A Pair of Nifties: Romantic tension

“Anyone can do anything once” is both the motto of straight-but-experimental college kids and the darkly-muttered refrain of those who have ever written a newspaper column. When you pitch your first column, I think there is a tendency to believe you can write about your topic indefinitely, no matter what. But being able to write a colorful and amusing first few additions does not mean you will not hit a brick wall once you have gotten a few 700-word rants off your chest. Anyone can write an opinion column once, but it takes the right mix of passion, broad topic and Powerade to sustain a column past the honeymoon period. 

Recently, as I had slowly but inexorably worked my way down the list of musicals and opinions I had labored over at the start of term, I thought I did not have that mix. Then I saw “The Pajama Game” and the whole gloriously, awfully putrid romance of Babe and Sid, and it was like I was a new man. In fact, I could have a whole separate column based just on the terrible romances that exist in many shows. So thank you, “Pajama Game,” for being such a half-baked, delusional train wreck, and God bless America.

I sat down with “Rocky Horror Picture Show” Director and Battlestar Galactica scholar Mary Grace Wagner to try and spin some gold from this game-changing, god-awful garbage dump. That is, if she can regain the power of speech. 

“I just don’t know where to start, there’s just so much bad,” she said after the show. “There are too many thoughts in my head right now. So many hot takes.” 

There is something about musicals that can do this — that can mess up your brain like only a truly bad movie can come close to doing. Even then, there is something different about when a musical messes with your brain. And “The Pajama Game” has all the right ingredients: Bob Fosse choreography, the requisite Latin number that, in this case, is kind of racist and the pre-‘60s, pre-equal rights movement logic that makes Astaire and Rogers musicals such a trippy experience. It is that sort of neuron-busting logic that has Wagner and me struggling for words. 

“I just don’t get why the characters do anything,” Wagner said. “There are many moments when Babe [the female lead] is not interested in Sid [the male lead] for various reasons, and then changes her mind. But instead of showing Sid doing something to change her mind, she changes her mind instantly without reason. After the first time this happens, they also then start singing about how they’re in love. They went from not together to being in love in the blink of an eye. Like literally she rejects him and then a song later, and not even a song they were in, they’re makin’ out under the proscenium.”

Romance plots in musicals are not exactly known for their quality, emotional heft or logic. It is a stereotype that the plot of a show does not get started until the ladies are introduced, and often this means romances are foisted onto an otherwise decent story or the romance itself is the main focus of the story — and audiences have seen romances a billion times. Wagner said, “For an audience to really believe a romantic plot, the bar is set so much higher than a basic hero’s journey or other common narrative structure. Like, there’s a reason Mulder and Scully take like seven seasons of ‘The X-Files’ to even kiss. No one is going to believe it if they start hooking up five episodes into season one.” 

Romances in musicals need to be one of three things: gimmicky, extremely high quality or a very minor part of the plot. Because if you give too much time to a normal, ordinary plot with normal, ordinary characters, the audience will check out. “The Pajama Game” suffers from this problem, but there is an added complication. The musical is based on a novel about striking workers, and so the writers also had to make room in the musical for the factory dynamics that play out during the strike. The result is that the romantic arc and the striking arc are both shortchanged. Unsurprisingly, both become incoherent. There are obviously plot points the writers knew needed to happen but did not have the time to actually do. 

“The actual process of falling in love, the making up after their fight, all those plot points of their romance are sped through without showing the motivation behind them,” Wagner said. “What they choose to show instead are the moments when Babe and Sid are doing nothing, just existing in or out of their relationship. It doesn’t make a lick of sense. What’s truly astounding is how with all the time we spend with the characters as they exist in their current state of love, we still don’t get a clear idea of why the heck they love each other.”  

“The Pajama Game” is from the ‘50s, which goes a long way in explaining the cringy parts. In the words of my mom, “it should have stayed there.” But the crappy quality of romances on the stage persists to this day. Wagner summed it up like this: “In conclusion, dumb.”

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