In defence of Footloose
As one of the 1980s film ‘musicals’ which have been steadily appearing in stage adaptations in recent years (Dirty Dancing, Fame and Flashdance being others), Footloose has come in for a lot of criticism, being for some people an example of all that is wrong with contemporary musical theatre. I have both seen and performed in Footloose, and although it won’t top my list of favourite musicals (though my role in it will rank as one of the performances I’m most proud of, I think) any time soon, I like the show a lot. I hadn’t really thought about why until I read some comments on the blog Everything I Know I Learned From Musicals which spurred me to examine why I liked the show – is it actually good? Or does it match my reaction to Starlight Express – awful, but very entertaining?
The comments came in the context of a university assignment asking students to discuss musicals which they feel are overrated, with Footloose being given as an example of a show which is far too easy to criticise. “Is there anyone out there” asks the author, “who genuinely thinks Footloose is a good show?” My gut reaction was “yes, I do.” Of course, my copy of the script was returned to the rights holder, Josef Weinberger, long ago, so I cannot do a detailed analysis, but only work from the original cast recording and my memories. But how to be objective? I have a whole variety of emotions wrapped up in the show (but then I also have emotional connections to other shows, such as Fame, which I would never want to defend), so these need to be separated from the script and score somehow. “I like X” and “I respond to X” are not, or should not be, the same thing as “I think X is good.”
Footloose concerns the town of Beaumont, where dancing has been banned (along with sundry other sources of fun) for the past five years, as a result of a tragedy where four young people died on their way home from a dance. Into this town, which follows the lead of charismatic Reverend Shaw Moore, come Ren and Ethel from Chicago. Ren’s father has walked out on them, so he and his mother have come here to stay with family and start a new life. Ren acts as a catalyst, inciting the young people to rebellion and attracting the attention of the Reverend’s daughter, Ariel. His presence encourages people who have remained silent to speak, forces Willard and Rusty (the obligatory comedy couple) to acknowledge their feelings for one another and, inevitably, gets the law changed. That doesn’t spoil the ending at all, as I can’t believe anyone in the audience would expect the ban on dancing to remain in place by the end of the evening even if they hadn’t seen the original film.
This seemingly preposterous central situation is apparently based on laws enforced in a couple of real American towns, but is redeemed by what is done with it. The tragedy has changed the town and its people dramatically – completely overcome by grief, Reverend Moore attempted to ensure that nothing like it can ever happen again and the community went along with him (after all, “everyone in this community lost somebody that night – a child, a neighbour, a friend”) to the point where they now do not question him on anything. It has affected relationships between the generations and between Shaw and his wife, Vi. The ban has been in place for so long that the possibility of it being lifted is frightening for the adults of the town, and an impossible dream for the young people. These young people are often standard musical characters and are allowed to grow only in standard musical ways (Ariel moves on from her bad relationship with Chuck and falls for Ren, Willard learns to dance and acquires the courage to ask Rusty out and so on), but the three most prominent adult characters are the heart of the show, and are very much real people who experience real growth and change.
Ethel McCormack is a single mother who knows she is not strong or capable, but loves her son very much, even if she sometimes despairs of his actions. Their relationship is portrayed realistically, with the two joking with one another in the opening scenes, and with her being honest, supportive and challenging of him in later scenes. Her pride in her son is evident and her sense of humour is a change from your typical straight-laced film/theatre mother.
Vi Moore, the Reverend’s wife, comes across as a typical example of her kind, following her husband’s lead in all matters, doing her duty by welcoming Ethel into the community and generally behaving as a minister’s wife should. However, she soon acquires depth by being shown as one of only two adult members of the community to be willing to give Ren a chance (the other being Betty Blast, owner of the burger joint where Ren finally finds steady work) and to talk to him as a person rather than as a child. In the scenes at home with her husband and daughter, she quickly displays frustration at her situation and a desire to parent Ariel in a different way to Shaw’s preferred methods. As the show progresses, she becomes braver and more vocal, her character growth reaching its peak at a town council meeting. Here, Ren has put forward a motion that the law on dancing be repealed, but is being overruled by the council (who have been told how to vote by Shaw). Vi says, very simply, “I believe Mr McCormack has a right to be heard.” A simple enough statement, but this goes against the prevailing ethos of the town (they do not speak of the tragedy, but will keep all of the associated rules in place in perpetuity) and is in direct, public opposition to her husband. Vi’s love her for husband and daughter, and her concern for everyone in the town are never in question, but she grows in strength and determination as the action progresses. Usually in a musical, an action which is so rebellious would be accompanied by music, but her simple statement is so much more effective for being spoken.
