Last Thursday “About Last Night” launched a new weekly feature, “So You Want to See A Show?” It’s a list of recommended shows on and off Broadway, based on my Wall Street Journal theater reviews. In the listing for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, I described the show as “family-friendly.”
Later that day a colleague sent me this e-mail:
I have to dissent, I’m afraid, from your description of the “Spelling Bee” as family-friendly–at least if one’s family includes pre-teens. When I saw the show, I remember thinking that the “My Unfortunate Erection” song was itself a bit unfortunate, in that the show would have been great for even eight- or 10-year-olds were it not for that out-of-place piece of bawdy. But with it in the show, I’d say that a sort of PG-13 rating is the best one could give it. And even then, I think parents of 13- and 14-year-old daughters might find themselves awfully uncomfortable.
I don’t think I’m being priggish here. It’s just that with a “family-friendly” endorsement, no small number of folks with pre-teens might take their kids, and those kids will come away with a lot of, er, questions for their parents.
It’s funny how having daughters (mine are six and four) hones one’s attentions to such issues.
I think my colleague (who is a big-city blue-stater, by the way) has it mostly right, and I think I know why. Not only am I childless, but I haven’t spent any considerable amount of time around children since I was one myself. Moreover, it didn’t occur to me that most parents would even consider taking pre-teens to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or any other show not specifically intended for children. As a general rule I don’t think youngsters belong in Broadway or off-Broadway theaters, and when I described Putnam County as “family-friendly,” I had teenagers in mind. Hence I didn’t consider the possibility that a song whose title is euphemistically listed in the program as “M.U.E.” would be a problem for pre-teen children, since I didn’t envision them being there. Now I know better.
Where I part company with my colleague–up to a point–is his assumption that “parents of 13- and 14-year-old daughters might find themselves awfully uncomfortable” were they to take them to Putnam County. Indeed they might, but I wonder: how many of their daughters would share their discomfort? In order to answer this question, I sought the counsel of several of my women friends, all of whom were in agreement that no teenage girl of their acquaintance would be surprised, much less discomfited, by any part of the show, specifically including “M.U.E.”
To be sure, my women friends are for the most part New Yorkers, whereas the people who see Broadway shows mainly come from elsewhere. As I mulled over this fact, I recalled a letter I received a few months ago from an out-of-town reader of The Wall Street Journal who wanted to know whether it would be all right for him to take his teenagers to see Putnam County. He’d heard that one of the characters was a young girl who was being raised by two gay men, and that one of the scenes treated the Crucifixion humorously. If these things were true, he wrote, he’d be uncomfortable letting his kids see the show.
I gave a lot of careful thought to his letter before replying. I considered pointing out, for instance, that the gay men in question are portrayed as bad parents–though not because they’re gay–and that the advice Jesus gives from the cross in Putnam County is both serious and correct. (Interestingly, the character who portrays Jesus is no longer shown on the cross in the restaging of the show now playing on Broadway.)
In the end, though, I decided it would serve no useful purpose for me to make such excuses. It would be understating the case to say that I’m not a moral relativist, but different people do have different standards, and they aren’t always predictable. One of the people I took to see Putnam County, for instance, is a devout, impeccably chaste young lady of my acquaintance who asked to go along with me and loved every minute of it, including “M.U.E.” As for me, I left no doubt in my original review that I approved of Putnam County, which I described as “that rarity of rarities, a super-smart show that is also a bonafide crowd-pleaser….a musical that is not merely funny, but wise.” Still, my correspondent had made clear the standards by which he would judge the show were he to see it, and it seemed no less clear to me that it was my duty as a journalist, as well as a matter of common courtesy, to be as helpful to him as possible–to tell him, in other words, what he wanted to know, not what I thought he should think. So I replied that I was pretty sure he wouldn’t feel comfortable taking his children to Putnam County, and left it at that.
All these things went through my mind as I mulled over my casual decision to describe Putnam County as “family-friendly.” Whatever my suspicions about the sexual sophistication of the average teenage girl, the purpose of “So You Want to See a Show?” is to offer aid and comfort to the readers of “About Last Night,” many of whom have children and live in places other than New York City. At the same time, I don’t want to compromise my own standards, or sound like a stuffed shirt. Hence I’ve decided to add to each listing a movie-style rating, followed by a brief description of any potentially troublesome aspects of the show. In the case of Putnam County, for example, this Thursday’s listing will read as follows:
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection).
Perfect? Probably not. I doubt this particular circle can be squared perfectly–but I’ll do my best.