Design by Lindsay Farb

Content warning: abuse, sexual assault

The first time I saw University of Michigan alum Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party” was when I was a freshman in high school. It was a time when I loved literally every single musical I listened to on Spotify, but still, this production excited me. It was my first time going to a theatre that wasn’t housed in my school or dedicated to national tours.

It felt like I was watching “real” theatre. I loved every moment of it. I remember the show so vividly. It explored how abuse and addiction affect each other, and how adult themes can be explored in theatre. As I left the theatre, it felt like I was stepping into adulthood, as being able to watch a story of abuse without being talked down to felt validating as a young person.

I don’t feel like that anymore. “Wild Party” isn’t a story that validates me. I didn’t realize that until weeks after sitting in the Mendelssohn Theatre on Oct. 16, watching University Production’s “The Wild Party.”

This is a critique of the story, of the characters and nothing else. I have nothing short of praise for the actors and technicians working on “Wild Party.” Their work made the production vibrate with a pandemic’s worth of energy waiting to be released.

This is a critique of Andrew Lippa, a U-M alum, and his lack of awareness and inability to update a problematic script.

The story of “Wild Party” was not conceived by Lippa. Adapted from the long-form poem of the same name by Joseph Moncure March, “Wild Party” represents the superfluous freedom of living in the 1920s. (How free were the ’20s when only white men were allowed to vote?)

The musical carries a lack of awareness in the way it represents its protagonist, Queenie. Queenie is a woman who has lived as a vaudeville dancer, enjoying herself through sex. That is the length of Queenie’s textual personality. Instead, the script focuses on the way she looks, describing her with lyrics such as “her face was a tinted mask of snow,” “her legs were built to drive men mad” and even “she liked her lovers violent.” Lippa establishes Queenie as a figurehead of sexual promiscuity. Yet, nothing else of Queenie’s personality or history is explored besides her sexuality. Instead, Lippa limits what Queenie can be as a protagonist, letting the focus fall to Queenie’s abuser: Burrs. 

We never hear about the complexity of their relationship besides understanding that it is abusive. How am I supposed to understand Queenie as a woman when we are robbed of her individual story as it exists outside of her relationship with men? Queenie as a character has so much more internally to explore rather than the relationships she has with her partner Burrs and new lover Mr. Black.

Still, we watch these two men speak for her. She is sexually assaulted in the first 10 minutes of the show, only for the script to use the event as a catalyst for a wild party. Queenie uses the party as a way to escape the trauma she experienced, but the script avoids the assault in favor of focusing on the love triangle between Queenie, Burrs and Mr. Black instead.

How much agency can a character have in deciding to throw a party? Not enough to make up for two and a half hours of men talking over her. Calling her a “child,” a “whore,” a “slut,” a “bitch,” all culminating in her supposedly “poor and virginal” nature, a paradox Lippa is unable to speak appropriately on.

Why does virginity need to be a plot point in Queenie’s story?

Why does a chorus need to sing over a depiction of assault?

Why are theatres outside of Broadway so opposed to the idea of updating scripts? Why do licensing agencies, schools, directors, producers, everyone that controls theatre hate the idea of changing words that have rotted with time?

Why did the University production not change its language for the show? Why rely on a misogynistic script? Why leave the d slur? Why have Mr. Black murder Burrs instead of Queenie? Why? Why does a man have to save the day? Why, why, why? 

These are rhetorical questions; they don’t need an answer because the answer is clear to everyone except Lippa. I feel guilty having watched this musical twice, enabling Lippa to profit off of a script that does so much harm and so little good.

I loved “Wild Party” in high school because it allowed me to see explicit themes in theatre for the first time. Now, I don’t need to see abuse for the sake of feeling validated at my age. I’ve come to understand that explicit themes that warrant trigger warnings must be offered alongside artistic justification. 

Shrouded in layers of misogyny, “Wild Party’s” truth comes from the perspective of a privileged white man. This is not satire. I find “Wild Party” to be an escapist pipe dream for Lippa to indulge his deeply harmful desires.

Somewhere along the line, Lippa lost Queenie as a protagonist, shifting her to be a fixture to validate the male-centric themes that make the musical easier to write but so much worse to watch. “Wild Party” needs to be better. And so does Lippa.

Daily Arts Writer Matthew Eggers can be reached at eggersm@umich.edu.