Black at East High? Good luck.

By: Cheyenne Figaro

The 2000s will be remembered by for a lot of things: Brad and Angelina, the Online Streaming revolution, the rise of the Kardashians, and so many other pop culture phenomena. But if you were to ask the children of the 2000s about the most iconic parts of their childhoods, High School Musical, would make just about everyone’s list. The 2006 film, directed by Kenny Ortega and written by Peter Barsocchini, follows teens Troy and Gabriella as they’re outcasted by their school for enjoying theater and still having lives—I know scandalous! But the real scandals of the movie aren’t Troy’s pipes (later revealed to be Drew Seely because Zac Efron wasn’t a good enough singer) or Zeke’s crème brûlée, instead the real scandal is how racism is weaved throughout the entire script, highlighting Troy and Gabriella, at the expense of Chad, Taylor, and Zeke.

High School Musical is a production near and dear to my heart. I’ve rewatched the trilogy over and over again to the point where I can quote each one as if I’ve read the script. My sixth birthday party was to see HSM 3 (remember movie theaters what a throwback), and I wore my East High cheerleading outfit the first time I went to Disneyland the next year. My full circle moment came when I played the role of Taylor McKessie in my high school production of the show, an experience I’ll treasure in my heart forever. Yet, playing the role of Taylor was an eye-opening experience as it showed me how people view the characters of the musical. When I revealed to people that I was playing Taylor, most responded with “Who?” to my surprise, and then I’d say “Taylor… Gabriella’s best friend… the smart one… *sighs* the Black one” to which I’d receive an “Ohhhhhh her, yeah now I remember.” Not only was I offended as a HSM fan, since Taylor was literally a main character, but I was also offended as a Black girl myself. It shook me that people watched all three movies and only knew Taylor and Chad because of their race. Even worse, I started to realize if Chad, Taylor, and Zeke are merely racial symbols to most fans, then Disney had done a huge disservice to the Black community with their roles.

For a movie all about circumventing stereotypes, the portrayal of the Black characters in High School Musical raises a big question mark for several members of the Creative Team. Disney has a reputation that precedes itself when it comes to Black characters. “Positive” Black girls are usually brown to light skinned, with wavy to straight hair, while “negative” girls are darker skinned with braids or afros. Taylor is the former, her long, wavy hair fits Disney’s idea of what a bright Black girl looks like, pushing aside the fact that most Black people have Type 4 hair which is much kinkier and short. This idea is further reinforced by the casting of Corbin Bleu as Chad, whose hair is light brown and curly, and light skinned. In fact, the only Black character who is darker skinned with short hair is Zeke, and the movie portrays him as desperate and undesirable to a White female lead. Disney has done this time and time again, subliminally messaging that there is a right look and a wrong look for a Black person.

I’ll admit that when I was younger, I didn’t really notice featurism in movies like HSM. Yet, as I got older most of the girls around me started to get perms or texturizers, essentially damaging their hair to get the straight hair look that all the Black girls on TV had. Even worse, we’d unconsciously gained self-hate and turned that internalized racism on girls who had kinkier 4C hair or who were darker skinned. Watching Disney shows and movies as a teen always make me question: Why? What was the motive behind perpetuating racism and damaging the self-esteem of a generation of Black boys and girls? Chad and Taylor may not have been main characters, but they were just as important as Troy and Gabriella to me and every other Black child watching the show. So why couldn’t we have seen ourselves on the Big Screen looking the way we do in everyday life? Having any representation at all is great, but it wasn’t really me who was being represented, but a vision of me that White directors and writers wanted to uphold. In a perfect world, Taylor would have been a revolutionary character with braids or kinkier hair because she would affirm what every Black girl already knows in her heart—the Black girl with natural hair can be successful too. Zeke could’ve showed Black boys that they’re desirable too. But no, this isn’t a perfect world, and so the Black audience is just left to deal with the fact that this what we get, and it’s what we usually get: lackluster representation because of negligent decisions with casting.

Here’s a fun fact: Casting Directors and Writers should be best friends throughout a project. It’s astounding that Peter Barsocchini never realized that the delivery of his story was heavily based on the race of the actors playing each role. Let’s take Taylor for instance, a smart, ambitious brainiac who recruits Gabriella for the Science Decathlon. On the surface, Barsocchini did quite an amazing job in breaking stereotypes by highlighting a studious and ambitious Black student, as opposed to the typical script of the Black students who don’t care about school at all. Yet, the musical takes things a bit further by labeling Taylor’s assertion as bossiness, and her advice as demands. This attitude shift would have been fine if Taylor’s race wasn’t a factor, but unfortunately it is. Taylor, as well as Chad, is villainized for not fitting into the Black best friend trope. They have their own ideas and are equally as intelligent or athletic as their leads, and the writers compensate for this by making them use their power with bad intention. Taylor starts to play into the angry, Black woman stereotype (as much as she can in a TV-PG film), and her intelligence is eclipsed by her sneaky behavior and aggression. Obviously, there must be drama in the story, but the writing for Taylor conveys the message that Black girls who are too focused or too ambitious are in some way harmful.

 The Black men get the short end of the stick as well, in fact a shorter end. Chad, who is literally just trying to tell Troy that he doesn’t have time to for Basketball practice and musical rehearsals, is made out to be the bad guy to fit a narrative. First of all, I wish someone could’ve been on top of my time management in high school and told me to drop an extracurricular or two. Second, this movie gets Black male representation so wrong. Chad is the dumb jock, who couldn’t possibly see past a basketball for two seconds (seriously why does he always have that thing?) to envision a world with multifaceted people. Zeke’s entire role is to be comedic relief, a role that Black men often play as even in real life they’re taken more seriously as comedians. Not only that, but his chasing after Sharpay is subtly denouncing the idea of a successful interracial relationship, making even the suggestion of one seem funny to the audience. The characterizations of Taylor, Chad, and Zeke suggest that nobody behind the scenes even for a second considered that these characters were Black, or they considered it and didn’t care. What’s abundantly clear, above all else, is that there were barely, if any, Black creators behind the scenes of the production, a fact that jumped out the screen every time one of these characters was present.

There were a few moments throughout the movie where I scratched my head thinking, “Nobody saw an issue with this?” Moments where a Black creator was desperately needed in the Writers’ room or on the Production team because the scene made absolutely no sense. The worst of these is when Taylor refers to athletes as “Neanderthals” and “Aggressors” who “contribute little to society”, as if most of the NBA and NFL aren’t Black men. Excuse me, but Taylor the Black girl is the one calling Black men useless animals? Whoever wrote that entire monologue should have been fired on the spot because Taylor really equated one of the few roles where Black men successfully dominate to the Darwin evolution chart (Did they miss the lesson on Darwin being a racist?). Many Black athletes were the first in their families to move out of impoverished neighborhoods, have set up charities and foundations, and many of them provide for their families in ways that Black people were excluded from for centuries in the United States. Taylor’s rhetoric about Troy Bolton isn’t really about this fictional White character but instead attacks Black boys who were supposed to feel lesser for being good at sports. There’s nothing wrong with Black boys wanting to be athletes, and just like any other race of people they should be pushed to succeed in whatever they enjoy in life. This doesn’t have to be sports, because Black boys aren’t only athletes, but it very well could be and that should be acceptable. Aside from this very offensive moment, on a broader scale the whole musical is tone deaf towards Black people. It is simply unrealistic that two of the main proponents of stereotypes in East High are Black students. More than most other people, Black teens understand what it’s like to be labeled as one thing for your whole life when you have the potential to be so much more. Taylor and Chad should have been Troy and Gabriella’s main supporters, but instead were written in more of a colorblind manner to serve the narrative. Unfortunately for High School Musical, colorblindness doesn’t do much but give breathing room to microaggressions, and racism, and a complete mishandling of characters because they aren’t written with intention. Taylor, Chad, and Zeke could have and should have been much more, but they were shorthanded to make other characters shine even more.

Despite their negligence towards race, the High School Musical creators did create something magical. I’m still obsessed with the trilogy and I’ll forever attach my love for musicals to watching the films as a child. Truthfully, Disney has evolved in terms of social awareness both in front and behind the scenes. Many shows like Andi Mack, Raven’s Home, K.C. Undercover and more, work to help children unlearn the harmful stereotypes that Disney was too negligent to catch in its earlier days. They also ensure that children of all races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations see themselves in a multitude of storylines and roles so that they understand the possibilities are endless. I’m not saying Disney is perfect, of course there’s always room to grow, but I’m glad that children now aren’t only limited to movies like High School Musical and have tons of Disney Originals to choose from to see accurate representation and purposeful, wholesome representation, which is what all production companies should strive for.

“We’re All In This Together”…Unless You’re a POC- By Seli Buatsi & Esther Ayoade

Esther: You know I have never watched High School Musical, can you tell me about it?

Seli: How are you going to call a movie that you have never seen boring? smh😒. Anyway, the movie High School Musical was made in 2006, written by Peter Barsocchini and directed by Kenny Ortega. It highlights the life of two high school students, Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez, as they attempt to break the status quo by trying out for their school’s musical.

Seli: It was magical wasn’t it?

Esther: Ok, not gonna lie, it was pretty good.

Seli: Seeeeeee! I told you!


Esther: BUT, I feel like the production was hypocritical.

Seli: What do you mean? 

Esther: Wellll, you mentioned that the moral of High School Musical was to show how different cliques can come together to break the status quo, right?

Seli: Yea…

Esther: So if that’s the case, then why did the producers cast the way they did? The producers of High School Musical worked against the movie’s message of overcoming the status quo by casting roles that perpetuate racial stereotypes and exclude minorities. For example, the female protagonist, Gabriella Montez, is Latina. However, her part is played by Venessa Hudgens who is ethnically Filipino and Irish. Although the writers of High School Musical attempted to create a Latina lead, the casting of a Non-Latina actress to play this part was a complete misrepresentation of the character. By allowing Vanessa Hudgens to pose as Latina, it tells the Latinx viewers that they should be limited on the Hollywood stages. In turn, by not allowing Vanessa Hudgens to portray her true identity as a Filipino, it tells the Filipino viewers that they as well, are not good enough to be the lead in a musical movie.

Seli: Actually, your right! In addition to the false representation of a Latina lead, there was a severe lack of racial representation within the entire cast. The movie took place 2006 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2010, this city had a population that was 46.7 percent Hispanic/Latino. However, in the movie, there was not a single lead actor of true Hispanic/Latino descent. Instead, producers selected a cast and ensemble mainly made up of white actors and actresses. The only people of color that had a significant role were the only three Black characters in the film: Taylor, Chad, and Zeke. 

Esther: Oh wow really! You bring up a good point pertaining to the makeup of the cast. I didn’t even catch that it took place in New Mexico. With the number of white people in the school, I would have assumed the setting was some rural area in Alabama.😂

Seli: Ikr! 😂 And you know what else? The two Black actors in High School Musical with the most prominent roles were Chad and Taylor. Both actors played a part that is known all too well by African-Americans in Hollywood: the “Black best friend.” In the movie, Corbin Bleu plays Troy’s best friend since childhood, Chad Danforth; Monique Coleman plays the part of Gabriella’s brainiac friend, Taylor McKessie. The writers give very little attention to the lives of Chad and Taylor apart from Troy and Gabriella. The purpose of the “Black best friend” is to uplift the lead characters in times of need. At first, Chad and Taylor attempt to break up Troy and Gabriella but by the end of the movie, the “Black best friends” resume their role and help their best friends make the callback. 

Esther: That is very true! The issue is not only that the Black characters were side-characters, but also that they were portrayed as athletes. Black men are usually associated with athletes, and athletes are stereotyped as unintelligent. So when Black men are placed in athletic roles, it raises a problem that the Black community has been facing for decades. Black men in America are seen as lazy people who add nothing to the advancement of society due to their lack of education. This idea was first portrayed in the movie when the basketball team was made the binary to the academic decathlon group, insinuating the lack of academic skills within the athletes. It is seen again when Taylor, from the academic decathlon, refers to the basketball players as “lunkhead basketball men.” She claims that “Troy Bolton represents one side of evolution, and our side [the academic decathlon team], the side of education and accomplishment, is the future of civilization.” This quote is detrimental to the image of athletes which is also detrimental to Black men. Because of America’s history of racial oppression, many Black men remain in poverty and society teaches them to rely on professions such as rap and sports, rather than a good education, “to make it out of the hood.”  The producers casted the Black men as basketball players instead of allowing them to play other parts, adding to the dangerous idea that Black men have brawn but not brains.

Seli: The roles of Chad and Taylor also play into the stereotypes that society holds for Black people. The writers wrote the attitude of these two characters very differently than they wrote Troy and Gabriella. The contrast in their attitudes works to bring out the best in the movie’s protagonists. When Chad confronts Troy about auditioning for the Spring Musical in the library, he raises his voice and slams a basketball into Troy’s chest. He then proceeds to ignore the librarian’s request for him to lower his voice. Chad’s loud and aggressive actions towards Troy define him as a hostile and an inconsiderate character, whereas Troy is painted as more reserved and polite. When the movie first introduces Taylor, the audience hears her make a snarky comment about how Chad couldn’t count to fifteen. Later, when Taylor is attempting to get Gabriella on the Academic Decathlon team and begins her speech about Troy, Gabriella tries to get up and go to her rehearsal, but Taylor shouts, making Gabrielle sit back down in fear. She then proceeds with her lengthy presentation where she slams her stick and insults Troy. These actions paint Taylor to be incredibly pretentious and rude, characteristics that work to bring out Gabriella’s purity and innocence. This aggressive, loud, and rude portrayal of Black characters in the film reinforces many of the preconceptions that people hold about African Americans. Because there is already a limited number of Black characters in High School Musical, the writers should have been more cautious of what these roles represented. 

Esther: In contrast to the improper representation of Black characters as “dumb athletes” and aggressive, the producers managed to exempt key aspects of the Black community. Knowing they have such a young audience (or even 18-year-olds😉), the producers should have incorporated these important aspects to teach the kids how to divert from the status quo. 

Let’s delve into the hairstyles of the main female characters.




Many white girls watching High School Musical, may see nothing wrong with long, silky, curls because to them it is normal. Now, imagine a young Black girl, with thick, nappy, 4c hair watching High School Musical. What message does this musical send her? It tells her that revealing a natural afro is unacceptable for society and not beautiful. When Black girls like Taylor have the opportunity to wear their natural kinks in the media, the producers cover it up with a wig that resembles the texture and curl pattern of white people instead. The producers even had the perfect opportunity to develop a relationship between Zeke and Sharpay, as a way to dismiss the taboo of interracial couples, yet they do not. Decisions such as these make me wonder: how were the producers trying to send a message to not “stick to the status quo,” yet turn around and cast according to racial stereotypes?

Seli: Wow you’re so right! Watching this musical again with a critical mind was incredibly eye-opening. As a kid, I thought the movie only taught the importance of breaking the status quo, but I did not realize the deep-rooted internalized racism that it taught minorities like myself. The movie places characters of different races in the film only to misrepresent them or make them secondary to the white characters. I will still forever love High School Musical; the music, the dancing, and the message that the writers tried to convey. However, the way that the producers chose to cast the movie was problematic. A great indication of improvement by Disney though, is the creation of the show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. The show centers around a high school and their attempt to produce and perform the Musical, High School Musical. Ironically the female lead in High School Musical: The Musical: The series, Olivia Rodrigo, is ethnically half Filipino and half white, similar to Vanessa Hudgens. However, in the High School Musical: The Musical: The series, Olivia Rodrigo portrays her true identity as a Filipino. There is an apparent effort to include more diversity in the cast of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series not only racially, but also by including two members of the LGBTQ society and greater body diversity.
Esther: I am so glad you told me this. We tend to forget that High School Musical was made in 2006, and a lot of the things we do and say now, were not acceptable back then. It gives me hope that society is moving towards a path of inclusion and diversity, or what our generation likes to call it, “being woke.”

Seli’s Big Break

A Marxist Reading of Les Misérables

By: Priya Sankaran

We live in a land governed by law, structures, and institutions– all things we consider to be marks of a civilized and just nation. However, as the year 2020 has shown us, all that glitters is not gold. Under the shroud of this “virtuous” system, there is deeply entrenched inequality that affects the poorest, most marginalized people of the world. 2020 has further shown us that there comes a breaking point in society, where the most oppressed finally rise up against the powerful in order to create meaningful change.

Theories of Marxism detail this phenomenon. Within the context of Marxist philosophy, which proposes the abolishment of capitalism and class structure, the upper class of a society aims to hold economic power by establishing their status quo as natural and unchallengeable.The success of the dominant class (bourgeoisie) is in making their ideologies accepted and internalized by others, not necessarily through violence, but with the implementation of social institutions that subjugate the lower class (proletariat). Social institutions include government, religion, and other systems in society. 

The 2012 film musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Misérables, is a story that follows this Marxist narrative arc, as it portrays a class struggle between an oppressed working class and elite bourgeoisie during a time of political instability and spurring revolutionary sentiments in 19th century France. Les Misérables features the justice system and its enforcers as the predominant social institution that seeks to suppress the vulnerable. This musical follows the struggle of Jean Valjean, a poor ex-convict, as he attempts to rebuild a dignified life following his release from prison. Despite his commitment to a virtuous and altruistic path, Valjean cannot conceal his identity indefinitely and must face his past. In the end, he, along with the French proletariat, break free from their struggles and move towards freedom. 

In Les Misérables, the criminal justice system and its proponents are social institutions in place that legitimize the authority of a powerful ruling class by subjugating convicted peasants. Legality is not a reflection of morality in this case, as Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman, served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Throughout the film, he is chased by Javert, played by Russel Crowe,a puritanical prison guard turned police inspector who is staunchly bent on upholding the law.

The opening song of the film, “Look Down”, unveils the ways in which a restrictive justice system demands order and obedience from its prisoners, often compromising the prisoners’ autonomy and enforcing a state of silent conformity. In this scene, hundreds of battered prisoners are clad in tattered red and grey robes, with chains restraining their necks and bodies.The prisoners are all males with unkempt beards, shaven heads, and filthy, blood-stained faces. They are separated into rows and are laboriously hauling a giant ship to shore with their bare hands. The costuming and makeup of the prisoners conveys a look of homogeneity. The prisoners begin to sing “Look down, look down/You’ll always be a slave/ Look down, look down/ You’re standing in your grave.” With each beat of the song they grunt and pull the ropes in unison. This gives the effect that the prisoners are all cogs in a machine, commodities that are being used as a form of mass production, which is characteristic of capitalism. The prisoners are essentially a mechanized force that must work on command. The camera then pans up to Javert, who is wearing a blue uniform and a smug look of authority. He is standing hundreds of feet above the prisoners which shows him literally and figuratively looking down on them. Thus, there is a clear imbalance of power. As a pawn of the elite ruling class and its laws, Javert is invested in imposing strict regulations on his prisoners. He monitors the prisoners as they labor on, keeping an eye out for any sign of defiance. Behavior exemplifying contention or provocation, the very qualities that characterize a person’s agency, threaten the homogenous balance maintained by Javert. 

As the prisoners sing, Javert catches the eyes of Valjean, who peers up at him with contempt. After the prisoners finish their task, they begrudgingly walk back to their prison doors. Everyone except Valjean, that is. Javert sifts Valjean out of the long line and orders him to retrieve a fallen French flag. The flag is enormous and heavy, but Valjean completes his task without complaint. There is irony in that Valjean, an unjustly victimized prisoner, is literally carrying French ideals of liberty and democracy on his back, all while suffering under an oppressive system. Javert then sings “Now prisoner 24601/Your time is up and your parole’s begun/Follow to the letter your itinerary/This badge of shame you’ll show until you die”.

These lyrics reveal three key ideas about Valjean’s and Javert’s role in society. Firstly, Javert never calls Valjean by name, but rather a five-digit number which strips him of any individuality. He is understood as a piece of inventory that Javert must check up on. Secondly, when Javert hands Valjean the papers he must carry with him for the rest of his life, he is highlighting the immutable nature of Valjean’s identity. No matter how virtuous or redeemable Valjean becomes in the future, he is tainted by his past inferior identity. This is another method through which the bourgeoisie can keep the masses under their control, without any possibility of social mobility. Lastly, Javert and the ideas he represents- dutifulness and strict adherence to the law- reveal how unforgiving the judicial system is as a social institution. In particular, Russel Crowe’s singing (if you can even call it that) represents Javert’s extremely rigid nature. He sings plainly without emotion, almost as if he’s shouting.This relays a sense of  robotism and monotony. Although Valjean is a slave to the elite class, Javert is a slave to the system of law. He is so blindly engrossed in his duty that he is unable to see the cruelty of his own actions. Thus, Javert’s characterization shows how such repressive, un-empathetic social institutions can operate so powerfully. 

Another key concept of Marxism is the idea that a power struggle between the dominant ruling class and the oppressed working class ultimately leads to a revolution by the proletariat to create a new society where class structures are abolished. When looking through a Marxist critical lens, Les Misérables highlights conflicting interactions between French elites and the poor working class through the reprise of “Look Down” and the inevitable revolution is characterized through “Do you hear the people sing?” The reprise of “Look Down” features different lyrics to the initial rendition, “Look down and see the beggars at your feet/Look down and show some mercy if you can.”  During this scene, hundreds of impoverished men, women, and children have surrounded the luxuriant horse-drawn carriages of the rich. Unlike the first rendition, they do not silently accept their destitution. Instead, they directly confront their oppressors. A brave little boy, Gavroche, goes so far as to jump in a carriage himself. He sings with passion “This is my school, my high society/Here in the slums of Saint Michele we live on crumbs of humble piety.” At this point in the musical, the working class has broken out of their false consciousness. False consciousness is a false sense of understanding the proletariat have regarding the reality of their situation. The proletariat often do not realize that they are being exploited by the bourgeoisie. Marxist philosophy argues that the proletariat must break through their false consciousness to fully understand their oppression and work towards achieving a classless society, often by overthrowing the government. This song thus represents that moment of breaking free.

Finally, the song “Do you hear the people sing?” marks the incumbent revolution of the proletariat. In particular, the final reprise of the song showcases the new power that the proletariat hold. Although it is a fictional scene in which Valjean has joined the revolutionaries in the afterlife, it still conveys a sense of new beginnings. The proletariat are standing atop a monolith of broken wood pieces, patched together like a mismatched quilt. Dozens of French flags of various sizes sway in the wind as the people sing. The film ends on an optimistic note, suggesting the possibility of a better future for all people. 

In conclusion, the film adaptation of Les Misérables is a representation of Marxist philosophy, depicting the journey of a marginalized working class that breaks through the establishment of the exploitative ruling class. In particular, we see how the criminal justice system as a social institution is employed by the powerful in an attempt to subjugate the lower class, generally by restricting their autonomy and individuality. However, once the working class recognize their oppression, they are able to revolt and make strides toward their freedom. 

To Live, Love, Fight on No Day but Today.

Xinyi Wang

The light is shining, and the music is on. A group of youths, in different skin colors and fashion styles, are jumping on and off the bar table, hitting the table with beats, singing “La vie Boheme.”  They are cheering like they are not the ones who are without enough savings to pay their rent, but with AIDs, disdain from the society, and the threats of dying anytime in the future. They are Mark, Roger, Mimi, Collins, Angel, Maureen, and Joanne; they are homosexuals, transexuals, AIDs patients, paupers, nobody in the society. But they are the answers that Jonathan Larson, the playwright of musical Rent, gives to the question: if you are in desperation, or even in threats of dying, what will you do?

