From Leading Man to Leading Boy: a look at the “ideal male” throughout broadway history

Throughout the last century of American culture, we have seen shifts in public opinion of what attractiveness is. Whether in sports, popular music or television/film, trends in attractiveness change just as frequently and quickly as trends in fashion. We see this prominently in Broadway: writers of new musicals occasionally adjust their characters to fit to certain societal standards of beauty. We see this on full display when comparing Golden Age musicals like Oklahoma! to contemporary musicals like Newsies

Before diving into the nuanced differences between the presentation of men during these two eras, it’s important to establish where the world was recording-wise in these two periods of time. In the late ‘40s/early ‘50s, the recording industry was developing more intricate and sensitive microphones, starkly opposing previous models where you could only get a sound out of them if you shrieked into them at full blast. Singers like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra took full advantage of these advancements, thus leading to the emergence of the “Crooner” era. For about 15 years, baritones and basses like Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley were at the forefront of American culture, helping establish the ideal male archetype of having a lower voice, being more masculine/developed, being more physically domineering, etc. The growing popularity of crooners in mainstream music then bled into the musical theatre world: shows like Guys and Dolls, The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie and even Oklahoma! featured crooner-esque leading men, almost all of them baritones and basses. We can see this on full display when watching these shows ourselves: the leading men of these shows, Nathan Detroit, Harold Hill, Conrad Birdie and Curly McLain, establish themselves stereotypically masculinely, none of them singing above a high F. All of these leading men move with purpose, stand up straight and rarely ever show much emotional vulnerability.

As time went on, the American cultural landscape began to shift. After the jazz crooner era, the world began to see the emergence of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a new and high-adrenaline style of music that highlighted the male tenor voice. Additionally, these emerging rockers were less afraid to tap into more feminine styles of beauty; many of them wore makeup, grew their hair long, and donned higher shoes/tighter clothes. Singers like Robert Plant, David Bowie and Elton John made their mark as the hot new male style. As the face of the popular music scene began to change, so did the musical theatre scene: shows like Rent, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar began to adjust their leading male to a more feminine, higher-voiced rocker type. This eventually set the current standard of male attractiveness: passionate, young men with soaring tenor voices, starkly opposing from the more matured, darker and masculine archetypes from the ‘40s. 

Contrasting Curly McClain from Oklahoma! with Jack Kelly from Newsies is essentially contrasting the stereotypical Broadway male in their times of release. Curly would have absolutely been a successful crooner in his day; in particular, singing his duet with Laury, “People Will Say We’re in Love”. Written like a classic ‘40s ballad, Curly playfully flirts with his female love interest, asserting physical dominance and nonchalance while he softly serenades her. In the filmed 1999 production, Hugh Jackman embodies this style: although Jackman himself is a tenor, he remains in the baritone-section of his vocal range, moves with grandeur and physical dominance, and keeps his broad shoulders far apart. Jackman’s performance, as well as Curly’s writing, also appeals to the gender roles of men outside of the entertainment industry at the time: men were supposed to be physically powerful over women, have deep and masculine voices, only be emotionally vulnerable to a very limited extent, etc. To observe Curly’s behavior and singing style in Oklahoma! is to observe the desired behavior for all men in the crooner era. 

Jack Kelly, on the other hand, is very representative of a modern male desire: to be youthful and charming, much more emotionally vulnerable, and more free-spirited than a stuck-in-his-ways leading man of the ‘40s. In the filmed production of Newsies, Jeremy Jordan moves with agility and spontaneity, shows plenty of emotional variety, and sustains a high A at the end of Santa Fe. To that same point, some of Jack’s songs, like Seize the Day, King of New York and Santa Fe, include grand messages of setting your sights on something greater than yourself. His relationship to Katherine is interesting because he is at a lower social class than her, therefore holds less social power than her in their interactions, starkly contrasting from Curly’s relationship to Laury. Jack appeals much more to a modern-day desired male, being more in touch with his emotional and feminine side, being unafraid to belt his heart out, and having much more youthful and agile movements.

In short, Jack Kelly and Curly McLain are perfect examples of the changing leading male archetype throughout American musical theatre history. From a masculine, crooner-style domineering leading man, to a boyish, passionate and free-spirited young man, the “perfect male” has undergone many physical and emotional changes throughout the generations, and it is interesting to think where the leading man will go in future shows.

Jack + Rose (+ huge age gap + no love affair + no boat)

Jack Kelly is a guys’ guy.

Mama Rose is a guys’ girl.

How can a girl be “one of the guys”?

What.

The.

Heck.

And how could I include such a nasty patriarchal phrase in the first three sentences of my post?!?!?!

*crickets*

Same…

But really, Jack (played by Jeremy Jordan in Disney’s 2017 production of Newsies!: The Broadway Musical, directed by Brett Sullivan and Alex Calhoun) and Mama Rose (played by Bette Midler in the 1993 production of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino) have a lot more in common than what meets the eye. Jack is different from the other “newsies,” and Mama Rose is different from the other women- and men. Why? Because they both exude masculinity like their lives depend on it. And not just the boy- being-boys- type of masculinity. But real power, control, leadership, confidence: what it takes to be a man of the men- a true, by-book alpha (*tips hat to society*). They know exactly what they want to accomplish, and they accomplish it by all means necessary- and unnecessary.

This is what I mean:

Girls like him.

And the guys do too- just look at the way they look at him. Jack could be reading a grocery list or giving a social movement speech, and those boys WOULD NOT CARE either way.

Oh, and he man spreads while standing AND sitting.

Here you have it: a dude shrugging at being a dude.

But seriously, Jack is charismatic, independent but loyal, bold, and ready to rally. He’s a leader. He’s got a big heart, but he’s ~ guarded ~ and tough. And it shows in the dance numbers. Notice how Jack isn’t hopping in and flipping around with the other guys? Yeah, that’s for a reason. Instead, he is strong in his step and what they call “stage combat”- not quite dancing or acrobatics- and the effect of the tap shoes (attention-demanding, louder and ‘manlier’ than ballet, etc.) only adds to the emphasis on his confidence in word and act. His steps follow his words which follow his practically inflated chest, emphasizing the importance of his words and giving them a bit of a pump-up background beat with the tap shoes. (I’m sure if you were in the audience, you’d feel the energy of his steps.) Sometimes we see Jack wearing a muscle-exposing tank top with suspenders and dirt smothered all over because guys do physical work, duh, but most times we see him all cleaned up, ready to serve his crew’s union a plate of justice.

We know from his backstory that Jack has had a rough upbringing. He wants to bring a sense of good and accomplishment to his newsboys, so by staying angry, he stays focused. Physically and emotionally, he’s pretty stiff, but if he wants to lead a group of young males into the fight for justice AND be victorious AND be an icon, he needs to. Jack knows he needs to “be a man” to fight for himself and for others. It’s dangerous work, certainly not for the faint-of-heart.

Mama Rose, like Jack, fights for what she wants. The only difference is that her “crew” doesn’t want her to, so she’s more of a self-elected leader than a group-wide-respected one like Jack is. Instead of having her dreams and desires amplified by that of the group, Mama Rose projects hers onto the group (aka her two daughters).

Mama Rose is a woman in charge; she is a not-to-be-messed-with, absolute queen of a character.

She’s wild.

She’s brash.

She’s determined.

She’s unstoppable.

She’s accomplishing and doing.

She is… being masculine.

Being masculine is exactly that- being it, not having it. We talk a lot about how gender is performative, but that’s because it is, or at least the stereotypical characteristics of masculinity are. Do these characteristics “belong” to males? Yes? No? The boys were confident first? I don’t know.   

But regardless, Mama Rose is the perfect example of gender as a performance. Why is she “crazy”? Because she’s relentless, unsilenced, strong, wild-eyed, and ambitious. She’s an absolute hellbender. In a masculine lens, Mama Rose is unwavering, praiseworthy, and hungry to achieve. In a feminine lens, she is desperate, manipulative, threatening, and selfish. Why? Because gender norms. Where a female Rose “forced” Louise into the burlesque number, a male Rose would have “volunteered.”

This is a character that would do anything for her daughters (compared to Jack and his newsies) to have the success she did not. Mama Rose is incredibly desperate to be heard, seen, and appreciated. But she doesn’t get the “thank you for sacrificing everything (including your sanity) for me.” We know how it ends…

In this plot, we see masculinity playing out differently in male and female bodies again: A female wanting appreciation is needy, but a male wanting the same is not respected enough. Jack didn’t need what Mama Rose needed because he had it; he was respected and looked up to and appreciated, but Mama Rose was not. Would she have been if she was more than “being masculine” (like physically a male)? I don’t know. But what I do know is Mama Rose is an atypical woman because of her masculine tendencies and characteristics, and because of her biology, “being masculine” makes her less of a woman. So she’s a successful guy’s girl but appears unsuccessful because she is cRaZy for acting out male characteristics in a female body, and Jack’s a successful guy’s guy who appears successful because he exists in a male body with strong male traits, and this is not the Titanic. Oh, and you can “be masculine” without being a man.

World’s Best Mama

About a month ago on a Friday night, I was introduced to a powerful, fierce, and desperate woman while lying in bed and snacking on some deliciously pre-made popcorn. While cuddled up in my cozy movie watching outfit, I pressed play on my laptop and started to immerse myself in the movie Gypsy.

Were there times were I wanted to fast forward through the movie? Yes. But were their times were I was genuinely MESMERIZED by Bette Midler’s performance as Mama Rose? Also, yes.

A little background for the people in the back who don’t know anything about this movie:  Gypsy is movie musical based on the memoir of the famed burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee. Bette Midler, who actually won a Golden Globe for this performance, stars as Mama Rose, the world’s ultimate stage mom. Chasing fame, Momma Rose is destined to make her two baby girls the biggest stars in Vaudeville… no matter what the cost is. The musical features numerous production numbers that showcase the talents of various cast members including Peter Rieyer and Cynthia Gribb. Although written by playwriter Arthur Laurents in 1959, Emile Ardolino directs the 1993 version into a well-produced film that brings comedy and drama all into one place.

Okay now that everyone’s on the same page, let’s dive into what you came here for.

I think Gypsy allows audiences to engage with the idea of gender and sexuality in a positive way. So many times, we (women) are portrayed as weak minded and willing to do ANYTHING for men, even if that means giving away our biggest hopes and dreams. Although Gypsy doesn’t completely annihilate that entire ideology, we can see that women in this movie have a stronger role of being ambitious, unique, and headstrong bad-asses.

Some key elements within the movie that depict my clam include the musical number of  “Some People” sung by Rose. In this number, Mama Rose is singing about her dreams of making it into Vaudeville with her daughters through motivation. The song starts off with trumpets bellowing out, and you genuinely get the intention that the song is going to be fast-paced, energetic, and upbeat. Bette Midler then goes on for about a minute singing about how some people are lazy in the ways they go about success, but then she belts out the lyrics “But I at least got to try”.  In a usual film production, a female character would most likely continue the “Oh well, I tried” dialogue, but its enticing and different that Mama Rose is so driven to be triumphant in her goals. Thus, the lyrics and dialogue really show how ambitious she is; therefore, it emulates the positive representation of women in Gypsy.

Another example to support my claim of bad-assery among women includes the way Bette Midler performs Mama Rose. Everything about the character is over the top, and Midler delivers it with precision and passion, the only way that she knows how. Her ability to portray a mother who is in essence a shameless monster of a woman is admirable. She uses over-exaggerated movements to portray Mama Rose’s personality and excessive facial expressions to makes us believe in Mama Rose.

Lastly, the musical number that really stood out to me was the final performance from Rose “Rose’s Turn”. At this point, we’ve made it more than two hours into the movie, and we are waiting for Rose to finally have her turn in the spotlight. Before the song begins, Rose speaks about how if she ever let out her talent, “there wouldn’t be signs big enough, or lights bright enough” to even encompass her success. Overall, the song is chaotic. In the beginning, the lyrics and music are fiery and upbeat, and the way Midler performs as Rose, depicts how she is visualizing herself as a star. The second part of the song, Rose realizes that for the first time that she has to let go of the dreams that she has held for her daughters. The music completely changes and  for the first time, we see Mama Rose really become vulnerable with herself and this is shown when she whispers “Mama’s got to let go”. The third part of the song picks up again, and in a way Rose is angrier and continues to repeat the phrase “starting now…”. In the last part of the song, Rose finally realizes her potential and sees that she is able to be her own star and live her own dreams.

Overall, I thought Gypsy did a really great job at representing gender in a different and unique way that hasn’t been shown. I really felt connected to Mama Rose and was happy that she was finally able to let go and be the woman she always should have been.

Masculinity and its Many Forms in Newsies!

Disney’s Newsies!, directed by Brett Sullivan and Jeff Calhoun is just about a bunch of boys who ban together to sell newspapers…right? At first glance, the 2017 Disney production of Newsies may just seem like a fun story about a rag-tag bunch sticking it to the man. However, there are several intentional choices made by the creators and on-stage performers. These choices help subvert traditional images of masculinity that we tend to see in American musical theatre. For example, musical theatre is typically portrayed as something meant for gay/gay-seeming/proto-gay boys. Newsies! subverts this image by having a “traditionally masculine” lead. Through blocking, costume choices, and music, the production shows that masculinity can take on many forms.

From the opening number, “Santa Fe,” we are presented with two vastly contrasting images of masculinity. Jack Kelly is the heroic, brotherly figure who prevents Crutchie Morris from falling off a platform. He wears a sleeveless shirt that emphasizes his muscles as he hauls Morris back onto the platform. This costume choice was likely intentional, as Jack’s muscular physique helps paint him as masculine. Crutchie on the other hand, aptly named for his bad leg, wears a long sleeve shirt and baggy pants. This makes his body look like it’s getting swallowed up by his clothes. The costume choice, by Jess Goldstein, helps characterize Jack as feeble. The casting director, Justin Huff, likely considered physique when casting the actors. Blocking further emphasizes the contrasting nature of Jack and Crutchie. As “Santa Fe” builds, Jack stands on one side of the platform, and Crutchie stands on the other. The image this creates brings to mind a scale, as if relaying that the characters’ contrasting natures balance each other out. Additionally, the space created has to be closed by one of the characters. Jack closes the distance towards the end of the number in an effort to provide comfort to Crutchie. By rushing to his friend’s aid, Jack is further characterized as a heroic, masculine figure. The costume choices and blocking in “Santa Fe” juxtapose Crutchie and Jack to emphasize that masculinity comes in many forms rather than a one-size-fits all mold. 

Society tends to place masculinity in a rugged-heterosexual mold. Newsies deploys familiar stereotypes of masculinity to bring “traditionally masculine” characters to musical theater. For example, Jeremy Jordan, the actor who plays Jack, walks around with his chest sticking out. He makes strong arm movements to emphasize his points throughout the musical. In numbers like “I Never Planned On You/Don’’t Come A-Knocking,” we see Jack as a smooth-talking boy trying to impress his love interest, Katherine Plumber. Jordan’s movements help convey heterosexual masculinity. For example, he’s positioned so that he’s above the actor who plays Katherine Plumber, Kara Lindsay. This blocking choice buys into the stereotype that men are dominating figures in heterosexual relationships. The costume choices further assert Jack’s masculinity. Jack has on a dusty blue collared shirt for a large part of the musical. This contrasts with the colorful clothes worn by female characters. For example, in the number “Watch What Happens,” Katherine wears a pinkish-red outfit. Dark, cool colors are stereotypically masculine while warm, bright colors are stereotypically feminine. Thus, the clothing choices in the musical help reinforce gender stereotypes. The costume choices in Newsies!, as well as Jack’s blocking help emphasize his heterosexual masculinity. Characterizing the lead in this way helps subvert the stereotype that musical theater is only for girls or gay/gay-seeming/proto-gay boys.

As much as Jack is portrayed as masculine, he’s also shown to have a soft-side. In “I Never Planned On You/Don’’t Come A-Knocking,” he draws a picture of his love interest. Jack sings about how Katherine “stole his heart.” The music relays a sweetness we’re not used to seeing from Jack’s touch-guy character. Additionally, prior to the strike, when asked by Katherine if he’s scared, Jack faces away from Katherine as he says “ask me again in the morning.” There’s a look of hesitance in his eyes as he faces the audience. The musical uses blocking in moments like these to relay Jacks vulnerability. These moments help show that softness and emotional vulnerability can be coupled with masculinity. This is yet another way Newsies! conveys masculinity’s many faces.

The blocking, costume, and musical choices in Newsies!  helps subvert the masculine stereotypes often prevalent in American musical theatre.It employs “traditionally masculine” elements to show that musical theatre is not only reserved for girls or gay/gay-seeming/proto-gay boys. Additionally, it conveys the message that masculinity is not one-dimensional, but multi-faceted. Even characters like Jack, who appeal to stereotypically rugged images of masculinity, have a soft side. Ironically enough Newsies! subverts American musical stereotypes of masculinity by playing into societal stereotypes of masculinity. 

The Idealism of Jack Kelly

I’ve got to hand it to Disney– if they can do one thing correct it’s completely mischaracterize being a teenager, specifically in regards to romance. But in Newsies, we get to see teenagers devoid of dimension in a whole new century! Instead of a classic Disney Channel plot point such as dropping a science fair project the morning its due (gasp) or being rejected by your crush and also opposite-sex best friend to the big dance (aww), we see class consciousness, child labor, union formation and… the American Dream? Lofty undertaking, Walt. Don’t fret, though– it’s just as inaccurate of a depiction of the dynamics of adolescent relationships as we have come to love and accept of this particular company (monopoly?).

Newsies follows a group of, well, newsies, on their journey to fair treatment from the publisher of the paper they distribute. These boys live very difficult lives, having to steal food and clothes to survive and without families. These children, as young as eight, work for hours for unlivable wages from the greedy Joseph Pulitzer. This sounds like it could be the start of an inspiring case for ditching capitalism, but that’s a discussion for a different blog post. The newsies have essentially formed their own family, with unity being their glue. This show tackles not only this struggle for equality, but the relationships between these kids– all platonic of course (the Disney Corporation still maintains the official position that gays do not exist). These relationships all center around their leader, 17 year old Jack Kelly, who is the epitome of benevolent male leadership– a guy with integrity, charisma, power and empathy. While Newsies was definitely not made with the intention of being seen as a commentary on turn of the century gender relations and sexuality, I think that is exactly what makes it a good case study for analysis.

The depiction of Jack Kelly is very intentional– he is fit, attractive (heyyy Jermey Jordan), unassuming and looks like an overall good guy. He is meant, again, to be the best that masculine can be. He, along with his newsie counterparts, are deemed as overwhelmingly benevolent and masculine, with only good intentions– even during mess ups. What’s totally brushed over is the concept of toxic masculinity, which is very real, contrary to what Ben Shapiro may think. There are things that, for the most part, and looked down upon in male groups– one of these things being emotion. I would be lying if I said I don’t even slightly cringe when seeing a grown man crying or expressing his emotions in a less-than-masculine way, and I am a queer man in 2021. These notions of what a man can or can’t do or be are so ingrained in my subconscious, and I don’t spend much time at all in mascuiline groups. I bring these points up because, throughout the show, Jack has bursts of emotion and gives heartfelt monologues in rooms of his peers, and it’s just difficult for me to believe that a group of rough and tumble guys from 120 years ago would be so receptive to this, and it would not diminish his status. I am actually happy that Disney chose to do this– while I definitely don’t think it is realistic, they probably assumed their audience would be mostly children and young adults, so setting this example of acceptance of expression could begin to change the narrative. 

Continuing this conversation about the portrayal of masculinity, I just thought it was interesting to note how the song that encapsulates the entire theme of the show, masculinity and all, is segmented by a ballet-like dance break. “Seize the Day” is an overtly masculine piece, paired with masculine vocal and acting choices. This being said, the group dancing is something more connotationally feminine, but it didn’t feel like an emasculated performance. They were able to successfully portray feelings of power and revolution through, again, a ballet-like dance number, which is just an oddly more progressive display, in comparison to my view on gender as a whole is displayed in Newsies.

In terms of the dynamic of a male group of adolescents, this show falls very short in portraying a realistic one, in my experience at least. The one main component missing is competition, and in turn, jealousy. Jack assumes leadership with no opposition at all– and for a group of guys with the sole intention of standing up for themselves and knowing their worth, it is just a little odd to me that there is no one else vying for leadership. This aids in my describing these characters as one dimensional. The reason why this large component of youth masculinity is missing is because it isn’t relevant to the plot. The newsies really just seem to be bodies, there to echo what Jack says and react to his decisions. This being said, Jack takes pride in this comradery and his ability to lead, and never takes advantage of this power he was awarded. He is the ultimate “nice guy”. This just ties back to my broader take on masculinity’s depiction in Newsies— it is a sugar coated rendering, void of an addressing of the pitfalls or norms that come with the territory of being a man.

At the end of the day, I understand that this is just a Disney work, so expecting a nuanced take on gender and sexuality is rather naive. This doesn’t have to be how it is however. I love Jack and the group of newsies and their immense fraternity, but Newsies is not an accurate representation of what being a man is in the way that I am a man. Seeing groups of male friends like this, in all different forms, be so accepting of each other and under the leadership of such a great guy, always subliminally alienates me even more from my male peers, and makes me honestly jealous of what they have. While this show is about fun and revolution, we should overall start a move towards more nuanced representation, especially in media aimed for kids. Jack and his friends are an idealistic dream (especially when played by Jeremy Jordan), and it’s time Disney and all production companies alike start giving realistic and attainable representation to their audiences.

Newsies was a Dream, but Dreams can also Include Nightmares

As a straight woman, Newsies was a lot of fun to watch. Am I talking about the musical, or the newsies the musical was about? You’ll never know.

Watching men be athletic for close to three hours is always a nice way to spend your Sunday movie days with Mom. Within 2 seconds of the start of the show, I knew that I was in love with Jack Kelly. And I fell more deeply in love with him after every passing minute. I wonder why that was. I’m not ashamed to say that when it comes to romance and men, I’m a little old-fashioned in what I go for, and I would definitely say that Newsies portrayed Jack and his masculinity in an outdated way that really caters to me, except for a few problematic points I’ll get into later on.

The first thing that caught my eye in the first millisecond he was on the screen was his choice of clothing. Primarily, his well-fitting waistcoat, dressy shirt, and slacks. I italicized ‘waistcoat’ because that’s what it sounds like in my head when I see one. I go “waaiistcooaatt”, and the Victorian maiden inside me throws a fit. My own personal biases aside, the waistcoat was designed to emphasize the broadness of a man’s shoulders in order for him to appear more imposing, and, I suppose, manly. Jack is singled out from the rest of the newsies by his blue shirt, drawing attention to him as the star. I just realized, blue is also the color associated with the male gender. Interesting.

Aside from his waistcoat making his upper body look bigger, Jack exemplified the idea that men must be imposing by physically taking up space on the stage. Not only did his physique appear imposing, but in the way of his posture and stance, he imposed himself on the space around other people. And when he started dancing, the choreography only amplified his male body and how it took up space. The choreography showed off the lengths of his arms and legs, while high leaps tailored to the male body showcased his athleticism. 

Aside from his physicality, Jack oozed confidence, and almost confrontationally so. He stared every person he talked to dead in the eyes, looking down a bit in order to bring attention to his height and superiority. He spoke unapologetically, and was what I would call a ‘smooth talker’. He knew what to say to who, when, in order to get what he wanted. Because apparently real men get everything they want, even when they have to manipulate others to get it. Jack did use a lot of slang, but threw in the occasional Mister or Miss to keep it classy and set him apart from the rest of the newsies. 

Jack was shown to be a natural leader and a caretaker. He started the newsies’ strike and stole goods for the poor boys in the Refuge, while acting as an older brother to Crutchy. This of course was done in order to send signals that Jack would be able to provide for a family, which I would argue is important in general, but especially for a man in the time of Newsies because he is expected to be the breadwinner for his family. 

While strutting around like a peacock in his waistcoat, Jack retained humility, but only in the presence of women, and was only allowed to show emotion when he was alone. During emotional scenes and songs, Jack isolated himself so as not to compromise his masculinity and appear weak in front of others. Now, all this is fine and well, and I definitely enjoyed watching all of it, but I found myself asking why Jack’s friend Davey appeared to be presented as less overtly masculine than him.

