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'The Fantasticks': Is it ever OK to have fun with the word 'rape'?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 25, 2010 - On Wednesday, one day after the Beacon posted an article questioning the use of a song about rape in the musical "The Fantasticks," the St. Louis Repertory Theatre switched to a new version of "It Depends on What You Pay." Neither the lyrics nor the set-up to the song now include the word "rape." Rep marketing assistant Katie Puglisi wrote in an e-mail that the Rep is not using the substitute song, "Abductions," but an alternate version of "It Depends on What You Pay" supplied by author Tom Jones.

"So the song melody stays the same," Puglisi said. "There also is a slightly different dialogue lead into the song that Tom has written to take care of the set up of the story."

Read the Beacon's earlier story below.

A gaggle of young teenage girls, practicing being grownups, giggled as they tottered on much-too-high heels into opening night of "The Fantasticks," presented by the St. Louis Repertory Theatre. Their excitement portended a magical evening. But about halfway through the first act, one might wonder if their parents had misgivings about the choice of play.

"The Fantasticks," the world's longest-running musical, is a love story about Luisa, 16, and Matt, the 20-year-old boy next door, whose romance is secretly orchestrated by their respective fathers, Bellomy and Hucklebee. (It is currently playing on the Mainstage at the Rep through April 11.) Five songs in, the two men and the dashing El Gallo plan the staged kidnapping of Luisa and share a whimsical song about rape. 

"Why invite regret when you can get the sort of rape you'll never forget?" they belted out in "It Depends on What You Pay." (Click here to see song.) 

"Romantic rape ... gothic rape ... drunken rape ... polite rape ... rape with Indians, a very charming sight," are all scenarios the trio gleefully considers.

"If it were a type of violence that leaves most men vulnerable -- simply by virtue of them being male-bodied -- would they still use this language?" asked Ellen Reed, executive director of Lydia House, a resource for abused women.

Rep says number approved by women

A caveat underscored by Rep artistic director Steven Woolf is that after El Gallo first uses the word "rape" -- and before the song is sung -- the actor explains the word's meaning is taken from an archaic definition, "to abduct," as in the poem "The Rape of the Lock."

Still, the double entendre is clear. It's not difficult to imagine that when Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones wrote the music and words 50 years ago, they did so with a schoolboy "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" mindset, laughing at their own cleverness. For four decades, Broadway audiences went along with the joke.

In 1990, following growing public consciousness about rape, the musical team wrote a replacement song, "Abductions." Now, the license to produce the play allows theaters to use either tune. Currently, the Off-Broadway production does not include "It Depends on What You Pay" and its repetitive use of the word "rape."

Before Woolf decided to include the song, he consulted a few women in his life who he called "sensitive to both language and women's issues." "Is this going to make [the audience] run screaming out of the theater?" Woolf wondered. The women assured him it was more than OK, even necessary, to include the number.

"'Abduction' is just not a very good song," Woolf said.

According to Woolf, there have been no complaints. And for the record, the opening night audience applauded "It Depends on What You Pay" as loudly, if not more so, than any other number.

Misstep was the set, not the song?

In 2005 New Line Theatre artistic director Scott Miller also chose to use "It Depends on What You Pay" in his production of "The Fantasticks."

"If the word 'rape' makes some people uncomfortable, I'm not sure that's such a terrible thing," Miller said. "Sometimes good theatre makes you uncomfortable."

The Rep's misstep, according to Miller, may have been its use of contemporary clothing and props in a show that has traditionally been set in a time long ago.

"'It Depends on What You Pay' is easier to take in the context of a fable because it allows us to more easily accept archaic words and ideas," Miller said. "But give the fathers a weed whacker and it becomes much harder to step back from the contemporary meaning of 'rape.'"

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Opinions differ among those who work with women

Kathleen Hanrahan, director of the YWCA St. Louis Regional Sexual Assault Center, has not seen the Rep performance but said "The Fantasticks" is one of her favorite plays. She saw it for the first of numerous times as a college freshman. Thinking back on how she perceived the word rape in "It Depends on What You Pay," Hanrahan doesn't recall that it stood out.

"My gut reaction is that it got lost in the context of the show. It quickly became about the goofy abduction to orchestrate the heroism of the boy and the vulnerability of the girl," Hanrahan said.

Nowadays, Hanrahan said it's probably harder for audiences to accept: "Obviously, this is such a serious topic today." But she underscored the fact that the script explains away the sexual assault definition of rape in the song. 

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"It does not call for what we would term an actual rape; it calls for a kidnapping and a comic kidnapping at that," Hanrahan said. "If you looked in the dictionary the first definition you would get is 'abduction.'"

But, says Reed, the word's more common meaning makes inclusion of the song inexcusable.

"It is of deep concern that using the word 'rape' to define anything other than what we understand to be the devastating power and violence of sexual assault minimizes the reality faced by far too many victims -- most typically women and children," Reed said. "The lyricists got it; they responded to the public's discomfort and wrote new lyrics." 

The musical's best-known song urges us to "Try to remember a time in September..." Remembering the play's love story and lively dance numbers, including the fathers' passionate flamenco employing the weed whacker and a garden hose, brings up pleasant thoughts. But for some, it's hard to forget the show's lighthearted treatment of a term that defines an egregious assault.

"Why would anyone choose to use language that is so offensive and that so minimalizes the violence?" Reed wondered.

Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer who regularly reports on the St. Louis area theater scene in the Beacon.

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