            Mimi’s answer is to live devotedly. With enchanting and expectant facial expressions, she dances with music, rotates into Roger’s chest, and asks him to play “out tonight.” As an exotic dancer, Mimi is confident in her body and attractiveness, so when she finds Roger charming, she starts her actions at once. But Roger rejects her, at the time when both of them disclose their HIV positive results to each other. However, Mimi doesn’t quit. Since the moment she was diagnosed with AIDS, she has decided to live her life to the fullest and to leave no regrets. By holding Roger’s hand, looking into his eyes genuinely, and singing “I live this moment as my last. There’s only us. There’s only this. Forget regret, or life is yours to miss. No other road. No other way. No day but today” over and over again, Mimi is conducting her philosophy of life to him. Roger, on the other hand, refuses to open his mind to Mimi by keeping his back to her while holding his head with his hands. Both his shouts of “Control your temper” and fretted body movements show his struggle and depression about the future. The duet is powerful, high-pitched, and verse after verse at first, illustrating the irreconcilable conflicts between the two loved ones. During the latter part of the duet, Roger’s sound gradually falls below Mimi’s, sticking out her urges of “no day but today.”

            Angel’s answer is to love earnestly. She lights up the stage not only with her shiny appearance but also her beautiful qualities. She is often disguised as a woman, wearing heavy makeup, wigs, and colorful uppers, clothes, and skirts, high heels. She is kind, unsophisticated, and warm-hearted, as shown by his first appearance, during which she helps a stranger on the street without asking for any return. It is also her kindness that pushes her to help Collins the other day and lets them get to know each other. As Collins introduces her to his friends, Angel shows up to the accompaniment of the harp, a soothing and elegant melody that is distinctive throughout music on this stage: she is indeed an angel. She spreads positivity wherever he goes. When a lady asks for her help to make her neighbor’s dog disappear, she is happy to help; when she “agreed on a fee, a thousand dollar guarantee, tax-free” with the lady, she shares this exhilarating news with her friends in huge excitement, as demonstrated by her legs kicking up and down. When Collins asks her “Are we a thing?” she answered, “Darling, we are everything.” Sadly, Angel succumbs to her disease during the second act of the show, but her love continues to shine on her friends. When Mimi is close to death, she encounters Angel in front of the white light, telling her to “Turn around, girlfriend, and listen to that boy’s song.” Angel suffers from AIDS and disdain for her abnormal dressing and sexual identity, but she uses the most optimistic and active lifestyle to cherish every emotion that everyone around her gives her, treats everyone with the purest feelings in return. Angel lives to love others and to contribute to others. 

Mark, Roger, Mimi, Collins, Angel, Maureen, Joanne, and more ambitious young people’s answer is to fight fearlessly. They fight for justice and for their dreams.

How do you start a fire

When there’s nothing to burn

And it feels like something’s stuck in your flue

How can you generate heat

When you can’t feel your feet

Drama songs use a lot of parallelisms to ask questions, creating a sense of oppression. They are expected to “start a fire” when “there is nothing to burn”; they are forced to pay the rent of the worst houses in the city when their pockets are empty. These ionic rhetoric questions in a row vividly depict to the audiences a group of people who are suffering from cold and hunger yet is asked to pay for a burden that they cannot afford.

We’re not gonna pay

We’re not gonna pay

We’re not gonna pay

Last year’s rent

This year’s rent

Next year’s rent

Rent rent rent rent rent

We’re not gonna pay rent

Cause everything is rent

This group has repeatedly emphasized that they “are not gonna pay” rent, whether it is the rent of “last year”, “this year” or “next year.” These most frequently repeated phrases can express the resolute attitude of the renters. The word “last year” represents the uptight life these people have experienced in past years. The word “next year” expresses their unwillingness to accept rent anytime in the future, because they will be oppressed more severely on more issues than today, housing, job, sexuality, health — “everything is rent”. The ending sentence of this number has deeper implications. Everything used in the world is bestowed by nature, which never belongs to anyone, as no one has the right to dominate it. A world within which everything is rent should be a fair one, but it treats this group too unfairly. Therefore, they fight. They fight to not pay the rent; they fight to continue the protest party; they fight against the ones who depreciate them. Additionally, the life of these youths can be considered as rent. They are thankful to God for every day they are alive, as Mimi confesses in her song, “I live this moment as my last.” They rent their life from God, and the life will be paid back sooner or later. Like someone suffering from AIDS rents weak life from the god of death and rents hopeless love from the god of love, the young people enjoy what they have now and cherish the current moment to achieve their dreams. One year has passed, Roger successfully accomplishes his much-sought-after song, “Your eyes”, confessing his love to Mimi; Mark makes great progress on his newly completed film; Collins reprograms an ATM at a grocery store to provide money to anybody with the code ‘ANGEL’.                    

These seven youths’ lives perfectly answer the question at the beginning: to live devotedly, to love earnestly, and to fight fearlessly when in a desperate fate. It is no doubt that they will continue to glow in their fictional Alphabet City. 

            In reality, Jonathan Larson creates these characters based on his own experience and his friends around him. He focuses on the exotic dancer, homosexuals, bisexuals, drag queens, drug abusers, AIDS carries — a population whose careers and sexualities are not accepted by the mainstream society. During his seven-year-production, he gradually fulfills every character’s personality and traits with patient and love.

            In addition to the variety of characters, the diversity of music in Rent is also noticeable. Most of the songs in the play area in the style of rock. It is because of rock’s specialty that allows the audiences to truly experience the cries of discriminated groups. For example, the opening song “Rent” not only explains the background of the drama but also establishes the tone of the whole musical. This song depicts a group of disadvantaged groups who have been treated unfairly by society to complain about their experience — most of them are on the verge of death but are forced to pay rent or be swept out. This kind of strong dissatisfaction requires a rough and surging way to vent, so the rock is the most suitable. This is also in line with the original intention of the whole musical: to reflect the lives of disadvantaged groups the most truthfully and to awaken people’s inner care. Jazz is another most used music style in Rent, and it is adopted in many songs, such as “Accept Me or Leave Me”. The song is presented as a duet and is a quarrel between a newly married lesbian, who have conflicts about whether or not they can flirt with others at will after marriage. The inconsistency and the eclectic melodies of Jazz portraits the couple with different ways of doing things and personalities. 

            Larson presented such a rich variety of musical styles for the musical, accomplishing over 100 songs. Unfortunately, he didn’t see his works translated into 16 languages, performed in over 150 cities in 21 countries, and winning dozens of praises like the Tony Award. But what he did will be remembered forever: a legendary musical, a group of ambitious, lovely, kind characters, and the idea of life: to live, love, fight, on no day but today.

“Outcast on the Outskirts”

By: Tobi Akisanya

Van Gough, Martin Luther King Jr., and Albert Einstein. Why name such names you might ask? All of these individuals were outcast- in one way or another- during their own time. Each of these individuals contributed great thought to our world, thoughts that society once believed belonged on the outskirts. What would our world be without Van Gough’s masterpiece, Starry Night? Or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech? Or Einstein’s theory of relativity? The world has changed for the better because of these outcasts. Exhibiting such bravery to put ideas out into the world has been the driving force for the world’s greatest movers and shakers. The 2008 Broadway production of Shrek the Musical capitalizes on the fact that unique and different creatures give the world its luster. This show directed by Micheal John Warren follows the main character Shrek as he journeys through life’s misfortune to find the treasures he never knew he needed. Shrek the Musical is a testament to the bravery and determination of marginalized people, told under the landscape of a captivating fairytale universe.  

From the start of the musical, Shrek’s parents are clear about what the world will think of him and give him little to no hope for a future outside of the roles society has created for him. As Shrek searches the world as a young boy he is made to feel ugly, disgusting and undesirable by the people around him. Similarly members of marginalized communities are beaten down by the constructs of society, so much so that they lose all hope. The show’s opening song, “Big Bright Beautiful World,” is all about how the world is not big, bright, or beautiful when you ogre or are an outsider. As Shrek grows up throughout the song, he slowly finds a way to make due within the role society has made for him. He recognizes that the world is exclusive yet, he has no desire to change it. He is ok being alone. He insists he does not need other people because he has never had other people. Little does Shrek know that there is a whole gang of people who have been designated as social outcasts just like him. These characters are without a happy ending at the hands of the evil Lord Farquaad. My favorite thing about the introduction to the fairytale creatures in “Story of My Life” is that they are all individualized. They are no monolith. They are all creatures that have had unique circumstances that had led them to their current state. Common fairytale stories and folklore are integrated into the lyrics and dialogue, making it familiar and funny to the audience. At the end of “Story of My Life” Shrek confronts the fairytale creatures’ hope by asking,“haven’t you heard the stories?” This statement suggests that the individuals within stories feel constrained to them. In reality, these creatures find that their truths don’t lie in the stories written for them but in their own experiences. In the beginning Shrek knows nothing other than the story created for him so in turn he rejects everything else. The fairytale creatures want an “ever after,” something Shrek doesn’t feel is attainable given his circumstances. But in order to regain his swamp, Shrek starts his quest out of annoyance but eventually joins the movement for justice himself.

Just like the fairy tale creatures, Fiona has hope that something greater lies ahead for her and her life, most importantly the hope for love. She never lets her circumstances take her eye of the prize that is her future husband, not even for the 8,423 days she is stuck in the tower. “Morning Person” signifies Fiona’s ability to renew her hope every day. Performed by Broadway’s tap dancing queen Sutton Foster, the choreography in “Morning Person” is light and airy and full of the rejuvenation she is feeling. She isn’t perfect and poised, but to me that is what makes her unique. Fiona’s feisty personality challenges Shrek for the better. Shrek is not used to people challenging him. In “I Think I Got You Beat” Shrek expresses that doesn’t believe that anything Fiona has experienced is anything compared to what he has experienced. As they prove each other wrong over the course of the song, their difficult pasts form a connection that will last until they are married at the ending of the show. Our problems inevitably bring us together. Shrek and Finona’s bond serves as evidence to the fact that love and care are results of empathy found in shared experiences. 

A journey is nothing without someone to encourage you along the way. Enter Donkey. Donkey is essentially a life coach oozing with self confidence and confidence to share with others. Donkey is the guide, the glue, the comedic relief, and maybe even the best character in the show. His kindness is showcased perfectly in the scene before his first solo, “Don’t Let me Go.” Donkey highlights the importance of sticking together through life’s journey. Before even knowing who Shrek is, he vows to stay by his side as a friend, and companion whether Shrek wants him in his life or not. He sees through Shrek’s hard exterior and gives him the chance he has never had. Again, as Donkey is trying to get through to Shrek during “Who I’d Be” he asks Shrek,”what’s your problem with the world?” Shrek responds by saying, “it isn’t me who has the problem, it’s the whole world that has a problem with me.” For the first time we are able to see the result of Donkey’s attempt to crack Shrek’s tough-guy persona. This song gives Shrek an opportunity to share his hope, fears, and ambitions under the comfort of the moonlit sky. We can be the people we want to be but that begins with the believing that we can, and bad circumstances don’t have to be permanent if we don’t want them to be. When Shrek begins to realize his potential halfway through the show he starts his upward climb towards happiness. For the first time, Shrek is able to smile in the face of his hopes and dreams.  

Throughout Shrek the Musical, almost every character is affected negatively by the show’s key oppressor: Lord Farquaad. Lord Farquaad has a huge personality without the stature to match it (oh how I love the irony of Broadway). Farquaad only wants to have people in his life so they can serve him, making him the epitome of a bully and a gaslighter. The environment that Lord Farquaad creates throughout Duloc reminds me of racism and gentrification, a target on the backs of marginalized peoples. He only wants people that fit his vision of perfection inhabiting Duloc when in reality the fairytale creatures add the allure to Duloc in the first place. Throughout the musical number “What’s up, Duloc,” the Duloc dances are like robots. Their dance moves are rigid, lacking the vivaciousness of a happy life. They lack nuance, so Farquaad can stand out instead. They also wear the same colors to ensure that their “fashion is never clashing.” Call and response singing speaks to the fact citizens of Duloc are not allowed to set the tone in their lives, making them victims to Farquaad’s system. It isn’t until “The Ballad of Farquaad” that we learn that Farquaad is exploiting the fairytale creatures because of his own insecurities (sound familiar?). Farquaad wishes the books were about him instead of the fairy tale creatures. Farquadd has problems just like everyone else but instead wants to make everyone else’s life harder because of it. Just like Shrek and Donkey joke, Farquaad truly is compensating for something, and it’s not just his height. 

Marginalized communities can only be marginalized for so long before a stand for justice is proposed. As “Freak Flag” suggests, the only way to combat oppression is to challenge the oppressor. By the end of the show the fairytale creatures are done waiting for miracles; they want to create their own. Gingy rightfully exclaims at the beginning of “Freak Flag” that,” It’s time to stop hiding, it’s time to stand up tall, say ‘hey world, I’m different’, and here I am splinters and all.” “Freak Flag” is all about embracing who you are and using individuality to fight your battles. Over the course of one song the fairytale creatures are able to reshape their mindsets and take initiative when they notice that the needs of their community have become dire. They are and are no longer galumphing around in misery as they did in “Story of My Life”. They stand together with hands locked in unification, in order to take down Farquaad by the end of the show.

 We as human beings or even fairytale creatures have the agency to take the front seat in our own stories. No matter the obstacle life throws at us, we can rise up, conquer, and bridge divides. We must recognize our flaws and love ourselves in spite of them. After all, “what makes us special makes us strong.”

Harry Potter and the Riddikulus Musical

By Matthew Arcuri

A Formal Look Into Parody and Celebration… and Musical Theatre 

Both the art of musical theatre and the art of parody help ground the phantasmagoric, rooting it in realism, narrative, and personal connection. Stories can take us on journeys and adventures beyond our wildest imaginations. They delight and entertain us with breaks from reality and logic and allow us to let our minds wander with glee and anticipation. Books can do this through pages and pages of unexpected action, beautiful description and complex character development. However, although books can tell stories of wonder, they are limited in their ability to connect to their audience about the material and the story itself. Books don’t help their reader interact with their stories, but THAT is where musical theatre and comedy shine. 

Honesty time: The last few months I have been under the delusion that before this class I had never written about musical theatre. That is not true. I am a huge Harry Potter fan and I allowed that passion to lead me into a full university course dedicated to Harry Potter. And for my final essay in that course, I turned in an essay titled  “Harry Potter and the Riddikulus Musical: An Informal Look Into Parody and Celebration.” It was an essay about how parody can help bring people together to enjoy a story that would otherwise be enjoyed alone. The essay focused on A Very Potter Musical and how it celebrates the absurdity of the Harry Potter Universe through comedy. I gave little to no thought about how the art of musical theatre itself also contributed to my academic celebration of absurdity and– actually never even thought about the medium at all. SO, I will now make my attempt to rewatch the musical (with its original 2009 youtube recording) and give true due diligence to the theatrical medium and how these students used it to create an irreverent work of art that allows Harry Potter fans the chance to connect to the story they love in ways they never have before. 

A Very Potter Musical

A Very Potter Musical takes the story of the most popular book franchise and turns it into theatrical and musical moments that the entire fanbase can enjoy together. The most famous character in the musical is the two headed villain Quirrell/Voldemort, the dynamic duo,  played by Brian Rosenthal and Joe Walker respectively. They poke fun at a circumstance no reader would have ever thought to question- what’s it like having two heads on one body?

Rosenthal and Walkers costume consists of two robes sown together at the back and a bit of facepaint on Walker to make him look like a ghostly nose-less creep. They stand back to back and struggle to walk in unison throughout the course of the musical. To complete the “body” Walker pokes his arms through the robe creating a bulbous lumpy man with four legs, two heads, and no feasible way to preform any simple physical task.

J. K. Rowling expected us to accept the anatomical possibility of someone’s head being attached to the back of someone else’s head. The musical points out the absurdity of this by portraying the day-to-day life of Quirrell/Voldemort such as sleeping and brushing teeth. We are even introduced to Voldemort through a sneeze coming from the back of Quirrell’s head.  Rosenthal and Walker bring a sense of everyday normalcy to an absolutely bizarre situation. Voldemort even orders Quirrell to wash the turban hiding Voldemort’s face simply because the turban tickles his nose. It is these touches of theatrical comedy that flew over my head the first time I took an academic look into this production. 

It isn’t just jokes and parody that help the audience connect with this material, it is also something so distinct within theatrical storytelling. The point of this comedic duo is clear from the very beginning. To delight the audience. The jokes are all one “hot take” after another- providing the audience with new perspectives on the story they wouldn’t be able to gain just from the source material alone. The duo plays off the audiences laughter letting the audience set the tone for the characters situation. 

They follow this “Odd Couple” comedy act with an iconic musical number that has over six million views on youtube. Their rocky relationship is crucial to the plot of JK Rowling’s story, but she never gives us insight into even one of their conversations in the books. Her readers are left wondering. So, why not take this unresolved tension between the two supervillains AND this unresolved tension between Rowling and her readers and turn it into a musical number? That’s the beauty of musical theatre: it takes moments of heightened emotion within a story and turns them into pieces of music. Music makes the audience feel the emotion along WITH the characters and their story. Their duet song plays with the beautiful musical trope of appealing to universities through specificity. Not everyone can relate to living with two head, so of course that is not the tone of the song. It takes on a bickering married couple tone with a jolly syncopated beat and a simple chipper hook “were different, different as can be.”  

In print, the phantasmagoric lives on in the imagination of the reader, who rarely questions the realism of the narrative. Musical Theater is limited in its ability to communicate the imaginative magic since it comes from a live medium of human beings who, even if they are “telling a story” are limited in their fantastical abilities. For example, Disapparating is easy to imagine and even easy to represent in a film, but, this musical theatre production has no way to display such magic. It is forced to focus on the human side to the story, which becomes its greatest asset. Because a group of 20-year-old humans are attempting to tell the 7 year long story of a wizard and his magical school in under 3 hours, the performance has limited its creative insights into only those able to be displayed in the musical theatre format. This grounds the story in a sense of reality. The musical never attempts to even build a “fourth wall” and create a window into a magical world. The audience is right there with the actors- here on earth at the University of Michigan. The actor’s obvious lack of magical ability is used as a running joke and the story moves quickly on to tell a narrative story that connects with the audience through music and comedy. The main draw of the Harry Potter series is the magic- but this musical can’t rely on exciting magic, instead it leans into connecting with its audience based of comedic insights into the story and catchy tunes. 

It just so happens that the things that people can’t relate to are also the things that can’t be portrayed on the stage: Mind reading, Spell casting, potion making, Flying with a broomstick, transforming into animals….you get the idea. This creates a musical full of moments that are uniquely human and easy for the audience to relate to.

Since it is a parody, the audience most likely already knows the narrative, ensuring that they do not need to be enticed to watch with magic tricks and phantasmagorical stories of triumph. To play with this casual knowledge of the phantasmagorical, the show, in its parody and singing, transforms and conolidates moments of intense magic into casual storytelling.  

The musical outbursts conjure emotion in a qualitatively different manner than the comedy bits. However, both serve to humanize this inhuman story couching it in the entertainment of parody and singing. A Very Potter Musical is an invitation to the fans of Harry Potter to experience the entire beloved tale in the way that relates to them most- a bunch of college kids goofing around. Instead of becoming lost in the verisimilitude of some else’s (J. K. Rowling’s) imagination, the audience is free to laugh at the story, the society, and the characters, WITH the actors- causally yet very intellectually. 

A Very Potter Musical gave us all permission to laugh at a story that is held up on such a high pedestal. Every one of the novels still ranks in the top 10 best selling books of all time. Other than the life of Jesus, there is no magical underdog story more well known than the story of Harry James Potter. For the longest time this meant that it was untouchable. JK Rowling is known for having total creative control over the Wizarding World, creating a place where the art is never separated from the artist. As the Wizarding World lives on in her head, she is the god of that universe and she continues to give us small peaks into the society she built- with her blogs, websites, movies, cookbooks and more. What A Very Potter Musical did was take this oh-so-precious “artist’s intent” and throw it out the window, run over it with a car, set fire to it, throw it in a turkey fryer and then push it off a cliff. This almost biblical story is now allowed to be looked at critically and amusingly. We get to laugh about how the only Asian character is named “Cho Chang.” The adults in the story emotionally abuse the kids with zero repercussions. AND Harry is treated like a literal sacrificial lamb… I could go on and on about the jokes and fun songs within this show, but what makes them so special is the way they surprise you with an exciting new perspective every minute. So, in hopes to not spoil the whole show for you, I will now make an effort to conclude this blog and finalize my thoughts. Thank you so much for reading and now please enjoy my Very Polished Conclusion. 

My Very Polished Conclusion

Theater has been making connections to and for its audience for millenia, filling an empty space with rituals that redefine reality. While watching A Very Potter Musical, the listeners hear the songs and are pulled away from a simple enjoyment of a story, and are able to identify their own personal responses to the material they are watching- something music has done since the beginning of time. The story of Harry Potter did not start in the theater, but in literature. It went from novels to movies and now is just ubiquitous. The musical parody was created two years after the final book was released and the world was going crazy as the films were about to conclude. The Wizarding World was at the center of pop culture. As stories are told on the theater stage, movie screen or between the covers of a novel, those who watch or read their narrative connect with the arc, with the characters’ development, and with the theme the author or director wishes to communicate. Harry Potter is full of this dense and meaningful storytelling and the musical parody celebrates that. But if you don’t care about that stuff, it is equally fun to giggle at the lack of logic and verisimilitude throughout the tale.

Those who got lost in the magic of this book series want an outlet to discuss their love– hanging on every detail JK Rolwing reveals about the Wizarding World. These ideas circulate in the heads of readers and viewers to the point where they embrace the phantasmagoria unapologetically. This musical parody stands as a triumph, finally allowing those fans to come together in a very real way. Without CGI or big Universal Studios money, this musical brings people together to celebrate the STORY of Harry Potter and their connections to it. The audience brings with them their own version of the narrative and opinions on the story, which are immediately confronted by the comedy and parody of the show. It allows one to take on a critical lens dissecting the biggest popular culture craze since the birth of Jesus. It humbled the story like nothing ever had before. When the audience sits down to watch A Very Potter Musical, Harry Potter is no longer a magical international phenomenon, Harry Potter is a joke amongst friends. 

Why Is Donkey Always Black?

Shrek, the movie, was a movie staple throughout my childhood. As someone who has watched all four movies in the franchise (yes, including the one with Rumpelstiltskin, although that was a TRIP) as well as the Puss n’ Boots spinoff, it is safe to say that I know most of the stories like the back of my hand. Shrek, the musical, also has its own special place in my memory. Not only do I consider many of the songs from the show to be severely underrated, but it was also the first musical I ever performed in while in high school. And what role did I play as a freshman? I’ll give you some time to guess. Usually, people’s first guess is right on the nose.

Have you come up with your answer, yet? What did you guess? The vast majority of people who I have had similar discussions with almost always say, Donkey. And if you said Donkey, you would be… correct!

Photographic Evidence of myself as Donkey

Now let me ask you, how did you come to that conclusion? Was it because you’ve heard me mention that I played Donkey in high school before? Or was it based off of a conversation we had in-person? Or if you don’t know me at all, what made you come to your conclusion? Some of these questions, particularly the last one, may cause some people to be reluctant or too uncomfortable to answer because they don’t want to admit the racial connotations of the role. Although it often goes unsaid, many people associate the role or persona of Donkey to a Black, male performer. This association poses an interesting question regarding blackness and the replication of the story of Shrek on the musical stage. Is the role of Donkey one that should only be played Black actors?

