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Will and Grace’s Eric McCormack will make a long-awaited return to the Stratford Festival stage in October – starring in a one-night performance of The Fantasticks, almost 30 years after his last performance with the Ontario theatre company.

But equally newsworthy is who won’t appear on stage alongside the Canadian sitcom star in this concert version of the famous off-Broadway meta-musical: A character named Mortimer dressed as a cartoonish ”Indian” who enters “in a loin cloth and a feather, and playing a drum” – as the original stage directions read.

On the Stratford Festival website, prospective ticket buyers for The Fantasticks have been forewarned by note that some original elements of the show will be altered: “Certain language and situations have been changed to reflect the values of a 21st century audience.”

“Stratford contacted the rights-holders and explained how strongly we opposed doing anything that would demean or mock Indigenous culture,” explained Richard Ouzounian, the retired Toronto Star theatre critic who will return to Stratford as director for the first time since 1999 to helm the concert. “They understood and immediately agreed to letting us change it.”

Mortimer, a bumbling Cockney actor who gets involved in The Fantasticks’s romantic plot, is still in the musical - but he will now instead be costumed as and referred to as a “musketeer”, with all references to “Indian” in the script and lyrics adjusted according.

This “fits the mock bravado of the scene and also scans perfectly in the lyric,” says Ouzounian in an e-mail, adding: “Eric was consulted on all these changes and was totally supportive.”

The last major production of The Fantasticks in Ontario – at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company in 2011 – came under fire by Indigenous artists for its portrayal of Mortimer.

Playwright Tara Beagan, then artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, wrote to the theatre company’s artistic director and board of directors at the time to say that “the portrayal of the imbecilic actor in costume as an ‘Indian’ in The Fantasticks was so offensive to me that I actually had to concentrate on breathing.”

Playwright Drew Hayden Taylor, meanwhile, wrote a piece in Windspeaker about the Soulpepper production: “Imagine the wit, wisdom and cultural sensitivity of a member of the Three Stooges dressed as an Indian.... I did not enjoy myself.”

The Fantastisks is not a sacred text by any means: The musical has undergone a number of revisions since it first opened off-Broadway in May of 1960 for a record-breaking run that lasted for 42 years - with its lyricist Tom Jones rewriting lyrics and dialogue as recently as June 2017.

Most famously, El Gallo, the bandit who narrates the musical and will be played by McCormack in Stratford, originally sang a song called It Depends on What You Pay that was better known as “the rape song”.

The Fantasticks – which features music by Harvey Schmidt including the classic Try to Remember - concerns two neighbouring fathers who contrive to have their son and daughter fall in love with one another.

Part of the plot involves one father hiring El Gallo and two actors (one being Mortimer) to abduct his daughter, so that his neighbour’s son can save her - and, in the original version, El Gallo sang about the various kinds of “rapes” he can simulate.

This usage of the word “rape” was explained in the show as being used in an old literary sense of a kidnapping – but, in 1990, the creators wrote a new optional song to replace it for a national tour; and, in 2006, Jones edited the original song to remove the word “rape”.

The Stratford Festival production will use that 2006 version, says Ouzounian.

It’s not unusual for the Ontario theatre festival to make changes to the scripts of classics – a William Shakespeare play rarely appears there unedited (and, of course, most of the festival’s signature playwright’s works exist in more than one form).

Changes have increasingly been made to reflect current values as well: Back in 2010, director Tim Carroll, who now runs the Shaw Festival, turned the Neverland “Indians” in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan into Amazons, for instance, while, last season, artistic director Antoni Cimolino excised some superfluous anti-Semitism from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 comedy The School for Scandal.

What is unusual in this case is that Stratford has put a note up on its website indicating that a change has been made. A spokesperson for the festival said it is so ticket-buyers can be fully informed.

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