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I’m not sure if it’s the former dancer in me, or the Gene Kelly birthday mate in me, but my all time favorite movie is 1957’s Best Picture winner An American in Paris. It tells the story of Jerry Mulligan, a GI who stays in Paris after the end of World War II and falls in love with a young shopgirl despite her engagement to a stage performer. The dance numbers are captivating, the story has just enough conflict to stay interesting, and it features a seventeen-minute ballet near the end that I’ll sometimes watch on YouTube to brighten a slow or sad day.
So, needless to say, finding out that it was being adapted into a stage production was pretty exciting.
I missed the show in New York, but had the chance to see it last week when the touring production premiered at Boston’s Boch Center. Now, I’m not the sort of person who likes to go too deep into the mythology or content of a play before I see it (case in point: I listened to the soundtrack of Hamilton twice before seeing it), so I wasn’t aware of what was coming. And the stage version is…different from the movie. Markedly so. Significant plot details are changed, some of my favorite songs from the film are replaced with new ones, and the arrangements of the ones that remained. Something I loved was wildly different from what I expected it to be. And initially, that jarred me.
In the early moments of what was a wholly different experience, I flashed quickly to earlier outrage over a pop culture phenomenon that differed from its “source material”: Ghostbusters. The blowback from Paul Feig’s entertaining but distinct 2016 take sparked loud and angry vitriol across the Internet, particularly in the direction of SNL’s Leslie Jones. That outrage was fueled by some terrible things – namely sexism and racism – but also showed one way people react when a confirming worldview is seemingly taken from them. For over thirty years, Ghostbusters had been a boys’ story. This year, Paul Feig and his cast and crew challenged that. I’m going on record and saying: I think that’s good.
Earlier this year, I engaged in a chat that was hoping to elevate the life stories of marginalized groups through a Facebook “blackout.” In the chatter that surrounded that event, someone posed a poignant query that I wish I could properly attribute (so if anyone can recall, please let me know): What do you lose by validating the experience of someone else? I hold this question with me closely as I encounter dissonant or uncomfortable perspectives. As I’m challenged by something unfamiliar, I think often about whose perspective it represents, and how I need to incorporate it into my thinking.
As the stage edition of An American in Paris unfolded before me, with new dance steps, songs, and plotlines, I consciously recognized that a few stories from the original were better fleshed out this way. A few characters endeared themselves to me in ways their film counterparts could never. And I left with an appreciation for this new incarnation of something I loved. Was it as good? Yes and no. Was it better? I honestly don’t know yet. But it was different. And that’s okay. For the record, I feel the same about Ghostbusters.
This next bit’s important, so stay with me here.
Sometimes history needs a rewrite. Versions of the story that we learn first may have inaccuracies, or skew in a way that disadvantages others. And as we evolve as a society, new perspectives arise that should be shared. In 1957, there was less commentary to be made about World War II; years later, more nuance could be written into the portrayal of Lise’s protection during the Occupation. This plot point is blown past in the original film, but is crucial in the stage play- because we have perspective to allow that. There are other characters whose stories were minor in the movie, who got the chance to tell bigger and more personal stories this time around. Jerry and Lise’s love story still takes center stage, but the other plots – namely those of minor characters Adam and Milo – were stronger this time around.
Similarly, 2016 gave women the opportunity to be heroes against ghosts in a time that can (generally) appreciate the power that women have to be smart, strong, and marketable at the box office.
However, there are dangerous ways to rewrite narratives. The examples I’ve cited above are powerful rewrites because they allow more people to tell their stories. They hold up the value that previously silenced or overlooked actors/characters have in a story. Dangerous rewrites do the opposite: they silence, they deceive, they erase. This type of erasure keeps important stories subordinate to those of the majority. As an example, look to Roland Emmerich’s widely panned Stonewall, a film that centered the seminal Stonewall riots around the experiences of a Hollywood-friendly white male, instead of the women and people of color who actually started this revolution. (Want a better version? Drunk History’s got you.)
In a week where readers in the US can’t (and shouldn’t!) ignore the story that’s about to be committed to the history books, I have to say this: we have an auteur who is actively working to expand who gets to tell their story, and one who is actively working to diminish this. America’s pool of prospective storytellers is only getting more and more diverse; this latest edition to the history books can literally decide whose stories have the potential to end happily. Although one op-ed from the Washington Post believes that this story ends well for most of us, I know many for whom that is overly optimistic at best, and flatly false at worst.
November 8, 2016 is about more than deciding who gets to shape economic policy, be the face of the US’s presence internationally, or who gets to pick Supreme Court justices at a crucial time in judicial history. This election has the added power to declare openly, in front of the rest of the world, what sort of rewrite the country is prepared to undertake. Will it be one that unlocks rich, varied, and valuable alternate perspectives? Or will it be the sort of rewrite that not only does little to advance the original, but actively hurts its legacy (lookin’ at you, 2016 Ben-Hur)?
So I’ll close with 1-2 challenges for you this week, depending on who you are: first, vote if you can. To an extent, I don’t care for whom. If you have a voice, use it. City, regional, national scale: get on in there.
Second, think about the stories that challenge you. Think about the people who may have challenged you during this seemingly interminable election cycle. A lot of muting, blocking, and unfriending may have happened as a result; what will those relationships look like on the other side of Election Day? Is there common ground that can be found through acknowledging the sources of challenge? Sometimes yes, sometimes not. But let’s all find one small way to do the work.