London | April 23, 2007
'Menopause the Musical? When do we get to see ageing men celebrating their urinary chaos?' Germaine Greer
In the western world, middle-aged women are the chief supporters of the arts. They are the people who throng book fairs, art exhibitions, plays, operas and concerts, which would collapse without their tireless and loyal support. They are the people who volunteer to work for free as ushers in venues that cannot support themselves. You will see them struggling to cope in ticket boxes and information booths from Land's End to John O'Groats, giving for free the time of which they think they have far too much, now that theirs is the last voice their children want to hear on the telephone. The selfless service that was taken for granted while they raised their kids is now on hand to be tapped by the community. Not that these women will see much on stage, screen or concert hall that relates to their reality. The arts seldom bother to portray them. They smile bravely at endless caricatures of themselves from the Freya of Wagner's Ring, to Martha in Edward Albee's play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Calloo callay, all that is about to change. A show has been written just for middle-aged women, a show that is actually about them. It was first aired in March 2001 and by now has been seen by 6.5 million people (not all of them American women) in Birmingham (Alabama), San Diego, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Minneapolis, St Louis, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, Adelaide, Toronto and now - London! It is called Menopause the Musical.
Gift shops in the foyer of the participating theatres sell high-priced T-shirts that say "It's all about me!" or "If you ask me what I came to do in this world I will answer you, I came here to live out loud!", and a book by Alice Warder Seely called The Chaos of Menopause Is the Only Thing I Haven't Been Able to Blame on My Mother, together with other empowerment literature.
The architect of all this frantic merchandising is 58-year-old Jeanie Linders, who has somehow managed to secure permission to set new words to old hits that the target audience is old enough to remember. We get a version of Rod Stewart's Hot Legs called - you guessed it - Hot Flush; versions of the Bee Gees' Stayin' Alive as Stayin' Awake and Night Fever as Night Sweating; and Aretha Franklin's Chain of Fools turned into Change of Life, and so on, revealing a creativity level just about where misogynists would expect. The show may look cheap, but in terms of performance rights for the music of the 25 songs it must have cost a bomb. Linders knew what she was doing: she used to run her own events company, and handled PR for Michael Jackson (a triumph, that).
The audiences of Menopause the Musical are happy to be badgered with shopportunities. The show is set in the kind of dowdy department store that caters for people with thickening waists and ankles. Each night there is a Marks & Spencer gift voucher to be won by a lucky member of the audience. The people who will flock along to the show are used to being exploited: these are the women who, when the drug companies were prevented by medical ethics from advertising HRT in the women's press, held HRT parties and bring-and-buy sales and sold the product to themselves. Twenty years later, the media are running scare stories designed to send these same women screaming for the doctor, headlining the increase in the small risk of contracting ovarian cancer through stimulating the atrophic organ with exogenous sex steroids, an increase that was predictable and is actually rather less than might have been expected.
Of course, it's great to see a change from the usual mockery and humiliation so thoughtlessly dealt out to women of a certain age. However, we might have thought, as we now see older women playing alongside younger men in primetime TV dramas, instead of the other way about, that we were getting there. Menopause the Musical (a registered trademark) puts a hand on our chests and shoves us firmly back into the biology-equals-destiny dead-end. One of the false claims made by the promoters of the show is that menopause is universal and unites all women, which is simply not true. Menopause is not only complicated by the ageing process, which is entirely individual; it can coincide with life crises that are stressful and even devastating. There is nothing in the musical about dealing with the terminal illnesses of parents, for example. Not too many laughs there. A significant proportion of women will go through menopause with no symptoms whatsoever, but the show presents menopausal uproar as unavoidable, just as it presents a lust for chocolate as universal. Another piece of misinformation peddled by the show is that women do not discuss the symptoms of menopause and think they are alone, which would be a possibility only for women who never read the women's press.
I'm all for wearing a lapel badge that says "Beware mood swings", but that's about it. Menopause the Musical is a version of Springtime for Hitler, the show that shouldn't have been a hit. I'm thinking of a moneyspinner called Prostate Pandemonium, starring Michael Parkinson and Peter Stringfellow. Wouldn't it be empowering to see ageing men living their urinary chaos out loud, being upfront and honest about their humiliations, dressing in purple, high-kicking and wetting themselves?