This is a question that I myself have been grappling with ever since I was cast in the show in high school. Even as I went through the audition process, there already seemed to be a general understanding that the only three Black, male students involved in the theatre program would be in the running for role of Donkey. But why is that? Why do we ascribe the role of Donkey to an exhibition of blackness? Even I find myself falling victim to this way of thinking. I remember one day when I was talking to a former colleague of mine, and he mentioned to me that he had also played Donkey in his school’s production of Shrek the Musical. I was surprised and taken aback because this particular colleague was white.

One case that can be made for this association between the role of Donkey and this notion of associated blackness is the original voice of the character, Eddie Murphy. Murphy’s performance as the voice of Donkey is arguably one of the most recognizable animated voiceovers to have ever been recorded. Murphy’s exceptional delivery, comedic timing, and distinct voice helped cement Shrek as the pop cultural staple that it is today. So much of Murphy can be extracted from the character of Donkey that Donkey appears to be an extension of Murphy’s persona rather than a separate one. Just listen to some of Murphy’s famous lines from the movie and you can understand exactly what I am talking about.

Murphy laid the groundwork for the character of Donkey several years before the story was adapted to be on Broadway. Shrek the Musical, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire opened on Broadway on December 2008. During its previews the musical had undergone major changes from song rewritings to replacement castings, including recasting the role of Donkey. But despite all of these changes, one thing remained constant: A Black actor always portrayed Donkey. In the filmed version of Shrek the Musical, currently streaming on Netflix, Daniel Breaker stars in the famous character role. Breaker brings a lot of energy and charisma to the role that distinguishes his performance as Donkey from Murphy’s vocal performance. However, there are several moments throughout the show that imply a connection between Donkey and a notion of “blackness,” many of which are be subtle or while other moments are not.

The first is that Breaker’s own blackness is heightened while performing as Donkey because he is one of two black actors in the entire musical cast. The second black performer appears several times throughout show in minor roles (which I suspect is because he is the understudy for Breaker, but I was not able to verify this at the time of writing). Because of the way Breaker has been costumed as Donkey, it is easy to discern Breaker as Black as soon as he enters onstage for the first time. Breaker’s headpiece has a face cutout that allows for Breaker’s facial skin to show through, as well as being short enough to see most of Breaker’s neck throughout the entire performance. This is strikingly different compared to the costuming for Shrek, portrayed by Brian d’Arcy James, as James is completely covered in green prosthetic makeup that prevents his skin from being shown at all. With this in mind, there is a visual distinction that can be made between Breaker’s Donkey and James’s Shrek. When audience members observe this distinction, whether they realize it or not, they associate a performer’s skin color with the character they portray. In this case, being able to identify Breaker as being Black fosters an extension to Donkey being perceived as Black as well. Coupled with the fact that audiences have likely already witnessed Murphy’s interpretation of Donkey before seeing the musical, this all funnels into reinforcing the notion that Donkey is inherently Black.

Throughout the production, Breaker’s Donkey exhibits several instances of animated blackness, or overexaggerated notions that suggest some sort of cultural tie to being black. While Breaker often treads this line between what I would designate originality and animated Blackness, the later reveals itself during the iconic “ogres are like onions” scene. Disgusted after Shrek compared himself to an onion, Donkey suggests using a more pleasant term such as parfait. Breaker delivers the line as follows:

Parfaits! Everybody likes parfaits and they have layers. Have you ever met a person and said, ‘Hey let’s get some parfaits,’ and they be like, ‘Hell no! I don’t like no parfaits!’”

Daniel Breaker as Donkey in Shrek the Musical (2013)

He then follows up a several moments later saying:

Parfaits might be the most delicious thing on the whole damn planet.”

Daniel Breaker as Donkey in Shrek the Musical (2013)

The word choice in both of these sentences insinuates a form of speech that is associated with blackness and Black culture known as African American Vernacular English. While these sentences function to get a joke across and elicit laughs from the audience, there is no denying that cultural implications are underlying these comments. A similar cultural reference occurs in the second act during the song “Make A Move,” a song that is audibly infused with R&B elements, another genre of music that has been significantly shaped and influenced by Black culture. Breaker’s Donkey even appears to imitate one of the most distinct voices in the history of R&B, the speaking voice of legendary R&B singer Barry White, dropping his voice down an octave to imitate White’s natural bass vibrato. In both of these cases, verbal language and how it is delivered, plays a huge part in the assumed cultural identity of Donkey.

So, with all of this information, I arrive back to my central question. Why is Donkey perceived as being Black or necessitating a Black performer? Most of the evidence stems from Murphy’s original portrayal, causing viewers to undoubtedly associate the character Donkey with Murphy himself. This perception served as the foundation of the character’s transition into the musical format, which was recreated through casting, costuming, dialogue, and even song selection. You obviously can’t have Eddie Murphy perform as every single iteration of Donkey in every professional production of Shrek the Musical. But you can integrate his likeness into a new medium so that the character, no matter who performs as Donkey, will always remind the audience of the original version.

Men: Can’t Live with ’em

By William Henke and Margaret Mershon

For our final assignment we wrote you a short essay about the 2016 Broadway production of Falsettos. To add some vivacity to the discussion, Will and I decided to do some theatre of our own and perform it as though it was a live and VERY natural conversation. Please enjoy it in the video above or in the transcript below.

Will: Hey guys! A lot of people ask me, “Will, what do you and two-time Tony-winning actor Christian Borle have in common?” Well, besides our chiseled arms, our uncanny ability to grow facial hair, and our silky tenor voices, we are both straight dudes that have played questioning or gay characters. Also, Maggie’s here. Everyone say hi or boo her; I usually roll with the latter greeting.

I honestly can’t tell the difference

Sources: Kristina Wilson; God probably

Maggie: Hello! I am here too, thank you for having me. Anyways, over the course of his career, Christian Borle has shown a knack for playing a wide range of straight, white guys from his origination of the ultimate nice guy Emmett in Legally Blonde to the less cordial William Shakespeare in Something Rotten! But, his Broadway typecast as a straight love interest or, at the very least, a sexual antagonist was challenged in early 2016, and no I’m not talking about the re-imagination of the Joker as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In early 2016, it was announced that Borle would be playing Marvin in the Broadway revival of William Finn’s 1992 Falsettos. Marvin, of course, is a recently out of the closet gay man trying to emotionally accept his identity while maintaining the already weak bond between his family, and through this convoluted game of tug-of-war, Marvin is forced to constantly change his identity and personality depending on the people and situation around him. 

W: My junior year of high school, the theatre department (along with hundreds of others around the country) decided to produce Almost, Maine. I was cast as Chad, the broest bro a bro could ever ask for, who falls in love with his best friend Randy, the second broest bro a bro could ever ask for. 

M: You seem like a Chad.

W: Thank you. The struggle of portraying a shallow frat boy and suddenly switching to his softer, emotional side was difficult but manageable because at the time, I was a shallow 17-year-old boy that pretended to have a softer emotional side by listening to Frank Ocean occasionally. Regardless, I was a straight boy playing a questioning character, despite the other auditionees that actually shared Chad’s internal struggle, and this was in a highly conservative part of Middle Tennessee. I would bet Broadway has a much greater selection of gay actors than my tiny, rural high school, so why Christian Borle for Marvin? Yes, he is a supremely talented actor and has a fantastic voice, but every Broadway actor shares those qualities.

Will giving the performance of a lifetime

Source: Mr. Henke

M: Maybe it’s because it doesn’t matter, not that a person’s identity doesn’t matter, but maybe the point Falsettos is making is that all men, straight or gay, young or old, and able to play baseball or not, are all the same. They are all, to some extent, controlling, dumb, and selfish creatures that impose themselves in every situation and relationship, and love has a funny way of bringing out the worst of these qualities or taming them depending on how true this love is. 

W: Through the ebbs and flows of Marvin, Falsettos explores masculinity in terms of the expectations that Marvin places on himself and his role to the people around him as a father, friend, and lover. The juxtaposition between Marvin and the other two adult male characters Whizzer and Mendel (sorry, Jason) provides us with a better understanding of the complexity and context of Marvin’s character.                

M: So what does it really mean to be a man? I don’t know, Mulan doesn’t know, even this team’s expert doesn’t know, so how is Marvin supposed to know? The first time we see Marvin it is with his family, and he’s leaving them for the very well-toned, Whizzer, which side note, is a crime of a name. NO ONE SHOULD HAVE TO HAVE THE NAME WHIZZER. Moving on. Marvin has been brought up on traditional family values, that he should love his wife and his kid and support them, but now he’s making a choice for himself and leaving them all alone. Marvin transfers this expectation to support his family by turning to Whizzer. Little does he know, Whizzer is more than capable of taking care of himself. This leads to Marvin and Whizzer getting into screaming matches and having a very tumultuous relationship as Marvin treats Whizzer like the wife and child he no longer comes home to. Whizzer doesn’t make him dinner when he comes home and he doesn’t want to learn how to play chess from him. Marvin even begins to walk like a hyper-masculine man. Like that. What is that! It’s not pleasant and it just shows how insecure he is in his masculinity.

W: Alright Maggie calm down. She’s still mad at Christian Borle for what he did to Sutton Foster.

M: The Bastard!

W: As the show progresses, we continue to see Marvin and Whizzers masculinity ebb and flow. When Marvin breaks up with Whizzer, he becomes friends with the lesbians next door, two people who cannot tempt his need to act masculinely. But wait! Right when Marvin thought he was in the clear, Whizzer comes to Marvin’s son’s baseball game and shows him how to swing a bat, something that Marvin is helpless at, and Marvin swoons all over again. After seeing such a display of masculinity, strong fatherly skills, and support, Marvin realizes he wants to be taken care of like that and starts flirting it up.

Even Jason is shocked he hit that ball!

Source: Joan Marcus

M: Classic Christian Borle.

W: Maggie!

M: Sorry.

W: But as the relationship progresses again, Marvin starts to feel insecure in who he is as a man when Marvin kicks his ass at racquetball. He tries to compromise and discusses this insecurity in his song “What More Can I Say?” which is the point in the musical where I begin openly weeping until bows. He softly sings “stay calm / untie [his] tongue / and try to stay / both kind and young.” His goal is to remain as kind and sweet and not feel as threatened by Whizzer and his tendency to make him feel like less of a man, attempting to see it as more of a give and take because of the pure love he feels for Whizzer. That isn’t to say Marvin doesn’t have any more slip-ups. When they’re playing racquetball and Whizzer is beating him once again, Marvin flourishes his poor sportsmanship, saying “please forgive me for winning one game.” It’s at this moment that Whizzer’s body starts to feel the symptoms of the disease ravaging his body, and when he insists that the game be done, Marvin stays on him, insisting that he not let him win. Marvin continues to be so threatened by Whizzer’s masculinity that he is blind to the pain that his partner is feeling.

M: If redefining his masculinity as a response to his redefinition of his sexuality wasn’t enough, the one guy that was supposed to be on Marvin’s side, his therapist Mendel, swoops right in to snatch up Trina once he’s out of the picture.

W: I would kill him

M: Me too. During “Marvin at the Psychiatrist,” we see Mendel discuss Marvin’s difficulty with his wife Trina withholding love, which Mendel proclaims to be untrue. Mendel turns the blame around, saying “perhaps she held back love from you,” and then continues to unload a series of questions about Trina’s personal life. Two songs later, the same song where Marvin is miffed that Whizzer won’t make dinner, sitting with Mendel he says “this had better come to a stop, Mendel/ don’t touch me/ don’t condescend.” Marvin has lost touch with the one man that was supposed to always have his back and on top of all that Marvin feels like Mendel is treating him like a child. To be treated like a child by the man who is now fathering your child? That can’t feel good.

W: Yeah I would doubt it. Later, after receiving the wedding invitations to Trina and Mendel’s wedding…

M: Yay.

W: Exactly, yay. Anyway, Marvin screams at Trina that she “chose [Mendel] to make [Marvin] look bad”

M: Talk about insecure.

W: Yeah it’s a mess, and it only gets worse.

M: Great.

W: Yeah so the wedding invitation song continues, and Marvin mutters to himself, “I am so dumb.” Immediately after that, as if in an echo chamber, everyone in the show, Jason, Trina, Mendel, and Whizzer, all begin shouting “Dumb!” at him. It’s like a manifestation of all of the thoughts Marvin THINKS they all feel about him are being shouted at him in reality.

M: Sounds like a dream.

W: Well, I bet he wishes this next part was just a dream. Acting out of rage and insecurity, as the prophecy fulfills itself and as the title of the song suggests, “Marvin Hits Trina.” In order to take control of his life, prove he is still the man of the house, not Mendel, and show he is as masculine as he needs to be, he strikes someone he loves. After this move, Marvin removes himself from the entire plot and, after taking some time off for himself, making different friends, and living “without a lover,” Marvin makes tenuous peace with Mendel, though he continues to make snide comments about him, especially when he comments on how he is raising his kid. When Mendel tells Trina and Marvin they don’t need a bar mitzvah for Jason, Marvin turns to Trina and remarks, “Isn’t he an asshole?” “Isn’t he too much?” and my personal favorite, “Jesus, what an asshole!–It still gives me hives.”

M: Yeah that’s pretty good.

W: Thanks.

M: All of this is to say, Marvin’s core identity doesn’t change. One thing remains constant through lovers, through divorce, and through a weird fatherly bond with his therapist. Marvin is a man. What does change is his understanding and relationship with masculinity. At the beginning of the show, being a man is about “bringing home the bacon” and raising his son to conform to society’s expectations of men, and if being the patriarch and moneymaker is not enough, he’ll shout and strike to impose his masculinity. But, Marvin modifies these tactics when he realizes that is not the man his family needs him to be. He supports Mendel’s commitment to raising and loving his son, he makes amends with Trina and Jason, and most importantly, he realizes Whizzer doesn’t need a man to take care of him. He needs a lover to love him unconditionally and a friend to keep him company in this confusing, lonely world. Oftentimes, society determines what it means to be a man for us when being a man may be just being there for the people you love when they need you most.

Feel free to jump in the air…you just learned something about Falsettos!

Source: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

W: just like I’ll always be there for you. Oh-all right. Bye guys!

All That Jazz

By Jillian Fuller

Maybe I’m biased as a native Chicagoan, but when I first saw Chicago and was able to have a dance recital opening number to the soundtrack I was obsessed even at the mere age of nine. I was definitely too young to understand the cultural relevance, the historical significance and most of the adult situations flew over my little head. But I was infatuated by the world of jazz in 1920s Chicago. Booze, gangsters and jazz were what we were known for! Chicago debuted on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre in 1975 with music by John Kander and book by Fredd Ebb and Bob Fosse. However, it is the 1996 run of this show that is most famous for being one of the longest running productions in Broadway history. Followed by my personal favorite, the 2002 movie musical adaptation starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellwegger, Queen Latifah, Richard Gere and a host of other A-List celebrities. Literally the entire cast is stacked, the production is as sensational and over the top as the story line. It was a very well done remake of a classic musical. Chicago is a story about criminal justice, the “celebrity criminal”, jazz, liquor, and I would like to argue – women’s empowerment. It’s a timeless classic and sends some important messages even if it is through the questionable dialogue and actions of the characters. 

Everybody wants the same thing it seems in Chicago – fame. Roxie killed someone for it and Velma’s using her jealous rage that ended in a double homicide to keep her name in the paper’s whilst she’s on a “performance hiatus” if you will. While one could argue that the murders of Fred Casely, Veronica and Charley are fueled by women’s inability to control their emotions – both women, though they plead their innocence, also believe their actions could be justified if they were guilty.

The “Cell Block Tango” is arguably one of the most iconic songs from the musical and a piece that many dance teams recreate every year. While it can seem anti-feminist that every woman that enters the Cook County jail is in for a crime of passion (except for sweet Hunyak who was probably framed and didn’t really stand a chance due to the language barrier and unfortunately one of the women who is sentenced to death in the musical), these women are very adamant about what kind of treatment they deserve and refuse to accept anything less. Only two women assert their innocence – Hunyak and Velma. The other women admit to their rap sheet and explain exactly why what happened to them was the straw that broke the metaphorical camel’s back. They had their reasons, how could we tell them that they were wrong? Sure, maybe a sit down conversation would have been nice but these men approached these women aggressively, cheated on them, and purposefully aggravated them while contributing nothing to the home.

Roxie Hart dreams of life on stage with her name in lights. When her boyfriend Fred Casely doesn’t follow through with his promise of getting her her big break she freaks out and shoots him. She ends up in jail and is assigned infamous lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). He’s the way to get her name in the papers and keep her there until he’s able to get her out. Billy Flynn approaches his law practice just like one would approach a performance. In the performance “We Both Reached for the Gun” we see Roxie take a backseat in some instances so that Billy can word her story in a way that’s more appealing to the press and makes her a much more sympathetic inmate. The song is prefaced by Taye Diggs, who is the Bandleader, “Mr. Billy Flynn and the press conference rag/Notice how his mouth never moves/Almost”. Here we see Roxie made up to be a ventriloquist dummy controlled by Billy Flynn himself. Sometimes she slips out of character (most notably when a news reporter asks if she’s sorry and she replies “Are you kidding?”). For a majority of the show we see these women relying on themselves to make things work while in jail, but when it comes to court appearances and remaining relevant, they suddenly have this man come into the picture (maybe it’s because women couldn’t practice law yet or women were practicing law and didn’t have the experience – either way, a man is Roxie and Velma’s ticket out of jail and into the spotlight. 

Initially, I thought that this was kind of a reliance on men to get the tough jobs done, but then I went back and thought about Amos and Roxie and then Roxie and Billy. Roxie used both of these men to her advantage, even if Billy had the legal expertise that she didn’t have she was still using his power to achieve her goals. 

Throughout the show, Velma and Roxie seem to be at odds with each other – competing for time with Billy Flynn, favors from Mama Morton, or attention in the press. It isn’t until the end of the movie/performance that these women come together to make Velma’s original double act better than ever. During the imagined performance of “Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag”, Velma and Roxie speak on how ever-changing society and culture is. They talk explicitly about freedom in relationships and freedom in living the life you like. Throughout their tenure at Cook County jail, Roxie and Velma have not only learned to rely on each other rather than compete, but they have also learned to experience life to its fullest however you please because things can change at any moment.

In terms of diversity, Chicago attempts to deliver as much as it can whilst also remaining true to 1920s society. Queen Latifah has the most screen time and pertinence to the plot compared to other Black actors cast in the show and Lucy Liu arrives to snatch the spotlight away from Velma and Roxie when her crimes are dubbed the “Lake Shore Drive Massacre”. Roxie is quick to attempt to snatch the spotlight back by telling everyone she’s pregnant – people feel major sympathy for mother’s to be in prison. Two of the women we meet through “Cell Block Tango”, June and Mona, are women of color (though I think the casting director was playing off of Mya’s bi-raciality when they cast her as Mona). The cast is predominantly white but it was refreshing to see Queen Latifah play someone who essentially has more power than most of the white women under her charge. In “When You’re Good To Mama” she talks about the intricacies of favors in life inside and outside of prison. “They say that life is tit for tat and that’s the way I live, so I deserve a lot of tat for what I’ve got to give”. She knows she has the ability to get these women what they want in exchange for favors. Matron Mama Morton is the glaring representation of corruption within the criminal justice system, but somehow she is still motherly (hence, “Mama”) and the one who helps the women adjust to life behind bars.  To me, Chicago is an excellent “story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery – all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts.”** These same issues of corruption, greed, and exploitation are why we see increased police violence in almost every city in America compared to the rest of the world, but especially in a city like Chicago. While I enjoy the plot and the performances (seriously the way they intermix jazz club scenes with prison scenes is amazing), I understand that this is the reality of Chicago history and current life with our criminal justice system. As budgets have increased, there is a higher chance that truly innocent people like Hunyak will be forced into false confessions. We don’t have many celebrity criminals here anymore that are able to create a life of acclaim AFTER they go behind bars, so I guess Roxie and Velma were right when they said things would change in 50 years “or so”.

quotes and lyrics are from 2002 soundtrack to the film version of Chicago unless otherwise stated

** this quote comes from the 1997 Overture for the Broadway production of Chicago, soundtrack which is found on Spotify or where you stream your music.

Dreamers and Outcasts

Three years ago, almost to date, The Greatest Showman came out in theaters and it was BIG. It felt to me like it took over everything for a while. Everyone was talking about it. My musical friends, my non musical friends, kids I babysat, my grandparents — it was a show that everyone could love. It’s something you watch when you’re having a bad day and you don’t want it to be bad anymore. It’s a movie I could watch two times in a row, and that’s saying a lot for me. So why do people love The Greatest Showman so much? Is it the catchy music, the famous — and attractive — actors? It’s definitely not Zac Efron’s bad lip synching. I’m sure that a part of it is some of those things, but I am here to guess that there is much more to it than that. We are all dreamers of our own, outcasts searching for a home, for love, and for confidence in who we are. Nothing shows this in such a raw and relatable way like The Greatest Showman. 

The very opening scene of the show shows the desire of a dreamer. Whether we are big dreamers like P.T. Barnum, or even small dreamers, we can all relate to the feeling of the opening number. In the beginning it seems like Barnum has it all: a crowd cheering for him, a show stopping team behind him, and all the money he could need. He is a star; a dreamer’s dream. Although there are all these people sharing the stage with him, everything revolves around him. He has the biggest smile on his face, and we as viewers share in his desire as he says, “Everything you ever want, everything you’ll ever need. And it’s here right in front of you.” With his arms open wide and his chin held so high, the reflection of the spotlight on his skin and costume seems like his glory and fame radiating out of him. We crave that. We feel that joy. And then we feel it when it is stripped away. 

It is a feeling we know all too well, when our dreams fade into a reality. We see Barnum’s dreams slip from his grasp in that opening scene. Before we know it, his pose starts to fall. He slowly brings his arms down to his side, he lowers his chin. The music fades and the lights dim as we hear a hesitation in his voice. We quickly go from “everything you ever want, everything you ever need,” to seeing him be left with nothing. We relate to that moment… when you wake up from the daydream. It’s the struggle we each know, and that is how they get us to buy in.

However, it doesn’t end there. He gets that dream back someday. That’s where they give us dreamers hope. He has it all again, the crowd, the money, the show, and yet he gives it away. Barnum realizes he is so happy with everything he had before, he doesn’t even need the dream. That is what gives us inspiration. This is what allows us to not only cope, but thrive in our reality. We walk away from the movie inspired. It shows us that our dreaming isn’t a bad thing, but it’s what we make of reality that matters. 

We also see ourselves in the desire to belong and be proud of who we are. We are each an outcast in their own way. Everyone knows that middle school feeling of trying to fit in, and honestly calling it a “middle school” feeling is quite the understatement… It is a life feeling. To us, it often feels like every single flaw we have is on full display to others. Whether it’s big or small, everyone has something (or things) they are self conscious of, or something that makes them different. However, we are all “others”. When we realize that we all have something that is different, but those things don’t keep us from finding a place to belong, everything changes. Everyone needs to be told and reminded of this once and a while, and almost nothing tells it better than the individual characters and their stories in The Greatest Showman. 

When Barnum came looking for Charles, his mother claimed that she didn’t have a son, she was so embarrassed by him. This embarrassment was internalized in Charles as well, seeing that he was too ashamed to even come out of his room.. Until Barnum gave him the confidence. See, Barnum showed Charles something he had never seen before, someone who wasn’t ashamed of him, someone who not only wasn’t repulsed by what made him an other, but celebrated it. Charles finds this confidence and runs with it; it changes him. We see this when Charles sasses Queen Victoria herself. His ability to do this shows a drastic change from the person who couldn’t even open the door of his room at the beginning of the show. His face lit up when she laughed, because he wasn’t laughing at him the way he used to be laughed at, because the laughter didn’t bring shame, it brought purpose. 

