When Stephen Chbosky’s film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen began screening in cinemas in the fall of 2021, I intentionally avoided buying a ticket. This may seem bizarre given my devotion to the source material: I have seen the 2017 winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical twice on Broadway and, admittedly, several more times via bootleg (my sincerest apologies to the Broadway community). The show holds a very special place in my heart, and I automatically knew it would stick with me ever since I first listened to the original Broadway cast recording (OBCR) of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s newest musical back in 2016.
The book of the musical, written by Steven Levenson, focuses on a severely anxious and depressed high schooler who, over the course of the show, comes to terms with his own suicidality in the wake of a classmate’s suicide and ultimately begins to heal his relationship with himself. I was awestruck: this musical addressed with incredible specificity the struggles I found myself experiencing as a sixteen-year-old high school student. I was diagnosed with anxiety when I was thirteen and had been taking medication ever since; however, it wasn’t until the fall of my junior year that I had my first depressive episode. By November 2017, I was weeks away from attempting suicide. I was very lucky to receive psychiatric help that saved my life.
During that particularly dark time of my life, I listened to the OBCR of Dear Evan Hansen constantly. The story of this kid, Evan Hansen, who was just as anxious and depressed as I was, was a source of unquantifiable comfort. I still find it difficult to express the impact of seeing Evan’s character transform from someone who hated himself so much he wanted to die into a person who could genuinely say “today is going to be a good day because today at least you’re you and that’s enough.” Dear Evan Hansen contributed to keeping me alive long enough to receive the help I needed. For that, I will always be grateful.
So, when the film hit theaters in 2021, I was heartbroken when I saw the initial reviews. There was almost universal criticism of the adaptation — the film still holds a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes which, if you ask me, is abysmal. I was deeply saddened that the musical that helped save my life hadn’t translated well to the silver screen; I simply couldn’t bring myself to buy a ticket to witness the wreckage of something so important to me.
Nevertheless, I have finally viewed Dear Evan Hansen (2021). And, in the interest of stirring the pot, I must admit it wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be. It definitely had a plethora of issues, but it wasn’t terrible. In fact, I found some things about the film to be welcome additions to the stage production. Specifically, I found the new depth of Alana’s storyline (played by Amandla Stenberg in the film adaptation) and the addition of the song “The Anonymous Ones,” written by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Amandla Stenberg and performed by Stenberg, to contribute significantly to the emotional impact of film, particularly for those of us who can identify with hiding our mental health struggles.
In “The Anonymous Ones,” Alana, the high-achieving student body president of Evan’s high school, confesses that she, too, suffers from anxiety along with many others neither of them will ever know. Chbosky’s direction of the scene emphasizes Alana’s vulnerability in sharing her mental health issues with Evan (played by Ben Platt). The scene begins with just Alana and Evan sitting together on a childhood swing set in the stillness of the night as Alana quietly begins to share one of her deepest secrets. Throughout Stenberg’s performance, she repeatedly avoids eye contact with Evan while she confesses, giving the viewer the sense that they are part of a very intimate moment. The acoustic guitar and synthesizer chords in the song’s first verse invite the listener to carefully listen to Stenberg’s quiet, breathy vocal performance. Lyrics like “ever look at all the people who seem to know exactly how to be?/ you think ‘they don’t need piles of prescriptions to function naturally’” are like a punch to the gut for those of us who are all too familiar with this specific envy.
As the song transitions into the first chorus, minor chords are introduced on the piano to add to the emotional effect of lyrics like “the anonymous ones/ never let you see the ache they carry.” The synthesis of the emotional music with the poignant lyrics is designed to resonate with the target audience of teens and young adults who are used to hiding their mental health struggles in order to maintain impressive outward appearances. The message of the song is particularly salient in communities where high-achievement is a prerequisite, such as elite universities like Vanderbilt. It’s in these communities that brutally candid lyrics like “spot the girl who stays in motion/ she spins so fast so she won’t fall/ she’s built a wall with her achievements/ to keep out the question/ ‘without it, is she worth anything at all?” are difficult to swallow. For me, it is startling to have a mirror held up to my experience with such searing accuracy, giving a voice to thoughts I would rarely ever utter.
When the song transitions into the second verse and final chorus, the scene transforms from the swing set into a flashback to the first day of school. Chbosky shifts the audience to follow Alana’s journey as she navigates her anxiety instead of focusing on Evan’s point of view (“Waving Through a Window”). Stenberg’s subtle acting beautifully and accurately shows the carefully choreographed dance of avoidance and placation that those of us with anxiety perform on a daily basis. She quickly oscillates between darting eyes, fidgety hands, and brief unconvincing smiles. Stenberg begins singing in her resonant chest voice, complementing the added orchestration of strings and percussion. As Alana steels herself for another day of pretending to be fine, Stenberg passionately belts a G4 to express Alana’s frustration and desperation. When the song reaches its conclusion, Stenberg repeatedly sings the lyrics “the parts we can’t tell, we carry them well/ but that doesn’t mean they’re not heavy,” performing the lines like a mantra. The repetition makes the emotional weight of Alana’s confession truly sink in for the audience — Alana carries the weight of feeling as though she must hide her pain every single day. The instrumentation concludes with a rallentando allowing Stenberg to perform the final few lines a capella. The effect is haunting.
With the addition of “The Anonymous Ones,” Pasek, Paul, Stenberg, and Chbosky have done something special: they have provided a voice specifically for the high-achievers who most people would never suspect of struggling with mental illness. Sure, this subset is definitely a small minority, but, for me, I am so grateful to have this representation and to feel as though someone understands and recognizes my experience. After all, isn’t the point of art to help us feel a little less alone?
Who is the target audience of The Sound of Music (1965)? – Is it women? Or specifically, the tomboys out there who can really relate to the protagonist Maria? Or maybe it’s just children who are interested in learning how to sing? Well, even if those little kindergarteners are not the main audience, this film—directed by Robert Wise, starring Julie Andrews, and including music written by the prominent duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein—certainly is the textbook for all primary school music classes with its renowned musical number, “Do-Re-Mi.”
At a first glance, the audience could interpret The Sound of Music as a film that relays the story of a woman who doesn’t quite fit the standards of a “proper lady” and how this characteristic of hers becomes a great charm. The appearance of Maria plays an important role in setting up the tomboy of the character: her short hair, ugly dress, and makeup-less face.
Unlike the typical long and voluminous hair, colorful and classy dresses, and sparkly makeup that women wore to appeal to men, Maria maintains a short cut hairstyle, a bland dress—which everyone in Captain von Trapp’s mansion brutally criticizes—and a bare face. These costume choices make it apparent that Maria is someone who prioritizes convenience over fashion.
Not only visually, but Maria’s attitude also excludes her from the group of “proper ladies.” She is exceptionally talkative, even in situations where women are expected to stay speechless; from her very first encounter with Captain von Trapp, Maria straight-up refuses to abide by the house rules of using a whistle to call the children. The film once more affirms her strong intuition to point out a flaw when she sees one when Captain returns home after he visits Vienna and disapproves of the children having fun on a boat ride with Maria. Even in the very moment of the Captain trying to fire her, Maria shoots words like they’re bullets about how the Captain is unnecessarily obsessed with keeping discipline and that his children deserve some playtime.
Furthermore, Rodgers and Hammerstein dedicate a whole musical number to other nuns talking crap about Maria.
The whimsical melody and the light high flutes playing staccato notes in the back well describe how the nuns view Maria. The lively mood of the song alleviates the problem of whether or not Maria should be kicked out of the abbey (which is what the song is actually about), which also matches Maria’s personality of making everything joyful. The lyrics add on by verbally describing Maria’s character; “She climbs a tree / And scrapes her knee / Her dress has got a tear” and “She’s always late for everything / Except for every meal” clearly illustrate how unorganized and out-of-standard Maria is. In the musical number, the nuns call Maria “A flibbertigibbet! / A will-o’-the-wisp! / A clown!” as well as “a cloud [you cannot] pin down”—which leads to my interpretation of Maria: a free spirit. Her attachment to freedom is frankly symbolized by the hill that appears three times throughout the film. It is the hill where Maria is first introduced; the hill to which Maria escapes from the strict rules of the abbey and where she can freely sing and dance and run around. She introduces this freedom to the children who she also loves dearly by bringing them on a field trip and teaching them how to sing and dance. The symbol is emphasized once again when the whole family crosses the hill to search for safety and freedom from the war.
The director intentionally chooses a hill that is above and distant from the whole civilization, representing isolation and freedom from the world. This selective setting implies a detachment from not only society but its norms and stereotypes as well, which also aligns with Maria’s atypical character. However, when Maria is back amongst the people, her free spirit is considered “not woman-like” by both the abbey and Captain’s house.
The director further emphasizes Maria as a character who breaks the standard stereotypes of women when he introduces the baroness. The Baroness is a literal personification of all the typical qualities of a “proper lady”: perfectly set blonde silky hair, flattering dresses with lots of jewelry, and visible makeup. She is the epitome of beauty and elegance as shown through her style as well as her soothing voice and smile.
The two drastically different characters of the same gender highlight both personalities much more, and by resolving the film with Maria as the winner of Captain von Trapp’s love, the film transmits a message that even without being a typical woman, one can be loved by her innocent and enthusiastic personality.
However, after multiple re-watches, the flaws of this film stand out. Though Maria should be the symbol of a figure against the gender stereotypes of women, the character did not completely break the qualities, as she still had blonde hair (one of the biggest symbols of a pretty lady after the famous Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953) and, though they were ugly, wore dresses only. These feminine characteristics of Maria prevent her from completely being ostracized by society. Also, Maria is essentially white, which allows her more freedom to be individualistic and rebellious against societal norms. If Maria was not white, but of a different race, her so-called “unique” aspects of her personality wouldn’t stop at only being called weird, but would most likely lead to her losing her job and having no hope of being loved by a wealthy man. These loopholes in detail weaken the film’s argument that it is okay not to follow societal expectations.
Additionally, Maria is still a “female” in her heart, as her strongest quality is innocence. Wise well-emphasizes her innocence throughout the whole film through her love for singing, dancing, and playing. Particularly in the musical number, “Favorite Things,” Maria uses a somewhat childish method of avoiding the storm by listing things that make her happy: “Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels / Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles / Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings / These are a few of my favorite things,” “When I’m feeling sad / I simply remember my favorite things / And then I don’t feel so bad.” Not only in this song, but almost as soon as they meet, Maria empathizes well with the children and wins their hearts, proving that she shares commonalities with the young mind.
The societal expectation that the purpose of women is to find a wealthy man, create a family, and take care of children remains as well. When Maria returns to the abbey after realizing that she loves Captain von Trapp, Mother Abbess sends her back to the house with the mission of “living the life that [she was] born to live,” or in more explicit words, pursuing her love and supporting a family as a motherly figure. As Maria ends up being the actual mother of the von Trapp family, it makes the audience question: do all women, despite how unladylike they are, end up being a mother?
Wise also leaves some questionable scenes regarding gender stereotypes involving other characters as well. First and foremost, Captain von Trapp is also the epitome of a “manly” man by being shy of emotions, not knowing how to handle kids, being unnecessarily strict, etc. It may have been intentional for the story to only focus on female gender stereotypes, but we cannot ignore the fact that males are also restrained from gender stereotypes.
Also, in the well-known “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” Rolfe attempts to teach Liesl about the world, despite him only being a year older. He promises to protect and guide her like a reliable man; “You need someone older and wiser / Telling you what to do / I am seventeen going on eighteen / I’ll take care of you” (but he’s only 17!). By assigning a note to each syllable, Rodgers lengthens the song to allow the actor to enunciate each word. Also, his facial expressions and straight posture make the audience wonder if he’s talking to a kindergartener. Rolfe also sets a great example of what men expect of women: “Totally unprepared are you / To face a world of men / Timid and shy and scared are you / Of things beyond your ken”—again, touching on societal expectations towards females.
Though The Sound of Music attempts to encourage the elimination of gender stereotypes, especially regarding women, it lacks full coverage. This could be due to the period in which this film was produced: 1965—when people just started noticing racial discrimination and didn’t even touch on sexual stereotypes yet. Nevertheless, this film still stands as an impactful attempt to mitigate the standards that women had to live up to. The film is especially relevant to the current world, where women are still fighting to break free from gender stereotypes; artists of many genres constantly try to popularize the atypical image of women. Recently, South Korea has been facing this change in its main music industry. The K-pop girl group, ()I-DLE (formerly known as (G)I-DLE), earns great fame and praise for one of their recent songs, “Tomboy,” by speaking about being called a tomboy for behaving outside of the societal norms for a “girl.” The lyrics trigger gender expectations by tolerating exes “Tattoo my ex’s name,” swearing “Yeah I’m fxxking tomboy,” and enjoying sex and drinking “I like to sex on drinking whiskey.” By publicly targeting the ubiquitous opinion that women are supposed to be pure and submissive, ()I-DLE states that it is absurd for women to be called a “tomboy” just by doing some socially stigmatized actions (that ironically men can do). Also, by removing the “G” from their name, which represented “Girl,” ()I-DLE supports non-binary gender identities and calls off the stereotypes that define a certain gender. Along with great fame, this song received much attention for its message, especially in the middle of a very conservative country.
Similarly, considering how conservative the world must have been when this film was released, the audience should acclaim this film for being bold and pointing out a big flaw in society, just like Maria did when she saw one.
I got into a debate with my Vanderbilt interviewer. After he mentioned that his favorite novel was Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” we got into a passionate conversation about some of its philosophical ideas. After about ten or so minutes of this esoteric analysis, he confirmed that I was intending to be an English major. When I said “Chemistry,” he nearly spit out his $7 oat milk latte. After clarifying to make sure I was not in fact joining, he stated “I just seemed like so much more of an English/History person than a Math/Science one.” After I said I consider myself to be a “Science/English person,” he was surprisingly resistant to this idea. I probably spent the next ten minutes justifying myself and challenging his schema regarding this idea of labeling people.
