Political Correctness: How ‘The Prince of Egypt’ Became a Sing-along

Twitter cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

I am all in favor of celebrating our differences, politically correct thinking, parking spaces for the handicapped and freedom of speech, but sometimes I think that when you mix all that up with Twitter and the other social media, totally avoidable disasters might occur.

This is what happened with a planned open-air world-premiere concert reading of the in-development script from the upcoming Broadway show The Prince of Egypt. It was supposed to take place last Saturday in the open-air grandstand at Mashashimuet Park in Sag Harbor. One time only. Free.

It never happened. People went. Instead, they were treated to an audience participation sing-along of My Fair Lady. No offense, but it just wasn’t the same.

The Prince of Egypt reading had been put together by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Theatricals in cooperation with Bay Street Theater. Fifteen actors had been cast to come to Sag Harbor to perform it. Everyone was looking forward to it. This upcoming Broadway show version is based on the wildly successful animated film The Prince of Egypt by DreamWorks produced in 1998 with a dazzling cast of voices that included Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Sandra Bullock, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Steve Martin and Martin Short, with music by composer Hans Zimmer and songs by, among others, Mariah Carey. It is the story of Moses growing up in and eventually leaving Egypt. He is the prince in The Prince of Egypt. The film grossed over $200 million worldwide and received many awards.

The reading had to be cancelled because scathing attacks and even threats were rained down on Twitter, Facebook and other social media, directed not only at Bay Street and the creative team, but at the specific actors. The cause? Some of the more rational attacks lamented the fact that this was an all-white cast. It was a “whitewash.” Others said there was only one non-white participant, so this was “tokenism.” (Both were inaccurate). Here was an opportunity, one tweet noted, to celebrate our most colorful world, and it was missed. “Piece is set in ancient EGYPT, i.e., AFRICA where people darker than I resided. That is my point,” one apparently Caucasian commentator wrote. These were the rational posts. But then there were the irrational, libelous and terrifying comments that will not be repeated here that were, well, crazy enough to make the creative team cancel the show.

Scott Schwartz, Bay Street’s Artistic Director, was particularly disturbed at this. For one thing, it was not an all-white cast. It was not even a cast with one token non-white. Five of the 15 actors in the cast were people of color.

“The talented actors who were to be involved in this concert were being paid very little and were only committed to helping develop this show for one night, for free,” he wrote in an open letter to the public. “There were…personal attacks and comments online and in social media against our actors and creative team….The team feels strongly that social media harassment and bullying of artists is not acceptable, nor is it a positive or constructive way to continue this important discussion about diversity and racial authenticity in casting.”

And so there was the sing-a-long. A revival of My Fair Lady is currently playing six days a week at Bay Street, and last week it was announced that, due to popular demand, it was extending its run to September 4.

It’s a good thing that back in 1956, when My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews (a Sag Harbor resident) premiered, they hadn’t thought to call it “My Very Fair Lady” or “My Caucasian Lady.” That might have also been the kiss of death, even to a sing-along.

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