THTR 3333: Cultural Identity and the American Musical

On Voice:

Consider yourselves lucky. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-B

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

On Trust:

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

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

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

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

What if instead I said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confidence + Humility + Demand = Trust

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

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

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

But there’s still one component left. Demand.

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

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

I hope so.

-B

Writing about performance…

Titles must be underlined or italicized.  This includes the titles of plays (Medea), musicals (Medea!), primary source texts (The Poetics).  Song, poems, scenes, or other components of larger texts are placed within quotation marks (“Maria” from West Side Story).

Performance critiques use proper nouns to cite relevant material. “Kelli O’Hara won a Tony Award for her performance of Anna Leonowens in the Lincoln Center Theater‘s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s The King and I (2015).

Also cite source material. “Based on Margaret Landon‘s popular novel Anna and the King of Siam (1944), the musical premiered…”

Use dates to distinguish original Broadway productions from revivals or film adaptations. “Adapted for the Broadway stage in 2000, the musical White Christmas first appeared on film in 1954.” Dates can also appear in parentheses. “Theatre scholars define Oklahoma! (1943) as the first integrated musical.”

If you don’t know this information, may I introduce Google…

Avoid passive verbs, especially when they allow the author to fall short of providing relevant information. Change “Anna was portrayed as an angelic savior in hoop skirts” to “O’Hara portrayed Anna as an angelic savior in hoop skirts.” Even better, to include more specificity: ” “O’Hara portrayed Anna as an angelic savior in hoop skirts, swishing through the court and capturing hearts in dresses designed by Catherine Zuber.”

(Essentially, know the major players and use their names to attribute artistic choices.)

Use terminology correctly:

Reference “actors” and “performers” as distinct from fictional “characters.”

Reference a “production” as distinct from a “performance,” the first being the cumulative work of artists who have produced something for the stage and the second being a time-bound event, the occasion of artists presenting their production.

Distinguish a “play” from a “musical.” Both are dramatic texts. Drama is a genre of literature.

Distinguish scenery (stuff on stage) from scenic design (artistic concept developed for production) from stagecraft (the construction of and manipulation of scenery).

Distinguish costumes (stuff worn by actors) from costume design (the artistry) from costume craft (the construction and manipulation of stage clothing, wigs, makeup, etc.)

Distinguish lighting (illumination) from lighting design (the artistry) from light cues (moments of distinct lighting created for a scene).

Distinguish sound (incidental noise or music) from sound design (the artistry of noise and amplification) from composition (the writing of music) from sound cues (moments of noise or musical created for a scene).

Distinguish a cast album (recorded by stage performers) from a soundtrack (recorded for a film).

Funny Frustration

By Mady Johnston

Funny Girl’s “I’m The Greatest Star” is one of the most iconic pieces within the musical. It’s the recognizable pip with pizazz. It’s Fanny Brice’s “I am” song: a song type that usually sets a basis for how we, the audience, interpret her character’s decisions. However, the themes brought up in “I’m The Greatest Star” are far from centered in Fanny’s decision-making. The song sets up the frustration that many viewers have reported when finishing Funny Girl with the fact that Fanny seems to stray so far from her “I am.” Well, I have news about that frustration…that’s show biz, kid!

In other words, Fanny Brice’s glam in this song contrasts with the real-life struggles she faces. The plot of Funny Girl refuses to hide the misogyny that not only is a large part of Fanny’s story, but also part of the time period.

What’s she even talking about

In order to understand Fanny’s perspective, we have to understand what she’s saying in
“I’m The Greatest Star.” For this interpretation, I’ll be referencing specifically the 2018 adaptation, directed by Robert Delamere and performed on West End. The song is presented after rejection from the stage and becomes bundled with the emotions that come with not being given a shot. What’s unique about this song is that she’s singing about her woes but she’s unashamed at the same time. She’s singing of all the great things about herself: all the things she could offer to an audience that are “6 expressions” more than anyone else. What’s more is that Fanny is acutely aware that she doesn’t fit what Ziegfeld and others would consider an “American Beauty Rose.” She’s proud of her heritage, her home, and her looks.

I feel this overwhelming sense of joy as a Jewish New Yorker when I hear Fanny Brice proudly sing of her “American Beauty Nose.”
John Springer Collection/Getty Images | Side profile of Barbara Streisand

Despite what the world says about her outwardness, her culture, or her character, she is dead set in her belief that she’ll make it. To prove it even more, Sheridan Smith, the actress who plays Fanny in this adaptation, stays sitting on the ground for more than half of the song, but remains exaggerated in expression hilariously, exemplifying a great ability to perform. “I’m The Greatest Star” isn’t some sad lament where Fanny sings about how many times she’s failed. Instead, she sings about all the ways she succeeds. Additionally, the song is not a “performance within a performance” meaning that this behind-the-scenes moment between her and Eddie is meant to show her true self and her true wishes. Her “I am” song is powerfully positive despite all odds.

Sheridan Smith and Joshua Lay in Funny Girl (2018) | “I’m The Greatest Star”

Oh no! It all went wrong!

So where does this power go? Well, it left with the money that was sent to Nicky Arnstein. Only joking (stick around for the jokes). In discussion with people who’ve watched this musical with me, they all seem to have the same shtick: that Fanny shouldn’t have left her dream of performing- and therefore “losing herself”- for a guy. For this, we have to consider the real-life Fanny Brice. While Funny Girl is a loose biography, it still is set in the 1900s. I regret to inform you that life was disappointing for women back then. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room when it came to what a woman could do during those times.

Meme by yours truly

Mrs. Strakosh, played by Myra Sands, even holds marriage over Fanny’s successful career, often talking about her daughter who is married in comparison to Fanny, or asking about Nick rather than the shows. What happened to Fanny was a product of intense love, of course, but it also was, unfortunately, a product of the time. Fanny blaming herself for pushing Nick and not letting him make money himself exemplified the mass misogyny that existed back then. Fanny had more money than Nick and in an attempt to save him from bankruptcy, he felt emasculated by her success.

Brice loved performing- her “I am” song was the greatest 😉 – but she loved feeling like other women more. She constantly mentions how Nick made her feel “beautiful.” However, in “I’m The Greatest Star” it seems like she already feels beautiful so let’s not forget that, but her self-view changed to what others considered normal. Her self-view became what she thought fancy people in ruffled shirts viewed as beautiful, which was “typical” Ziegfeld girls and wives with children. She no longer fit in her self-view. The why of when she loses herself is a product of the environment. She mentions her jokes and her faces in “I’m The Greatest Star,” acting extravagantly as the form of comedy she produces, but she wants people “to laugh with her, not at her.” This meant to be a part of the majority, and give in to what the modern eye might see as frustrating.

Finding yourself again

Great news! They do, in fact, get divorced. So where does this “I am” song land now? Right back at the center like we thought it was meant to be! We get about five minutes of validation towards the end of the production when Nick leaves Fanny and Fanny is looking at herself in the mirror. She quotes her “I am” song. Knowing all the things Fanny went through as well as keeping in mind the time period, this ending unravels the return of empowerment within Fanny. This empowerment is not only women’s empowerment but also just plain old self-empowerment. Looking at yourself in a mirror and saying “Hello, Gorgeous!” is what the modern day would call “daily affirmations.” But her forgetting to do her daily affirmations is not what got us to this conclusion. Despite all the casual misogyny she experienced and the letdown of a lifetime, she still achieved the dreams she set out in “I’m the Greatest Star.” However, she went back to holding that aspiration at the highest value when the finale hit (she says beforehand she would have left performing if Nick told her to). With the reference to “I’m the Greatest Star” at the center of this finale, Fanny communicates to the audience some rendition of “I am despite what is.” The audience follows the story of Fanny Brice and Nicky Arnstein for quite some time, but we are pulled back into the modern world suddenly. Fanny Brice can be whoever she wants to be without a man. Fanny Brice had more money than Nicky Arnstein that she made on her own. These are all things that in the modern age are relatively normal, but back then were almost offensive. We leave the musical being proud of Fanny though because she returns to her progressive nature. She returns to grappling with her role in society when it comes to gender and sexuality but lands upon forming that outside of the status quo once again.


“I’m The Greatest Star” differs from common “I am” songs because it is not a basis for how we view the character, but rather a reference point for how Fanny Brice changed. Fanny Brice was thrown into a different world, far from Brooklyn and her small fan group of family. She definitely changed moving forward, but her past didn’t. I leave you with this thought- love is difficult, but you find yourself again and again and again, with or without it.

Pantsuits versus Lingerie: How Gyspy Subverts Beliefs About Women’s Power

By Hayden Paige

When I came into college, did I ever imagine writing an essay (that I would be submitting to a literal professor) singing the praises of stripping? Not in the slightest. But is that what this essay will be about? Yes, yes it will.

When people discuss the idea of sexual dancing and envision women getting almost naked in a theater to please horny men, it is super easy to label such activity as misogynistic. These men are clearly objectifying women as sexual objects rather than multidimensional beings. Yet, the 1993 made-for-television musical Gypsy challenges the idea that embracing one’s sexuality is inherently misogynist. Instead, Gypsy highlights the way females can employ their sexuality to gain power.

Louise dons a cow costume in the film adaption of “Gypsy” on BroadwayHD.