Rather than just forcing myself into the bounds that society places on people to fit into these clear divides, whether it be based on interests, race, or gender, I continuously have tried to stay true to myself in spite of the pressure to fit into oversimplified categories. Recently, my father even referred to my “inability” to fully immerse myself in one thing as “immature.” He believes my many different pursuits are a consequence of my not yet finding my “one thing.” While he absolutely despises that my classes do not have some sort of “theme,” I am totally content with my transcript classes ranging from Shakespearean tragedies, child psychology, chemical engineering, and Chinese society courses. I like to think about my desire to follow multiple passions as increased maturity in being able to overcome societal stereotypes to live in a state of liminality.
Armed with this desire to fight back against the societal norms society imposes on people, it makes sense why I am absolutely obsessed with the 2006 Disney masterpiece “High School Musical”. This musical follows Troy Bolton, a talented basketball player, and Gabriella Montez, an intelligent academic, who both discover a passion for singing and subsequently, must combat stereotypes and uproot societal norms to pursue their passions. Director and choreographer Kenny Ortega, writer Peter Barsocchini, and an array of film stars wonderfully depict these characters escape the traditional roles and stereotypes in order to embrace their true selves. This message is particularly relevant today, as society often puts pressure on individuals to conform to certain norms and expectations. By showing that people can be multidimensional, “High School Musical” encourages viewers to fight back against society’s problematic tendency to categorize people and inspired people to be their true complex selves.
Everything about the satirical number “Stick to the Status Quo” perfectly exemplifies the pressure to conform and the gratification that people receive when they can escape such norms and be their multidimensional selves. Ortega’s vision of this scene is flawless. The number starts as various students come out and confess their secret interests that do not adhere to the norms that people expect them to fall into. Specifically, the stereotypically nerdy character Martha shares her love of hip-hop dancing, basketball player Zeke describes his passion for baking, and skater boy Ripper admits he enjoys playing a musical instrument. As Kaycee Stroh, who depicts Martha shares her interest, a smile lights up her face as she demonstrates how she can “pop and lock.” Additionally, Stroh’s sharp movements are performed with immense confidence that contrasts her otherwise more small, awkward motions. Here, Stroh perfectly exemplifies how her character of Martha feels when she can be her true self. Yet, as soon as she expresses such feelings, her peers exhibit a disproportional look of disgust, with several of them leaning away from her as if Martha had just admitted she murders puppies for fun. When Zeke and Ripper share their hidden passions, they are met with similar levels looks of repulsion from their friends. The negative reactions of their peers cause these three students to immediately open their mouths and look down in sadness, demonstrating the way that people who you have previously considered friends can be so unsupportive of one’s activities if they conflict with their own choices.
The musical’s production artists are highly effective in depicting the segregation that exists within the school. Mark Hofeling’s set design of having each clique around a separate table in the cafeteria visually establishes the physical separation between groups to emphasize the various classifications of the students. By using different round tables, each group of students faces the others, with their backs turned to other groups, underscoring the division based on social groups. Moreover, the costume designer Tom McKinley’s choice to put each group in a distinct style of dress that adheres to cultural stereotypes reinforces these separations. The costumes for athletic students include track jackets and sneakers, while the nerdy students wear more formal clothing such as blazers and bowties; the skater kids, don baggy shirts and beanies. The immense discrepancy in styles contributes to the social segregation within the school.
Another way these stereotypes are depicted is through Ortega’s variety of choreography. In contrast, the nerdy people literally march around the table holding textbooks, in which such forced movements emphasize their more uptight nature, in what most people would imagine being the dance moves of most Vanderbilt students. Such rigid motions make Martha’s rhythmic fast paced hip hop dance more striking. Yet, the girl in the gargoyle sweater topped with a pink blazer still manages to read her “Modern Biology” textbook in the midst of walking, which is just true dedication. In contrast to most of the nerdy students’ more uncomfortable maneuvers, the skater students are the epitome of the word “chill.” Their flowy movements resemble the inflatable tube men at car dealerships that let the wind move them. Similarly, the elongated words in their speech sound as laid-back as their dancing. Such wave-like movements and vocals also exasperate Ripper’s differentiation from the group. By playing the cello, which requires intricate hand placements and immense precision, Ripper would be making clean-cut sounds. The next scene depicts Ripper looking in at his friends from outside the circle, conveying the social isolation that threatens those who choose not to abide by a label.
To further depict the pressure students get from their peers, Barsocchini crafts the character of Sharpay Evans, the epitome of a typical high school mean girl. Likely feeling threatened by Troy and Gabriella’s singing talents and fear of losing her star role in the school musical, Sharpay does all she can to maintain stringent social norms. In this way, Sharpay serves as a foil to the main characters, who challenge societal expectations. Actor Ashley Tisdale’s portrayal of Sharpay’s narrow-mindedness includes very exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. When Sharpay watches those around her attempt to break away from social expectations, she raises her eyebrows and sneers in a way that conveys her disdain and contempt for them. Another specific acting choice Tisdale uses to highlight Sharpay’s beliefs is her use of a high-pitched and nasally voice. This voice helps to convey Sharpay’s self-importance and entitlement and makes her sound haughty and pompous.
However, as people get more comfortable with the idea of breaking the constraints of their social roles, they are able to overcome even the meanest of looks from Sharpay, symbolizing how people can uproot even the strongest social normatives. To represent this, the dancing shifts dramatically. The students no longer dance just with their clique around their table, but instead begin to branch out and intertwine with others. The students break from singing the lines “stick to the status quo” in favor of instrumental music, showcasing the lack of conformity. Everyone begins to dance at the same time but all perform different movements in a fast-paced and energetic routine. This dance employs a variety of different styles, incorporating elements of jazz and hip-hop as students go from more graceful twirls to sharp stomping. The cafeteria feels like utter chaos, that I so wish I could partake in. Ortego’s decision to have everyone engage in unique choreography rather than dance in unison demonstrates how so many students have been inspired to break free from social expectations.
However, just like in the real world, societal forces are incredibly hard to diffuse. Parents play a key role in shaping children’s identities. The dialogue that Barsocchini crafts to exemplify this idea really reminds me of some of the conversations I have had with my own parents. For example, Troy’s dad, Mr. Bolton, tells his son that he is “a playmaker, not a singer,” to which Troy responds “ever think maybe I could be both?” These quotes really spoke to my own relationship with my father constantly tries to curate and shape every aspect of my life. Just like Mr. Bolton was a basketball player himself and wants the same for Troy, my dad desperately wants me to follow in his footsteps to pursue scientific research. Yet, even though I spent summers in high school working in a UCLA research lab, I could never dedicate my entire focus to that, to my dad’s disappointment. Troy’s struggle to balance his own desires under the pressure of his parent resonates with me and so many other young adults trying to find themselves.
While I know there will likely never be a world completely free of societal expectations to act a certain way, High School Musical demonstrates that people should not let these social constraints define and dominate them. At the beginning of the movie, Troy’s friend Chad stated “the musical… isn’t hip hop or rock or anything essential to culture.” I hope if the fictional Chad were to read this essay, he would totally realize that his line could not be farther from the truth.
“High School Musical’s” message remains particularly relevant today, as so many people will continue to navigate an abundance of societal influences that begin to feel suffocating. This movie musical has so much value in reminding viewers of the importance of not limiting yourself to societal norms and the importance of being one’s most authentic self.
When I sat down to watch High School Musical again as a 21-year-old woman, I expected to see the straightforward love story that I understood as a child. A heartthrob basketball player and a quirky science girl fall in love and fight against all odds to audition for the school musical. And admittedly… that’s exactly what I got. But! I also noticed a little more nuance than I did 15 years ago. This musical is one big commentary on self-discovery and inner conflict. More specifically, High School Musical uses music composition and choreography to challenge our views toward social norms and encourage individuality.
The best song that shows this (and also my favorite) is “Stick to the Status Quo” which occurs during the end of Act I. The song happens just after the school learns that the star basketball player Troy Bolton, likes to sing and wants to audition for the school musical. For some reason, this is very controversial. But soon after, Troy’s exploration into unexpected hobbies inspires other students to do the same. This entire song shows the tension between the people who want to expand their identities and their peers who want them to assimilate. Altogether, the composition and choreography of this number help visualize this social tension and further the musical’s purpose to encourage self-discovery.
Let’s start with the music. The song begins simply with a casual percussive beat and an electric guitar riff in the background. The vibe is upbeat yet suspenseful, mirroring the cafeteria energy and the tension in light of the recent news. We watch as a basketball player lightly paces and then steps forward. He clearly has something on his mind. Suddenly the music goes quiet and only the suspenseful percussion remains. The attention lies completely on the athlete as he confesses his desire to bake (*gasp* such a faux pas).
Suddenly the music crashes in much louder and stronger than it was before. The percussion picks up speed, the electric guitar amps up energy, and a strong piano melody is introduced. Combined with the crowd simultaneously screaming, “NO NO NO!” with this crescendo, the audience very easily feels the emotion of the room. The crowd of students are upset and are very energetically rejecting the idea that a basketball player can be anything other than sporty.
The rest of the song follows a similar pattern. The music softens when a character confesses their interests, and then immediately picks up energy as the crowd responds negatively to the news.
Clearly, David Lawrence doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination. He is very deliberate through his lyrics and composition to show the conflict of straying from conformity. These characters want to be more than their high school stereotypes, but the fact that they are met with resistance in both the music and the lyrics helps show the challenges of straying from expectations.
Okay, the choreography is arguably the best part of the song. I will die on this hill. There’s just something about fiftyish teenagers dramatically stomping on lunch tables that gets me every time. But besides being an unintentional comic relief for me, the choreography of this song is the perfect visual of groupthink. Just before a character reveals their secret, their peers are engaged. The music is soft and the crowd leans in. But the second the spotlighted character reveals something unexpected about their own identity, the crowd erupts into a frenzy. They clutch their heads and belt to the sky. They thrash and stomp, almost like a tantrum, as they beg the character to stop talking. Their movements are aggressive and punctuated. It feels very disciplinary as if they are trying to force the spotlighted character to assimilate through strength and power.
This blatant shift in style from soft to aggressive shows the audience that the revelation was deeply upsetting to their social environment. As long as the character acts according to their expected identities, there is no problem. Everything is peaceful. But the moment a character shows a bit of individuality, it’s chaos.
The unified movement also contributes to the song’s portrayal of social norms. Throughout the song, the crowd of students move as one with energy and passion. Not only are they in sync with each other in terms of how they think, but also how they move – like some sort of hive mind. This effectively visualizes the idea of a social group and the people within them sharing the same thoughts and behaviors. It also emphasizes the power imbalance between the crowd and the individual and shows the pressure to act according to the group.
Given that the song overall portrays the clash between individuality and the pressure to abide by social norms, the choreography is very effective in visualizing this dynamic.
Now, before you say no shit sherlock, I completely agree with you. This theme isn’t very difficult to pull from the production. But I wanted to reflect on how differently I resonated with High School Musical as a child versus as an adult. As a kid, I thought “Stick to the Status Quo” was just about dumb high school politics. To be considered “cool” or “popular” you can’t embarrass yourself by doing anything other than what your group does. Don’t get me wrong, the song is certainly about that. But as an adult, I digested the message a bit differently. The song isn’t just a commentary on high school politics, but is also a reflection of our society as a whole. We, like East High, have social guidelines that we must follow in order to be accepted by our communities. Behaving outside of those guidelines might result in backlash (although probably not as dramatic as a cafeteria flash mob). So yes, High School Musical might be a very simple coming of age story with uncomplicated storytelling. But perhaps teenagers dancing on tables will also inspire you to have an existential reflection on our society.
Intothe Woods by Stephen Sondheim is a fantastical musical that combines many different fairytales- Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Giant Bean Stalk– and forces them down the dark rabbit hole of the woods. This song cycle, as most Sondheim musicals are, flourishes in the characters’ selfishnesses. The musical includes themes of growth, parenting, and morality. It’s a commentary on human action and reaction, but mostly it’s a commentary on Sondheim’s life. As such, this musical bases its cultural relevance on the common pain as well as flaws within society.
“…most fairy tales are about the loving yet embattled relationship between parents and children. Almost everything that goes wrong—which is to say, almost everything that can—arises from a failure of parental or filial duty, despite the best intentions.”
Stephen Sondheim was born to Etta Janet and Herbert Sondheim. Herbert left Sondheim at an early age. Etta became psychologically abusive, forcing her anger at Herbert onto Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim said, “”When my father left her, she substituted me for him. And she used me the way she used him, to come on to and to berate, beat up on, you see. What she did for five years was treat me like dirt, but come on to me at the same time.” Additionally, she once wrote Sondheim a letter saying that the only regret she ever had was giving birth to him. Sondheim remained estranged from his mother for 20 years until her death in 1992.
With this in mind, there is a degree to which the characters in Into the Woods are Sondheim’s mother, which is why all mothers within the story either leave or die (the latter being the more common). While making each character relate to his personal life narrative, we are forced to question the actions of characters and their morality in it. Are there any good characters at all?
To catch you up, I have made a list of how every mother left in Into the Woods (based off of the 2014 movie adaptation). So it goes without saying: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
The Baker’s mother died, causing his father to leave
Cinderella’s mother was dead from the beginning, but just to be sure she’s really super dead, the giant steps on her grave, killing her magical spirit.
The Witch’s mother is dead or gone; she’s the one that curses the Witch for losing the beans by making her ugly
Little Red Riding Hood’s (LRRH) mother AND grandmother are killed during the giant’s initial attack. Even the wolf who pretended to be a grandmother is dead smh.
Jack’s mom is killed after being pushed by the steward.
Cinderella’s stepmother just dips out.
The Baker’s wife, after having a quick affair with the prince, falls off a cliff.
