Leonard Bernstein: Prehistoric Man
In the film version of On the Town, NYFOS friends Betty Comden and Adolph Green have the somewhat uptight Ann Miller character lead the gang of on-leave sailors into the Museum of Natural History, where she gets very turned on by the primitive man exhibit. The dancing is fabulous, so is her green dress, and the lyrics are laugh-out-loud funny. But the political incorrectness of everything that happens seems without bound: men are sexy because they are brutish; the sexualized “other” is human but seen as subhuman. If you’ve read the contrarian article entitled “Saviors, Victims, and Savages” on my human rights class syllabus, it is hard watch this silly dance number without your PC antennae up.
But if you pay a little more attention to the lyrics and a little less to her dress, you realize that’s not what this song is about at all. It’s not about the savage; it’s about the even more troubled human type of 1950s America, the man in the gray flannel suit. He has ulcers, and the cave man doesn’t. He has had his masculinity stripped away, but Tarzan hasn’t. This is the same problem that vexes the advertising executives of Madmen. Don Draper, like the Gregory Peck character in Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, is traumatized by his experiences in the Korean War and is caught between the contradictory role expectations of a John-Wayne-style masculinity and corporate American conformity. Madmen is set in the 1960s, but it was written in our own time, and the same issues remain unresolved.
Orientalizing means denigrating by reducing to a caricature in a way that disempowers and justifies domination. But caricature has value when it’s about ourselves and our own way of life, when it leads to an empowering insight, and especially when it’s funny. Ann Miller was in real life a Republican, but her over-eager dominatrix character in the movie could be seen as a zealous social reformer, encouraging the hard-pressed men of her era to take a liberating path more in keeping with their true biological nature.
NYFOS does a lot of this, and it does it extremely well. “Manning the Canon,” an alternately humorous and poignant look at gay life through song, and “Goyische Christmas,” a waggish meditation on the fact that the best Christmas songs were written by Jews, are glorious successes of this kind. I don’t have tapes of those shows, so all you are getting today is Ann Miller. However, you can see a revival of the Goyische Christmas show at Henry’s on December 11. Maybe it will rerun next year at Radio City with the Rockettes.
“Prehistoric Man,” from On the Town