Millennial twist on dystopia in Handmaid's Tale musical

Handmaid's Tale: The Musical's co-creators Melissa Stokoski (far left) and Marcia Belsky play the central characters of Rory Gilmore and Offred in the dystopian parody.
Handmaid's Tale: The Musical's co-creators Melissa Stokoski (left) and Marcia Belsky play the central characters of Rory Gilmore and Offred in the dystopian parody.PHOTO: MINDY TUCKER

Two New York comediennes' take on the bleak tale reimagines how millennials in 2028 Brooklyn cope when they have to give up their cellphones

WASHINGTON • Early on in Handmaid's Tale: The Musical, the story's narrator swiftly moves to address the elephant in the theatre.

"Are they legally allowed to be doing this?" she asks. "The answer is: probably."

That fourth wall-breaking gag sets the stage for the thoroughly non-canonical satire to come.

So does the fact that the narrator is a character named Rory Gilmore, an absurdist reference to The Handmaid's Tale actress Alexis Bledel's breakout role on Gilmore Girls (2000 to 2007).

New York comediennes Marcia Belsky and Melissa Stokoski co-created Handmaid's Tale: The Musical, a parody of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel and the hit Hulu series adaptation.

After a half-dozen performances spread out over the past year, the minimalist production headed to Washington, DC for a pair of shows last Saturday at the Kennedy Centre as part of the annual Bentzen Ball comedy festival.

Belsky inhabits the protagonist Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss in the Hulu show), while Stokoski takes on the Rory Gilmore character.

The idea for the production took root a year ago, when the friends found themselves watching The Handmaid's Tale and were so overwhelmed by the show's bleakness that they could only cope by poking fun at it.

"We started laughing about how everything has become a musical, basically - how they made Spider-Man into a musical, SpongeBob and all of this stuff - and how it would be funny if someone did Handmaid's Tale as a musical because it was so dark," Belsky says.

"We just started joking about that and then it kind of came together."

While the source material imagines a dystopian future in which fertile women are enslaved as child-rearing "handmaids", this version centres on the decidedly less extreme story of millennials in 2028 Brooklyn whose lives are upended when they are forced to - gasp - hand over their cellphones.

In Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Offred is a mother brutally separated from her husband and daughter. Here, she is a cliched musical theatre heroine who relocates to New York to fulfil her dream of becoming a barista.

"I thought it would be funny to write a show where it doesn't undermine the message of the seriousness of the handmaid story, but it also pokes fun at what the spoilt, entitled people of my generation might act like in those situations," Belsky says.

Belsky and Stokoski wrote the book and lyrics for Handmaid's Tale: The Musical in two months before debuting the show in January, with composer Fernanda Douglas putting together the musical arrangements.

As far as the co-creators are concerned, the show is protected by fair-use law regarding parodies, though they have never heard from anyone associated with The Handmaid's Tale.

As a politically timely parody - the complicit and sadistic Aunt Lydia is, for example, reimagined as Aunt Betsy DeVos - Handmaid's Tale: The Musical has been updated with each iteration to reflect the news cycle.

Ms Betsy DeVos is the current United States Secretary of Education.

After last weekend, Handmaid's Tale: The Musical will be staged at least one more time, at next month's New York Comedy Festival.

The creative team also hopes to record a cast album with the ensemble and an off-Broadway run is not off the table should investors emerge.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2018, with the headline 'Millennial twist on dystopia in Handmaid's Tale musical'. Print Edition | Subscribe