This film follows Rose, the archetype of the domineering stage mother, as she pushes her daughters, June and Louise, to perform vaudeville acts out of her misguided desire for fame. T is obvious that Rose strays pretty far from the ideals of traditional femininity, as she rejects the ideals of marriage, yells at the men around her, and employs often brazen vocals throughout the show. While my grandmother might rebuke such “unladylike” behavior, I do not find it troublesome. My issue with Rose is that she desperately attempts to enforce her own beliefs about sexuality on her children. To achieve what she believes will lead to success in show business, Rose forces her daughters to essentially suppress their feminity, by pressuring them to act more youthful and, in Louise’s case, perform with a more masculine appearance. However, such ideology is so problematic as telling women to suppress their sexuality or feminity as a means to gain power reinforces the idea that acting feminine would be inferior. It suggests that those who choose to embrace their feminine side and sexuality are less empowered. However, women should not have to wash away their femininity to be taken seriously. Through Bob Mackie’s excellent costume design, Louise’s different costumes become less and less feminine as she gets older. Starting with a more gender-neutral clown costume as a young child, she then must dress like the other boys wearing trousers and overalls. In these costumes, she wears loose pants and a shirt buttoned all the way to her neck that prevents people from viewing her silhouette. Her eventually donning of a cow costume ultimately strips away any semblance of her figure. Cynthia Gibbs, who portrays Louise, excels at revealing not only how on the stage of the vaudeville productions, she must act masculine, but also how Louise has internalized her role and translated it into her real life. As she wears these costumes, she seems unsure of herself. The suppression of character Louise’s sexuality is not just a performance for the stage but has permeated into her everyday life. To convey such ideas, in the initial productions of the famous song “Let Me Entertain You,” Gibbs’ dancing seems highly robotic. She appears stiff and unsure in her movements as she marches and waves her arm in front of her. Gibb’s constrained movements highlight the lack of freedom the character Louise has under the control of her mother, who essentially controls her body by enforcing this more masculine appearance on her. The mother literally calls burlesque “filth” before she sees how she can benefit from it. Such a word choice highlights Rose’s belief that flaunting one’s sexuality is somehow dirty. Rose wants Louise to mask her sexuality as she believes showing it off will make her lose her respect and dignity. Herbie even walks out on Rose because he does not like that Rose is encouraging her daughter to essentially reduce herself in front of men.

Louise explores her sexuality in the film adaption of “Gypsy” on BroadwayHD.

Only when Louise can truly embrace her sexuality does she transition into a more confident, empowered woman. When Louise dons a dress for the first time at the strip club, I felt like I was watching someone who had just got both cosmetic facial surgery and a breast enlargement surgery look at themself for the first time after the bandages have come off. I could literally feel the sexual tension between Cynthia Gibbs and the mirror. As she caresses her body, Gibbs’ choice to take a slight, not-so-subtle pause when holding her breasts, highlights her newfound sense of identity as a woman. Jule Styne’s musical score perfectly reinforces Louise’s shift in self-image, as the soft violin music in the background oscillates at a high pitch, increasing feelings of tension. Then, the sound of a bell kicks in. Evoking the ring of a bell creates compelling imagery, as bells are a symbol of freedom. In high school, the ringing of the bell would mean I would finally be free from the horrors of calculus. By playing on these associations of a bell with freedom, Styne reveals the freedom Louise likely feels now that she has escaped her mother’s influence and can accept her sexuality.

The dichotomy between the different productions of “Let Me Entertain You” convey the newfound empowerment Louise gains as she taps into her femininity and sensuality. In Cynthia Gibb’s portrayal of Louise, the viewer can clearly observe how Louise has gained ownership of her body through exploring her sensuality. As I mentioned earlier, when Louise remains under the influence of her mother who prods her to suppress aspects of her sexuality, Louise’s movements are so much stiffer and more forced. However, as the begins to dress more femininely, her movement becomes much more natural. Through Jerome Robbin’s choreographic expertise, Gibbs ditches the robotic movements she used initially and now exhibits greater musicality as she dances burlesque onstage. With shoulder rolls and shaking hips, Gibbs portrays Louise as being able to exhibit more finetuned control over her movements. The link between the more sensual dancing and Louise’s bodily authority speaks to the way in which tapping into her femininity has granted her this greater autonomy.

Additionally, Louise begins to project her voice, a demonstration of her confidence in what she has to say. Sondheim’s lyrics in Louise’s new performance of “Let Me Entertain You” further highlight her empowerment. In the song, Louise states that she is “not a stripper” but rather “an ecdysiast, [which] is one who,/ or that which,/ sheds its skin.” While at first, I thought such a quote was just Louise using an alternative form of stripper to avoid stigma and make a joke, upon further inspection, recognize the difference between being a stripper and ecdysiast. The term stripper evokes ideas of someone just taking off their clothes or “stripping” away part of them, reducing them in essence. Meanwhile, an ecdysiast “sheds its skin,” which implies that there is a new layer underneath. Rather than taking away part of oneself by stripping, the character of Louise views herself as taking off the old part of herself to expose new skin. Such nuances reveal how Louise sheds her more tomboyish persona in favor of tapping into a new part of herself. This wording also suggests that rather than simply donning a costume to perform her sexuality, it instead has been part of her the whole time, just waiting to be revealed. Later, director Emile Ardolino’s choice for Rose to hang the cow head in her daughter’s dressing room further speaks to this idea of using a costume as a sort of mask of one’s true self. Gibbs’ glaring eyes and secure voice as she demands her maid to take it down emphasize the repulsiveness Louise feels seeing this stark reminder of a time when she had to cover up her feminine identity. Just like she changed her name to “Gypsy Rose Lee,” Louise continues to reject what has been layered on her by her mother. Now, Louise favors stripping, which she feels can be the most honest version of herself, literally represented by the fact that strippers have minimal clothing to cover themselves. As a burlesque performer, Louise holds the autonomy to choose what she does or does not want to show, thus taking back the power of her own body.

For such a long time, I, like Louise would cover up. My high school dress code specifically stated that no “sexual-looking” clothing was allowed. Shoulders, cleavage, stomachs, and thighs were to be completely covered up at all times. It was instilled within me that maintaining what they referred to as a professional appearance was needed to be taken seriously, similar to how Louise’s mother initially encouraged her to dress to gain fame. I remember Ms. Letchworth explicitly complimenting me one time for wearing a t-shirt under one of my dresses to show less skin, literally telling thirteen-year-old me that it makes me look so much more “respectable” than some of my peers who were “pushing the limits.” Yet, as I got to college, I came to the realization that a bunch of people telling me what to wear to prevent me from being objectified felt just as misogynistic as them objectifying me in the first place. Thus, I was very impressed that Gypsy, despite the original book being written in 1959, was very progressive in its aim to show that women do not have to choose between embracing their sexuality and feeling empowered. Instead, Gypsy reveals how women can be both feminine and powerful.

A Female Breadwinner??!! **GASP**

By Jasmine Jain

If you’re a musical theatre geek (like myself), surely the name Fanny Brice makes the “theatre kid” inside you light up. Fanny Brice is the leading lady in Playwright Isobel Lennart’s production Funny Girl. The musical was first performed on Broadway in 1964, but the production I’m going to be speaking about was captured by Digital Theatre Live. The production was filmed live on stage at Manchester’s Palace Theatre in 2018 under the direction of Robert Delamere and Michael Mayer. Ricky Milling focused on editing the film, and did so beautifully through zoomed in and out panels of the actors and actresses. Funny Girl portrays the talented life of Fanny Brice with a side of love/heartbreak portrayed through her relationship with Nick Arnstein (played by Darius Campbell). In this rendition of Funny Girl, Actress Sheridan Smith fantastically portrays Fanny’s character through her facial expressions, choreography, and acting talents. The music also helps craft Fanny’s character as it is loud and pompous, yet solemn at the same time. Bob Merill (lyricist) and Jule Styne (musician) worked hand in hand to craft the emotional soundtrack of Funny Girl. Through the addition of instruments, varying tempos, and repetitive melodies the story of Fanny is truly told in the most emotional and exciting way. Whether through the “I am” songs “Don’t Rain On My Parade” or “I’m the Greatest Star” or the hysterical song “Sadie Sadie”, Funny Girl will always remain a classic. I say this, because Funny Girl presents the gender barrier between men and women in a way that makes it easy to understand while highlighting the seriousness of it while providing some comedic relief.
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8851198/mediaindex?ref_=ttmi_ql_1 This is an image from IMDb.
My take on this performance of Funny Girl is that Fanny Brice (played by Sheridan Smith) is fully confident in her talents and abilities, and she continuously breaks out of the status quo. In our modern day society, we would look at that and we would probably say something like “slayyyyy” or “you go girl” or even “she’s an independent womannnnn”. But, I think it pretty much goes without saying that back then in the 1900s this was definitely not the case. People celebrated Fanny’s success, but the moment she overshadowed Nick Arnstein (her love played by Darius Campbell) everyone started to shake their heads. However, Fanny was the only one to not notice until her mother pointed out how she basically had her hands around Nick’s neck due to her success. My idea of Funny Girl and the purpose it serves the musical theatre community is to show the glorification of the American idea of feminine behavior, and present an anomaly to that idea. Gender and sexuality play a very big, and sometimes lucrative role in musical theatre, and especially within shows performed on Broadway.
Photo by Taylor Hallick on Pexels.com
There is a common idea of what the “perfect American woman” should look like, and Fanny Brice offered a counteracting idea in order to show the hypocrisy of the time, and even though that may not have been seen when it originally had come out I believe that the effect of watching Funny Girl is seen within society very much so nowadays. Fanny Brice was performing under the talented Florenz Ziegfeld. She provided comical relief, and helped the theatre to profit greatly off her talents. However, Fanny was different from the other follies. Ziegfeld was known to present a distinct image of Americanism in his shows and this came with choosing the most objectively beautiful performers, and Fanny served as a contrast to this idea. Ziegfeld was astounded by her ability to be successful while also being herself, and again, in modern days we actively look for this, but back then there was a certain look that was preferred by directors and men in general. We even see this through Fanny’s relationship with Nick. She begins to fawn over him, and he’s looked at as this suave gentleman who could never want to be with someone like herself. However, he chooses to be with Fanny even though he could most likely have his pick of any girl, which is an interesting contrast to what is expected of men like him during that time.
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8851198/mediaindex?ref_=tt_mv_close This is from IMDv.
Even though Nick seems like this amazing person at first, we start to see his personality as his relationship with Fanny begins to develop even more. Specifically, after Fanny agrees to go out with him, and the song “You Are Woman, I Am Man” is performed. The way that Sheridan Smith walks into the scene is hysterical. She walks in and is cracking all these jokes, and not acting as she’s “supposed to”. She presents herself as a strong woman because she refuses to just become enamored with his dreaminess, and demands that he not play with her emotions. During this time period, women were expected to plan their lives around men, and Fanny presents the opposite. Nick admits to being scared of Fanny which is also unusual, but eventually Fanny admits to not knowing when he will make “advances” which is when he goes right into the musical number. This song is intriguing to me, because Nick is trying to convince Fanny to participate in his “advances”, and we see her inner struggle between doing what she thinks she should do and what she wants to do in this situation. The lyrics that particularly stick out to me are as follows: 

