I have mixed feelings about the benefit cabaret “Giving Back The Love Inside” by the cast of Ghost The Musical at The Laugh Factory on Monday night, but one song was an utter standout: Nicole Turner* singing “Random Black Girl.”
The song contains a pointed message about how rarely black women get cast as lead roles in musicals (“My agent gave me advice. / Those words I’ll never forget. / He said ‘Don’t think you’ll ever be cast / As Eponine or Cossette'”) and how frequently they are cast as, well, “a random black girl singin’ the soul.”
The lyrics are on-point; the music is memorable; Nicole Turner is fantastic. As the lyrics go, “you gotta be thinkin’ to yourself / ‘Goddamn, this sister can sing'” – and oh, seriously, she can sing. I thought she sounded the best of the night, and the song was – to me, at least – very obviously the best. It was intelligent and had a real point. (Although I don’t have a video of her singing, Kooman and Dimond asked the incredible Patina Miller to sing it originally, and there are several excellent videos of that online. Check them out – she’s amazing, and the song is completely worthwhile.)
On the other hand, most of the other songs (excluding the song from Urinetown and the Michael McClure’s adorable performance of “Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians)” by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill) were problematic, offensive, and/or of questionable taste. I mean, they sang “Blurred Lines” – and it was clever in that they made a Mad Libs out of it, but seriously? Of all the songs you could choose, you chose that one? There was also the “No Homo” song, the song with the guy wearing a dress and wig for laughs, and “Love My Legs” (which seemed more ableist before I remembered that it was from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and thus that it had context beyond the idea that love can heal disabilities if people want it enough).
Worse was the song “To Excess” (oddly also by Kooman and Dimond, the two behind the fantastic “Random Black Girl”). Lyrics include “On Sundays I’ll unlock you from your chain” and “If it’s a crime to hold a girl’s grandmother hostage/Until she agrees to say yes/Then I guess I am guilty . . . Of loving you to excess.” The guy singing it, Jack O’Brien (a local boy, apparently, who clearly had a bunch of family there supporting him, which was cute), did a good job juxtaposing the genuine sweetness of his demeanor with the over-the-top stalker-ness of the lyrics, but I’m not a fan of making that kind of behavior a punchline.
One of the first numbers was Steven Grant Douglas singing Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s “Sensitive Song.” He was great, but in the song, the guy sings to the girl he’s dumping about how she’s a “bitch” and a “skanky, skanky whore” (and she only graduated college because she “blew [her] teachers”), so he’s ditching her for her sister who “just turned eighteen.” He calls her “skanky” 16 times and “whore” eight times. It’s a catchy song, and there is humour in the dramatic turn it takes (since it starts like a sappy love song and turns into, well, a breakup song, to say the least), but the lyrics are not something I can get behind.
Shannan Johnson sang an a cappella (a cappella-ish? She had the audience clapping and snapping along) rendition of “Baby Got Back.” She was awesome. The song . . . it was really interesting to hear it presented the way she did, but the song itself is rather objectifying.
It’s not so much that the individual songs were terrible on their own (I know that, if people read this, some people are going to say that I need to lighten up, that I’m being overly politically correct and thus have no sense of humour, etc.) – more the combination of all of them. The fact that nearly all of them had some issue – it gets wearing. Also, it rather says something about the state of comedy, if this is what’s typical.
I’m not necessarily against shock value; I do have a place in my heart for a number of songs that are offensive on the surface (see: Avenue Q, with its songs like “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” and my very favorite musical, The Book of Mormon – I don’t think we actually need to continue past “Hasa Diga Eebowai”). But most of those songs have some deeper purpose – they generally have some satiric value instead of merely reinforcing the status quo.
On a different note, I met the two leads of the Ghost The Musical tour, Steven Grant Douglas and Katie Postotnik, during the intermission, and they were very nice. When I asked Steven to sign my Ghost program, he volunteered to get Katie to sign it as well, since she was standing behind him; when I asked Katie for a photo, she got Steven to join us. They were just really sweet and friendly. Everyone in the cast, actually, seemed very approachable and pleased to be there, despite the fact that it was Monday and thus essentially their weekend.
Overall, I enjoyed the cabaret. The cast is composed of talented singers with good stage presence, and they were creative with the song choices and styles, though I wish that they’d picked other songs in certain cases. I do think the show suffered a bit from the musical comedy theme because they were so focused on picking humorous songs . . . and it appears that problematic themes and humour often go hand in hand, if one isn’t careful. Still, I’d hoped to walk away from the show with new favorite songs (like “Flight” or “I Chose Right,” or to a slightly less extent, “Neverland“), and although I don’t have a video from the night of “Random Black Girl,” the song is my new favorite song of the week (except for the slew of Nic Rouleau videos I discovered last night), so that’s a win.
*If I mis-identified anyone in the cast, I deeply apologize. Please let me know, and I would be happy to make changes.