After all, Davey is well educated, well dressed, and is shown to have taken the initiative of caring for his family. Davey is confident, and even able to inspire confidence in Jack when Jack forgets to be a man for a moment. Davey also wears a lovely waistcoat and is arguably better able to control himself than Jack, and composure was shown throughout the musical to be a hallmark of manliness. 

Why then, is Jack portrayed as being more manly? 

The answer to that question is the problematic part of this piece that I promised you earlier.

Jack had a woman, and Davey did not.

In his relationship to Katherine, Jack was the sexual aggressor, and pursued her until they ended up together. It looked a bit forced to me, but I might just be jealous. Anyway, the notion that what makes a man truly a man is his ability to pursue and catch a woman is rather concerning. It looks as though Newsies propagates the idea that in order to have attained all facets of masculinity, one must have the complete opposite(a woman) to compare them to. 

Davey, while smart, kind, confident, and almost everything else Jack is, is not shown to be as sexually bold as Jack. He spends the musical taking care of his younger brother and family, as he supports Jack. I would say that he is effectively in Katherine’s friendzone, and the way the musical frames it, that means he’s less masculine. The thought that because he does not sexually pursue a woman, Davey is less of a man is an uncomfortable one, especially for me as a woman. Defining masculinity as engagement with the opposite sex enters dangerous territory, and I for one, felt uneasy with that insinuation. Keeping this definition of masculinity in mind, Newsies brings up the question of whether men who may be attracted to men instead of women are still masculine. And to what extent the term ‘man’ applies to men without a woman and the resulting family.

What shocked me the most was that while Davey did not engage in the sexualization of women, his pre-teen brother did. In fact, the show was put on pause for several moments to point out the way in which this child gawked at womens’ legs. Does this insinuate that the child is more of a man than his older brother? See, problematic. I told you. 

Now that we’ve established that Jack is King Manly Man and Davey is his Slightly Less Manly Sidekick, I’d like to draw your attention to the way Jack continued to be seen as manly, even when he ‘chickened’ out on the strike and was ready to abandon everyone the plot had set him up to be the caretaker of. My analysis of this phenomenon is still a work in progress, if you’ll bear with me. Does Jack just have so many other masculine qualities that this one moment of cowardice was cancelled out? Does it not count because he snapped out of it? Or is this a demonstration of his token ‘sensitive side’? I’d like to propose that this is none of the above and say that this lapse in masculine judgement is a way to solidify some of Slightly Less Manly Sidekick’s masculinity, and show that even though he had a brain fart, Jack can still be convinced to be manly again and then sneakily take the spotlight away from Davey in order to consolidate himself as the alpha male of the musical. It’s a win-win situation. Davey gets manly brownie points, and Jack gets to be the hero again. 

Now, personal taste is personal taste. I will lose my mind over a waistcoat and I appreciate qualities in a man such as education, confidence, humility, and the ability to know whether he would take care of our kids. Notice how I said “qualities in a man”, as opposed to “manly qualities”. Any quality is accessible to any person, and it becomes worth noticing when a combination of qualities are set as a guideline for how men/women/anyone outside the gender binary can claim their identity. It becomes worrisome when the failure to meet such guidelines results in ostracization or ridicule. In the case of Newsies, Davey was missing the key element to being fully recognized as a man, and was therefore sentenced to being the sidekick that supports the ‘real man’, who has every quality deemed necessary and a sidekick to help him if he falters. 
As a woman, it feels weird that in the context of Newsies I would only be considered an aspect of masculinity for a character, but I enjoyed the musical and the tons of waistcoats nonetheless. I’m going to excuse myself before I flip out over how much I love it when men can sing and dance(seriously, this musical was heaven for me. Also, note that singing and dancing aren’t traditionally masculine traits), and I hope I’ve given you some things to think about.

The Ironic Duality: Newsies fight to break the system while perpetuating another

Growing up in New York City, I was fortunate enough to have tremendous exposure to Broadway, as compared to most. From my apartment, all I had to do was hop on a 15 minute subway ride and there I was: walking through the streets of Times Square, blinded by the bright lights of billboards, pushing through crowds to locate the theater. On a cold December night during my holiday break in eighth grade, I begrudgingly got dressed in my “theater clothes” in preparation to go see Newsies with my father. He explained the show, and how it takes place in New York City and follows a group of young newsboys who, day after day, sell newspapers to try to make ends meet. Infuriated by Pulitzer’s selfish decision to raise the price of newspapers, the newsboys decide to take a stand, form a union, and fight for their rights. My thirteen year old mind was convinced that Newsies would never live up to the bar set by my favorite musicals. (After seeing Kinky Boots just a few months earlier, I decided that it would take second place to Mamma Mia!, modifying my ever changing list of top five musical productions.) 

As I was ushered to my seat in the Nederlander Theater, I flipped through the Playbill that I was handed upon entry, since I always like to know a bit about the show before the curtains open. The book was written by Harvey Fierstein, the music was by Alan Menken with lyrics by Jack Feldman, and, unbeknownst to me, Newsies would not only be produced by Disney, but would specifically be produced by Thomas Schumacher. I smiled to myself as I remembered that the number five musical on my favorite’s list, The Lion King, was also a Schumacher production. When the curtains closed just a couple of hours later, I stood in applause and sang Seize the Day quietly to myself as I left the theater. What I didn’t know at the time was, almost a decade later, I would be watching a recording of the musical for my theater class at Vanderbilt, analyzing the role of masculinity in the main character Jack Kelly, played by Jeremy Jordan. Through an in-depth analysis of Newsies, it will become immensely clear that countless aspects of Jack’s character such as appearance, power, and romance – play a role in promoting harmful gender roles through his amplified toxic masculinity. 

Within minutes of the opening of the show, it is obvious that Jack Kelly is the leader of the newsies. The first scene, setting the stage for the rest of the production, features Jack Kelly and Crutchie, his best friend and fellow newsboy with a bum leg, played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger. You might be asking yourself, how exactly did I make the immediate assumption that Jack would be the main character? Well, for starters, Jack is more stereotypically attractive than Crutchie. Also, he is able-bodied, highlighted by Crutchie who has to limp across the stage and can’t even climb down a ladder on his own without help. There was no doubt in my mind that Newsies would be written so that the main role was a quintessential, masculine character – and unattractiveness and disability are not two characteristics that I would pin on a male lead. I am not here to say that it is criminal for musical authors to write shows that have these types of male leads, and I do acknowledge that my immediate assumption of Jack’s lead role is one that is embedded with deep-rooted norms and expectations. However, it is still important to note that the writers did not make any active decisions to defy this norm. The fact that even at the point where I knew close to nothing about the characters and plot, I was somehow able to determine that Jack would be the star, demonstrates these overarching standards of masculinity which Newsies plays into.

The masculine qualities embodied by Jack Kelly’s character continue to be amplified as the musical progresses with the addition of power as a male gender role. All of the newsboys look up to Jack as their leader, and what would masculinity be without leadership and power? The first time we hear dialogue that gives clues into Jack’s status as – what I call – head newsie, is when he meets Davey and Les, who are just starting out selling newspapers. Crutchie makes it clear that “selling with Jack is the chance of a lifetime,” verbally affirming his superiority in the group. (00:15) As the plot continues to develop, the newsies have to brainstorm what they can do in response to the raise in prices for “papes.” After Jack suggests a strike – which requires forming a union – and Davey tells the group that they need officers, Crutchie nominates Jack as president with no hesitation. Cheering and applauding erupts amongst the newsies, as if it was a given that Jack would take leadership without second thought. Even in terms of stage direction and movement in this scene, Jack is highlighted as the head newsie. All of the other boys gather around him on stage, looking directly at him as he thinks and makes decisions from the center of the group. Jack’s position of power among the group is unsurprising. Of course, for a man to be a man, he MUST be a leader. Newsies surrenders itself to this stereotype, as Jack Kelly’s power even further contributes to his normative masculinity. 

I know you have all been waiting for this one, so I won’t leave you stranded any longer: women. There is no better indication of toxic masculinity than seeing how stereotypical male characters interact with their romantic interests and Jack Kelly’s character does anything but defy this norm. From the very first interaction between Jack and Katherine Plummer, a gorgeous reporter, it is clear that he is interested in her from how he pushes his friend away in an effort to talk to her. Later, Jack, Davey and Les make their way to Miss Medda’s theater where Katherine is writing a show review for her job as a reporter. Despite the fact that Jack knows that Katherine is busy working and uninterested, he is persistent and seems to believe that his desire is more important than anything else. He continues to minimize her as he comments on her appearance saying, “the view is better here” when she asks him to leave her alone. (00:29) Jack’s aggressive chase continues even to the extent where, when Katherine asks him what he wants in the context of a career, he responds, “can’t you see it in my eyes?” as he inches up close to her, bites his lip, and (tries to) talk in a seductive voice. (00:47) The cherry on top? You guessed it. She ends up caving and falling for Jack at the end of the show. The way that Jack essentially preys on Katherine through both dialogue and movement is yet another contributing factor to his problematic portrayal of gender and masculinity.  So, if it wasn’t clear before, it is definitely clear now: Jack Kelly lives up to many of the stereotypes of masculinity that invade our culture. Whether it’s the male ‘standard of attractiveness’, the need to be an outgoing, powerful leader to be masculine, or the idea that being masculine is accompanied by the entitlement to aggressively pursue women, Jack has the qualities that check all of the boxes. The fact that many of Jack’s characteristics are predictable and “true to form” for a male main character is evidence that Newsies is definitely not alone in representing and normalizing this toxic masculinity. However, that does not deem it justifiable. For all of the young boys out there who have watched and will watch Newsies, Jack Kelly’s character will be subconsciously added to a list of male figures that fit these problematic gender norms. Boys who look up to Jack’s character as a role model for fighting for change and are inspired to follow in his footsteps might also internalize the other problematic male gender norms that seem to often go along with these masculine lead roles. Newsies is not at fault for creating these harmful norms, but instead, Jack Kelly is just another case for why they are perpetuated over time.

What a Man, What a Man… Wait, Which One Are You Talking About?

Sophie Cohen

Let’s get one thing straight: not a single heterosexual female would look at the cast of Newsies and think “Cute. Anyways, not a fan.” If you are one of the few who thinks like this, I applaud you and your self-control. I mean, we’re seeing the epitome of rag-tag New York newsboys showing off their muscles and showing the ladies that they’ll fight for every mistreated child in New York. Major swoon right there. But if any of these characters truly existed in the real world, which one would fit in the most with the present-day male stereotypes?

If you think like most Newsies fans, the obvious answer would be Jack Kelly (or, if you’re thinking of minor characters, the Brooklyn baddie Spot Conlon is the most accurate). This seems contradictory, since most people wouldn’t consider a bunch of singing and dancing male Broadway performers as manly. So, what is it, then? The muscles, the strong New York accents, the knowledge that this isn’t reality and so dancing men are perfectly capable of acting masculine? Are they even “real” men at all? If you think about it, every performer in Newsies represents some form of masculinity in their own way, and I would strongly argue that each newsie represents one aspect of masculinity that either breaks the boundary of masculinity or continues to define it.

Hear me out. The 2017 musical production of Newsies, directed by Jeff Calhoun and Brett Sullivan, and produced by Thomas Schumacher and Anne Quart, is a phenomenal viewing experience featuring actors that take on the persona of very different male characters. The musical takes the viewer on a journey through the streets of New York in 1899, when newsboys were tired of being treated unfairly on the job and advocated for their new union (and don’t forget the Romeo and Juliet romance on the side). The beloved Jack Kelly, played by Jeremy Jordan, and newcomer Davey, played by Ben Fankhauser, seem like polar oposites. As the musical continues into Act II, their personas seem to switch for a short time before both taking on similar masculine stereotypes.

Let’s start with the lovely Jack Kelly, shall we? He enters the Newsies stage singing about his hopes and dreams in Santa Fe with his friend, his brother, Crutchie. And wow, what an opening to the show. From the start, we know Jack values brotherhood. He embodies the idea that men stick together, which somehow makes me think of men playing golf or watching a football game together with beers in their hand. Okay, okay, Jack doesn’t seem like the guy to reach that extent, but you can see a resemblance. The newsies are a brotherhood that sticks together through thick and thin. We can’t forget about the love story, though, especially because it reveals so much about how a man should approach a beautiful woman. The second conversation between Kelly and Katherine, played by Kara Lindsay, is an interesting moment. We can hear Jack singing about love, and he even drew her a picture (anyone else thinking of Titanic? Just me?) while we hear “Don’t Come A-Knocking” in the background. Typical, the man keeps pushing for the girl, flirting to the best of his abilities, while the girl wants nothing to do with him, as implied with this song in the back. We see this representation all over the media today; so many movies and shows focus on the man who’s trying to get the girl. But there must be more to Jack’s masculinity than his romance and brotherhood, right? Of course there is… but we need to compare the rest of these qualities to another man in the show, Davey.

Ah Davey, the more passive of the newsies, at least at the start. He’s so different from Jack they might as well be the perfect example of “opposites attract”. I feel like I should start off with their clothes. As a side note, though, incredible work by Jess Goldstein as the costume designer. Jack and the newsies are wearing dirty clothes with open vests, and their sleeves are rolled up like they’re ready for a fight… which I guess they are. Davey, on the other hand, wears a clean outfit, a buttoned vest, long sleeves that are not rolled or wrinkled, and he’s got a tie. How proper. One man is scruffy and laid back, the other is a proper gentleman who stands up straight and doesn’t like lying. Jack moves with swagger and much more extravagance, while Davey is very timid with his movements and rarely makes grand gestures. Both men, though, represent two types of men who are equally masculine. Jack Kelly is the independent man that doesn’t like relying on others, goes for the girl, and acts incredibly tough, the embodiment of today’s man. Davey is the family man, which we know is true because he’s working to make money for his family, with proper mannerisms.

The turning point for Davey occurs when the ensemble sings “Seize the Day”. Davey shines in this song, transforming from the gentleman we know and love to a Jack Kelly type. He gets more excited about the idea of a union and acts as the brains behind the strike. Does his intellect still classify him as a gentle man? Yes. Is he a true man nonetheless? Absolutely. Davey breaks down the barrier of stereotypical masculinity by becoming both a tough guy and a brainiac (Who knew being tough and smart could coexist in a man?). Both are men, but different types of men.

Now, Jack takes on a more complicated definition in the second act, when he is more conflicted with his emotions and we get to see more of his art (where painting is also manly). He cries in “Santa Fe”, as a man should if he feels like it, and goes through a small crisis where he must decide to continue with the union or protect himself from the law and run away to Santa Fe. And sweet Davey changes his costume and has no tie or a buttoned vest. Is this the character progression I was waiting for? Jack acts more passive and unsure of his decision, while Davey starts to toughen up and take charge of the union. They switch roles but both remain men. At the end of the musical, Jack is back to his old self and Davey assimilates into the newsie friend group for a happily ever after Oh, and Jack gets the girl, of course.

What’s the point of all of this, then? Why am I describing all these changes that Davey and Jack go through? Well, these changes represent a spectrum of masculinity that all fall under the umbrella of being a man. Whether one is a family man with values of loyalty, or a tough guy that also knows how to flirt, all can be described as men. Newsies emphasizes the idea that not all men are the same, but they’re still masculine. Even disregarding the fact that they’re singing and dancing all the time, the personalities of each character shows how varied masculinity can be. Being masculine is not defined by current stereotypes. The contrasts between values and attitudes are what break stereotypical barriers and reconstruct them everyday. Jack Kelly and Davey move along this divide, shape it, tear it down, and rebuild it throughout the musical. In short, the definition of a man is constantly evolving and Newsies helps to emphasize this.

Well, I think I’ve dumped enough information out here for now. Major takeaways: Masculinity is constantly redefining, Jack and Davey represent different types of men on a spectrum, and I might watch Newsies again as soon as I’m done with this post.

Bring Back Manly Men

A real American man– he is driven, strong, demands respect, and is not interested in frivolous behavior… or at least that’s what has always been represented in the white American male. And because white has been presented as the “norm” in the United States, that is what we expect from “real men” in general. As the lovely Candace Owens would state, “bring back manly men”, and Joseph Pulitzer from Disney’s Newsies the Broadway Musical is a prime example of such an American man. Meanwhile, Rose as played by Bette Midler in the 1993 Gypsy, possesses surprising similarities to Pulitzer’s character despite being a woman. Rose owns the same ambition and authority that Pulitzer displays while still maintaining her feminine characteristics, showing that the attributes of “real manly men” can belong to women too without sacrificing femininity. 

Let’s first begin by examining how Pulitzer is the epitome of unsympathetic, career-driven, “all business” masculinity, the perfect man of the patriarchy. Below is a compilation of scenes of Steve Blanchard playing Pulitzer in Disney’s Newsies, successfully portraying the hardened businessman. You can watch just the beginning to get a sense of the character since he stays relatively the same throughout the entire production. 

The first time we see Pulitzer is with his feet up on a table as his hair is getting trimmed. His first line opens with “gentlemen”, not only addressing a handful of men, but a woman as well. Clearly, we can see who’s presence he’s feels is necessary to acknowledge. His posture does not claim grace, as a woman would be expected to exude, but rather an authority to sit and to do as he pleases.  He then proceeds to vent about how Teddy Roosevelt wants to ban football for being too violent, showing how he values some “rough competition”, as a man should. Pulitzer dresses in a suit, which is generally associated with business, in a masculine way. (Thank goodness. Could you imagine if he wore a dress instead??) During the first song he sings, the choreography designed for Pulitzer is stiff and in many ways is not dancing at all. He walks around his office with authority and stands tall, putting his hand on his hip at the end. He is a serious man whose words are more important than dancing around the stage.

Pulitzer’s lack of vulnerability in his business and his emotions (besides anger) is maintained throughout the majority of the musical by a generally serious expression by the actor, Blanchard, even in response to an attempted joke by another character. Any such vulnerability would reveal weakness, which would be unacceptable as an important businessman. The only vulnerability we catch a glimpse of is at the very end of the musical when Pulitzer implies that he cannot afford to lower the costs of the papers back to their original price. He doesn’t actually say this, however, but simply tells Jack that there are “other considerations”, therefore admitting weakness without truly admitting any weakness, which would be devastating to his strong, manly reputation. 

Then we have Rose, the mother desperate for her daughter’s success, clinging to her role in bringing Louise fame. At first glance (see her picture below), she may not seem like she’d have the stoic personality that Pulitzer has, and honestly this assumption would be true. She does not hold the same reign on her emotions, but she is, however, more alike than one might think. 

Rose is a woman in charge. From the beginning of the 1993 production, we see that she would do just about anything for the success of her daughters when she threatens the theater producer into letting her daughters perform their act. Sure, Rose may not seem career-driven in the same way that Pulizter is with his business, but it is her own ambition that drives her to make up for her own unsuccessful performing career through one of her children. Later in the musical, Rose is volunteering Louise to do the burlesque performance. Rose holds her chin high as she speaks to the men to show that she’s not afraid of them and that she believes she knows best. She even points her finger at the two men, conveying power and showing them “who’s boss”.

Where Rose starts to veer from her similarities with Pulitzer is how she reveals her own desperation, especially through the acting of Bette Midler. After making a deal so that Louise will perform the burlesque act, she enters the dressing room breathlessly and reaches up to grab some fabric, turning around and raising her eyebrows in excitement. It’s like a giddy child, so excited to have a glimmer of hope of stardom again for her daughter. Going into the number “Rose’s Turn”, Rose yells and screams about how she made Louise a star because she couldn’t be one herself. Bette Midler flails her arms showing her characters outrage. Finally bursting into her own show-stopping solo, Rose shows the world she really is a star. Previous actors playing Rose had given the character a bit of a “crazy” look in this moment, as though she had really finally lost it. Bette, though, shows the audience that rather than having lost her mind, Rose is finally releasing her disappointment and anger from her past. For once, the bold and ambitious (and slightly power-hungry) woman doesn’t need to sacrifice something else- her brain. 

In this number, we get to see Rose not only shine as a star, but she loosens her ruby red dress to give the audience a little cleavage, showing she’s embracing her womanhood in her most climactic moment. Steve Blanchard as Pulitzer very clearly never strayed from his masculine identity and yet somehow we see two quite similar characters here. Bette Midler as Rose steps into the musical scene and demonstrates that a person can be both “manly” in the sense of being commanding and driven while also embracing a feminine identity. The two need not be mutually exclusive. Maybe the manly men we really need are actually present within women right now. So yes, we’ll give you manly men, but it just might come from women instead.

Rose: The Flawed Masterpiece of a Mother

Binula Illukpitiya

I can’t count how many times I’ve been in a discussion with my theatre friends about the greatest musical character. Every time, I’ve stuck to my guns and rooted for Sweeney Todd but with watching Gypsy, I cannot help but change my answer now to Mama Rose.

The 1993 musical was directed by Emile Ardolino based on the life of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Taking place in the 20s, the story is of a theatre performing family where the mother, Mama Rose, and her two daughters, June and Louise, are fixated on the prospect of making it in show business. Louise, the neglected daughter, is able to find success in life despite her mother, who has her parenting clouded with delusions of fame, creating an emotional and psychological environment not conducive to success. The lyrics of Stephen Sondeheim, composed music of Jule Styne, book written by Arthur Laurents, and production between All Girl Productions, Storyline Entertainment, and RHI Entertainment work together in harmony to paint a story that acknowledges American art of burlesque and theatre while radiating the American dream and perseverance through struggle.

Although ‘Gypsy’ (the stage name of Rose’s daughter, Louise) is the title of the play, Mama Rose is undoubtedly the most dominant actor in the play. She’s neither monster nor angel but rather, something in between. Without question, she is a horrible, monster of a parent who is willing to emotionally manipulate her daughters to have them reach fame. But on the flip side, it is without question that she cares for them and is willing to dedicate everything in her life to them. The relationship she has with Herbie is loving and genuine however, clouded by her greed and ambitions. The brilliant contradictions between the awful and amazing sides of Rose make her. Rose smashes the traditional role of a woman by creating a truly unique identity riddled with both awful and amazing characteristics while also challenging how important sexuality and romance can be compared to other priorities.

When trying to understand Rose, it is of utmost importance to first contextualize her life. We aren’t given too much into her early life however, we are told of her mother leaving for life outside of the home. The result of this as seen throughout the musical is Rose having abandonment issues that seep into her romantic and family relationships. She spent June’s childhood dreaming for her to be a star and desperately wanting her to become famous. However, when the best opportunity to become a star came for June in the form of getting to go to acting school, Mama Rose refuses. The act and June were the only things Rose cared about in the world. They were her life. To me, it was clear that the refusal of June to attend school was from fear of abandonment.

Rose’s entire identity in the musical is centered around her being a mother. That being said, Mama Rose is far from a perfect mother. In fact, she is abusive. It is not of a physical nature, but rather chronic emotional and psychological harm done through the years is significant and should not be overlooked. She spends the majority of Louise’s childhood neglecting her in favor of her daughter June, practically forces Louise into stripping along with depriving the two of what they truly desired in life. This is completely different from the stereotypical female mother role that we are accustomed to seeing in theatre.

Rose may not fit into the traditional gender role of mother; however, the musical does not cast this in a negative light. Instead, she is able to thrive as an ambitious yet imperfect mother who goes on a journey of self-development. We see her being the ambitious and driven through everything she is willing to give up and sacrifice in order to make her dream come through. We see her being fun and passionate during the rehearsals that she puts her heart and soul into. She isn’t afraid to be loud and let her voice be heard no matter who is in the room. The feminist inside me lights up from seeing how much of a strong, proud, independent, and goal-oriented mother Rose can be especially considering this takes place during the 20th century where the traditional stay at home wife without a career is the norm. Through the good and the bad, we see Rose time and time again shatter traditional gender roles.

The other aspect of Rose that we get to see play out in the musical is her as a romantic partner. We are told multiple times throughout the production that Rose was married to two different men in the past. Seeing as her entire life seems revolve around achieving fame for a daughter, it seems out of character for her to have invested so much in relationships. However, this is where I found Rose to challenge what sexuality and romance truly mean.