“You are woman, I am man/ you are smaller, so I can be taller than”

These particular lyrics are interesting to me, because we see the gender stereotypes from the beginning where there is this idea that a man is greater and stronger and taller than a woman and he tries to feed this to Fanny (someone who doesn’t see the world this way), and thus begins her inner struggle of wanting him, but also not wanting him.
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8851198/mediaindex?ref_=tt_mv_close This is from IMDb.
The next set of lyrics I find entertaining is when Fanny begins to sing the following: 

“Isn’t this the height of nonchalance/ Furnishing a bed in restaurants?/ Well, a bit of dinner never hurt/ But guess who is gonna be dessert?”

This is when Fanny begins to crack jokes (as she typically does), and calls out male misogyny in a satirical way while also showing us the inner conflict she has between staying true to herself or being the woman she’s expected to be in this time period(submissive to men and what they want). I find it interesting that Fanny goes from singing this kind of a song and dives straight into “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, which is often noted as her “I am” song and also her expression of strength. Not only is this a shocking series of songs, but right after “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” Fanny goes into singing her song “Sadie, Sadie” which also is very different from the vibe of her “I am strong” song. I always find “Sadie, Sadie” to be the first point we see a huge change in Fanny’s character as she begins to fall deeper into the expectations of women at the time. She even calls herself “Ziegfeld's married lady” which allows for her new "characteristic" to be that she is married (the opposite of what she was known for, which was breaking the status quo).
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8851198/mediaindex?ref_=tt_mv_close This is from IMDb.
Overall, I believe that the director (Robert Delamere and Michael Mayer) did a brilliant job with the way the performance was done to emphasize the gender stereotypes that eventually were soaked up by Fanny unintentionally. After discussing these songs and Fanny’s slow, but progressive, change to becoming more of the typical woman for Nick I also want to point out that Fanny was also still true to herself. I say this because Fanny knew how successful and talented she was throughout the entire show, and never once gave up performing. She also was the “breadwinner” between her and Nick which is what caused a lot of strife between the two of them. To be frank, I believe that the way Nick acted out towards Fanny helping him was immature, ungrateful, and narcissistic. However, this is also me responding to his behaviors as a 19 year old, “woke”, female in the modern world. Back then, Nick’s reaction to a woman being on top was not unusual, but still disappointing. It was normal for a man to feel upset and have his superiority feel diminished at the success of a female counterpart. This was exemplified in Funny Girl and in the modern world it feels like this amazing production can be viewed as a satire about the “old-fashioned” societal norms.
https://giphy.com/explore/old-fashion This Gif was found on Giphy.
The character Fanny Brice created by the musical authors (Merill and Styne) was mostly successful in presenting her as a strong, confident anomaly of a woman that struggles with her place as a woman in society. I also believe that through the way that the song list is set up the story makes her inner struggle between performing and being a good wife/mom even clearer. I also believe that the costumes (made by Victoria Toni) were successful in communicating the struggles that Fanny went through as we saw her dressed glamorously towards the end, but in the beginning of the show we saw her wearing more normal clothing that wouldn’t be identified as fashionable or glamorous. The music and the costumes worked hand in hand to present us with Fanny: the strong, yet troubled woman trying to find her way through a career with a difficult stereotype expected of her. Sheridan Smith also provided the audience with a version of Fanny that was paired with the expectations set by both musical authors and costume designers. Through her facial expressions, increase in confidence while performing, and increased maturity she was able to present us with a Fanny that was strong but also sensitive to what was expected of women.
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8851198/ This is from IMDb.
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8851198/mediaindex?ref_=tt_mv_close This is from IMDb.
To wrap up this long-winded assessment of gender and sexuality in Funny Girl (2018), I believe that people watching this today should be looking at this with eyes wide open as to how Fanny broke out of the gender stereotypes of the time, but also not take everything too seriously in terms of what was expected of her. I say this because it is easy for us to become wrapped up in our anger over the way men treated women in the early 1900s, but we shouldn’t look at this production as something to be angry about or “shun” the musical out of spite. Rather, we should view it as something that was terrible, but be proud that Fanny was brave enough to keep her confidence on the up-trend (for the most part), and we should look at it as an example of exactly what we don’t want our society to revert back towards. In absolutely no way am I saying that the way women were treated by men and others within society was right by any means. I really want to emphasize that this is still a struggle for modern women (gender equality), and we have made progressive strides but should continue to learn from the past (by watching shows like this) in order to correct our present times. Gender and sexuality is usually something that is touched on in almost every famous musical, and this is because it is something that is important to be aware of, and also to use it as a tool for learning and understanding what we as a society need to do in order to continue in the fight towards equality within the workplace, and life in general.
https://giphy.com/gifs/feminism-zooey-deschanel-feministic-rants-YRu57gFiFDplK This is from Giphy.

Funny Girl: Frustratingly Telling About Our Society

Provided by IMDB

By Matthew Enfinger

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, directed by Robert Delamere, brilliantly plays Fanny Bryce: an icon in broadway history and a star never afraid to be herself. However, Fanny being the complete opposite of what most would consider “American beauty and desire,” fights for the spotlight, revealing a larger conversation of gender and sexuality in societies larger agenda.  

On stage and off, Fanny embodies the notion of being a “funny girl:” a little awkward, quirky, and fun. Using this to fight for her own place on stage, Fanny takes comfort in her talent, her incredible singing and ability to interact with audiences and other stage members in unique ways. Fanny never wavers in this identity, choosing to live it 24/7, bringing an authentic feel to her characters and performances in ways not seen before. It is Smith who takes this performance to another level, delivering and exuding energy in ways that other cast members lack, and it is her performance that truly makes audiences understand and root for Fanny. 

Disgustingly, Fanny lives in a man’s world, and it is this world that she fights to find her own place within. Men tell her yes, men tell her no, and men argue with other men on whether she deserves a yes or a no; to the point that Fanny never really controls the trajectory of her career alone. Tom Keeney, director of a small theater house, initially refuses work for Fanny until an applauding audience convinces him otherwise. Even then, Keeney underpays her until another man, Nick Arstien steps in and makes him pay up for the talent he deems “worthy.” Eventually, Fanny reaches the highest and most desirable stages, performing under the direction of Florenz Ziegfeld, the man literally responsible for defining “American beauty” through his reinvisioned show girls that Fanny does not fit represent. Ironic isn’t it? However, Zeigfeld too undervalues Fanny and wants to use her as a comic, someone to be the foil to the show girl. Not someone to laugh with but laugh at. Oh and did I mention Nick Arstien becomes Fanny’s love interest and is a stereotypical man who cannot handle a woman making more money than him and causes a lot of problems for Fanny. There’s that too.

“Don’t Rain On My Parade” perfectly encapsulates the complicated and dense environment that Fanny Bryce lives in, and Sheridan Smith’s performance of it is everything. With every beginning and end of musical phrase, Smith belts out lines that not only put a wall between her and patriarchal authority but also question the very notion of it with lyrics written by, Bob Merrell, such as “Don’t tell me not to fly/ Who told you you’re allowed to rain on my parade?” The contour of her voice and the melodic line she sings brilliantly enhance the lyrics with subtle shifts of note length, tone, and inflection that combine to add an edge, an attitude, and a confidence that highlights Fanny Bryce’s steadfast desire to live life as she chooses: fuller and undeniably herself. It is this desire that also invokes a dream-like feel for what could be and makes this song and this moment in the musical that much more special. 

