Watching The Pajama Game in 2019
My husband and I are watching Fosse/Verdon.
I felt very old writing that sentence. This idea that (1) I’m married and (2) we stay in some nights watching a miniseries on FX about 1960s - 1980s Broadway — a miniseries that I’m sure only Lin-Manuel Miranda and my grandmother watch. And last I checked, my grandmother wasn’t all that motivated to find the show either. It’s a niche show, one that requires me to pause every five minutes and explain. “They’re in rehearsal for Pippin.” “Those are the opening notes of Sweet Charity.”
Only I’m not that kind. Instead I shout “Sweet Charity!!!” as J patiently rewinds. Or I monologue about why Pippin is one of my favorite musicals of all time as he pauses, gets up for more water, and asks me if we can just keep watching.
A minute ago, I said that we stay in some nights. The more accurate statement is this: we stay in most nights. Most nights, I’m very tired and unable to cope with the fact that I don’t have the energy, the drive, or the desire to leave my apartment. But more than anything, we stay in most nights because Fosse/Verdon — and the subsequent musicals this show inspires us to watch — is generating some of the most fruitful conversations about life and art that J and I have ever had.
Maybe I should have titled this blog post “Watching Fosse/Verdon in 2019.”
What started out as a happy auxiliary component of our Fosse/Verdon adventure has now become endlessly frustrating. We’re watching Bob Fosse’s shows in between episodes — the ones that have been documented, at least. And it all started with The Pajama Game, a movie that I borrowed from my grandma during my California visit last month. I had a strong memory of borrowing that same DVD when I was in high school, totally oblivious to the workplace sexual harassment that permeates this entire plot, not to mention the laughed off sexism and racism.
Is it possible to watch a dance-heavy show with your eyes closed?
The Pajama Game hinges on this idea that there’s no HR at Sleep Tite. No, sir. But there is a “grievance committee” and she’s not a committee at all. She’s Doris Day! And despite seeming solely responsible for negotiating workplace violence and employee disputes, she can’t see the harassment happening right in front of her eyes: first with the incredibly violent, clearly alcoholic, endlessly jealous Vernon Hines and second with the new superintendent, Sid Sorokin.
Um, guys. Vernon Hines marries his victim at the end of this movie. And Sid Sorokin, after days — months? Time is weird in this movie — of hounding Doris Day’s character (who, despite having the given name Katherine, goes by the nickname “Babe”) and distracting her from her job, also ends the movie married to his conquest. Or, at the very least, he’s sleeping with her with the entire factory’s knowledge. And not in a pajama way, if you catch my drift.
“They can never do this musical again.”
That’s the review J gave the 1957 movie. “Every single song has a problem with it. They’d have to rewrite the entire thing.” Only here’s the reality: this musical is produced constantly — and with every lyric intact. As I write this, there are nineteen upcoming productions scheduled, many of them at high schools. There are teenagers training to run the gamut of abuse, from the subtle Sid to the obvious Hines.
Horrible musicals don’t make horrible people. If I believed that, every play I wrote would be sunshine and roses, models of upstanding citizenry. But laughing off abuse in any medium can’t be great. And modeling power with songs like “I’ll Never be Jealous Again” and “Once-A-Year Day!” — songs that telegraph that women belong to men or that inappropriate behavior toward coworkers is okay (as long as it only happens once-a-year!) — without questioning the sexism that lies in the root of each note, each lyric, each line of dialogue? That’s where my problem with The Pajama Game begins.
“I wonder if this is where Bob Fosse learned how to be a dick.”
Like I said, we’re watching this biopic of a miniseries. The man was a horrible horrible person and the series isn’t sugar coating any of it. But J, watching the credits roll, came up with his own theory. “More likely: he taught them that all of this behavior was totally okay.”
Now that I’ve had a little time to muse on this disappointing artifact from my teenage years, now that I’ve come to grips with the fact that “There Once Was a Man” isn’t an aspirational love song after all, I’ve come up with a new theory: Bob Fosse wasn’t teaching or learning. Instead, he was operating in a world that said, “You’re right. You’re right. You’re 100% right.”
A few days after watching this movie, I stumbled upon this album in my record collection.
I was looking for Pippin, which I guess I don’t actually own. Instead, I found this: an image that paints Babe Williams as a submissive, shamed, and scantily clad employee, oogled and glared at by six powerful men. These writers knew what they were creating. They were writing a total musical fantasy, one based in workplace reality. If a single woman wants to work — if she needs a job in order to support herself — she has to be willing to put up with a few jokes. She can’t be so sensitive. That’s just how it is. That’s just how it’s always been.