A similar thing happened with Anne and her brother, the trapeze people of color. They knew that they were Black, and that they would not be welcome as performers. When Barnum first accepted them into the show, they didn’t think he could possibly understand. Anne says, “People won’t like it if you put us on stage.” But Barnum does it anyway. When the invite from the queen came, Anne again guessed that because of their color, they weren’t going to be included. But Carlisle stands up for her. He says, “I guess I’ll just have to tell the queen that either all of us go, or none of us will.” We see a change in Anne in this moment. Her hurt face breaks into a smile and there is a sparkle in her eye. We can see the feeling of belonging appear on her face. She is not just seen as something more than a color, but loved for it, too. 

Most importantly, the bearded woman shows us that you have the power to belong on our own by having confidence in who you are. When all of the circus members are rejected from joining the party by Barnum, the one who they thought gave them confidence and belonging, she shows us that we don’t even need someone to bring us out of the darkness, we have that power in ourselves. This moment is followed by one of the most powerful songs in the show “This is Me”, where the circus members stand up in front of the party of elitists, in front of the crowds that held torches to their home and called them names that I know I couldn’t recover from,  and they say they are proud to be who they are. Even if the crowds went away in that instant, and the lights, the money, the applause, those characters would be changed for good. We walk away from this show seeking to have that kind of confidence in ourselves, and believing it can happen.   I have to say, I am really really glad middle school is in my semi-distant past, but I do kind of wish 12 year old Abby was around a little later so she could have seen The Greatest Showman. I think she would have benefited from the messages that 1) dreams are great, but reality is where you can make an impact and 2) belonging can come from people you love, but it mostly comes from confidence in yourself.

Once a Wildcat, Always a Wildcat

By: Cassidy Johnson

“What team?!”

Fourteen years later, and my immediate reaction is to scream back at the top of my lungs “WILDCATS!!” When Disney Channel the original movie High School Musical (2006) they nor I knew what the prevalence this cultural monolith would have to this day. 

When I began this class, I was excited to develop into the world of musicals. A family trip to New York City in 2006 granted me the opportunity to see Wicked and Tarzan on Broadway. Save this opportunity, my experience with musical theatre before this course was scant. Preparing to write my final essay, and seeing that the phenomenal Kenny Ortega creation was an option, I realized that my previous assumption was not entirely true. High School Musical actually had the most significant effect on me as a child–more than the two Broadway shows–and served as my introduction o musical theatre as it did for a generation of children. Through this Disney movie did I begin to understand what performing really was, why people might want to do it, and what goes into a production. High School Musical is accessible, largely unproblematic, and promotes essential messages for youth, all while sporting a fairly simple plot, and for these reasons, it has maintained cultural relevance.

High School Musical is accessible. Back then, a TV and cable certainly cost less than a Broadway ticket (though maybe not a local production). Anyway, watching a movie or musical on a channel does not feel like any additional cost. And now, with a Disney+ subscription, who needs cable? My point is, that by putting the movie on Disney Channel–not even sending it to theatres–Disney ensured that the widest audience possible was able to view it. It’s likely that the cultural heavyweight that is HSM would not be what it is today if so many children and teens were not able to watch it in their homes.

Things that are different, things that are unique stand out. We could all list off musicals Disney has made until we are blue in the face. But High School Musical has something special that Tangled, Mulan, Aladdin, and all the others lack: it’s ordinary. The movie essentially about school cliques and wanting to sing. Boy meets girl, drama ensues. Very simple. There are no spells, quests, or monsters (even if you don’t like Sharpay). While the musical features a rather mundane storyline, that is not something we often see from Disney: but sticking with the ordinary, Disney has created a standout production. People can be easily be affected by others or experiences that they can relate to. As much as my generation may cherish characters like Mulan, Moana, or even Tiana, it can be difficult to draw a connection between your life and a fantastical situation. We don’t have the same problem with HSM: it takes place in a school, the characters are regular people, and the greatest conflict is to sing or not to sing? Do I see myself in the boy who just wants to play ball? The girl who wants to be a star? The shy wiz? Or can I relate to the kid who’s scared to break barriers? These realistic situations are the ones that have a real lasting effect on young viewers like myself. The production HSM is accessible is it’s format, storylines, characters, and settings.

High School Musical should be applauded for its diverse casting. We have two Black actors featured among the main six. And Vanessa Hudgens, the female lead, is of mixed descent. It has been said a hundred times (and it’s worth repeating a hundred more) but when seeing yourself reflected in (positive) roles and experiences can profoundly affect young people. Although in the first film Chad and Taylor do not participate in the school musical the audience still gets a clear sense of the talent they possess. Their chances to shine musically only increased throughout the second and third films. The socio-economic diversity within the student body is also powerful. Each kid has an equal chance at East High, whether you are rich, middle-class, or the kid who moves around each year.

Being a book musical the musical numbers featured in the film largely move the plot forward or highlight a theme. Earlier, I called High School Musical an introduction to musical theatre. This is not just because it is fiction, or that I was five-years-old the first time I saw it, but because a significant of the songs are not actually performed in a musical theatre setting. Yes, Sharpay and Ryan Evan’s “Bop to the Top” and “What I’ve Been Looking For” are stage numbers. As are the Troy and Gabriella audition and finale numbers. However, five songs in the films take place off the stage. The two ensemble performances represent the main conflict and resolution of the musical. “Stick To The Status Quo” is about keeping the existing social order of East High in place. The student body is actively pushing against its members that want to branch out and express identities outside their clique. Troy, the jock, and Gabriella, the wiz, “mess with the flow” by getting callbacks for the musical. “We’re All In This Together” shows the social growth the student body underwent by accepting the notion that people can multiple interests. The message goes from: “It is better by far to keep things as they are, Don’t mess with the flow” to “We’re not the same we’re different in a good way” supporting the differing ambitions of others. These truly thematic performances do not need the presence of a stage to get the message across. The musical and the stage are not the true focus and so the film does not rely on the stage to hold its songs. High School Musical strategically draws a line between the larger musical and Ms. Darbus’ production. In fact, is a musical featuring a musical, not the perfect introduction to musical theatre.

Though certain franchises and fandoms may be popular (think: Star Wars, Star Trek, My Little Pony, etc.) there is still a level of stigma that comes with discussing them (or openly loving them) outside the internet. Anyone who has ever been called a nerd for liking something–including theatre nerds–knows exactly what I am talking about. Things that are animated and/or not fully rooted in reality are otherized. High School Musical does not have to deal with that extra categorization. Every character is human, the conflict is fully resolved, and it’s rated PG with a happy ending. Just average kids with above-average talent. Perfectly acceptable.

High School Musical inserts critical messages regarding acceptance and plurality throughout the book and the songs. And the audience sees the characters struggle with intrapersonal discoveries and desires across three musicals. It’s okay to want to be a star and bop to the top. It’s okay if all you want to do is play ball, or if want to sing too. Creme brulee makers are welcome as well. There is a place for the shy kid; resist the status quo; the rich kid doesn’t always win; people can be more than one thing. There is nothing to gain by stifling your talent or your interests.

There is an aspect of High School Musical that speaks to everyone. Musical theatre? Diverse representation? Breaking free of social constraints or norms? Zac Efron? If the movie did not resonate with audiences there would not be two sequel films. Nor would we have the wonder that is High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. HSM remains culturally relevant because what it represents remains culturally significant. Also, it just a really good movie.

How to Be an Ally 101

By: Elicia O.

Listen. I love Hairspray as much as the next gal. In fact, the 2007 film remake may just be my all-time favorite. It has a lot going for it–namely casting Zac Efron as Link–but, above all, it preaches equality. I do not argue that this is an important message, especially in light of the recent Black Lives Matter Movement. However, I do have a bone to pick with screenwriters Thomas Meehan, Mark O’Donnell, and Leslie Dixon about how they went about conveying this message. I understand that Tracy is the main character of this musical. Although having a white lead while simultaneously making the movie about fighting for equal representation in the media just seems like a double-edged sword. Tracy is a very welcome ally to the cause, except there are quite a few ways in which Tracy acts more like a white savior than an ally. I would argue that Tracy’s white savior complex robbed the other black characters of the opportunity to fight for their own rights. I know that this is a pretty big pill to swallow when I just finished explaining how much I love the musical, but stay with me!

First off, by definition, a white savior is someone who seeks to help non-white people in a way that is both self-serving and fails to acknowledge the rich history and culture of the very people one wishes to “save.” Tracy primarily falls within this trope due to her complete and utterly embarrassing ignorance to what it means to be black. I know what you’re thinking. “Well, she is just a teenage white girl from 1960’s Baltimore, ma’am.” I know! And, do you know what that screams to me? White privilege! For instance, the very fact that Tracy is the one who proposes the march is problematic. “Motormouth” Maybelle and the rest of the cast from Corny Collin’s Negro Day were devastated about losing their monthly time slot on the show. So, Tracy tells them that they can just come dance with her and the other white dancers during their regularly scheduled time slot. Motormouth Maybelle looks confused, to say the very least, and asks Tracy if she’s been “dozing off during history,” to which she replies with “Yes, always.” If Tracy does not understand segregation on a fundamental level and the very injustices that they’re fighting against, then why is she the one to propose the march? Why is Tracy the one who is at the forefront of a movement that she knows absolutely nothing about? At least read a book or something or, you know, look out a window. I mean, it’s 1962 for Pete’s sake!

Sadly, Tracy is not entirely at fault here. The black characters actually feed her white savior complex by taking her in as one of their own. For instance, when Tracy goes to detention and starts dancing with the rest of the black students there, they give her some strange looks at first. However, upon seeing her dance, they warm up to her pretty quickly. Seaweed even calls her “one of us” and invites her to his mom’s house for dinner. I’m sorry, what? So, her dance moves and her outcast, “delinquent” are enough for them to identify with her? I mean, they quite literally invited her to the cookout just for being willing to interact with black people. For context, in black culture, to say that a white person is “invited to the cookout” is basically to reward someone for acting like an ally or simply not being racist, which are two very different things. The latter would apply to Tracy’s case. For a modern day example, many were quick to invite Adele to “the cookout” for rapping to Nicki Minaj’s song “Monster.” They also invited her after she used her speech for her Album of the Year award at the Grammy’s to confess that Beyoncé deserved the award more for her album Lemonade. However, this is problematic because it rewards people for passivity in simply not being racist and openly invites them to feel comfortable participating in our blackness. To say it plainly, Tracy is not black. To some degree, Tracy knows what it feels like to be othered based on her appearance. However, that does not qualify her to be able to identify with the black experience. Although, that is exactly what we see in this musical.

If you need more proof of this, Seaweed has to explain to Tracy why she can’t cross the line dividing the whites from the blacks when dancing on The Corny Collins Show. Then, he gives Tracy permission to use his moves at the dance, which she fails to give Seaweed credit for even after his moves help her get on the show. This is cultural appropriation at its core. Except, as the audience, we are less likely to identify it as such because the writers portray Tracy as having this shared identity with the other black students. The writers chose to make Tracy overweight because they needed something to connect her to the black characters. They needed the audience to see her as just as much of an outcast as the black students.  So, when Tracy lands a spot as a regular on the show, they see it as a victory for all of them and remain content with their measly one episode a month. These are not the actions of an ally because Tracy is too busy aligning herself with the black experience to use her privilege to help her friends. Tracy’s colorblindness has prevented her from understanding the repercussions of her actions. She doesn’t understand why it’s problematic that she is prospering from appropriating the same moves that white people think are “cool” on her but are oversexualized and deviant on a black body.

Tracy does come to understand at least a fraction of her white privilege toward the end of the musical. After leaving the cookout, she even sits on her daddy’s lap and confesses that she has been living her life “in a bubble,” “thinking that fairness was just going to happen.” Furthermore, she believes that “people like [her] are going to have to get off their fathers’ laps and go out there and fight for it.” This is a good, constructive mentality to have. She’s starting to think like an ally, someone who can use her privilege to help those who don’t have the luxury of seeing the world without color because there are people who remind them of their color every single day.

However, Tracy quickly goes back to disappointing me with the abuse of her white privilege and her “main character” complex. For example, Tracy proposes the march, which is received as this truly revolutionary idea by the black characters as if Martin Luther King and countless others were not marching for civil rights in the South long before that. Anyway, when they encounter a police barricade, “Motormouth” Maybelle speaks to the authorities about the peaceful nature of their march. When the police officer dismisses her, Tracy yells, “Hey, she was talking to you!” Then, she hits the officer with her sign, despite “Motormouth” Maybelle’s warning against it. Ironically, this was immediately after “Motormouth” Maybelle sang “I Know Where I’ve Been,” which has a soul, gospel feel with a message of hope for the Civil Rights Movement. Tracy, Seaweed, and the other black characters joined in as they sang of how “the pride in [their] hearts” will “lift [them] up to tomorrow.” So, this moment is the culmination of Tracy’s ignorance, colorblindness, and the undeniable evidence of her white savior complex and privilege. The march was supposed to be a peaceful protest, but because of her white savior complex, violence and chaos ensued. She didn’t respect the wishes of the very black people she was trying to help because she didn’t understand how the deck was stacked against them. Despite the march being her idea, she didn’t understand the history of the Black struggle and the nonviolent ideologies that marches like theirs were founded upon. She didn’t understand that black people cannot raise their voices at an officer because they risk police brutality, detainment, and even death at the slightest sign of resistance. However, “Motormouth” Maybelle and the other black characters are not upset with Tracy one bit. In fact, they praise her for what she did. As such, the rest of the musical becomes about protecting Tracy, the fugitive, and her grand return to the Corny Collins stage. Although, once she gets there, she does make sure to bring her black friends onto the stage to share the moment with her and finally get their time in the spotlight. But is that really enough?

I can’t say that this musical is all bad. As I said before, despite all of its issues, I still love it. However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t expect better. I wrote this essay because I wanted to stop making excuses for writers who simply “tried.” Hairspray does a really good job of encouraging efforts toward equality, especially by highlighting that a lot of us have been discriminated against, whether that be based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or body image. However, I am not in the business of comparing one’s injustices. Moreover, being an ally and fighting for equality does not require that you have a shared injustice with the oppressed. Although, it does require that you be a human being who cares about people, regardless of whether they are like you. An ally must also be willing to listen, learn, and use their privilege to help others’ voices be heard because the injustices that seem foreign to them are everyday experiences lived by others. That’s where Tracy went wrong. Just because she was the main character in her own story doesn’t mean that she had to be the main character in everyone else’s. She simply wasn’t qualified to take on the burden of such a culture-shaking movement, especially when those around her had been fighting for a whole lot longer than she had. Black people are more than just supporting roles to their white leads. We have stories of our own, and we’ve been fighting for the right to tell them for centuries. We have voices, pain, dreams, and the power to make them come true just like anybody else. I just wish that this musical would have showcased that through Black eyes, instead of through the colorblind eyes of an ignorant girl with a white savior complex.

(Leo) Frank-ly, Parade Doesn’t Give a Damn

“The Land Where Honor Lives and Breathes”? Yeah. I didn’t think of Civil War-torn Atlanta either. According to Alfred Uhry’s Parade, though, that sure is what Atlantans think of themselves. A musical dramatization of the 1913 trial and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank, Parade tackles not only the anti-southern prejudices harbored by a Jew from New York, but also the mob mentality of racism and antisemitism that bled through the south at this time. This “honorable land” opens in the middle of the Confederate Memorial Day parade where war veterans reminisce about when Georgia was “free” and could enslave people. With an introduction like that, audiences wouldn’t expect the emotional drive of the story to be the loveless marriage between two Jewish people. However, given the ambiguity of the history itself and heaviness of the issues, the Leo and Lucille Frank falling in love after their marriage becomes the beating heart of the show.

I first saw Parade when I was 15 at Georgia Thescon and completely broke my too-cool-for-school vibe when I started openly weeping at the end of the show (“All the Wasted Time” started playing and I was just gone). When a high school theatre program (that’s better than my high school theatre program) performed a show for Thescon, they had to cut it down to an hour, which is tough for a show as meaty as Parade. The director had to simultaneously show respect to the history while also entertaining an audience of socially-challenged teenage thespians. The production I saw accomplished this by creating a solid framework about the setting and situation by including necessary information about the trial and inherent prejudices, but the show anchored itself in the love story between Lucille and Leo Frank. Later, after re-watching, listening to, and reading about Parade I learned a couple things: 1) the show had more than 5 songs, 2) Jeremy Jordan is really good at acting, and 3) there was a whole lot more going on than in the brownie-bite sized version I saw.

The main plot of Parade tells the story of Leo Frank, accused of raping and murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan, an employee of his at a pencil factory. Although the play clearly implies Frank’s innocence, Uhry makes no effort to characterize him as likeable. Up until he’s taken to prison, Leo’s entire stage presence revolves around him anxiously harboring a passionate disdain for the south singing how “these men belong in zoos.” The contempt between the southerners, who are celebrating losing the Civil War (according to Frank), and himself, a Jew, is clearly mutual and presented as justified to the audience in both directions. The glorification and romanticization of an agrarian economy built off of free labor doesn’t set up a lot of sympathy in the audience, and a whiny protagonist doesn’t help much either. The first act is mostly filled with action: Leo is accused and taken to prison, several songs are dedicated to how the media manipulated information for profit, and then: Enter Jim Conley.

Up until this point, Uhry and composer Jason Robert Brown had no hesitation showing that southerners romanticize their pre-Civil War slave-built society. They chose to not introduce the show with Leo Frank, Mary Phagan, or antisemitism which later were the main focuses of the show; instead, the immediate blaring declaration was “white southerners wish they still could enslave people.” The expectation would be, then, that any Black character would immediately be the “bad guy” to the general public and stand no chance purely due to their race. Uhry then reveals the ultimate societal irony in the show. During Leo Frank’s trial, Jim Conley, a janitor who worked in the factory, claims that Frank is absolutely guilty. His story rouses up a mob of southerners to condemn a Jew on the word of a Black man. Uhry’s depiction of the trial generalizes three groups: white southerners (aka the people making the decisions), Black people, and Jewish people. However, the result of the trial goes against the assumptions that the show has been building to where the prejudices of the south against Jews outweigh their antipathy towards Black Americans.

Parade ends the first act with a gut punch and a whole lot of ambiguity. The question of Leo Frank’s innocence almost gets eclipsed by the circus music playing as the jury chants “hang him,” as they are fully vindictive after Conley’s testimony. The audience is left with no clear direction on how to feel. Everything up until this point just serves to set up the cyclic inner dialogue of sympathy for Frank, remembering he might be guilty, being pretty sure he’s not, feeling sympathy again, and so on. In fact, the first act doesn’t even tell a story as much as it forces the audience into the most uncomfortable possible position to sit and think for 15 minutes while Jeremy Jordan downs a throat lozenge. The inability to empathize with Leo Frank, the shock that Conley turned the jury, the desperation yet uncertainty in Lucille’s faith: all of these things have zero clarity, but it forces the audience to be thoughtful. As an audience member, I think that with this sort of subject, that’s all that can be asked.

The second act of Parade finds its emotional hook in Lucille and Leo’s marriage that builds up to showstopper “All the Wasted Time.” As the director who faithfully helped me shine as Pig 3 in Shrek Jr. once said, a show always has to have a beating heart. In Parade, this heart is two people falling in love after marriage. Leo and Lucille’s marriage wasn’t fully explained, but it was heavily alluded to as more of a business agreement/mutual tolerance made between two people who saw opportunities and convenience in one another. At the beginning of the show, Lucille laments that Leo is an objectively good husband who pays the bills and must care for her since he works so hard. Even after he’s taken to prison, she insists he’s honest, hardworking but, as the reporter points out, never claims his innocence. After the trial, though, Lucille’s work to reopen Leo’s case and desperation for his freedom allow them to fall in love. The heartbreaking hope only further builds as the evidence against Frank gets continually debunked as the offensive lawyer is revealed to have coached several witnesses, motivated by his chance at becoming governor (which is another can of worms. Like I said, this one’s pretty dense). Then, in the final 20 minutes, 3 things happen: 1) Leo’s sentence gets changed from the death penalty to imprisonment for life, 2) Leo and Lucille declare their love for one another in the most beautiful song ever written that I learned how to play on piano last week instead of studying for math, and 3) a mob breaks into Leo’s jail cell and hangs him on an oak tree that symbolized southern pride.

I know I’m not supposed to give a lot of plot summary, but I think this one needs it. This musical will always be my favorite, even though it lacks both the razzle and the dazzle that draws most to musical theatre. It asks all the right questions and has only become more relevant in 2020. With a musical that relies so heavily on ambiguity, as it even ends with the audience not knowing if Leo’s innocence, crafting a single strong argument from this show is impossible unless the argument is “the south needs to do better”. Alfred Uhry’s book constantly throws contradictory information at the audience in an effort to remain historically accurate. Through encouraging discomfort, Parade forces the audience to question modern mob mentality and societal bias and speculate about whether Frank’s innocence even really matters.

The Right and Wrong Side of History

By Ilana Cohen

Have you ever heard the phrase “there’s a right and wrong side of history?” This phrase relies on each person’s personal belief on good and evil and the belief that as society moves forward through time, we are striving for perfection as a society. The problem, however, is that each person’s concepts of morality is individualized and unique to their upbringing and life experiences. If one were to ask ten people how they define good and evil, they would receive ten different answers. Thus, morality is not black and white, and what is right and wrong is not always clear. People do not like this idea that good and evil is messy and ambiguous, as many people crave guidelines to live their life by and some way to measure whether or not they are a good person. Many people agree to live by the laws as a measure of their morality, as being law-abiding citizens is a way to justify being a good person. However, this bodes the question what do you do when the laws of your society seem to be unjust or broken and conflict with your morals. This question, along with the question of what is the right and the wrong side of history, is directly addressed in Les Miserables, which follows the stories of the characters involved in a failed revolution attempt in France during the political turmoil of the French Revolution. In a cruel and unjust society, characters are caught in moral dilemmas forcing the audience to confront the questions: is following the law truly what is good, is good and bad as black and white as what is illegal and legal, and what is justice.

From the introduction of the movie, the audience is introduced to a character who blurs the lines between right and wrong. Jean Valjean has just finished 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. Even after serving 19 years, his punishment is not over. His papers not only show that he is a criminal but also that he is a dangerous man, making it impossible for him to find work or shelter or food. From the little we watch of Jean Valjean’s struggles and knowing what he was being punished for, the audience sympathizes for Jean, not believing he is truly a criminal or deserves the consequences he is facing. Jean Valjean becomes discouraged after being turned away when seeking food and shelter and attacked by children, and he begins to think that maybe he is bad like society has designated him to be after his one moral transgression. He becomes the criminal that he has been labelled and treated as when he steals from a bishop, the one man who shows him kindness and gives him a place to stay and food to eat. He takes all the silver he could from the bishop’s home and runs. He acts out of desperation and the belief that this one night of kindness does not change the cruelty of the world around him. He is caught, but the bishop gets him off the hook, supporting Valjean’s story that he was given the silver he stole and even giving him candlesticks. This is a turning point as Jean Valjean realized there is true goodness in the world, as he was treated with dignity for the first time in 19 years.  As the rest of the world sees him as a worthless criminal, Valjean begins to view himself as one too, but he is reminded of the goodness a man can have. He realizes he can rehabilitate himself and pursue good, but he knows he must shed his identity as a dangerous man to do so. Once again he is faced with a dilemma between what he believes is the right thing to do and what is legal. Jean Valjean again chooses what is right over what is legal and sheds his identity as prisoner 24601. Despite this breaking the law and breaking his parole to do so, Jean Valjean believes he is doing the right thing by starting a new life.

