Picture it: Philadelphia, 2023. Boomers, millennials, and Gen Z; people of all genders and ethnicities; representatives of the LGBTQ+ community; plus, my mother and I - all gathered in a cozy, antique-style theater.
What occasion, you ask, could bring together such a diverse group of people and have them dancing, clapping, and howling in laughter? One word - Golden Girls - The Laughs Continue.
Thanks to Vince Kelley, who spearheaded the revival and plays the pivotal role of Blanche, Golden Girls - The Laughs Continue delighted Philadelphians over a long weekend in October 2023.
The play transports the four main characters - Blanche, Dorothy, Rose, and Sophia - from the 80s television classic into the present day, relying on modern technology (dating apps) and modern slang to drive the plot line. It hit many high points, notably the sharp dialogue, and performances of Kelley, Adam Graber as Rose, and Ryan Bernier as Dorothy, who all moved and sounded much like their television counterparts. Conversely, the portrayal of Sophia was more masculine than that of the show’s beloved matriarch, and the over-the-top performance by Stan/love interest distracted from the more natural, innately funny interactions between the four women. That said, the original show needed Stan as a foil to Dorothy. In contrast, the play needed her new love interest (harkening to Leslie Nelson’s cameo in the show’s last season) to put a bow on the play’s action and recall the television show’s finale.
Men playing women is nothing new in the theatre (i.e., Shakespeare), though the show’s creators and marketing team refrain from calling the multi-city production a “drag” show. “I’m just an actor who happens to be portraying a woman,” said Kelley in a prior interview.
Most importantly, the creators did not take pains to fix something that wasn’t broken. They paid tribute to a classic delightfully and freshly, maintaining its ethos and expanding upon it, but not supplanting or replacing it. (I can’t help myself and must add: the writers of Beetlejuice for the stage could have learned a thing or two!)
I stumbled upon Golden Girls one weekend morning last year. Of course, I had heard of it before that. A friend from high school, wise beyond her years, loved the show and Sophia in particular. Even my Egyptian-born grandmother (rest her soul) was a fan of the interplay between the four women and their crass jokes. But until I watched it for myself, I didn’t quite grasp the appeal. I wound up glued to my couch for hours that morning, laughing throughout each episode. I still tune in for hours-long binges when my schedule permits.
Golden Girls remains something between a cult classic and a broader phenomenon for my generation and the previous one (along with future generations) for several reasons, underlying them its indefatigable wit. As Bea Arthur (who played Dorothy) said, “You know, I spend most of my life turning things down. There’s a lot of crap [material] out there.” She of course was not including Golden Girls in that category.
The show - which explored LGBTQ+ themes, sex in later life, and other “controversial” topics for its time - is no longer confined to primetime, but lives on through daytime television, streaming services, and elsewhere on the Internet. Three of the original ladies passed between 2008-2010, before social media became omnipresent in our lives, and before countless Golden Girls tribute accounts would pop up and push merchandise and share clips of classic scenes from the original show. Only Betty White (Rose), who passed in 2022, would see the Golden Girls live on social media and streaming services, helping the show reach its next generation of fans.
In 2020, audiences watched 11 million hours of Golden Girls on Hulu, per the New York Times, while in 2022 following White’s passing, they watched 384 million hours, per MovieWeb.
Since its finale, female friend groups of all ages supporting each other continue to be a popular theme among audiences: think Sex and the City, Bridesmaids, 80 for Brady and the list goes on. With an estimated 52% of American women over 18 being unmarried or separated in 2021, a story about divorcees, widows, and otherwise single women has cross-over appeal no matter its age of origin.