In most media, sexuality has traditionally been a form of showing affection and setting up a romantic dynamic between characters. I do not doubt one bit that Rose had an attraction and love for Herbie however, her ambitious nature shines here again. Despite her three relationships, Rose’s heterosexuality seems almost utilitarian. Herbie is dragged around for years helping with booking the act being a manager for the performance all in hopes of one day marrying Rose. She was always willing to delay a wedding if it meant even the slightest step forward to accomplishing her dream. On the other hand, all of the women in Gypsy put an elaborate display of their heterosexuality. June’s performances on stage always took advantage of her being the ‘pretty blonde’. Tulsa and Louise had their romantic scene moment dancing in the street together. The burlesque strippers and eventually Louise had large displays of their sexuality through dress and performance. Rose on the other hand, nothing. The essence of her character was trying to follow her dreams while sexuality and relationships were on the backburner. Watching this almost two decades later, I can’t tell if this deviation from the norm is an intentional feminist is move or the production failing to imagine an older mother figure with a sexual nature.

While it is not a complete resolution, we do get to see Rose’s reflection of herself at the end of the film through the song “Rose’s Turn”. Louise, having now turned into the famous Gypsy Rose Lee, and Rose end up in an argument that causes Rose to start singing about her life and what it has amounted to. In the end, she realizes that she always claimed that everything she did was for her daughters but in reality, it was for herself. In the end, she finally stops projecting her own dreams and desires through her daughters. Through acknowledging her desires and seeing how living vicariously through her children was her entire life, Rose grows as a mother and as a character. When Rose talks about wanting to see both her and Louise on magazine covers, it shows that Mama Rose hasn’t thrown away the dreams of fame she had. Instead, she is more open about it and able to talk and laugh it off without hiding behind the premise that it is a wish for her daughters. This level of character development paints Rose as woman still learning about herself and a parent still learning how to be a better mother.

Altogether, Gypsy paints a beautiful tale of the personal growth of an incredibly unorthodox female archetype. The flawed but still amazing Mama Rose rewrites our notions of what a woman can be through challenging the traditional role of a mother, exploring how romance and love does not need to be the defining quality of a woman, and through challenging the value we as a society places on sexuality and the display of it. In the current times where we strive to perfect and categorize every aspect of our being, Mama Rose is a reminder of how a successful and realistic character can thrive when room for nonconformity and personal change is given.

Newsies: Is the Ideal Man Too Limiting?

Disney’s Newsies showcases the very definition of American masculinity with some catchy numbers and dazzling lights. Directed by Brett Sullivan, Newsies highlights the struggles of New York City newspaper boys as they rally together to fight for a fair price. 

What was particularly remarkable about the show was the absence of a feminine presence. In fact, Katherine and Ms. Medda are the only women in the spotlight for the duration of the musical. The production, instead, highlights the comradery and brotherhood amongst the New York City newspaper boys. Oftentimes, we see masculinity defined in connection to women, but the musical simply focusses on the young men. It delves into the questions “What does it mean to be a man?” and “How does American culture define masculinity?”

Jack is a character that catches the audience’s eye; he is placed in a blue shirt directly contrasting with the greyscale wardrobe of the rest of the cast. From the get-go, I knew that he was one to watch. Immediately, you can see manly traits start to define Jack Kelly, from with playful punches to his forceful moves in the musical numbers to even the confidence that he exudes. Jack has grown up with less-than-ideal circumstances – without a family and running from the Refuge – but he shows a sense of resilience and strength. Ultimately, he is a leader and mentor to the other young newsies, but he is cast in a light that makes him a role model to the audience. Jack Kelly is American masculinity on stage!

It isn’t very hard for the audience to see how deeply his friends and fellow newsies care for Jack; he thrives in his role as their leader, going on to represent them in the strike and taking Les and Davey under his wing without hesitation. The musical writers convey this sense of leadership and protectiveness by including lines such as “ain’t no way I’m putting them kids in danger” in response to the initial strike. He would rather lose everything than lose one of his newsies. Here, Kelly displays his stoic nature, a trait so crucial to what we perceive as Masculinity.

Masculinity has evolved to discourage any demonstration of emotional vulnerability. We can see this concept affecting Jack in moments like when he is asked if he is scared to strike. Rather than admitting to his nerves, he ambiguously responds with “ask me again in the morning.” Jack is hesitant to admit his fears and instead opts for a continued display of strength in hopes of inspiring his newsboys for the upcoming struggles. However, Jack does not feel entirely constricted by society’s gender stereotypes. He prompts Katherine with a question on what exactly was happening between the two of them, and his forwardness, ultimately, catches her off guard. The musical writers infuse a sense of duality to Jack’s character that demonstrates both the guarded and vulnerable sides of him.  

Jack’s caring side and positive attributes of American masculinity are contrasted with the character Mr. Pulitzer. Mr. Pulitzer’s arrogance and greed shows how dangerous the quest for masculine strength, power, and success can be; it can turn your heart cold. Ultimately, Pulitzer is a selfish bully, as Kelly calls him. When explaining his opposition to the newsies’ strike, Pulitzer exclaims that it is because they are fighting against him that he does not show his support. The production authors also display his arrogance with Pulitzer’s open legs and by placing his arms on his hips. This concept of taking up space and its correlation to power can be seen in our own society as men often sit with their legs widened to ‘mark their territory.’ Mr. Pulitzer represents the flaws in men: the aggression and gluttonous drive that allows for his success. Jack, on the other hand, is a good, old fashioned guy. He is like David fighting Goliath like Katherine so aptly describes. 

Cultural definitions can be extremely detrimental for many individual’s mental health, as the norm is not always normal. The idea that a man is defined by his family, his leadership skills, and his strength is an outdated concept. Instead, we should be celebrate each individual for what makes them unique. I think that this is a flaw in the character Jack Kelly. He is a role model that all of the newsies look up to and most likely the little boys in the audience. He is a captivating young man. I mean who could blame a kid for wanting to be like him. However, I think that the lack of focus on other characters and the extended centrality of Jack’s success and strengths conveys the message that in order for a boy to be a true man he must be like Jack. 

Watching this musical in a time where gender stereotypes are being blurred to a spectrum was particularly intriguing. Newsies sends the message that men must behave a certain way. However, every day the concept of gender is being talked about more and more. Some believe that gender is the very foundation of our society, looking back at works such as Newsies which showcases one of the masculine roles in society. However, others are taking a rather modern perspective and have fought to remove the concept of gender entirely. Watching this in the societal context and examining the role of masculinity makes me question the absence of women in the film. Rather than perpetuating a musical that celebrates a gender-driven divide, should we be including the range of genders that we see in our culture today? This is not to say that I did not enjoy the musical; the numbers were stuck in my mind for much of the following week. However, upon reflection it makes me pause and question why there is so little feminine presence or the necessity of the extremely dominant inclusion of masculinity. 

While Jack displays everything fundamental to the concept of American masculinity, he falls short in the idea of inclusion. Newsies aims to demonstrate a sense of brotherhood amongst the newspaper boys, but the boys in the audience are creating the idea of what it means to be a man as they watch the actors dance across the stage. While masculinity may be defined as strength, leadership, stoicism, and arrogance, the musical limits the concept to those qualities. In reality, a man can be anything or anyone, and Newsies works to perpetuate this culture of toxic masculinity.

The Patriarchy Works Hard but Bette Midler Works Harder

I truly believe that most issues can be blamed on the patriarchy. Whether it be the lack of pockets in women’s clothing, the “not all men” narrative, dress codes, or the absence of women in politics, the patriarchy sucks. I could go on and on about all the ways the patriarchy makes life worse for women, but that is not the point of this post so I shall refrain. The part that is relevant to this post is the lack of accurate female characters because they are all written by men. The 1993 made-for-television production of GYPSY the musical starring Bette Midler is an excellent example of this. This show stars women, but it is written by men. How can I man accurately characterize a woman when they have no idea what it’s like to be a woman? Answer: they can’t. At least not Jule Styne who wrote the music, Stephen Sondheim who wrote the lyrics, and  Arthur Laurents who wrote the book for GYPSY. Their characterization was flawed, but Bette Midler saved it. Let me entertain you with how she did it (haha get it)….

First, let’s discuss the overly confident characterization of Mama Rose. She is, of course, a single mother. Single mothers are always characterized as being confident because they have to be (according to popular entertainment). No one can argue that Mama Rose is not an incredibly bold character. From the first scene where she walks onto the audition stage and directs the backstage cast, tells the orchestra what to play, and threatens the director, I could tell that she was an incredibly bold and confident woman. All of the songs that she sings help to further characterize her as an incredibly bold woman. For instance in “Small World”, she is very flirtatious and forward with Herbie. She is basically asking him to marry her in a song when they first meet. You can’t get more bold than that. In all of Rose’s songs (there’s a lot of them), she is accompanied by strong, powerful music. Full disclosure, I don’t know much about music or official music terms, but Rose’s songs have powerful instruments that inspire confidence in her character. She is also always looking to the future in her songs and talking about the next great thing she is going to do.  The men did a great job of writing Mama Rose as an incredibly bold woman who never falters. You cannot knock them there.

GYPSY - Everything's Coming up Roses - Bette Midler 1993 - YouTube

However, the idea that Mama Rose would be incredibly bold and never faltering is flawed. Let me explain. By just listening to the cast recording or watching the first couple scenes, one would think that Mama Rose’s boldness translates to internal confidence. However, Bette Midler let’s the audience know that that’s not necessarily true. Specifically in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, Bette Midler adds insecurity to Mama Rose’s character. Her facial expressions and hand gestures make her seem as though she is having a near psychotic break because she doesn’t know what to do after her star June leaves. She also seems to be convincing herself that it will work to make Louise the star of the show. She ignores Louise and Herbie for most of the song as well as not singing to the cameras which show that she is talking mostly to herself rather than trying to convince them that this will work. These subtle choices by Bette Midler help to show that Mama Rose is more insecure than her traditional characterization shows her to be. I believe that Bette Midler chose to characterize Mama Rose as secretly insecure because that is significantly more realistic.

Amazon.com: Gypsy: Bette Midler, Peter Riegert, Cynthia Gibb, Edward Asner,  Christine Ebersole, Michael Jeter, Andrea Martin, Linda Hart, Anna McNeely,  Jennifer Rae Beck, Jeffrey Broadhurst, Tony Shalhoub, Emile Ardolino, Bob  Weber, Bonnie

Bette Midler works incredibly hard in this scene to show that Mama Rose does have insecurities and isn’t overly confident all of the time. Why does she work so hard you might ask? Because, you guessed it, the patriarchy. As I’ve said, Mama Rose’s character was written by three men. She obviously knows what it is like to be a woman much more than these men do. She knows that Mama Rose would never actually have the unbridled confidence that she is written to have because Mama Rose is a woman, and the Lord knows the world beats women down and makes us doubt ourselves for everything we do. Especially because Mama Rose is living primarily in a “man’s world” as the advocate for her daughters, she would be incredibly beaten down by the patriarchy. Being told that you aren’t good enough and will never measure up takes its toll on a person and eventually causes cracks in the bold, confident exterior that Mama Rose portrays. The men who wrote this, while they might understand this idea, cannot fully conceptualize it because, well, they are men. Bette Midler does understand this though which allows women watching GYPSY to actually relate with Mama Rose. Am I saying that for women to be realistic they need to be insecure? Absolutely not. Well, actually, maybe? I’m not sure, but I do know that the way Mama Rose was characterized as unwaveringly confident is not accurate. The idea that women can’t be confident is wrong, but the idea that women are unwaveringly confident is also wrong. Both of these ideas characterize women as one dimensional without the ability to have more than one emotion at the same time. Bette Midler saw that Mama Rose was characterized this way and said “this isn’t going to work.” She took it upon herself to add insecurity and therefore dimension to Mama Rose’s character. She saved Rose and made her so much more relatable to the audience as well as redefining what it means to be a woman. In summary, the patriarchy works hard, but Bette Midler works harder.

by Emma Alexander

Chloe’s Crushes: an article about her varying taste in men and how they perpetuate gender roles

By Chloe Hodge

While no man stacks up to my love Tommy Shelby of Netflix’s Peaky Blinders, two have come dangerously close recently, and they are none other than Davey Jacobs from Disney’s filmed version of Newsies (2017) directed by Brett Sullivan and a young Hugh Jackman as Curly from Oklahoma! directed by Trevor Nunn. Okay. What? These two fools are nothing alike. One wears assless chaps and the other a sweater vest—what’s going on here? Well I’ll tell ya. They’re both stereotypical manly men, which I occasionally fall prey to (see: Tommy Shelby). But if they’re so different, how do they both portray a stereotypical version of masculinity? Follow me down this dusty path (think Oregon trail type dirt road or a New York City back alley, your preference) and I’ll walk you through it.

Let’s examine how both Davey and Curly perpetuate the stereotype of masculinity first, I think that’s a great place to start. Both Davey and Curly make their respective entrances with a bang. Curly comes in singing, and Davey comes in basically fighting. (Not really, but he’s got some serious sass for him to clearly not know what he’s doing). Both entrances demand your attention; they create the immediate impression that these two men are going to stand out in their respective shows. Davey starts off as a hard-headed know-it-all. Curly? Well…same. Davey refuses help and claims he can figure out how to sell “papes” all by himself, while Curly does…whatever he’s doing. 

Hugh Jackman as Curly

Attempts to woo Laurey even though she’s said she’s not interested like 10 times already yet he refuses to back down? 

I don’t know. He supposedly has a job, but he always seems to be hovering around Aunt Eller’s house to me. 

I digress. Both men are VERY sure of themselves and their rightness. Davey has to mention multiple times throughout the play that he and his brother are only taking this job because their dad lost his job, so they’ve become the primary breadwinners. Stereotypical gender role? I think so. The masculine figure is supposed to bring in the money for their family, no matter if that masculine figure is only a teen and also babysitting his little brother? What are his parents doing? They better be on a job search. Curly, though he has literally nothing to his name except the clothes on his back and a lunch basket at one point, is just known to be the breadwinner in he and Laurey’s relationship, no questions asked. He was prepping to be the masculine-type breadwinner for his future family even before his wife liked him back.From the beginning  of the play, it was evident that he was saving up money working as a cowboy (see: assless chaps), but when poor Laurey finally gave into his pestering, he did note that he’d have to sell all his cowboy gear (he already sold it all to buy her lunch basket that had perishable items but was not in an icebox, but I guess he forgot this) to buy them stuff to settle down on a nice farm somewhere that he, of course, would tend to.

More traditionally masculine roles between these two, you ask? Say no more. 

Davey takes care of his younger brother, he is the protector in this relationship (very manly), while Curly is Laurey and Aunt Eller’s protector from weirdly perverted and very creepy Jud Fry, the farmhand. At one point Curly even takes his protective role on so hard that he attempts to talk Jud out of wanting to take Laurey to the barn dance by singing a song about how everyone would miss Jud and talk great about him if he were just dead…and follows that by pointing out that sturdy rope hanging from the ceiling. Like, come on Curly, that was just a little tone-deaf, even for a weirdo like Jud. 

Curly and Davey’s respective stereotypes of masculinity didn’t always have such nice parallels throughout the two musicals, like Davey’s traditionally masculine leadership position in his organizing and rallying together of the newspaper strike and Curly’s general respect in the community just for being a manly man, but their traditional masculinity stereotype parallels will converge one last time in this post in the form of their front and center dance numbers!!!

What’s a musical without shutting the hell up sometimes and just dancing??

Boring. That’s what.

And in these musical dance numbers, it is pretty traditionally masculine to be in the lead. Davey’s big dance break was in the tap number “King of New York,” where he took on a masculine leadership position among the other newsies by dancing in the middle of them with Katherine, but also kept his position as “one of the boys” by dancing alongside everyone else. Hugh’s, oops, I mean Curly’s dances were a few more in number, but my favorite example to watch was the dream ballet sequence, AKA a good fourth of the entire musical (really, why was that so long?) Curly comes in and immediately literally sweeps Laurey off her feet. He waltzes with her, leading of course, he spins her, he lifts her, he smiles that dreamy smile at her, he LEADS. Stereotypically masculine. Perpetuating gender roles. Curly leads, Laurey follows. Davey leads, the other newsies follow.

Okay, no sense in beating a dead horse. On to my next point, the breaking of these traditional gender roles through these characters! Whaatttt? Yeah, it needs to be addressed, my argument still holds, but these are good points as well.

Neither character does it frequently, but Curly only has one instance in which I felt like his actions or character didn’t just scream traditional masculine role at me through the TV, and that was near the beginning of the musical, before plot advancement, when he was clearly more interested in Laurey than she was him (or so it seemed). Stereotypically, the girl is the one who is crazy over the guy, and she has to convince him to settle for her (see: the beginning of Grease, Grace from Peaky Blinders, etc.) but Curly was putting his manliness aside for just a second to pine over a girl. 

Davey had a few more instances of breaking the stereotypical masculinity mold; first and most obviously, he stuck out in appearance like a sore thumb amongst the other newsies. While they had this rough, gritty, work-hard type manly appearance, Davey rolled up with a crossbody satchel and a nicely fitted, totally buttoned up plaid vest (I was wrong earlier, it wasn’t a sweater, but pretty close and equally as nerdy). 

Ben Fankhauser as Davey

 Not that this isn’t totally rockin’, not to mention very practical for his first day on the job, but traditionally, the masculine stereotype is the dirty hands, sleeves rolled up, not caring about appearance deal, so Davey’s matching fit threw him off from the rest of the group. Another aspect of Davey’s character that didn’t quite fit the traditional masculinity role is, admittedly, also an example I used for his perpetuation of the traditional masculinity role; taking care of his little brother. While it is traditionally masculine to be the protector of the family, it is not stereotypical of a masculine role to care for younger siblings or act as a babysitter of sorts. Taking care of younger children is usually a feminine role. Davey taking on this role and looking after his little brother breaks the stereotypical representation of masculinity the rest of his character portrays.

Alright. Now to wrap this bad boy up. I have reached my last point: I thought it would be interesting to address what masculinity was considered to be at the time of these musicals being written and see how that reflected in these two characters. Oklahoma! was written in 1942. For those of us who are not good with historical dates (personal callout) this was smack dab in the middle of World War II. How do we think this affected the portrayal of what was masculine and not? Well, the hardy, muscular soldier (you can just go ahead and translate this directly to that scene where Hugh Jackman comes out shirtless with suspenders on and knife in hand) definitely became sought after, but according to nationalww2museum.org (thanks Google!), there was another group who wanted to be sought after just as much. The men who did not get drafted into the war created their own home-made version of what masculinity is through the muscley laborer man (i.e., same thing, minus the uniform) who did all the work the women couldn’t do back home, so no matter if you were actively in the war or not, you were perpetuating the same masculine stereotype as the ideal figure. Personally, I think this can be seen almost exactly in what Curly was written to be. He is a hardworking, good ole American muscle man who takes care of his women. Newsies, on the other hand, was written in 2009. Although the Iraq War was going on at this time, the wartime era was definitely not as prevalent throughout the nation as it was in 1942. Maybe this was reflected in Davey’s character being a little less stereotypically masculine. Maybe this tiny difference was because gender roles in 2009, though heavily present still and very stereotyped, were not quite as in your face as they were in 1942. Who knows. Either way, it was interesting to look at.

Seriously, I’m wrapping things up now, I promise.In conclusion, both these guys, though written in different times and set in different times, perpetuate stereotypical masculine gender through their characters even though they seem to be nothing alike. Are there some slight variants from this at times? Yes. Does that cancel out the rest of the perpetuation? Nah. Are these characters a product of their time? Yeah probably. Does that make it okay? No. It’s annoying and a bit bland. Do I still think they’re cute? Yes. I do. But not as cute as Tommy Shelby, and that’s the real takeaway. Hope I didn’t bore you to death.

Tommy Shelby, supreme leader of the hot guys

Till next time

Paving The Way for Strong Women

Women ruling the world? Surely, you’re kidding.

But if you’re in Oz, that’s exactly the case.

The Wiz Live!, a televised musical produced by NBC in 2015, directed by Kenny Leon, adapted by Harvey Fierstein, with original book by William Brown, choreographed by Fatima Robinson, and with musical directors Harvey Mason, Jr. and Stephen Oremus, put women in power, with Dorothy, all four witches, and the Wiz being written as women. The production featured Queen Latifah as The Wiz, Mary J. Blige as Evillene, David Grier as The Cowardly Lion, Ne-Yo as Tin-Man, Elijah Kelley as Scarecrow, Uzo Aduba as Glinda the Good Witch of the South, Amber Riley as Addapearle, Common as The Bouncer, Stephanie Mills as Auntie Em, and Shanice Williams as our heroine, Dorothy.

This production of The Wiz directly challenges gender stereotypes by putting powerful women on the stage at every turn. Female tropes of pliability, fear, innocence, and modesty are transferred onto male characters such as the lion, the scarecrow, and the tin man, who all believe themselves incomplete, and who Dorothy convinces to travel with her to Oz in order to be made whole again.

The Dorothy in this production is not the innocent, frightened girl we’ve seen in The Wizard of Oz. Instead, she is confident, brave, and an inspiring leader to those around her. In fact, she leads the musical’s men around, rounding up the incomplete lion, scarecrow, and tin man to go to the Emerald City to be made whole. The image of a confident, courageous, and smart girl leading a group of men is not one that is regularly seen, and it’s an important and progressive take on The Wizard of Oz.

Upon reaching the Emerald City, Dorothy and her friends encounter the court in “Emerald City Ballet,” which is full of references to ball culture, which was a refuge for LGBTQ+ people, and especially those of racial minorities, with the creation of underground ball culture as a response to the racism of earlier balls put on by white men (Buckner, n.d.). The ensemble are dressed in lavish, ‘80s-inspired geometric outfits that accentuate their poses as they dance, incorporating voguing, another nod to ball culture. There isn’t any singing, and the only words that are said are slang from ball culture, such as “slay” and “serve.”

In a fitting extension of our introduction to Emerald City, we first meet the Wiz as a drag king, complete with a totally badass outfit, sharp makeup, and an attitude and authority that frightens even our brave heroine Dorothy. It’s important to note that, even when the Wiz is later discovered to have faked the fire-casting and other intimidating elements of her performance, she still has enormous love and respect from the citizens of Oz, as shown in the scene near the end of the musical when she leaves to go back to her home. Even more remarkable is the fact that such respect is given to the woman behind the stage makeup, who previously embodied the typical brute-force power of a masculine character who ruled by fear without ever even being seen.

When I watched The Wiz Live, I was pleasantly surprised by the overt and extensive elements of queer culture in these sections of the musical. As an LGBTQ+ person, I wasn’t expecting a musical based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to positively pay homage to the history of those who paved the way for my rights and freedom to express that aspect of my identity. It was also refreshing to see references to ball culture including Black performers, since, over time, ball culture has become a safe and affirming space for Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ people (Buckner, n.d.).

Later on in the musical, when the Wiz is “found out,” she becomes an approachable character audiences are able to grow fond of in a different way. She and Dorothy debate over the idea of home and what a good life entails, which again emphasizes Dorothy’s confidence and tenacity, and eventually the Wiz is convinced that it’s time to leave her solitude and go back to the real world.

By creating an array of strong, powerful, and respected female characters, The Wiz Live! works to undo gender stereotypes and the tired, sexist depictions of women in mainstream entertainment. I would even go so far as to say that it succeeds in making people think about what makes this musical different from the things they usually watch, and in giving girls traits to aspire to beyond timidity, modesty, and pliability. I cannot stress enough how crucial this is in current times, when everything from diet culture to politics seeks to knock women down and take away our power. The world needs representations like this, and The Wiz Live! has, pun intended, paved the way.

