Whatever happened to class?" ask Velma and Mama in the musical Chicago. The answer is that class has become the dominant theme of Broadway shows this season.
Not class in the sense of style and elegance, mind you, but in the sense of various social strata and ethnicities struggling to either get ahead, maintain the status quo, or keep another class down. A striking number of 1997-98 plays and musicals use class structure as the background -- And sometimes even the foreground -- for their narratives.
Ragtime is most overt in its social hierarchies, as upper-class whites sing of priviledge and use dehumanizing factories and racist fire departments to maintain their position. When a black man, Coalhouse Walker Jr., bucks the class system by dressing nattily and driving a spotless Model T, he's utterly crushed by the forces against him. On the other hand, Tateh, a Jewish immigrant, rises from indigent laborer to riches in the new film industry.
Wealth vs. poverty is a constant theme in Ragtime, from the production number that shows Henry Ford getting rich, literally, on the backs of his poor workers. Or the scene at the train station when Tateh and the wealthy Mother secretly wish to speak but are forbidden to by an unspoken laws of race and class.
The Capeman, too, offers a social system that can be brutal to the underclass. Paul Simon and librettist Derek Walcott stop short of saying young Salvador Agron has no other options but to join a local Puerto Rican gang, but they also make clear the violent antipathy among black, Irish and Hispanic youth. There's even a bit of reverse racism when the prison guard resents Agron, a murderer, for getting a free college education while he himself can't afford one. Moving freely between the rich and the poor is The Scarlet Pimpernel in the musical of the same name, who seeks equitable treatment for all in post-Revolutionary France. The great irony of that war, of course, was that the newly powerful underclass began behaving as brutally as the previous ruling class. The Marivaux based Triumph of Love also featured a young protagonist fooling the nobles and gave the servants a comic number that summed up their station in life: "Henchmen Are Forgotten."
In a "class" by herself was Jackie Onassis, who moved with the Kennedys and with Ari Onassis to live a life unimagined by most mortals. Gip Hoppe's Jackie, which closes March 1, takes a satirical look at the power and charisma of the Kennedy clan and the rich high-life of New York. In the spring, High Society brings the class-crossing romance of a rich girl and a fast-talking, gumshoe reporter. Also the comedy Art has class at its base, with three friends debating the merits of an all-white painting. Is it pretentious to like it? Is it embarrassing and declasse to miss the point?
On the other end of the spectrum, the Roundabout hit paydirt with its revival of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge, about a working class longshoreman making extra money by harboring illegal immigrants from Italy. John Leguizamo's Freak will look at the actor/comedian's upbringing in various sections of Queens, NY, an upbringing he told Newsday's Patrick Pacheco was "something out of a Roger Corman monster movie." The show also covers how Leguizamo would talk his way out of beatings by Italian gangs, and how his mother broke free from his abusive father and raised Leguizamo by working full time and taking college classes at night.
Perhaps the only controversial aspect of Disney's The Lion King is its depiction of a class difference between the lions and hyenas. Lions are shown as proud, powerful and graceful -- that is, natural leaders, who allow the smelly, foolish hyenas to coexist in peace. We're automatically supposed to side with the lions when the hyenas grasp power. Granted, the hyenas end up ruining the landscape through poor management of the savannah, but when Scar is finally vanquished by Simba, do the lions offer to share democratic power? No, things just go back to the status-based, status quo.
Back to humans. In David Mamet's The Old Neighborhood, two semi-successful, middle-class Jews still can't shake the subtly racist treatment they encountered growing up on Chicago's South Side. Neil Simon's Proposals got its biggest laughs when a sleek, seemingly "connected" Italian boy changes the dynamic of a Jewish family gathering at a summer house. That he doesn't fit in is almost a badge of honor for the malapropic but savvy young man. In Side Show, the freaks were made to feel as if they belonged at the lowest rung of society, just because they looked different.
A number of still-running shows from last year also cover the class clash. The separation of classes on the good ship Titanic would be almost unthinkable now, what with the upper decks teeming with food, liquor and dancing; while the poor third class passengers sat on benches and couldn't even mingle with the other passengers -- (though in the show, the Alice Beane character does her comedic best to try). Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the ship's demise is that the Titanic didn't stock enough lifeboats for all the passengers -- because they would have taken up too much room on the upper-class dance floor.
The Holocaust is touched on in three different shows this season: revivals of Cabaret and The Sound of Music, and of The Diary of Anne Frank. The rise of Nazism in post World War I Germany, and its concurrent anti-Jewish sentiment, could be directly tied to the country's economic collapse and need for a scapegoat. Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo takes a look at even more subtle class distinctions: the way German Jews looked down on Eastern European Jews, even to the point of discriminatory practices at country clubs.
Such race and class issues nearly kept this country from being born, as we're reminded by 1776. The "good guys" of the North fight against the evils of Southern slavery -- until the gentleman from South Carolina reminds the smug northerners how much money they, too, have made off the backs of the slaves ("Molasses To Rum").
On a more celebratory note, Rent packs in the crowds with its exuberant look at a culture rarely seen on Broadway since Hair: poor students, junkies, performance artists, AIDS victims, transsexuals -- all not paying last year's rent. Move uptown forty blocks from Rent's Avenue B to Eighth Avenue and 42nd St. and you're part of The Life. Though the language is raw and the milieu seedy, the Cy Coleman musical tells a fairly old-fashioned story of pimps and prostitutes desperate to get out of their situation and have some kind of decent life. Move uptown even further and you get a somewhat fictionalized, tap history of blacks in America, from slave boats to lynchings to discrimination in the film industry to taxi cabs that won't stop for black skin.
Off-Broadway is not immune from the sudden class consciousness, from the race baiting in Goose-Pimples, to the transformation of a blue collar waitress into art doyenne Alexa Vere de Vere in As Bees In Honey Drown.
Since theatre both reflects and shapes the world at large, this heightened dissection of America's unwritten caste system comes at an ideal time. After all, as Tony Kushner put it, millennium is approaching. The irony is that with Broadway tickets pushing past $75, and Off-Broadway tickets regularly averaging $40-plus, commercial theatre can't help but court an elitist crowd. As in schools, media, corporations, and clubs, for Broadway, class is very much in session.
-- By David Lefkowitz