The Witch, who stole Rapunzel as a child and thus became her mother (adoptive would probably not be the term, it’s giving ‘kidnapping’), dies from evil spirits, it seems.
Unclear if the giant had children. Signs point to no. In any case, she’s dead for sure.
Oh sorry. Wrong musical.
This is from Beetlejuice: the musical, The Musical, The Musical!
“Right and wrong don’t matter in the woods“
from the song “Any Moment”
The musical starts with the repeated line “I wish,” which is heavily referenced throughout the plot. Every character gets their wish, but the characters, as well as the viewers, are faced to confront the consequences of wishes. It replaces the theme of hope with an aura of selfishness. Within that, the characters are forced to deal with their anger and grief within the woods, where morality is often set aside. All their emotions build up in the song “Your Fault” in which the music swirls in a dark minor key. The song not only gives the viewers a recap of the consequences the wishes gave rise to but also allows the viewers to see the common result of anger: blame. The song is repetitive because, in the face of rage, there seems to be no clear solution thus moving the song cycle into the next sequence of “Last Midnight,” the Witch’s final song.
In “Last Midnight,” the Witch sheds light on the fact that the characters, blinded by their wishes, did possibly wrong things to get what they wanted. She says, “Had to get your wish—Doesn’t matter how—Anyway, it doesn’t matter now.” She, throughout the story, is representing moral ambivalence, thus becoming intertwined with the moral ambivalence of the woods. It all bursts to a conclusion with this song where she is explaining that blame doesn’t matter anymore or anyhow. Despite that fundamental truth, the “world” as the Witch calls them will be greedy. This is shown in the blocking as the Witch, played by Meryl Streep, is throwing the beans around, on the ground. Despite everything, the other characters scramble around her to catch the beans.
“I’m leaving you my last curse: I’m leaving you alone.”
The Witch in “Last Midnight”
The Witch takes the moral apathy of the woods with her, turning into a tar pit, one with the woods. The characters are not only forced to face their actions but also how alone they are. In doing so, they are also forced to analyze their relationship with their mothers (we’re back at the mothers!). This analysis blossoms in the song “No One is Alone.”
LRRH repeats the line “Mother said straight ahead not to delay or be misled,” but now she has no mother to guide her morality.
[CINDERELLA] Mother isn’t here now.
[BAKER] Wrong things, right things
[CINDERELLA] Who knows what she’d say?
Sondheim points out that mothers aren’t always right and that despite the fact that they aren’t there, the characters and the viewers are not alone. They then go on to point out that everyone makes mistakes- mothers, fathers (like Sondheim’s family). The Baker and Cinderella say they are, “Holding to their own…Thinking they’re alone.” This may be in reference to Sondheim’s mom only caring for herself after she was left ‘alone’ by Sondheim’s father. In the greater context of the musical, it calls upon the societal ideal of oneness and that one should put themselves first despite everything else. It’s this thinking they’re alone that allows for selfishness and its consequences because there are other people in any context. No one is alone.
Witchescan be right
Giants can be good
You decide what’s right
You decide what’s good
Baker and Cinderella in “No One is Alone”
Not only are the characters forced to confront their own morality, but the viewers get to decide finally what throughout the story was right or wrong, as we suspended our disbelief, because of the fantastical nature of the story and the way of the woods, up until this point. Not making a choice between the right and wrong, as Cinderella mentions in “On the Steps of the Palace” and the Baker’s wife mentions in “Moments in the Woods,” is no longer an option. What in our own lives is good? What in society is good? What in our own lives is wrong? What in society is wrong? It becomes about an individual’s responsibility to society in making morally just decisions, but also a responsibility to learn from others’ mistakes as well as our own.
It’s the way that each fairytale is meant to teach a moral. Sondheim took that very literally.
“You are a phony celebrity. You’re a flash in the pan, and in a couple of weeks, no one is going to give a shit about you. That’s Chicago.” -Billy Flynn
“KYLIE IS PREGNANT,” “KIM AND KANYE ARE GETTING DIVORCED,” “KENDALL SHOWS OFF HER MODEL FRAME;” these are just a few of the many headlines that circulate mainstream media. Although all of these headlines revolve around the Kardashians (which is no accident, as they are frequent headline occupiers), many of the more gossipy, scandalous, and therefore more entertaining stories involve female celebrities. The motive of any magazine is to produce the headlines and stories that society wants to read or hear about, reflecting women’s role in entertainment and what society wants or even expects from women. Though headlines and celebrity gossip are seemingly unimportant, after watching Chicago, I’ve realized it is a greater reflection of societal norms and values since it corresponds to the information that people seek, which is inherently influenced by their biases and preconceptions about societal structures, including but definitely not limited to the patriarchy.
Chicago reflects this big, and quite frankly scary, idea in a profound, comprehensive way that resonates strongly with the viewer. Chicago is the “longest-running American musical in Broadway history;” it was revived on the stage in 1996 and has carried strong ever since. Written and first debuted in 1975, Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb transport audiences to the roaring twenties in the roaring city of Chicago. There is no shortage of flash, booze, and jazz—John Kander writes bluesy hits that I can’t seem to stop humming. Fosse’s choreography brings these numbers to life, as do Ebb’s lyrics, all of which create an incredible, theatrical spectacle that later was translated into a cinematic masterpiece. Created in 2002, Rob Marshall directs the three main characters to perfection—Velma, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Roxie, played by Renee Zellweger, and Billy Flynn, played by Richard Gere, beautifully portray this infamous story of crime, scandal, and celebrity. Both Velma and Roxie shoot someone and are being tried for murder. Locked up in their jail cells, they rely on the help from Billy Flynn, a famous lawyer, to figure out how to set them free and ultimately save their lives, mostly by figuring out ways in which to appeal to the (conveniently) all male jury. Through its plot line and theatrical numbers, Chicago captures the longstanding perception of women as props meant solely for entertainment value with little other purpose or worth, highlighting one of the many ways in which women are objectified. The film argues that they are to be looked at or observed, but not to be taken seriously—their lives don’t really matter. This idea is exemplified through the plot thread of the actual lives of these women being at stake, and to save their lives, they must make the jury want to keep them alive by giving them what they seek and putting on a “show.”
Fosse and Ebb use performance as a medium for illustrating a woman’s purpose of entertaining and serving the needs of men. They capture this by having some of the numbers, that represent a moment in a character’s life, be an act on the jazz club stage, with the announcer, intricate costuming, and a glamorized performance depicting the act. This is most prominently displayed through “the Hungarian Disappearing Act,” which was essentially a casual, glorified way of depicting her hanging, revealing that this woman’s life was purely for entertainment in society’s eyes. “It’s show business,” as Billy Flynn would say.
This line opens the number, “Razzle Dazzle,” which prominently displays women as entertainment and the inherent misogyny within that that the musical proclaims. The number occurs simultaneously with Roxie’s trial; the film cuts back and forth between a circus-like performance taking place in the trial room and the actual trial (one of the benefits of cinema), once again highlighting the idea that the trial itself is a performance that Roxie and Billy are putting on. Billy even mistakes the jury for the “audience” by calling them that and then quickly correcting himself, solidifying the idea that these women’s lives are a spectacle for the “audience’s” viewing pleasure. They both put on quite a show during the trial itself—they are very theatrical in their movements and expressions, with big swooping arms, raised voices, crying, and fainting. Billy preps her to do this during the number—he emphasizes the importance of theatrics and “dazzl[ing]” the men in order to win her case and have her life be saved.
This highly androcentric perspective is portrayed in the characteristics of the number itself. Billy—who is conveniently the star of the number while Roxie does not say a word—is surrounded by scantily-dressed women in gold jewels and red feathers posing around him. They seem to be on display without an ounce of autonomy, only moving with an occasional delicate twist of the arm or graceful leg lift or swirl from the ceiling on silks. They serve no purpose except for visual aesthetics, “complementing” Billy and the male jury members and acting as props. All of this is to point out the misogynistic undertones of the number itself, beyond the obvious messaging through the song’s sexist lyrics. Most of the lyrics place the responsibility on the woman to “razzle dazzle” the men in order to get what they want; this involves stunning, shocking, blinding, and wowing them, assigning men the power in this dynamic. He describes women as shiny objects that they can use to their advantage in order to distract these men (“How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”), showcasing the blatant objectification that existed in this world.
To add to this idea of women distracting men, the composition illustrates this well by incorporating high hats. A lot of high hats. These stick out and are very consuming to the ear, representing this “flash” or distraction objective Billy describes through his lyrics. There are also many chimes that paint an image of sparkles or “sequins” falling around these women with men left agape, reflecting an all-too-prominent standard in society of the man staring at the woman as the woman does something with her body to impress him. This outdated image is also backed by the old-fashioned instrumentality of the song. Upon hearing the piano, brass, and trumpets, my mind instantly thought “old-timey, feel good, American jazz”—verbatim from my notes. This era of musicality is a reflection of the outdated standards and expectations of women at the time, that have still carried over in many ways.
It works, though! Roxie is found not guilty! Smiles and cheers fill the screen until—bang!—another woman has shot a man. The reporters move right along to the next headline, leaving Roxie in the dust. Roxie is upset and frustrated rather than joyous and relieved that her life has just been saved, revealing how she has internalized this need to be the headline that without, her life has little value. Ultimately, we see how female performers and celebrities, like Roxie, internalize the harmful stereotypes and behaviors that show business as a capitalist enterprise perpetuates. People are just looking for the thing that will make headlines and make them the most money, which ultimately means appealing to the wants of society, reflecting society’s misogynistic views of women. This is applicable not solely for show business or for headlines but in many aspects of life. Women having to act or appear a certain way to appeal to a certain audience in order to achieve what they want is something that I think about often, especially when thinking about eventually entering the workforce in a field, STEM, that used to be heavily dominated by men. It is easy to get caught up in these ideas in order to get ahead, but after watching Chicago and writing this blog post, I’ve realized the importance of staying true to yourself and values. And even though Velma and Roxie get somewhat of a happy, successful ending, I wouldn’t say the journey was worth it. Definitely one I’m not willing to take.
Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.
If pressed to name the musicals that define modern Broadway, I would easily name Dear Evan Hansen as one within my top three. I don’t think this is an uncommon perception. Dear Evan Hansen demonstrates some of the biggest, or perhaps most successful, trends on Broadway right now. For one thing, it’s set largely in a high school with all of the main characters either being that age or a parent. Secondly, it has some brilliant new music (read: not a jukebox musical, a genre which is simultaneously becoming more common and more contested). The music was written by the dynamic duo of Pasek and Paul– that’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for those not familiar with their previous works: Dogfight, A Christmas Story, and James and the Giant Peach to name a few.
It’s also just a very emotional show. It’s the kind of show that brings up phrases like gut-punching and heart-wrenching and all the other organ-based idioms. The plot of the musical is… flawed (we’ll get into that later), but overall, it works because of the strong emotional throughline, which I’d argue only works because of the music. At its best, the musical is summarized by one lyric from the song “Disappear,” “No one deserves to be forgotten […] no one deserves to disappear.”
On Broadway, the show garnered a huge fanbase and rocketed the original Evan Hansen, Ben Platt, into stardom. (And rightfully so, that man can sing.) By all accounts, the 2021 movie version of the 2016 musical should’ve been a success, at the very least among the musical theatre fans who bolstered its initial success.
So why did the movie version flop?
Dear Evan Hansen (2021) aims to take the ‘musical’ out of ‘movie musical.’ Director Stephen Chbosky did his absolute damnedest to try and make you think you’re watching a prestigious Oscar-nominated film, not a lowly modern musical.
The film paints Ben Platt as The Protagonist, and I’ll be the first to admit that he makes some incredible acting choices in this role. He can ugly cry like nobody’s business, and with a plot so reliant on a strong singer and a highly emotional actor, he checks both of the boxes within the first few minutes of the show. “Waving Through A Window” is a masterclass on how to introduce a character. It highlights Platt’s impressive vocal range in a symphony of belts and riffs, while also introducing the central internal conflict of the main character. It’s also super catchy, pretty much as catchy as a ballad can be. It’s no wonder that this is the song that made it big. It’s the “Defying Gravity” or the “Seasons of Love” of this show, and I can’t even be mad about it.
The choice to cast Ben Platt in this role gave us many good things, but it introduced one of the most glaring errors of the show: casting a 28-year-old man to play a high school senior. This is in no way meant as an insult to Ben Platt, but he is frankly not one of those people that can pull off ‘ten years younger.’ This raises an immediate question– why not cast a younger Evan Hansen? Sure, Platt originated the role, but there have been plenty of Broadway ‘Evan’s– the then 19-year-old Andrew Barth Feldman comes to mind–who can absolutely play 18.
What most people don’t know is that there wasn’t really any competition over who got to play Evan Hansen. Marc Platt– does that name sound familiar?–is a prominent film producer and was one of the producers of the 2021 film. He’s also–you guessed it!– Ben Platt’s dad.
Now, I don’t wanna claim nepotism, but if the shoe fits…
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Dear Evan Hansen (2021) feels less like the original musical and more like– Oh my god, look what Ben Platt can do!
One of the most grievous errors in the movie is the change in the music. Sometimes songs have to be cut in a film adaptation for time’s sake, I get it, but in a show where the music, not the plot, is the star, you have to be very careful with the songs you cut. In my opinion, they did it entirely wrong.
Four songs were cut completely (and a few reprises but who’s counting those). They were as follows: “Does Anybody Have a Map,” “Disappear,” “Good For You,” and “To Break in a Glove.” Now, I’ll be the first to admit, those first three are some of my favorites in the staged show, so this take is admittedly biased. However, objectively, all four of these songs feature a character who is not played by Ben Platt. By removing these songs, the writers effectively stripped every character’s journey down to bare bones, with the obvious exception of Evan Hansen.
