Exploring the Varying Levels of Gender and Race Relations Across Musicals

Charlotte Lange

Built upon the pillars of oversexualization, extravaganization, and objectification, Broadway performances quite literally demand their place in the spotlight of controversy. From the vapid, sensually dressed Ziegfeld girls without independent ambitions or responsibilities to the dehumanizing depictions of Blackface across minstrel stages, musical theater has a grisly history of failing their spectators by portraying regressive gender and racial representations. Generations of Broadway musicals have abhorrently and forcefully diminished female actors into secondary roles, solidifying the paradigm of women being dependent upon men to command the stage, to dictate their lives. Michael Mayer’s Funny Girl revival starring Sheridan Smith, set in the World War I era, details Fanny Brice’s unconventional journey to stardom as she simultaneously navigates her turbulent relationship with an imprisoned husband. In stark contrast, Bartlett Sher’s The King and I portrays the cultural and romantic adventure that ensues widowed schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, played by Kelli O’Hara, after she agrees to tutor the king of Siam’s royal court in 1862. Despite their difference in setting, time period, and casting diversity, both hit musicals Funny Girl and The King and I make progress to break the norm of portraying women stuck in docile supporting roles in order to disprove female reliance on men and revolutionize the cultural appreciation depicted on-stage. 

The musical Funny Girl characterizes Fanny Brice as an unconventionally attractive performer who initially struggles to meet producer Florenz Ziegfeld’s outrageous yet popular standard of beauty, where his characteristically shimmering showgirls were pale, thin, blonde, luxuriously dressed women silently and meekly sprawled across the stage to be objectified. Brice starkly contrasts the ideal Ziegfeld girl in every way: she is a confident, bold, ambitious force in musical theater and demands for a chance to be a leading soloist, rather than a mediocre background dancer. At the end of the musical, Brice even leaves her husband after funding his risky business endeavors throughout the plot – a daring action that breaks the stigma of women being much more successful in their careers than their husbands and legitimizes the feminist values of the book. By shattering the norm against women who aren’t the customary depiction of femininity, Funny Girl provides a bold societal statement to free female actresses from the confines of conventional, unrealistic, and outdated beauty standards, while encouraging wives to pursue their own dreams and aspirations in an era where women still make eighty-one cents to a man’s dollar. 

The journey Sheridan Smith embarks upon with the striking character of Fanny Brice is the classic coming-of-age story; by earnestly taking the reins on the lead solo “Cornet Man” rendition at the show Brice had just been fired from, Smith exemplifies the blossoming confidence Brice begins to experience as a female actress and effectively conveys Brice’s deeper transition towards career and personal independence. As Smith intentionally shoos away fellow dancer Eddie Ryan, who had assisted her with the choreography, she makes a boldly critical decision to launch Brice’s character into the successful career she’s felt called to embody since she was young. This performance-within-a-performance concept offers a unique opportunity for Smith to overemphasize Brice’s demonstrated confidence – the poise she, too, must exhibit as a forefront actor. Smith’s choice onstage parallels the choice she’s inevitably experienced as an unconventionally beautiful female actress breaking through the glass ceilings of a male-dominated industry. In becoming a Broadway starlet, Smith has undoubtedly had to refuse the patronizing assistance of men who believe women require their help to succeed – men who, like the rest of mass media spectators, have been perpetually and systemically convinced of female inferiority. Given the scope of the riveted audiences they influence, director Mayers upheld his essential cultural responsibility by engaging in Smith’s inclusive and progressive depiction of women. The unconventional casting decision of Smith provides twenty-first century female theatergoers with the epitome of an empowered, independent woman to revolutionize the way they value themselves and their ambitions.  

