BACKSTAGE: Sweet Charity’s feminist message inspires director Barbara Tomasic

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Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid interviews Sweet Charity’s director, Barbara Tomasic, on the feminist histories of the production, and how she is keeping the show relevant to a contemporary audience.

 

When Barbara Tomasic was invited to direct “Company C” Studio Ensemble’s winter musical, she was well-aware that her first choice – the 1966 Broadway hit Sweet Charity – might not be the kind of show you’d expect to see performed by a cast of theatre students in their 20s.

The main characters in the classic Bob Fosse musical about the adventures of Charity Hope Valentine, an optimistic Times Square taxi dancer looking for love in New York during the swinging 60s, are a group of sex workers, after all. That in itself, the Vancouver-based director and actress says, is likely why Sweet Charity isn’t routinely produced by traditional theatres.

There’s much more to this classic musical than meets the eye, however – a lesson Tomasic learned after reading works by Stacy Wolfe, the American musical theatre scholar, Princeton professor and author of Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical.

“She writes about how musical theatre is relevant to modern society, and how Sweet Charity was one of the first feminist musicals and I thought ‘Oh, yeah. I’d never seen it that way.’”

Tomasic, a prolific freelance director who has starred in several musicals herself – playing Maria in The Sound of Music and Anna in The King and I, for example – took a keen interest in Sweet Charity and began to look for places the musical could be mounted with a fresh perspective.

Indeed, staging Sweet Charity in 2019 is not without challenges, not least because of the show’s undercurrent of misogyny, despite it being a production that Wolfe has said makes a feminist case for single women’s sexual freedom and financial independence. Sweet Charity opened during the dawn of Women’s Liberation, six years after the birth control pill was approved, after all. Still, Oscar, the “nice guy” Charity falls for, punishes her for her sexual history.

“We don’t shy away from this,” says Tomasic, who is collaborating with choreographer Jessica Hickman and music director Brad L’Écuyer. “They are dancers and they dance for money. There are scenes where they do ‘extra’ things, and Charity says that when she’s talking to Oscar – that it’s part of the job sometimes. It’s one of the only musicals that addresses this.”

The story is a realistic adaptation of what was happening in New York during a time of sexual freedom, she says. The Fandango Club, where the girls work, is based on the Tango Palace.

“It’s about women who came to New York to be actors or dancers or secretaries or whatever and something happened and they ended up doing this job,” says Tomasic, referring to two production numbers that represent both sides of that reality. In “Big Spender”, the girls flaunt their assets, yet they yearn for a better life in “There’s Got to Be Something Better Than This.”

Tomasic was determined not to romanticize what the girls do. On her first day with her Canadian College of Performing Arts cast, she read them Tony Ortega’s Village Voice article Times Square Christmas Eve 1970 with the Taxi Dancers, to put the lifestyle into perspective.

The article paints a picture of desperation during a “silent night, lonely night” at the infamous joint where a dime-a-dance girl, a Brooklyn single mother, explains why she does what she does.

“I said [to the students] ‘This is what we’re doing. We’re not doing a music video version of what this would look like in today’s world,’” Tomasic said, noting it won’t be mistaken for a glamorized music video by Cardi B, the American rapper who has been very public about her past as a stripper.

“We commodify sex so much in our culture. This is their job. It’s not romantic. It’s what they do every single day. It was an eye-opener. We had lots of conversations about the relationship between women and sexuality in that era,” she said, noting the topic remains relevant today.

“There are so many mixed messages and it’s confusing,” adds Tomasic, whose experience as a university teacher inspires her to educate while directing. “It opened up a valuable discussion. Are these values, and this conflict still there? Will there be a man who says ‘I can’t be with you because you’ve been with too many people?’ To me it’s imperative to have those discussions.”

Rehearsals began on Jan. 6 for Sweet Charity, which begins its two-weekend run on Feb. 1 in the College’s Performance Hall. While she says three-and-a-half weeks, including “tech time”, is a tight schedule for a musical, advantages include “retention and intensity” and quick bonding.

One thing she tells students when directing a musical is to stop listening to the soundtrack.

“I’ve seen productions where I go, ‘That’s just the movie,’ said Tomasic, who also advises performers not to watch ‘bootleg’ recordings of musicals they’re doing — especially when, as with Sweet Charity, it’s more intimate and compact, emphasizing story over dazzling visuals.

“I’ll say, ‘Okay, stop doing that because it can’t not influence you, and if you’re listening to the recording every day you get used to that. Or you’ll judge yourself listening to Sutton Foster singing and you don’t sound like her and want to.’ It’s a hindrance for me too as a director.”

After Sweet Charity, Tomasic will resume her duties as interim artistic director of Richmond’s Gateway Theatre, direct Mamma Mia for Chemainus Theatre Festival and do more musicals elsewhere.

“Someone said to me ‘You must want to do plays, too, right?’ she said with a laugh. “Yes, I do, but if all I did were musicals for the rest of my life I’m OK with that. I love them.”

Sweet Charity opens Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m. and runs until Feb. 9. Visit ccpacanada.eventbrite.ca for tickets.

 

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Michael D. Reid

Michael D. Reid

Before joining the College as public relations liason, Michael D. Reid enjoyed a lengthy and productive career covering theatre, film and television for a variety of publications, most recently the Victoria Times Colonist. Showbiz is his life.