There are only three songs that are not ‘Platt-led’ left in the show. One is “Requiem,” the powerhouse trio song which, to quote my brother, “people would’ve rioted in the streets if they removed.” The others are “So Big, So Small” and the newly written song “The Anonymous Ones,” which both spend a lot of time zooming in on Ben Platt ~acting~ even though he isn’t singing.
The effect is generally that in putting a spotlight on Ben Platt, the rest of the actors are left blindly moving around in the dark. This is very nearly a crime since two of the actors stripped of a good storyline are legends, Amy Adams and Julianne Moore.
What’s really heart-breaking about this, though, is the effect on the storytelling. Dear Evan Hansen is a sad show; there’s no escaping that. But by removing the “unnecessary” (read: not Evan Hansen-based) songs, the subtleties of the story are lost.
One of the best secondary storylines of the stage show is the depiction of Heidi Hansen, Evan’s mom. We see her at the beginning struggling to keep up, in the song “Does Anybody Have a Map?” Here, she honestly admits that she doesn’t know what she’s doing and that she’s just trying her best. It’s something the teenagers watching the show sometimes need to be reminded of– parents aren’t infallible. Heidi is working a difficult job with long hours trying to make ends meet as a single mom. She doesn’t spend a lot of time with Evan, and when later in the show she finds that Evan has been pseudo-adopted by a wealthy family, she understandably feels hurt and jealous. In the song “Good For You,” she expresses this frustration. The culmination of this storyline comes when Evan admits to her that he attempted suicide earlier that year. In response, Heidi sings the song “So Big, So Small,” both sharing the fear and uncertainty she’s felt with her son, but also making clear that she will always be there for him “no matter what.”
It’s absolutely devastating. There are few moments in the canon of musical theatre that make me tear up as consistently as this song. I’d highlight a few of the most crushing lines, but honestly, it’s the whole thing. It’s worth a listen. When I saw Dear Evan Hansen live with my family, I was watching this song while sobbing and holding hands with my mom, who was (no surprise) also sobbing.
As you may have noticed, the first two songs in Heidi Hansen’s storyline were cut from the movie. She only gets one song, the song that’s supposed to be the culmination of an entire storyline about a single mother’s struggles to connect with her son. Without “Anybody Have A Map” and “Good For You,” the song falls flat, despite Julianne Moore’s heartfelt performance.
Heidi’s storyline is taken from a complex one to simply one of a mother who wasn’t aware of her son’s mental health issues because she works too much.
My mom cried after watching the Dear Evan Hansen movie. Not because of the music or the performance, but because, and I’m quoting here, “this show makes [her] feel like a bad mom.”
That is not ok.
I could go into detail about my family’s dynamics and the mental health difficulties in my immediate family that make this show hit particularly close to home for her, but I won’t. It’s not necessary.
For a show that is supposedly meant to be about remembering victims of suicide and promoting discussions of mental health, the only thing it achieved in doing was making the audience feel bad. Even worse, it made someone who lived this fictional character’s circumstances feel guilty. That is a failure no matter how you slice it.
And this isn’t even getting into the problems with the original storyline– best summed up as a teenager lying about a classmate’s suicide for his own gain only for it to come crashing down around him. What a mess. It’s like watching The Titanic sink. You know what’s going to happen, but you watch that boat slowly sink into the ocean anyway. Half of the show you’re tearing up; the other half you’re cringing more than you thought was possible.
There are many, many cringy moments in the show. “Only Us” comes to mind, as Evan gets into a relationship with Zoe Murphy, the dead kid’s sister, in a relationship that is, of course, founded on a bed of lies. The casting of Zoe didn’t help; Kaitlyn Dever is a lovely actress; she dodges the pitfall of using sadness as the character’s single emotion, admirably portraying the complexity of grief. She can also sing well enough– that is well enough next to anyone other than Ben Freaking Platt. Having only one powerhouse vocalist leaves the duet feeling lopsided. (I’d argue this would’ve also been helped by better sound mixing. As much as it pains me to say it, turn Platt’s volume down. We can do that on screen, remember?)
What annoys me (amid the cringy-ness and the boiling rage at making my mom sad) is that Dear Evan Hansen (2021) tries to separate itself from the genre it’s in. It is the least musical-y musical that has ever been. The songs feel like they’re just moments to show off Ben Platt, and let me tell you, it is framed awkwardly. By removing everyone else’s songs, we’re left with Platt being the only one who sings throughout the show. Most of the songs are just Evan singing at someone while they watch him and emote. (Not to mention him starting the show by literally waving through a literal window. *Insert an eye roll pointedly aimed at Stephen Chbosky*)
They aren’t aided by theatrical lighting anymore. There’s no spotlight on Evan during “Words Fail.” The director chose to make us watch the Murphy family watch Evan admit to lying to them for the entire show. (It’s awful. I hated it. I already disliked “Words Fail” because of the wandering melody, but Good Lord, I wanted to be absorbed by my sofa. The secondhand embarrassment was too much.)
Choreography is virtually nonexistent in the show– there already was very little in the stage show, but the film was particularly lacking. The one moment of choreography I found was in “Sincerely, Me,” and it felt more like it was mocking musical theatre’s dance tradition than joining it. It feels very staged and ironic, and it’s meant to, this song is a visualization of the lies Evan is telling. The peppy music and bubbly choreography are meant to feel fraudulent and, oh boy, does the song achieve its goal, or what?
All of these choices, specifically the removal of the characteristic musical traits, leave the film feeling disingenuous. It feels almost like a movie musical made by people who don’t actually like musicals all that much. It seems like a cash grab if anything. The creators saw the success of the Broadway show and Ben Platt’s admittedly beautiful performance, and they decided to milk that for every last cent. In doing so, they lost what made Dear Evan Hansen a hit in the first place.
Dear Evan Hansen did not succeed on stage in spite of it being a musical. It worked because it’s a musical. The movie forgot that.
It was time. I tightened my belt, sheathed my sword, and sweatily clutched the handle as I entered through the backstage door and into the wings of Weiss Auditorium. I hadn’t dealt with nerves like these in a long time. I kept trying to imagine that I was running out of the locker room like Ray Lewis in Baltimore circa 2001, but I just couldn’t quite get there. Despite performing in countless plays throughout my childhood, nothing had prepared me for opening night of my first musical.
Despite these feelings of nervousness, when it came time for me to enter, I didn’t shakily stumble onto the stage; I gallivanted. That’s what I had to do. Not because I was an actor. Because I was a prince. Prince’s don’t get nervous – or perhaps, after watching the trials and tribulations of Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s prince, one might venture that they do. Whatever the anxiety levels of princes may be, as soon as I opened my mouth for the first time to begin to sing “Agony,” I was floating.
I was suddenly a passenger, whimsically being whisked through the melodious tones and intense feelings inherent in the music of Stephen Sondheim. Thus began a love affair that has been going strong for the last six years – one need only look to my Spotify wrapped to understand the commitment I have made to the “Into The Woods Original Broadway Cast Recording.” Since the conclusion of my high school production of Into The Woods, the continuation of the undying love between myself of this musical has mainly consisted of humming, a few reprisals now and then, and dreaming of the old days. But right here, right now, that all changes.
My dearest readers, I exit my prolonged hiatus from critically engaging with this musical by diving head-first into the story that I’ve held for so long in my heart, except this time, with even brighter lights, a much bigger budget, and James Corden singing – how fun! Without further adieu, I give you… my second act!
After my viewing of the film version of Into the Woods (2014), I grabbed an ice pack and threw it on my noggin for a hot minute, as I had just been hit over the head by themes and ideas that my ninth grade brain didn’t quite grasp. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that this was not a surface musical from the moment I picked up the script. I sobbed endlessly on the last night of our run, as our wonderful witch sang, “Children Will Listen.” “No More” – a tune inexplicably cut from the film – is a song that will tug at my heartstrings until the day I die.
The question that I found myself seeking to ask in my viewing, though, was: “what makes this musical, seemingly completely removed from real life, relevant today?” There is not one specific moment to point to, or one character that pulls everything together in this show. That’s the beauty of an ensemble musical. You can truly look at each scene and find something new about a character that you don’t know much about. However, there are some concrete things I was drawn to as I viewed this film, so allow me to guide you.
The construction of Into The Woods is very unique in itself. It’s an amalgamation of many fairytales from places and cultures across the Europe. In this fact, the show already takes on a unique sense of cultural relevance, as it serves as a bridge between storytelling cultures from all over the place. The reason for this may not be as deep as you think, as a fascinating article on the conception of the musical reveals that Sondheim decided to amalgamate these many characters because he thought it was simply impossible to start a fairy tale from scratch while trying to create the quest story that he had for so long wanted to conceive.
Despite the reasoning, the result is what’s important here. An amalgamation of different folktales and stories working in harmony gives this musical more meaning before the curtains even rise: there is something innately beautiful about being able to combine different people’s stories and fuse it into a bigger cohesive story? Isn’t that, in a way, what life itself is about? Cheesy, I know. But true. Very true.
From the jump this show shoots down the notion of universality: these characters are certainly not the same. They do not share the same privileges, the same financial security, and the same concerns. This musical thrives in the fact that these characters are so clearly different. There’s also a notion of hybridity in these characters. Sure – this is not as clear as it is in the analysis of some characters in West Side Story or Into The Heights, but the hybridity in these characters mainly lies in the fact that they have these set and preconceived identities associated with their fairytale. The characters never shed these identities throughout the movie – Cinderella is still Cinderella to us when the credits role. Undoubtedly, though, they take on new identities as the film continues. For example, Cinderella is not just an abused stepdaughter who eventually meets her prince, but an individual heavily grieving over her mother and someone who continues to experience problems after meeting “her prince.”
Ah, Social Class
Finally! We can dive deeper into “Agony!” The number features Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) as they commiserate about women that they cannot yet achieve. (I think it’s pretty clear who these women are, considering the names of the characters.) Anyhow, it’s a funny sight, especially when juxtaposed to what other characters in the musical are going through: two well-off and good looking princes being over-dramatic about the pain they feel because it’s officially been one day since they selected a girl they want and they don’t have her yet. I mean, seriously? You’re upset because there are no doors on your maiden’s tower? The baker and baker’s wife may never be able to have a child! Rapunzel doesn’t know what grass feels like! But please, regale us of your pain in what is (may I biasedly say, the best number of the musical.)
This is worth watching yourself before any more discussion from me, so let’s take a brief intermission and give this one a watch. Wait! Go grab some popcorn first. I don’t want you to feel like you’re watching this clip as an assignment. Watch it with the true movie-goer experience in mind. Leave the analysis for later. Anyway, enjoy!
I love Chris Pine. I just absolutely love the guy. What a ham! You see why I had you watch that? Delightful, right? More than that, it’s important to watch these princes in action to truly understand what this number is trying to say. If you were to simply listen to the soundtrack, half the meaning of “Agony” would be lost. So much of this song is in the choreography.
One of the best moments of this song is when Cinderella’s Prince rips his shirt open as he WRITHES in pain (I hope the sarcasm is detectable) and then Rapunzel’s Prince, looking to fit in, hesitantly rips his shirts as well (1:26). A similar moment occurs just a few seconds later, as Rapunzel’s Prince opens his mouth to sing of his pain again, but then is forced to look to his right and cede to his brother, as he has already continued singing (1:37). The two also take part in ridiculous displays of thrusting themselves back on rocks in pain, bumping into one another as they try to prove who is in more lovesick, and even kick the flowing stream water on one another as this number continues. Pine and Magnussen also absolutely nail the facial expressions, as they manage to render themselves as two puppy dogs, who know absolutely nothing about the world yet. I think this is exactly why my director decided to cast two ninth graders as the princes: you need to be able to portray a high level of naiveté in the role.
The main way through which characters construct cultural identity in this musical is through social class. Into The Woods shows us extreme examples of both the poor and the rich, and displays the way in which their wealth or lack thereof it has shaped them. The reason I chose to focus on “Agony” lies in the pure privilege of this number. While Little Red is dealing with a wolf that wants to eat her, and Jack and his mother are trying to sell their cow to put food on the table, the princes have time to assemble in this beautiful clearing in the woods and lament about a problem that is not a problem at all. Although abstracted by the fairy tale-ness of it all, this societal contradiction exists everywhere. “That’s a first world problem,” is certainly becoming a hackneyed phrase, but it’s true. How often do you hear someone complaining about something that you think they have no means complaining about? How often do you think you complain about something that someone else internally scoffs at? It’s all about perspective, I suppose, and these princes certainly don’t have it.
This is all made worse by the fact that the princes will get these women – and not be fully satisfied! The more you have, the less you can enjoy, I guess. The people who really deserve to catch a break, like the baker and his wife – don’t get so happy of an ending. The rich get richer.
The Good ol’ Fam
There shouldn’t be a dry eye left in the house after this one. There really shouldn’t. Into The Woods finds its most powerful cultural relevance through its musings on family. It differs heavily from a musical like Fiddler On The Roof, which focuses on the traditions and customs of a specific familial structure. Sondheim went much more broad in his statements on family, and I’d be surprised if anybody could walk out of the show and not found something that they can relate to. Between the Baker and his wife and their quest to have a child, the witch and her obsession with protecting and hiding Rapunzel, the struggle between Jack and his mother, Cinderella’s mourning of her mother, the Baker’s unresolved relationship with his father, the Baker grappling with the new responsibility of having a son, and the Baker’s eventual raising of Jack and Little Red. “No One is Alone/Children Will Listen” is one of the most gut-wrenching numbers of the entire musical, as the Baker, now left without his wife, must raise his son on his own.
Sondheim delivers a song for the ages that leaves anybody with a pulse thinking as the credits begin to roll in this film. It’s worth a watch – have a tissue box on hand.