Bibliography:

Buckner, R. (n.d.). Underground Ball Culture – Subcultures and Sociology. Subcultures and Sociology. Retrieved March 15, 2021, from https://haenfler.sites.grinnell.edu/subcultures-and-scenes/underground-ball-culture/

Dear Broadway: If You Hate Women, Just Say That

For most of my childhood I was an avid ice cream hater. Zero, and I mean zero, ice cream appealed to me. I met the discussion of an ice cream party with sighs, the presentation of ice cream cakes with a groan, and the sight of ice cream shops with confusion. (It is interesting that despite my being a relatively basic human being, it is typically the case that I do not like certain things that are widely discussed. It is a serious personality flaw, and I am currently in the process of recovery.) Simply stated, I considered ice cream overrated, frozen milk. I share this with you because I have always been an ardent supporter of honesty. By divulging this information, I offer the opportunity for you, as the reader, to stop reading this on account of my having poor taste. Through this act of transparency, you may consider this analysis and all further analyses inherently void. And that is okay. In fact, I welcome it.

It is with this same spirit that I retroactively charge Broadway (and, quite frankly, all forms of popular media into the present day) to simply admit that they hate women. It is important to note, however, that this hatred is undeniably confusing. On one level, women in Broadway musicals must be “different” in order to be both the protagonist and heterosexual object of desire. They must not be “easy,” “stupid,” or “simple.” They may be more of a tomboy or more willing to be “one of the guys.” Put colloquially, many of these girls would publicly claim that “they are not like other girls.” On another level, women in Broadway musicals must be exactly like other girls. They should be willing to answer the call to their marital duties when men come a-knockin’, they must not be interested in talking over men (or being too smart for their own good), and, most importantly, they need to look pretty doing all of these things. In assessing these inherently dichotomous expectations, I for one am thoroughly perplexed.

If musicals were not a form of media intended to be personalized, perhaps I would be more willing to accept this concept and move on with my life. Unfortunately for all women, this is not the case. Popular conceptions about the composition of a woman’s personality (atop popular conceptions about a woman’s appearance) infiltrate the very being of a woman from the second we are able to spell “boy.” In my own life, I am expected not to be like other girls, but yet fall squarely into the norms of femininity set before me by men. So which is it? What am I supposed to do? It seems as though whichever path I choose is wrong. Being myself? Wrong. Being one of the guys? Wrong. Being one of the girls? Wrong.

What is left? Who is left? Should I just quit now?

These are all questions I would be thinking if I were not given what I have entitled:

Broadway’s Guide to Extraordinarily Ordinary Womanhood: The Case Study of Katherine and Laurey.

Through characters such as Laurey of Oklahoma! and Katherine of Newsies, Broadway has spelled out a very specific order of operations for every woman’s success. First, something must differentiate a woman from the generally inferior female cohort. Second, this woman must play hard to get— but only long enough to retain a man’s interest. Third, a woman must inevitably fall straight into the arms of a man. Thus emerges a critical formula in Broadway math:

Differentiator + Playing Hard to Get + Immediate Marriage Readiness = SUCCESS!

Differentiator:

Oklahoma! and Newsies‘s writers, directors, and cast took great pains to ensure that Laurey and Katherine were not like other girls. In fact, in differentiating Laurey, playwrights Rogers and Hammerstein provided a direct foil in Ado Annie. While the character Ado Annie was so infantilized that she could not muster up the wits to say no to any “feller who talked to her purty,” Laurey could not say yes. Laurey did not melt at the sight of a man; she did not need their validation. Laurey was not “stupid” like other girls. She didn’t cry over past lovers, she didn’t rave over her gooseberry pie— I mean the girl even wore overalls for crying out loud! In Newsies, without direct a foil to represent the remainder of women, Katherine’s differentiator is having a J.O.B. as a serious journalist. She’s dancing (quite literally) with the boys! Doubtful that this is an effective differentiator? Take it from the leading man himself: Jack Kelly admires smart girls for being beautiful, independent, smart… and probably some other stuff too!

Playing Hard to Get:

For their next step, both Laurey and Katherine needed to play hard to get. However, it is important for the success of the next step that these women did not become hard to want in the process. For example, Laurey could make it abundantly clear to Curly that she did not want him. But while singing a number in perfect harmony would Laurie break eye contact with Curly for longer than a second? Absolutely not. Interestingly, in order to retain her lovability, the typically confident and self-assured Laurey adopts fidgety mannerisms in her conversations with Curly. Strong women, she demonstrates, must not be too strong. In Newsies, Katherine employs witty quips to demonstrate her disinterest in Jack Kelly. She insinuates that he must have a criminal record, informs him that she is not interested in conversation, implies that she finds him stupid, and plainly instructs him to disappear. Yet, after witnessing evidence that Jack was (quite creepily) staring at her long enough to sketch a detailed portrait of her face, she melts. In fact, within a mere three interactions Katherine’s blocking places her closer and closer to Jack— a man who only three scenes earlier she had effectively deemed repulsive.

Immediate Marriage Readiness:

Finally, but most importantly, the successful woman’s story must end with her proclamation (whether explicit or insinuated) to spend the rest of her life with the very man she repeatedly rebuffed just a few acts prior. After all, you can’t spell “woman” without ending it with “man!” Laurey and Curly wed at the end of the musical as Oklahoma! achieves its statehood and Jud Fry is killed. Katherine and Jack insinuate their commitment to a long-term relationship through Jack’s decision to stay in New York as a cartoonist and a newsie. In this crucial step an important truth is revealed: all of a woman’s agency is a farce. In maintaining an unsustainable and intrinsically contradictory personality, the stories of these women elucidated the fact that none of their actions truly matter until they are validated by men. Without this the final step, which involves the direct contribution of men, none of the prior steps amount to any sort of victory. You can be as different as the stripes on a zebra and be as mean as bullfrog, but if a man does not want you and if you are not ready to marry that man, all of that work was for naught! After all, even dumb ol’ Ado Annie planned to get married at the end of Oklahoma!

In developing this formula, I wondered what our world would look like if Broadway simply published this framework. Perhaps life would be simpler for girls. Under a policy of transparency, it would be abundantly clear that the life designed for women by social forces such as Broadway is patently unbearable. In no uncertain terms, many women could declare their resignation from this game of dependency and choose to formulate their own rules on their own terms. Women, upon first seeing popular musicals such as Oklahoma! and Newsies, could decide that though they could enjoy the work for its entertainment value, they would not internalize its messaging that villanizes “other girls.” They (including me) could be free to recognize that “other girls” are not half bad. Our mothers are “other girls.” Our sisters are “other girls.” Our grandmothers are “other girls.” Our Aunt Eller’s are “other girls.” And somehow, by some miracle, we manage to love them anyway.

(Also, I do in fact like ice cream now. Feel free to allow yourself to consider my analysis valid. Or don’t. That’s your business.)

Mama Rose: Mother or Monster?

What do think of when you hear the word “diva?” Is it the dictionary definition of a classical opera singer, or it is the cultural definition of a woman who is strong, out-spoken, demanding and unapologetic? I would probably guess it would be the latter. In theater, the role of “diva” has been around almost as long as the stage itself. This classic characterization is known by all and loved by, well, most. There is rarely a theatrical production or kindergarten classroom that does not have at least one classic diva.

“Kindergarten classroom?” you might ask. Yes, I mean that in the literal sense. There is always at least one child who believes that it is their world and the rest of us are just living in it. There is always one child who could belong on the hit television show “Toddlers and Tiaras” (See Exhibit A). In all honesty, I was indeed one of these children. My stubbornness never went unnoticed either as a gift or a curse. This diva attitude is often the female equivalent of “boys will be boys.” It often seems that the stage is the only place big enough to hold such a personality.

Exhibit A. This little girl was made for the stage.

Mama Rose from the televised version of Gypsy starring Bette Midler is a prime example of this “diva-hood.” She is a powerful woman, and when she speaks everyone listens. If you don’t the first time, she will make you the second time around. She knows what she wants, and she will do anything to make sure she gets it. The question of the hour is, does she advocate for her daughters’s careers for their benefit or her own?

The whole premise of the show is Mama Rose’s desire for fame and success, so she will do anything to achieve that. When she could not reach her goal by herself, she transferred that dream to her children. She was a stay-at-home mother which was standard for the time, but she did play this role well? To be frank, the answer is no. She by no means conformed to the cultural concept of motherhood, rather she defined this role by her own terms. She provided for her daughters. She cared for her daughters, but everything she did was for her own, selfish benefit. She “promised” to marry Herbie only because he can help her daughters become famous. She was not one to conform to the gender stereotypes to make socity happy, it would only be for her own benefit.

This can be clearly seen throughout the musical, but it reaches a pinnacle in the song “Rose’s Turn.” Midler’s acting in this scene is revolutionary. From the way she sings to the way she moves, everything portrays the same message: “I did all of this for my kids, but don’t I deserve some of the credit? Because it was supposed to be me.” We see this internal struggle become external. She uses the tone of her voice to portray the rising anger within her.

At the most intense part of the song, when she switches to focusing on herself and doing things “for Rose,” the instruments cut out. She sings, “Well, someone tell me, when is it my turn? Don’t I get a dream for myself? Starting now it’s gonna be my turn. Gangway, world, get off of my runway!” This symbolizes that she is on her own. This part relies fully on her voice to make the point, so her voice reaches a pinnacle speed and urgency that is unmatched throughout the rest of the song.

She also uses her choreography to emphasize who she did it all for. At the very end of the number, we see her repeating the same line over and over again. “For me.” The first few times, she is performing. She is dancing for an audience with a smile on her face. She sings the line again with the same movements, but her facial expressions are more distraught. The next few times she says “for me,” she is reaching to the sky. She is trying to grasp the fame and fortune she spent her whole life trying to achieve for both herself and her daughters.

“Rose’s Turn” is a diva’s ballad if I have ever seen one. While she did not do most feminine things by the book, Rose is a picturesque diva. She was not a “good mother,” but she guaranteed the success of her children. This is not to say that if you are a diva, you cannot be a good mother or embrace different parts of your femeninity. Rose was many things: a strong business woman, a performer, and a diva, but those things were for her own benfit. She was not a loving mother, and some might say that her ambition turned her into a monster.

Shakespeare Would Hate the Hopeful Ending of Gypsy

“Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! Here’s Rose!”

            Thus begins the most famous nervous breakdown in theatrical history. But we’ll get to that later. First, some context.

            Gypsy is a 1959 musical classic with music by Jules Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents. Based loosely on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous American burlesque performer and striptease artist, Gypsy tells the story of crazed stage mother Rose as she tries to turn her two daughters, June and Louise, into vaudeville stars.

I’ve always been a little obsessed with Mama Rose, though for a long time I couldn’t figure out why. After all, I’m not a middle-aged narcissistic stage mom, and there’s realistically very little I should be able to relate to in Rose’s story. If anything, Louise or June should be more up my alley, considering I’m a late-adolescent theatre kid. But there’s something intoxicating about Rose’s ferocity and ambition that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I first saw a production of the show nearly 5 years ago. Fortunately, in my most recent viewing of the 1993 TV film version of Gypsy, starring Bette Midler as that lovably monstrous mom, I was finally able to parse through why I love Mama Rose so much as a character- and why I think you should too.

But before we get too far into things, let’s start with an important note: Rose is an abusive mother. There is no denying that. The things she does are terrible, and they result in permanent psychological damage to her two daughters. I do not intend to excuse her behavior. In fact, I find the ending of Gypsy somewhat disappointing because Rose never quite gets what’s coming to her, which I’ll discuss in more detail later. I don’t think Rose should be forgiven by any means, but she does deserve to be understood.

The most obvious contributing factor to anyone’s Mama Rose Mania is the sheer icon status of the character and of any actor who has ever taken her on. Over the years, Rose has been played by such superstars as Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Patti Lupone, Imelda Staunton, and Bernadette Peters, among others. The star power required to belt such anthems as “Some People”, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, and “Rose’s Turn” is second to none. So perhaps you might be asking if it’s not the character with which I connected as a young aspiring performer, but the roster of incredible actors she represents. And I think you wouldn’t be entirely wrong in that assessment. In my mind, the sheer act of portraying such a complex, challenging, unapologetic woman is an act of feminism on the part of the actor, regardless of the character’s many sins. Plus, she’s an alto lead! However, I think there’s more to it than that. Mama Rose isn’t just an opportunity to showcase female talent, she’s also the embodiment of what patriarchal systems do to women who don’t fit them, and how the pressure to conform can rip a woman- and her family- apart.

In particular, I want to talk about Rose’s identity as a mother. It’s so essential to her character that she’s come to be known almost exclusively as “Mama Rose”, even though she’s never actually called this in the text of the musical. Even we as the fans have given her no identity outside of her motherhood. The society she inhabits is no different. We learn that Rose has had two husbands, both of whom left her when June and Louise were still very young. As a single mother, Rose is expected to put her own ambitions aside and devote herself entirely to her daughters without the financial or emotional support of a partner. But ambitions don’t just die out when they turn unhelpful. They continue to linger and fester. This is revealed in the first number of the show when Rose sings to her father, “…I at least gotta try! When I think of all the sights that I gotta see and all the places I gotta play, All the things that I gotta be at. C’mon, papa, what do you say?” Rose is haunted by the thought of all she wants to see and do, and Midler’s frantic energy and fiery eyes further enforce Rose’s longing for a life of her own. However, she never gets the chance to pursue these dreams because her daughters must come first. The two men who left her (presumably the respective fathers of June and Louise, though it’s unspecified) receive no repercussions for being absent in their children’s lives. This leaves Rose alone to frantically try to combine her identity as mother, as defined by society, with her existing ambitions. She could’ve kept pursuing a career in show business for herself after her children were born rather than forcing it on them, but this likely would’ve been looked down upon as a selfish thing for a mother to do. Women are frequently asked to put their own careers and ambitions aside for their children or partners. The ironic part is that if Rose had chosen to pursue her own career while raising her children, June and Louise likely would have been much better off. But she doesn’t. She does what she views as the selfless thing by putting her daughters’ careers above all else. Her identities as mother and manager fuse together. When we meet her in the musical, she is no longer just Rose, she has become Mama Rose, and that identity is the direct result of societal expectations of what a single mother should do, namely, sacrifice everything for her kids.

At the end of the show, we finally come to “Rose’s Turn”, the iconic and powerful finale in which Rose must confront herself. She pleads with the audience, “Someone tell me when is it my turn? Don’t I get a dream for myself?” This is the sentiment that has been slowly bubbling under the surface from the first moments of the show. Rose just wants a dream for herself. And the suppression of that dream, as a result of her status as a mother and the expectations of that role, results in her failure to connect with her children and her complete emotional breakdown in the finale.

Which finally brings me back around to the show’s ending. I told you I’d get there eventually. Though “Rose’s Turn” is the last song of the show, a brief scene afterward between Louise and Rose gives the audience a sense of hope that the two might reconcile. In the Midler version, Louise gives her mother a gentle smile before exiting, and Rose lingers for a moment longer to gaze at the stage, as though taking one last look at her dreams before moving on forever. I, personally, hate this ending. I mean, c’mon! Rose is the ultimate tragic figure! Her ambition is her fatal flaw, just like Macbeth! And she descends into madness after being rejected by her daughters, just like King Lear! Her story deserves a Shakespearean ending! It’s not that I want Rose to be unhappy, but I definitely don’t want her to give up on the ambition that has defined her nature from the first moment of the show. Shakespeare would never backtrack on a character’s defining feature like that.

I think the musical should end with Louise cutting her mother out of her life entirely. Hear me out. This would still be a hopeful and in some ways empowering ending because Louise is able to cut the toxicity out of her life and forge her own path. But it would also be the ultimate tragedy for Rose, whose biggest fear is abandonment. What better way to demonstrate the pitfalls of the theatre industry and the damage done to ambitious women by patriarchal systems than by giving us an ending Shakespeare would applaud? I want a tragic heroine!

Regardless of the moderately disappointing final scene, I think I do have a clearer grasp of why I’ve been so drawn to Rose for my entire life. She is fundamentally unable to change who she is for anyone. Of course, that ultimately has disastrous consequences for her family, but that’s also the fault of the systems they had to navigate and fit within. I don’t really think Rose was ever meant to be a mother. But I think her kids would’ve been a lot better off if she wasn’t expected to put aside her dreams for them. And what about those absent fathers, huh? Why don’t we ever blame those guys?

I think I relate to Rose’s inability to be anyone but herself. As a queer person, I’ve found identity to be both fickle in some cases and utterly immutable in others. Rose’s story is that of an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object, with the immovable object being the theatre industry and the patriarchal expectations set upon her as a mother. And I, for one, think we need to drop the “Mama”. She is Rose. Just Rose. And that’s more than enough.

“How Do You Like Them Eggrolls, Mr. Goldman?”: Female Sexuality as a Means to Power in a Male-Dominated World

Ethel Merman. Bernadette Peters. Patti LuPone. And, of course, Bette Midler. Such musical theater giants have all taken on the iconic role of Mama Rose, and productions of the 1959 musical Gypsy, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim,are often noted specifically for their leading ladies. In fact, with so much emphasis on Mama Rose and her daughters, there are few male protagonists present in the musical, and their actions do little to impact the plot, with Mama Rose often ignoring their input. Despite the heavy emphasis on women’s roles in this musical, Rose and Louise are often placed at the whims of male producers and audience members with fairly small roles in the musical as a whole. Consequently, I believe this musical, through the perspectives of Rose and Louise, does an excellent job of showing how, when men control the means to success, women often must cater to the desires of men in order to gain mainstream recognition, particularly in the entertainment industry.

In the 1993 television production of Gypsy that we watched for class, Bette Midler played Mama Rose, and much of how she portrayed the character involved her immediately asserting her dominance over men. From the opening scene of the musical, she marches into an audition that her daughters June and Louise were at. Despite the man running the audition’s adamant refusal to allow mothers into the auditions, clearly trying to avoid this very situation, Rose refuses to leave and tells Louise to “sing out.” In this scene, she repeatedly ignores the orders of a man in a position of power over her. Simultaneously, in her lines that she is interrupting with, she is also encouraging her daughters to be outspoken like her as she tries to improve Louise’s stage presence. However, these actions of ignoring a more powerful man also have immediate consequences for her and her daughters’ success, considering that they do not get cast in the variety show, presumably at least partly because of Rose’s interference in the audition. In the very first scene of the musical, Rose has already shown that she is willing to break gender stereotypes by fighting against powerful men, but the musical has also shown that there will be consequences to her success as a result of these actions.

Notably, the only time we see Rose herself, not Louise, find success in promoting her daughters’ careers is portrayed through the song “Have an Eggroll, Mr. Goldstone”, in which Rose is extremely ingratiating to a casting agent, to a comical extent, in fact. Rose and Herbie’s success at getting June’s act onto the Orpheum Circuit is marked with a song about Rose trying extremely hard to be a good hostess, offering Mr. Goldstone anything she can think of. Though throughout the rest of the musical, Rose fails to book her daughters’ acts, on the one occasion she does succeed in reaching her goal, her success is portrayed through a number in which she essentially sucks up to a powerful man and ultimately assumes the role of a traditional female hostess, albeit in a comical fashion. Contrasting this, when June is offered a contract on the condition that Rose leave her, Rose tries to argue with the producer, Mr. Grantzinger and forces June to not sign the contract. Once again, Rose cannot become successful because she refuses to let powerful men control her, turning down a potentially lucrative offer because it puts power over her and June in the hands of a man that already has power within the entertainment industry.

Perhaps most importantly to the plot, Rose refuses to listen to men even when they are close to her and when she seems to love them. This is demonstrated through her relationship with Herbie, a relationship that lasts several years but finally ends when she signs Louise on to become a burlesque dancer without consulting Louise and in the process postpones her long-awaited marriage to Herbie. Although the immediate cause for Herbie deciding to leave could be taken as Rose’s decision to force her daughter into becoming a burlesque dancer, it also seems as though Rose’s demeanor has long been upsetting to Herbie because of her domineering nature, and this was simply the last straw. Also important is that, in making this decision, Rose has clearly placed her and her daughter’s success in their careers over her relationship with Herbie since she is postponing the marriage. Rose’s domineering of Herbie has occurred throughout the entire musical, with their first meeting being Rose pressuring Herbie into becoming her and her daughters’ agent through the song “Small World”. Though Herbie eventually agrees with her, and the song becomes a duet, it begins with Herbie being uninterested in her offer since he had recently stopped being an agent. In fact, Rose has such a domineering position over Herbie that their main love duet in the musical is titled “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” and is sung directly after Herbie threatens to leave her because she cares too much about the act. Though the song is portrayed in a mainly light-hearted manner, it is a clear early indication in the musical that Herbie thinks Rose cares too much about her and her daughters’ careers and that she has the power in the relationship, as is demonstrated by the title of the song itself.

Throughout the musical, we see Rose continually ignore Herbie or intimidate him. One of the most obvious examples of this is when, in the song “Everything’s Coming up Roses”, Herbie seems almost scared of Rose as Louise clings to him. The actor who plays him, Peter Riegert, seems to have made a clear decision to portray Herbie as stunned, concerned, and intimidated during this scene through the use of his body language since he stands to the side and looks on, unable to affect Rose’s scheming. Meanwhile, Bette Midler plays Rose as physically domineering, gesturing very widely with her arms and physically taking up space on the set. The expression on Riegert’s face seems to convey that Herbie feels powerless to stop Rose’s decision to make Louise a star. However, Rose’s power and refusal to fit into the gendered norms of a heterosexual relationship do eventually drive Herbie away several scenes after this, which has a negative impact on her own personal life. She is unable to stay in a relationship, and the musical implies that this is her fault for being too domineering in a way that is unexpected for a woman, especially in dealing with a male romantic partner. Not only is Rose’s professional life negatively impacted by her willingness to stand up to men who would traditionally have power over her, but her personal life is also hurt by her domination.

Louise’s eventual rise to stardom through burlesque creates a sharp contrast to Rose’s unwillingness to bend to men’s demands. Louise becomes more powerful than Rose ever does, but she is only able to do so because she bases her career around pleasing men. We see that, when she performs for the first time, she is terrified of catering to the men in the audience, which Cynthia Gibb portrays through her acting choice by walking very tentatively and, at one point, turning back to her mother in fright, who in turn encourages her to keep going. However, eventually, through the montage shown in the reprise of “Let Me Entertain You”, the audience both in the show and the real audience watching the movie looks on as Louise, now going by Gypsy Rose Lee, grow in confidence, much of which is shown through her body language, which Gibb now makes much smoother and more decisive, and through her spoken dialogue between verses of the song. Her willingness and level of comfort with her career catering to men’s sexual desire is shown through the jokes she makes as part of her act. At one point, her jokes even reference the fact that her entire audience is men since she addresses the audience as, “monsieurs and monsieurs”, implying there are no women there. She has clearly realized that, by appealing directly to men, she has become financially successful and is seen as a celebrity, and as a result, she has decided that it is worth overcoming any sense of shame or embarrassment she was feeling at the beginning of the montage.

Rose’s and Louise’s contrasting views on catering to men’s sexual desires in exchange for success finally come into direct conflict when Rose comes to Louise’s dressing room after one of Louise’s performances and begins an argument with her, clearly upset that Louise has become successful without her. One of the first things Rose does to start this argument is call Louise a stripper, clearly contrasting Louise’s own view that her career has given her power in some ways, giving her financial and social success as she becomes famous. Instead, Rose still sees her as a stripper, which Louise, in “Let Me Entertain You”, had said did not apply to her because she was well paid. By calling her a stripper, Rose is combatting Louise’s position by saying that her job, however much success and acclaim it has won her, is still using her own body to cater to men’s sexual desires. While Louise views the career as positive since it has allowed her to gain wealth and fame, Rose sees it as degrading because it is, by nature, catering to powerful men. In this scene, we see these two characters’ viewpoints on interacting with men in power directly clash. In doing so, Laurents’ book demonstrates how women had to be submissive to men in the early twentieth century in order to become successful. Rose has refused to do so, and as a result, she never gained commercial success. Louise has made the opposite decision, and she has been rewarded with wealth and fame. In “Rose’s Turn”, we see that Rose acknowledges this fundamental truth of gender politics by unbuttoning the top of her dress while saying, “How do you like them eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?”, calling back to the one prior time in the musical that Rose capitulated to a powerful man’s demands. Now, by pantomiming Louise’s strip routine while calling back to that previous scene, Rose connects all acts of fulfilling men’s wishes in the musical, while singing a song wishing for fame, clearly demonstrating the theme of women being submissive to men as the only way in which to achieve mainstream success.

