By David Ward
Both The King and I and Funny Girl are classic musicals led by powerful white women. The King and I tells the story of Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher who moves to Siam in 1862 to educate the next generation of Siamese on the latest Western knowledge. Funny Girl, as the name implies, tells the story of Fanny Brice, who is both funny and a girl, and her rise to fame in the early 1900s. Because both shows are driven by powerful leading ladies, both had the opportunity to break gender barriers and provide strong role models for young women when they premiered in the mid-1900s. However, both shows failed to do this; both stories present their leading ladies’ power as being a product of their race (rather than their gender) and focus on negative outcomes that result from their confidence and power.
Anna’s power and confidence are on display from the first time she meets the king of Siam. After singing “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” a song about how nervous she is about moving to a new world and working for a king with a reputation of being “a barbarian”, we see her enter the king’s chambers and make fun of his gullibility (telling him she is one hundred fifty-three years old) and his country’s funeral customs (she says, condescendingly, “best fireworks I’ve ever seen at a funeral”). While Anna claims she is nervous, Kelli O’Hara’s inflection and body language tell us she is snooty; O’Hara’s Anna believes that because she was taught from a young age to “hold her head erect” and act in a proper white Western manner, she is in a position to humiliate the Siamese, whose king (Ken Watanabe) stands with a forward-leaning hunch. Anna’s power being a product of her whiteness is even more glaring when the staging of the scene is taken into account; all of the non-white women in the room sit on the floor in the background of the scene while Anna stands tall at the front of the stage.
Fanny’s power grows as the plot of Funny Girl progresses. At the beginning of the show, the only facet of her that distinguished her as a white woman was her dream of being a famous performer. Female performers at the venues where Fanny dreamed of performing (like Ziegfeld’s and Keeney’s) were exclusively white. While at no point in the show does her ego appear to be inflated because of her race, there is no way to know that it is not because she (unrealistically) does not interact with any characters of color throughout the show. In the context of the show, it makes sense that Fanny’s confidence is simply part of her personality because she is only competing with and performing for white people. As the plot advances, Fanny is given more opportunities to climb the ranks of notoriety (and gain wealth and power) – opportunities that she would not have received if she were not white. She gets a second chance at performing at Keeney’s because her friend Eddie Ryan is the choreographer there. Fanny would not have met Eddie and even been given a first opportunity (much less a second) if she had not been white. Much of the plot is drawn by Fanny’s affection for the wealthy Nick Arnstein. She gains power and notability from her relationship and eventual marriage to him. Would Nick, the man who was so uncomfortable with unconventional relationship dynamics that he broke up with Fanny over her making more money than him, have been interested in an interracial relationship? There is no way.
Throughout The King and I, Anna demonstrates that she is a powerful woman who thinks of herself as being no less than anyone else and is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in. She continuously refuses to let the king forget that he promised her a house to live in because she believes people should uphold their promises. She also works against the king’s wishes and helps Tuptim and Lun Tha meetup because she believes people should be able to choose their partners. When the show was created, it was not common for female characters to be as powerful and assertive as Anna, but Rodgers and Hammerstein fail to present this as a positive characteristic. At the end of The King and I, Anna demands that the king allow Tuptim to love a man other than him. When the king refuses, Anna calls him “a barbarian,” which gives him a heart attack that makes him bed-ridden (and that he claims he will die from). In other words, Anna’s assertiveness kills the king. Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to have Anna’s actions kill the king as pro-West propaganda for their Western audiences: Anna represents new bold Western ideals, which kill off the king, who represents the “barbaric” ways of the East, and make way for Prince Chulalongkorn, a child groomed by Anna and therefore knowledgeable about Western culture. A side effect of the decision to end the musical in this way is that spectators unfamiliar with the historical context will only see a confident, independent female character use her confidence kill the likeable king. Instead of presenting strong women as being beneficial to society, some spectators may interpret The King and I as promoting that strong women are dangerous in that their independence and boldness can kill.
In Funny Girl, Fanny’s power is what leads to her unhappiness. Nick, what Fanny wants most in the world, is intimidated by her power, wealth, and confidence. He wants them to have an old-fashioned husband-wife relationship: the wife stays at home and watches the kids while the husband makes the money and makes the important decisions. Fanny, instead of conforming to this, has the confidence to fight for what she wants: an equal marriage with no set roles. When Nick strikes out with his casino project, Fanny is perfectly comfortable being the source of income for their household; Nick responds by saying he does not want her to have to “write [him] another check.” Nick sees his role as the provider for the family because he is the husband; Fanny’s potential and willingness to provide for them makes him feel like less of a man. Another part of Nick’s ideal relationship is being able to make all of the decisions for both himself and his partner. He reveals that he does not want to have to sacrifice his desires for Fanny when he begrudgingly agrees to skip his investors meeting to stay with the baby so Fanny can go back to work after maternity leave. From this point on in the show, Darius Campbell’s Nick is stern and concerned; he wrinkles his brow and takes big gulps more often. He has realized Fanny will never take a secondary role in their relationship and give him the power he desires. His refusal to accept having a wife that will not cater to his every desire ultimately leads to their divorce. In one of the few musicals at the time to have a powerful leading lady, Fanny’s confidence and assertiveness are what lead to her losing someone she loves. Even though it is Nick’s flaws that lead to their divorce, Funny Girl promotes the idea that strong women cannot be in successful relationships; it happens with Fanny and her mother. In this way, the representation of women in Funny Girl is misogynistic in that it reinforces the idea that heterosexual relationships only work when women are of a lower status than their partners. More generally, it could be interpreted as saying that it is hard to love powerful women.
Both Anna and Fanny end up losing someone they care about because of their power in the form of assertiveness, confidence, boldness, independence, wealth, or some combination of these qualities. In both musicals, it is significant that the leads are female and that the tragic events at the climax are direct effects of them expressing their power. While both shows end with the powerful women sad because of an event that was the effect of their assertiveness, it is important to note that these women would not have been happy if they were passive either. Anna would have followed the king’s every command but would have been quietly angry about not getting her house and Tuptim and Lun Tha not being permitted to be together. Fanny and Nick would not have gotten divorced, but he would prioritize his work over her and miss many of her opening nights. In this way, the musicals end too soon for the powerful women; we only see the immediate negative effects of their power. If the musicals had not ended at their climaxes, audiences would see Anna guide Prince Chulalongkorn how to rule Siam under her Western “civilized” ideals. Spectators would tear up over seeing Fanny find a man who will love and respect her as an equal. The futures for these powerful women are not as grim as the abrupt conclusions of The King and I and Funny Girl would have you believe. It is strange and seems intentional that both musicals end at an unfortunate time in both of these women’s lives instead of waiting to show their happy endings.
It is important that girls are exposed to powerful women in culture so they can realize all that women can do and have role models to look up to. While The King and I and Funny Girl present the stories of two powerful women, these musicals present women empowered by the color of their skin rather than women empowered by being women. Furthermore, both musicals present the assertiveness of the powerful women as being detrimental to them because of the state of their lives at the time when the shows end. While these musicals provide entertainment in their interesting characters and quality songs, if you are looking for complete and inspiring tales of powerful women, neither of these outdated musicals are the way to go.