Great, now I’m crying. I think I can still manage to say what I want to say. When the Baker’s Wife appears next to the struggling Baker and says “Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the wood,” I immediately break down. The sincerity and love in Emily Blunt’s eyes when she delivers that line is so genuine that you cannot help but think of someone you have lost in your life, or someone that you absolutely couldn’t bear losing.
Once the Baker gains the courage to begin speaking to his child, the Witch’s voice begins in the background, emphasizing the importance of being cautious with what you say to children. It doesn’t matter as much what you say to adults – they are all selfish and caught up in years and years of their own beliefs. Children, however, are blank slates. They will trust. They will care. They will listen. Thus, talking to a child, and, in a greater sense, raising a child, is one of the greatest responsibilities a human being could have. As the Baker begins to get in a rhythm of talking to his little boy, Jack and Little Red enter too, as well as Cinderella, who seems she will fill in as the motherly figure in the absence of the Baker’s Wife. Even in the face of great tragedy, people find family, blood or otherwise, to hang onto.
This song is also a very personal one for Sondheim, who was very affected by the psychological abusivness of his own mother. The two had a horrible relationship, ending in a twenty year estrangement and Sondheim not attending her funeral. With this number, Sondheim issues his own warning, serving as an example of just how deeply a parents’ treatment of their child can affect them for the rest of their life. This is perhaps the most universal cultural message of the show – in the construction of one’s identity, the role models and parental figures in one’s life are absolutely essential.
If I ever want to get the water works to get going, I know where to go. Thanks, Sondheim.
Breifly on omissions
I’m sorry, I had to just take a few seconds of your time to say the following about the parts of this musical that didn’t make the cut from the stage to the screen. I don’t get some of these removals. Clearly, I’m a purist for this musical, but it goes further than that. How do you get rid of “Agony (Reprise)?” With that, the film totally dismissed the storyline of the princes not being satisfied with their wives, and having affairs with Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.
This is so critical to this class discussion we were having earlier, as the stage version of Into The Woods seems to support the thesis of “The more you have, the less satisfied you are.” It’s beautiful comedy. Here these princes are in Act I, yelling at the universe for not allowing them to have these women that they SIMPLY MUST have. The first “Agony” ends with the two entering a falsetto to sing, “I must have her, to wife.” In Act II, the princes rejoin to sing of the new maidens they have found, and conclude the song by this time singing, “Oh well, back to my wife.”
To leave out “No More” is equally as puzzling. I get it, Hollywood. Big lights, big money, not a lot of time. Blah, blah, blah. Gotcha. That doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the most important numbers of the show. Talk about displaying the cultural significance of the show as a whole and bridging the gaps between all audience members by discussing the themes of family! Come on! “No More” is a seminal moment in which the Baker and the Mysterious Man (the Baker’s father) explore their broken relationship and how one is supposed to move forward in this scary and dark world. Another upper, I know.
There was no more universal reception at my high school performance than the reaction to this song. How could you not be shaken by the all-too relatable ideas of love, loss, fear, and broken-ness.
Try these lyrics on for size from the Baker as he unloads his fears to his father:
Can't we just pursue our lives
With out children and our wives?
'Till that happy day arrives,
How do you ignore
All the witches,
All the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies,
The false hopes, the goodbyes,
All the wondering what even worse is
Still in store?
What is a father supposed to say that??? How do we get to that day when we are with the people we love, and don't have to worry about all the things in this world standing in the way of that? Will we ever get there? The movie should at least ask this question by not making this nonsensical cut.
the ultimate quest
Sondheim set out to make a quest musical. Sure, he succeeded in doing that. But Into The Woods leaves us with a lot more than the Baker’s journey to find the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold. It leaves us with an urge to further our own quest in this world. It causes me to question my privilege. Are the problems I’m dealing with right now that bad? Or am I Chris Pine, throwing myself back on a rock over nothing while there is a James Corden right next to me in a much worse spot?
If you walk out of this movie thinking one thing, it has to be: “am I happy with my relationship with my family right now?” Into The Woods is a call to action for parents, children, husbands, and wives alike to right the wrongs in their relationship before it’s too late. The musical brings a sense of urgency to our time on this planet so acutely that I always feel a need to give my parents a call after watching this on the stage or on the screen.
With this musical, Sondheim so kindly says – “this time here is so precious, I would advise you to not mess it up.”
“It’s all a circus, a three-ring circus… these trials, the world,” stated the inimitable Billy Flynn in Chicago’s climactic court scene. “It’s all show business.”
And he’s right. If there’s one thing to take from the sleazy streets of the jazzy, 1920s setting of Chicago, it’s that the world is the stage, and the actors know how to perform their parts.
Chicago (2002) puts its audience in the shoes of Roxie Hart (played by Renee Zellweger), a sweet-faced, blonde starlet on the rise in the Midwestern Vaudevillian circuit. That is, until she kills her paramour and gets thrown into the slammer for her crime. Hence, the musical revolves around this bombshell anti-hero and her plight for a “not guilty” verdict as she encounters a plethora of devious cynics, including the seductive murderess Velma Kelly (played by the legendary Catherine Zeta-Jones), the corrupt, albeit fair matron of Murderess’ Row, Mama Morton (played by Queen Latifah), and the smooth-tongued criminal defense lawyer Billy Flynn (played by Richard Gere). Together, this ensemble of deceitful frauds characterize the oft amoral “Windy City,” manipulating the system not only for legal acquittal, but public stardom. Yet, it is not necessarily the direct plot of Chicago that reveals the two-faced and duplicit qualities of these characters, but rather over-the-top musical numbers that deviate from the gray and grimy setting of 1920s Chicago. Through the elaborate stage composition, specific lyricism, and intentional hyper-focus on choreography featured in its show-stopping musical numbers, Chicago reveals the enticingly manipulative nature of its captivating cast of crooks.
Firstly, it is important to distinguish how Chicago differentiates its linear plot from the inclusion of musical numbers. Unlike the broadway stage, where musical numbers are interwoven into the present stage setting, the Chicago film employs two different settings to tell its story: the first being the dark, sullen atmosphere of the city itself, and the second being a changing theater stage, always decked with ornate lighting, luxurious wardrobes, and glamorous detailings. The film employs the city atmosphere primarily for dialogue and plot progression, while utilizing the theater stage setting for its dynamic musical numbers.
We can deduce that this theater setting utilized in the film exists outside the physical realm of the Chicago universe. Instead (or rather, intentionally), the stage setting acts as a conduit for the characters in the film to present themselves to the world in the way that they choose to be seen. In employing this setting technique, we can identify how the film utilizes its identity as a stage musical to develop its characters, seeing as each number and its glamorous contrast to the gloomy world of Chicago allows the audience to see a glimpse into the facade worn by the film’s characters. As such, the show’s numbers can almost be considered an insight into the mind of a criminal, as through the character’s lyrics and performance, we get a front row seat to their internalized identity.
The dichotomy between Chicago’s plot development and number inclusion is perhaps best realized in one of the film’s first performances: “Funny Honey.” Prior to the transition into the number, we witness Roxie after committing the murder as her husband Amos attempts to take the blame for the killing. As Amos provides his faulty account to the police, the film fades into the dark theater setting, featuring Roxie adorned in a peach satin evening dress atop a grand piano. As the musical number segment ensues, we witness an interpolation between Roxie’s jazzy, seductive performance and Amos’ diegetic testimony. Despite the two sequences occurring in entirely different realms, the number still acts as an externalized depiction of Roxie’s internal monologue. The Roxie in the number, who presents herself as the fragile, endearing wife of Amos during his testimony, sings of her husband’s praises: “He loves me so / And it all suits me fine / That funny, sunny, honey hubby of mine.” However, as the diegetic testimony shifts when Amos realizes his wife’s infidelity, Roxie’s performance tone does as well: “I can’t stand that sap / Look at him go / Rattin’ on me.” Evident through the climactic shift, this performance is quite literally Roxie’s demeanor as Amos testifies to the police. As Fred Ebb’s lyrics expertly display the shift from a wooing, awe-filled wife to an angry, manipulative fraud when exposed, it is more than apparent that the musical makeup of Chicago acts as an image of its characters’ manipulative and deceitful facades.
It’s not just the lyricism in musical numbers that conveys the internal deceptiveness of these characters, either; Velma Kelley’s “I Can’t Do It Alone” employs intense Bob Fosse choreography to demonstrate her manipulative goals. The number occurs slightly after the film’s midpoint, following Roxie’s climb to notoriety adjacent to Velma’s fall from relevance. In an “act of desperation,” we witness Velma plead with Roxie in this number to start a two-woman show once they are both acquitted. This number differs from “Funny Honey,” as unlike Roxie’s performance as the shaken-but-steadfast wife, Velma centers her performance around her dancing and performance prowess. The number consists of a multitude of dancing sequences as Zeta-Jones springs into styles like jazz, cha-cha, swing, salsa, and Middle-Eastern-inspired movement – all of which with near perfect precision, coordination, and timing. The powerhouse performance of this choreography is exactly what establishes the manipulative irony of the number as well, as we have quite literally witnessed Zeta-Jones’ character do “it” alone. Furthermore, the flashy, neon stage design of the number only adds to the vivacity and enticement of this number, essentially drawing in the audience (and Roxie) with bright, Las Vegas marquis-like lighting atop Zeta-Jones’ stellar movements. As such, the choreographic composition of the number acts as the primary communicator of Velma’s character as she actively seeks to profit off of Roxie’s sudden rise in popularity.
Now, with all this corruption and deceit, how can anyone come to be fond of this show and its characters? Simply put: the performances. As previously distinguished, the musical makeup of this show is the front-row ticket to a world of manipulative enticement. Through the glamorous wardrobes and set designs, exciting jazzy influences, and a whirlwind of flapper-esque choreo, the world of Chicago is surprisingly exciting for a bleak and dismal city. The haze of glitz and glamor in the show’s numbers lures us deeper and deeper into caring about these characters, being captivated by the snares of jazz, sex, and liberation. As such, with each successive deceit and sabotage, we can’t help but indulge by rooting for Chicago’s collection of cons. With that being said, it only makes sense that this curveball nomination in the 2003 Academy Awards would go on to win six Oscars, including “Best Picture” and “Best Supporting Actress” for Zeta-Jones’ career-defining performance. Chicago is, for lack of a better term, the good guy’s vicarious ride on the wild side, giving into the temptations of subconscious desire, sexual allure, and all that jazz.
White Christmas certainly is, well, white. Many consider both the song and 1954 film, White Christmas, to be a quintessential part of American holiday culture. It stars some of the most famous stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, like Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, and Rosemary Clooney. It gives us feelings of nostalgia with odes to Rogers and Hammerstein, big dance numbers (choreographed by Bob Fosse and Robert Alton), and predictable love stories. But are these feelings universal to all of us, or just white Americans? I’m not going to lie, I am a sucker for old Hollywood films. I love the big dance numbers, aesthetic costumes, and predictable plots. They bring comfort to me. However, films made at this time (like White Christmas) certainly have their flaws. If we are going to continue loving White Christmas, it is necessary to give it a critical analysis, specifically of its performances of whiteness and its emphasis of traditional gender stereotypes on stage.
Come to “Holiday Inn”
Let’s start by debunking some common misconceptions regarding the musical film. First off, the musical is technically, well a jukebox musical of Irving Berlin’s songs. The infamous “White Christmas,” song was written by Irving Berlin, formerly Israel Beilin, the famous Russian-Jewish immigrant composer. Berlin wrote the song in 1942 for another Christmas musical starring Bing Crosby known as “Holiday Inn.” When asked why a Jewish American would be writing Christmas songs, Berlin responded with “I wrote it as an American.” Some attribute his creation of the song to Berlin’s identity and belonging as an American immigrant, as celebrating Christmas was seen as integral to American culture. The song first aired in December 1941, just after Pearl Harbor, promoting a sense of American cultural unity during the War. The film features other songs previously debuted in Holiday Inn, like the instrumental version of “Abraham.” The musical composition of “Snow,” was made originally for the musical “Call Me Madam,” but lyrics were changed to fit the context of White Christmas. “What Can You do with a General?” was also recycled for the film.
The film loosely resembles the plot of Holiday Inn (1942) as well, telling the love story between two entertainer duos: WWII veterans and sisters. Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) is a former Broadway star who teams up with Phil Davis (Danny Kaye); the two provide entertainment for troops their time serving in the war and go into business together after they return home. They soon meet Judy and Betty, the sister duo, and wind up at an Inn in Vermont as a result of Phil’s mischievous plan to set Bob up with a Betty. (Let’s not forget Phil also takes a strong liking to Betty’s sister Judy).
Let’s start with gender. The Hayne’s sisters’ first musical number “Sisters,” is strikingly resemblant to the number “Two Little Girls from Little Rock,” which features Marilyn Monroe in Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend. The sisters come out dressed in extravagant baby blue dresses holding obnoxiously large, feathered fans (designed by Edith Head). While the song lyrics seem to emphasize the strong bond the girls have as they sing “Lord, help the mister/ who comes between me and my sister,” but quickly transitions into “sister, don’t come between me and my man.” The song’s entire premise and purpose highlights the mentality that of course, they both should marry, and obviously it should be a man. The reprise of the number features Bob and Phil perform for the sisters in drag like costumes.
A truly “white” performance
The following musical number “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” features Phil and Judy singing and dancing in perfect harmony. It’s too perfect, just like the couple’s newfound love for each other. Not to mention Vera Ellen is twirling in what looks like six-inch heels. However, the audience gets to experience a beautifully choreographed romantic experience between the two. Never more have I wanted to go twirl around in a massive swing dress. This number again, emphasizes the binary reality that Judy must end up with Phil. This is what Judy wants, I guess. I would describe this number as quintessential of the Golden Age of Hollywood. A man and woman deeply in love with each other, lost in a beautiful swing dance. While Vera Ellen really can’t sing, (her voice was dubbed throughout the film), she sure can dance!
