I myself am strange and unusual (and Scheana Shay)
In which I stan the ghost with the most, struggle with the gender politics of “Tootsie,” and admit that my love life isn’t good as gold.
|Louis Peitzman||Apr 27, 2019||3|
The thing about writing a newsletter that covers theater, Housewives, and horror, is that you have to write about all three of those things. I mean, I guess this is solely a me problem: I set up the parameters of High Drama, and I made the decision to cover each area in every twice-weekly post, in part because I wanted to make sure that those of you paying for this got your money’s worth — especially if you’re not a freak like me who cares about all three. I’ve been (shockingly) consistent, but the point of this unnecessary preamble is to acknowledge that I’m about to cheat. There’s a lot of theater I want to cover, starting with Beetlejuice, a show that is just ghoulish enough to fall under the horror umbrella. (If you want your money back, I understand. But I hope we can move past this.)
I went into Beetlejuice with a fair amount of apprehension, not because of the cast or creative team, but because of how much I love that goddamn movie. It’s the best thing Tim Burton has ever done, next to hiring Michelle Pfeiffer to play Catwoman, thereby turning a generation of ‘80s babies into homosexuals. I’m also wary of musicals based on popular movies, many of which languish in mediocrity because of their needless devotion to the source material. I liked Pretty Woman fine — more than most critics, I’ll admit — but it was essentially just the movie onstage, minus Julia Roberts, plus some largely forgettable songs. (I liked Orfeh, is what I liked.) When I heard that Beetlejuice was only loosely based on the movie, my interest was piqued.
As it turns out, Beetlejuice the musical is both a significant departure from the 1988 film and a loyal adaption. Plot-wise, yes, there are major differences, but nothing that would seriously alarm any diehard fans. The characters have shifted slightly, but they’re still recognizable, and there are countless specific allusions to the movie that will thrill anyone who has seen it a staggering number of times, as I have. (Personally, I was delighted to see Harry the Hunter and his shrunken head, because I had that action figure when I was a kid — along with a pull string talking Beetlejuice doll that I wish I’d kept — and his presence in the show pandered directly to my nostalgia.) Most importantly, the musical is visually and thematically linked to the movie: it feels like Beetlejuice, often in imperceptible ways. And that’s much more important than more literal adaptations like Mean Girls, which, in trying so hard to mimic the films they’re based on, can end up falling short.
My first reaction to Beetlejuice was, this show is a blast. And it is a blast, let’s be clear about that. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s a blast because it’s so deliberately crafted: these things don’t just happen by accident. For me, it starts with Scott Brown and Anthony King’s book, which does a great job of making the material more adult without sacrificing any of the comedy. Beetlejuice has always been for grown-ups; I think people forgot that, perhaps because so many of us grew up with the movie, and the character was softened by the (truly delightful) cartoon. But so much credit goes to director Alex Timbers, who is a legit genius as far as I’m concerned, and set designer David Korins. Their collaboration, particularly the attention to detail, has created something distinctive and thrilling — this is what a Tim Burton-inspired musical should look like. And then there’s the cast, led by Alex Brightman, demonically talented in the title role, and Sophia Anne Caruso, whose voice gives me actual chills. See, I’m talking about horror after all. Get yourself a ticket.
But let’s pretend I’m segueing to theater now — as if I haven’t been talking about theater this whole time! — because I want to talk about another show based on a beloved film, Tootsie. First, a caveat: I’ve never seen the movie. I’m not sure if that’s sacrilege. I understand that it’s a classic, but I missed it, and at this point, I have very little interest in checking it out. As with Beetlejuice, Tootsie takes the basic concept of the source material along with the character names and introduces a new plot, but from what I know about the film (read: what I read on Wikipedia), it’s a more dramatic departure. Before I go into the conversation about Tootsie the musical, I’ll start with this: I really enjoyed it. As with Beetlejuice, it was a pleasant surprise for me. The show is sharp and genuinely funny, with several standout performances.
And here’s the but! Tootsie is a tough sell in 2019. This is a show about, among other things, gender inequality — told from the perspective of an infuriatingly un-self-aware man who sort of stumbles into it. The creative team is depressingly male. And there is a tone deafness to the production as a whole, reflected in merch emblazoned with the accidentally TERF-y line “Being a woman is no job for a man.” Tootsie is not intentionally transphobic, of course, but there’s something so frustrating about these unforced errors. And frankly, the fact that the show as a whole shies away from any serious discussion of gender identity is — well, it’s not surprising, but it’s disappointing. Would it be hard to include that in a mostly lighthearted comedy? Absolutely, but book writer Robert Horn is very talented, and I’d like to think he’s up to the challenge. The real solution, though, would have been including women and trans/non-binary/GNC folks in the creative process. That’s not a tough ask, especially when you’re making a musical about gender.
