Why, First Date, why?

This response was written about a preview performance of First Date I saw in March. I fully acknowledge the play may have changed over the preview process, but I’m assuming the bulk of the writing did not, which is really my only problem with the play. 

I’m disappointed in you. You know who you are. You are the people who wrote the book and lyrics for ACT’s new musical First Date. You are the people who decided that writing a new musical didn’t need interesting revelations about dating, or evolution of communication between men and women, or character development. No. Not you. You decided to pull out every painful stereotype and cliché paired with catchy music for a truly depressing array of insipid inanity.

I have been told that I hate fun. This is not true. I party. I dance. I crack inappropriate jokes at awkward times. I like stand-up. I barbecue. I do not hate fun; I hate stupidity. There’s a difference. I enjoy smart humor and witty dialogue. I will admit that musicals are not my favorite thing in the world. However, because I grew up on musicals, I can appreciate them for what they are while hoping that they will continue to evolve to tell better stories rather than stick with tropes that worked 100 years ago.

I had high hopes for First Date: The Musical. For one thing, I love ACT. I like that they bring in new work and that a good portion of that new work is local. I like that they are pushing beyond the same tired shows over and over again (I’m looking at you, Glass Menagerie). But I am horrified First Date could be put on stage in 2012. Because I want all theatre to aspire for greater truth, even if that greater truth is just a new way to tell a love story in a funny and compelling manner, I feel this needs to be said. I would also like to note that I know I’m not their target audience. I know they didn’t care if I liked it. They knew the general population would, or at least hoped they would, and judging by the reviews and the people I sat with in the audience that night, they were right.

Brief synopsis: Aaron and Casey are set up on a blind date by mutual friends. Aaron is a comically nerdy numbers guy, while Casey is the artsy one. (Because why bother doing something different when you can pull out the old standby?) Throughout the date they have to battle the voices of their exes and best friends to figure out if this relationship is worth pursuing.

What I liked about the show:

  • Strong singing skills. Even when I hated what the songs were saying, they sounded great.
  • Overall talented ensemble including director, actors, designers, musicians, etc. Your efforts made the piece bearable.
  • Music was compelling and catchy. I defy you to get “Bail Out” out of your head.
  • Choreography and staging was fun, energetic, and sometimes truly creative. They used the space well.
  • Using friends as devices to force Aaron and Casey to air their hangups was a nice framework, and was the perfect structure to highlight the thoughts of the two daters.
  • The premise of a first date is perfect fodder for a musical.

Considering there was a lot of good, it’s hard for me to describe what followed. But the problem stemmed entirely from moronic writing and easy laughs based on tired clichés and stereotypes about how men and women don’t understand each other. If the writing had been better, this show would have been an entertaining night of theatre at the very least.

I will preface these next lists by saying had the play done only a few of these things, it would not have been awful. But feeling the need to do them all in succession and seemingly without any thought toward the implications made for a thoroughly aggravating experience.

Clichés:

  • Aaron’s ex left him at the altar. They tried to make this not the same thing you see only in sitcoms by instead saying that he was left at that the chuppah. Now that’s comedy.
  • The homosexual male best friend of Casey calls her “bitch,” “slut,” and “whore” on every phone message he leaves because that’s the only type of homosexual ever to get stage or screen time.
  • Casey wants to order a burger, but instead orders a salad. They try to turn this into relevancy by saying that Aaron really wants to order a salad, but he orders a burger. I bet you can’t guess what happens next. Yup, that’s right. They switched plates. How would anyone see that coming?!
  • Casey is a photographer but hasn’t actually taken photographs in many years because she’s afraid of being bad at it and revealing too much of herself. She’s essentially a self-defeating stereotype of a woman too afraid to commit to anything because she’s got abandonment issues. Groan.
  • By the end of the show we don’t know much about the characters, which could be fitting into the first date model. However, because they bring Casey’s therapist on stage to talk about her daddy issues, and Aaron reads a letter from his dead mother, I would think that having some more character development would be in order.
  • Casey’s sexual history comes up and surprise, surprise, she’s not a virgin. And because she’s had sex with more than one person her whole life, it’s insinuated that she’s a slut. In fact, the first slut joke comes about 10 minutes into the show. I’d also point out that his sex history is not discussed. We only know that he dated the ex-fiance. His sexual history is not up for debate; why is hers?
  • A biological clock ticks for Casey. Seriously.

Desperate attempts to make this show seem relevant:

  • Song about Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. and how you can’t escape it. Sorry, I live now. Who doesn’t know this?
  • Song about who pays for the check. Did you know that the reason men and women don’t know what to do about the check is because of feminism? Well, I’m glad there was a song to point that one out for me. God. Aren’t feminists the worst?
  • Joke about Newt Gingrich, or some other prominent republican possibly winning the election. Granted no one wants that.

Okay, now we get to the overall message the show tried to push. Here are the unpleasant stereotypes it could not see beyond. I’d again like to say, that had only a few of these happened, this would not have been that bad. But all of these combined to form one production. In 2012.