Shaw’s character is fascinating, and I thought so long before I knew I would be playing the part. He is, in many ways, the villain of the show, but he is not a bad man (perhaps ‘antagonist’ is a better word than ‘villain’). In fact, he is a very good man, just one who has allowed an event to change him and who has made some bad decisions which he clings to for support. His every action is motivated by grief for his loss, though it is not until the very final scene that he speaks of his own feelings. He truly believes that banning dancing and keeping the young people to a strict curfew will prevent anything bad from happening again and he blinds himself to the effects this is having on the newcomer Ren and, more importantly, on his own daughter. In the film, the town’s actions have gone further than he would like – he is shocked to find people burning ‘offensive’ library books, for instance. There is less suggestion of this in the stage show (though Coach Dunbar is more zealous than Rev Moore would probably approve of) where we see less of the human side of Shaw in the early scenes. But as things begin to unravel, his real self begins to come out. We see glimpses of it, such as his horrified “I’ve never hit anyone” when he raises his hand to his daughter, soon followed by his admission to Vi that “I don’t know what to do any more”. But he always regains his control, until Ethel persuades Ren to confront him. Faced with an angry, hurt young man, Rev. Moore is shocked into listening to what Ren says and into being real, acknowledging his feelings, the effects of his actions, and the extent to which his relationships have been broken. The effects this has are profound, and far deeper than him agreeing to allow a dance in town. He admits human frailty to his daughter, saying “I think I’m running out of answers”, a confession that allows their relationship to start a healing process. Later, saying publicly “Vi and I…we lost our son” is a shocking step for him, and most importantly of all he is finally able to say (well, sing) the words “I love you” to his wife. This is a far cry from the passionate but controlled speaker of the opening scenes, from the man whose private grief has cut him off from everyone around him. This is genuine drama, genuine growth. I will admit that it took me by surprise when I first saw the show. I was expecting it to be terrible, but the astonishing story of healing and redemption demonstrated in the character of Reverend Moore intrigued me and touched me. For me, the process that Shaw goes through is what moves the show beyond ‘enjoyable’ to ‘good’.
The original film is probably most famous for the hit songs which emerged from its soundtrack, but was not really a musical, since the songs were not sung by the characters, though they were thematically connected to the action. Most of these songs were integrated wholesale into the stage adaptation and, for the most part, a decent job was made of the task of making them into dramatic songs rather than background music. ‘Somebody’s Eyes’ becomes a set piece which captures Ren’s frustrations as an outsider to small town life very well, making him essentially powerless as the townsfolk sing, move (not dance, obviously!) and act around him, making his life ever more miserable. Maybe too miserable, in fairness – the show does go rather overboard in its attempts to make Ren an outsider. Most of the other songs (‘I’m Free’, ‘Holding Out For a Hero’, ‘The Girl Gets Around’ and ‘Almost Paradise’) fit their moments well enough, though ‘Footloose’ could be replaced by pretty much any uptempo song in the finale. The best theatricalisation of a movie song is ‘Let’s Hear It For the Boy’, in which Rusty sings about her loving Romeo, Willard, to a bunch of girls, while a group of guys attempt to teach her hapless beau how to dance. This sequence can be sensational on stage, but requires a Rusty with a powerhouse voice, a Willard who is both funny and endearing, and an expert choreographer. It really is one of those musical theatre moments where song, dance and story come together, combining narrative threads including Rusty and Willard’s unspoken relationship, Ren and Willard’s friendship and, of course, the town ban on dancing. The number has the potential to be a joyous release for the four principal teenage characters as well as a moment of great comedy for Willard and, obviously, an audience-pleasing song.