Through Rose and Louise’s differing attitudes towards powerful men, the musical Gypsy illustrates the position the entertainment industry, and society in general, placed women in during the early twentieth century. One of the main reasons Rose cannot find success in her professional life, and to some extent her personal life as well, is because she never allows a man in a position of power to control her. If a position seems too beneficial to the man she is dealing with, Rose will refuse to participate, even if that means a potential loss of finances, as her refusal to allow June to sign Mr. Grantzinger’s contract demonstrates. Contrastingly, Louise takes a job that some, including Rose, would call denigrating but becomes massively successful because of it. Because men control much of the cultural capital in patriarchy, for a woman like Rose or Louise to succeed in a public career, they must perform and behave in a way that fits into these men’s expectations and desires. Unfortunately, while women are beginning to control more cultural capital over time, this is still somewhat true today, as actresses and female singers are often expected to be beautiful as well as talented. Though Gypsy is set nearly a century in the past, it teaches an important lesson about limitations that can still be placed on women who wish to be in the spotlight today.

Through Rose-Tinted Glasses: Looking at a Descent Into Villainy

Main characters exist so that we know who to root for. But the minute you press play on Emile Ardolino’s 1993 film production of Gypsy, Arthur Laurents takes every expectation you’ve ever had about a strong female lead and turns it on its head. What we know about sacrificial mothers gets dragged through the murky story of Mama Rose and her two daughters until we aren’t sure which way is up or who we were supposed to root for all along. 

In Laurents’ case, this means taking the standard character of the strong, controlling mother and pushing her to madness. Because of her gender, we expect Rose to be loving, kind, and selfless but instead we discover she is obsessive, rude, and abrasive, and we don’t quite know what to do with her. 

The first time I saw the production, I found it so difficult to let go of this idea that Rose had to be the hero somehow. She is a mother, she cares for her children, and her children even love her back sometimes. I waited through every harsh word, selfish decision, and delusional sabotage, searching for that clue that would tell me when her redemption arc was about to begin, but never found it.

It took me until the closing scenes to finally sit there and say, “ok, fine, maybe she is the villain.” This confusion, where Laurents actually forces his audience to consider the characters and their choices, is what makes Gypsy so powerful. We expect one thing based on the stock characters we have encountered a thousand times before, and when they don’t follow the path we expect, we have to decide how to deal with the aftermath. 

At the first introduction, we see Rose as a caricature of a stage mom, a helicopter parent, a woman who fights hard for her children. Sure she’s comically overbearing and a bit intimidating and nobody knows what to do with her, but that’s just because she’s a powerful woman. Hey, we like powerful women! Feminism! After all, it’s about time we grew past characters like Laurey of Oklahoma! who have hardly a personality trait to call their own, and on to women like Katherine of Newsies who seem to fill the strong female roles America has been calling for. Girls who talk back and tap to keep up with the male ensemble. Girls who act more like boys, but still primarily support the male character arc.

But Rose is another beast entirely. She is larger than life. She is everything and more. And she is terrifying. 

“Some People” is our first hint that Rose may not be the loving mother we want her to be. The song is not a soprano lullaby, nor even a defiant belt. Bette Midler’s delivery is gritty, passionate, and clearly limited by the silver screen. Her voice nearly drowns out the beautiful orchestrations, contrastingly abrasive to the ear in all its power. The song is meant to be belted to the second mezzanine, where it slams you back in your seat and demands to be listened to. Midler steamrolls through the set as she sings, delivering sharp gestures and lyrics like oaths. Everything she does radiates power. 

At the Act I finale, when the curtain goes down after “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” you find yourself sitting there in shock and horror wondering not how these characters will fix this situation, but what atrocity this fearsome woman will commit next. The song setup is typical of the “belted act 1 finales of female self-assertion” genre that audiences have come to know and love.1 However, we are not left empowered or invigorated like we would be for “Defying Gravity,” but instead shaken by the display of madness so blatantly subverting what we know about female leads in musicals. 

This is no Laurey we have in front of us. 

Every expectation that we had for how this female should act is left in the dust as Rose blazes forward like a white hot bullet. Laurents has taken the stereotype of stubborn middle-aged women and pushed it to its breaking point, yet you still find yourself sitting there wondering what redemption will look like. We are blinded when we see that she’s a woman, she’s a mother, and deep down she probably only wants what’s best for her kids. This is what makes it so difficult to recognize and reconcile Mama Rose’s descent into villainy, even while we watch all the clues unfold before our eyes. Theres a reason WatchMojo ranks it as the hardest female role to play on Broadway. 

1 Wolf, Stacy Ellen. Changed for Good: a Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 1–18. 

How Gender, Race and Fashion Intersect in (Ok)lahoma

-By: Amaya Allen

Oklahoma is one of those shows that people seem to either love or hate. I watched a production of the show for the first time during the pandemic, and despite my usual ick for most people of the Caucasian persuasion, I really enjoyed it! Having said that, having to rewatch the show from an analytical lens and read about the production made me realize there are a lot more icks in the show than I realized, particularly, the blatant racism from Rodgers and Hammerstein the way the fashion adds to way Rodgers and Hammerstein purport ideas about race and gender in their story…

You’re probably thinking “duh, that’s the point of costume departments! They dress the character!” to which I say touché! However, it’s not just about the costumes themselves that intrigued and disgusted me, it was the message that the clothes have. Why do Laurey and Ado Annie dress so differently despite them being close friends? Why is Hugh Jackman’s (swoon) iconic Oklahoma picture without a hat even though he is literally a fricken cowboy? Why does Aunt Eller wear a hat? Obviously, because their characters are different, but more than that, each character suggests something different about what is ideal (or not) for their character’s gender and race.

Laurey and Ado Annie are two sides of the same coin. They are both territory women who have had decent enough upbringins’ and have status in their community that clearly did not start with them. That’s the part that makes them white. For some reason the blatant racism of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Oklahoma centers around white people, completely erasing Indigenous Americans who lived on the “territory” before the arrival of colonizers and Black people, who were looking for the same fresh start that the characters in the show yearned for. This is reflected in the clothes they wear. It is European/American-styled clothing with nothing that would make them initially stand out (and by that, I mean they were allowed to wear their hair out).

However, there is one big difference between them that affects the way they are meant to be perceived in the production. Ado Annie is a slut, if Rodgers and Hammerstein had their way woman who knows has, you know, needs. And she fulfills them. With different men. A lot. As a result of Ado Annie’s lifestyle, she is not only portrayed as a dumb girl who can’t keep her legs closed (with a song that SLAPS), but also as a joke, and her clothes show that. Although she is wearing the European/American style of dress mentioned earlier, she looks tacky! Poor Ado Annie wears mismatched prints topped off with a huge floral hat, large bows, and really bright colors that scream “It’s okay to laugh at me guys!” She gets this treatment because her white femininity is not typical, and therefore it is bad. She is so ruined that the only man that wants to marry her had to experience livin’ in the city where brothels run amuck and come back to realize that she’s not that bad. (Will is also dressed equally as tacky *sigh* all in all, #justiceforadoannie).

On the other hand, Laurey is the show’s golden girl. She is the proper representation of white femininity because although she is a #hotgirl like Ado Annie, Laurey has the strength to rebuff them, albeit still flirtatiously. Laurey is dressed in typical golden girl outfits. She wears “soft” colors: pastels, muted prints that don’t overwhelm her petite figure, and rarely wears anything on her head, aside from her wedding veil (this will be important in like 2 paragraphs). Her clothes being “normal” for the time allow young women in the audience to connect with Laurey, and the message of rebuffing men to remain proper (even though she highkey sucked at it, but that’s another story for another day) can get across much more easily. People should like Laurey, buy into her story, and in the most extreme cases want to be Laurey, and that is why she is the belle of the territory and the musical.

Aunt Eller’s character is somehow giving strong Black woman stereotype vibes without being a Black woman, and it scares me. Eller is one of the matriarchs of the community. She is hardworking; she tends to her farm while still having time to marry her niece off (because the strong black woman never has children of her own) and gets the cowboys and ranch hands in line. Everyone likes and respects Aunt Eller. The weird part is, Eller’s femininity is stripped. No like really. She has no love interest (in fact, it is never mentioned whether or not there was an Uncle Eller), and she wears really baggy clothes that engulf her, usually topped off with a hat. I was seriously concerned for the actress because she had on so many clothes under those hot lights (couldn’t be me!). Eller’s lack of traditional femininity (because what is traditional masculinity and femininity if not white tradition?) gives the message that (a.) femininity has an expiration date and (b.) has character traits that are not rooted in being strong and well respected in the community. Eller gives up some of her femininity for respect, and it was probably easy for her to do so because she was getting up there in age.

But Oklahoma doesn’t just assign characteristics to femininity, they make a point to use clothing to make a point on white masculinity, specifically with the characters Curly and Jude. It is pretty admirable the way that the authors were able to make a clear protagonist and antagonist, and even more admirable the way the costume designers used notions of masculinity that already exist in the script to delineate the two.

Curly is the protagonist. He is a cowboy. He is hot. He has abs that can make a girly weak to ‘er knees. He is Hugh Jackman. Curly has boyish traits: he is mischievous, playful and he goes to Aunt Eller to get taken care of. Notwithstanding that, Curly can act like a man, when he needs to get into Laurey’s pants. He is both vulnerable and protective, the archetypal protagonist and man! Jackman’s simple vest and cowboy getup that looks effortlessly perfectly put together signals that he did not put thought into his outfit because he is a man, yet is #flawless because he has that slight feminine touch. Curly also never wears a hat for long periods of time despite using it as a prop (yes I get to talk about the hat). Curly doesn’t wear a hat because he has the ability to be vulnerable with a woman. (There I said it, and I’m not taking it back!) Curly is the only character in the show that recognizes the feelings of women in his life and listens to them when they are not yelling at him (it’s because of that slight feminine touch). He talks to people, and not at people, unlike characters that don hats regularly like Aunt Eller. Like Laurey, people should want to like Curly and see him as the perfect man, no matter what their gender identity.

Contrastingly, Jude’s character is textbook toxic masculinity. He’ll do anything to get the girl. He has a shed with women all over the walls. He is physically dirty and towers over Wolverine Curly. His outfit is simple, but unlike Curly, who pulls it off, Jud looks disheveled and he physically gives me the ick. Jud’s character is supposed to repel the audience (and apparently all of the other characters in the town, apparently), and the costume department succeeds at this. If Jud’s character can’t even bother to clean himself and look presentable, why would you want to be him? Fellas are supposed to chase a gal, but not too much. They should allow women to reject them, and they most definitely should not have a relationship(?) with the Jewish man traveling peddler. Curly and Jud are two sides of the same coin, except Jud takes it too far, which is why he also doesn’t wear a hat. Except instead of not wearing a hat because he can relate to the women because he’s in touch with his “feminine” side (which is BS by the way), Jud goes sans hat because he wants what Curly naturally has, including Laurey.

Hence, all of the characters in (OK)lahoma already have some sort of message attached to them in the script. I am by no means trying to imply that the costume department carried and is the only reason the Ado Annie, Laurey, Aunt Eller, Curly, and Jud are perceived the way they are. What I am saying, is that the clothing choices reflect the writer’s decisions that already exist in the script, and the fashion is an easy way for audiences to pick up on Rodger and Hammerstein’s intentions. Because god forbid people don’t take Ado Annie as a joke.

Who would you swipe right on, Jack Kelly or Crutchie?

First and foremost, let’s get one thing clear. Jeremy Jordan should not be allowed to look that good climbing up a fire escape. What can I say, I’m a nineteen-year-old female who isn’t blind, sure I’m going to swipe right (on Tinder) for the one and only Jack Kelly. I mean I guess we should really be thanking Justin Huff, for casting this Disney’s Newsies production to feature eye candy for days as the stage fills the majority with male ensemble members. Would the production be less beloved and entertaining if some of the newsies were female? What do you think?

So, what would one expect from watching this high-energy show? This specific production directed by Jeff Calhoun and Brett Sullivan explores the journey and adventures of Newsies in New York trying to meet ends meet, led by a heroic Jack Kelly. Jack and his buddy Crutchie (don’t worry we will get to him later), along with the rest of the Newsies in Manhattan need to sell their “papes” in order to have food on the table, but when mean, old Pulitzer raises the prices of the newspapers, something had to be done. That’s where our heart-eyed Jack Kelly comes in.

Filmed in 2017, this rendition of Newsies is up to date and looking to appeal to the audience of well, us. Teenagers to young adults who love the high energy of jumps and kicks, with a little bit of adventure and of course a love interest. As a cherry on top, they cast Jeremy Jordan for our lead. From his physical appearance, Kelly is strong and fit, not to a point where he looks scary, but just enough that people will worship at his feet. He shows his masculinity in other ways besides his appearance. For example, it comes through in his chase for Katherine. Being masculine meant then, drawing pictures of her on papes and distracting her from her work. Sure, ladies love a man who is a strong alpha male lead, but more importantly, a man is someone who cares and protects his family. Like Jack does for Crutchie.

When Jack Kelly comes on stage, jaws drop at his physique. When Crutchie comes on stage, smiles and laughter come from every person to the audience. Does that make Crutchie less of a man than Jack? Definitely not.

We first see Crutchie with Jack on the fire escape where they live trying to leave early so that no one notices his limp. He is already at a physical disadvantage in the game of selling papes and he needs no pity from his buddies. And that is what makes him masculine. Crutchie’s character is independent even though he doesn’t need to be. He would and did, risk his life for the rest of the Newsies and never looked back in regret. In “Letter from the Refuge”, he can laugh off the fact that he was taken from Snyder and look towards the future, not the past. This internal masculinity is just as strong on the Broadway stage as Jack’s is physical. Both are leaders paving the way for others like them.

Now we can’t talk about Newsies without talking about the dance numbers. Growing up in the dance competition world maybe I’m a little crazy about analyzing every leap and kick. Also, being surrounded by that environment I noticed the lack of male dancers where I grew up. Sure, I’m from a little suburban town in New Jersey, but even competing with studios in New York, the male talent was rare. Even if a boy went on stage at a competition, cried, ran off, they would likely get “brownie points” and beat out half the girls. So, to my surprise when Newsies was a fully casted male, an ensemble performing elite dance numbers and tap productions, it was a dream come true.

Dance is traditionally not seen as a masculine sport. Some don’t say it’s a sport at all (We can talk about this controversial topic if you want). But when Newsies put 30 so men on stage in tap shoes, dancing on tabletops and on newspapers, I would say that was creating masculinity that simply avoided the toxicity. I did however notice that Jack Kelly was not in many of the large dance numbers like “King of New York”. Was it because it was more feminine, and they wanted Jack Kelly to be portrayed as the alpha male? Maybe Jeremey Jordan just didn’t have time to brush up on his flaps and shuffles.

Disney’s Newsies took masculinity defined as “qualities or attributed as characteristics of men” and showed how many different ways a man can be masculine. Although the musical never mentioned the sexuality of the other characters, many were assumed to be straight based on their dialogue and interactions. They were seen as masculine simply by their determination to fight the system. Even though not everyone was a leader, some even fell short (but we still love you Crutchie), they all brought out the characteristic of a strong man.

P.S there’s no way I could choose between Crutchie and Jack Kelly. Obviously, you have to swipe right on both of them and just hope it’s a match 🙂

Gypsy: Parenting gone wrong, but perhaps not totally

Set in the 1920s, the meta-musical Gypsy tells the story of an ambitious mother, “Mama” Rose, trying to make her two daughters, June and Louise, succeed as stars in the American show business, then dominated by vaudeville but waning in wake of the rising popularity of the strip-tease genre. Based on a true story and more specifically on the autobiography Gypsy: Memoirs of America’s Most Celebrated Stripper published by one of the daughters Louise (known professionally as Gypsy Rose Lee) in 1957, Gypsy originally opened on Broadway in 1959 and has since been adapted for television and re-produced multiple times. With lyrics by Stephen Sondeheim, music composed by Jule Styne, the book written by Arthur Laurents, and production done in association with Storyline Entertainment, All Girl Productions, and RHI Entertainment, the 1993 televised version of the meta-musical directed by Emile Ardolino was able to bring the story of mother-daughter onto the small screen, starring Bette Midler as Mama Rose and Cynthia Gibb as Louise/Gyspy Rose Lee. To provide a quick synopsis of the plot, Mama Rose is the epitome of a show-mother: overprotective, persistent, and unrelenting in her pursuit to make her daughters steal the show. This is not, however, to say she is without flaws (more on this later). Her two daughters June and Louise are presented from the very beginning in juxtaposition to one another; while June is “dainty”, feminine, and talented at dancing and singing not to mention she has the blonde bob thing working in her favor (because why wouldn’t gentlemen prefer blondes *cough cough* said Marilyn Monroe), Louise is clumsy, tomboyish, and subjected to her sister’s shadow as a brunette. In the beginning, Mama Rose noticeably favors June over Louise, promising to make her a star, largely neglecting her less-talented but ever loyal daughter–that is, until June decides to ditch the whole “kiddie” act and leave behind her mother’s unfulfilled promises and overpowering control over her life to elope with one of the boys in the crew. With Mama Rose’s shift in attention from focusing all on June to now only Louise, we see a transformation in the mother-daughter dynamic and equally importantly, Louise’s shift in her self-image and the ideals she both internalizes and reflects regarding femininity. 

Frankly, from the very beginning of the televised musical, I constantly found myself rooting for Louise to be recognized by Mama Rose and receive the same attention and love June did, perhaps because I identified with her as a fellow brunette and with being at odds with the long-time representation of blondes (and not brunettes) as the standard of western beauty ever since I was a kid. However, I have to admit I was sourly disappointed when Louise went down the road oh-so less travelled and chose the fate of becoming a stripper–all for the validation and love she never was able to receive from her own mother. It was quite tragic and hard-to-watch because before choosing this fate, Louise never considered herself to be beautiful and her own mother never even acknowledged her individually. Her sense of self and arguably her ego and even sense of arrogance by the time she has become a successful stripper at the end of the musical made me question if any of the old Louise, the Louise that was thoughtful, caring, and selfless, was left. By becoming a stripper, Louise essentially subjects herself to the standards of beauty prescribed by society i.e. she tries to fit the mold, and unfortunately, I think she lost a lot–maybe even all–of her initial quiet, boyish charm (and a lot of the brownie points she had from me at the beginning). It was frustrating to me as well because in the context of today’s viewers, Louise provides yet another example of a female character needing to be sexualized for approval and validation by society, which does not portray femininity in a progressive way but rather reduces women to objects of lust.

I think it’s also quite interesting what a side-by-side comparison of Louise and her mother Rose reveals about their relationship and also about representations of gender and sexuality furthered by this musical. For one, it’s a bit ironic that Rose has very few men in her life or, more accurately, refuses to let them into her life and leave her again, while Louise’s work involves being surrounded by and appeasing the sexual desires of men all around her. But if you think about it, both are actually alone and perhaps even feel lonely if not for each other even though they might not realize/admit it. For Rose, her daughter Louise gives her a sense of purpose and for Louise, her distinction as the best stripper out there gives her a sense of pride and confidence she never experienced before. Approval by others gives her purpose for maybe the first time in her life–I know, sad but true. Second, by the end of the musical, there is an interesting reversal of events: whereas Rose barely gave any heed to Louise in the beginning as she was regarded as non-essential for the act, by the end, Rose is hanging on to Louise, trying to do anything even as small as turning on the bath to make herself feel useful and needed by her daughter. 

My feelings are still quite mixed on how Mama Rose and Louise’s relationship went downhill. The sticky thing is Mama Rose is like a double-edged sword: she both makes and breaks the rules of femininity in that she’s headstrong, fiercely independent, and essentially a girl boss willing to risk it all for her daughters without any man’s help–even Herbie’s–but at the same time she is unable to break free from the repressive misogynistic ideals of the entertainment industry. In fact, I’m shaking my head as I write this, but Mama Rose was an accomplice–no, she was the one who got Louise into strip tease because she was so blinded by the idea of success. She sacrificed her own daughter just to live her own dreams through Louise, giving into her own morals, and in doing so, losing Herbie and all his previous respect for her. She perpetuates the regressive ideals of femininity forwarded by the show business to exploit her daughter’s youth and “fresh” sense of sophistication in a selfish way. Short-sighted by her greed to make Louise famous, Mama Rose goes head-to-head with Louise by the end of the musical, struggling to stay relevant to her daughter. She calls Louise names like a “circus freak” and “the burlesque queen who speaks lousy French” to poke at her daughter’s sense of pride and conscience. Louise retaliates by remarking, “Nobody laughs at me because I laugh first” and ordering her mother to “turn it off.” The two do end up reconciling after the conclusion of the number “Roses Turn” with Rose admitting to her selfishness in pushing her daughter and Louise reaffirming her desire to be noticed by Rose, albeit sloppily. I was rather unsatisfied with their reconciliation because it seemed to just gloss over and even lend approval to Louise’s stripper transformation and fame as a justification/substitute for Rose’s initially neglectful but eventually overpowering control over Louise’s life. It implies that it’s okay to run away from one toxic relationship and pursue sexual objectification as liberation. Ironic isn’t it? That to be “free” of the limits imposed by her mother and society championing the ideal of the blonde dame Louise has to be risque and her persona sexually charged. Furthermore, the musical does not hint at any of the lasting damages that could be caused by internalizing such harmful representations of femininity and having such a rocky mother-daughter relationship that could manifest much later down the road. I mean, for starters (and to be rather blunet), what will happen when Louise gets old and she falls out of favor of the stripper business and gets replaced? Will she, too, try to relive her glory days through her children as Rose did? 

Let’s briefly take it from the top and consider how these (damaging) ideas of femininity slowly worked their way into Louise’s mind and created cracks in her relationship with Rose, starting with the number “May We Entertain You?” featuring Louise as a kid alongside her superstar-sister June. During this number, which repeatedly gets played even as the sisters June and Louise have become much too old for a kiddie number, Louise largely blends in with the boy ensemble, even playing the role of a cow in one of the numbers, hidden away from the audience’s sight. Her style of dress is boyish, featuring her in brownish overalls and a newsboy cap, as she longingly looks at Tulsa, hoping to be recognized by her crush but gets friend-zoned by Tulsa, who’s absolutely clueless or just not into tomboys like Louise or both. (A quick emphasis needs to be made here again showing how Louise was not considered pretty by society’s standards, her mother’s standards, and even Tulsa’s standards until she started stripping, unfortunately revealing the exclusive standards of femininity to a binary between the innocent blonde dame and the sensual stripper.) However, when this same song is played in a much later number “Let Me Entertain You” in Act Two by the stripper-version of Louise (i.e. Gypsy), all eyes are on Louise and she is front and center. She is also wearing extravagant–not to mention promiscuous–ball gowns and fur coats and jewelry that show off her body shape, which is in stark contrast to the loose-fitting, dingy, and modest clothes she wore at the beginning of the show. (And now I’m remembering that this song gave me a major ear bug and left me triggered but unable to stop humming along even when I realized that the song sung by the kids and by stripper Gypsy Rose Lee were one and the same….) 

In closing, Gypsy illustrates how femininity as presented by Louise’s transformation from the quiet and charming girl-next-door to a stripper as well as by the change in the dynamic of Louise’s relationship with her mother both reflect how gender is shaped by culture and how the performance of gender goes well beyond physical features of beauty.

“GET YOUR PAPES RIGHT HERE”

After watching Disney’s Newsies I realized how lucky I am to access my news and information online. No screaming newsboys, no children using pity as a means for more sales; I mean to decline a seven-year-old on the street selling papers would be a bit harsh.  Or you might take another stance, that to live during this era and all that came with it like getting your real brick and mortar papers from some underpaid newsie would be to witness the life on the streets of New York Cities that has since been dominated by wide-eyed tourists. Debating over the pros and cons of then and now is getting me off topic but maybe that’s what happens when I rewatch Newsies 3-ish times for this blog post.     