Brice’s realized confidence and success, despite her displayed lack of traditional femininity, are evidence of the tailwinds white actresses experience while landing roles in musical theater. Neither Brice nor Sheridan had to work against their race during the casting process – in the production or in real life – because both women are white and therefore have innumerable more roles written for them. This allows them the chance to be ‘funny’, to be different, to stand out while still blending in with the countless other white actresses – an opportunity that non-white actresses are rarely afforded because of the headwinds they already face in getting cast. Brice’s girlish differences define her onstage against the other Ziegfeld beauties, but her race plays no part in the struggles she faces. Set around World War I, Funny Girl takes place in a regressive time period that displayed a blatant disregard for minority races and genders. Although written and produced decades later, Funny Girl holds no difference; Mayer utilized limited artistic freedom in his casting decisions, and all members of the musical are white. To further neglect the subject of diversity in musical theater, the issue of race isn’t even mentioned throughout the production, indicative of both the production’s prejudiced casting and the historical lack of representation in performers of the early 1900s. While Brice’s white privilege is prevalent throughout her bolstered rise to stardom, her Jewish identity offers a multifaceted approach to her identity. The musical significantly emphasizes Brice’s ethnic roots in order to advance her characterization as an outspoken Brooklynite with unmistakable Semetic roots. Brice’s deep pride in her religious identity energizes generations of Jewish audiences, providing them with a distinct on-screen representation of a typically marginalized culture. In this diverse portrayal of religious diversity, Mayers utilized his Funny Girl platform to provide Jewish actors with the voice that celebrates Jewish-Americans’ rich history and contributions to society while promoting ethnic inclusiveness.  

The King and I follows Anna Leonowens as she reluctantly embraces the culture of the Siamese royal court, while also cultivating their acceptance of Western practices. Throughout the musical, Leonowens struggles to understand the king of Siam’s polygamic practices, and even interferes in Siamese tradition by abetting one of his wives to engage in an affair with her true love, thus interfering in Siamese tradition. During the “Getting to Know You” scene, she contemptuously waves her hands in fake celebration when the children excitedly exclaim the king to be “the Lord of Light”; in mocking the enthusiasm the schoolchildren display, O’Hara deliberately demonstrates Leonowens’ own whiteness by refusing to acknowledge the authority of the king, and thus depicts the Siamese culture as weak, unempowered, and silly by comparison. Although initially magnifying the differences between Eastern and Western cultures as she tells the children that Siam had previously been a “little white dot” on a map to her, Leonowens utilizes her racial dissimilarity to explain the development in her cultural appreciation; she is now beginning to understand their traditions after interacting with them for over a year. This tendency to intrude upon and ‘civilize’ cultures with practices that vary considerably from Western systems was typical of the 1862 time period, and its position on Broadway fundamentally highlights the importance of bridging cultural gaps in the twenty-first century rather than ostracizing societies with unique values – a trend with contemporary significance given the recent emergence of politically-promoted demonstrations of xenophobia in America. The King and I, therefore, holds current cultural relevance in not only fostering tolerance but also in encouraging individuals who may inadvertently participate in stereotype perpetuation to investigate for themselves the beauty of diverse cultures, as Leonowens models. 

The production consistently juxtaposes the garb between cultures; Leonowens’ enormous hoop skirts adorned with frilly pastel lace, suffocatingly fitted corsets, and trailing puffy sleeves form a stark contrast to the draping silk robes that elegantly display vibrant floral designs. The intentional costume contrast throughout The King and I reflects cultures inherently different from each other, and the difference in temperament and autonomy is apparent between the women of the musical. Leonowens is strong, bold, and resolute in her decisions to live in her own house and remain independent despite being in the royal court’s jurisdiction; in the same sense, she demands control on stage by wearing such a large skirt that others must constantly make way for her colossal Western dress. O’Hara utilizes the costume choices to command production numbers, and her wardrobe makes it clear she is the center of each choreography routine. On the other hand, each member of the identically-dressed Siamese ensemble blend into each other and occupy minimal space onstage, forming an unvarying unit that moves homogeneously during musical numbers to reflect the overall lack of agency women have in the Siamese culture. Leonowens’ status as a widowed working mother represents a refreshingly empowered approach to portray women as self-sufficient; by characterizing her role as a single mother determined to support her son, O’Hara beautifully makes female viewers feel liberated and resilient, conveying the power that widowed mothers across the globe wish to channel into their own lives. 

While both musicals succeeded in depicting starring women who have forged successful careers for themselves, the feminist ideals these shows promote are distinctly qualified by the writer’s insistence to center the plot around male relationships rather than around the leading women’s careers or their cultural implications. By writing Brice’s character to turn down the elite job opportunity in Chicago for her love interest, who is heading to New York, writers normalize the cultural expectation for women to abandon their own ambitions for men and starkly contradict the female empowerment they had previously promoted with Brice’s cheekiness and spunk. Similarly, O’Hara’s Leonowens was terribly limited by the overemphasis on her sexual romantic tension with the King, especially in a scene with the unprecedented capacity to bridge cultural gaps between the West and the East as two cultures melded to learn a common courting dance. This lack of independent career ambition provides viewers with a ravaged sense of how twenty-first century women should approach their role within working families and repulsively suggests to its audiences that a husband’s career is more worthwhile than their wife’s.