A jazz big band accompanies and mimics the lyrics, playing a simple upbeat swing, show tune and groove written by Jule Styne. Like Smith, the band utilizes changes in inflection, playing heavier and more staccato when questioning patriarchal authority and playing more light and airy when invoking Fanny’s dreams of a world that could be. Orchestration has a big role in pulling this off, whereas most of the time the brass have this bite to their sound, when Fanny begins dreaming, they sing and their melodic lines soar and are legato rather than being short and abrupt. 

However, just as Fanny Bryce is living in a patriarchal society, so too is the song and the music. Another interpretation of the short staccato interjections in the big band throughout the song being the fight back to Fanny’s commentary, with only the longer more lyrical moments along with the slower breakdown being truly Fanny’s and Smith’s voice. 

Further complicating this idea is that the actual peak, the high point, and climax of the song occurs when Smith sings “Hey Mr. Arnstein here I am.” The high point, the most critical moment of the song, directly talks to a man. In fact, in this moment of the musical Fanny is leaving her job for love, for a man, for the toxic man Arnstein, which only goes to show that despite all of the work Fanny puts in to being herself and fighting for change, ultimately, patriarchal society is still very much overbearing and present. It’s inescapable…. unable to be broken. Interestingly, this is not the only song in the musical that Merrell and Styne write together with the climax being “Mr.” which only solidifies the undertones of this song. It is a clever choice, subtle, to the point, and damning.

“Don’t Rain On My Parade” is a genius representation of gender and sexuality as it reveals and highlights the complicated layers in which Fanny has to fight for her world. From the very notion of not being the typical “showgirl” that broadway demanded of at the time, and for constantly having to fight to remain true to herself and in “control” of her narrative. Yet at the same time, the song displays the true world in which she lives, that no matter what Fanny does, as long as society is a patriarchal society, she will always be a part of this oppressive and binary society; making this musical and this song problematic to me. It is both good and bad, certainly revealing, and leaves you, me, questioning the society and world which we live in today, which I ultimately think is intended and for the better. 

The Male Gaze and Gypsy (1993)

Transformations intrigue us. We gasp at the Very Hungry Caterpillar’s metamorphosis as children, fixate on before and after diet photos, and unhealthily pore over Breaking Bad character analyses for days (I’m guilty of the latter). And just like Walter White’s becoming of Heisenberg, Louise Hovick’s development into the titular Gypsy Rose Lee sparks interest. What prompts this change? What does this transformation say about her character and her environment? 

Gypsy: A Memoir (1957)
Gypsy (1959 Stage Musical)
Gypsy (1993 TV Film Musical)

Gypsy’s director Emile Ardolino adapts the television film musical from the 1959 stage musical Gypsy (which in turn takes inspiration from Gypsy Rose Lee’s autobiography). With music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy tracks the transformation of Louise Hovick from the shy, oft-overlooked sister of vaudeville headliner June to the bold, independent burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. Now that we have that established, let’s try to answer the aforementioned questions.

So first, what prompts this change? Easy: Madame Rose, Louise’s mother, volunteers her as a replacement for the main stripper because she believes it is a breakout opportunity. Louise, although initially unconfident, grows more comfortable as she receives (gross as it is to say) “support” from the burlesque theater audience. As Louise recognizes that she can play this role successfully, she capitalizes on it to become a burlesque star. 

What does this transformation say about her character and her environment? These questions are much harder to answer. Gypsy Rose Lee clearly empowers herself by embracing her sexuality, and throws aside traditional notions of femininity defined by patriarchy. However, I can’t help but notice that despite the death of stage entertainment, burlesque theater is still popular enough for Gypsy to succeed… a popularity which suggests more insidious elements. Although a message of triumph, Louise’s transformation to Gypsy Rose Lee also presents a sad truth: the influence of the male gaze, and more broadly, patriarchal society. 

A satirized example of the male gaze from the Hawkeye Initiative.*

Let’s define the male gaze. Coined by Laura Mulvey, it refers to a heterosexual male gaze that objectifies women in a sexual manner. And one can imagine that succeeding in popular media, especially in the early-to-mid 20th century, with a large – if not majority – heterosexual, male audience, meant catering to this male gaze. Gypsy even implicitly brings up the male gaze in an earlier dialogue between Louise and Tulsa, a boy that coworks in June’s act. 

When explaining the reasoning for why he tries to dance more than his female partner for a nightclub routine, Tulsa opines, “They always look at the girl in a dance team, especially if she’s pretty.” Tulsa is subconsciously aware of the male gaze – catering to a probably very male nightclub audience, yet still wanting to be the main lead, Tulsa believes he must dance more. 

“They always look at the girl in a dance team, especially if she’s pretty.”

-Tulsa

Now let’s look at an example where someone is actively catering to this male gaze. Bette Midler plays Madame Rose in her song “Rose’s Turn,” in which Madame Rose realizes her desire to be recognized manifests unhealthily in her aggressive pursuit of fame for her children. Madame Rose plays in an empty theater and objectifies herself to an imaginary audience (uncomfortable as it is for us, the viewers). She draws attention to her breasts (“How do you like them eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?”), has suggestive movements accentuating her body, and refers to herself sutrily as “Mama.” Madame Rose, despite playing for an imaginary audience, anticipates that there are a number of heterosexual men for there to be a male gaze that she needs to cater to. Both this and Tulsa’s example illustrate the idea that the male gaze is ever-present, and insidiously underpin popular media. Although the actors don’t explicitly recognize this male gaze, they knowingly create products for a majority-male audience, and by doing so, give hegemonic power, or consent, to patriarchal society. 

Now let’s go to Louise as Gypsy Rose Lee.

Louise
Gypsy Rose Lee

Again, as seen by her quick development from passive, shy girl into confident, independent woman, Louise embraces her sexuality in a traditionally unfeminine way to gain personal agency as a burlesque star. And just like Tulsa and Madame Rose, she recognizes the male gaze and its power in patriarchal society – after all, she is a stripper. But let’s stop there for a moment. Do the last two facts seem confusing together – that she empowers herself by being unfeminine, yet that patriarchal society exploits her? If not, great. If so, let’s clarify: it’s important to note that while Louise does find empowerment through her sexuality, it is within the confines of patriarchal society. 

Okay, so what? The so-what is that although this movie carries with it a message of triumph and self-empowerment, it still reminds us that we live in a patriarchal society which we perpetuate (or give hegemonic power to). And just like Louise, Tulsa, and Madame Rose, we all give this hegemonic power in some way, whether it be normalizing the male gaze in popular media, or accepting stereotypical, restrictive gender roles for women in everyday life. 

And as a heterosexual, Korean-American male, that reminder is especially noteworthy. Not only did society teach me these problematic gender narratives as universal truths, but I also at one point believed them. And as I grow more aware of our society, it’s becoming increasingly important to ask: is this belief, or truth?

Footnotes:

*While researching the male gaze, I was introduced to this phenomenon through this article. The Hawkeye Initiative is a website made “to draw attention to how deformed, hypersexualized, and unrealistically dressed women are drawn in comics…” (FAQ).

The Marital Power Struggle: Who Wins?

Funny Girl (2018; filmed on stage): a Broadway musical where the woman holds power over the man…or does she? The musical Funny Girl (2018; filmed on stage)was directed by Michael Mayer and stars Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice and Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein. It biographies the life and love of Fanny Brice through her journey of becoming, and then thriving as, one of the most famous Ziegfeld Follies to ever exist. The question at hand is…who held the power? Fanny or Nick? I’m going to take two songs from the musical and analyze them in an in-depth, systematic way, and see if I can convince you, the reader, to come to a conclusion.

First, let’s look at the song “Sadie, Sadie” from the second act. Fanny and Nick have just gotten married, and the song basically describes Fanny’s thoughts and plans for her new life as a wife. The lyricist, Bob Merrill, has Fanny sing lyrics such as “Nick says nothing is too good for me,” which makes it seem as if she hasn’t believed she’s been deserving of nice things until a man came around and told her so. Fanny is glorifying these pretty words from a man rather than believing in her own self-worth. Smith lets the lyrics do most of the talking during this number with very few deviations from the relaxed, lackadaisical movements. These moves further enhances her now being a married woman who is supposed to rely on her husband. Merrill even has the company sing similarly interpreted lyrics, as seen with the lines “Not every girl can get herself/A guy who looks like Nick.” This shows how society puts the attractive male on a higher pedestal than the average looking woman with no regard for her success or her accomplishments. It’s as if Nick can do better than someone like Fanny or on the flip side, Fanny doesn’t deserve to be with someone like Nick and it’s an honor that he glanced at her at all, much less married her. Although Smith does put a heavily comedic spin on the song with her actions and facial expressions, it still doesn’t take away from the words of the song diminishing her to solely Nick’s wife, or a “Sadie” as the song puts it. Despite Fanny being the main character of this musical, who eventually rises to entertainment stardom, this particular song (that she herself sings) diminishes her into one thing, the average wife of an attractive man.

Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice during the song “Sadie, Sadie” in the 2018 production of Funny Girl in the West End

Then, Mr. Arnstein, the businessman himself, is in need of sixty-eight thousand dollars so he can open a casino somewhere in Florida. He needs investors, but because he is in fact a father, and has to babysit his own kid so Fanny can go back to work and make money for the family (because he’s not making any), he’s out of luck. But who swoops in and saves the day? That’s right! Fanny. She provides him with his money because she claims that “[They] are in a real marriage/And what’s [hers] is [his].” He then begins his song “Temporary Arrangement,” where he begins with “Please Fanny don’t hold so tight” as if Fanny giving him money that he needs is somehow stifling. Campbell accentuates this with the discordance between each line of this part of the song and then with his head-shaking and how he moves his hands in an abrupt, authoritarian way when he sings “You’ve got to just set her straight.” The song is all about how him not having money is only a temporary arrangement as can be seen with the lyrics, “It’s a temporary estrangement/From the crystal dish and the silver knife.” This specific number is very choreography heavy within the minute long dance break for Campbell. The choreographer Lynne Page sets Campbell’s moves in a very smooth and suave way, which highlights the fact that he’s singing about being smooth and having money like a successful businessman but has not yet achieved this. In this case, Fanny is acting as the provider, but Nick is pretty much discrediting her act because his current financial position is only temporary. This discrediting is further indicated by the fact that he never even thanks her for her contribution. The woman is providing for the man, which makes him insecure.

Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein at the end of the song “Temporary Arrangement” performed in the West End

In one of these songs, we see a man having power over a woman, and in the other we see a woman having power over a man, but who really holds the power? Fanny is seen as the wife of Nick Arnstein, and Nick barely acknowledges when the power is flipped and she’s helping him. At the end of the musical, Nick eventually leaves Fanny and their child and is never heard from again while Fanny continues performing with the Ziegfeld Follie’s as a famous comic and entertainer, with the addition of a failed marriage to a man she’ll probably always love. Does Fanny being a divorcee make her any less exceptional both as a person and as a performer? Does Nick leaving Fanny cause his reputation to be ruined? These are questions that are needed to be asked to get closer to an answer. This debate could go either way, but no matter the outcome, the significance of questioning stereotypical gender and marital hierarchies and roles in musicals is always developing.

GLITTER, GLAM, AND GIRLS

42nd street: a product of the patriarchy

by emily Willett

It has glitter, glam, and girls?! It’s no surprise 42nd Street became nothing short of a musical phenomenon that returned to the stage only four years ago. Written in 1980, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble create a show within a show, following a timid, talented chorus girl, Peggy Stewart (played by Clare Halse), on her claim to fame. She navigates the highs and lows of show business through—wait for it—glamorous song and dance. Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer’s lyrics combined with Harry Warren’s composition allows her story, and the stories of other leading characters, such as an accomplished yet difficult actress Dorothy Brock, an aggressive producer Mr. Marsh, and the leading man, Billy Lawlor, to come alive. Gower Champion’s choreography brings the musical to life, contributing to its reviews as a “gorgeously made musical.” Gorgeously made, however, does not mean gorgeously conveyed—the visual and lyrical components possess misogynistic stereotypes, and the number, “Dames/Keep Young and Beautiful,” is no exception. Billy, our leading man, sings about the sole purpose of seeing a show (“Dames”) while putting forth sexist ideas that the writers and choreographer only emphasize through the chorus girls’ portion of the song, “Keep Young and Beautiful.” As a female-identifying viewer, I do not wish to see harmful stereotypes expressed through song and dance, especially when they are not followed up or addressed in some productive manner. Although not as obvious, gender stereotypes still very much exist in today’s world, and so with musical numbers such as this one, it seems to be lacking in the “positively contributing to society” category. Ultimately, through the lyrics, costume, acting, and choreography, 42nd Street glorifies misogyny through the objectification of women. 

The number opens on Billy, sing-expressing his thoughts about women (enough said). Peggy, as directed by Mark Bramble, passes him and noticeably crouches in nervousness, fear or embarrassment (most likely a combination of all three), to which Billy pays no mind. He continues singing and even gives her his hat, clearly establishing a power dynamic between the two. As this powerful, dominant figure, the audience hangs closely to the words coming out of his mouth, which include, “who cares if there’s a plot or not,/ when they’ve got a lot of dames!” This line not only diminishes the intricacies of show business, but it also underscores objectification of women, since the reason men attend is simply to admire the “dames.” The men go on to say things such as women are “temporary” and how they “don’t recall their names,” to which I say, oh-my-god-what. This blunt misogyny stares the audience right in the face, not only through these awful lyrics, but also through their costumes; each man is wearing (bow)ties, suspenders, and top hats, all of which reflect a typical image of masculinity (at least for the time period). The costumes also play to these men’s good nature and even innocence through the sweater vests and large smiles, depicting them as “good boys” allowing them to get away with the harmful things they are saying. 

As a female-identifying viewer, I do not wish to see harmful stereotypes expressed through song and dance, especially when they are not followed up or addressed in some productive manner.

As the men clear the stage, they unveil a group of women, posing and looking at themselves in handheld mirrors. This image immediately sets the tone for the surface-level femininity that will be portrayed by these women, created not only through the mirrors but also through their movements. With leg movements to create symmetry and geometric shapes, the choreography the chorus girls perform very much appeals to the targeted audience that is outlined in the song, prioritizing visual aesthetic and pleasure, over showcasing their talent. Champion draws parallels to Ziegfeld’s follies, which seems purposeful—the point of the Follies were to appeal to the sexual desires of men, which is exactly what Champion’s choreography, Theoni Aldridge’s costume design (nothing screams “object of affection” like sparkly leotards) and Dubin and Mercer’s lyrics convey.

The chorus girls listen intently to the lyrics sung by the co-writers of the musical’s show, Maggie Jones and Bert Barry, absorbing every word they say with smiling faces and enthusiastic nods, despite the demeaning line (and even title) “keep young and beautiful / if you want to be loved.” The anti-feminist statements keep coming—“take care of all those charms / and you’ll always be in a guys arms” is once again enforcing the idea that it is a woman’s sole purpose in life to be loved by a man (which is, not to mention, very heteronormative), and to do so, they must take care of their “charms” and be physically and sexually appealing. Not only is “charms” a sexual innuendo, it is defined as “giving delight or arousing please,” which is precisely what the entire number suggests in regards to female sexuality and the male gaze.

With leg movements to create symmetry and geometric shapes, the choreography the chorus girls perform very much appeals to the targeted audience that is outlined in the song, prioritizing visual aesthetic and pleasure, over showcasing their talent.

“Dames/Keep Young and Beautiful” functions as a product of the patriarchy by perpetuating sexist concepts and physically establishing power dichotomies between the male and female characters. Perhaps it is because it’s a product of its time or the fact that the number is technically in the show Pretty Girl, not the actual show, but either way, the lyrics of this number hold blatant misogyny which are only upheld by the acting, movements, and costumes of the actors on stage. Looking forward, I hope to see more female empowerment interwoven in the book, lyrics, choreography, and acting of characters in future musicals, or at the very least, I hope to see less explicit sexism. Musicals are meant for entertainment, and because of the circumstances, I can’t say I felt very entertained. 42nd Street draws on old-fashioned ideals of entertainment that are rooted in misogyny (which are even spelled out in “Dames”—ironic), but without any acknowledgement of the lyrics or the movements, it’s very difficult to enjoy a show like 42nd Street.

Baby It’s Cold in Allentown: A Lullaby into Acceptance of Misogyny and Objectification

Peggy (Clare Halse) is dipped by Billy (Philip Bertioli) in the 2018 revival of 42nd Street.

42nd Street (2018) is a musical that constantly places its female leads in positions of seeming autonomy to highlight the lack of power they possess in actuality. The show constantly reminds the audience that although Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse) and Dorothy Brock (Bonnie Langford) may end up ‘the stars’ of the show, their power is predicated on the decisions and money of powerful men – namely Julian Marsh and Abner Dillon. This concerning gender dynamic is perhaps best underscored by “Lullaby of Broadway,” a song in which Julian (Tom Lister) attempts to coax a resistant Peggy into taking over the role which Dorothy can no longer play. This number takes place right after Peggy injures Dorothy onstage, leading to her dismissal and attempt to get on the next train to Allentown. At this point, Peggy has been so thoroughly turned-off by the impossible industry that is showbiz, and just wants to return to her humble roots. Julian has other plans, as after finding out that Dorothy can no longer perform, he must find another woman to use in order to make himself successful. This is the first red flag of Julian’s character, and of all the men in power in this show. 

Peggy is not a human to Julian in this instance. She is simply a chess piece which he must move in order to keep his show alive, and continue his own fame and fortune. With this knowledge in mind, everything Julian is about to open his mouth and sing about in this song is utter rubbish. Julian knows he must simply say the things that Peggy wants to hear to keep her part of the cast. He even throws out a pitifully ridiculous line about staying in the cast “for the kids.” Rest assured, Julian could care less about the juveniles in the cast, or really anyone for that matter.

Julian (Tom Lister) delivers his “Lullaby of Broadway”. Photo courtesy of IMDb.

Julian begins the number with an unsettling attempt to grab Peggy’s hand. While, like many of Julian’s movements in this number, this grab can be interpreted as simply part of his attempt to get Peggy back in the show, the move comes off as oddly and uncomfortably sexual. Lister makes a decision to have Julian acutely leer and smirk at her uncomfortably, and the scene begins to read as harassment rather than a director trying to convince his star to perform. 

