by Matthew Arcuri
In the musical The King and I, Anna, played by Kelli O’Hara, moves to Siam from England with the express purpose of tutoring the royal Siamese children. A widowed king rules his patriarchal dynasty keeping concubines and a polygamous family wrapped in privilege within his palace. Siam is entering the 1860s and British imperial rule expands its reign while a newly powerful yet tumultuous United States grapples with the ethical disentanglement of slavery. The audience quickly discovers that Siam’s Eastern ideals clash loudly with colonialism, and Anna carries a Western torch of morality. Anna loses herself as she falls in love with her job, the people, and her new community. She wrestles with conflicting morals and norms, while always holding her own as highest. Embracing her role as teacher, she loses herself as she corrects “inappropriate” cultural thinking and expression as much as she possibly can. This leads her to a surprising intimacy with the King, the very one who represents the misogyny and patriarchy she detests.
In the musical Funny Girl, Fanny Brice, played by Sheridan Smith, breaks the barrier of sexy entertainment to deliver the never-before-seen occupation, a funny female. A 1936 New York City bustles with all types of amusements to spend your hard-earned cash on, but each and every one of them guarantees a “gorgeous” feminine spectacle. Fanny, born to entertain and light up a room, sets her sights on conquering every heart in the city. In her longing to participate in the entertainment industry, society limits her options to the role of tall, skinny flirt–a simple formulaic set of material specifically catered to men. She knows she has what it takes to sell tickets, so she goes after her dream. Determined, yet clueless of her innate departure from feminine charm, she stumbles into the chance of a lifetime. Behaving as contrary to traditional femininity as possible, she stars in the world-renowned Ziegfeld Follies NOT as the typical sexualized female background prop but rather as the comic relief. This diametrically opposed femininity carries into her personal life and she gets lost as the first of her kind- an entertaining, stout, far-from-womanly, successful woman.
A Shared Fate
Both Fanny Brice and Anna consciously live countercultural lives, teaching themselves and their respective audiences just how strange whiteness and masculinity really are. The only way to make “normal” visible is to make normal appear strange to the audience. When you are other, when you break norms, it is empowering and freeing and exciting. But, sometimes you are ahead of society. Sometimes the more you break the rules the more you push away from not only societal norms–but also from society itself. The lyricist of Funny Girl, Bob Merrill, wrote the truest words, ‘people need people.’ But the lives of Anna and Fanny serve to warn that that simple phrase may be an oversimplification. Yes, people need people, but, people need humanity. People need to feel a part of humanity– with relationships, a purpose, and integrity. AND, when you other yourself, it’s hard to bring humanity with you when you don’t play by humanity’s rules, or worse, when you make your own rules for others to follow.
Fanny’s Fumbling Femininity
Fanny is set on intentionally living her life as an example and incentive for others to break the norms of masculinity and femininity, but she often falls into the traps she preaches about avoiding.
When Fanny finally gets the guy of her dreams, we realize that the man she is in love with is not only visually the prototype masculine man, but he also carries himself with the paradigm of masculinity. AND,the way he makes his money couldn’t be more masucline if he were a testosterone salesman. Nick makes his dough by gambling. When Fanny meets Nick, her future husband, she cannot comprehend how a man like Nick could be interested in a woman like her. When she finally believes him, she breaks out into a love ballad… and then goes back to enforcing the same rules of manipulation and masculinity that put her on an intersecting and conflicting path with societal norms.
Don’t Rain on my Parade
The lyrics Merril wrote, and the movements Smith makes fit the audience’s expectations of Fanny’s anti-feminine personality. Rhyming “Just sit and putter” with “ball of butter,” Fanny is hamming it up the way everyone has come to love and anticipate.
There is simply no way to describe the amount of space Sheridan takes up when she sings this, but I will give it my best shot. It is the choreography equivalent of ‘man-spreading’ on a crowded subway. She beats her chest, she points at every person right in their eye, she mimics playing craps, which almost looks sexual in nature- shaking her fist and throwing out imaginary dice. (At least I hope that’s what she’s mimicking…)She ends the song throwing her hands up, and in the last second she even winks and licks her lips like the big bad wolf.
BUT, the message of the song could not be more far removed from her masculine portrayal. She is singing a love ballad about the most tragic-feminine-heroine cliche ever seen on stage: a ballad about risking it all for a guy–possibly giving up her career, going against the advice of her girlfriends, and following after a guy the minute after he says “I love you.”