Disney’s Broadway production of Newsies (2017) directed by Brett Sullivan is a filmed version that showcases the performance of the 1899 newsboys strike in New York City. Young city dwellers, usually without a home and especially male, find themselves at the hand of newspaper companies selling papers as a primary source for their very, and I mean VERY insignificant incomes. I understand it was a long time ago and prices have thus changed a lot but I have never seen that much excitement over a dime. The opening scene of Jack Kelly, the hero of the film and is actually the hero of this post (so get used to that name), and his friend/work-buddy/fictitious family member Crutchie are waking up early in the morning talking about their lives and aspirations. I thought this was a clever opening as it told the audience members the setting, situation, and where the story will go all from the dialogue between the two boys. Now onto business, speaking of the opening scene I left out one important aspect this scene told us about the musical… boys. OH, IT’S RAINING MEN. This heavy male cast is a defining characteristic of the musical and the cultural conventions surrounding the representation of masculinity can not be undermined. 

Our precious Jack Kelly, the Troy Bolton of the newsies if you will. Of course, he is the golden boy, anyone who has seen the musical knows this right from the start but what exactly makes him such a charismatic leader and how his character portrays masculinity and its permeation into cultural standards is the focus.  Traditional might seem a good place to start when analyzing Jack. Back to Troy, yes everyone is on the same page? Troy Mr. Captain of the basketball team falls in love with a girl who shows him that breaking the status quo is cool and soon becomes Mr. Soaring and Flying.  And yes Kenny Ortega the director of the High School Musical trilogy was in fact the director of Newsies (1992) that originally started young Christian Bale as Jack Kelly. In the number “Carrying the Banner” Jack’s face and dance moves are so similar to Troy’s infamous golf course musical number in High School Musical 2.  The anger, the passion, the stomping and pounding of a fist in the air, it was uncanny.  In many scenes Jack is shown putting his chest out, standing wide-legged, and during musical numbers, his choreography is strong, demanding attention, but also smooth and effortless.  Jack doesn’t dance like the other newsies during musical numbers, he walks around them with gusto and confidence.  Is dancing not masculine enough for Jack?

Jack is a natural-born leader, the other newsies look to him because there’s so little fault, yes he is just a lowly newsboy like the rest of them but he’s Jack, he is THE newsie. He’s got talent and he’s been through things the other boys are fascinated by, he’s really lived! He dresses a bit nicer than some of the other newsies making him stand out just enough to be admired. While he’s not exactly the brains of the strike he’s just as important.  Without a leader to follow many of the newsies wouldn’t have been able to fight against the publishing companies.  He has a strong presence on stage and his performance of masculinity is seen in his desire to be the strong, courageous, do-good hero he feels the newsies deserve.  Back to Troy Bolton, they both feel the weight of the team on their shoulders, keeping the group’s spirits alive is important to them and they’ll do what they need to do for it to happen.  

So now you’ve heard my little blurb about Jack Kelly and his traditional representation of masculinity. I now want to think about the cultural and personal implications Jack’s character has. There is no doubt that Jack Kelly is meant to be admired, he’s the heroic lead that any young children in the audience would think ‘hey until something else catches my attention I’m going to model my personality off Jack Kelly’. I know everyone’s been there ok, you watch a movie or read a book and end up loving a character so much that you want to be them.  However, since this is an intellectual cultural analysis, blah blah blah yes boring but we might discover something here so stay with me, how might looking at the Newsies and Jack Kelly’s character specifically tell us something about the cultural conventions about masculinity? Well, my take would be that this musical suggests that there are only a few types of men (all of whom can be seen in other newsies) but who’s the one you really want to be? Jack Kelly duh.  I watch this musical seeing the glorification of a manly man, whatever that even is.  

The scene I love to think back on and it is especially relevant for this discussion would be when Jack is outed for having painted a set for one of Medda Larkin’s shows.  For someone that exudes confidence in his job selling papers, and is praised for his talent when doing the job, he becomes very shy about his artistic abilities. Yes to be a good salesman can be a skill but I would argue that over time you learn the tricks but to be an artist under Jack’s circumstances well that’s no easy doing. Where would he have time to practice or have access to the necessary resources, no Jack Kelly is a natural. So why be embarrassed and downplay his Bob Ross type skill? I would guess that he compartmentalizes the different aspects of his life he doesn’t believe fit together. For him, his work selling paper and being the leader of the newsies must be kept separate from any other talents he possesses. This is where we see a negative aspect of the representation of masculinity on the Newsies stage. Jack Kelly shows the audience members and specifically men that praise for strong works of leadership or income-earning is the goal, you want to be the best for making money or leading a group of your fellow comrades but to be appreciated for something like artistic ability is rather weak and should be kept a secret. This awkwardness around the compliments from Les and Davey shows that Jack is not very proud of this work. The experience of Jack in this scene sends the message that artistic production is not what a man should be doing with this time.  

The undeniable tension of masculinity on the Newsies stage can not be missed and it’s an important piece to analyze because musicals are strong vessels for cultural conventions.  Understanding what is portrayed on stage affects our conceptions of the society we live in and these sometimes go unnoticed. The traditional depiction of masculinity seen in the character of Jack Kelly in Disney’s Newsies is building what I now suspect is fear of masculinity, don’t be toxic but CAN’t be feminine. This is a tight bond for young boys watching Jack Kelly and feeling that he is what society is telling me I must strive for.  

Beautiful All Along? Gypsy, Beauty Standards, and Expectations of Femininity

By Valerie Kraft

Ah, the age-old trope: give a girl some contacts and a hair straightener, and suddenly you’ll discover she was Beautiful All Along! Just with some minor adjustments, of course.

But beautiful to who? Herself – or to the male gaze and the beauty standards that have been forced upon her since birth?

These were questions I struggled with growing up as someone who looked identical to the “before” picture in every teen movie makeover scene. I think back to a young me – with frizzy hair, braces, and glasses that definitely did NOT suit me, and remember watching movies like The Princess Diaries. As the infamous Paolo holds up photos of the “old” Mia at the end of her makeover and remarks, “only Paolo can take this and this and give you a princess,” I realized that I was the “this” in the equation – not the princess.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, such a realization is insignificant. I wasn’t devastated or suddenly obsessed with beauty or begging my mom for makeup, but such messaging isn’t so easy to shake off. When my mom and eye doctors mentioned contacts, I jumped at the chance. And as I got older and my hair grew even frizzier with age, I adopted the painstaking routine of straightening it daily. I grew more confident in my appearance – but was it because I truly liked the way I looked better? Or that I had been so brainwashed to view certain looks as beautiful?

I don’t blame The Princess Diaries for this. Hell, I didn’t even think about The Princess Diaries as I slowly adopted these new practices. But the fact of the matter is this: the beauty ideals set forth by the film are the ones Western society has deemed essential for women. Popular media continuously dictates that every woman should meet (or strive to meet) these expectations, lest she fall into the curse of undesirability.

So as I settled in to watch the 1993 made-for-TV musical film Gypsy, I knew I was in for the same kind of beauty “propaganda” that The Princess Diaries toted. After all, I knew a brief background of the plot: it was the biographical story of famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, from being sidelined from the spotlight as a child to her burlesque stardom. Surely such a story would inevitably require some instance of transformation: after all, how could a shy, background child star become a confident burlesque queen?

With a screenplay by Arthur Laurents (adapted from his book of the stage musical Gypsy, which in turn was adapted from Gypsy: a Memoir by Gypsy Rose Lee herself) and music by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim (composer and lyricist, respectively), Gypsy follows the story of the dysfunctional Hovick family and their increasingly desperate attempts at achieving stardom, as forced by matriarch Rose. Rose, played by Bette Milder, is a classic “stage mom,” obsessed with seeing her children become famous so she can live out her dreams of stardom vicariously. She totes her two daughters around the Vaudeville circuits with a cutesy routine starring “Baby June” and the obviously less talented Louise, a clear contrast established within the opening scenes of the film.

June (played by Lacey Chabert and later by Jennifer Rae Beck) is the perfect picture of expected femininity for a young girl. With her bouncy blonde curls, frilly dress, squeaky voice, and bubbly disposition, baby June dazzles audiences with her infectious happiness and dedication to entertaining the crowd. Yet, just steps behind her stands her sister Louise, who will one day become the famous Gypsy Rose Lee. Louise (played by Elisabeth Moss and later by Cynthia Gibb), in contrast, is stripped from her femininity. Unable to model the cutesy feminine persona of her sister, Louise is barred from being feminine at all – instead, she is resigned to the chorus, where not only is she barred from her sister’s spotlight, but she also is dressed as boy, referred to as a boy, and in one performance, even forced to wear a beard to embody Uncle Sam.

Such an exile from female identity is unnecessary– despite her lack of talent, there’s no reason the act couldn’t have been “Baby June and her Newsies,” or some other gender-neutral term rather than “Baby June and her News Boys.” Why does Louise have to lose her female identity simply because she lacks the feminine persona of June? The answer is simple: women who fail to meet expectations of femininity are barred from it. If Louise can’t properly “behave” in the way young girls should, then she shouldn’t get to be a “real” girl at all – at least, not in the way June is. Sure, Louise is still expected to be submissive, demure, and nurturing (of course, as all girls should be), but she is barred from other aspects of femininity, such as beauty and courtship (by a male, of course. Yay heteronormativity!).

This is further highlighted as Louise and June age, but the act remains the same. Now a grown woman, Louise is still stuck in her sister’s shadow, but this time, she is now literally dehumanized in her new role as Caroline the Singing Cow. Face covered and voice removed (with the exception of a few “moos”), Louise is hidden by her mother simply because she does not live up to the standards of femininity embodied by June.

Ah, but remember – by the end of the film, Louise will transform into the beautiful Gypsy Rose Lee. And while the film needs to make clear her original deviance from femininity, it can’t go too far, because of course, she will still need to be attractive at the end of the film, despite her shaky beginning. So alright – she can’t be sexy and “beautiful” yet, but we still need viewers to know that she’s Still A Girl (and still available for heterosexual desire) – so we’ll throw in a random song to show her feminine, nurturing side! Let’s give Louise a baby lamb and have her sing “Little Lamb” so the audience knows for certain she’s still a girl under all of those male costumes and cow casting. After all, only girls have that nurturing, mothering instinct, right?

Though just in case any viewers start getting the wrong idea, the film makes it quite clear that Louise is still NOT beautiful or desirable (at least not yet). When one of the actors, Tulsa (played by Jeffery Broadhurst) fantasizes about breaking away from the act and starting his own, he sings “All I Need Is The Girl.” Despite being completely alone with Louise, despite literally having a girl available to him, ignoring Louise as an option quite firmly cements her as not “girl” enough to be desired. And though Louise is able to perform the dance – the only real requirement Tulsa needs – he still does not see her as an option. Instead, Tulsa later elopes with June, the ultimate proof that in order to be desired by men, one must fulfil the expectations of femininity and beauty.

So what changes? How does timid and “not desirable” Louise become the gorgeous and sexy Gypsy Rose Lee? The answer, of course, obvious: a good old fashioned beauty transformation.

With the help of burlesque performers who coach Louise on how to captivate audiences (“You Gotta Get a Gimmick”), along with Rose’s insistence that Louise fills in for a missing performer, Louise is finally forced to mold herself to fit societal beauty standards. Following her mother’s directions – “young and girlish, pure” and “your hair’s all wrong – it can’t just hang there like spaghetti” – Louise dresses herself in makeup, a dress, and jewelry for the first time in her life. As she catches her reflection in the mirror, Louise stares in shock. “Mama, I’m pretty?” she wonders, as she traces her curves with her hands and smiles, finally concluding, “I’m a pretty girl, Mama.”

This – this is the moment where Louise disappears for good. Where the film makes a sharp distinction between acceptable and desirable femininity – the beautiful Gypsy – and the shameful, childish past of Louise. It is in this new identity that Gypsy’s worth and value as a woman is affirmed.

Interesting, isn’t it, that Louise only receives love and acceptance after becoming Gypsy Rose Lee, and by extension, achieving the expected ideals of femininity? Interesting, isn’t it, that Louise only becomes confident and adored after discovering that she too can be beautiful (with the proper modifications, of course)? And though Louise lacks a singular love interest throughout the film, the heterosexual desire of men is finally “granted” to her when she sheds her Not-Quite-A-Girl skin and fully dedicates herself to fulfilling beauty expectations. It is this heterosexual desirability – the male gaze seeing and accepting Gypsy and her appearance – that serves as the ultimate proof of femininity’s achievement.  

And so the cycle of beauty propaganda continues, timeless as always. And just as The Princess Diaries did to me, Gypsy communicates the same age-old message to female viewers: that you are undesirable in your cocoon, but one day, if you embrace femininity and transform yourself, you too can be a beautiful butterfly deserving of (heterosexual) love.

You too can be Beautiful All Along.  

(The Expectation of ) How To Be Your Own Man

“Be a man. You must be swift as the coursing river. Be a man. With all the force of a great typhoon. Be a man. With all the strength of a raging f-.” Oh sorry. Wrong Disney film/musical. Or is it? I would not be surprised if somehow Newsies playwright Harvey Ferstein met with the creators of Mulan at some point in his life and bounced off ideas. It is not like he didn’t play a certain character called Yao…Sure, Mulan and Newsies are two completely different stories. I mean duh one is literally in China during a war with the Huns while the other is set in New York where the newsies are fighting for their labor rights. That said, both show the audience the expectation of what it means to be a man. The ones doing all the fighting are practically all males because well they are expected to be tougher and more capable fighters. In Mulan, they make it clear that there is no room to be soft because it is a killed or be killed world. Newsies offers a similar perspective but at the same time also challenges the audience to expand their perception of masculinity. 

One of the first characters that the audience gets introduced to is Jack Kelly. He would be considered the typical stereotypical standard of what it means to be a man. Whoever oversaw Jack’s costuming made a specific choice to introduce Jack with an outfit that showcased his big muscular arms when we first met him. In comparison to Crutchie, Jack obviously stood out as the physically superior character as they sing in the number Santa Fe. As the strongest, it only made sense that Jack would be the leader in this musical if we continued to follow our expectations of what a male should be; the strongest are the alpha in the pack. It’s no surprise that Jack was often occupying a huge part of center stage. Jack’s the one people listen to. I mean everyone instantly woke up when Jack yelled at them to get to work in the morning. In fact, he yelled quite often throughout the musical. Jack was also the one who was out here yelling at the top of his lungs these phrases when he had his brief solo moment during the number “The World Will Know.”:

Pulitzer may own the world, but he don’t own us!

Pulitizer may crack the whip, but he won’t whip us.

As if that was not enough, Jack came out during this number whipping around a bag and making a lot of fist and arm movements. I swear most of the time this musical was more of an arm muscle contest where Jack would always be the winner. Another similar powerful moment was when Jack was giving that passionate speech to convince Scabs and his crew to join the strike. It was here that I noticed the iconic power pose that many superior males in our modern army do. With his hands on his hips and smoldering look, Jack immediately told others through his body language that he was not someone to mess around or disagree with. He stayed true to that when he stood his ground and glared right back when people tried to get into his face. Other male leader qualities Jack exhibited was his eagerness and willingness to be aggressive when his leadership is being challenged especially when any of his boys are being bullied or threatened. For example, Jack immediately beat up the two boys they encountered as they headed to work that morning because one of them took away Crutchie’s crutch while the other threatened another newsie. 

Is being a male all about the brawn and aggression though? Should we expect males to meet the same kind of masculine image Jakes does? Absolutely not. Davey Jacob showed us that being a male can also have a tender and tactical touch. But I first got to admit it was a bit difficult to shake off my previous conception of a man. I was a bit underwhelmed by Davey’s character because I had gotten used to the toughness and wildness of Jack’s character. I had a specific expectation of masculinity and expected to see that reflected in all men. The first time we met Davey was when he ran in with his little brother Les. Unlike Jack, Davey’s appearance was more scholarly and civil looking with his buttoned-up vest and long-sleeved shirt. His speech pattern had an apologetic and unconfident tone which was quite a contrast to Jack’s dialogue which was rougher and more impulsive. In addition, sometimes I like to refer to Davey as the “Dad” figure or the family man because he always had this strong sense of responsibility to family (and was overly protective of his brother) like a father would. I mean he practically stated in the beginning that this newspaper job was only temporary because they were only there to help make some money for their struggling parents. 

So, what changed? Sometimes I wondered if Davey was pressured during his time with the newsies to be the same kind of male as everyone else. Considering that his little brother picked up Jack’s mannerisms real fast, it would not be a surprise if Davey felt the need to be more of a man. However, being this brawny, aggressive male just did not cut it for him. Instead, Davey found another way to be an assertive male. That began when he decided to join the newspaper strike despite expressing concern about the potential consequences during the number “The World Will Know.” Davey found his place as the strategic planner for the strike. To be quite honest, without Davey’s brains, I think the strike would have failed. Remember it was Davey who cut in saying that they needed officers, a secretary, and a statement of purpose for their union to be recognized. When the strike seemed like it was going to die, it was Davey who stated that “we can’t back down now” during the number “Seize the Day.” In fact, it was in this number that Davey showed that being a strong male leader was having the ability to empathize with their people. The number stood out from the rest because of its softer and motherly tone which you would normally not associate with a male-lead number. But I found this choice refreshing and soothing which served Davey well to renew hope in the newsies. He slowly and gently reminds the newsies that “courage cannot erase our fear.” Instead, “courage is when we face our fear.” Dang, Davey so poetic.  Also, is someone cutting onions? 

I would like to point out another moment where the ideas of masculinity are again being challenged. During the “Watch What Happens Reprise,” we see Davey attempting to bring up Jack’s spirits who remained shattered from the failed strike. It is a surprising turn around for Jack, who had always been so headstrong, confident, and aggressive during Act 1. That said, this moment showed that behind the macho man image was an individual who struggles to come to terms with their own personal fears. It is an important realization because our expectation of masculinity may be pressuring males to be someone they are not. We inadvertently erase the humanity that is behind them. Davey Jacobs again demonstrated that they are not obligated to approach a situation through brawn like someone would expect a male to. He encouraged Jake to look at the situation differently. Instead of thinking that the opposition had power for bringing the police, it would be helpful to consider that they brought the police because they were afraid of the power of the newsies. Mind blown! I did not think of it that way until Davey said that.

So again, what does it takes to be a man? Well, if we look back at the character development of both Jack and Davey, there is no set way of being a man. In fact, perhaps it is better to think about how a male can find their own definition of masculinity. With Jack, we saw this tough man who everyone looked up to. But I saw it more as a survival mechanism to cope with the tough job of being a newsie in New York. We know from the very beginning that Jack daydreamed of going to Santa Fe and leave behind this miserable lifestyle. So, it might be safe to say that for him to be “happy” in New York, he had to adapt to the rough lifestyle. This is only my interpretation though and there are for sure many others out there. On the other hand, Davey had a much easier time figuring out what kind of person he wanted to be. Although, Davey did have the advantage of coming from a stable household so that is a different topic to discuss another day. Regardless, Jack and Davey were two characters that demonstrated that masculinity has a wide range of interpretations. It is up to an individual to determine what kind they want to be.

Jack and Crutchie take on NEWSIES!

Watching and listening to the popular musical Newsies! brings about a thought. This has to do with white masculinity with a little bit of spice. If you have watched this musical directed by Jeff Calhoun and Brett Sullivan, you know exactly what I am talking about. Newsies! shows a difference in masculinity between two different characters, Jack Kelly and Crutchie Morris. The smallest detail throughout this musical shows us how dependent it is on masculinity. 

Jack Kelly, the so-called leader of the pack, displays masculinity from all angles. The way he walks with his chest up right, full of confidence, and even stomping when he dances like the man he is shows masculinity. Each and everyday, Jack gets all of his Newsies together and explains how they are going to attack each day. He is a role model and is essential for selling papers each day. His masculinity, as well as his gender, is what carries the Newsies success from day to day. How would this group be different if it was led by a female or femininity? This is an interesting question because the Newsies would operate differently. There may be less violence and fighting, and more brainstorming and action for improvement. 

Another way that Jack Kelly shows masculinity, in more of a toxic way, is the way he handles his crush on Katherine Pullitzer. Almost every time he sees her, Jack looks her up and down, which leads Katherine to have butterflies in her stomach. In modern times, when men catcall or look women up and down, it is seen as utterly disrespectful instead of a turn on. Aside from Jack’s looks and looking women up and down, he finds a way to display his masculinity through his outfits. Although he is poor, Jack finds a way to wear a nice vest and dressy shirt to look put together. This could be to put on a show for the ladies or to sell more newspapers. The world may never know! 

Jack’s leadership style is a part of his personality by the way he talks, moves, and lyrics he says during songs in the musical.  The musical authors of this number were displaying Jack’s masculinity through the songs, lyrics, and dialogue in NEWSIES! For example, Jack goes chest to chest with one of the fellow Newsies who was going to quit the group. He is showing that he is not backing down and loyalty is necessary. Following this, as the Newsies reunite because of Jack, they all start chanting, with Jack leading, “STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!” in the song “Seize the Day.” Another line from this song is, “You’re still our brothers and we will fight for you.”  “Seize the Day” shows the ruiniting and determination that the Newsies gained because of Jack. As Jack is saying, “STRIKE! STRIKE! STRIKE!” this is setting up for the Newsies big break: to create their own Union. As complications occurred, a fight broke out! Jack is not scared to sacrifice his body and fight for the ones he loves. By the way he fights and shows these masculine qualities, he is looked at as a father figure or older brother. 

On the other hand, there is another guy who is looked upon as a boy, named Crutchie Morris. The form of masculinity that Crutchie displays is different than Jack. Lacking the dominance and physical strength that Jack has, Crutchie shows masculinity in his determination and how positive he is. He values the Newsies as his brothers and looks at them as his ride or dies. 

A fun fact about Crutchie and where he gets his name from is because he has to carry a crutch for his bad leg. Instead of using that as a negative or disadvantage, he uses it in a creative way. For example, when the Newsies first decided on going on STRIKE, Crutchie used his crutch and made it into a sign that said “STRIKE” on it. I thought this was a smart move on the producers part of the show because it is inspirational. Crutchie not giving up and continually fighting is rather inspirational. 

The musical authors were smart when it came to Crutchie singing the song “Letter From the Refuge.” One of the lines in the song was, “Hey but Pulitzer, he’s goin’ down! And then Jack, I was thinking we might just go, like you was sayin’.” This shows how much Crutchie believes in the Newsies to keep going and take down Pulitzer. I also personally love how this song was written in a “Dear Jack,” form because it is seen as personal. Crutchie looks at Jack as his best friend, role model, and older brother. 

The most interesting part of masculinity and gender that came up during NEWSIES! Was between Jack and Crutchie. They are the best of friends and Jack continually supports Crutchie, although he is not the same as everyone else. I felt a personal connection to Jack and Crutchie’s relationship, but through femininity. I have an aunt who is handicapped, like Crutchie. Although she cannot walk and talk, she continually keeps fighting like the strong woman that she is. I feel like Jack in this situation because she looks up to me and I will always be determined to help her and other women in my life. I try to show my femininity through the way I live my life. I try to influence and inspire others who are younger than me to make an influence, just like Jack does.  Although Crutchie and Jack are different regarding the way they display masculinity, they are both essential to NEWSIES! Without the leadership, motivation, and determination, the Newsies group would not be together anymore. I wholeheartedly believe that Jack leads by his voice and leadership, while Crutchie leads by example and inspires others.

 

Gypsy asks: Are you REALLY unbiased?

By Ejew Kim

For the first time I was glad that I missed a class to binge on K-Drama, and that I got so angry at that one overprotective villain mom that I refused to leave my room for 3 days straight. Or else I wouldn’t have been able to understand Rose Hovick in the 1993 televised film Gypsy as a mother nor her daughter Louise as a girl who loves her mother, and be left hating on one of the most popular productions of all time.

To give a quick introduction of Gypsy before I slowly get into the why: Originally based on Arthur Laurents’ book Gypsy: A Musical Fable, Gypsy (1993) by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Songheim features Bette Midler as Rose and Cynthia Gibb as Rose’s daughter Louise. The musical illustrates the journey of Rose, full of dreams to be a star actress and trying to make her daughters one, through the Great Depression and the collapse of vaudeville, in which eventually one daughter leaves and her remaining daughter Louise becomes a stripper. In Gypsy, Rose and Louis represent femininity as encompassing power and complexity that can only be identified when escaping gender bias.