Julian then begins to sing, and immediately, problematic words escape his mouth. He sings the following when describing the ‘essence’ of Broadway: “The rumble of the subway train, the rattle of the taxis, the daffy-dills who entertain.” Apparently, to Julian, one of the core parts of Broadway and New York aren’t the strong actresses that make his show successful, but the delicate little ‘daffy-dills,’ who successfully entertain his audience. Julian’s character constantly oozes misogyny, but this seems extreme even for him. Julian shows the audience that he doesn’t view any women as talented individuals, rather he thinks of them as pretty little flowers who are meant to be spectated and gawked at. 

Julian’s misogynistic rant continues when he begins to refer to Broadway actresses as babies, saying, “When a Broadway baby says “Good night,”/It’s early in the morning/Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn.” Now, one might be fooled into believing that this baby reference is an innocent one and simply keeping in-line with the ‘lullaby’ that Julian is singing. Don’t be fooled! The word ‘baby’ is clearly being used to refer to women in a patronizing and sexualizing way. This line reveals that this song, in a way, serves as a lullaby for all women of the industry, sung by men, to put their sense of autonomy ‘to sleep’. Women who want to make it as actresses are hushed and told to put any power they have to bed before they can truly succeed in this industry. Julian hasn’t come to the train station to show Peggy the beauty of Broadway – he’s come to convince her to ‘sleep’ on the injustices and misogyny of the industry and perform in his show! If there’s any doubt about this motivation, Lister constantly reinforces that this analysis is correct with his sly looks and sexual physicalization.

When Peggy tries to leave again, Julian puts his leg up on her briefcase – another sexualized action that leaves the audience feeling horribly uncomfortable. At this point, the scene has taken a dive into full-on harassment, as there is no denying that Julian is sleazily holding Peggy against her will. It’s reminiscent of “I really can’t stay”, “baby it’s cold outside.” Although continually Julian utilizes his silver tongue to convince both the audience and Peggy that he is looking out for her best interests in this song, the highly-sexualized leg raise and look he gives in this moment proves the opposite.

A version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from the film “Neptune’s Daughter” (1949).

When other characters, or as I like to call them, Julian’s reinforcements, enter to convince Peggy to take the role, they serve as perfect representation of both the perpetrators and the victims of the misogynistic industry of show business. While, like much of this number, this moment can be read as innocent and a display of the many happy and enthusiastic performers of Broadway, it actually represents something much darker. Reading the scene in the context of the repression and misogyny of Broadway, the women of the group serve as those who have been subjected to and accepted the injustices of Broadway, while the men in the group are the beneficiaries from this broken system. This seems especially true for Billy Lawlor, (Philip Bertioli) who obnoxiously sings “let’s call it day” during the song. Billy is an acute display from 42nd Street that things aren’t getting any better in the industry: it is not as if the old men of Broadway are misogynistic, but the new men are turning it around. The very way in which we are introduced to Billy is in the context of him trying to ask Peggy on a date. Just like Julian, at the end of the day, the only value Peggy, and most women, hold, is their sexual appeal. Bertioli plays Billy physically in a highly sexualized way, similar to Lister’s portrayal of Julian. The two actors absolutely nailed the sickening sense of entitlement and power that the ‘kings’ of Broadway felt for many years in the entertainment industry, and to some extent still feel.

The look on Clare Halse’s face as she is portraying Peggy being ‘serenaded’ by the company convincing her to join the show displays just how reluctant she is to enter an industry that does not respect her. It’s almost as if there are about ten devils on Peggy’s shoulder as she tries to make the right decision. It’s especially interesting to see the women of the cast trying to convince her to join. This is one of those moments where you may say, “See, this song isn’t about Peggy being subject to misogyny!” Careful. Just because the women of the cast are trying to convince Peggy to become a member of the cast does not mean they are happy in the position they are in. It reads as a desperate cry for another ally within the industry. It’s like they are saying, “Peggy, please face the horrors of this industry with us!” The fact that they are singing this plea happily and with a smile on their face is very symbolic, as no matter how bad things are on Broadway, once the curtains rise, you are required to appear one hundred percent in control.

Peggy has a moment where she almost gives in, but then goes to run again, and is fully grabbed by Julian as she tries to escape the group surrounding her. I found this perhaps the most disturbing moment of the number. It’s uncomfortable enough that everyone is surrounding a woman who clearly wants no part of being there, but even scarier when Peggy goes to turn and Julian grabs her. It’s important to note that he doesn’t just grab her to try to stop her, but seizes her only in a way that a person seizes a person when they want to lean in for a smooch. It’s amazing how this scene continues to find ways to become even more uncomfortable. I mentioned earlier how it was reminiscent of the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside”. While the sexual connotations of this scene may not be quite as overt as that song, it’s still pretty clear that a woman has given a man an answer, and he simply won’t take it. It’s not easy to watch.

Of course, the group does not give up, eventually convincing Peggy to throw on a fake smile, and exclaim, “I’ll do it!” Similar to “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, in the end, the woman is forced to give in to the wishes of the man. Peggy has become just like the other women in the number, as now she smiles, and appears happy, as all have to on stage, but has clearly given up. Re-joining the cast is not a triumph for Peggy, it is a concession. Julian has chased and grabbed her enough, she may as well just give in right? It’s a sickening ending to the scene, especially because it’s painted as a happy ending. Every time I watch this scene, it becomes a more pointed criticism of the power dynamics of Broadway and society in general.

If, for some possible reason, misgivings still exist about whether this scene is an example of Julian empowering or objectifying Peggy, one need not look further than the end of the show. Did Julian cast Peggy in the show and then simply allow her to shine? Of course not. He falls in love with her, rendering Peggy again more of an object than a star herself. There’s nothing more sickening than when Peggy is about to make her debut, perhaps the biggest moment of her life, and it sullied by Julian kissing her and saying, “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” Thanks, but no thanks, Julian. Neither Peggy nor the audience need to hear your empty, sly words anymore. Save your ‘lullaby’ to put yourself to bed. 

Is Gypsy Rose Lee the new symbol of Feminism?

It’s almost spooky season, and that means rewatching Bette Miller’s iconic role in the classic Halloween film Hocus Pocus. Whoops! Wrong spectacle.

However, her performance in the 1993 made-for-television production of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino, is iconic in its own right. This production is certainly not a spectacle for young girls to aspire to at face value but hidden behind its curtain are a plethora of feminist critiques. Bette Miller is the perfect embodiment of loud, gregarious, strong-willed Mama Rose—complete with fiery red hair.


Rose certainly embodies her role as mother, acting as a true “Mama Bear,” striving for the best for her two cubs June and Louise (later Gypsy Rose Lee). Rose dedicates her life to making her girls stars. The beginning of the film resembles many “wannabe” Broadway stars’ struggles to stardom. Somewhat of a nobody in Seattle, Rose’s ambition is rewarded with consequent gigs for her girls around the country at any theater that will have them. I would argue that in her role as a mother, Rose defies traditional gentle, dainty, proper female stereotypes in all aspects of her character.


Rose’s first solo number titled “Some People,” written by Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim sets the stage by exhibiting her “go-getter” personality. Rose is not like “some people.” In fact, she is very much not like what a woman was “supposed” to be during the time period the musical is set—the 1920s. As reminded by her father and future love interest quite often, she should be married (to a man, of course). She is expected to have a steady family, with her children in school, and her husband making money to support their family. She certainly should not be living in her Papa’s house as a middle-aged woman with two young daughters begging for eighty-eight bucks in a musical number. Rose’s character does not conform to social norms in this regard at all. At that time, it was unacceptable for a woman to have any dreams beyond motherhood. While Rose is a devoted (albeit sometimes misguided) mother, her nurturing techniques are rather unconservative.


Rose has bigger dreams for her girls. Even when offered a hand in marriage to a man most would argue she has feelings for, she chooses the single route. In this way again, Rose defies gender stereotypes by denying what most would see as the obvious decision. There is also an almost reversal in traditional gender roles in Rose’s romantic relationship. Herbie, Rose’s love interest and agent, portrays the gentle, subversive partner, while Rose calls the shots. Rosie is chased by Herbie in this instance.


While Mama Rose is undoubtedly a strong female character, some of her parenting choices and treatment towards her daughters are questionable. At the beginning of the film, we see Baby June, played by Lacey Chabert (Chabert later stars as Gretchen in Mean Girls, truly embodying the role of ‘girly girl’ once again) as the ideal, pageant queen, frilly, perfect female child performer. Her sister Louise, played by Elizabeth Moss, is there to ensure June shines on stage—whether that means dressing up as a cow, or newspaper boy. Side note—June is in fact cast as a blonde and Louise as a brunette. I guess blondes do have more fun? Nevertheless, at the beginning of the film, Rose reinforces these role distinctions between her daughters, consistently doting on June, speaking words of confidence to her about her future stardom. Rose is so steadfast to follow her own path, why is she not more supportive of her daughters to defy the same gender norms she does?


The real kicker comes after older June (now played by Jennifer Raye Beck) decides to abandon both her mother and dreams of stardom to run off with a boy. Here we see another typical female giving up her dreams of a career (well I guess maybe they were Rose’s dreams for her) in the name of love. After Rose comes to terms with making Louise a star instead, the team arrives at a Burlesque theatre. While this rather mature theatre is a harsh comparison to the pure, innocent Louise (played by Cynthia Gibb), it is the place where she finds herself and her place in society.