The audience is then introduced to Fantine. She was impregnated and abandoned by a man several years ago and works at a factory to support the child. However, she was fired and cast off to the streets after refusing to sleep with her boss. Still needing to support her child, Fantine has no choice but to sell what she can for the money to support her daughter— her hair, her teeth, and then her body. She shows her desperation and inability to say no to anything asks of her as she sings in defeat, “What can I do? It pays a debt” in the number “Lovely Ladies.” When a man is trying to force himself on her and she fights back, she is the one to get in trouble with the police, as Javert immediately believes the narrative of the honorable man over the dirty prostitute, despite her protestations that her child will die if she goes to jail and cannot support her any longer. When Jean Valjean hears this, it strikes a chord within him, as her story is much like his– a good person having to take what society sees as immoral, dishonorable, and even illegal actions in order to save their family– and calls off the police. He swears to do right by her, though society has not, and vows to take care of her daughter, Cosette. Jean Valjean is faced with a predicament– allow an innocent man to be sent away to prison as a runaway convict and quit all the good work he has done as mayor, breaking his promise to care for Cosette or take turn himself in as prisoner 24601. Once again, the audience sees that good and bad is not black and white

After experiencing Fantine’s tragic ending, the audience is hurting for her and questions what kind of society would allow for someone so good to slip through the cracks and fail her over and over again. A society like that must be built on injustice and inequality, and a society like that would have laws that uphold those inequities and reinforce a broken system. Thus, breaking those laws, especially like the audience has seen Valjean do, does not seem to make someone a bad or immoral person. Just when the audience is convinced, this society is broken and Javert, who is enforcing the laws put in place by that society, seems to be the antagonist of the story, we are introduced to the actually immoral and dishonorable couple, Thenardier and his wife, who exploit Fantine and steal whatever they can from whoever they can but never get in trouble with the law. These are two people in the play that I, as an audience member, am begging for Javert to go on a lifelong pursuit of to bring them to justice, but no. Instead, Javert has made it his mission to bring to justice Valjean, who has only committed crimes when acting as caretaker to those in need– those failed by society. The irony shows how truly pointless following the law and being a good person is, as the true criminals in the show are never brought to justice. All of these moral dilemmas occur before the revolution plot, which is the most clear question of whether what is good and what is right, necessarily is what is legal. The revolutionaries actively break the laws and stage a violent revolt in order to protest the new king, who allows his people to live impoverished, homeless, and hungry– a clear example of the moral ambiguity of violent protests.

Watching the scenes during the revolution, the audience is forced to confront their beliefs about morality, as in a war, you must pick what side you are on. Each of the young revolutionaries is given that choice, to be on the side of the people who are not heard by their government and are slipping through the cracks or the side of the law. Gavroche is a very symbolic character as at a young age, things are much more idealized and uncomplicated. He knows the right thing to do is to fight, as he knows what it is to be poor and hungry. All he knows is the status quo is not the way it should be, so he is on the side of change. When he is shot, it is a significant moment in the show, because most everyone agrees that shooting and killing a young child is not the right, moral thing to do. However, in the context of the show, he is technically a criminal, fighting on the side of the revolutionaries against the king and France, so shooting Gavorche was the right thing for the soldier to do. At this point, any of the audience that did not already completely sympathize with the side of the revolutionaries is completely horrified with the actions of the side of the law. Valjean continues to fulfill his promise to Fantine to care for Cosette and keep her happy, which he now realizes includes keeping her love, Marius, safe. Jean Valjean joins the revolution efforts to watch over Marius and is immediately faced with another moral dilemma. When Valjean is given the opportunity to kill javert and free himself forever, the audience is practically cheering for him to do so, and yet, once again, he chooses to do what he considers the right thing.Though Javert has made Valjean’s life miserable, requiring him to live in a perpetual state of hiding, Valjean knows Javert is a good man, only doing his job and what he perceives as the right thing to do, so he lets him go.

Valjean returns to his original purpose for joining the revolution– ensuring Marius’s safe return home for Cosette. He drags Marius’s wounded, unconscious body through the sewers to safety. At the same time, Javert, who has just been granted life by the criminal he has been chasing for years, is questioning his purpose. Javert walks through the destruction caused by the revolution, his feet standing in a pool of blood, walking down the line of the dead young men, and then he finally gets to Gavroche and he leaves his medal on his chest. The audience can see that Javert is no longer sure he is doing the right thing. Ignoring his doubts, Javert goes to seize his opportunity to catch Valjean. Valjean has made it to the opening of the sewer, exhausted and covered in human feces. Above him, stands Javert with his gun, ready to bring Valjean to justice. However, when Valjean begs him to let him go temporarily to get Marius home to safety and promises to return after, Javert hesitates and allows him to pass.

Pacing on the edge of the railing to a bridge, the audience can see Javert is being faced with the opposite dilemma as Jean Valjean. He has lived his life by the law, both following it and enforcing it; he spent his life in pursuit of Jean Valjean, who he saw as nothing more than a criminal who broke his parole. After seeing Valjean, a man he has decided is a bad person, a criminal, show him mercy and only protect others, he is faced with his own crisis. He starts questioning if he is doing the right thing by going after Jean Valjean which causes him to question if he is doing the right thing by enforcing the law in general. Overwhelmed by his new questioning of morality, unsure if he has spent his life enforcing laws which might not be right or good, Javert allows himself to fall off the bridge to his death. Commiting suicide, in the Christian faith, is a sin, which is perhaps Javert’s rejection of the constructions of morality he has lived by his entire life. Javert’s suicide is followed by the passing of Jean Valjean, who even in death seems to foil Javert. Javert died alone and his death was preceded by overwhelming doubt uncertainty and a complete questioning of his entire life and purpose while Valjean died, surrounded by his loved ones, at peace knowing that he lived a good life and did what he thought was best always. The final scene shows Valjean joining the rest of the fallen souls throughout the show, including Eponine, Gavroche, and Fantine, as they sail away on a ship made of furniture, like the barricade they built during the revolution. Having the final scene be all of the characters who have passed really forces the audience to think about who will be remembered and how they will be remembered. This brings me back to the question of what is the right and wrong side of history. Though Les Miserables is fiction, it is based on the struggles of real people during the French Revolution. Which forces me to post the question: which characters in Les Miserables are on the right side of history? Is Jean Val Jean or Javert?

Children, Choices, and Culture… Oh My!: When Cultural Tradition meets American Ideals in the American Musical

By Alyssa O’Connell

Admit it, we’ve all had those choices that involve convincing our parents that we, the 13-year-old brace-faced show choir kid with a YouTube channel, know more about the world than they do. As a kid, we always think we know best. (Frankly, I haven’t grown out of that.) However, when I got back from college, I somehow hoodwinked my parents into believing this very same thing. Maybe it was my college-educated brain, maybe they realized their own faults, or, most likely, they realized how sick and tired they were of arguing with me. Whatever the case may be, choices became less of a battle. 

While I thought, and still think, that the decisions I make, like how many inches of hair to get cut or which coffee shop I should “study” at, are life-changing choices that can bring about the end of the world, I’ve seen first hand how choices influenced by culture really can have life-altering effects. My nonna moved here from Italy when she was 18 years old, more like, was moved here. Scooped up by an Italian man she had never met to become a wife, she had no choice and left everything she knew to move to America. Though my nonna’s life was hard, she wouldn’t trade it for the world because it brought her me… and my brother and cousins. (But mostly me.) In her adolescence, this was pretty common in Italian culture. Women didn’t have much choice in the matter of marriage and when it came to starting a better life in America, it was always a no-brainer. We get to witness a similar event in the musical Fiddler on the Roof

While Fiddler on the Roof created space for a presentation of Jewish culture and is often considered a celebration of said culture, when it comes to making choices that defy cultural tradition, it is often the progressive or “American” values that are viewed as “right” or heroic. Today, I’ll be walking us through the streets of Anatevka as we examine both the 1971 film production of Fiddler on the Roof and the 2015 Broadway revival, to uncover the culture behind choices, specifically when looking at those of children. Then we will take a sharp right, down the yellow brick road of the American stage, where we will see how this theme resurfaces in the musical, Once on this Island. By then, we should have arrived at our destination, a theatre stage at the intersection of Choice street and Culture avenue. 

First, in defining the idea of American values concerning choice, I look to a quote from the Brown Political Review, which states “The United States has one of the most individualistic cultures in the world. Americans are more likely to prioritize themselves over a group and they value independence and autonomy.” In direct contrast to this, Tevye, as the father in Fiddler on the Roof and carrier of culture (and a dense beard), plays a role that emphasizes the culture of Anatevka and the Jewish community at large. He seeks out following tradition, especially when considering the prospect of marriage for his daughters. His daughters Tzeitel and Hodel, on the other hand, have other ideas for their future. Both have fallen for men that have not been selected by their father and in doing so must stand up to him and the Jewish community to fight for their own autonomy. In “Tevye’s Monologue”, a song with an extremely creative title, Tevye must weigh these two choices and discern what he believes to be best. Tevye begins by singing “Where do they think they are? America?”, comparing their marriage pledge to an American way of thinking. As Tevye struggles to decide between this progressive, “American” belief and tradition, he is taken aback by the look on his daughter’s face. In the 1971 filed version of Fiddler on the Roof, director Norman Jewison uses these lines to focus on Tzeitel’s eyes, the windows to the soul. Through artistic editing choices, it’s clear that her emotions are too strong and it would be “wrong” of Tevye to betray his daughter’s heart in choosing tradition. In the film, the idea of Tevye inching closing to a more progressive means of thought is demonstrated physically, with Tevye starting distant from the couple and slowing inching closer as the song continues. It would be unrealistic to portray Tevye’s shift as an immediate one but ultimately, he does allow his daughter to express her individualism by giving her autonomy in choosing who she would like to marry, even though it goes against tradition. In doing so, Tevye is beloved by the audience and even viewed as a heroic protagonist, as he fights tradition for a more progressive, American approach for the sake of his daughter’s heart. In the aptly named song “Tevye’s Monologue (Reprise)”, we see the exact same title reflect the exact same scene replaying itself, except this time with Teyve’s other daughter, Hodel. 

Without the cinematic liberties of film, these scenes look a lot different on the stage yet are still able to portray this juxtaposition between old ways and new ways, cultural tradition and individual autonomy. In the 2015 Broadway revival, director Bartlett Sher situates Tevye a ways away from his daughter, Tzeitel, and lover, Motel. Instead of using editing techniques to emphasize Tevye’s soliloquy (maybe the song isn’t so aptly named), a spotlight is shined on him as the rest of the stage goes dark and the characters are frozen. Again, this creates a divide between Tevye and his daughter and what they stand for until Tevye gives in and they unite their beliefs with a physical sign of unity, a hug. While these scenes mold Tevye into a heroic protagonist, his heroism and humanity are put into question when his third daughter also decides to make this choice for herself. Chava, like her sisters, wants to pursue a man of her choice to marry. However, she falls in love with Fyedka, a Russian, which her father will not accept. Like her sisters, she begins by asking for her father’s blessing. Ultimately, when he refuses to give it, she carries on without his blessing and is disowned by her father, and loses her family. In this situation, Tevye is not necessarily seen as the villain, but his heroism is put into question because he clings to tradition over individualism, even though it will cost him his daughter. Ultimately though, he caves as well, addressing Chava and Fedyka as they leave for Poland. In this momentary acknowledgment, Tevye is accepting his daughter’s choice, even if it hasn’t received his full approval. In other words, individualism and autonomy triumph because its hardest fight against tradition (in the form of Tevye and Chava) is broken down before the movie comes to an inconclusive conclusion. 

All three daughters in Fiddler on the Roof are celebrated as heroines as they fight for love and their autonomy to choose their future. However, it is important to note how all three girls go about doing this. In keeping with American standards of feminine beauty (as according to men), women are supposed to be docile, that’s why we see all three girls begin by carefully asking their father for his blessing. While the girls further the notions of progressive American values of individualism over culture, they are also furthering the notions of American femininity. Chava is the only one who does not keep to this ideal; however, this is due to her father’s lack of progressionist thinking. Chava is perhaps the most heroic of them all, the Superwoman in a sea of Supergirls one might say, because in claiming her own identity, she sacrifices family, one of the most important things in Jewish culture. 

Now that we’ve made it through Anatevka, we’re off to see a little girl in a tree. Down the yellow brick road, there is an island. Once on this island, we will see a very similar story unfold. Like Tevye’s daughter, Ti Moune in Once on this Island dreams of marrying a man she’s never met before. To be fair, she does knows that he wears white, drives a car, and is going somewhere far. Nice. Anyway, Ti Moune is eventually separated from Daniel and asks for her parents blessing to search for him. Though they are reluctant, as any parents might be when you can’t even provide enough information to start a background check, they ultimately give her their blessing. Against their better judgment, against cultural and classist norms, and even in spite of the fact that Daniel’s people look at theirs with disdain, choice and individual autonomy prevail again. With that, Ti Moune is to take on a heroine’s journey to reunite with her true love and conquer social and cultural barriers, much like Tevye’s daughters. Both musicals also include an element of religion and diety, though Once on this Island is much more explicit. In the case of Ti Moune, the gods spur the crash that causes Ti Moune and Daniel to meet, with the goddess of love rooting for the couple to end up together. This brings into question a whole other layer of divine intervention when it comes to choice. Because both cultures the examined daughters come from are so rooted in religion, it would be interesting to examine how this belief (or even the gods) works in favor of or against tradition. Is arranged marriage really a question of faith or one of change? I’ll leave you with that because, as I said, it would be interesting but frankly, I’ve already taken up enough of your time. 

With that, we have arrived at our final destination. At the intersection of Choice street and Culture avenue, we see how culturally immersed American musicals, like Fiddler on the Roof and Once on this Island, ultimately serve to further progressive or “American” values as heroic while hiding under the veil of presenting and celebrating diverse cultures. Much like when Dorothy meets the wizard, only to discover he is but a common man, these American musicals hide under the veil of cultural appreciation. Though we made it to Oz, we ultimately found ourselves back in Kansas, though it looks a little more like Oklahoma to me. 

Grammar matters: Dear Evan Hansen and the appeal of the passive voice

A wise woman (Rachel Bloom) once said “nothing was ever anyone’s fault.” The universe is a jerk. We are all just passive players in this large game of life, bent to the will and whims of the unknown forces of fates. We are traumatized and tired, and we should not be faulted for our blunders. Evan Hansen, the titular character of the popular musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, seems to be the perfect embodiment of this sentiment. The story of Dear Evan Hansen was comforting: Evan, just like us in at least some points of our lives, found himself in a mess of bad decisions that were not entirely in his control. Throughout the musical, Evan and those around him were all victims of their circumstances and traumas, and the musical established a soothing, hopeful tone that reassured both their characters and their audience that their pain and struggles were valid and understood. The creators used a grammatical tool – the passive voice – to bring about a sense of victimhood in the characters, and a sense of sympathy in the audience. However, by doing so, the musical neglected an equality important part of trauma: healing, growth, and change – all of which cannot be passive. Dear Evan Hansen utilized the passive voice so well that it lured the audience into a false sense of comfort and inaction, and therefore uphold the status quo of mental illness instead of challenge it.

The name of the musical, Dear Evan Hansen already incited a sense of passiveness. “Dear Evan Hansen” was an address from a message: the person addressed in this case was not a part of the story, but an audience member who was told the story. They neither have much control over how the story went nor how the writer portrayed the story. By naming the musical Dear Evan Hansen, the creators already signified that Evan Hansen, while the main character, was not in control of his own story. Instead of being the active subject, he was the passive object. Even though Evan Hansen wrote his own letters, the name of the musical itself foreshadowed the loss of control of his own narrative: his mother told him to write the letter, then Connor took it, and everyone else mistook his writings for Connor’s – Evan had no control over what his letter did and what he could do with his letter. Instead of telling his own story, Evan’s letter to himself became someone else’s story.

The musical also did not start with Evan: it started with his mother instead. The first song in the original cast album was “Anybody Have a Map?”  The first line of the album was “Have you been writing those letters to yourself?”, followed by Heidi Hansen reciting how Evan should write his letter. She came off as an enthusiastic, yet quite overbearing parent. She wanted to direct Evan on his healing, which pushed Evan into a passive role where he could not express how he wanted to write the letter, or even if he wanted to write the letter. Instead of letting her son take control of his own healing, Heidi forced it onto him without considering Evan’s own autonomy. This first moment of the musical, again, brought forth the idea that Evan did not have much control over his own life. The conversation between Heidi and Evan carried on in a similar matter, as Heidi enthusiastically ordering Evan (or, to put it more nicely, asking him very forcefully) to do things that he was clearly not comfortable with. Listening to the original cast album, we could hear the reluctant and discomfort in Evan’s voice, as well as his desire to end the conversation quickly and escape his mother control.

The next song, “Waving Through the Window,” was a solo song for Evan; here, the lyrics did have a mostly active voice where Evan used “I” statements and active verbs. He also used “we” pronoun as a way to connect with the audience and create a sense of shared identity. While Evan’s discomfort in “Anybody Have a Map?” made the audience sympathize for him, “Waving Through the Window” was a more active effort to connect with the audience. As we listened more closely to the lyrics, however, we saw that Evan’s situation was not in his control either. His song was supposed to be vulnerable and relatable, and the song achieved that emotional effect by showcasing Evan’s struggles. He struggled with social interactions and his fear of judgements, both of which were highly reliant on not only himself, but other people’s perception of him. While he was an authority on his own behaviors (as evident by the lines “I’ve learned”), he had no control over how people truly perceived him. His situation, therefore, was not completely in his control. In fact, he was not in control of the source of his struggles at all, externally sourced as it was. In the first three paragraphs of the song, Evan showed somewhat control of his actions: he had “learned” how to behave, “learned” what not to do, and he even tried to tell himself to “step out of the sun” so he wouldn’t be burned. However, as the song progressed, this control slipped away from him. The music changed its tone from a softer tone to a quicken tone, and the words changed from certain, commanding statements to questions and the more tentative verb “try”. Here, Evan started to realize that what he did was “try”, and that the results of his actions were a big question: “can anybody see?” He started to realize that no, he was not exactly in control of the situation at all. Now, Evan started to identify with the audience through the pronoun “we”: the audience felt his uncertainty on a closer level. As the audience identified with Evan, we felt more closely the struggles in the bridge and chorus of the song: we felt Evan’s loneliness and anxiety on a deeper level. Evan then repeated the questions “did I even make a sound?” several times, the question and repetition emphasized Evan’s uncertainty and lack of control, and we as the audience felt for him. This song established the connection, and solidified Evan as a sympathetic character.

The musical’s plot now continued with a sequence of decisions and actions that Evan did not have control over. Connor, a suicidal classmate of Evan who also bullied him, took Evan’s letter. He then took his own life, and his family mistook Evan’s letter as Connor’s letter to Evan. These circumstances, wildly out of Evan’s control, pushed Evan into an awkward position. He felt the pressure to lie to console Connor’s family and give them some form of relief from sadness. While it was his decision to make up the lies, the audience – because we already connected and sympathized with him, tend to exempt Evan from being at fault. We would see that Evan did not really had a choice, especially after we saw his struggles with acceptance and being heard.  Jared, Evan’s only friend, then helped us excuse Evan’s lies as he helped Evan fabricate more lies and more letters. Connor’s ghost also appeared, not to condemn Evan but also to encourage Evan and play along to the lies.

The two song “Disappear” and “You Will Be Found” then signified the change in the tone of the musical. While the previous song mainly focused on Evan or the people around him and their interactions with Evan, these two songs symbolized a switch in Evan’s mentality. The scope of his social life broadened: these songs did not just talk about Evan and Connors, but about all the “guys like you and me.” They moved the topic from a specific person with a name to the general mass of people who “keep waiting to be seen.” They moved from Connor and Evan to “someone,” “no one” and “you”. The scope broadened toward the general, and then came toward to audience. They repeated the phrase “you still matter” several times during “Disappear” as both a generic statement and a reminder, a comfort to the audience. While Evan connected and comforted the audience with his struggles and vulnerability before, “Disappear” was where he directly reassured the audience that we too, would be alright. In contrast to “Waving Through a Window”, where Evan started with certainty and ended with uncertainty, “Disappear” went the opposite direction. Connor’s ghost was the one who brought up the idea of keeping his memory alive, and Evan grew more confident in the idea throughout the song, finally deciding to create The Connor Project. However, it is important to note that it was Connor who initiated the idea, not Evan.

In “You Will Be Found,” we saw again the overt use of the passive voice. However, it was not Evan that was the object, but the audience, the “you”. Evan now dedicated this song wholly to the audience instead of to himself or the people around him. This song was the show stopper, the key player of the whole musical. It was what made the show so comforting and reassuring: because of those four words. “You will be found.” The passive voice here played a crucial part in reassuring the audience. As a passive “you” who was not part of the action, the audience did not need to put in effort to create active change – Evan and his Connor Project were already doing the hard work for them. Throughout the song, the only instances of active voice had their subject a generic “someone” instead of “you”. “Someone will come running”, “they’ll take you home”, etc., these sentences showed that the audience did not have to do anything to enact these changes in their lives: they could wait and “someone” would come and solve their problem for them. This song, while hopeful and uplifting, actually neglected that healing and growth required changes within the person themself. The song, focusing too much on comforting the audience, neglected that growth was uncomfortable and changes – active changes – was also necessary.

Evan’s speech went viral without much of his own actions. Again, “someone” put his speech online, not him. He didn’t control how much the story blew up and how far his impact had grown. “Good For You” was the climax of Dear Evan Hansen, where everything came crashing down and people eventually found out about Evan’s lies, again completely outside of his control. They then proceeded to yell at him and pin all the blame on Evan. However, as the audience already grew attached to Evan, we could not help but feel protective over him. We noticed that Evan did not have many choices in what he chose to do (allegedly) and that many people encouraged his ideas for their own gain. We could not help but feel indignant that Heidi, who had never understood her son and an entire adult, was not yelling at her son for his trauma. Or that Alana, who inserted herself into the Connor Project for her own gain, did not feel even a slight remorse that she, indeed, used Connor’s death to become relevant. Jared, who was Evan’s accomplice, was no much better. In fact, Evan was the only one who was sorry for his actions: he was a good person who knew to regret his actions – and we took comfort in that fact.

The tone of the musical changed again to what was similar to the start of “Waving Through a Window”: a shaky, sad, and soft song where Evan again did not have any control over his circumstances. He failed this time, and we recalled what he sang in “Waving Through a Window”: no one was there to tell him when he went wrong. “Words Fail” was a heartfelt song where Evan was again vulnerable and alone. He laid bare his trauma from emotional neglect and his want for an illusion of happiness. Evan was broken, just as his voice broke and the music itself was fractured, and he once again doubted himself. This was the consequence for his actions throughout the musical. He was back to square one, but this song ended differently from “Waving Through a Window”: instead of stepping out of the sunlight, Evan wanted to step in to the sunlight. Instead of despair, the song ended on hope. And that was powerful, heartfelt, and once again, solidified Evan Hansen as a comforting, good-nature character to the audience.

However, this hopeful ending to the song fell flat. There was no explicit effort in Evan to fix what he did wrong. There was no active changes that we get to see on stage. Instead, we had a half-hearted time skip to the future with no real impact on the plot or the viewers. As an audience member, I felt cheated. The ending felt like a generic “and they live happily ever after” ending with no actual impact. It was supposed to be uplifting – that Evan might find forgiveness – but that forgiveness was not deserved if there was no effort putting into righting his wrong. Again, Dear Evan Hansen focused too much on the message of hope and comfort that the show completely neglect the discomfort of growing and being a good person.

