My American in-laws and I had the pleasure of seeing the Chicago production of Kinky Boots yesterday. Those in the U.K. would know the title as the 2005 movie based upon the true story of a man who inherited his father’s shoe factory in Northamptonshire and turned to making footwear for drag queens and transvestites to save the company from going under. Well, what I saw was the Tony-award winning musical crafted in the hands of Cyndi Lauper’s music and lyrics and Harvey Fierstein’s dialogue.
I started to panic when one of the actors came on the stage, in character, and performed a monologue on his cell phone about how he had to go to work in the shoe factory and the audience needed to shut their phones down. It would have been really clever, if there weren’t slips in the accent punctuated with a distinctive honk in his voice when he said “wanker”. It only got worse from there. What I heard afterwards was a cacophony of various approximations of English accents. Some of the actors did their homework. Others weren’t up to the challenge.
And I am sure some of you are asking why I am being so picky. Well, let me explain. The characters were supposed to be born and raised in Northamptonshire, and they occasionally travelled to London as a counterpoint. So, this was not a musical that could be just set anywhere. It wasn’t something like Shakespearean play that could be molded into different settings. There was a lot emphasis about how they were in a “small town” of Northampton with a dying shoe industry. (It’s only a city of 212,000 people. Lauper and Fierstein did not get a good enough grip on England to get their facts straight and build up the tension of what was going on. It made me wish Eddie Izzard was part of the project.) If these characters are flittering around with their voices, how am I supposed to believe the story they are telling, when I have lived amongst the real people?
My fellow Americans, imagine sitting in a theater in London, and you are seeing a musical set in Atlanta cast with British actors. Let’s say this a musical where the setting and context is crucial, say the Civil Rights era. Imagine what you hear is some of the actors sounding like Cooter from the Dukes of Hazzard after downing a fifth of Jack. Others have the Midwestern neutral accent that you hear on the national newscasts, but quite a few of them regress back into their regular regional voices every third word. Meanwhile, there are the few gems who nail it, and you just want to run onto the stage and kiss them. That was my experience yesterday.
Maybe the best thing we can call this is Dick Van Dyke Syndrome. In the U.K., the benchmark of an American doing a shite English accent is Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Everyone else is measured against him. Even the Boffin asked me, “Were they as bad as Dick Van Dyke?” when I gave my review. For the record, some of them were better. Some of them were worse.
I am only discussing theater, but we can certainly extrapolate this point into movies and TV. And we have heard our fair share of British actors who have mangled American accents. Exhibit A: Sean Connery in The Untouchables. You mean to tell me he was supposed to be Chicago Irish when Chicago permeated every pore of that movie? Exhibit B: Ewan MacGregor in Big Fish. His deep Alabama drawl is absolutely pathetic in comparison to Albert Finney’s older version of the same character. It somewhat undercuts the credibility of the story. Of course, the bad accents did not completely ruin the movies, but having the main actors nail the accents would have improved them.
I know I am being negative about the whole accent business, but I promise you I wasn’t sitting through the whole show stewing about the voices. Trust me, the choreography by Jerry Mitchell and the musical numbers were fantastic everything you want from Broadway. In fact, I told my in-laws I wanted Kinky Boots to be a rock-n-roll opera to avoid the accent issue entirely. I am just thinking that those extra details would have made the experience better for me, especially since my in-laws treated me to a very expensive theater ticket. I felt guilty that I wasn’t getting their money’s worth.
But I am in the minority. I ended up doing a little research about accents in theater and came up with two interesting articles in the New York Times and the Guardian. If you only have time to read one, read the Guardian one. In summary of what the article said, actors and directors are in a no-win situation regarding accents. What the actors were doing on stage were basically what the American audience expected. Basically, it expects Dick Van Dyke. (I have my work cut out for me to debunk a lot of British misconceptions.) Sometimes the directors tell the actors not to go for accuracy to avoid criticism for not doing the voices correctly enough. It’s better to miss the archery target completely than to aim for the bullseye and only hit the red. Meanwhile, those of us more familiar with the nuances have to suffer.
Do accents matter to you when you are watching entertainment? Why or why not?