The two production titles again demonstrate the dominance of heterosexual romance plots over those that emphasize the importance of careers or cultural appreciation. The King and I’s title further relocates the attention away from O’Hara’s strong female lead, instead suggesting her relationship to a man of power will be the focus of the Broadway show. The writers responsible for such a regressive decision influence spectators’ preconceived perceptions of the plot, thus calling excess attention to Leonowens’ interactions with the King rather than her independent performance. Funny Girl, however, inclusively approaches the production name. Originally titled My Man, Funny Girl initially cut Brice’s starring role out of her own Broadway title, instead choosing to focus on her relationship with her husband, of which he is suggested to dominate. By intentionally changing the show to its current title, the writer rightfully shifted the musical’s focus away from Brice’s dependence on her passionate relationship in order to bestow her credit as the independent performing phenomenon she was, and thus encourages the audience to focus on her performance in its own right, rather than in its relation to the men on stage. This is essential for the imminent nominations and performance critiques any Broadway show will engage in – by justly shifting the title, writers subconsciously shift the audience’s favor onto Brice as a liberated leading actress, rather than onto her relationship with her fiance as a pair. 

With the writers focusing on how women fall into relationships with men, racial statements in the productions hardly take the forefront. Funny Girl does nothing to engage in race relations, and its silence on the matter by creating zero diverse roles speaks volumes about the pervasive lack of representation on Broadway. In contrast, The King and I develops an interracial relationship that fosters mutual respect and appreciation between cultures previously stereotyped to be at ideological odds. In its rich blend of Eastern and Western practices, the musical highlights the importance of cultural immersion to truly understand diverse races and ethnicities. With xenophobic and racist values contributing to current political division in America, musicals such as The King and I provide beautifully diverse perspectives on often underrepresented cultures in order to trivialize the bigotry that has disgustingly become the forefront of international relations. Although the musical provided beautiful diversity onstage, it still majorly centered around the white lead character and fell short of intricately developing the roles of the ethnic ensemble. Despite their different approaches to portraying racial diversity onstage, both Funny Girl and The King and I reflect an immediate demand for greater ethnic portrayal on Broadway. Broadway executives are partially responsible for this abhorrent lack of opportunity for diverse casts, as they cyclically decide to produce shows with traditionally Caucasian plots and are reluctant to take creative liberties when it comes to casting. Hamilton is ideal proof of this issue; as a plot centered around the white historical figures that stepped on the backs of minorities to achieve political success, casting directors made the intentional choice to utilize nontraditional casting practices in order to bring a diverse ensemble to the stage. While this was a necessary step away from the elitist Broadway casting norms, musicals such as Funny Girl highlight the ease in doing the opposite – filling roles with the white actors that the outdated, intransigent plots are biased towards. 

Musical theater’s history has time and time again proven Broadway productions’ unprecedented ability to reach diverse audiences, bestowing directors the unique opportunity to either shape or solidify the racial and gender stereotypes perpetuated in their shows. Although musicals have historically fallen short in their portrayal of independent, self-sufficient women and multicultural casts with equal stage times and character development, Funny Girl and The King and I propel relevant feminist ideals to set new standards for female beauty and ambition, and serve critical examples of positive female depictions for spectators to look up to, idolize, and replicate. Both musicals offer unprecedented representations of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity onstage, shining both a figurative and literal spotlight on the progressing race and gender relations across Broadway while simultaneously highlighting the necessary progress to be made regarding female dependence and diverse racial depiction.

One thought on “Exploring the Varying Levels of Gender and Race Relations Across Musicals

  1. Charlotte,
    I really enjoyed reading your essay; I was drawn in from the first sentence. You put it plainly: both leading ladies were written to place their heterosexual relationships in front of everything else in their lives. This great emphasis on heterosexual relationships means less emphasis on other aspects of these women’s lives. Refusing to have the the women do what is best for them (like how you mentioned when Fanny turns down a job to be with Nick) means missed opportunities by the creators of the musicals to tell stories of independent women that could inspire girls in the audience. One choice I particularly liked was to give historical context and generalize the ideas from these two musicals onto Broadway musicals as a genre in the first and final paragraphs. Great job.

    Liked by 1 person

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