Fanny is the model of a modern woman. She doesn’t care to be feminine, she has her own job, her own wealth, and ownership over her own sex life. But, she happens to be extremely attracted to the stereotypical masculine man. Her attraction to Nick’s masculinity breaks the audience’s expectation, it is uncharacteristic and is the first time we see Fanny act in a traditional way. It doesn’t break any barriers, nothing about it is revolutionary, or modern, and it seems to follow feminine troupes Fanny systematically rejects.
Fanny the Prophet
When Nick finally convinces her his love is honest and true and they tie the knot, she uses it as an opportunity to spread her ‘revolutionary’ message: ‘If I can do it, anyone can.’ In Sadie, Sadie Fanny talks about the life she will lead as a married lady. It is a complete departure from the Miss Independent, anti-feminine Fanny the audience grew to love. She sings about waiting for her husband to get home from work. She props her feet on the sofa and puts on a robe. She day-drinks and gets giddy about the possibility of starting a family with a baby.
But this ideal housewife dream does stick around for too long. After her first baby, Fanny decides to go back to work. Fanny immediately encounters a small dilemma. Nick declares he needs to miss her first day back at rehearsal in order to secure a business deal. We see a defensive vulnerability come out in Fanny. She starts spiraling and throws her hands into the air and acts frazzled the way only a damsel in distress can. Nick counsels her like a big strong husband should, but she begins to manipulate the situation. When the tiff is over, Nick resigns to stay home and be supportive and miss out on his business opportunity. Fanny may be mascuiline, and she may be bold, but just like all people, she needs people. And, she’s willing to manipulate and even sabotage her man to get what she thinks she wants.
Personal Vs Professional
It is easy for an audience to forget Fanny is a woman. That may seem like an abrupt observation for me to make, but it is important for us as viewers to realize just how unconventional Fanny is.
Before Fanny got married, Fanny became an award-winning comedian, Fanny traveled the world surrounded by beautiful women and Fanny earned inordinate amounts of wealth. If given just that information for 1930’s America, any layman would assume “Fanny” undoubtedly is a man.
It is strange Fanny is a woman.
It is important to realize Fanny broke every barrier possible in her professional life, and her masculine disposition aided her in that aspect. But Fanny is a woman, and even though her masculinity brought her professional success, her deepest needs had to be met from her relationships with people. And when it came down to it, Fanny wanted a relationship that broke no norms, that wasn’t revolutionary, and that relied both on feminine vulnerability and masculine strength. Fanny longed for this kind of relationship. She sang “People who need people, Are the luckiest people in the world.” But Fanny is extraordinary, she was destined for success not dependence.
Fanny loves Nick partially because of his masculinity and partially because he makes her feel like she is finally a woman. This all crumbles when she begins to work behind his back to make him feel like he is needed- not only by her, but by society. Part of what makes Nick the man he is, is his ability to provide for the family financially. When Fanny begins to manipulate his environment to make him feel like he can become the primary breadwinner again, he discovers her plot and feels betrayed and emasculated. His masculinity was all smoke and mirrors, and Fanny was a puppet master all along. This leads him to make drastic plans to win back his masculinity by winning back his money, but his plans are far from legal and he lands in prison.
After Nick is released, Fanny is elated they can be back together again, but Nick ends their relationship. He claims neither of them can change, and they should call it off before they hurt each other any more.
I Feel Pretty
Fanny Bryce was successful because she truly believed that you don’t have to be feminine and beautiful to entertain the world. But, when a man came along that made her feel pretty, she had to keep him. She desperately obsessed to keep him close. And sadly, the thing that made him so attractive, his strong masculinity, is the one thing that she destroyed by keeping him close. His masculinity deteriorated when put up against her success. He didn’t feel needed. He felt like a child’s puppet, kept clean and well groomed by a little girl.
Fanny longed to be a person who needed people. She knew in her heart that relationships with people are just as important as personal success and fame. She assumed her masculinity would be able to stay compartmentalized in her professional life and not shape the way she could lead her personal life. But, Fanny’s masculinity was a part of her, it wasn’t just an act. Any man knows he can have a family and a career, and his job is to keep each aspect of his life in a box. But Fanny is a woman. There was no blueprint for her to follow. Her success was unprecedented in the literal definition of the word.