~ Rose Nguyen

High School Musical: The Musical: The Essay: A Musical of a Generation

By Remi Williams

“The music in those shows isn’t hip hop, okay, or rock, or anything essential to culture…it’s like show music.” Oh how wrong Chad Danforth could be when describing musicals while he performs in one! This semester, one of our main foci was togetherness and the culture expressed in different musicals. Seeing the characters from different backgrounds come together means a lot in our world, especially right now. Even better than seeing the characters of a musical come together during this pandemic? Seeing your favorite characters come together when you’re 7. High School Musical premiered January 20th in 2006, and I vividly remember it. As someone who played basketball, starred in musicals, AND read for pleasure (yes, 7 year old me was much more accomplished than I am now), this movie musical was made for me. I was torn between my identities, and director Kenny Ortega told me I didn’t have to be. I was sold! And so were so many other people my age. My friends who had never been interested in musicals before were obsessed with the story, the music, and mostly Zac Efron as Troy Bolton. High School Musical showed a generation of individuals how we need to support one another no matter how different we are. It broke generational boundaries of cliques through dance, song, and a high school musical.

As long as high schools have existed, so have cliques. Originally, Troy Bolton, a budding basketball star, and Gabriella Montez, a freaky genius played by Vanessa Hudgens, were trying to push these boundaries at East High by auditioning for the spring musical. Their respective friends, Taylor McKessie played by Monique Coleman and Chad Danforth played by Corbin Bleu, did not want this to happen. They set up a whole scheme just to make sure that Troy and Gabriella would stay away from one another. Whether an acting choice by Hudgens or a directing choice by Ortega, seeing Gabriella’s tear streaked face before her iconic performance of “When There Was Me and You” broke hearts, and it really emphasized that dividing ourselves between groups of people could hurt us and others. It made clear that sticking together and supporting friends’ choices will help us create healthy relationships with people that we may not have considered being friends with before. Expanding our circles and including others builds a community that works towards inclusivity and support. 

The choreography by Kenny Ortega, really shines in “Stick to the Status Quo,” written by David Nessim Lawrence. The lyrics of this song and the switch between soloists and chorus members separates the characters while also bringing them together. Each group wants the same thing: to stay true to their label and not branch out into another group’s territory. However, the choreography says the opposite. While the soloists from each group stand on their tables and act out their new found passion, the rest of the cafeteria partakes in the same exact choreography. Even though the camera angles still focus on the differences between the groups, a viewer can’t help but notice the similarities between the groups while they dance in unison. The togetherness emphasized by High School Musical meets here with the idea of individualism; everyone should take pride in all of their identities no matter what they are, and those identities should have support from others. Superiority between groups does not exist as they all sing the same notes and dance the same moves. 

High School Musical’s most memorable number “We’re All in This Together” comes as the closing song. The title alone should tell you how important community has become to the characters of this show. While walking through a tunnel made up of extras holding up her brother Ryan, played by Lucas Grabeel, Sharpay, played by Ashley Tisdale, sings the lyrics “we’ve arrived because we stuck together, champions one and all,” even though she just lost the lead spot in the musical to some new girl. These lyrics show real character development from Sharpay, who once used all of her power to ensure that Troy and Gabriella did not make it to callbacks. She realizes that supporting her fellow classmates will help her make it through; if she supports them, they will support her. The choreography of this number also speaks to how the community has changed at East High. As stated in the last paragraph, the choreography for “Stick to the Status Quo” mixed togetherness and individualism, but the choreography for the last song finally shows everyone as one entity. All of the high school students fill the gym, some on the bleachers and some on the floor, to celebrate the way that they all came together for a win in all departments. All of them move as one, their movements sharp and their faces ecstatic. They reach for each other’s hands, and you can tell that they fully support one another as they dance in celebration. Seeing this as a 7 year old (and as a 21 year old) reminds me that we should not have to choose between our activities or our friends; supporting everyone’s successes help bring us together as a community.

The availability of this show to the public also allows us to feel a larger sense of community. It originally premiered on Disney Channel, something that anyone with cable had access to. If you didn’t have cable, you could go to a friends house and watch, which most of my friends did anyway. They sold it in stores on DVD and Blu-ray (wow I feel old), making it even more accessible. When the hype died down, they eventually sold for about $5 and probably still do now; what a steal! It now also streams on Disney+, covering almost all bases of media platforms. You can find the soundtrack on a CD, on most music streaming platforms, and it used to play on Radio Disney, the children’s radio. The fact that almost everyone can enjoy this movie musical in one way or another allows individuals to come together over it and brings our community closer, especially those of us who grew up with it. High School Musical does a lot to bring communities together that would not usually interact with one another. The jocks can sing, the singers can play sports, the nerds can do pretty much anything, and each group should support the other. Having this premiere on a children’s network with a viewership of shapeable minds also helped their cause. As a 7 year old watching this, I did not consciously know that I would take these lessons with me after watching it for the 100th time, but it definitely allowed me to feel comfortable being the girl who did it all. I didn’t have to choose who I wanted to be; I got to be whatever I wanted all at the same time, and I had a lot of different friends because of it. High School Musical changed the way that people saw one another, and for that reason, it now is and always will be culturally relevant.

The Musical For Our Moment: “Rent” In 2020

Every night at 7pm, New York City sings communal praises to the medical workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. For the past several months, New Yorkers have walked out onto their balconies and fire escapes to shout, cheer, and cry together. While this tradition has died down recently, the videos and images of this City-wide phenomenon from the early months of COVID will not be forgotten.

This phenomenon caught my attention from the very beginning because it represents the paradox between celebration and mourning. When New York City erupts with sound every night it is both a collective acknowledgement of the joy that exists——particularly the joyful reality of a shared experience——and a plea for better. 

The imagery of New Yorkers shouting on balconies, living in the tension of paradoxical joy and sorrow, is not new. In fact, I see this same iconography in Jonathan Larson’s hit musical Rent. 

At this moment, you might be skeptical, and that’s okay. After all, Rent is probably one of the most heavily debated musicals in Broadway history. People either love Rent like no other, or they absolutely despise it. Critics of the 1996 musical have called it outdated, said it is stuck in the ‘90s, and some have even called it a “relic.” Vox writer Caroline Framke even asserted that Rent had no ability to evolve over time, saying, “if you want to move generations beyond the present, you have to tap into more than current trends as a means of communicating,” criticizing Larson’s heavy reliance upon alt-rock and grunge.

But I find these arguments lackluster and surface-level. To be honest, critics who cling with passion to the commentary that Rent is stuck in its own time lack imagination and vision. Maybe that seems harsh, but I really believe that it’s true. Yes, Rent was written in response to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, but that is not the only experience it can speak to. If directors, production teams, actors, and even audience members believed that period pieces could only thrive in the moment they were created, why would we produce revivals? One could argue that Oklahoma! is too “outdated” for production, and yet it won a Tony for best revival because it approached the musical in a new, innovative way.

The best musicals are those that have a capacity to engage an audience——in any given moment——on things far greater than catchy, repeated melodies. The best musicals are those that can transcend time by asking the audience timeless questions that often have very timely implications. Rent does this. I’ve watched this musical so many times, but recently it’s hit me differently. At this very moment I feel Rent speaking on a core level to the COVID-19 pandemic and the current American experience. Not only is the musical centered around New York City, but it emphasizes the importance of community in a place so potentially isolating. Perhaps most importantly, though, Rent tells the story of watching an illness unfold with no ability to stop it. This is the musical for our moment.

The original Broadway musical opened in 1996, but the movie——which features most of the original Broadway cast—— premiered in 2005. The musical begins on Christmas Eve in 1989 with a simplistic film reel shot by Mark who is played by Anthony Rapp. Mark is filming a documentary about New York City——specifically about the lives of the homeless population and those affected by HIV/AIDS. The reel shows a shot of Radio City Music Hall, moments of extreme poverty, people experiencing homelessness, etc. These shots——which you can watch below——felt all too similar to what I can picture NYC looking like right now, absent the masks. Mark sings, “How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day. Headlines, breadlines blow my mind, and now this deadline: ‘Eviction or pay’ Rent.” I did a double take thinking about the transcendent reality of this lyric. Breadlines in America have returned, except this time people have to stay in their cars.

The shot transitions to a scene where Mark and his roommate Roger, played by Adam Pascal, are singing on their balcony. We see the image my mind was originally drawn to in comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic where all of the tenants of Avenue B on their balconies, singing “How we gonna pay last year’s rent.” While New Yorkers today aren’t lighting screenplays on fire and dropping them off the side of their building (or maybe they are, who knows??) the imagery and lyrics feel all too real, especially given the calls for Governor Cuomo to cancel rent.

There are many other moments when New York is specifically mentioned in the lyrics, like when Angel begins the song “Sante Fe.” She sings, “New York City, center of the universe. Times are shitty, but I’m pretty sure they can’t get worse. It’s a comfort to know, when you’re singing the hit the road blues that anywhere else you could possibly go after New York would be a pleasure cruise.” In that moment, Mark says “I hear that,” but if the movie were transplanted into 2020, he would’ve said the same thing. To me, though, it’s not the specificity of the lines about New York that make Rent so centered in this place. Rather, it’s the emphasis on setting in the film. If you took the film and transplanted it to another location, I don’t think it would hold the same weight because the grungy fire escapes and celebrations in city streets draw the audience to a familiarity of the iconography of NYC. Furthermore, there’s a deeper meaning to the emphasis on community and shared experiences in a city more so than there would be in a suburban small town.

The importance of community is most emphasized in the “Life Support” scenes where the characters who have AIDS meet as a support group. Some of the most beautiful moments in the film are when characters take a moment to acknowledge their illness——both Angel and Collins and Mimi and Roger share sweet sighs of relief as they recognize their shared reality.

The illness that unites this community, though, is also what ultimately shatters it (before coming back together, of course). Back in Life Support, Mimi begins to sing “Without You” as she grieves the end of her and Roger’s relationship, but we start to see the people in Life Support lose their lives and fade away. The shot fades into the Subway where Collins is holding Angel, who is dying. That image is harrowing as it once again brought my mind to the COVID era. Collins and the rest of the friends watch Angel lose her battle, unable to do anything to heal her. We see the same fate begin to unfold for Mimi, too, who takes her last breaths in the final scene of the movie. Roger holds Mimi in his arms as he sings the song he’s been writing for a year, Your Eyes, and Mimi is revived by his love. In this final moment of the movie, we feel the weight of Angel’s death and the harsh reality of life with AIDS wash over us, while simultaneously celebrating the life that we have. The cast sings “No Day But Today” as Mark plays his finished documentary in the background.

Rent doesn’t present a perfect parallel to COVID-19, I know that. But that’s the beauty of it. Rent can speak to us in its original form because the questions it asks about life transcend time. I think, now more than ever, the question of how we measure our life is incredibly important. In the middle of quarantine, maybe we did measure our life by cups of coffee… but as 2020 comes to a close, I challenge you to consider what Rent asks its audiences——new and old——what would it look like to measure your life in love?

High School Musical: Is the Status Quo Worth Sticking To?

The High School Musical trilogy shaped my childhood; the first installment came out when I was just six years old and the soundtrack has been on repeat ever since. Like any piece of entertainment with a large fan base and a catchy chorus (or several), High School Musical receives considerable hate. And like any loyal fan– unbothered by petty criticisms or plainly bad takes– I defend its merits whenever they are called into question. For those who wonder what grants this musical drama its undeniable artistic credibility, I can suggest a myriad of factors ranging from Kenny Ortega’s brilliant choreography to Lucas Gabreel’s representation of fluid gender roles. A quick glance at just how many students in our class elected to write about High School Musical of all musicals demonstrates just how impactful this piece was on our generation. Despite my unwavering loyalty, I have challenged myself to review the High School Musical trilogy with a critical eye on the cultural messages writer Peter Barsocchini and director Kenny Ortega inadvertently imply through questionable casting choices and noteworthy plot themes. Many of these implications affect how young audiences may view themselves in matters related to race, class, and sexuality. 

All things considered, High School Musical sports a relatively racially diverse cast. Two of the main characters are Black, and a good number of Black actors join the cast as supporting characters. Moreover, the heroine of the trilogy is Latina… right? Truth be told, the introduction of protagonist Gabriella Montez is where viewers concerned with matters regarding race and ethnicity should begin squinting their eyes. Gabriella is clearly written as a Hispanic character. If her name is not a dead giveaway, the regional setting of the films (Albuquerque, New Mexico) and physical appearance of the girl, who is played by actress Vanessa Hudgens, should clue viewers in. However, Disney channel’s young audience might be a little less sure about Gabriella’s ethnicity, and with good reason. Even with her dark hair, dark eyes, and slight tan– which becomes a bit unnatural looking in High School Musical 2– Vanessa Hudgens is white passing. This alone should not be too concerning; many Latinx people, indeed, are white. 

However, actress Vanessa Hudgens is seemingly everything but Latina. Hudgens claims Native American, Filippino, Chinese, and white as her racial and ethnic identities. As such, her playing a Hispanic character is a bit… odd. In the context of musical theater history, Hudgens passing as Latina in order to play Miss Montez is not nearly as bad as using yellowface or blackface. Although one could argue that given those intense tans in High School Musical 2, it might be more similar than fans like myself are willing to admit. I did consider that Gabriella Montez could be in the very small percentage of non-Hispanic people who have Montez as a last name. However, that fantasy was easily destroyed upon rewatching High School Musical 3, in which Gabriella’s mother speaks to her in Spanish, saying, “Te quiero con todo mi alma.” After this scene, there is no question that Gabriella is a Latina character. 

Aside from Miss Montez, the High School Musical franchise struggles to challenge the status quo when it comes to racial character dynamics. The Black best friend television trope is, unfortunately, how many Black TV and film stars can expect to get their big break in the entertainment industry. Not only does High School Musical play into this trope, but it does so twice. Chad Danforth and Taylor McKessie are the best friends of Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez, respectively. The Black “sidekick” allows these movies to fill a diversity quota of sorts without writing complex storylines for those characters. Writer Barsocchini does seem to attempt to ameliorate this trope with a countertrope for character Taylor McKessie, who is played by actress Monique Coleman. Taylor, a Black female, is one of the smartest students at East High. The “Black nerd” countertrope attempts to challenge stereotypes of Black kids taking school less seriously, and the High School Musical franchise executes it quite well through Taylor’s character. However, Taylor was not written as a Black character, or as a character with any designated race. Monique Coleman has stated that she and two Asian American women were up for the part before she was eventually chosen. Given these three options, casting directors Jason La Padura, Jeff Johnson, and Natalie Hart would have played into a trope or stereotype regardless of which actress they chose for Taylor. Instead of the Black best friend, it would have been the nerdy Asian. 

From the onset, characters Ryan and Sharpay Evans– played by Lucas Gabreel and Ashley Tisdale, respectively– are made out to be spoiled, bougie, rich kids who are more than accustomed to getting everything they want. Interestingly, these characters were originally written to be the African American duo– but the directors could not find a Black male they liked for Ryan. The racial dynamics would have been completely different– and not in a good way, in my opinion– had this original casting vision manifested. Had the directors made the primary Black representation in High School Musical the selfish, sassy, antagonists that characterize Ryan and Sharpay, the movie likely would have been less successful. Black influence and support in popular culture is extremely valuable and effective, and this was especially true at the turn of the 21st century. Speaking from my own experience, Black parents would have been much less likely to support a mainstream franchise that portrayed Black youth with the attitude problems of Ryan and Sharpay. For a franchise with a young target audience, parent support is exceedingly important. 

Even if High School Musical still became a worldwide phenomenon with a Black Ryan and Sharpay, there likely would have been disturbing social consequences for Black youth– especially those interested in musical theater. The anti-stereotype goes a bit too far to have been productive for cultural discourse. Some countertropes can be helpful and should be encouraged, as is the case for Taylor McKessie. I, for one, am all for showing more smart Black characters to young audiences. But a countertrope that would have drastically centered the issues of race and class– like a Black Ryan and Sharpay undoubtedly would have– goes from one undesirable extreme to one unlikable one. When minority representation is limited, as it often is, each character has an exceedingly profound impact on social and cultural perceptions. I can already imagine young Black kids shying away from interests in theater for fear of being too similar to the movies’ antagonists. 

Regarding class dynamics, socioeconomic status is an underlying issue that clearly affects the social dynamics in High School Musical, just as it does in any real high school. Although issues related to money and class are not as prevalent in the first film, they become quite clear when characters start worrying about saving up for cars and paying for college in films 2 and 3. While Ryan and Sharpay are the clear wealth hoarders of the group, the rest of the characters make themselves out to be middle class. One of the central plotlines in the second film is Troy’s obsession with how he is– or isn’t– going to pay for college. He goes as far as to sacrifice his friendly and romantic relationships for a better chance to secure his economic future. 

Now, if set designer Mark Hofeling had not made Troy’s home a near-million dollar house (I got estimates on Zillow), his complaints may have been more believable. He wears the same variation of colored baseball tees and dark blue jeans so that his class is pretty disguisable, but the several scenes where he plays on his perfectly painted backyard basketball court or hosts a hundred people for an after party reveal his true economic condition. Of course, Troy is not the only rich kid on the block– Gabriella’s Albuquerque home, which is shared only between herself and her mother– also suggests that she might be closer to upper than middle class. Gabriella also easily quits her summer job in High School Musical 2 when she decides the social drama isn’t worth it. At the very least, Barsocchini character’s might instill a sense of social insecurity into young viewers who are actually struggling with money issues at home and then compare themselves to the characters on screen. 

Lastly, things get a little tricky when Ryan’s sexuality is considered– which it should be. From his flamboyant outfits to his fondness for yoga and his insistence that “everyone loves a good jazz square”, Ryan is clearly coded as a gay character to anyone with even a mild level of social consciousness. At the very least, he could pass as metrosexual; and this has to become the assumption when the directors, for some reason, hint at a romantic relationship between him and the supporting female character, Kelsi Nielsen, in the third movie. Although Kenny Ortega never explicitly says that Ryan is gay, he does admit that the character is inspired by him, who is admittedly a gay, theater nerd. So then the question becomes, why couldn’t the directors have left it at that? Was it really necessary to show Ryan and Kelsi frolicking in the grass and blushing about going to prom together? Ryan’s forced heterosexuality at the end of the series leaves some viewers disappointed, but it can be especially disheartening for viewers who saw themselves in him, up until that point. 

I am who I am today because of the High School Musical trilogy. It was my first introduction to musical theater, first loves, and the triumphs and downfalls of high school. What most attracted me to High School Musical, though, was how it made each of the characters someone I wanted to relate to. High School Musical reveals how pop culture entertainment can stick to the status quo, or it can challenge it. This franchise does a little bit of both– and that precise combination is how it established itself as the cultural phenomenon that it is today. 

How One of the “Nicest Kids in Town” Helped Turn Segregation into Integration (Hairspray)

By:Morgan Baxendale 


Back in the 1960s, in Baltimore, Maryland, you would never think that a plump, regular teenager could make such a monumental difference with integration, but that’s exactly what Tracy Turnblad did. John Water’s production of “Hairspray” emphasized what segregation was like during this time, but also what it looked like to overcome it. This production also made its way to the big screen in 2007, when Nicole Blonksky played the star role as Tracy Turnblad. There were aspects to both the broadway show and the film that showed just what it was like during that time and what the future was going to look like in the lens of segregation.  During this period of time in Baltimore, The Corny Collins Show was one of the most popular entertainment shows that was aired on television. This TV program was based on the real-life Buddy Dean Show that portrayed a typical teenage dance show that mainly consisted of white kids. Tracy Turnblad was completely in love with this show and knew someday she would be dancing on that stage alongside those other hip, rockin’, cool kids. Once Tracy saw there was an opening on the show, she had to go for it, and that’s when she would make an impact that would last for decades. The culture that the country was surrounding itself in needed to be changed, and Tracy Turnblad made a giant step in the right direction because of her actions on The Corny Collins Show.  

The setting of this production was taking place at a pivotal point in the Jim Crow Era of racial segregation. This system regulated African Americans to the position of second class citizens that started back in 1877. The Corny Collins Show was the most popular teenage dance program in Baltimore, June of 1962, and the host of the annual Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant every year, but it demonstrated how segregated the culture was at the time. Even though there were so many great things about the show that people loved, the one pivotal aspect about the show that, in my opinion, needed to change, and that was the fact that it was extremely segregated. A majority of the dancers on the show were popular white teenagers. The show did allow black dancers to be a part of it, but they were only allowed to perform on the show once a month during negro day. If both groups of dancers had to be sharing the stage with one another, the white dancers and the black dancers would have to be separated. Even though people knew this was wrong, producer of the show, Velma von Tussle, wasn’t planning on changing anything anytime soon, until Tracy Turnblad came in and changed it all. 

Ever since Tracy can remember, it has been her dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show. Everyday after school Tracy Turnblad and best friend, Penny, rushed home to watch The Corny Collins Show. She loved the dancing, the energy, and Link Larkin, the heartthrob on the show. On one particular afternoon, Corny Collins announces that one of the dancers on the show would be taking a leave of absence for 9 months and they needed a replacement. Right at that very moment, Tracy knew this was her chance to live out her dreams, but also changing the norm when it came to campaigning for the show to integrate. She was thinking of the bigger picture, not just her desires and dreams, but the hopes of society coming together as one. 

When Tracy arrived at the audition, she knew the environment was going to be hostile and unwelcoming because of Velma von Tussle and the rest of the white teens. All of those teenagers were fully aware of the segregation that was occurring on the show and in their community, but because of higher authorities and people like Velma von Tussle, they didn’t plan on changing their mindset. Velma von Tussle and the other producers of the Corny Collins Show favored a white dancer, but Corny Collins picked Tracy as the replacement because of her talented dance moves, but especially because of her plans for the show moving forward. A lot of people have plans to make big things happen, but to actually have the motivation and drive to do it, is a big difference. Tracy knew that if she could get on this type of stage she could let all of the viewers watching and the people within the show know that integration is where our world is heading, and let’s get on the bus to head there. Tracy exceeded society’s restrictions and judgements in order to make it on the big stage and live out what she was called to do.

The following day after Tracy’s audition for the show, she meets an African American boy named Seaweed who is one of the dancers that performs on the monthly Negro day (that boy sure had some moves). They met in detention after Tracy got in trouble for her hair blocking other students’ view in the classroom. Seaweed and the rest of his crew were all part of the Negro day on The Corny Collins Show, and they, too, wanted to despartely help integrate the show. After their detention session, Seaweed urges Tracy and Link, who was also in detention, to come back to Motormouth Maybelle’s Record Shop. That’s where Tracy meets Seaweed’s little sister Little Inez and his mother to talk about the future of the show and the future they want to see integrated. All of them agreed that something needed to be done about integrating both the black and white dancers on The Corny Collins Show. After much discussion, they decided that a protest was the best way to prove what should be done. 

