having sex again an excuse to cry in public.
In Respect they say we can be our own heroes and we don't need men. Amen. But I like 'em. Women, including 20-somethings such as myself, have to wonder where in the show is the right-to-choose-for-ourselves reality. One of the characters comments that giving sex and taking it away is women's only true power over men. I beg your pardon? After the narrator character is left without a husband, still scarred from a virginity-snatching, it appears that her only sense of joy and accomplishment comes from her children — not a career or any other option. When she sang "In My Daughter's Eyes," and most of the audience members were beside themselves, heaving, I covered my horrified mouth, so as not to incite a riot involving a hundred $700 handbags and myself.
For the finale, the show's creator, Dorothy Marcic, had to pick one song from the former century that truly represented her journey. In the show, her character disappears backstage. The lights dim. The music comes up. Suddenly, she bursts forth in white go-go boots and a white patent leather minidress complete with a neon-green feather boa, wildly humping her pelvis to Martina McBride's "This One's for the Girls." Then all the actresses bowed during a criminally long standing ovation as women around me clapped and danced and sang along, and again that awkward humping … at first I was afraid, then I was petrified.
(At press time, performances planned in January at the Darden Adventure Theater had been abruptly canceled. Perhaps the public has spoken.)[email protected]