Stereotypes about women:

Women hate their bodies. In the first song, within the first verse, we hear a woman complain about her body. I believe it was something about her thighs, but there were so many negative things women said about their bodies that it’s hard to remember which came first. After this incident, it was moment after moment of fat-shaming, or negative body image. Casey professes to love her body and not be ashamed to order the burger she really wants because she’s so “tough,” “artsy,” and “edgy” (these are also the only words Aaron ever uses to describe her). But Casey is convinced to order a salad by her best friend (voice in her head) because she’s single and will always be single if she orders that burger because the man will see it as a portent for things to come. There were many more moments, small and subtle as they always are, smugly insinuating that no matter how we may protest to love our bodies, we are actually all insecure little girls thinking this dress makes us look fat. There was also a particularly disturbing moment when Aaron rants about his ex. While some of that song depicts horrible actions the ex did while they were in a relationship, he spends significantly more time describing problems with her body and sexuality, like her growing double chin, chunky thighs, and her ineptitude at sex because she didn’t worship his penis.

Women love bad boys because bad boys treat them poorly. Oh yeah. Women love them some bad boys. Especially when they forget their birthdays, rip them off, cheat, disappear for days, etc. They can’t get enough of that because bad boys have big penises (yes, they sang that).

Women have daddy issues. After the bad boy song, Casey decides she doesn’t want to date Aaron because he is not a bad boy and women only want bad boys, ladies. As she’s about to leave Best Friend intervenes asking Casey what her therapist says about “all this”. So, Casey sings about how Mommy and Daddy never loved her, and though both her mother and father are mentioned in the song, clearly it’s Daddy’s love she’s seeking. Cause women can’t ever be women without some Daddy issues. It’s also probably why we like bad boys.

Women are a slave to the biological clock. We can’t help it. The clock ticks (in this show the clock actually ticked). We need a man. We need babies. Cause we’re not getting any younger. So, why not settle? Huh? Come on. He’s nice. He has a good job. Isn’t that enough? Apparently, yes it is.

Stereotypes about men:

Men don’t understand women. We are largely getting this story from Aaron’s perspective. Even though we can take rides in both Casey and Aaron’s heads, make no mistake, this show is about Aaron. And Aaron thinks women are tricky. Women are complicated. Women don’t know what they want. And he thinks this because he’s a man and that’s what men think, right? Dear writers of this show: all people are complicated and difficult to figure out. It’s not about how men don’t understand women, or that women don’t understand men. It’s that sometimes we don’t understand ourselves and that makes it harder to empathize with anyone who’s doing something differently than we would. But that’s not nearly as funny as the same, “God, women are so complicated! What am I going to do? [laugh track]”

Heterosexual men can be conned into doing anything if you call them gay. Want to know how Aaron’s best friend (voice in his head) convinces him to order that burger? Calling him gay. Yup. That’s how you do it. Because homosexual men aren’t manly, right? They don’t order burgers. They only eat salads. Because women only eat salad, and gay men are essentially women. Facepalm.

Homosexual men are all limp-wristed and effeminate. There was one gay man in this show until the end. I was willing to excuse the token effeminate gay male because there were so many other things to be mad about (like no mention of queer women at all) but when the gay best friend shows up to the bar to find Casey, who does he find but another effeminate gay man! And who are the voices in their heads? Effeminate gay men! All with limp-wrists and lisps! Yay! See, we’re cultured! We know what gay men are like.

Men have issues because of Mom. Aaron has issues because his mom was so “career-driven” and busy at work that she didn’t spend any time with him at home. This is something that is said on stage in 2012 in a CONTEMPORARY musical. Moms man, they’re the worst. Amirite? What I’m assuming is the writers had originally done a “Cats and the Cradle” thing with Aaron’s backstory, but then someone had the brilliant idea of changing it from Dad to Mom because that will make the play feel more “real,” and then NO ONE THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT THAT WOULD SAY. I am giving them the benefit of the doubt. I’m thinking maybe they just didn’t think about it, instead of actively saying to themselves, “Yeah. Moms with careers suck. They don’t spend time with their children.” Do you know how vitriolic the words he used about this situation sounded? His mom was too busy with her career after sacrificing her body to birth him that she missed a couple of his home games. I’m so sorry your mother wanted to work. That must have been devastating for you.

At that point, there was no hope left for me liking this musical. Believe me when I say that there was more than what I’ve written here. More un-insightful jokes. More gross depictions of men and women. I wish I did like it. No. That’s not right. I wish they had written something smart. I wish they had written something that would flip theses stereotypes into something new, that would comment on how dating culture is bizarre, awkward, and yes, funny. I wish they had written something that balked at cliché instead of going for the easy laugh, that actually dared to talk about the difficulty of human connection. I firmly believe you can do this with humor, because you know what? People are funny without resorting to the same “Let’s get laid” jokes that permeate the romcom and in part, this musical. But no. That would not be the story the writers of First Date wanted, because that would have assumed that audiences wouldn’t find jokes about how women and men don’t understand each other funny.

 

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