Now for the “whitest,” part of the film: the “Minstrel Number.” There is no explicit blackface or minstrel performance during the film, but the number does express the grave desire to go watch these performances. Everything in this number is loud and large. The stage is reminiscent of a Ziegfeld Follie performance. Lots of long bare legs, big kicks, and sparkles. The background dancers look strikingly similar to today’s Rockettes. Unsurprisingly, the new version of the song used in the film is a compilation of Berlin’s previous songs “Mandy,” and “I’d Rather See a Minstrel Show,” featured in Ziegfeld’s show in 1919.
The song opens with Bob and Phil singing about “pawning their overcoats to see a Minstrel Show.” “Mandy,” was originally from an army musical which featured soldiers in blackface and drag. Embodying whiteness on stage, Betty continues to sing of “the minstrel days we miss, when Georgie Primrose used to sing a dance a song to a song like this.” The whiteness on stage while not in explicit blackface, lovingly reminisces on the harmful practice. Judy then rises out of massive stage piece in a white leotard with long tail mimicking a wedding dress. She walks down the stairs past the swooning men and indistinguishable female ensemble in burlesque style costumes.
The rest of the dance number is impressive but somewhat unrelated to the plot. It features complex acrobatic choreography centering on the beauty of Judy, arguably objectifying her to just her body. She flies down the stairs as she is thrown between the arms of ensemble men. While Bing doesn’t actually perform in black face (he sure does in Holiday Inn though,) this musical number is positively reminiscent of minstrelsy and blackface, honoring it on stage, furthering the dominant form of whiteness on stage.
As I said before, White Christmas tends to remind some of cuddling up on the couch with your family during the Holiday season with a warm cup of hot cocoa. However, the film quite literally honors the racist practices of minstrelsy and blackface through its musical composition. Not only are songs used that contain lyrics verbatim reminiscing on the practice, a number of the other songs used in the musical originated through performance of the practice. Vera Ellen gets to showcase her dance skills a number of times in the show including to the instrumental version of Abraham. In White Christmas, the song exists purely as a dance break for Ellen; the song is only an instrumental version. But the original song was taken from White Christmas’s predecessor Holiday Inn. Bing Crosby’s character performs an abhorrently racist number in full blackface to this song. What was the need to include it in the new film? What does this say about the values of said American culture now and at that time?
The ending of the film is almost too perfect. It features all the characters on stage singing the iconic number “White Christmas.” A beautiful backdrop decorated with Christmas trees and presents is removed to reveal that the previously eighty degree Vermont town is having a white Christmas. I can’t help but sigh when I hear the three dinging bells fade into the soothing baritone of Bing’s voice exclaim:
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the tree tops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow, oh, the snow
This linkage between “whiteness” and American culture in White Christmas is explicit. It draws on community feelings of nostalgia, and national unity in a post world war II setting, but only by connecting to those who are white. The film creates a link between American history and culture as inherently white. Now the fact that Irving Berlin, a Jewish-American immigrant wrote a number of the songs for the musical complicate matters a bit. While he may have know first hand the struggle of assimilation and finding belonging in his new home, he never experienced life as a person of color in America. The film portrayals on gender also allow audiences to consider the intersections. of gender and race. If the story was told with characters of another race, would it cast the same meaning? And Bing, I have to ask are you dreaming of a white Christmas with regards to snow…. or a white Christmas with regards to the whiteness we see throughout the film? The film may seem merry at face value, but after a closer look at its history, I’m not sure it’s all that bright.
There is a lot to be said about Dear Evan Hansen; a musical view into mental health, a tell-all of social media, and society’s manipulation of traumatic events for personal gain. However, regardless of the complexities of my previous statement, Dear Evan Hansen is a musical that all should see, and in my opinion, rather a story that forces its viewers to confront emotional health, well-being, and surprisingly, forgiveness and understanding, in a way no other musical or story does. For me, this becomes all too clear in the powerful scene between Evan and his mom, Heidi, in the later half of the second act.
Written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “So Big/So Small” is a beautiful song about how life has shaped Hiedi’s motherhood and her love for her son. The song begins as more of a transition, from Evan’s admission of mental health struggles to his mom to a quick silent pause and Heidi beginning to tell him a story. Soft guitar begins, and slowly, we are pulled deeper into the moment, into the very living room with them, and before we know it, are hanging on to every word, every second, and every emotion. The tension in the room is unreal as if the whole rest of the world is just quiet, no distractions, only honesty. The solo guitar and comfortable range of Heide’s voice coming into the song spark a pure and raw tone, which in turn reflects the intimacy of the story and is an indication to audiences that this will be something special.
Throughout Heide’s telling of how Evan’s father left the two of them, metaphors largely play a part in anchoring and grounding our emotions further within the song and scene and make us feel for Heidi and Evan in ways the rest of the musical does not and made me reflect on my relationship to my own mom, my childhood, and my upbringing. It’s heart-wrenching. Puts that pull in the bottom of your stomach. It’s powerful.
A U-Haul truck in the driveway
But you saw that truck
And you smiled so wide
A real live truck in your driveway
lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Growing up, trucks were always a source of fascination, an oddity to the small barely battery-powered trucks and cars we would drive around in the front yard. Trucks marked for me my innocence, a curiosity for the world, and my desire to climb things that were bigger than me. To pair this innocence and personal connection with the reality of Evan’s dad abandoning him…. I’m heartbroken.
I will never forget how you sat up and said
“Is there another truck coming to our driveway?
A truck that will take mommy away”
There’s not another truck in the driveway
Your mom isn’t going anywhere
My childhood connection to trucks completely transformed into a whole new meaning, and for Evan too, trucks are no longer innocent but the loss of something no child should ever go through. No longer joy but something that could take his mom away from him. This line for me is where the emotions become too overwhelming, too present, too real, and is where Heide reminds me of my own mother; steadfast and always there.
Beautifully written within the structure of the truck metaphor, Pasek and Paul incorporate notions of feeling small in a world so big; feeling at our bottom while situations in our lives threaten to bury us, threaten to envelop our very existence; something in which I feel is all too common for people in today’s society and a choice that makes “So Big/So Small” resonate more broadly and loudly than ever.
Now it’s just me and my little guy
And the house felt so big, and I felt so small
The house felt so big, and I felt so small
Pasek and Paul’s use of metaphors and Julliane Moore’s incredible ability to deliver them through her performance of Heidi allow us to see Evan in a whole new way. It is Moore’s ability to change her voice inflection, create and play with such a raw tone that takes this song to another level. Viewers and, certainly me, at this moment learn to forgive Evan; we drop our guards, drop our moral prejudices and empathize with not only Evan but Heidi for her role as a hard-working single mother. For me, this song and this scene is a defining moment for Dear Evan Hansen and stands for why this is such an important musical for society and one which completely changed my entire perception of the musical as a whole.
Stephen Chbosky’s direction of camera shots and blocking makes audiences confront their emotions head-on. Confront the feeling of loss, the feeling of just being at our lowest, because there’s nothing to distract from it. No movement. Just sitting and embracing what is given to us makes this direction choice speak volumes. It’s almost like silence in music; the lack of sound is more impactful than the presence of sound. In this moment the lack of motion is more powerful than any motion could ever be. Throughout this scene, there are two camera angles, the main angle being a close-up of Heidi, and the second, the reaction of Evan to his mom’s personal experience of being left by her partner, without resources and help, and with a young now fatherless child. Tears flow from both sides of the screen and the scene ends with Evan embracing his mom.
This song and moment teaches so much about empathy, really making viewers think about where others are coming from, and meeting them at their lowest point; supporting them through it all. Society desperately needs more of this action, especially in a world where empathy and understanding get lost through social media and through our ever-busy lives. Dear Evan Hansen and “So Big/ So Small” also teaches us to forgive while encouraging us to love all no matter what. Bluntly, Evan conned a grieving family to gain what he felt like he lost in his own family. Yet, at this moment with his mother, sitting just the two of them, we forgive him, we forgive, and that’s what matters most and what I will remember most about this special musical.
The Sound of Music (1965; film) is an American Musical film produced and directed by Robert Wise and was originally written and composed for the stage by the legendary duo Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1959. Based on the true story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers, it begins with Maria, played by Julie Andrews, leaving the Abbey where she was training to be a nun and traveling to the von Trapp residence where she has been charged with taking care of the imitable Captain von Trapp’s, played by Christopher Plummer, seven children. Maria is independent and free spirited and never takes life too seriously, which is the complete opposite of the strict and no nonsense Captain. Taking place in Austria in the 1930s preceding World War II, Maria helps the Captain rekindle his relationship with his children while also forming relationships of her own with both the children and the Captain. This joyful storyline eventually becomes taken over by a darker threat of Nazi Germanic control.
Still Popular today
Despite coming out over fifty years ago, The Sound of Music (1965; film)is still a crowd favorite. This optimistic and sanguine film checks all the boxes. Notable actors that are charming and loveable? Check. Catchy music that is still being sung and reused while also inspiring new modern-day projects? Check. A plot that involves both an independent female protagonist as well as a swoon-worthy love story? Check. A more serious note of underlying political commentary? Check. These few features of the film are only scratching the surface of what makes this film a persistently popular culture phenomenon.
The power of music
Music is the main element responsible for moving the story along, the title is literally The Sound of MUSIC. This can be seen from the very beginning with the prelude song, “Prelude / The Sound of Music,” where Maria is seen dancing and singing in a picturesque field all by herself. Andrews gives Maria such an energetic and youthful performance full of big hearty swooping motions and enthusiastic belting that it makes me want to stop what I’m doing and find a field to do the exact same thing. This scene sets the stage for understanding Maria and how she goes about life: happy and free.
Then there are also the iconic and catchy songs such as “My Favourite Things” and “Do-Re-Mi” that can be heard at Christmas time and in elementary school music classes everywhere. “My Favorite Things” has not only become a classic Christmas song, it has even been an inspiration for modern day artist, Ariana Grande in the form of her hit song “7 Rings,” and if that’s not a reflection on the timelessness of this musical, then I don’t know what is.
As for “Do-Re-Mi,” this could be considered the origin story of the Trapp Family Singers, at least regarding the film. The von Trapp children don’t know how to sing, which is largely because of their father becoming withdrawn from all things playful and artistic after his wife passed. Maria’s character identity is largely based on her ability to sing, which Andrews embodies perfectly while also being in perfect pitch. Maria introduces the children to solfège of the major musical scale with this simple but extremely helpful song. The song, while not especially complicated, is what changes it all for the von Trapp kids because once they feel more comfortable with these musical elements, they acquire the ability to better get through to their partially estranged father.
We finally hear the whole von Trapp family, including the captain, sing together when the captain overhears the children singing “The Sound of Music” to his guests. He has an obvious emotional response to hearing and seeing them sing together where his eyes seem to light up in joy and recognition, which is when he begins to sing along. The children have a moment of questioning where they stop singing for a moment, until they realize that their father is not only appreciating their sound, but also joining in, and then we finally get to hear all the von Trapp family sing as a group. This scene in the movie was, in my opinion, the most warming and heartfelt, and definitely brought tears to my eyes because it’s where we finally get to see the love the captain has for his children and in turn the love they have for him.
The Captain’s homeland
Once Captain von Trapp finally does come around, he even has a song that’s special to him. “Edelweiss,” is a flower meaning devotion and was his statement of Austrian patriotism in the face of pressure from Nazi Germany. This song really embodies the captain’s view on the political situation that is currently affecting him and his home country. It is the first song that the captain really takes the initiative to begin, and it’s also one of the last songs the von Trapp family is seen performing. They perform it in front of a crowd full of fellow Austrians as well as officers from the German Navy who are waiting to take him to their base and force him to accept a commission to their war navy. This performance is a statement to the German officers and to the Austrians that they are still going to represent and love their country in this battle with an unforeseen outcome. With lyrics such as “Edelweiss, Edelweiss / Bless my homeland forever,” it becomes a sentimental response to the politically adverse climate that’s currently occurring. It also gives this scene as well as the remainder of the film an emotionally charged atmosphere that creates a much deeper meaning to the film as whole.
Many might question if this film has any aspects of feminism or women empowerment because it seems to be mainly about a man and woman falling in love, which has come to be synonymous with a woman becoming dependent on a man. I wouldn’t say it’s an altogether feministic masterpiece because it’s less blatantly feminist and more of a coming-of-age story of a young woman, Maria, and could even be applied to the eldest daughter, Liesl. For Maria though, she is thrown into her job as a governess by The Reverend Mother because it’s obvious that her sole purpose is not to be a nun, she even says herself that she saw the nuns singing when she was a child and decided that’s what she wanted to do. This decision was not because she was particularly religious or had a strong yearning to be a nun; she just wanted to have fun singing with a group of people. She finds just what she’s looking for in the form of the von Trapp children, after she teaches them, what music is, of course. Maria has choices that she can make for herself about her life trajectory such as whether to become a nun or whether or not to take the job as the governess, and this at least gives her some semblance of agency over her life. On the other hand, these roles that she can choose from do seem to be limited to stereotypical roles assigned to women and seemingly with no option of pursuing something outside of gender normativity. Maria is very headstrong, which gives her some power to stand up for herself by going against the captain’s orders on how to care for his children and eventually help the children reunite fully with their father, but even in this defiance she is still playing into stereotypical roles women are expected to play such as the motherly figure and the peacekeeper.
