Monday, July 16, 2007

One gets by Christine Dolen

"Maybe the most pointed example of what's wrong with this Tomfoolery lies in its penultimate song, the exuberant Vatican Rag. Sure, maybe this Catholic-needling number has taken on a fresh coat of snark, given Pope Benedict XVI's statement reasserting Catholicism's supremacy last week. But the idea that the cast (clad in glitzy Vegas-style habits) is dancing the Charleston to ''popular'' music (a rag) is downright quaint." - Christine Dolen, The Miami Herald, July 16, 2007
Normally, I try to avoid getting into a dispute with a reviewer over their take on a show they've seen. It's pretty much a pointless endeavor; everyone has their own view on things, and they have the right to hold it. It's all subjective; I liked it, she didn't. It's like arguing that chocolate is better than vanilla.

Her basic point in the review is that Tom Lehrer's satire is getting long in the tooth. And I will not dispute that overall impression; maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. That is a judgment you'll have to make for yourself after seeing it. I certainly enjoyed the show, but I am hardly a neutral party; I helped put the show together, and I'm a huge Tom Lehrer fan. But let's face it, these songs were written back at the height of the Cold War. A great deal of history has been writ since then.

But I have to protest this one example she cites:
" But the idea that the cast (clad in glitzy Vegas-style habits) is dancing the Charleston to ''popular'' music (a rag) is downright quaint"
The implication here is that the show is SO old that when it was conceived, the Charleston was a popular dance style. But this is a false premise; the choice of a rag song wasn't intended to be an accurate choice for a song in "popular" style. Ms. Dolen has simply missed the entire point of this number.

So I'll spell it out for her:
  • Rag music was popular from about 1899 to around 1918, peaking in 1910.
  • The dance we know as "The Charleston" first appeared in 1923 on Broadway in the show Runnin' Wild, and was choreographed by Elida Webb to a song of that name written by James P. Johnson. Its popularity faded with the Depression.
  • THE VATICAN RAG was first recorded in 1965 on Lehrer's album THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS. That's some 50 years after ragtime was popular, and 40 years after The Charleston was hip.

So if Tom Lehrer's intent were really to have the Roman Catholic Church endorse a contemporary dance craze, choosing to do a RAG song is already a curious choice.

Unless, of course, the satirical point being made is that the Holy See is choosing a completely out-of-date musical form as its expression of modernism. In which case, the choice of both the song style and the dance step are scathingly funny.

So Christine Dolen didn't make an insightful observation about how the show is aging: instead she completely missed the satirical point that an out-of-touch institution would choose an out-of-date musical style in a pathetic attempt to establish its ties to popular music. And using an out-of-fashion dance step only maintains that satirical point.

Sorry, Christine; this one went right over your head.

And the number IS scathingly funny. Forget NUNSENSE, and SISTER ACT isn't in the ballpark. VATICAN RAG is the Pure Thing.


  1. What? You mean, as a critic who can effect the financial success of a show based on her opinions, has to think about a show before blasting it? I think that's too much to ask.

    That said, Nunsense is a great show and Actors' should do it in the balcony theatre. Margot Moreland would be a great Sister Mary Anne.

  2. I think the blogger missed the point of Christine Dolens' comments. She obviously knows the Charleston was back in the 20's. The satire as you stated in your comment was written 42 YEARS ago. Now I was around then, and I look back at things I thought were funny and insightful 50 years ago, and now seem to me to be quaint. I'm willing to admit that I've grown up and want to explore new work. I think Christine was just making the point that perhaps Actors Playhouse should do that as well.

  3. I don't think it's obvious what Dolen knows at all. What she actually wrote suggests that she believes that 40 years ago audiences would accept an outdated music form as "popular music."

    Yes, as stated, VATICAN RAG was written 42 years ago. When it was written, the music form used hadn't been popular in 50 years. The Vatican is about 2000 years old, depending on whose word you take on it.

    Whether the bit is 40 years old or 4 hours old, suggesting that a 2000 year old organization thinks that a music style that faded before WW1 will help them connect to today's popular music is FUNNY. How do I know this? I WATCH THE AUDIENCE.

    There are numbers in the show that support Dolen's point, but MY point is that THIS number simply isn't one of them. This is one of the numbers that has stood up well.

    Come and see for yourself, or stand outside the theater and ask the audience what THEY thought. I predict they'll agree that some numbers are dated, but then tell you that the funniest number was THE VATICAN RAG.