However, my first watch of Gypsy in BroadwayHD, plus the first week thinking about it, it was a horribly sexist film. Rose’s stubborn pushing of her daughters seemingly showed that women getting out of their way to try to achieve dreams are a pain while Louis’ “glow-up” seemed to scream that femininity equals being pretty for men. I had plenty of reasons why:

Rose. I bet everyone admits at some point in the movie that she’s a cringe. And from my first watch, she is a cringe that gets worse. The acceleration point is when Rose performs “Everything’s Turning Up Roses”: The way how her eyes were enlarged so much as she built up her determination and excitement to make Louise her star, and especially how she opened her eyes in a way that the audience could see so much whites of her eyes, portrayed her so full of energy and fierce determination that it was almost scary. Her body is so tensed up throughout the whole song, and her singing as well. She scratches her voice for an aggressive effect (ex. “coming up ROses”) and she gives a lot of strong accent to the beginning of almost every line, especially whenever she looks in a new direction and turns her body aggressively (for example, “NOw you’re, IN it”). The aggressive energy adds to her characterization of determined, focused, full of energy—all in a crazy way. And this is especially scary because this comes right after she gets depressed learning about June leaving—it’s disturbing that Rose cannot stop pushing her dreams even after seeing what it does to not only her daughters but herself as well…I feel an urge to distance her. Her stubbornness continues: Even after she finally admits that she pushed her children for her own dreams, she still does not let go of them; instead she sings her last number “Rose’s turn,’ which ends up with her getting angry—“When is it my turn?”—and repeated lines of “For me” plus a series of bows. She is so self-endorsed, still wanting to fulfill her desires that have been hurting so many people—Louise who just wanted a normal family life, Herbies whose promise for marriage was joked at, June who lost her chance going to acting school, etc. What we want to see at this point is annoying Rose to stop pushing people around, marry Herbie, and become a housewife like normal women of that time, like how everyone around her—her father, Herbie, and Louise—wants her to be. The film projects the idea of women trying to assert power to pursue their dreams, as something that causes issues—a definitely problematic depiction of gender roles for today.

Louise, from the very start, is that character the audience sympathizes with: Compared to her blonde (“thus pretty”), better performing sister, Louise has darker hair, smaller and lower voice, and a stiffer body—she has less of the typical “feminine” qualities and therefore is characterized as inferior. Even when she becomes mom’s new main actress after June leaves, she wears pants, a blazer, a black captain hat…even her blonde wig reminds me of 18th century old white men. She could have totally passed as masculine. The sad part for sympathy is that Louise herself believes in her “lack of femininity” and inferiority: Whenever she talks about June (not herself) being the star, she says it with such strength and positivity in her facial expression and voice (and with zero bitterness/sadness) that she seems very confident about this claim—the confidence missing most of the time, especially when performing. 

But when Louis puts on her dress for her spontaneously-booked stripper performance and looks at the mirror, she experiences a change in self-image. As she slowly freezes in front of the mirror with shock, the strings in the music vibrate rapidly at a high note, creating sudden tension—like the sudden ding of the bell when shocking information has been presented. And yes, it is confirmed in the following Louise’s dialogue that the shocking information here is “Mama, I’m pretty..!” Then a sweet melody of a softer and more positive tune plays right after, at the right timing as Louise touches the side curves of her body. And then she puts on a firm, determined face and walks out to the backstage behind the curtains, looking head straight, gaze forward, and open shoulders—she’s confident alright. And though that very first performance went pretty rough with her nervous stiffness, she soon starts moving with more courage. The later performances as the now famous Gypsy Rose Lee shows a clear boost in confidence—voice projection, a relaxed smile, wide strides, on beat, and moving in a way that she seems to make every movement very precise and intentional. And this change-up, along with her fancier outfits and makeup, definitely make her shine more. This overall improvement seems to suggest that Louise was able to become successful because she started being more feminine and pretty-looking. 

This is especially more fun to watch in the audience’s perspective, because Rose, such a stubborn and annoying character, is taken down by her daughter when she pleads to leave her alone—the very nightmare Rose was avoiding. Honestly, this breakdown was a relief—a relief that seems to be there to aid the sexist idea of ‘successful femininity = pretty’ to come through, and support the objectification of women that follows as a consequence.

And that was going to be my whole essay…except I watched the musical again after thinking about that overprotective K-drama mom (long story short, she was mean to her daughter’s boyfriend/potential husband who she thought wasn’t good enough because he lived without parents), and realizing how all she wanted, despite just wrong assumptions, could have been her daughter’s well-being. And then I thought about how it could be the same for Rose—her annoying actions being good intentions paired with unwise assumptions, and how maybe the film is not actually trying to say women should stay at home, pretty, and then I started thinking about Louise again…and here starts the flipside:

Think about Rose’ background. She was abandoned and hurt by her mother at a young age—she probably doesn’t want to repeat that traumatizing event, by doing the exact opposite for her own children: Never leaving their sides. When Gypsy pleads in the waiting room, “Mom, you gotta let go of me!” Rose’s face and voice suddenly softens as she responds with a heavy breath, “Let go?”—Rose never became this low in energy in the film, which shows that she’s truly hurt by the idea of leaving her daughter. Is it possible that Rose is just trying to do her best for her child? Consider the perspective of a mother: She believes that being a star is the best thing in the whole world—her eyes shine bright whenever she even mentions the word “act.” When Herbie suggests June and Louise go to school, Rose refuses by responding: “And be like other girls, cook and clean and sit and die.” This was the reality in the past—especially during the Depression: Not only was the idea of women working not accepted, but with not enough work for men, there was certainly not enough work for women. Being a star instead and being free and rich definitely can seem better for not only Rose in particular, but other women as well. Rose also seems to swallow up her own sadness and vulnerability for her children: For example, when Herbie finally leaves her, she seems truly sad—despite having to urgently prepare her daughter for her first-time stripper performance, she sits down, singing a softer version of “Small World.” She almost cries and pauses her singing after saying “Lucky, I’m a woman”—this seemed to demonstrate how Rose was devastated to no longer being a woman loved by a man (whom she enjoyed being seen..she would always dance with him!); but then still hands over the gloves to her daughter, though with a downed tone and drooping shoulder—despite her lack of energy, she still pushes on her job of making her child a star. She may be annoying, but she cannot help it to ensure the best future for her children. She had good intentions, but the environment shaped her with the wrong behaviors and methods for her to accomplish those intentions.

For Louise—or Gypsy—you can see that what mattered to her was not her becoming pretty and acquiring accepted femininity. I mean, it does matter because she repeatedly looks into the mirror, going “look at me mama, I’m gorgeous and I love it.” But what really lingers is Gypsy’s love and reception of love with her mother. Consider the series of Gypsy’s stripping performances. Interestingly, the film shows her performances after her switch up for quite a long time, while probably that last full performance in the red dress was enough to show how good of a performer she became…then why show several? One thing that really stands out is the fact that “Let me entertain you” is still and repeatedly used for Louis’ strip show number. The number(s) is (are) exciting because it really shows how much Louis changed, but it’s also like she’s mocking her mother, who’s not even her boss anymore, that she can do better off with her…almost. The length seems to give us time to think about the new Gypsy Rose Lee and her unbelievable turnout: Why is she suddenly so good? Why is she repeating “Let Me Entertain You? Perhaps it’s an indicator that she cannot escape her mother—she still loves her and references her—perhaps she’s finally getting her mother’s attention that she has always wanted. And at this point it’s not how attractive and confident Louis seems after her career change up, but how her childhood/internal experiences left her a hole that she needed to fill in…a pretty complex woman character, huh?

I think it took me quite a long time—despite my deliberate be-analytical-for-class view—to find out how the woman lead characters have more to them than submitting to gender roles because of my gender bias: I assumed, because this was a decently old Broadway show, that it would present negative gender roles; also, Rose seemed simply annoying even when showing a wide range emotions and conflicts because I, guiltily, assumed her to be a typical woman with problems controlling her emotions. Only when I started seeing Rose as a person, a mother, I was able to see Rose and Louis’ complexity. The film therefore, by showing how Rose and Louis represent femininity as complexity that can only be identified when escaping gender bias, encourages us to ignore our “educated” mindsets and consciously reflect our own gender biases once again.

Tomboys, Brides, and Strippers: Femininity in Oklahoma! and Gypsy

As societal roles for women shifted throughout the early twentieth century, so did the representation of female gender and sexuality on the Broadway stage. The 1943 musical Oklahoma!, written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, takes place on a prairie in Indian Territory in 1906. The 1959 musical Gypsy, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, takes place in various cities throughout the United States throughout the 1920s and 30s. While watching the film adaptations of these two musicals, I noticed the contrasting portrayals of femininity in two lead female characters in particular: Laurey and Louise. Laurey, played by Cynthia Gibb in the 1999 film adaptation of Oklahoma!, directed by Trevor Nunn, starts out as a prairie girl stuck in the middle of a love triangle and is married by the end of the musical. She plays a traditionally feminine role, struggling to choose between two men, Curly and Jud, knowing that she can acceptably pick only one. On the other hand, Louise, played by Josefina Gabrielle in the 1993 film adaptation of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino, begins the musical as a quiet sidekick to her starlet sister and ends the musical as a stripper in a burlesque show. Louise’s story does not focus on love affairs, but rather on her coming into her own independent personality. While Laurey represents society’s traditional ideals about women, Louise represents the more alternative, modern ideals about femininity.

Despite their respective transitions to bride and stripper, Laurey and Louise are both introduced as tomboys, divergent from the traditional feminine ideal for young girls. Their costumes portray these anti-feminine styles, lacking the fancy, delicate, pastel pinks usually associated with girls. For much of the first act, Laurey wears a red plaid shirt and blue denim overalls, an outfit that would also be suitable for a man. Her simple look is completed with little or no makeup and her hair tied back in a ponytail. She is ecstatic when her Aunt Eller gives her a long, frilly, white dress with a lavender sash, which she wears for the remainder of the musical. Receiving this dress represents the beginning of her transition toward the more traditional portrayal of the female gender.

Louise’s first costume is strikingly similar in style and color to Laurey’s—she wears a red and blue suit with a messenger cap and pants that flair out in an unflattering and unfeminine way. In my opinion, she looks like a clown. Her goofy, tomboyish appearance starkly contrasts with that of her sister June, who is dolled up in a froufrou dress with puffy shoulders and bows on the sleeves. In the performance number “Baby June and her Newsboys,” Louise is such a tomboy that she actually plays one of June’s newsboys. Louise is soft-spoken, constantly being reminded by her mother Rose to “Sing out, Louise!” during the Vaudeville number “Let Me Entertain You.” Louise’s hair is almost always in two long braids, both on and off the Vaudeville stage, including as she gets older throughout the production. Off stage, she wears mostly neutral colors in styles that are more traditionally masculine than feminine. Although both female characters begin as tomboys, their paths diverge significantly as they mature into their own traditional or non-traditional performances of the female gender.

Laurey’s story begins with indecision about which man to go with to the box social—an inherently sexist event in which men bid on picnic baskets that women prepare and take the female basket-makers on a date to eat the food in said basket. Laurey turns down Curly’s offer, despite his extravagant plans to take her there in a “surrey with the fringe on top.” Instead, Laurey agrees to go with Jud even though he frightens her. As a result, she is shamed both for leading Jud on and for trying to make Curly jealous. Beyond the misogynistic box social concept, this scenario depicts the societal expectations placed upon women that they should aim to please men, to provide food for them, and to have relations with only one man at a time.

The themes of purity and monogamy continue through the first act. These rules do not seem to apply to Ado Annie, however, who admits to seeing Ali Hakim while her boyfriend Will was on a trip in Kansas City. In “I Cain’t Say No,” Ado Annie laments about her difficulty in turning men down. With a comical tone, she sings “When a person tries to kiss a girl, / I know she oughta give his face a smack. / But as soon as someone kisses me, / I somehow, sorta, wanta kiss him back!” Ado Annie is improper and unladylike in her actions, speech, and mannerisms. Laurey constantly nudges Ado Annie to close her legs and to narrow her suitors down to one. Ado Annie thinks that Laurey can love both Curly and Jud, but Laurey is far too pure for that. Laurey is so distraught over her dilemma that she buys a magic potion from Ali Hakim that is supposed to reveal her true love.

The next scene takes place in Laurey’s dream while she under the influence of this “potion.” In this dream ballet, Laurey gracefully prances around with Curly, dancing and dramatically leaping into his arms. Laurey reaches the epitome of traditional femininity in the dream ballet as she floats around the stage, twirling and revealing her frilly petticoat. Although she cannot seem to wrap her head around being in love—she not too long ago was begging Curly “Don’t throw bouquets at me / Don’t please my folks too much”—she has clearly settled on her choice of a man and confirmed her role in society by settling into a monogamous, heterosexual relationship. From the moment that Curly outbids Jud for Laurey’s basket at the box social until they are finally married, she acts as nothing other than his beautiful and dutiful wife.

Unlike Laurey, Louise’s narrative does not revolve around men, but rather around her own personal transformation. After June quits the show and elopes with Tulsa—following the traditional female narrative of giving something up for a male—Rose asserts in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” that she will make Louise into her new star. Louise did not enjoy performing very much in the first place, but she goes along with her mother’s antics. Rose clearly wants Louise to be everything that June was: blonde and talented. In one scene, Rose tries to make Louise, uncomfortably dressed as a cowgirl, wear a blonde wig, claiming that it will “make her look more like a star.” In reality, Louise knows that it will not make her look famous, but instead look just like her sister. Louise believes that she is failing her mother by not being exactly like June. This conflict between Louise and Rose demonstrates Louise’s struggle to avoid the typical feminine mold into which her sister had fit so perfectly.

Searching to find her own niche on the stage, Louise finds herself in a burlesque show. Awkward and out of place, Louise enters the stage in a blue satin gown and a frilly boa-like wrap. After an unwelcoming response from the audience, Louise gradually learns to please them by dropping her shoulder strap slightly. She claims her new name, Gypsy Rose Lee, which becomes her stage persona. The crowd absolutely loves Gypsy Rose Lee, and they go wild when she wears a red sequin dress and suggestively unfastens the front of it while facing away from them. Covering herself with the red velvet curtain, it is apparent that Louise has finally gained her confidence as a woman. Her signature number “May We Entertain You” with the other burlesque dancers alludes to her childhood Vaudeville performance of “Let Me Entertain You.” The lyrics “So let me entertain you / We’ll have a real good time” have a completely different and highly sexualized meaning when a stripper, not a little girl, sings them to the audience. As an on-stage stripper, Louise’s body is sexualized and objectified, as many women’s bodies are. Burlesque is definitely not traditionally feminine or empowering for women, but it does present an alternative expression of the female gender. Louise and the other strippers are extremely confident and independent, using their female bodies to please crowds rather than just one man.

After their similar beginnings as tomboyish girls, Laurey and Louise each grow into distinctly different women. This contrast is due in part to the transitioning roles of women in society at the time. In 1906, women did not yet have the right to vote and were still mostly confined to the limitations of their husbands. In the 1920s and 30s, however, women had much more freedom to express themselves. These historical trends are reflected in the differences in the character development of Laurey and Louise. Both portray aspects of femininity, but in very different ways. Laurey ends up a beautiful wife, making her husband Curly a happy man. Louise ends up a stripper, using her female body to make many men happy. While Laurey’s story revolves around men, Louise’s story focuses on her relationships with her mother, sister, and career. The two actresses perform the female gender very differently, but both successfully mirror the views of society toward women in the historical eras during which the storylines take place.

Katherine Deserved Better: How Newsies Fails at Feminism

I first discovered Newsies when I was fourteen years old and in the prime of my awkward years. I fell in love with the energy of the show– the kind of playful, energetic, can-do attitude of these kids as old as me who were changing the world. And they were men! Who could sing! And dance! That’s what teen girls do isn’t it? Fixate on good looking, talented men? What more could a fourteen-year old ask for in a musical?

Newsies was everything that I wanted, but nothing that I needed as a young, closeted queer woman. In a time where it’s critical to find positive role models, I attached myself to Katherine Plumber, claiming the character as my “ultimate dream role.” But Katherine is far from the pinnacle of positive feminine representation. Her #girlboss energy is superficial at best and performs several toxic tropes rooted in misogyny. And furthermore, her role in the musical serves little more than to insert a heterosexual narrative where none needs to exist, ultimately undermining the critical commentary on class Newsies claims to deliver. 

Most of my experience with (and therefore opinions of) Newsies comes from the original Broadway production, originally premiering at the Nederlander Theatre in 2012, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and book by Harvey Fierstein. The stage production is nothing short of spectacular, with Jeremy Jordan starring effortlessly as hero Jack Kelly and Kara Lindsay as spunky reporter Katherine Plumber, backed up by an ensemble cast of incredibly talented men. Notably, in this original production there are no female newsies (besides honorary newsie Katherine), though as the show has transitioned off Broadway and rights became available for local theatres, there have been an increasing number of productions that incorporate female newsies.

I’m spending time laying out the casting choices because I think the musical’s original intent to have a cast of all male newsies is significant, and ultimately defines the portrayals of masculinity and femininity that we see performed onstage. From the beginning of Carrying The Banner, we get a sense of the heavily masculinized camaraderie shared by these boys as they tease each other while getting ready for the day. Most of this teasing is physical, with lots of shoving, tapping, spit, and swagger. The energy that is created is very “boys will be boys,” a picture of stereotypical teenage behavior– this is the default of masculinity in Newsies. Each character is allowed some moments of depth and vulnerability (only if they have a name in the show book, though), which is a step towards showing a more rounded vision of what it means to a man. However, these moments are fleeting (Race in particular gets about thirty seconds of depth in the opening number), and by and large Newsies makes it clear to the viewer that there are more important things that make these boys men: just look at their swagger! Their bravado! This is masculinity!

Enter Katherine Plumber: Newsies’ female lead. She is not the only woman in the show (shoutout to Medda Larkin who has one of the best songs and costumes in the entire show), but she is the only one who receives any sort of depth. However, all of Katherines’ “depth” and development is related in some way to another masculine character. She is a reporter, yes, but she is a reporter for the newsies, she is the daughter of Pulitzer, she is the love interest of Jack. She is presented to us as a woman trying to make her way in a man’s world, as she says herself in Watch What Happens  (“A girl? It’s a girl! How the hell! Is that even legal?”). Ironically, though, the show never really allows her this success or this independence. The article she writes gets shut down by her father, and her brilliant idea to print papers for all the laborers in New York gets carried out by Jack and the other newsies, who get much more credit (and in Jack’s case, a sweet job offer) than she does. Katherine’s existence is inextricably linked to the men in her life, which makes her feminist attitude surface-level at best: it’s as if Disney wants to promote feminism without actually promoting feminism.

Katherine is only respected as a woman in the masculinized space of Newsies because she is able to be “one of the boys,” a tired iteration of the very tired “not like other girls” trope, which is rooted in misogyny and ideals of male desire. She attracts Jack because she is smart and witty, because she is able to hold her own against him: unlike the other women he has been with, who he seems to see as disposable (“Girls are nice/Once or twice/Til’ i find someone new”). This is inherently sexist– Jack is revealing to us that not only does he not actually respect women as anything more than romantic playthings, but he believes himself to be superior to them. Katherine is attractive only because she is smart and independent and therefore different. This pits her against other women and reinforces the idea that being a woman means being what a man wants, as well as presenting femininity as an inherently undesirable state of being. 

Amongst the other newsies, it is much of the same story. She gains their respect because a) she is helping them with the strike and therefore useful and b) she proves that she is more “boy” than “girl” (because girls are dumb and weak, right? Am I right, guys?). In King of New York, she engages in a competition of sorts with the other newsies. She begins with a simple tap sequence and is subsequently booed. So what does she do? She hikes up her skirts and taps ferociously, symbolizing to the newsies and to us that she can be “one of the boys”– which, again, is implied as being better and more desirable than being one of the girls. Not a great message to send to teenage girls (the main fan base of Newsies) who are already struggling to find their place in a patriarchal society. This is the irony of Katherine– she is both emblematic of the struggles of young women and thus relatable AND a portrayal of deeply sexist ideas about femininity. She has the potential to be such a powerful character, but the way she is utilized in the musical falls so flat as soon as you give the lyrics more than a cursory glance. 

Another sticking point for me is Katherine’s seemingly forced relationship with Jack. She goes from completely uninterested to being in love with him in a matter of 40 minutes real-time and about 2 days show-time. This fast turnaround is unsurprising when we consider that this musical has been funded and produced by Disney, a company notorious for creating stories that center heterosexual romance at the expense of strong, well-rounded female characters. In Disney-verse, life is only worth living as a woman if a man is in love with you. In recent years Disney has been on a more positive trend of feminine portrayals, but Newsies was produced at a time where that hadn’t started to happen yet: the pre-Frozen era, if you will. That being said, while it is unsurprising that the producing corporation felt the need to tie the plotline up with a neat heterosexual bow, it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. 

In my opinion the Jack/Katherine romance serves three purposes: 

  • To ensure the audience that though this is a musical about close relationships between men, there is absolutely NOTHING gay about it. No, really, we promise! Look how straight Jack is!
  • To soften the labor critique aspect of the show
  • To keep the production in line with Disney values and give the whole plot a happy ending (because sad musicals have never been successful… Les Mis, anyone?)

Disney is maybe not the most gay-friendly corporation (though I did get an excellent pair of rainbow Mickey ears pre-Covid, so that counts for something… right?). So it’s unsurprising to me that they’ve inserted a heterosexual romance into a story that genuinely does not need one. But honestly, Newsies would be better if there was some sort of non-heterosexuality explicitly written into the script. By forcing this narrative of heterosexuality, Newsies is implying that homosexuality is incongrous with masculinity– or at least their version of it. Would it really be so bad if Jack was gay? What is it adding to his character to make him explicitly heterosexual? What does it add to the plot, for that matter?

The more insidious answer is that the ultimate function of Jack and Katherine’s relationship is to undermine the labor critique that the plot is based in. Yes, we are supposed to feel bad for the newsies and root for them to take down Pulitzer, but I believe that Newsies (and by that I mean Disney) doesn’t want us getting any ideas beyond the action portrayed onstage. At the very end of the musical, Jack is gearing up to leave for Santa Fe. But he stays… in part for his brotherhood, in part for Katherine, and in part for the sweet cartoonist job that Katherine’s father, the man we spent the entire musical rooting against, offers on a whim. Notably, Katherine is the one who first questions Jack’s impulse to leave New York (“What’s New York got that Santa Fe ain’t?), therefore becoming the driving force that convinces him to stay. It’s implied that Katherine is an important part of his decision (though she does offer to travel with him), and thus she becomes a part of the reason that he accepts a job with Pulitzer. This acceptance of the job is really what undermines the labor critique that the entire plot thus far has built. Jack’s activism ends with the strike and he becomes a part of the same system that he just fought against. Therefore Newsies reminds us that though strikes are exciting fodder for a musical’s plot, Jack hasn’t really changed the system– and we shouldn’t either.

So, if Katherine as a character is being used to perform heterosexuality and create a happy, non-radical ending for the story, what does that say about women? Are we just men’s plot devices to make messy situations more palatable for a wide audience? Do we ever get the opportunity to exist apart from that purpose? The answer is yes… just not in Newsies. The more I’ve written about this show, the more upset I am about the missed opportunities for strong character development and an actually progressive message. There are plenty of other musicals that do these things so much better than Newsies. But as scathing as my words may have been, that has not stopped me from listening obsessively to the soundtrack for the past three weeks straight. It has not stopped me from attempting to learn the Seize the Day dance break, newspapers and all, and it has DEFINITELY not stopped me from crying tears of joy while recording Katherine’s part in Once and For All for the Original Cast’s semester revue. That is to say, Newsies may not have been what I needed growing up, but it remains a deeply important piece of nostalgia and a genuinely enjoyable show– as long as you acknowledge it for what it is, which is a piece of media produced by Disney whose commentary on gender, class, and sexuality is dubious at best. I’m going to go listen to the soundtrack again… but maybe I’ll skip Something to Believe In. 