She was so successful as a woman in a life made for a man that she was not able to understand where she fit in society. How were her relationships supposed to function? How was she supposed to love? If she had a man’s success and a woman’s needs, where is the rule book for how she is supposed to love people?
Fanny Needs Fanny
In the end, Fanny sings her silly love song to herself. Submitting to the idea that she was made for something extraordinary, and she doesn’t get to be one of the luckiest people. She doesn’t need people.
Anna Begins Her Journey
Even though she is responding to the call to be a teacher, when she is thrown into the Eastern culture, she has to rely heavily on norms of which she is not even aware. This can be seen through her complex relationship with the custom of bowing to her superior. Not only is she not used to this ordinance, she also heavily opposes the implications it suggests. Many questionable situations emerge without her acknowledgement, and she goes into passive mode, responding to each situation that knocks her between external societal expectations of her (both from Siam and from her British homeland) and her own expectations to change the world through inspiring others with goodness and decency. Throughout the musical, Anna’s response to the simple protocol of bowing to superiors evolves and shapes how she engages with the king and his children.
Anna Learns to Bow
Her first direct confrontation with her consistent dissent from Eastern norms occurs in the presence and at the service of the king himself. As he explains to her the proper repose one must take in the presence of power, she earnestly and thoughtfully heeds his gentle warning and rebuke. He explains that one’s head must always be lower than the king’s.
The King Learns to Smile
Anna- as the archetype of grace, charm, tolerance, intellect and champion of the ideal human potential- quickly ensures that although the conversation textually remains about their power differential, the overall tenor of the conversation (and soon following, their relationship) slowly transforms into that of old friends. Whether through her innate loving nature or due to her educated and Western status, Anna is a worthy companion. This is by Eastarn standards almost an act of defiance in itself. Without ever overtly speaking against the king’s wishes, she begins to subtly joke with him about the absurdity of this mandate. As a fact of humanity, existing outside Eastern or Western norms, when two people share a common joke they are, at least in that exact moment, equals. The audience and perhaps even Anna, herself, cannot tell if this is a calculated manipulation or an innocent act of friendship that reveals her consistent proclivity to always acknowledge everyone’s shared community.
Where Does Anna Rank?
Soon after Anna is schooled on bowing obedience, the audience is confronted with a subtle yet surprising visual indication that Anna may be consciously or unconsciously beginning to accept her position of status in this, her new hierarchical environment.
Even though we know Anna to be adamantly against the arbitrary elitism wielded tyrannically in Siam, she is seen to accept her superiority over the servants in the palace, subtly but definitively. Whether it be her unwavering insistence in her status as a free woman(owning a home) or her confidence in her higher education, something about her identity leads her to become idle when subtle Eastern cultural practices conflict with her strongly held beliefs in human equality and opportunity. So begins an internal conflict that plays itself out to the end. The same implicit bias from her Western ideals and education that tell her love and liberty matter is the same one that provides her privilege and status as a white Western, educated woman in the presence of a “servant.”
We See Inaction in Action
A servant enters the room in which the King and Anna are conversing, and, obvious to all who see, the servant lowers his head not only lower than the king but lower than Anna. The audience experiences, much to their chagrin, Anna’s distinct and surprising inaction in this moment. Anna does absolutely nothing to correct this subservient action. This inaction indicates that she accepts her superiority over this servant, perhaps only performatively in front of the king, but this sends a message we would never expect her to intend.
Whatever the case, Anna agrees that her natural inclinations toward Western thinking comes with a sense of superiority that she Does. Not. Deny. She lets another man declare himself as lower than she. As an educated, white, ‘friend’ of the king, she does not object to her position, having climbed the social hierarchy morally and legitimately in her mind.
Reminder: She is a teacher
Just as I took a quick aside to remind you that Fanny is a woman, I’d like to take a moment to remind you that Anna is a teacher. She constantly transforms mundane moments into teaching moments. She brings the citizens of Siam and the audience along with her through song and dance in order to answer ordinary questions and teach simple tasks. Her absolute instinctive nature is to teach. Even the very first song Anna ever sings serves as a lesson. I had to reiterate her inclination to educate in order to enhance the points that follow. I beg you to consider how Anna “teaches,” through never suppressing her natural inclinations even within the society of which she disapproves.