Rewind to Baby June’s musical number titled “Let Me Entertain You.” Here we see an amusing, playful, childish upbeat song performed by Baby June herself. Dressed in a white, glittery, ballerina-like costume, with a bow almost as big as her head, June’s outfit paints her as an innocent, but talented little girl, somewhat like Shirley Temple. Were she a boy, she would not be able to capitalize on this aspect of her identity—or her female body. In this number, she refers to herself as a “bundle of dynamite,” highlighting her childlike demeanor. She then continues to boast about her ‘versatility’ and talents as well as her ability to make us feel good as she sings:

“I’m very versatile/ and if you’re real good/ I’ll make you feel good.”

Rose has June act younger than she is in the following scenes, having her continue to capitalize on her young female body (rather creepy in my opinion, having an adult pretending to be a young child). Viewed on its own, this song seems innocent enough, and simply explains June’s talent and ability to bring joy to her audiences.

Back at the Burlesque theater, Rose and Louise are both in shock when they see the audaciously unladylike performances occurring.

Rose is so appalled she attempts to make a run for it until Louise convinces her they need the money from the gig. Louise does her first “strip” act as a backup for a missing performer where she is mistakenly given the name “Gypsy Rose Lee.” This is the beginning of a transformation of Louise’s traditionally prude, conservative female characteristics to use her body and femininity in her performance. After Gypsy adjusts to the role of “stripper,” we see her fully embrace this new identity of herself. Rose has mixed feelings about seeing her baby girl act in such a provocative way.

This transformation makes us question what a female is supposed to be.

Should she be a prude? Married? Independent? Sexy? A Stripper?

Gypsy’s ending transforms Baby June’s original “Let me Entertain You” number into Gypsy’s signature act. I would argue the song is transformed in meaning by the context in which it is performed. Gypsy is singing this to a room full of mostly older men who are hoping to see her take her clothes off. Her “versatility,” and “talents” hold another meaning and ability to “make them feel good.” It is rather dirty in a sexual sense which I’ll admit could be interpreted as objectification of Gypsy. However, I would argue that this song is seen as Gypsy embodying the same traits of independence and rejection of social norms her mother possesses. Her mother may not fully approve, but this new identity—a truly new identity with a name change from Louise to Gypsy—is Gypsy’s own. She is no longer the “company” of Baby June.

“Gypsy brings
attention to taboo
topics such as
women using their
bodies to their
advantage”

But…. why is Gypsy’s only path to fame one of objectification and capitalization of her feminity? In this way, the movie is reaffirming traditional female gender norms which emphasize physicality and beauty. Nevertheless, Gypsy not only brings attention to taboo topics such as stripping and the complexity of women using their bodies to their advantage. The musical explores the nuances within the traditionally female stereotype and makes us question our initial assumptions. Women are continually and regularly objectified and used for their bodies, but when they do it on their own accord, they can be seen as a “whore.” Shouldn’t a woman be able to be whoever and whatever she wants? I wouldn’t call Gypsy Rose the new face of the feminist movement, but I would give her some credit for helping us consider these themes in a Broadway musical.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Traditions and Thoughts

Gypsy, the musical by Arthur Laurents provides a core example of the film industry’s stereotypes regarding gender and identity. The musical portrays the character Rose, played by Bette Midler as a business-centric, a pushy “stage-mother” who controls her children’s careers. Gypsy establishes a dependency relationship between Rose and her 2 children: Louise and June and uses them as pawns to fulfill her desire of always being a star. While watching the play I didn’t resonate with many of the characters but as I was reflecting, I could sense a bit of Louise within me.

Louise played by Cynthia Gibb is a shy little girl who is always playing a boy in a musical act with her sister June. Mama Rose doesn’t believe in Louise becoming much of a star and torments Louise for not being as good of an actor. Yet, as Louise evolves into a young adult her main goal is to fulfill her mother’s desire of performing on a “stage”. I see a bit of me in Louise when she continuously sides with her mom even though she put so much pressure on her growing up.  I am brought up in a modern South Asian family where my mom did not have many opportunities like me growing up and I would do anything to fulfill her wishes June pisses me off because she can’t appreciate her mom’s harshness and resilience in getting them an act even though it wasn’t June’s passion.

Louise craved the satisfaction from Rose to be an actor on a “stage” and she did just that when she became a stripper. As a young girl, Louise wore cowboy clothes and draped herself in clothes that presented her as a young man. She echoed a shy young actor who didn’t enjoy voicing herself because she was hiding from who she truly was because of Rose. As she grew older, she evolved into a stripper which was such a big change in her personality for Louise. Instantly having the added title as a stripper and wearing lingerie and dancing for the pleasure of others made her more famous than ever doing stage acts.  It amazes me that women are always put on a pedestal when they remove their clothes and dance for other people’s pleasure. At a point, Rose forced a hand into her becoming a stripper and once Louise became a stripper, she was proud of her. It was insane to see how a woman who was so determined for Louise to become a star could give up that hope and allow her daughter to become a stripper for the clout and just progress her career. In the end, she was content with it. Gypsy proved the fact that in order be successful as a woman, sexual acts are a necessity.

On the other hand, Rose’s other daughter June, played by Jennifer Rae Beck shines like a bright star in the musical and does not care about Rose’s wishes for her. In “If Momma was Married”, June, sings: “If momma was married, we’d live in a house/ As private as private can be.”  No matter how much Rose works for her daughters she will always be caught lacking in funding a materialistic life for her daughters. This can be proven when they say “if momma was married” hinting that if she had a husband, they would be able to fulfill all their desires that their mom has not been able to do. Thus, concluding that no matter how nurturing, and upbringing the mother can provide in a child’s life there must always be a male dominant figure to have a life of success and riches. It’s interesting to see that June and Louise are so young and are already dreaming of growing up rich versus poor, especially if Rose is such a strong and resilient woman. Gypsy includes this to create a stereotype in the gender of being a woman that they are fragile and are dependent on their male partner who is considered an authority figure for them.

Louise’s eyes twinkle as she fantasizes about her mom being married and her being able to live with various animals almost as if she yearns for her childhood innocence to come back. When Louise talks about having a family filled with animals, a father, and a mother, the director creates an illusion through Louise’s smile that she would be so happy with a life like that and creates a drawback to the one she is currently in. Although Louise repents her childhood as a hushed star because she was never the one that Rose believed in, she still sided with her mom when June said negative comments about their mother.  June responds back and hopes her mom would get out of her hair almost resentful of her mother’s forceful actions in her youth while she was performing. The audience can see the anger building up in June because of her voice going higher almost as if she is so passionate to show the world how badly her mother treated her as a young child. Though the two of them have completely different perceptions of their mother they hold each other’s hands to show unification in the decision of Rose to be remarried to another man. While June has a negative reason behind getting her mom married because she wants to get rid of Rose, Louise can’t wait, almost as if she’s a baby getting a brand-new toy to play with.

Women are always portrayed in a harsh light and are expected as pleasers in society. Gypsy proves how they stereotype the gender of being a woman and create a story that women are submissive and will stoop to low levels to establish themselves as credible in society. As a woman, especially as a South Asian woman, it is so hard to find a middle ground where I am not only fulfilling the wishes of my mom but finding something that I love doing. As women we have expectations from both society and family, we must unite to find a way to break the stereotype and create equality amongst all genders.

Provoked and Triggered: Content Warnings and Student Spectators

By Christin Essin

As a theatre studies professor at Vanderbilt University, I regularly assign attendance at theatrical performances to my students, and this May I had the opportunity to design a course completely around live performance. Each summer, Vanderbilt offers a series of “maymesters”—month-long intensives held in international locations. During the spring, I spent many hours researching productions and booking tickets for the “Theatre in London” maymester, including performances at a variety of commercial, state-sponsored, and independent venues. Such a trip, I determined, required a full day in Stratford-upon-Avon to see the classical offerings of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

I landed nearly sold-out tickets for a Saturday matinee of John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife, directed by Phillip Breen, and same-day evening performance of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Justin Audibert. I had familiarity—albeit no fondness—for Shrew, but I hoped that Audibert’s “reimagined 1590 England” as a matriarchy and casting “Petruchia” as a woman would generate a rich post-show discussion. While not familiar with Vanbrugh’s play, I was excited for students to see a Restoration comedy performed by such a skillful ensemble, and the RSC’s website promised that Breen’s “comedy Midas touch” would enliven this “romp that shocked seventeenth century society.

In my rush to book tickets, however, I did not think through the possible repercussions of Vanbrugh’s play. When I teach Restoration drama in my theatre history classroom, I regularly assign Aphra Behn’s The Rover; my syllabus includes a content warning (or “trigger warning”) because the plot hangs on the threatened rape of one of the female characters by multiple male characters. Teaching on a residential college campus, I am confronted daily with reminders that sexual assault and rape continue to be the lived reality of my students. If they are going to confront violence, even on the page, I want them to be alert rather than shocked, to be able to recognize early warning signs—a raised voice or grabbed wrist—so they can question the necessity of its deployment as a rhetorical or narrative devise. Still, if they find themselves triggered while reading a play, they can put it down or even throw it across the room (as I did in graduate school when reading Ben Jonson’s Volpone). But, as my students’ experience with the RSC’s Provoked Wife reminded me, escaping representations of sexual violence at a live performance means having to wade through a crowd packed into rows of seats, fielding glances of surprise or frustration from those disrupted.