Newsboys to OklahoMen

By: Kate Murphy

The smooth talker. The power walk that is just subtle enough for you not to notice the sly attempts at establishing the upper hand. The charm with an undertow of coercion that may be slightly problematic but could also just be you reading into his “confidence.: Masculinity can present itself in any number of ways which we may or may not even be aware of. More often than not, I fail to concentrate on the consistent themes of masculinity in the interactions I have with men, but musical theater provides the perfect opportunity to give it a laser focus in how men and masculinity are presented and conveyed in cultural moments. The musical stage puts forth masculinity with themes of coercion and smoothness, noting the central presentation of men is through their Male Talk. In Oklahoma! and Newsies, the men in the musicals demonstrate their power over others through their words and the actions that are especially exacerbated in their interactions with women.

Jack, the likable go-getter and ring-leader in Newsies uses his smooth language and sick dance moves to choreograph his way into labor rights. It’s nice, it’s flashy, and it says a lot about masculinity. The representation of masculinity in Jack’s character in Disney’s musical production of Newsies reveals characteristics that are perceived as essential aspects of masculinity: initiation and smoothness. These qualities require a level of performance (with or without the performance of the musical itself). Jack has to put on a persona that gets him what he wants. But hey! It works, so why wouldn’t he? Consistent throughout various performances and platforms, Jack’s rally of the newsies in “Seize the Day,” pulls together a perfect storm to lead the boys in obtaining their rights. Because this is central to the song and choreography, this presentation of masculinity, the initiation and leadership of the strike and the newsies requiring him to integrate some rashness with some arrogance, is central to the storyline and the musical as a whole. Jack’s qualities require him to put on a show in order to rally the newsies. 

Additionally, Jack possesses a smoothness that allows him to seem pulled together as an example for the other boys. Although he is only a few years older than the newspaper boys, and potentially even younger than some, his ‘manliness’ and perceived adulthood are due to the influence he has and respect he commands among the newsboys. His smooth authority can be found in his lead vocals, his dance moves, and his interactions with Katherine. This pegs him as both a leader and role model for the children following him. A lot of what I noticed within this musical was boyhood and how the newsies found the “cool” older brother in Jack that they wanted to be like. Although he did not always have the character they should be looking up to, he had the cool factor that made him seem like such a natural role model for the newsies.

The significance of male language and its presentation of masculinity is also a crucial element of Oklahoma!, particularly through the ways that the women discuss the men and their relationships with them. I saw this a lot in “I Cain’t Say No,” when Annie shares her inability to turn men down to Laurey, in a catchy beat that keeps listeners laughing and drawn in. Primarily, Annie’s light-hearted disappointment with herself paired with her charming twang creates the magic necessary to make this song a theatrical success. The songwriters were certainly using this song as a moment of comedic relief, and I found myself chuckling along with my imaginary live audience members. The girls’ shining innocence reveals that they have experienced little to no romantic interactions with men; Annie herself explains that men only started being interested in her since she “filled out.” They have a limited vocabulary when describing romance, and Annie in particular is pretty chaste in describing her desire to be loved by a man. This dynamic of innocence and desire reveals the expectation for the white Oklahoman girls to be pure and abstain from sexual activity. Fitting in with the narrative of the musical, namely the tiptoeing around the line that once crossed, demands that a young man marry the young woman he’s “fooling around with,” Annie’s song seems to ask the question “how far is too far?” while also admitting that she already knows she’s gone further with men than is expected of her.

I noticed that within this song, it reveals the cultural priority of sexual purity for women at the time. There was an absolute demand that the women save sex for marriage so that they don’t “ruin” themselves, which reveals a lot about the values of this society. It speaks into the power which men possess, and seems to present men as the subjects and women as the objects. The unspoken rule appears to be that if a woman ruins herself, she loses all of her worth and is no longer worthy of a bright future in their small town (in other words, she can’t get married– which is a pretty big deal at a time when women were expected to get married and unable to provide for themselves). But enough about what that says about women– examining this scenario from the role of men, I see clearly that men are the ones who determine a woman’s worth within this expectation. They have the ability to decide which women are worthy of marriage and being provided for, but they also have the authority to coerce women into giving in to their sexual desires without risking their own reputations. An unmarried man who kisses a woman is a man. An unmarried woman who kisses a man is somewhere between a disappointment and a whore. Nice. A really good look, Oklahoma! 

As mentioned earlier, the innocence and naivety of Annie and Laurey and their lack of vocabulary and experience in romance demonstrates another level of the power that men have in this musical: the power of knowledge. The men are the ones with the knowledge and power in this dynamic; they know what they want and they know how to get it. Their sweet and convincing words (see: Ali Hakim’s Persian Goodbye) give them just enough of an edge over the women to get what they want. From the cultural perspective of the town this musical is set in, it seems like the families are setting their daughters up for failure for how freely they let the men run and how intensely they attempt to control their daughters. But this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen this. How many times did my mom sit me down before college and talk me through drugs being slipped in my drinks and how on guard I needed to be? The lack of accountability for men runs rampant across college campuses– looks like Oklahoma isn’t the only place with a consent problem. Annie struggles with this lack of consent and carries this theme with her lyrics– she can’t say no, implying that if a man asks (or demands) something of her, she can’t turn them down. If you can’t say no, can you honestly say yes? There seems to be a massive lack of consent here and I think the person answering a question should be free to give either response.

Looking at this from the historical context at the intersection of race– that the entirely white film is a misrepresentation of Oklahoma at the time, it is interesting to consider how the white male’s coercion and power are historically present in White Americans’ abuse of Native Americans and present in the film through Annie’s experiences with men. The contrast, however, is that Annie ~seems~ to be slightly thrilled about the situation she’s in, and her frustration with not being able to say no is more with how her desires for interactions with men contrast with the cultural expectations. But isn’t that classic? “Let’s make the object of our coercion appear to want this coercion.” “Let’s convince these Native Americans that it would be best for them to be removed from ‘our’ land.” “Let’s tell the woman everything she wants to hear so she can’t say no.” Annie’s willingness to share her experiences with men, although not consciously expressing the coercion she’s experienced, demonstrates the power that men have within the film and how much of it lies in their words and the cultural values of the town and the times.

So how did we get here? And how are we (in a lot of ways) still here? The evolution from newsboy to OklahoMan reveals that theatrical masculinity (and as a result, our cultural understanding of masculinity) is obtained by asserting authority through one’s words and body language, which both historically and theatrically has taken advantage of many groups of people. The prevalence of subtle coercion and the demand for initiation among men in Newsies and Oklahoma! reveals that the male hierarchy has allowed men to establish their authority and get what they want, whether it’s their workers’ rights, their sexual desires, or land. 

The Newsies of Oklahoma!

         By: Hugh Fisher      

Throughout the history of musicals and stage performances, there have always been characters that depict the overzealous white male. Newsies and Oklahoma! are no exception. Les, a young boy in Newsies, and Will, an adult in Oklahoma!, although separated by at least a decade in age, share similar traits of masculinity and whiteness. Toxic masculinity does not only adult males, but rather can be seen even through a young boy who is currently making his transition into adulthood.

Beginning with Les, as a child early in Newsies, he seemed like an innocent young boy, who even referred to himself as a “little kid.” At the age of 10, who would not still consider themselves to be a kid. However, as his character develops along the way, we can see Les change his mindset from being that of a kid enjoying life, to one of a toxic masculine nature. Les’ work often surrounds him with teenage males who are more than likely becoming his biggest influences. The teenagers that Les works with carry a certain level of masculinity that Les tries to implement in his own life, in order to fit in. As the musical plays on we see Les develop from his childlike role into that of a teenage male, reflecting the teenagers he spends time around. In one specific scene, we truly come to understand just how different Les has become. He approaches his brother, Davey, and Jack. Les tells them that he is late to a date and mentions, “I’ve been swattin’ skirts away all morning.” Les, without knowing it has slowly come to embody toxic masculine traits.

As a child, a woman is the being that gave you life and often shows you the most love, however, Les is no longer identifying females as this, but rather sexual beings that he is beginning to exploit. Although we never see Les’ actual interactions with women, we can assume that one day he is going to interact with them the same way Will does in Oklahoma!.

Will, an adult cowboy in Oklahoma!, displays similar traits of toxic masculinity, however, unlike Les we see how he acts on them. During the song “All ‘Er Nothing”, Will displays his true masculine nature to Annie. The entire song displays Will’s thoughts on how Annie’s love should be. Will tells her that she either is to show him all her love in return for all of his, or nothing in return for no love, “no half and half romance will do.” However, that is not how Will truly feels, he basically demands that Annie stays faithful to him. Not only does will demand that Annie show him, and only him, love and affection, but later in the song hypocritically kisses another woman who dances her way on screen. Will’s demanding that Annie stay faithful, however he chooses to invoke his natural tendencies of masculinity and act however he wants with the feeling that he will have little repercussion.

Lastly, and most importantly at the end of this song, Will forces himself upon Annie in a manner that shows his dominant masculine nature. Will pins Annie into the corner of the horse pen and forces a kiss on her cheek as she turns away, her consent was clearly not considered. Will not only demands things of women that he would never do, but ignores consent and believes that every woman must be in love with him. The masculinity that Will acts upon, ignores all social boundaries and invokes a sense of dominance over the female gender.

Will and Les, although different in age and actions, share similar traits that as Les develops might begin to look extremely identical. Les is just a young child, but as he begins to develop so will his sense of masculinity. I believe that Will as a young child might have made similar remarks, simply thinking that he would appeal as one of the cool kids, or even come off as a ‘ladies’ man.’ However, as he grew older, he grew into the words he spoke and began to act on them. Now imagine, if at the age of ten a boy is already objectifying women. Les is headed down the same path as Will, whether he knows it or not.

In conclusion, I believe it is important to remember that kids do not always grow up to act similarly to how they were as a child. I think Les is an intelligent kid, he is simply trying to fit into an older crowd. However, if he continues to follow the same teenagers around he might find himself in the same predicament as Will. Will embodies the spitting image of toxic masculinity, and if Les is not careful he will end up in the exact same position. 

Laurey, What Happened to You

What does it mean to be an American? Is it ethnicity? Is it inextricably tied to whiteness? Is it culture? Common beliefs, ideals, and experiences that unite every single person under one cohesive identity? Oklahoma! the musical highlights aspects of American identity under a period marked by whiteness. Whiteness, as we have discussed in class, sets the cultural norm for our American society. Whatever is considered “white” is considered normal. If I can recall from my A.P. U.S. history class, manifest destiny was the big thing in the 19th century, highlighting the superior morals of white folks as they stole Native American land and ventured further west. As small towns kept popping up throughout the western frontier, the societal hierarchy was ever more important in keeping a town running. With most towns, there were men, women, and children, and each played a vital role in developing and maintaining a town. Roles that were always needed like farmers, merchants, cops, teachers, mayors, and so on. 

So… we have all these roles, and we have a stellar cast. That begs the question: who should play what? Well, as seen in Oklahoma!, most of these roles should be played by men apparently. No woman was a lawyer or a merchant or a mayor. Most women in the musical were teachers or simply played the part of “woman”. How boring is that?? Most of the women played the expected role of a woman at that time: to be an object of sexual desire for the male main protagonist. –Note the emphasis on male– Women had no other purpose except to be eye candy and to be fought over by men. This is most exemplified by Ado Annie, the young naïve teen that falls for any man she sees because “she can’t say no.” Oklahoma! reinforces the societal role of a women in 19th century America through Ado Annie’s character. Yet, it also interestingly features Laurey Williams, the female lead of the show. 

While Laurey Williams functions as another “woman” character in the musical, she is also the niece to Aunt Keller. She also works on the farm and wears masculine attire throughout the first act of the musical. Wow, she’s an actual somewhat developed person. As seen in the opening number “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” by Curly McLain, she is seen sporting jean overalls and a flannel. Traditionally an attire fit for a male farmer, she herself breaks the feminine stereotype embodied by Ado Annie. Covered in dirt, she continues with her business, ignoring the advances of Curly in “People Will Say We’re In Love.” She denies her attraction towards Curly as she continues her business on the farm. As Laurey states “don’t throw bouquets at me,” she rejects her role as an object of desire and in turn, rejects the traditional notions of womanhood. She rejects the heteronormativity of being a woman, where a woman’s sole value is tied to their heterosexual relationships with men.

Even back then, young people were getting it on, specifically heterosexual young people. Because of this, a woman’s value came from validation by men. *shocker* Men sought out women for sexual pleasure. Womanhood emphasized feminine features, feminine clothing, and feminine mannerisms. Woman were subservient and dolled up for the sake of men in this heteronormative era. A woman’s identity was inextricably linked to their sexuality because their sexuality gave them value in 19th century America. While Laurey Williams rejects the basic idea of womanhood as in she chooses not to dress so feminine, she partakes in a work intensive occupation dominated by men, and overall does not act very feminine, she gives in to her heterosexuality. By giving in to her heterosexuality, she eventually gives in to 19thcentury America’s idea of womanhood. 

Laurey Williams ends up being an object of desire by the main protagonist of the musical, Curly McClain, and the second lead of the musical, Jud Fry. In first act of the musical, she acts for herself and for her Aunt. Her main priority was the farm and its success. By the second act of the musical, her character shifts priority entirely; she buys into her heterosexuality. Her feelings for Curly is something she can no longer ignore. As she acknowledges her feelings, she becomes jealous when “supposedly” Curly finds a romantic partner. By becoming jealous, she embodies her role as a woman. She begins to act lady like, going so far as being courted by Jud Fry to the town dance. She ends up becoming an object of desire! The rest of the musical becomes a war of attrition by Curly and Jud as they try to win her attention and most importantly her heart. 

Now, I personally love dances as much as anyone. And as we know, dances and more so prom is the quintessential American experience. It defines our American youth. This age old tradition can be seen in Oklahoma! where the town dance is the focal point of the story. It very much drives the plot of the musical because it is where Jud and Laurey’s relationship as well as Curley and Laurey’s relationship is fleshed out. By trying to make Curly jealous, Laurey entertains the idea of being with Jud. Even if she never wanted to be with Jud in the first place, she still chose to go with him. She knows she is desirable as she channels that towards her feelings for Curly. From her jean overalls, she dons a dress. She wears a beautiful white dress as she waits in the fields for her “Romeo”. With the other ladies around her, she gives into her femininity. She plays coy and acts all flustered as she daydreams about the dance.

The Laurey Williams we meet in the second act of the musical is very different from the Laurey Williams we meet initially in the first act. She goes from a hardworking farmer unfazed by Curly’s advances to a doting woman trying to make Curly jealous. She goes so far as to put herself in a vulnerable position with Judd, even acknowledging she might be sexually assaulted by Judd in order to make Curly jealous. After the town dance, where she cries out to Curly after her traumatic attack from Judd, she embodies the female stereotype of 19th century America. 19th century America defined a woman as a damsel in distress. Someone to be saved. Someone to be fought over. Someone to be desired. Laurey now seeks a strong man (Curly) to protect her. As she is cradled in his arms, she cries out her raw emotions. How she dislikes Judd and more so, how she really feels for Curlly. She misses him. Period. What a dramatic climax to this “love story.”

Laurey William’s character arc throughout Oklahoma! highlights the relationship between gender and sexuality. A woman’s value, expectation, and overall societal role was defined by her sexuality. If a woman wasn’t heterosexual, she had no value. No man would want her. She wouldn’t be a mother. She couldn’t play the motherly role. Laurey Williams tried to be a feminist icon, refusing to be wooed by a man and more so, choosing to set her own path. Ultimately, when she chose to confront her sexuality and her feelings for Curly, she became the very thing she tried to avoid, a subservient woman claimed by a man. While Ado Annie simply plays into the stereotype of a pretty and naive girl, Laurey Williams growth throughout the musical calls attention to how heterosexuality defines womanhood. One could argue that to escape womanhood and make true societal progress, womanhood should not be tied to heteronormative relationships and bearing children. 

So then, what can Oklahoma! teach us about gender and sexuality today??? What can it teach us about progressing woman’s right and the feminist movement? When a woman falls in love, she plays into the motherly role where she is expected to bear children and raise a family. Does this mean falling in love hinders women’s rights and the feminist movement as a whole? No, it does not. More so, the expectation that follows falling in love like raising a family should change. In order for us to progress, womanhood should not be tied to their sexual preferences and in turn, not be tied to their childbearing abilities. For a woman to pursue her dreams of being a farmer, a lawyer, or whatever, society needs to forget about her sexuality and only judge her for her character. Sexuality, specifically heterosexuality, should not be tied to a woman’s worth and societal expectation. 

Interestingly, society today is hypersexualized. As seen within the rap genre, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj has fully embraced their sexuality and rather, uses it to advance their platform. They are considered powerful icons because they talk so openly and brazenly about their sex lives. They lend their voices to other women and their own sexual experiences. The feminist movement is at an interesting point where sexuality does not restrain a woman, it rather empowers them. Nicki Minaj and Cardi don’t play into the doting housewife stereotype yet Laurey Williams does when she confronts her own sexuality. Laurey Williams goes from potential feminist icon to subservient housewife. What’s the difference then? While Laurey Williams lets her heterosexuality define her worth and role, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj let their sexuality empower their careers and ambitions.  

On Voice:

Consider yourselves lucky. 

Dr. Essin has spared you from watching The Little Mermaid Live on Disney+. You can thank my section of this course for that. You’re welcome.

I was not so lucky. Not that the live television version was bad, necessarily, but it certainly didn’t compare to the other shows we watched. It wasn’t a total loss, though, because Disney succeeded in leaving me with a question to consider when the movie ended: What, really, is voice? 

To some degree, I think I’ve always been a writer, but I didn’t always consider myself one. I remember being in the sixth grade and writing a poem for class and thinking it was terrible. My mom found that poem during quarantine and I was genuinely surprised when I realized it was pretty good. In high school, I always had good grades in writing courses. I learned how to write a stellar analytical essay and that’s definitely important, but it was the blog-style writing I did on the side that I loved. Freshman year at Vanderbilt, I started writing a blog called The Girl Next Dore (yes, I think I’m very funny), but eventually I got too busy and put my blog on the back burner. By the time I enrolled in Dr. Essin’s class last semester, I felt like I’d lost my voice. (And just to really bring home The Little Mermaid parallels, let’s remember that Ariel, too, loses her voice for a time. Also, I feel like Meghan Markle stole my thunder with this parallel on Oprah last night. Whatever, it’s fine.)

What this class allowed me to do was forget the “rules” of academic writing and view writing as exploration. The thing about authorial voice——or writing that is very “voicey” or “bloggy”——is that it isn’t simply writing the way you would speak. It may feel more similar to that than your analytical papers would, but it’s not a transcription of your natural speech. Developing your voice takes an acute knowledge of your own personality as well as an understanding of what you want your reader to gain from your work.

For me, I want my reader to feel like they know me and trust me——that I am their friend; I want them to get a glimpse into my real life and journey; and I want the questions I ask or the themes I present to challenge them. Since last semester, I’ve sent my posts for this class to a trusted friend, and I always hope for the same response: “this is very Brooke.” 

As your first blog post approaches, I’m going to leave you with a few takeaways to consider:

  1. To gain confidence in your voice, start by writing about something you’re already confident in. Confidence begets confidence. (Think back to your post on Authorship and Authority. What did you write about? How did your voice shine through?)
  2. Let go of the words and allow yourself to discover. You are allowed to take the reader on a journey of discovery with you. (You can read my post on Miss Saigon which models this.)
  3. Think about your opening statement. How can you grab the reader’s attention? How does the first sentence reflect your voice and style?
    • I am big on short and punchy first lines. “Consider yourselves lucky.” Or in my Miss Saigon post, “When it comes to theatre, I am not very empathetic. You probably aren’t either.”
  4. If it matters to you, it matters to someone else, too. Pick a topic you care about. Don’t force something because you think it is “right.” Enjoy yourself!
  5. Remember to gain the trust of your reader. Confidence + Humility + Demand = Trust. (I acknowledge there is a significant lack of nuance in that formula, but you get my drift.)

Finally, it is okay if this blog is out of your comfort zone——it should be. Good luck, friends!

-B

PS: Comment on this post if you have any questions about your upcoming blog piece due! I will try to answer them or point you to a post from last semester.

On Trust:

Trust. Assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.

Hi, y’all! I’m Brooke! I’m originally from Delaware, but I went to high school in New Jersey. I’m a junior here at Vanderbilt double majoring in Theatre and English with a minor in American Studies. On campus I’m involved in both student-run and departmental theatre, as well as a sorority!

This is the standard introduction of any Vandy student (especially Vandy Guides, ily but just saying). But isn’t it kind of boring? And what does it really tell you about me as an author?

If you read the title of this piece (always read titles, people) and my first sentence, you know that this post is going to be about trust. Based on what you know about me so far, do you trust me? I wouldn’t.

What if instead I said:

Hey friend! My name’s Brooke! I’m a junior at Vandy working with Dr. Essin on some projects related to THTR 3333, but don’t worry, I really am here as a friend. There are some things that all of my real-life friends know about me, so I want you to know them too!

  • I can eat a GoGo-Squeeze in under 3 seconds.
  • My parents are divorced but they’re still best friends.
  • My entire inner-monologue is narrated in the voice of Alexis Rose from Schitt’s Creek.
  • If my personality could be described in a color it would be hot pink.
  • I have a private Snapchat story called Cry Cry Birdie.
  • I learned to drive when I was twenty.
  • I have an incredibly chaotic energy but, remarkably, people who don’t really know me think I’m very put together.
  • I can’t ride a bike.
  • I think about food 80% of the day.

I know we haven’t met, but at least now you know that I’m more than just a screen name. Hopefully I’ve developed for you a rough “character sketch” of who I am. Besides all of those things, though, I want you to know that I have at least two things in common with you: I also go to Vanderbilt, and I also took this class with Dr. Essin. Around this time last semester, I was reading one of Dr. Essin’s infamous Read and Consider pages and I had the realization that I could approach this class in one of two ways:

  • I could engage in a less than half-hearted way, writing surface-level discussion posts and not really watching the musicals.
  • Or I could invest in this class, really consider the questions Dr. Essin and my classmates posed, and answer them in a way that not only challenged my reader but myself.

Considering I’m back again, still posting on The Writing Stage, I’m sure you can guess which path I chose.

So why am I back? Good question. I’m back because I think (and Dr. Essin did, too, hehe) you can benefit from some unsolicited, friendly ~advice~ from me. I use the term advice loosely because by no means do I have all of the answers; I’m here to discover with you.

As I thought about this post, I developed a working thesis of how to gain trust as an author. 

Confidence + Humility + Demand = Trust

If we want the reader to believe in us, we need to have confidence in our voice. But if confidence is all we have, our reader may stop at thinking “oh this is well written.” Beyond confidence, we need to humble ourselves——if we write with a sense of superiority, we may alienate our reader. Finally, and most importantly, I believe trust requires demand——both of ourselves and of our audience. We might be a likeable reader if we only have the components of confidence + humility, but to be truly trustworthy I believe we have to move beyond the words on the page. What is our writing demanding of ourselves? Growth, change, empathy? What is our writing demanding of the reader?

Let’s put this formula to the test with this very post. At what point in this post did you decide to trust me? Or have you?

I would suspect you might not fully trust me yet. I’ve shown you my confidence in my own voice——I am unapologetically informal in my blog-style writing because I really do treat my readers like friends. I humbled myself to let you in on some of my quirks and personality traits, even some that were weird or deep. And I also told you I do not have all the answers and used “we” to include myself in the learning process.

But there’s still one component left. Demand.

Just as I had the choice to invest in this course, you do too. If you commit to this class, you will not leave unchanged. I’m serious. I really am. I wouldn’t be writing this to you if I didn’t know that this class offers a space to develop all of the components of trust I’ve mentioned.

So, friend, do you trust me? Will you invest in this class, and more importantly, in yourself, your cultural journey, and the world around you?

I hope so.

-B