During the protest, Motormouth Maybelle expresses herself and everyone around her with such power and grace through her number, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” I don’t know this personally, but I’m sure most African Americans in the U.S. have faced hardship, stereotyping, and judgement because of the color of their skin. The words that were sung during this number speak volumes to what some people face everyday and to what some people have been facing for decades. “There’s a light in the darkness, though the night is black as my skin, there’s a light burning bright, showing me the way, but I know where I’ve been.” The community that is surrounding Motormouth Maybelle is truly surreal, but does a great job at emphasizing the severity of this problem and how long it has been occurring. Even in 2020 there are still protests and riots about issues like this going on every single day around our country. You’d think that after almost 60 years that issues of segregation would’ve come to a close, but that’s definitely not the case. At the conclusion of the number, the police take a small incident with one of the members in the protest out of proportion and wanted to arrest people. Criminal injustice and police brutality had affected Black Baltimoreans from a wide range of religious and professional backgrounds. Events like this continue to happen on a daily basis in our society today, and people have no tolerance for it and will do whatever it takes to show higher authorities and the community that they need to accept how our country needs to make this change for the better.

The big event that takes place at the end of every year for the show is Miss Teenage Hairspray Pageant. It’s a competition that each of the girls on the show can participate in, except for the African American girls on the show. Each of the girls are judged on their dancing, specific special talent, and how pretty and lovable they can be toward the audience. Even though Tracy wasn’t allowed to participate because the cops were looking for her because of the events that took place during the protest, she snuck her way in and absolutely stole the show. After Tracy is declared the winner she encourages all of the dancers, including the Black dancers to all join her on stage and show that this is how the show should be. The Corny Collins Show looked and acted completely unified. One of the key moments in the final number of the musical is when Tracy invites Little Inez during “You Can’t Stop the Beat” to join her and dance on stage. Little Inez refined what it was like to be a part of The Corny Collins Show and proved that no matter who you are or what your race is, that you can absolutely be a part of something big like this. Even though Tracy was initially declared the winner of the pageant, she knew that there was something else significant that needed to be done. Tracy knew that the true winner of the pageant was Little Inez for her unbelievable talents, the inspiration she showed to everyone, and the mental toughness that she had to overcome because of the color of her skin.

The Corny Collins Show is now and forevermore officially integrated!” This declaration made by Tracy was the beginning of the end of the hit musical “Hairspray.” After many years of the show being segregated, the show is finally making a turn for the better. Even though most people at this time were comfortable with everyone being separated and treated differently, this was not how it was going to be forever. Yes, severe segregation in the United States came to a close towards the end of the 1960s; however  there are still instances today where people treat others how they did decades ago. Segregation is just something that always seems to be relevant in our culture and something that people need to continue to work on. Hairspray did an incredible job of portraying what segregation was like back in the 1960s, but ended with the reality that we are now and forevermore racially integrated and as a country we need to start acting like it once more.      

Not So Blonde After All

By Elise Darby

In Legally Blonde: The Musical – The Search for Elle Woods, Elle Woods is perceived by many as a typical blonde sorority girl. However, she remains driven and proves everyone wrong; she accomplishes what they would have deemed impossible for her. As a Harvard graduate at the top of her class, she becomes an independent and fearless woman; she no longer seeks self-worth in men after coming to the realization that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to on her own.  

Elle Woods dreams of marrying Warner Huntington III… the “campus catch.” Her love for the man becomes part of her identity—she can’t live without him. Her sorority sisters encourage this relationship in the song “Omigod You Guys,” telling Elle they are a “perfect match” and that her “future’s taking off” only once he proposes to her. In turn, Elle believes that her future revolves around the proposal; without Warner, she doesn’t have a plan. In society, it is common for the woman to seek their identity in a man. Additionally, it is stereotypical for women to care more about fashion, love, and the materialistic goods rather than making a future for themselves. As the song continues, the sorority sisters tell Elle that her and Warner make the perfect couple because they “both have such great taste in clothes.” In addition to their materialistic comment, the girls seem more excited about the “four carats” and “princess cut” of the “huge engagement ring” than the actual validity of the relationship. Continuing, the sorority sisters excitingly sing that “now that a man chose [Elle], [her] life begins today.” They also told her to “make him a happy home” and “strive not to look [her] age” or else he will not be as interested. Women face a certain stereotype that they need to keep the house well kept, be eager to please the husband, and be beautiful in order to have a successful marriage and happy husband. Additionally, her friends are telling her that her life only begins after a man proposes, implying that until there is a ring on her finger, the rest of her life is a waste. A man should not, and does not, define a woman’s life. Similarly, a man should not get to choose his wife, they must mutually want to be together.  

At dinner with Warner, Elle is expecting a proposal. Things take a complete turn, however. To begin, Warner tells Elle that all men dream of finding a girl who looks like Elle. Did you notice how he complimented her physical traits rather than what is on the inside? He tells Elle that he needs to date someone serious. In the song “Serious,” he defines this by telling her he needs someone who is “less of a Marilyn and more of a Jackie” and somebody “classy and not too tacky.” Warner is basically claiming she is not sophisticated or smart enough for him, she is only good for her looks. She is not a serious girlfriend that he, a Harvard student, should pursue, rather she is seen as another dumb blonde. Warner, like many egotistical men in our society, talks down to Elle and makes her feel inferior. Elle concludes that in order to win Warner’s love, she must become the type of girl Warner is looking for. She makes a plan to change her whole life… a plan that many women feel pressured to make in order to please a man. In the song “What You Want,” she explains that she is going to go to Harvard to show Warner that she not only has the looks, but the brains too. She will “impress him with [her] high IQ.” Elle, like other women, is living her life for a man, not for herself. She is eager to please Warner. The gender roles and societal stereotype that have been formed within society is evident: a woman should live to make their man happy.  

Elle attends Harvard for a “love [she] has to win.” While she can live “without sun or valet,” she can’t live without Warner. Her existence and identity are centered in him. Everyone doubts Elle, but she works hard and is accepted into Harvard. As she enters the university in her bright, pink outfit, she informs Warner that she is a student now, as well. Warner is in disbelief and did not think it was possible for his airhead, sorority-obsessed ex-girlfriend to get into such an academic institution. Elle simply acts like it was easy to be accepted.  

Mr. Callahan, an intense Harvard professor, instructs her first class. He announces that he hires four interns each year from the class to work at his law firm, and each student will leave with a guaranteed career. Elle was told she had guts by the intimidating professor and was kicked out of class on the first day for not doing the reading. At this point, Elle is far from earning the internship, but she does not let that bring her down.  

After class, Warner introduces his new girlfriend from Harvard to Elle. Immediately, Elle searches for new ways to be the girl Warner desires. In the real world, although it is saddening, it is not uncommon for women to search for ways to make a man fall in love with them, seeking love and validation rather than self-acceptance. In Elle’s circumstance, she decides she should go brunette to please Warner. Afterall, if she is a brunette, she won’t be labeled as “dumb blonde.” She tells the hairstylist, Paulette, that she must make her a brunette because “that is what Warner wants.” Not only did Elle change her lifestyle and living situation for a man, but now she wants to change her appearance, too. Luckily, Paulette convinces Elle to stay blonde.  

Vivian, Warner’s girlfriend, invites Elle Woods to a party, but out of spite, she tells her it is a costume party. Elle shows up in a pink, revealing bunny costume, while everyone else is dresses nicely and modestly. After seeing Elle, Warner admits that sometimes he misses the old days. As always, Warner belittles Elle, and reminds her that she has no chance of getting the internship with Callahan. Due to Warner’s criticism, Elle wishes she “were dead” because “instead of a wedding in love,” she is a “total laughing stock” and someone people can “just mock.” Elle wants to succeed for Warner, not for herself. Her existence and happiness, at this point, is based on Warner. In general, women let how men perceive them affect them in great ways and will change themselves to win over a man.  

Emmett, a law student that wants to see Elle succeed, tells Elle that she needs a “chip on [her] shoulder” to make it through school. Emmett puts Elle on the right track: he helps her study and convinces her to take advantage of the education in front of her. Rather than focusing on looks and beauty, he wants her to start working on her brain. Instead of going home for the holidays, Elle stays and studies with Emmett; he is pushing her and encouraging her to learn. Elle Woods is going to show everyone what she is made of and prove everyone wrong. In the song “Chip On My Shoulder,” Emmett points out that each time Warner is present, her “IQ goes down to 40, maybe less.” Warner is the obstacle standing in between Elle and her success. This realization sparks a fire within Elle, she now has a chip on her shoulder and “instead of doodling hearts” she is ready to show Warner everything she is made of. She is going to put success and education first and prove everyone wrong. In fact, in the next class, she wins a case against Warner. Her intelligence is now shining through. She is slowly becoming less of the stereotypical “dumb blonde sorority girl,” and becoming more of a Jackie. After class Callahan even asks for her resume for his internship. 

The day Warner proposes to Vivian in the classroom, Callahan simultaneously posts his lists of interns. At first, Elle was saddened, but then she notices her name on the list. In the song “So Much Better,” Elle’s worth is evident. Immediately, the proposal is not as important; Elle is finding that she is an independent woman. This internship is the validation and security she needs to recognize her worth. She tells Warner that she got the internship, and he can’t even believe it. Elle, who is booming with self-confidence, sings to Warner that making the list “beats the first time that [they] kissed.” She is able to see her self-improvement and points out that Waner’s “judgement was poor” when he thought she was dumb. Elle finally knows her value; she is no longer dependent on a man. Instead, she is an intelligent young woman, who is making a name for herself and moving onto bigger and better things in life. 

As the musical progresses, Emmett and Elle become closer. She buys him clothes and tells him it is a “payment in kind” because he always “saw beyond all the blonde to [her] mind.” Unlike Warner, Emmett never saw Elle as a dumb blonde; he saw her potential.  

When Paulette becomes interested in the UPS guy, Elle and her sorority sisters teach her how to do the “bend and snap.” This oversexualizing dance suggests that women must display their bodies in order to get attention from men. In fact, the song “Bend and Snap” starts with the line “look at my ass, look at my thighs.” The song suggests that attention from a man must be gained through their bodies. A sorority sister insists that “the more you jump and scream, the sexier you seem” in the eyes of men. In society today, the gender roles between men and women are similar: women are often seen as objects. Men often lust after women’s bodies, and in turn, many girls feel pressured to use their sexuality to attract men.  

Returning to work, however, Elle is part of the legal team for a murder. Elle makes an amazing case, which leads to the winning of the round. Callahan applauds Elle for trusting her gut and announces that she has shown more “legal smarts” than most of his staff members. He tells her she is not only a good lawyer, but a “great one.” Warner, on the other hand, was told to “be useful” by getting a cup of coffee for Callahan. The underdog is taking over. Elle is doing better than the man that thought he was too good for her. The roles have been reversed.  

After everyone is gone, Callahan forces a kiss on Elle, and she slaps him in return. Since she did not allow it, she is fired from the internship. In the song “Legally Blonde,” Elle is ready to call it quits. She is ready to go “back to what [she] was before” and just be “legally blonde.” She feels defeated and hopeless. Saying bye to Paulette, she tells her that she is only seen as “one big blonde joke.” With some words of encouragement, Elle changes back into her glamourous pink attire and is ready to fight. She is going back to the trial and not giving up. This time, however, she is going back in her own style. The phrase “legally blonde” is turned into a positive thing. Elle, being the powerful woman she is, wins the murder case for her client. 

After the impressive trial, Warner—the man who once broke her heart—proposes to her. While this is everything that she wanted years ago, she has grown. She declines his proposal; she has been able to see how much she can accomplish without him. In the end, Elle came so far: she is the Valedictorian at Harvard and proves so many people wrong. Warner on the other hand decides to quit practicing law and models. Elle, who was told she was not serious enough, now has the big career. In her final speech, Elle thanks those who doubted her, because it taught her how to prevail. Then, Elle proposes to Emmett, which once again switches up the gender roles. In the end, Elle took matters into her own hands. Although proposals are usually done by the man, Elle is a strong woman and does not need to live by societies norms.  

Everyone doubted Elle Woods. At times, even Elle Woods doubted Elle Woods. After some self-reflection, however, she discovers her value. She lives life for herself now—never a man. Her perseverance and strength empower women and provides a beacon of encouragement for all those who are consistently told they can’t.

Not Enough Cake To Go Around: Les Misérables and Culture During Revolutionary France

Everyone loves Les Misérables. Even if you’ve never heard of the show, the infectious rhythm of “Do You Hear the People Sing” is probably familiar to your ears. And even though the representation of women is lacking and one-dimensional to say the least, you can’t help but root for the barricade boys and their passionate idealism. Victor Hugo, the original author of Les Misérables (often abbreviated to “Les Miz”), expertly crafted a story that matched the revolutionary period in France with everlasting characters and themes that are still relevant today. However, first in foremost, Hugo wrote Les Miz as a representation of French cultural identity during the early 19th century. Many of the overarching themes such as intense poverty, roles of women, moral ambiguity, and extreme law enforcement were characteristics of French society during the revolutionary period. Hence, by portraying France through the eyes of Jean Valjean, Victor Hugo comprehensively depicts French cultural identity through one of the harshest and most graphic epics of musical theater.

For those unacquainted, Les Miz follows the narrative of a fictional man, named Jean Valjean, as he lives through the revolutionary period in France. The show begins with Jean Valjean being released from 19 years of prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving family. Although he is now free, Valjean struggles to find redemption as society has forever deemed him a criminal. After a tremendous act of mercy from a bishop, Valjean starts his life anew, though the police inspector, Javert, attempts to track him down. While assuming his new identity, Valjean is responsible for the termination of a single mother working in his factory, Fantine. Feeling guilty for having fired her, Valjean promises to take care of her daughter, Cosette. Simultaneously, an innocent man is arrested for Javert suspects he is Valjean, and in order to free him, Valjean must confess his identity to Javert, forcing him to go on the run again. Nine years later, Cosette falls in love with a young student revolutionary named Marius. In order to save Marius, Valjean becomes involved in the June Rebellion (aka Paris Rising of 1832). During this encounter, Valjean has the chance to kill Javert, but decides to spare him, for he does not hold a grudge against the man for doing his duty. Torn between his beliefs about God and his desire to adhere the law, Javert commits suicide. Valjean ends up saving Marius, and Marius and Cosette marry. Valjean dies in peace soon after. (Though I left out many of the details that make this show so great, I tried to make this summary as concise as possible.)

The women in Les Miz primarily take the role of caretakers and love interests that support the men of the show, restricting their autonomy, but also mirroring the role they played in French society. Fantine, though not a love interest, is a prime example of the sparse roles imparted to women in Les Miz. For the majority of Act One, Fantine struggles to find work to pay for the care of Cosette. Single mothers were quite taboo, as stated in the song “At the End of the Day,” and men were expected to make most of the income, limiting the jobs available for women. At the beginning of the show, Fantine is secure with her job as a factory worker, but once fired, her opportunities for occupation become highly restricted, leaving her to make money working as a prostitute. Fantine’s fall into poverty reflects the lack of control women carried in France. Fantine’s burdens are paradoxical: forced to sell her jewelry, her hair, and her body to scrape up money (for she has no other options), yet still a social obligation to support her child. However, Fantine is not the only woman in the show to sacrifice her life to the patriarchy. Éponine (not mentioned in the summation above) conveys a strong love interest for Marius in “On My Own,” even though he is in love with Cosette. In this pursuit of hopeless love, Éponine disguises herself as a student revolutionary in order to find Marius but is fatally shot while crossing the barricade. Éponine’s death represents the shallow aspirations held for women in France. Éponine’s purpose is to be worthy of a man’s love, but when he does not love her back (Marius loves Cosette instead), her life becomes meaningless.

Extreme law enforcement plays a pivotal role in the storytelling of Les Miz, but also serves as a representation of French government and aristocratic oppression towards the common Frenchman/woman. As mentioned in the summation, Javert’s role in the musical is that of tracking down Jean Valjean for breaking parole. Valjean, having served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, does not want to go back to the backbreaking labor he would have to endure for even longer than before. Because Javert can send people away for decades, he carries immense power over the people of France. This large power gap, along with a severe lack of checks and balances, is a purposeful attempt by those in charge to keep the bourgeoisie and lower class from revolting (this was the revolutionary period after all). Furthermore, committing a crime carries even greater consequence than just prison time. As Valjean finds out after his release, society forever marks him as a criminal, making it virtually impossible to find work. French business employers were unwilling to associate themselves with socially undesirable criminals. As if the last 19 years of “rehabilitation” were meaningless, Valjean must either starve or steal food again, which would send him back to prison. The French government designed this extreme law enforcement system to iniquitously keep crime rate low, as it would not only incentivize people to not commit crimes but would also ensure that those desperate enough to commit the crimes would never leave prison. Luckily for Valjean, however, the bishop bails him out with enough money to escape Javert and start a new life.

Analogous with extreme enforcement of laws, oppression of the French people also manifested itself in the form of intense poverty. The wealth distribution in France was astonishingly large (again, revolutionary period–it was pretty bad). Poverty also plays a central role in Les Miz. The show begins and centers around Valjean escaping from poverty, but other examples include Fantine becoming a prostitute, the Thénardiers scrounging for cash throughout the show (“Master of the House,” “The Robbery,” and “Beggars at the Feast”), and the students starting the June Rebellion. In fact, every conflict in this show stems from the immense poverty faced by the French people. Victor Hugo ridicules many facets of French society while consistently referencing the negative effects of poverty. Correspondingly, Hugo’s depiction of poverty in Les Mis conveys the futility of attempting to change the system that had impoverished so many.

The dichotomy between Valjean and Javert provides the main conflict for the show as well as a parallel dichotomy in moral beliefs–ultimately conveying a challenge of authority. Valjean and Javert possess starkly different moral compasses. Interestingly, both characters’ moralities are defined by “Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development,” a psychological theory on the different levels of morality (I’m a psych major, so prepare for this to get a bit nerdy). Javert’s moral development is “Conventional,” specifically the “Law-and-Order Orientation,” for he blindly accepts and strictly enforces laws, considering only their importance in maintaining a functioning society. Valjean’s moral development, on the other hand, is “Postconventional,” specifically the “Universal-Ethical-Principal Orientation,” for he disobeys laws that are unjust and follows the principles of equality, dignity, and respect. In essence, Valjean has a higher level of moral development, for is not blind to injustice, but also because he feels guilty for breaking his principles. An example of this guilt takes place when Valjean confesses to Javert about his true identity in order to save an innocent man from going to prison in his place. Although Valjean could have been free from Javert’s pursuit for the rest of his life, his guilt to uphold his principles of equality, dignity, and respect forced him into confession. The point of this long explanation of morality is to interpret Victor Hugo’s agenda for French prosperity. Javert, a man who has done nothing but his job, followed the law as it was written, and conducted himself in accordance with his moral compass, is not viewed by the audience as a hero. Javert’s role as the antagonist in Les Miz is a strategy by Hugo to convey to his audience, the French people, that this level of morality is insufficient and incorrect. Instead, he makes Valjean the hero, a man who consistently breaks laws, but fights for what is right (based on universal ethical principles). Les Miz is a plea from Hugo to French people to mature their moral reasoning, to not submit to the absolutism created by those in power, and instead, fight for their rights (Monroe et al.).

Victor Hugo’s revolutionary (pun intended) novel turned musical encapsulates the cultural identity of revolutionary France, for it speaks directly to French people. Hugo’s depiction of intense poverty, coupled with the strictly enforced laws, as well as the limited rights allotted to women, accurately illustrates revolutionary France. As well, Hugo’s novel acts as a message to all French people: to start thinking beyond a “Law-and-Order Orientation” towards a “Universal-Ethical-Principal Orientation.”


Monroe, Ann, and Joel Amidon. “Education, Society, & the K-12 Learner.” Lumen,

But Hey, It Sells Papes- A Podcast With Myself

how DISNEY’S TRUE INTENTIONS BEHIND seemingly-empowering messages in high school musical are nothing grander than a cash grab, featuring a portrayal of DAVEY FROM NEWSIES

Among my friends, there is no greater battle than that of podcasts. Any time that the topic of the long-form audio medium arises my typically extremely tight-knit group of childhood companions fiercely and instantaneously becomes divided along pro-podcast and anti-podcast lines. Indeed, it was actually this rather trivial recurring argument among my friends that sparked the idea for this project, as I connected the vitriol of the fringe group of extremely loyal Disney fans any time they see a contentious opinion regarding the megabrand to my friend group’s debates over podcasts. As such, I decided to step over “party lines” and take on a podcast for my final assignment, which felt especially relevant during the distanced learning era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My podcast consists of a mock interview between myself and Davey, the deuteragonist of Disney’s Newsies. Throughout the course of the conversation, Davey and I critique Disney’s motivations behind High School Musical, particularly from a Marxist and Frankfurtian perspective. With this influence guiding the discourse, much of our conversation revolved around the true intentions of Disney’s seemingly-positive message as well as its intended and unintended consequences. From the original hour-long interview, I meticulously edited three versions: a thirty-minute “extended interview” (linked via Youtube because of WordPress’s video limitations), a fifteen-minute “concise interview”, and the seven-minute “summary” video, which does not include much of the interview but concisely summarizes a fair portion of the content. It is my personal recommendation that most listeners begin with the fifteen-minute edit and then move to the thirty-minute extended interview if they are seeking more context.

The order of the links is as follows: First, below is the concise interview.

Next, the summary/recap is posted below.

Finally, the full interview is posted on Youtube below.

The White Gaze Strikes Again: How Memphis (And Broadway) Fails to Tell the Stories of People of Color

By: Sarah Beth Huntley

To be completely honest, I decided to watch the Broadway musical Memphis because it seemed as if it had a focus on telling a story about Black people, specifically with a Black female lead. This was especially intriguing to me as a Black female who rarely sees stories on Broadway told from the viewpoint of people that look like me. And for the first few minutes of the show, I reveled in the stage full of all Black actors performing a style of music specifically crafted by Black people and settled in to watch the rest of the show. I was in awe as Felicia Farrell took the stage in her bedazzled beauty and sang with a voice I would give anything to have. The show had started to get me hooked. And then Huey walked in and the white gaze took over.

For background, the “white gaze” is a term used to define stories that are seen through the lens of a white person, often stories about the empowerment, liberation, or rights of people of color that come to fruition due to the actions of a white person. The late Toni Morrison described it best, saying how it is “as though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze.” This is more common than you might think; some popular examples on Broadway: Bring it On, Miss Saigon, The King and I, To Kill A Mockingbird, etc. The white gaze is often working in collaboration with white saviorism, or a white person who helps people of color in a self-serving manner, though not always intentionally. Memphis, like many stories, employs both white saviorism and the white gaze through its overall focus on Huey Calhoun, proving that they are still, sadly culturally relevant. 

Within a minute of walking into Delray’s club and becoming the only white person in the room, Huey takes center stage and claims the (Black) music as the music of his soul. He then goes on to use his white status to play Black music for mainstream audiences. This was a good thing though, right? To a certain extent, yes. It was good of him to help Black artists and music become mainstream, especially considering he wasn’t even paid for it in the beginning. However, one of my biggest issues with the show is how the only real stardom that grew out of his programs was his own. Sure, he featured a Black cast on his television program and promoted Black artists both on the radio and on television, but everything came with his name on it. As he grew in fame, the show showed the newspaper articles and photos that only ever used the name Huey Calhoun to describe the shows and concerts he hosted that featured Black artists. The television show that featured an all-Black cast besides him was still called the Huey Calhoun Show. Also, no one on his show (besides Felicia, who I will get to later) became a star due to him. Yes, he highlighted people such as Felicia and Bobby, but no one, due to their presence on the show, found stardom; only Huey ended up becoming a big shot in Memphis due to the programs he hosted. 