In terms of the score, though, the real treasures come in the form of the numbers written for the stage by Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford, specifically the songs for the adult characters. It is easy to see Footloose as the story of a young guy who wants to be allowed to dance, but the meat of the story comes from the previous generation, and they get the songs which do what a musical theatre score should do – illustrate character and drive the plot. Ethel and Vi, two mothers, get the duet ‘Learning To Be Silent’ (the current version of the show adds Ariel to the number, which I feel is a mistake, diluting the situation the older women find themselves in), demonstrating how these two very different ladies have been ground down by life in Beaumont, robbed of any right to speak or think for themselves. The number speaks of resignation and sadness, but also in a way of rebellion – the women are not allowed to speak, but they do not and will not lose what they think and feel. Without this number, the moments in the second act when each of them encourages Ren (Vi even opposing her husband in public to allow Ren to speak) would not be so effective or surprising. The insight which the song gives into their mental world shows us how much they are able to resist and change.
The numbers for Shaw and Vi, the all-powerful Reverend and his wife, are the highlights of the score. ‘Can You Find It In Your Heart?’ is the moment when Vi finally starts to speak her mind to Shaw about his relationship with his daughter, and eventually about their marriage. Her pleas rejected by Shaw, the song then moves into the thoughts she still dare not speak, the way in which she misses her former intimacy with her husband : “Have you lost my love somewhere far behind? Or can you find it in your heart?” The lyrics are a little clumsy in places, but this feels right for a woman who has essentially been robbed of a voice for five years.
For her husband, however, his key song is about his relationship with God. The first time he sings “Heaven Help Me”, he is angry with God and he is not asking for help at all, but rather blaming heaven for any failings he may have as a father. “How can you expect one man to save his family and his neighbours?” This is not a call for help, this is an attempt to pass the buck. Later, however (in the current version), after his eyes have been opened by Ren, and a process of healing has begun, the song returns again and this time it is a genuine, heartfelt approach to the Lord, an acknowledgement that he needs help to do what he knows he needs to. Crucially, the final line of the song is cut off short. This both shows Shaw’s state of confusion and ensures that the actor does not end the song with a showy vocal, which could take the focus away from the character and on to the performer.
This reprise of ‘Heaven Help Me’ comes at a key point in the show which now differs greatly from what was originally seen and heard on Broadway. Originally, following a conversation with Ren, Shaw examined his feelings in a big number called ‘I Confess’ which, after a brief interruption from Ariel, became his sermon to his congregation the next morning. This section has undergone a major rewrite which strengthens the show considerably. ‘I Confess’ is a gift to a singing actor, a chance to really show what he can do and let rip. Unfortunately, it upset the balance of the show. Although it was a character piece, coming so late in the show it was too late and it tended to emphasise the talents of the performer rather than the struggles of the character. It also made the show too obviously about Shaw’s journey – while he and his wife are arguably the heart of the show, this song allowed him to whip the spotlight away from Ariel and Ren, the theoretical leads. An eleven o’clock number should only ever really be sung by (or at a stretch sung about) the leading character. Replacing the song are expanded scenes for Shaw with Ren and then Ariel, the reprise of ‘Heaven Help Me’ and a spoken ‘sermon’ resolving the central conflict of the show in a dramatically effective, but more understated way. If delivered simply and honestly, with no need for bombast or scenery-chewing, this sequence dramatises Shaw’s conflict, decisions and healing process and can move the audience to tears, something which would have been very difficult to achieve with the over-the-top ‘I Confess’.
The show certainly has its flaws, and does not reach the level of such classics as West Side Story or Cabaret, but it does have at its core an engaging, fully realised story. The centre of the show is the verse from Ecclesiastes which Ren quotes at the town council meeting – “There is a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” The freedom to dance in the show is not about self-expression, but is a symbol of the town, and specifically the Moore family, moving on from their mourning. If the intriguing exploration of that idea is not enough to make a good show, I don’t know what is. Let’s hear it for the Moores, the family who make Footloose well worth exploring.