So I’m left in this place of really liking Tootsie on one level, and being deeply frustrated by it on another. This is not the first time that’s happened, of course: I have countless problematic faves, and I believe you can appreciate a piece of art while also acknowledging its issues, ethical or otherwise. But I hope that anyone who asks me if I recommend the show is ready to hear my 20-minute response. The truth is, I do recommend it! I just recommend it with an asterisk. And at the same time, I want good things for this show. I’m fairly confident Santino Fontana is going to win a Tony for his performance as Michael/Dorothy, and he deserves it. And while I know it’s unlikely that Lilli Cooper, Sarah Stiles, John Behlmann, and Julie Halston will all be nominated, I’d love to see that happen. (Can the Featured Actress in a Musical category this year have 20 nominees? Asking for me.) Anyway, go see Tootsie, and decide for yourself.
Since we’re talking about problematic faves, I guess this is as good a time as any to admit something that has been plaguing me since I started watching Vanderpump Rules — perhaps, on some subconscious level, from the first time I saw her on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I strongly identify with Scheana Marie Shay. I know, I know, and believe me, I’ve been fighting it, but watching her on the last episode of Vanderpump Rules, I realized how much I relate to her. Scheana is very much on her own show at this point — it’s definitely Bachelorette-adjacent, which Stassi totally called — and I can’t say I really blame her. No one else seems all that invested in having Scheana on the show anymore, which is a pretty realistic depiction of what happens when you move to Marina del Rey. And so she remains focused on her best friend Adam, who doesn’t want to date her even though he doesn’t want her dating anyone else, because commitment is hard and, more importantly, men are terrible. And she has dates with hot fuckboys that culminate in steamy on-camera makeouts, because how else do you guarantee screen time?
So many of Scheana’s worst qualities are things I see in myself — and I’m going to try to hold back a bit here, because this is a newsletter and not my LiveJournal. She’s not one of the cast members I usually mention when I’m talking about who I relate to most: Ariana, Kristen, and Stassi have earned their spots on that list. But Scheana is a woman in her early 30s who is flailing romantically and looking for attention from the wrong men, all while boring her friends with TMI details they never asked for and occasional tears at the worst possible time. I’m in this photo and I don’t like it. Scheana is someone I root for ultimately, not because she’s me, but because I think she’s someone who desperately needs love, and her fixation on that above all else leads her into delusion and disappointment. Someone save Scheana from herself. I will say that the main difference between the two of us is that I possess far more self-awareness, especially when it comes to my biggest flaws. I know that I’m Scheana; Scheana does not.
When it comes to a profound lack of self-awareness, however, I’m still angrier at RHOBH’s Camille, who continues her downward spiral into villainy. First she said that Rinna was too hard on her about Brett Kavanaugh at their dinner together (if anything, Rinna went easy on her), and then she said that life is too short for grudges (to be fair, this is a lie most Housewives spout at one point or another). I appreciated Kyle saying that Camille “struggles with being straight-up and honest,” which is a much more delicate way of putting it than calling her a fucking liar as she did in one of Season 1’s most electric moments. But yes, at this point there’s no denying that Camille is full of shit, and that goes beyond her garbage politics. I have concerns about the rest of the season: on the one hand, it’s probably for the best that Lisa has checked out and we can try to move on from PuppyGate, but on the other, the conflicts in the most recent episode felt forced. Was Kyle really that offended by PK’s dumb joke? Is Teddi actually that sensitive? I mean, yes and yes, but the reactions are so outsized that none of it feels authentic or compelling. Hey, at least we got a Billy Idol cameo.
Housekeeping: Apologies for the delay on today’s newsletter. Real life got in the way, but I’ve also been taking on more freelance projects, which makes it hard to balance everything. These things take a surprisingly long time to write! I’m making this one free as penance for getting it out late, but I did want to reiterate how much I appreciate your paid subscriptions. They go a long way toward helping me do the writing I want to be doing, which is something I hope I can afford to continue going forward. (Don’t worry if you’ve paid for a full year already — I’ll keep the newsletter running regardless.) And since we’re on the subject of side projects, here’s a friendly reminder that I’m making my singing (!) debut at 54 Below next weekend. Tickets are still available for what promises to be a blast and completely bonkers. Hope to see you there.