Felicia, who became a star in the end, was the show’s chance to really focus on the Black experience, especially when it came to gaining mainstream stardom and a white audience. In my opinion, the show did a great disservice to her character, who seemed to be more of a token than a lead. First of all, I was extremely bothered by her accent, which was a strange variation of Southern that, sadly, made her sound less intelligent (which might have been the point). Secondly, after the opening song, Felicia’s importance only came in relation to Huey, with the rest of her story being tied to Huey’s rise in stardom. And, by the end, it became clear that this attachment was holding her back more than it was helping her. In fact, it is Delray and not Huey who helps her reach national acclaim, considering he is the one who gets the record producer from New York to Memphis. And yet, at the end of the play when she is on top while Huey has basically reached insignificance, she tells Huey he is the reason she is where she is and he ends up center stage performing at her national tour. Her attachment to Huey literally only brought her pain, sometimes even physical, and yet she attributed the positive high she had reached in her life to him. This is further proof of white saviorism, as she provides him with an “all thanks to you” speech that places him on a pedestal he is undeserving of. 

Also, there is another, more all-encompassing issue that is brought up multiple times in the musical but not ever fully addressed: the theft of Black culture. At the beginning of the show, Huey offers to play Felicia’s music and Delray accuses him of wanting to steal their music. It is an issue brought up several times, often by Delray, throughout the show and is denied by Huey. However, the story of Huey and the show as a whole tells a different tale about the appropriation of Black music. Huey’s rise to fame in music allowed him to be attached to the brand of rock n’ roll more than the Black artists he featured. This is proven through the New York label wanting to bring him but not his Black performers to create a national show. Huey had successfully, although unintentionally, attached rock n’ roll music to a white face as he became the highlight of the programs he hosted, despite their supposed focus on Black artists. The appropriation goes deeper though, as the Black music is referred to both as rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues and confusion grows about who actually originated the rock n’ roll genre. This comes to a head when Felicia explains how “rock n’ roll is just rhythm and blues sped up,” giving a slight nod to the overall, often overlooked, trend of white people to take a part of Black culture and make it their own. This idea transcends beyond the musical, due to the fact that most people would associate rock n’ roll music with white artists despite its Black roots. Although Huey, and maybe even white artists in history, did not mean to make the music seem as if it was more him than those who it originated from, it still seemed that way to white audiences and it definitely felt that way to me.

The white gaze and white saviorism that raged throughout this show, the characterization of Felicia, and the appropriation (both intentional and unintentional) in the show made it apparent to me that it had to have been created by white people. One quick Google search told me that I was, in fact, correct. I also discovered that the story of Memphis was meant to be loosely based on the life of Dewey Phillips, a white DJ known for playing Black records. Although the character of Huey was based on a real person, the story of Felicia and Delray’s club was not and led me to wonder what the purpose was of incorporating that storyline was. The story of Dewey Phillips could not have been told without Black people, however, the employment of several main characters that were Black created a story that would either be successful or not so in telling a good, deep story about a Black community. The creators, probably unknowingly, placed a burden on themselves that was completely unnecessary by creating the stories of Felicia, Delray, Gator, and others. By fabricating these characters, they unintentionally shifted the narrative from a story about the rise and fall of a man’s success to how a white man helped Black artists become successful. They created a story about white saviorism when they absolutely did not have to, and that was their first mistake.

Do I think that white creators should not be allowed to tell Black stories? Absolutely not. However, I think the creators, due to their whiteness, overlooked the lens in which they were telling an overwhelmingly Black story. Yes, the main character and main focus of Memphis was Huey, however, they also focused on Felicia’s fame, Bobby’s growth from janitor to performer, Gator’s newfound willingness to speak, and Delray’s steady openness to white people. It is important for white people telling the stories of people of color to focus on the narrative they are crafting, for there are so many stories that try to make a point of elevating Black voices and stories, but feeling the need for a white protagonist to be the amplifier of those voices. Broadway needs to learn from shows such as Memphis as they continue to create stories about and for people of color. People of color should not be diversity tokens or ways to make a white protagonist better by proving they are not prejudiced. People of color should be able to tell their own stories about their struggles, their successes, and their lives. The story of Huey Calhoun (and Dewey Phillips) is not necessarily a bad one. However, I hope next time someone goes to create a show like that of Memphis, they employ characters of color as more than a pedestal for white protagonists to step on.

Shattering the Patriarchy One Wildcat at a Time: How High School Musical’s Troy Bolton Slam Dunks Gender Norms

By: Margie Johnson

This could be the start of something new, and that something goes beyond the basketball court. Walt Disney’s High School Musical directed by Kenny Ortega, Chen Shi-Zheng, Michael Lembeck, and Eduardo Ripari, features the journey of basketball star, Troy Bolton played by Zac Efron, to fulfill his newfound desire to perform in the winter musical. Fueled by his blossoming romance with new student Gabriella Montez played by Vanessa Hudgens, Troy surpasses society’s limitations in order to make it to the big stage. These limitations, ranging from those implied by his predestined basketball career to those imposed by antagonist Sharpay are comically exaggerated in order to question the validity of social and gender confinements. Through his defiance of the over the top obstacles placed by his fellow classmates and family, Bolton is able to take down the patriarchy in one fell swoosh. 

Troy Bolton is the exemplary model of the American male teenager. From his Justin Bieber-esque swooped hair to his love for sports, he sits comfortably in the upper echelon of the prototypical East High’s society. I mean, would you take a look at this guy? Everything about him screams 2006 boy crush, and I would know from personal experience. I was the target audience for this musical as a suburban American preteen, and I loved it. I wasn’t old enough or savvy enough to see this movie as stereotyped and white washed, but I was certainly old enough to pick up on the struggle of the main characters as they chafed against the constraints placed on them by their group definitions. I got it. Troy isn’t just a jock. Gabriella is more than a brain. And boy, can everybody sing and dance.

Around his male friends and father, Troy speaks only about basketball and the big championship approaching, perpetuating his perfected athletic image. As a result of conforming to expectations, he is rewarded generously by attention from girls and by a successful basketball career. Within the first few moments of stepping foot on campus once returning back from winter break, he is swarmed by an entourage of basketball players and cheerleaders. As he walks towards the school, the song “We’re All In This Together” plays in the background, an upbeat track about comradery and cheer for the high school’s mascot of the Wildcat. When approached by his best friend and teammate Chad, he is passed a basketball and told that he is going to lead the team “to infinity and beyond.” Thus, when fitting into the expected typical heterosexual male mold, he is celebrated by his school and even granted authority over the other male players on his team. 

Everything changes as he falls in love with Gabriella, however, causing him to question his previous conceptions of masculinity. In the very first moments of the musical, Troy and Gabriella share their first encounter over a karaoke duet. Although the two are picked from the crowd and reluctant to sing together, once they begin to perform, the talent and passion shared between them is palpable. So much so that after the performance they exchange phone numbers and plan on meeting the day after, thus having the duet serve as the initial spark in their relationship. Though this is a momentous occasion between the two of them, once Gabriella arrives at school days later, Troy reveals that he never mentioned the duet to his friends. He even whispers the word “singing” to Gabriella in a crowded hall, afraid to stray away from his athletic image in front of his fellow classmates. Just after his whisper, the directors stage another male student to walk by and give Troy a handshake, reminding the audience of the overpowering presence of social confinements set by gender as he must return to his calm and cool demeanor as a basketball star. Still, after the incredible karaoke performance, Troy desires to inquire more about performing. Unable to speak to Ms. Darbus directly, he relies on a place of security to gather more information: the basketball court. Cue “Get’cha Head In The Game”:

As seen from his internal monologue out on the court, Troy becomes even more flustered by his newly discovered passion. Though he wishes to try out for the musical, he is reminded by his teammates to get back into the mindset that he has had his entire life: bound by East High’s expectations for a male student. The camera circles around the fast paced movement of boys passing the ball around, led by Troy, signifying his essential role in the team as captain. Still, when taking a turn with the ball, he is caught up in the song and sings an especially long note, revealing his desire to perform as much as he may try to avoid it. This note breaks up the movement of the play, highlighting the consequences he must face were he to abandon his team if he cannot keep his “head in the game” of social confinements. After more dribbling, the song builds up to the final moment where Tory belts, “My head’s in the game but my heart’s in the song. She makes this feel so right. Should I go for it?” As written by lyricists Ray and Greg Cham as well as Drew Seeley, though he tries to meet his teammates’ expectations by staying within the confinements of his gender role, his heart desires to sing, ultimately stirring up trouble. 

When Troy finally gathers the courage to audition for the musical with Gabriella, the entire student body comes together to dissuade the duo from performing, showcasing the power of ingrained social confinements. One powerful member of this movement is Sharpay Evans, an over the top and glamorous student with a drive for musical theater. From a bedazzled microphone to a brightly painted pink locker, she encapsulates femininity to an extreme.

Proof of pinkness:

When signing up for pair auditions, Sharpay grabs her pink pen and signs her name across the audition sheet, taking up any available space for outside members. While doing so, she remarks to Gabriella and Troy, “Oh, were you going to sign up, too? My brother and I have starred in all of the school’s productions, and we really welcome newcomers. There are a lot of supporting roles in the show.” As seen with Troy, in meeting expectations of her gender role, Sharpay is able to maintain power and dominance over her chosen realm: musical performance. With everything coated in glitter she is able to dominate the stage and will stop at nothing to maintain her authority. Thus, when hearing that Gabriella and Troy may audition and take over her potential role, she recognizes the threat to her current social status and power as the entire social construct she comfortably resides in is now questioned. In order to take that power back, Sharpay deems it necessary to remind Gabriella of her place in the East High society: a brainiac. With the help of her brother, Ryan, Sharpay floods the halls with paper copies of Gabriella’s academic achievements, showcasing and delimiting Gabriella’s place in society to the entire class. Sharpay’s strategy initially proves to be successful as upon reading the article, the head of the school’s decathlon team, Taylor McKessie, inducts Gabriella into the group and eagerly invites her to join the team in the upcoming competition. Just as Sharpay had planned, with Gabriella’s academic intellect revealed to the school, her fellow classmates have now become aware of her predetermined role in society. As a result, when Troy attempts to exceed the limitations of his basketball team role alongside Gabriella attempting to surpass her brainiac classmates, Sharpay’s initial uproar is now supported by the entire class body. 

East High’s tactics, however, become exaggerated to the point of absurdity, leading Troy as well as the audience to confront and ultimately surpass his gendered confinements. In one pivotal moment of the musical, the brainiacs and basketball stars team up together and attempt to sway Troy and Gabriella from their auditions. Troy’s teammates trap Troy in the gym’s locker rooms, showing him framed photos of Wildcat superstars that Troy would disappoint by leaving his team. Gabriella’s decathlon team tapes an enlarged photo of Troy’s head over a stock photo of a basketball player, ridiculing Troy and even calling him a “lunkhead basketball man.” Even more, when Sharpay’s frustrations lead to a tipping point, she initiates a musical number inside the cafeteria.


During this song, the camera pans to the student body sitting within smaller and hegemonic cafeteria tables, reminding the audience of the enforced social bounds. While looking down upon the cafeteria, Sharpay exclaims from above, “Something is really— /  Really wrong. / And we gotta get things back where they belong.” Sharpay desires to return back to the way things were, as back to “belong[ing]” is where she retains all of her power at the top of the musical theater hierarchy. While the majority of classmates agree with her to quiet the whispers of a revolution, a few members of each group decide to rebel. These rebellions, however, are not the form of a violent or hateful revolt. Instead, the rebellious few belt out their creative and lovable hobbies. For example, one star basketball player shares his love for creme brulee, and a brainiac shows off her love for hip hop dance. In juxtaposing their reinforced roles in society versus their true passions, the audience is able to question the validity of the rigid structure in which they are expected to belong. Why must a brainiac confine her curiosity to books and knowledge when the wonderful joy of dancing exists? Similarly, who doesn’t love creme brulee? Thus, try as Sharpay and the rest of the school body might to “Bop to The Top”, those who exceed beyond their limitations are rightfully victorious in their passions. Most importantly, by the end of the musical, Troy and Gabriella are ultimately rewarded for their dive into the musical theatre world by being cast as the lead singers for the winter musical. 

High School Musical utilizes the triumphant journey of Troy Bolton to musical stardom in order to illustrate the severity of gender confinements. Instead residing as the “lunkhead basketball player,” Troy surpasses his predetermined role in society, challenging the social construct of East High in the process. It is important to note that his power and authority is ultimately granted by his white male privilege, allowing for a smooth and victorious quest against the status quo’s of his high school community. One could wonder how successful this transformation would have been for Troy and Gabriella if it had not included a popular handsome white male. I mean really, Troy’s biggest obstacle was overcoming the temper tantrums of Sharpay. Still, while we all love a good Sharpay sabotage, it’s worth celebrating the success of Troy in exceeding the gender bound normalities of East High, especially as seen by a young impressionable audience. In the end, why must one stay complacent in their expected role in society when there are so many creme brûlée to be made?  

Welcome To Berlin

 “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and work off the resonance.”

– Richard Price

World War II may have officially ended in 1945, but the world continued to remember it vividly for decades to follow. Several prominent Nazi officers faced lengthy trials that lasted until 1966, the same year that a hit Broadway musical by the name of Cabaret first opened. Based on the 1951 play I Am A Camera and the 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, Cabaret follows an American novelist named Cliff Bradshaw as he visits Weimar Germany during the Nazi’s rise to power. The show explores themes of homosexuality and queerness, sexuality and sexual promiscuity, and most notably, Jewishness. These areas were highly stigmatized, coming to a head with the systematic murder of 6,000,000 Jews and over 10,000,000 other “political enemies” of the Nazi party in the years that followed. But, as author Richard Price says, “the bigger the issue, the smaller you write.” These astronomical figures are simply beyond comprehension, especially in the context of living, breathing people. By focusing on the “smallest manageable part of the big thing,” in this case a seedy little cabaret and its regulars, Cabaret is able to tell an emotionally complex story and “work off the resonance” to apply that empathy to the other millions of murders by the Nazi party. Cabaret explores socially stigmatized people and cultures to build empathy on the small scale of the Kit Kat Club so that audiences can better comprehend the mass persecution of Jews, queers, and political dissidents in Nazi Germany, all culminating in a powerful message against political apathy. 

Cabaret is a raunchy show. Something you never would’ve guessed given the name, I know. The show opens with “Willkommen,” a number that sets the tone for the sexual explicitness of the following two hours. Alan Cumming, who plays The Emcee in the 1993 revival production, wastes no time in sexually touching, thrusting on, and making obscene comments to the employees of his cabaret. Sexual acts are mimed and visually referenced throughout the number, and the lyrics encourage the audience to relax and enjoy the festivities. Off the bat, the cabaret girls (and boys) and the Emcee are distinctly libertine and contrasting to the more traditional and tight-laced characters we see in the following scenes. This casual approach to controversial topics persists throughout the show, most notably in portraying abortion, prostitution, promiscuity, and queerness. Sally Bowles, a cabaret singer and romantic partner of Cliff, explains to him early in the show that she’s gotten abortions “thousands of times,” while tossing back her hair and laughing nonchalantly. Later in the show, Sally ends up getting an abortion against Cliff’s wishes, causing a rift between the two. The discussion of abortion shifts in tone from lightheartedness and triviality to an expression of Sally giving up on Cliff and reverting to the unhappy life she knew before him, tied up neatly with the following musical number, “I Don’t Care Much” in the 1987 and subsequent productions. Sally’s choice to get an abortion may have been controversial, but the complexity the issue brings out in her character causes the audience to empathize with her struggles and inner turmoil.

Meanwhile, prostitution and sexual promiscuity are explored as examples of the bacchanalia of Berlin, and as symptoms of the period’s strained economy. Among Sally’s first words to Cliff are, “[Max is] the man I’m sleeping with… this week,” in reference not only to her sexual relationship but also to her limited options in housing. Cliff’s neighbor, Fraulein Kost, is later revealed to be a prostitute after telling her landlady, Fraulein Schneider, “No [prostitution], no rent.” It’s an occupation Kost is clearly not pleased with, but she has no other options. Each of these circumstances unify the characters of the show under the umbrella of social deviance, one way or another. The audience begins to empathize with a set of characters living contrary to social standards, and recognize the overlapping consistencies between Sally, Kost, Cliff, the Emcee, and the other sexually charged characters of the show. This consistency becomes relevant in the second act, when Nazism begins turning these peers against each other, ignoring the similarities of their circumstances and cultivating hate where there was none before. But we’ll get to that soon enough; first, we have to acknowledge the elephant in the cabaret, so to speak.

Cabaret is a gay show. The production includes multiple bisexual characters, plenty of gay and lesbian characters, sometimes an asexual character, arguably a transgender character, and multiple uses of drag. Three years before Stonewall brought the LGBT community to the forefront of people’s minds, Cabaret was already humanizing and defending these historically persecuted people. The original 1966 production featured Joel Grey as a notably asexual character, although this was changed in the 1993 and subsequent productions, where Alan Cumming played up the character’s sexuality. In these later productions, both the Emcee and Cliff are shown to be bisexual- Cliff kisses one of the cabaret boys and implies that they once had an affair, and goes on to rediscover himself as a bisexual rather than gay man. Meanwhile, the Emcee accentuates his sexuality by performing his explicit choreography on both men and women, and by making lusty comments about both. Various other men throughout the show are implied to be queer in some respect through a permeating sense of homoeroticism and physical touching (especially men touching other men on the chest). Yet perhaps the greatest example of both queerness and sexuality throughout the show is the musical number “Two Ladies,” in which the Emcee describes his living situation with two women, and the group sex they’re implied to have. The 1998 and 2014 revivals particularly featured one of the cabaret boys playing a woman, either pulling for a bit of commentary on the sexual openness of ‘38 Berlin, or potentially implying that this second woman is in fact transgender. In discussing the day to day life of the two ladies in the song, both describe traditional gender roles and no reference is given to the existence of drag. Historically, Berlin was an epicenter for queer nightlife at the time, and gender queer and nonconforming people were treated fairly in that respect. Whether or not this was the intended implication, the Emcee was certainly wearing drag during the entr’acte and introduction of the second act. So what does all this queerness do for the show? We can surmise that it’s meant to continue painting characters as “others” in preparation for the eventual rise of Nazism in Germany,  but its greater strength is in giving queer characters depth and meaning. These are not simply token characters; many (at least of the main queer characters) have goals and fears, inner struggles, and symbolic meaning. Cliff particularly learns about the political state of Germany and chooses to flee before the Nazis come to power, and struggles in his relationship with Sally. And the Emcee has a startling symbolic meaning*, which becomes clearer and clearer as the show goes on… During the entr’acte, he makes his symbolization of Nazism evident by saluting Hitler on stage, juxtaposed with his feminine lingerie costuming. Dread begins to creep in as the audience is taken out of the fun and excitement of the Kit Kat Club and reminded where the show is set and what is certain to follow. The first act of the show sets the scene of sexual, stigmatized, and often queer characters, and the second act delivers the message by delving into the Nazism and anti-Semitism that pervaded Weimar Germany. 

Cabaret is a Jewish show. The lyrics were written by Fred Ebb, set to music by John Kander, staged by Robert Field, performed originally by Joel Grey, and augmented with a book written by Joe Masteroff, all of whom are Jewish. No doubt it was through their insights that they created the character of Herr Schultz, a German-born Jew and the subject of much anti-Semitism throughout the show. Our first look at this is when Fraulein Kost insinuates (to his face) that he’s greedy and rich, and tries to extort two Reichsmarks out of him. Immediately following this, the Emcee makes his first move representing the Nazis- he enters a darkened stage in a spotlight, sets down a record player, and plays the song “Tomorrow Belongs To Me.” Before reaching the final words, he shuts the record player off and superimposes himself and the Nazi regime into the lyrics of the song, declaring that tomorrow belongs to ME. It’s an unsettling moment to say the least, and one that goes without much explanation for some time. Later, the Emcee, acting outside of the action as more of a ghost or narrator, follows Herr Schultz across the stage during his engagement party. His mischievous smile is foreboding and heart wrenching, signaling to the audience that Herr Schultz’s engagement will not have a happy ending. Sure enough, Fraulein Kost makes another anti-Semitic comment and reveals one Herr Ludwig to be a Nazi. Kost and Ludwig then begin singing a frightening reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” causing much of the rest of the party to join in. Schultz, Schneider, and Cliff look on speechless and frozen, in clear understanding of the implications of the song and its significant support. With a cymbal crash at the end of the song, the Emcee appears above the stage and pulls back his black trench coat to reveal a red swastika painted onto his bare backside. The Emcee soon after drops a brick through Schultz’s window in a representation of Kristallnacht, and follows it up with the number, “If You Could See Her.” During the number, the Emcee walks a gorilla dressed as a woman around the stage and sings of her virtues and how society won’t let them be together. It appears entirely out of the blue and frequently elicits confused laughter from the audience before delivering its horrifying last line**, “But if you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Definitively, we now see the Emcee representative of both the queer and/or socially deviant victims of the Nazis, and representative of the Nazis themselves. We’ve seen who is affected and who does the affecting, and have developed empathy for each of the characters, particularly through their different experiences of oppression. But rather than just presenting a sobering tale of the lives lost to the Nazis, Cabaret offers a definitive and powerful message, and suggests a way to prevent repeating the events of WWII. 

The final number of Cabaret is more powerful than any other theatrical moment I’ve experienced. As Cliff boards the train to Paris, escaping Germany before it gets too bad, he begins to write his novel:

“There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies, and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany. It was the end of the world. And I was dancing with Sally Bowles, and we were both fast asleep.”

Cliff can no longer continue dancing, fast asleep, keeping his eyes closed to the changing political climate. I am reminded of another of Cliff’s lines earlier in the show. “If you’re not against all this, you’re for it. Or you might as well be.” The finale continues into an eerie reprise of the opening number, and shows physically and auditorily what happens when you allow yourself to be ambivalent to politics. The music becomes discordant and off-beat, the lighting breaks down and becomes irregular, and the staging falls apart. Through political ambivalence and in the context of the play, it is literally the end of the world. One by one, the cast recites the most important quotes of the show, connecting very clearly to the message of political engagement. Herr Schultz ignores the reality of Kristallnacht by calling his broken windows the results of “mischievous children…” Fraulein Schneider recounts her choice to break off an engagement to a Jew with her lines “One does what one must” and “I must be sensible.” Most directly, Sally Bowles says, “It’ll work itself out… It’s only politics, what’s that got to do with us?” In the most haunting moment of the show, the Emcee then takes the spotlight and does a short striptease, before dropping his trench coat to reveal a striped concentration camp uniform. He’s marked with three symbols- a yellow Star of David, marking him a Jew, a red star, marking him a Socialist or Communist, and a pink triangle, marking him a homosexual or sexual deviant. Right before us, it is clear that nearly every one of these characters we’ve grown to love will be killed. The Emcee proceeds to turn slowly around to the other characters, whose inactions allowed this to happen, before taking an elaborate bow reminiscent of a crucifixion. The lights flash white, a cymbal crashes, and we move to blackout. Cabaret is over, and as the audience exits the theatre, they’re drawn to think of what happens next. The Emcee will die. The cabaret girls and the cabaret boys will die. Herr Schultz will die. Fraulein Schneider may very possibly be labeled a “race defiler” and die.

This is what politics has got to do with us. As Cliff pointed out, “If you’re not against all this, you’re for it. Or you might as well be.”

*It should be noted that this analysis is based primarily off of the later revival productions of Cabaret, featuring Alan Cumming as The Emcee. These productions took on a darker tone than their predecessors, but as no recordings of the originals exist, I can not say whether or not all of the symbolism was consistent between productions.

**The word “Jewish” in this line was changed to the less recognizable Yiddish insult “meeskite” in the 1966 production for fear of too much controversy, but was changed back to “Jewish” in later productions.