Although, for most of the musical, Anna never speaks directly against the injustices she so obviously detects, she teaches compassion, love, and care every day. She takes a simple question about love and responds by transfixing dozens of spectators with a ballad. She takes a private moment of gratitude and teaches the whole room how to express thanks. Does she stick to non-confrontational lessons because she is afraid the Siamese would consider her objections an act of colonization and stop her? Is teaching the children with love and care her strategy to colonize the Siam with Western ideals? Is it her endearing heart that wants to make sure every child knows love- even children of a barbaric, polygamous, patriarchical society? Does she want to be a savior? Or a colonist? Or neither? Is it just in her nature to love and teach?
As a woman, she has no power to speak out. But as an educated woman, she has the knowledge to know how to speak out. But as a Western woman, she struggles with self doubt in regards to whether her objections are morally justified or coming from a sense of colonization.
While struggling to figure out how to survive between her self-imposed expectations and society’s, she continues in her role as teacher. She resolves to teach the children. As she loses her compass to navigate between these two sets of expectations, she directly and indirectly teaches the children HOW to love and care in a way that transcends Eastern and Western ideals. Again, this is seen in the staging and dialogue regarding bowing behavior.
A King’s Final Lesson
The audience doesn’t need to have experienced the on-stage “lessons” with the king’s children in order to recognize that Anna has found her way into the children’s hearts as much as she has the king’s. During his final moments of life, the king grants simple express permission for his children to enjoy being with Anna while he takes his final breaths. This is all the evidence the audience needs to know the impact Anna had on the king’s heart. And, on a personal note I began INCONSOLABLY sobbing when I heard the king selflessly allow his children to experience joy while he was in his darkest hour. And even with his last breaths, the audience is shocked to see a tender-hearted king reach out to his son in a way that mimics a more Western way of fathering. The king asks his son what he will do when he becomes king. While this transfer of power is not in question, the father-son exchange throws the audience into the same awkward space that Anna so often finds herself. Walking the line between respecting Siamese, Eastern ideals and imposing Western ideals. Let us look at their dialogue simplified for your viewing pleasure.
King What will you do as king?
Prince: Make decrees.
The king physically and emotionally struggles to urge his son to push his authority, knowing that the royal children have been taught “better” with Anna.
King: What decree would you make?
Prince: I would decree that during New Year’s Day, we have fireworks and boat races.
King: Why boat races?
Prince: Because I like them… And I’m the king.
The king pushes him one more to dig deeper. Could it be that the prince is simply too young to understand, too hedonistic from his royal upbringing? Did the responses disappoint the king? Why?
King: What would your second decree be.
Prince: Well, from what Anna has taught me, I now realize that bowing is demeaning and dehumanizing and physically and emotionally crippling.
The prince decrees the citizens shall no longer be mandated to bow to the floor in the presence of the king.
The king’s last act before dying was to confidently and intentionally release his son into the loving arms of his caretakers. Both the king’s acts of nurture and the Prince’s decree serve as evidence that even with all of the obstacles her identity brought, Anna made an impact in the royal family, and the whole nation.
The final Bow
The final lesson that we as an audience learn from a bow is heartbreaking and beautifully complex.
As the king dies we watch Anna throw herself to the ground at his feet. The lowest point of his body. This is action encapsulates all of her feelings for him and I would not dare rob you of watching this moment for your self. Draw your own conclusions, but the moment Anna spends bowing at the kings feet manifests the end of her intricate internal turmoil.
Obediency? Respect? Love? Heartache? Whatever she was conflicted about, has washed away and she is fully present in that moment.
Anna and Fanny!
Dear Anna and Fanny. Two very different women, both stuck between societal norms and their drive for autonomy. Both find themselves in situations that force them to assert that which they do not understand in ways about which they are not aware. This limbo, this “space” between naivete and manipulation, spills into their personal lives, and, of course for musicals, this means their love affairs. As tragedy comes, they both are forced out of this limbo-cocoon and confronted with the reality that all they have is themselves. While they may believe they have changed for the better, they discover they didn’t even know what “better” meant. Is this a tragedy lightened up by hope of a love affair or a love affair blasted into pieces by tragedy? I don’t know. Let’s just sing about it.