As for Liesl, played by Charmian Carr, she’s just a young sixteen-year-old girl looking for her path in life. Her father has seemingly abandoned her and her siblings emotionally, she has no mother and no older siblings to look to or ask for advice. The only person who seems to have an interest in Maria’s life is seventeen-year-old Hitler enthusiast/messenger boy, Rolf. The song, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” which is coming from Rolf, who is only one year older than Liesl, is definitely a little condescending towards her as seen by him calling her “little girl” and warning her of being too naive and being taken advantage of by older men. Then when it comes to her verse, she obviously has an agenda, which is to get to Rolf. She plays into her naivety and tells him things he wants to hear to rile him up, such as calling herself “innocent as a rose” and saying, “I’ll depend on you” (i.e. Rolf). All throughout the duet they are seen dancing in a gazebo at night while it’s raining. They partner dance close together at times, but Rolf will back up when getting too close because he doesn’t want to be seen as one that’s taking advantage of her, but at this time in her life she wants Rolf, and she knows it, even though the audience can clearly tell Rolf is not the man for her. While this scene definitely doesn’t do the film any favors for being seen as one that empowers women, the prevailing idea is that Liesl is young and looking for her purpose in life. She might currently think that purpose is getting with Rolf, but she has the agency to change that, and with the help of Maria in their “Sixteen Going on Seventeen Reprise,” she realizes that she doesn’t actually need Rolf. She has the ability to keep searching for her true passion in life, without traitor Rolf.
Women empowering ideas in this film aren’t as obvious as they are in others, and it might even be a reach to call them women empowering, but it’s more about the fact that all the female characters are still looking for their place in life. This gives the idea that they have some semblance of agency in finding their dream and pursuing it, even if the dreams given are limited.
not a love story but still very much a love story
As a hopeless romantic, I can’t help but swoon at every love story, no matter how corny or unrealistic, I come into contact with. That is to say, I did indeed swoon when Maria and the Captain are in the gazebo professing their love for each other through the song, “Something Good.” Them standing so close to each other, both singing “I must have done something good / For here you are, standing there, loving me,” was the climax to the evident build up their relationship had been going through. Yes, the Captain had intended to marry the Baroness, but their chemistry was minimal, and neither of them really loved each other, which of course makes it okay for him to break up with her for another woman, especially if that woman is Maria. Despite their relationship being a major component in moving the story along, it’s also accompanied by things already talked about such as family reconciliation, female agency, and Austrian patriotism. All of these aspects help to create a better well-rounded outlook on the events that took place for this family, and without one aspect, the story would be one-dimensional and would lack the ability to attract a large audience. Plus, who doesn’t love a good romance story nowadays? Probably a lot of people, but let me have my moment okay!
the power of music part two
Every major plot line in The Sound of Music features a unique and memorable song to accompany it. Music is the way these characters communicate and share their feelings with each other. While music is the main component in moving the story along, it also gives the film a prevalent sense of optimism no matter the situation, which could seem to make light of the heavy political situation that was going on at the time. It almost gives the idea that no matter how dire the circumstances such as being summoned to serve in the Nazi Germany Navy as a devout Austrian, you can overcome it through music, which in the real world is obviously not true. On the other hand, the music can evoke these feelings of joy and optimism from the audience, which sometimes is the sole purpose of watching any form of entertainment. Not everything watched must be deep and dark and perfectly accurate, it’s okay to make light of heavy things because it makes it easier to get through. Music might diminish the extremity of situations, but it is also an engaging and relatable experience that can draw people in and get them to listen, and potentially help them learn something new.
the sound of music in today’s time
It can definitely be said that The Sound of Music is not the most inclusive when it comes to casting. Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and the actors who play the seven von Trapp children are all very much white, and while it is historically more accurate, it doesn’t give any representation of racial minorities. This being said, race is not a central theme in this film; it’s never mentioned, and does not contribute to the plot, which allows for more representation of people of color in these roles. So, if this film/musical is ever created again, it would be great to see more diversity when casting these roles.
Also, watching this now was very interesting with all of the anti-Semitic comments being made by big time celebrities like Kanye West. The von Trapp’s are not Jewish, so they are not the ones being targeted by the Nazis and the comparisons are not the exact same, but they are still trying to escape. This film obviously portrays the Nazis as the overall antagonist of the story, and when comparing this to things that are currently happening in the world, it’s crazy to think that the events are almost a century apart, yet the hatred is coming back full circle. If I were watching this in 1965, I’d believe that it’s a sentimental portrayal of this family and their escape from the Nazis but watching it now gives a new meaning, and it even makes me wonder if our world is coming close to another similar event happening, which is honestly very scary to think about.
Despite The Sound of Music possibly being out of touch in today’s time, it’s sheer optimism and cheerfulness when facing hardships makes it, in my opinion, a timeless musical. If I’m ever feeling down, it’s something I can put on to lose myself in the lives of a singing family from the 1930s and maybe feel a little bit better.
Win together, lose together, teammates. I watched High School Musical back when my parents had flip phones and big box televisions versus the slick back televisions; we now have mounted on walls. High School Musical was the movie that was my literal EVERYTHING. The movie forced me to stay bundled up in my ‘Mickey Mouse’ pajamas and eat a box of popcorn with a cup of Coke on the side. It has been more than 10 years since I watched High School Musical, and my only question is: Will I feel differently about the movie watching it now?
I rewatched it and was mesmerized by Zac Efron’s bright blue eyes and Vanessa Hudgen’s sweet, soft voice. However, it is the other revelation of my teenage life I could see through the reel of the High School Musical.
Growing up watching High School Musical, I envied Troy and Gabriella’s ability to have the best of both worlds; being an “all-star athlete,” proving to be the “freaky math girl” and representing to be the shiniest penny on the block as the “theatre kid.” I longed for the same talent and effortless style that Troy and Gabriella carried around the halls of East High, but recently I have realized they were struggling to navigate through the multiple identities they formed. They were just like me.
Gabriella was talking to Troy and said, “Do you remember in kindergarten how you met a kid and know nothing about them, then 10 seconds later you’re playing like you are best friends because you did not have to be anything but yourself.” This line defines how my childhood was so carefree while I felt forced to be pre-defined under one category. By constituting Gabriella as the “freaky math girl” and Troy as the “basketball guy,” both individuals confine to this limited scope of freedom which disables them from growing to the best of their ability and following other aspects of their life that they are passionate about. Like their characteristics, I feel like I was labeled as the businesswoman in my family, and no one ever saw me exploring other options like becoming a pilot or a chef. After talking to people from different backgrounds and their unique journeys, I feel so regretful that I could not explore different options and stay on one path that defined “security” for me. I believe that if I were to switch careers or deter from this one “businesswoman” mindset, I would have dug myself into a hole that would simply take away my individuality. As a 20-year-old watching HSM, I can see the strength that Gabriella and Troy hold by acknowledging the backlash they received from their peers while still following their passions.
In “Breaking Free,” Troy and Gabriella are on the stage wearing his basketball outfit and her lab coat with a medal on it. They start off together in a soft and mellow tone almost as if they are confined by the outfits they are wearing and then bam when the chorus hits and they sing the words, Flyin’/There’s not a star in heaven that we can’t reach/ That we can’t reach/If we’re tryin’/Yeah we’re breaking free/Oh we’re breaking free/Can you feel it building, Gabriella removes her white coat almost as if she can feel her breakthrough moment and get rid of the suffocation she feels when she wears that. As soon as the uniform was removed from Gabriella both the passion in their voices changed and you can see how loose they get with each other, especially in their dance moves. Gabriella and Troy are two people against the world and they ‘break free; of everybody’s thoughts and they go against all odds to be together. One thing I did realize was that Troy did not have to remove his basketball clothes to feel free like Gabriella. Regardless of his status as a ‘jock’, he has the confidence to pursue everything he wants. The director of HSM, purposely kept Troy’s clothes on to show that he has more confidence than Gabriella, which is a gender stereotype that can be seen in a universal standing. Men usually use their confidence to mask the internal struggles they are going through. According to the world a real homosexual man is one that does not show emotions, and by staying true to who he is by wearing basketball clothes he stands his ground of continuing to show confidence.
I really loved how they had both the basketball and decathlon teams come out there and support them and showed that they are breaking barriers, that all humans are equal and there are no obstacles standing in the way of that. I honestly felt that same wave of relief and as if a heavy burden was being removed from my shoulders when they sang that. Looking back at my young self, I feel so naïve for just thinking they are breaking free because now I understand that being yourself and showing true authenticity is more important than ever being submissive to the opinions others have for you. It strikes a bell of childhood memories or simply has a special place in my heart along with that special someone you have. To me, the words themselves are a masterpiece. I used to think they were over-exaggerating when I was smaller, but now I know that words can have a great impact on your confidence. The message in this song is: break free from whatever’s holding you down. Worries, responsibilities, bullies, anything.
Furthermore, Troy Bolton fits the perfect mold of an American teenager: beautiful slick hair, blue eyes, and the star athlete of the Wildcat’s basketball team. Troy would only speak about basketball with his friends and gained attention from many girls at the school. As Troy is surrounded by many cheerleaders and athletes, the song “We’re All in This Together” plays in the background, and his teammate Chad passes him a basketball and says that he will be the leader of the team. Troy is celebrated by the ladies, the school, and his teammates, fitting him in as the perfect mold of a heterosexual male in our society. As Troy speaks to Gabriella in the hallways after their duet at the karaoke lounge, Troy tells Gabriella that he has never revealed his passion for singing to his friends and teammates. Troy gets caught whispering the word “singing” in the hallway as if he is questioning his masculinity by saying that he sings. In my opinion, the perception of the heterosexual male should not be confined to certain qualities and passions. Even though Troy might be represented as a “tough guy” to his friends and teammates, Troy acknowledges that he has a passion for singing and performing duets. As members of this society, we should not conform to specific rules of gender that hold us back and not truly reveal who we are as individuals.
Troy’s best friend, Chad also faces a similar stereotype. He also fits the gender norm of being a heterosexual male who represents an ideal high school athlete. I realize that I have encountered so many people like Chad in my life. Each time I find someone like Chad, I separate myself because I am aware of these types of individuals that hold a false identities. When Troy mentions that “We use to come here as kids, we would be 10 people. We would be spies, superheroes, rock stars. We were whatever we wanted to be, whenever we wanted to be it. It was us, man!” and with that Chad responds “Yeah, we were, like, eight years old”. I see the tunnel vision Chad has and it disturbs me that he is not willing to grow and unleash himself, rejecting the gender norms of typical high school guys. I wish I had the courage like Troy to try different things and not be afraid of the consequences that came with it. However, I was able to see the change in Chad’s mindset as the movie progressed and his understanding of Troy’s passion other than basketball grew. I was happy to see Chad in the theatre cheering for Troy because this shows the younger generation that it truly is okay to be yourself and try new things. Their support was a step closer to breaking the barriers our society has put up.
Watching High School Musical as a young child compared to a 20-year-old completely altered my thoughts. Watching Gabriella and Troy through their beautiful journey of acceptance had a really positive impact on how I thought about my future and how I should never be afraid to pursue my passions because of what other individuals have to say about my choices and actions. It remains important to understand that society will always place its expectations on what certain genders should act like. Thus, breaking such societal barriers is necessary to prompt positive social change and facilitate a healthy environment around us.
A Broadway musical about a man writing a Broadway musical that is about a man…. writing a Broadway musical (GASP)! This Strange loop never ends just as trying to understand who we are in relation to the world around us does not end. Having had the privilege to see this live recently, I felt the need to speak about my experience during the watch and compare it to three weeks later, after I had had some time to reflect on my experience. As I have learned in this class that there is no one way to analyze a musical, I found myself in another loop of sorts of trying to understand what it is Michael R. Jackson, (The playwright, Lyricist and Composer) wanted me to get out of his incredible play. It is through this podcast that I was able to begin to flesh out different egocentric and allocentric forms of viewing and understanding this story in the “Cis-het white gay-triarchy” that encompasses the Musical world around us. The Podcast is available here!
For my slideshow below, I have included a photo of my playbill (my first Playbill ever!), and a quick snapshot as we were shuffeling out. Then, we have some images from Google of Usher with his emotions in the background versus the next image where his emotions are taking the stage. Afterwards, an image from Google of the song Intermission Song. Finally, an image that alludes to the last part of the podcast (think Helicopter Miss Saigon).
If any of these images go against a copyright, let me know and I will take them down.
Unanimous goldmine! I have a question for you. How can someone possibly be born in their 23rd year? Where is the line between Man and Woman? How does it smell when the Motherboard bleeds? What does the Earth sound like? What do you do when The Authority has nukes, and you’re just a bunch of kids? These are only some of the questions posed by 2021’s Neptune Frost, an afrofuturist musical film directed by American musician Saul Williams and Rwandan cinematographer Anisia Uzeyman.
Top to bottom, I loved this film. The music, the costumes, the bicycle man, the dove, the giant floating rocks, the land of dreams, even the prophetic dialogue had me on the edge of my seat. The film begins with a lot of questions that Williams and Uzeyman don’t even begin to answer until about the hour mark. As a long-time science fiction fan, I enjoyed wondering, “Yo what the actual shit is happening right now?” For the first two thirds of the movie. If can stomach learning about a new reality and want to go in blind, which I recommend, SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH FOR THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD. And if not, that’s cool.
Shovels and pickaxes chink into a Burundi coltan quarry, with many of the young laborers dressed in greys and oranges that match their boulderous surroundings. An overseer towers over the laborers, clutching his assault rifle as young men mine a mineral critical for computer chips in smartphones. Tekno stops. He puts down his pickaxe. The Earth hums the sweet song of a summer synth wave. He bends down and picks up the rock at his feet. Hearing the Earth’s beautiful song, he holds the heartpiece above his head, like a treasure, or an idol, or a messiah. And then suddenly, without warning, the overseer strikes the stone with the butt of his rifle, plunging the rock into Tekno’s face and killing him. He falls to the ground a cooling sack of meat, his brother Matalusa weeping over the dead body. They hear drums in the background. The camera pans, and some of the miners now play traditional drums, pounding and wailing to the beat of the shovels and pickaxes. And when Tekno finally awakens, it’s as Neptune, the woman she always dreamed of being.
