Fleshdance: What's wrong with musical theater?

Sex sells: Just check imagination, innovation at door

Jillian Mueller is the lead character, Alex Owens, and Matthew Hydzik is Nick Hurley in “Flashdance.”
Jeremy Daniel

Jillian Mueller is the lead character, Alex Owens, and Matthew Hydzik is Nick Hurley in “Flashdance.” Jeremy Daniel

Commentary

There are scant few places in Memphis where it’s possible to watch half-naked women on a stage gyrate and hip-thrust their way into our libidos. The vice squad has ridden the city of many such establishments.

But the Orpheum is still a respectable joint. It’s a place where a young man like myself can take in the seductive art of “Flashdance” while sitting next to a woman who reminds me of my grandmother. Neither of us, it seemed, felt too uncomfortable watching professional actresses strip down to their undies in the touring musical that closes on Wednesday. Just another night at the theater.

But within me, a feminist voice arises.

Remember when overt sexiness in theater had an artistic purpose?

The babes in fishnets and bright red lipstick crawling around the stage in “Chicago” and “Cabaret” are part of those shows’ sociopolitical statement — the decline of civilization as manifested in our decaying morality.

Sociopolitical statements are few and far between these days in the commercial theater. What’s left are often banal musical comedies that rely on sex to keep our interest. Gone is the sly innuendo. Everything is full Brazilian.

Look at the past season alone: the pole dancing and toilet-stall sex scene in “Rock of Ages,” the creepy nearly nude park statues that came to life in “Mary Poppins,” even the sexy chorus girls in “Anything Goes.”

I don’t blame the Orpheum. The venue simply puts on the shows that New York producers think will make money out on the road. Sex helps turn a profit.

Which brings us to “Flashdance,” the stage musical based on the 1983 movie.

Actress Jillian Mueller is incredible in the leading role. She sings and dances like a dervish. I wanted to congratulate her after the show because she’s got great talent.

Simultaneously, I heaved a little sigh of self-loathing because, really, I couldn’t take my hungry eyes (oops, a “Dirty Dancing” reference) off her jiggly female parts. For I am a base and savage animal.

Some intelligent people will say, “But Christopher, you are encouraged to indulge in this fantasy of yours. What earns the show a feminist pass is that the actress is manipulating the audience. You are caught in her sexual spell. The show highlights the power of the female body to entice and enchant. It is the performer who is taking advantage of you. It is no different than burlesque. This is empowerment!”

Yes, we all agree the female form is aesthetically pleasing. But have we reached the era when, in order to be a successful female performer who is also pretty to look at, they should all just expect to be “empowered” by taking their clothes off for an audience?

“Flashdance” leaves me feeling sympathetic for women performers in a male-powered industry — and also frustrated that the culture continues to foist upon us this idea of “sexiness” as empowerment.

The media has spoken much lately about the sexualization of toys and clothing for little girls. France took a recent step by banning beauty pageants for minors. American parents trying to instill self-worth in their young daughters fight an avalanche of media pressures on girls — from Miley Cyrus, to the unfortunate flesh-peddling of television shows like “The Bachelor,” to the train wreck of self-expression that is YouTube, where lonely male troglodytes sit at their keyboards ready to bully and berate girls desperate for attention.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be sexiness or beauty in the theater. But I do hope that the storytelling starts to change. We need more female characters whose dreams, passions and desires aren’t centered on getting boyfriends, or, becoming more attractive. We need more Elphabas, and musicals like “Wicked.”

“Flashdance” is ostensibly about a woman who yearns to leave low art (erotic dancing) for high art (the ballet). But the musical plays almost entirely to the low art crowd.

When the leading character, Alex, finally auditions for the ballet school, she does so with one of her jiggly, wild strip-tease dances. No pointe shoes in sight.

It is a story about the triumph of low art. Sex, not style, wins out. Also, washboard abs will get you a rich boyfriend. We can’t let this become the new version of the 1950s housewife.

“Wicked,” “Hairspray,” “Next to Normal,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”: It’s time producers start touring more musicals filled with interesting or at least multidimensional female characters — characters who don’t have to be naked — or nearly — to make us want to fall in love with them.

Christopher Blank is the leader of Performance Club on WKNO-FM 91.1.

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