“Bread and Love” of Two Female Characters in American Musicals

         From the birth of musicals as a distinctive art form on stage in the early 1900s to the golden age in the 1950s, Broadway has witnessed an evolution of musicals. First, modern musicals remixed elements of music and gradually took the place of European operetta characterized by romantic light music. Second, encounters of culture arose more frequently and more people were available to go to theaters. All of above changes prompted musicals to focus on what intrigued ordinary people the most: bread and love. The musicals Funny Girl and The King and I emerged at this time. It is interesting to note that the main characters in both musicals were powerful females: Fanny, a Jewish American actress, and Anna, a British schoolteacher teaching in Siam royalty, both founded their bread and love yet ended up with a loss of balance between them, even though being in distinctively different geographical settings, one in the United States and the other in Siam in the far east. Through this intersectional lens on Fanny and Anna, the incompatible nature of bread and love still renders a tragic atmosphere on 20th century female.

         “Hello gorgeous,” with such an exhausted sighing, Fanny met herself in the mirror in a theater’s backstage room, and meanwhile met the audiences offstage. Fanny Brice in reality was a famous comedian, performing in the Follies in the 1920s, showing up in radio shows during the later years, and 13 years after her death, her glorious life was portrayed in the musical Funny Girl. However, at the beginning of her story, Fanny was just a funny comedian bringing laughers in the audiences, and a broken woman waiting desperately for her imprisoned husband’s return.

         In 1910s, Fanny represented millions of other girls from ordinary communities, not considered as a beauty compared to the popular appreciation of Ziegfeld girls. Being obsessed with Ziegfeld girls’ skinny body shapes, cute faces, and sweet dances — characters that Fanny barely owned, everyone concluded that a girl like Fanny “doesn’t spell success” and “gets only pity and pat” with such look. Fanny didn’t back down. She replied with a dramatic pose and a confident smile, “The whole world will look at me and be stunned!” Yet after this seemingly easy confidence was her repeated trainings for routines of the audition every night after everyone else was back home, countless falling overs followed immediately by standing up. Her perfect performances won her the chance to Keeney’s, and eventually on Ziegfeld. However, there were more obstacles on her way. Ziegfeld insisted to kick her out of Follies if she wouldn’t exaggerate on performances, and Fanny failed to convince him that she wanted audiences to laugh with her but not laugh at her. Therefore, the eventual success of comedienne Fanny, a “pregnant bride”, and later brilliant characters couldn’t show up without her iron will of singing, compromise, and conciliation at the very beginning. At an era when a delicate look determined a woman’s success, Fanny broke the barrier and won her bread.

         Meanwhile, the appearance of Mr. Arnstein after she stepped down the stage brought her infinite expectations of a glamorous future and infinite longlines when he was not there. “I imagined you every place in the world. You are like a character in the book to me.” After Mr. Arnstein’s leave for several months, Fanny realized what she really wanted is companionship. She was uncertain about this man, with uncontrollable hand shaking and avoidance in eye contact, but her courage and passion still pushed her to confront how she needed him. At the railroad station, Fanny decided to quit Follies performances and run after Mr. Arnstein, as she thought this was the one chance to catch happiness. In “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, Fanny didn’t utilized many singing skills, but instead expressed emotions, exulting in finding her happiness. Though with bright music, the first conflict between Fanny’s bread and love was rooted here. Her marriage life was in a much faster beat. Fanny made a compromise between her bread and love for the second time when she was rushing to return to the stage, so she made light on her husband’s debt trouble. Once again, she chose the fastest way, putting up the money secretly, to help her husband, which indirectly caused his anger, and finally hotheaded crime of embezzlement. Fanny was expecting an equal relationship with the man she loved, and she fought for it fearlessly. However, when she though that they were equally supporting each other, her husband was deeply hurt for receiving Fanny’s help and for feeling dependent upon her. This irreconcilable conflict ended their relationship, regardless of love between them.

         In the final scene, Fanny sang the melodies of Rain on My Parade again, with legs spread apart, with arms holding her chest, with pathos and decisiveness to look forward. She knew that she had to be even a stronger woman, supporting herself and her little daughter. But did she know why things turned out to be like this? No matter how much money and fame she earned from performances, how much inspirations she brough to the Follies and the development of musicals as a whole, or how independent she could be, she always had an identity that should be well memorized: wife. As a wife, she’d better support her husband’s career at least as much as to her own’s and avoid make her husband feel dependent upon her — or they would run counter to the general trend of the society.

         “I whistle a happy tune and every single time,” singing while holding her little boy’s hand, Anna Leonowens arrived in Bangkok, Siam on the other side of the earth. For the unknown journey in Siam where she could not speak any language and knew about no one, Anna sang this song to cheer herself up with courage. After landing, the half-naked outfit of the prime minister Kralahome, the invasive question he asked about privacy, and a group of concubines who messed around her luggage, all of these circumstances evoked Anna’s discontentment. But she bore and focused on her work. She devoted in teaching the children about freedom, equality, kindness, and other western theories. In “Getting to Know You”, Anna expressed her enjoyment making friends with the cute children and Thiang, along with the rising tone of the melody. Anna treated her job as a glorious mission, spreading knowledge and love to her students, thus rendering herself as a successful inspiring figure in the eastern world.

         On the other hand, the relationship between Anna and the king experienced tense moments, moments of reconciliation, and moments of attraction and rupture, eventually a woeful farewell. When the king disrupted her class, complaining about her teaching of “home”, she insisted on the promise of a brick house adjacent to the palace, and indicted that the king broke his promise. Throughout these times, she was never afraid of questioning his decisions or altering his beliefs, which deeply attracted the king. Anna was also aware of his transition, from scorn, weariness to listening to her suggestions in an open mind. Their admiration of each other climaxed after a European reception of the envoys. “Shall we dance?” These syllables repeated along the melody, like the transition from a questioning to a tentative tone between Anna and the king. Their careful affections were vividly depicted by their bodily languages: Anna’s enjoying dances, and the king’s unskillful steps. However, this affection could only be invisible, when the social status, race, and demand of freedom were desperately different between them. These hidden troubles experienced outburst when the king caught Tuptim, his “present”, dating secretly with her lover. He considered Tuptim as his belongingness, something that he could punish whenever he wanted, yet Anna, cherishing the valuable love in the deepest of her heart, tried to protect Tuptim. Both the dialogue and bodily expressions were explosive at this point, indicating that the king and Anna could never reach consensus.

          Throughout the king and I, Anna accepted the eastern culture, just as others embraced her fresh ideas, and along with her intelligence, courage, independence, she succeeded in. teaching the children, spreading thoughts of freedom, and finally helping cultivate the next king. However, she never got to speak her affections toward the king, nor did she get any chance to experience more with him. The king and Anna promoted the encounters of cultures in the late 19th century, but they could never overcome the barrier between their identities.

          Though Fanny and Anna lost their love in the end, the significance of their appearance as a representation of female in the 20th century should not be denied. Their self-confidence, self-reliance, persistence, and hard-working were the valuable traits for them to earn their “bread”, growing to be the iconic person in their field. By establishing these two female characters, the authors aimed to encourage more females to dedicate if they would like to pursue their own careers. In a nutshell, retrospection of Fanny and Anna’s life stories showed that the ceiling for females in the 20th century was the reason for their loss of love when seeking for power and independence, but let’s ponder what if they were born in 100 years later? With all the precious qualities they owned, and dedications they have made, there might be a different ending.

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