Neptune Frost features the coolest, most interesting portrayal of a trans person I’ve ever seen. Walking through an undersaturated, idyllic land of dreams, the titular Neptune narrates:
It’s here that I realized, about halfway through the film, that the odd choice to have the male Tekno narrate with a female voice wasn’t odd at all, it was because Tekno has always dreamed of becoming Neptune. And Neptune Frost is Neptune’s story. Neptune told it to me, sung it to me, danced it to me. At first, I didn’t want to believe Neptune. The things that attempt to “boy” or “gender” me in my life are not the same as in hers. I doubt that if I die, about an hour later I’ll wake up a super hot hacker genius. But still I thought to myself, how the fuck can she say that all that shit sets her free?
At the heart of Neptune Frost is Digitaria, a haven for the coltan-miners-turned-anarchist-hackers. Inspired by electronic waste landfills, Digitaria boasts giant keyboard key huts, refuse circuit boards, and kids decked out in neon chrome. When Neptune arrives, she stops speaking in prose. When others address her, she responds in poetry, in gospel, the stuff of messiahs. And for me this was evidence that she is a trans fantasy. Dubbed “The Motherboard,” she glitches in and out of existence as she becomes one with the digital heart of the land. She leaves logical conversation behind because she is a dream, a spirit. She, like much of science fiction, is “impossible.” And yet, she is. At least in my life, this contradiction is the heart of the trans experience. Never before have I seen such a powerful reflection of my own experience with gender in any piece of media. Neptune Frost is Neptune’s story because she has literally trans-scended the material plane. The film ends with her staring at the camera, arm outstretched, thrashing in and out of this world. And she is beautiful.
Singin’ in the Rain is a musical film jointly directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donlen, and was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green to feature songs written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Brown in a film setting. The film features Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, a Hollywood silent film celebrity caught in the transition from silent films to “talkies” in the Roaring Twenties. With the help of his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and romantic interest Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), he prepares a musical film while thwarting the romantically jealous efforts of his previous professional partner Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) to ruin Kathy’s career.
Singin’ in the Rain spoke directly to my elementary, puddle-stomping inner self – it’s witty, it’s cinematically awe-inspiring, yet, it doesn’t take itself too seriously to forgo face-scrunching and full-on slapstick stunts reminiscent of old-timey cartoons. And it’s not a stretch to say it spoke to many others: Singin’ in the Rain tops the American Film Institute’s “Greatest Movie Musicals,” and remains a cultural icon decades later (such that this musical theater layman came across it in their class!).
Despite being 70 years old, Singin’ in the Rain feels fresh – almost timeless. It feels this way to me because it breaks away from gender stereotypes (especially for 1952) through its female lead to give a more modern appeal – Kathy Selden is a strong, independent woman not afraid to take self-agency. Additionally, the story is in of itself witty, meta, and relatable to modern audiences – no matter the demographic – and the numbers are well-integrated spectacles worthy of their attention.
Kathy Selden’s introduction establishes her identity as a strong, independent female lead: she drives her own car (a historical symbol in the US for independence), is not afraid to brazenly criticize Don Lockwood’s livelihood as an actor despite his celebrity status (think about it: if Tom Cruise hopped into your car, would you have the gall to call his acting “dumb show”?), and rejects his aggressive (and frankly, creepy) sexual behavior (See Exhibits A and B).
Further, Kathy feels humiliated when she dances in “All I Do is Dream of You” – a humiliation which highlights Kathy’s independence and character strength. She is dressed in a pink, revealing costume, jumps out of a cake, is bombarded with streamers, and dances a routine that invites the male audience to objectify her. This abstract dance routine (along with the titular lyrics) plainly evokes feelings of ownership and power from this male audience, and when Don teases her about the situation (“I had to tell you how good you were”) she hurriedly tries to sidestep him because of this humiliation. When, however, Don throws salt in the wound (“Now that I know where you live [motions to cake], I’d like to see you home”) by demeaning her as some sort of cake-fairy, she doesn’t let the injury slide, and launches a cake at him. She has respect for herself – while she does take demeaning roles, she does it to create self-agency in a patriarchal society, and doesn’t allow them to define her self worth.
This self-respect is further prevalent when she chooses to not take a role from Don Lockwood’s studio: she chooses self-worth over money, despite the role’s possibility to jump-start her career. She is, however, eventually convinced into joining his studio – and surprise, surprise – confesses that she was a fan of his all along, but this moment gave me a sense of admiration for Kathy Selden’s character. Also, sidenote, it was pretty funny when she rejected the offer immediately after seeing Don Lockwood (because honestly, same). Anyway, Kathy Selden’s character is undeniably strong, and still feels invigorating today.
It’s hard to talk about Singin’ in the Rain’s timelessness and cultural relevance without talking about its most famous number: the titular “Singin’ in the Rain.” The set design is intricate: there’s backlighting for the rain and frontlighting for the characters in the street, the shop windows are ornate, and the street itself looks cheery despite the downpour. The set is almost inviting for the audience – and for me, most definitely cozy. Plot wise, the place of the number is also well-integrated – yes, Don Lockwood does end up bursting out in song, but it makes sense considering his lovestruckness. It also begins as more of a smile-inducing hum (“Do do-do do do”) before crescendoing into full-on singing, emulating a more realistic situation.
I can attest to this situation being realistic – because being completely honest, I’ve also sang in the street before. It wasn’t because of a romance, but just out of pure joy – and something about singing while walking down a dark, lamp-illuminated street by yourself just feels right. Because of this experience, I especially related to “Singin’ in the Rain,” and I’m sure just about anyone who sang out of joy could relate as well – not necessarily to just the romantic aspect of it, but the pure happiness that exudes from the song. You don’t need to be born in the 1900s or be White to appreciate this number, and more broadly, this film: the emotions it evokes are intrinsically human.
The song is in C major, a key that evokes happy emotion. The lyrics themselves are basic, light-hearted, featuring hums (as mentioned before) and has just eleven lines. I suspect this simplicity is what makes this tune so catchy – and it certainly has been incessantly playing in my head for the past week. The lyrics are delivered almost declaratively by Gene Kelly – and drips with his warbling, warm vocals – announcing his happiness to the world.
The dance is initially pedestrian: his feet sweep the street in simple, wide arcs while he walks, communicating his joy. When Gene Kelly begins to tap, however, his dance becomes more aesthetic: illustrating an intensifying joy. In the choreography afterwards, Gene Kelly’s feet are quick and lighthearted – no longer restricted to just walking, they feature joyful skips, twirls, and simple puddle-stomping and balancing on the curb that evoke images of innocent, child-like joy.
This appeal to simple emotion and the refreshing, modern (and witty) plot stood out to me, but it’s also just genuinely hard to find anything objectively bad about this film – and if anything, I recommend you to see it for yourself!
When I was younger, I was a complete High School Musical (written by Peter Barsocchini, composed by David Lawrence) fanatic. I’m talking about a major obsession. I would convince my sister she was Sharpay and I was Gabriella, and I’m pretty sure we would even act out the whole musical (using stuffed animals for the rest of the characters). For at least a year I believe I watched High School Musical (1, 2, and 3) at least once a day. My mom even one day had enough of it that she took the DVD from me and my younger sister, and hid it from us (you’ve probably never seen so many tears before). My obsession wasn’t only with the music, the dancing, or the cute characters, but also with the love story and idealization of what high school and growing up would be like for me. Talk about cultural identity, right? Well, turns out this wasn’t quite as unique of an experience as I had thought it was at the time. Every single one of my classmates in elementary school went through a similar obsession (maybe not as deep, but knew the music at the very least). When the time came that my high school decided to put on High School Musical (my freshman year), you bet it was record breaking for the number of auditions, first time performers, and selling out so quickly we had to add foldable chairs in the auditorium. So, what is it about High School Musical that makes it so enticing to my generation? Well, after rewatching it with a more critical eye, and actively searching for the “why”, I believe I have some ideas…
Kenny Ortega is the brilliant director and choreographer of High School Musical. Ortega really knew what he was doing in terms of both and I know that because of how each musical number is choreographed to convey a particular message. There aren’t a whole lot of musical numbers in HSM, but that means that they each had to be powerful enough to convey the message Ortega wanted, and to also be catchy enough for the audience (which they definitely were). Aside from choreography, can we talk about the costumes for a moment? I mean watching this back puts us right back in the deep end of 2000s style. Costume designer, Tom McKinley, knew how to style each actor and actress in HSM to help consumers identify with an individual character that not only acts, but also looked like them at the time. So not only do we have amazing choreography, an enticing plot, and catchy music, but costumes that connected everyday people to these characters.
To begin, let’s look at the classic opener: “The Start of Something New”. This song is sung by the two love interests and leads of the movie, Gabriella (played by Vanessa Hudgens) and Troy (played by Zac Efron). Gabriella is your typical shy bookworm and Troy is the classic “coach’s son” who is the star basketball player. The thing they both have in common (other than good looks)? They have a secret passion for singing!
“The Start of Something New” really is true to its title, because it sets the plot for the whole musical that taking a chance with something new will reap positive outcomes. Now, the choreography of this is brilliant, because Ortega chose for both characters to begin singing stiffly and transition into becoming more fluid and fun after they both get into the music. The instrumentation and actual volume also follows this as it begins soft then gets much louder and upbeat. There is a curiosity that Troy has about Gabriella, and this is the beginning of his “existential crisis”. This song also captures every heterosexual female’s desire to have a man that falls in love at first sight. Which was a tactic not used lightly in the writing of the film, because there needs to of course be some kind of romantic hook in a Disney movie after all.
Next, we have the iconic “Get’cha Head in the Game” song. Now this one is a doozy. This song is representative of the “struggle” between Troy realizing how much he loves music while having been all about basketball his whole life. Back to the choreography, the dancing of the other basketball boys is almost cult-like. They surround Troy and dance with the basketballs causing him to have a melodramatic breakdown of questioning why he enjoys something that is typically more feminine (**cough cough** toxic masculinity **cough cough**). There’s a moment in this song where the spotlight is on Troy and it is almost like the boys are circling him not only physically, but mentally with their ideas that he should only care about basketball. The whole song is him questioning why his head isn’t in the game. Again, amazing choreography decisions and choices by the actor himself to display such deep personal confliction (even if it does feel childish at times).
Another thing that the whole production team and actors/actresses did well was portray the same songs but give them very different meanings. For example, Sharpay (played by Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (played by Lucas Grabeel) sing “What I’ve Been Looking For”, and so do Gabriella and Troy. However, when Sharpay and Ryan sing it, it is playful, light, and has a “young” vibe to it. You know they are siblings, and it feels like they are singing this song together as siblings. While on the other hand, Gabriella and Troy sing this song and it becomes slow, relaxed, and a very intentional love song. Which is also telling of the two duo’s personalities, portraying the Evan’s as more out there and extroverted, and Gabriella and Troy as love-birds who like to sing secretively.
Now, finally we get to my most favorite song of the whole show: “Stick to the Status Quo”. Everyone pretty much knows this infamous song, and it’s not only because of the repetitive instrumentation or lyrics. Each group has one person who’s breaking this “status quo”, the baker, the hip hop dancer, and cellist all individually threaten the entire school’s normal way of functioning. This is exemplified by the repetition of the thunderous and aggressive “no no no no no no no stick to the status quo” lyric, and the keeping to the brainiacs, jocks, and skaters. These three people, and Troy and Gabriella deciding to veer away from their individual groups causes the whole school to have a crisis, and especially Sharpay who has always been the queen bee.
We then see our two favorite supporting actors, Taylor (played by Monique Coleman) and Chad (played by Corbin Bleu), get their groups to break up Gabriella and Troy so that things can go back to “normal”. Leading to the intensely melodramatic scene of Gabriella singing “When There was Me and You”, which causes her to realize she should have just stayed as the person people expected her to be. Which is also a deep audience hook, because we want Gabriella to win, and are heartbroken that Troy could even think these things about their relationship. However, the two groups realize that they’ve made a mistake when Troy is completely off his game, and Gabriella isolates herself. They then bring the two back together, and become supportive of their friends which is a complete switch from the message conveyed in “Stick to the Status Quo”.
This is the moment we start to see the individual group’s dynamics start to shift. They begin to accept that people have multiple different interests and values, and they don’t have to only keep to themselves. They even help each other, and Troy and Gabriella, to succeed by helping them get to the callback. This is the turning point for the school, and the way in which they start to form their new cultural identity of being diverse and accepting.
This is especially seen through both “Breaking Free” and “We’re All in This Together”. “Breaking Free” is more about Gabriella and Troy crafting their new identities, but nonetheless Gabriella is able to find comfort in combating her shyness through leaning on Troy, and Troy is able to express himself and his interests regardless of his basketball status. The moment in this song that particularly stands out to me actually has little to do with the two leads and their actions/lyrics, but rather with the incorporation of both Troy’s dad and Gabriella’s mom. When they both walk in and are zoomed in on, this is the moment that they are finally truly accepted by not only their school but their families. Which is a complete 180 from the mentality expressed in “Stick to the Status Quo”.
We then transition into the finale, “We’re All in This Together”. This song is probably the most well known song from HSM, even to those who probably have never seen HSM fully. Everyone knows the iconic dance moves and lyrics of this song. It is also a celebration of the fact that they’ve made it and accomplished everything together which also celebrates the development of their cultural identities to be accepting of each other’s similarities and differences. The lyrics “we’re not the same/we’re different in a good way/we make each other strong” are the epitome of the new identity they’ve all created, and especially the new sense of togetherness they’ve all adopted. The instrumentation is repetitive, upbeat, and cheerful in order to emphasize this final conclusion.
Overall, there is a lot to appreciate artistically, emotionally, and aesthetically about High School Musical, but if there’s one thing I’ll leave you with it’s that there is a reason we are so connected to this musical (even now), and that is the way in which we as a society idolize togetherness, happiness, and diversity (even if it isn’t perfect). The music, emotions, choreography, costumes, and individual characters all work together to pull us in and keep us there, “together”.