Responding to Gendered Violence

Seven students, one teaching assistant, and I journeyed to Stratford-upon-Avon after a busy first few days in London; we had attended the revivals of both Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Royal National Theatre and Inua Ellams’s new play The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln Theatre. As I settled in to the matinee performance of The Provoked Wife, I was encouraged. Actor Natalie Drew masterfully delivered Vanbrugh’s playful Restoration-era prose and threw mischievous glances even to those seated in the Swan Theatre’s second gallery, inviting us into the world of the play. Alexandra Gilbreath, playing Lady Brute, also dazzled and charmed as the wife of boorish Sir John Brute (Jonathan Slinger). Being familiar with Restoration comedy, I was not surprised when Vanbrugh’s plot used threats of violence against Lady Brute to move the action forward. But I was unsettled by the rough viciousness with which Brute took his wife by the ear and dragged her offstage in act one.

Escaping representations of sexual violence at a live performance means having to wade through a crowd packed into rows of seats, fielding glances of surprise or frustration from those disrupted.

To quell my rising anger, I made mental notes to address the violence in the post-show discussion with students. I could ask how the play presented actors and spectators an opportunity to reflect on questions of gender and power, or how Vanbrugh’s playful use of language—“Brute”—contrasted with Breen’s choice to physicalize the character’s brutality to such an extreme. I reminded myself to emphasize the purely representational nature of the stage violence and suggest that a top-notch fight director would choreograph the movement to give the actress control, despite its opposite appearance.

Certainly, the same discussion would give us an opportunity to contrast this production’s realistic violence with the more theatrical mode of storytelling used by actors in The Half God of Rainfall. Ellams’s play, performed by Rakie Ayola and Kwami Odoom, drew from oral traditions in Nigerian culture to tell the story of Demi, a half god born from Zeus’s rape of his mother, Modupe. Director Nancy Medina gave Ayola full control over telling Modupe’s story; she narrated rather than dramatized the violence, standing solo beneath a spotlight and emphasizing Modupe’s anguish rather than Zeus’s wrath.

Rakie Ayola in The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln Theatre. Photo by Dan Tsantilis.

One of the students beside me had shed silent tears, clearly affected, and when the lights came up, they gushed their approval. I guessed that this student had experienced some level of trauma connected to sexual assault, and I was glad that the performance had given her an emotional outlet and safe space to grapple with the questions raised.

Unfortunately, I found the same student crying in distress against the back wall of the Swan during The Provoked Wife’s act two rape scene. The RSC’s promotional materials described Sir Brute’s character as a “tedious drunk,” evoking the classical image of a less merry Falstaff or less ribald Sir Toby Belch. But what we saw was a convincing portrayal of a belligerent, malicious alcoholic who staggered on stage before roughly throwing his wife on a table, bending her over, and ripping away her skirts. Performed hyper-realistically, the rape was shocking in its brutality, and the scene contrasted significantly with the playful theatricality that began the production. Writing for the GuardianMichael Billington praised both Slinger’s performance and Breen’s direction of the scene that “rightly does nothing to soften Brute’s attempted rape of his wife” to realize this “unsparing portrait of a soured relationship.” Rightly or wrongly, the scene became unbearable for my student and myself to watch.

While I was conscious of my next action, I do not remember making the decision to stand, knowing only that the explicit violence had provoked my fury. Despite being fully visible to others on the front rail of the second level, I left my seat, wondering only briefly how I would explain myself to my students before finding one crying against the back wall. “Do you want to leave?” I asked, worrying less about my volume because their distress was now more important than interrupting the performance. They signaled “No, I’ll be okay,” but instead of returning to my seat, I kept walking to the exit.

Being triggered is more than merely being offended by content or feeling uncomfortable with ideas that contradict someone’s beliefs; it is a physiological response to external stimuli caused by past trauma, seemingly uncontrollable and often unpredictable.

I paced the lobby for a minute before the door opened again, and my student, still crying, joined me, followed by two other students. As an authority figure who had walked out of the theatre, I had given them permission to do the same. Knowing my own tears were imminent, I suggested that we go outside for some fresh air.

Current statistics suggest that at least one of the eight students I had brought to the performance is a survivor of sexual assault. But in that moment, I had three standing beside me, expressing, through a mix of anger and tears, that the performance had triggered some level of past trauma. To the RSC’s credit, when I approached the box office to return half of our tickets for that evening’s performance of Shrew—giving students the option to skip a second round of domestic abuse—they were incredibly accommodating.

Content Warnings and Triggered Responses

Had the RSC offered a content warning, I might have made different decisions about my students’ viewing experience. In his review of The Provoked Wife for Broadway WorldGary Naylor wondered “how long it will be before trigger warnings are required for works like these—it would be a sad day indeed, but I suspect it’s coming.” Naylor’s sadness over trigger warnings echoes many sentiments I have encountered recently, alongside grumblings about political correctness run amok and the regrettable coddling of the millennial generation. The increasing prevalence of trigger warnings in professional theatres is a trend, argued Michael Paulson in the New York Times, “bubbling up from college campuses.” But plenty of my colleagues who teach in theatre departments around the United States remain skeptical about their use.

My department has raised the possibility of providing content warnings on lobby displays and in programs, but the issue remains unresolved. Faculty opposing their use worry about lessening the impact and spoiling the experiences of spectators. In Paulson’s essay, Joseph Haj of the Guthrie Theater argued: “As grown-up people, we should be able to grapple with difficult ideas together,” and Suzie Medak of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre asked: “What’s the point of experiencing art if you don’t expect to be surprised?”

What my students and I experienced at the RSC was not an aversion to being surprised or unwillingness to grapple with difficult ideas. Being triggered is more than merely being offended by content or feeling uncomfortable with ideas that contradict someone’s beliefs; it is a physiological response to external stimuli caused by past trauma, seemingly uncontrollable and often unpredictable. My past traumatic event not only radically changed my perspective on the world but also changed the biochemistry of my body, as I now manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. People’s experiences with trauma differ widely, but many suffer symptoms—growing tension, quickening of breath, tears welling in eyes—that make sitting quietly in a theatre impossible. Whether one stays or exits, disruption becomes inevitable, adding to that person’s distress.

The debates around trigger warnings largely neglect an acknowledgement of traumatic response as valid justification, focusing instead on less compelling excuses of ideological bias or discomfort. Do opponents believe that the relatively small number of potential spectators who legitimately need a warning does not justify inconvenience to a majority who want a performance experience sans “spoilers?” These critics perhaps need a reminder of the current statistics verifying high rates of sexual assault or a recap of the #MeToo movement that gained momentum from the shocking abundance of survivors who gave voice to their previous trauma.

The debates around trigger warnings largely neglect an acknowledgement of traumatic response as valid justification, focusing instead on less compelling excuses of ideological bias or discomfort.

Responsible Warnings and Ethical Staging

Had the RSC provided a content warning, would I have alerted my students? Probably. Would I or they have decided not to attend? Probably not. Would the warning have prepared us differently—preempting our distress or dulling our fury? Maybe. The Kiln Theatre posted a content warning on their website for The Half God of Rainfall. But my students and I ultimately felt this was unnecessary; the playwright, director, and actors had taken the care of survivors into account with the creation and production of the piece. Created in “solidarity with women who have spoken against or stood up to male abuses of power in all its forms,” Ellams’s play helped spectators “grapple with difficult ideas together,” including sexual violence, but in a manner that honored and gave voice to survivors. Is it unfair to compare representations of sexual violence from a dramatist writing in the seventeenth century against one writing today against a burgeoning #MeToo movement? Perhaps. But both were available simultaneously to the British public during this summer season, and Breen and Medina had the same charge to translate these stories for a contemporary audience. The production that provided a warning was the one that needed it least.

This is not to say that I specifically advocate for the use of content warnings in theatres, much less their requirement, as Naylor predicts in his “sad day” scenario. The current debate over content warnings obscures a more necessary discussion about the ethics of producing theatre for a changing spectatorship that refuses to turn a blind eye to abuse against the disempowered. The more significant comparison between these recent RSC and Kiln offerings is not who provided a content warning but who produced a compassionate representation of women suffering abuse: the classical text staged realistically to shock audiences into remembering a violent past or the new play staged theatrically to help audiences understand cycles of abuse through a retelling of classical mythology.

Clearly, I am partial to Ellams’s text, but I can also imagine a performance of a Restoration play in which a content warning is superfluous because the production team honored and gave voice to the perspective of the abused; I can imagine a season selection meeting in which producers give the same attention to the ethics of representing violence as they do to representing race, gender, and ethnicity; I can imagine a department meeting in which the discussion to hire a fight choreographer necessarily prompts a consideration of which characters continually bear the brunt of stage violence and whether our production choices contribute to the silencing of their voices or suffering. (Charlene Smith’s recent essay, “Staging Sexual Assault Responsibly,” gives productive shape to these imaginings.)

In the meantime, as an educator and—not insignificantly—as a consumer who purchases blocks of theatre tickets on a regular basis, I will show preference towards producers who provide guidance and warnings to those who need them. Because my courses regularly require attendance at performances, I feel ethically bound to provide my students with such information and give them permission to leave if that is how they need to take care of themselves. Unlike Naylor, finding a content warning posted on a theatre’s website would not be a sad day for me; it would signal that the organization’s artistic leaders are compassionate people with respect for audience members who need a different kind of viewing experience.

On Empathy:

On March 16, 2021, eight people―six of whom were Asian women―were killed in spa shootings outside of Atlanta by Robert Aaron Long, a 21 year old white man. At the current time, Long has been charged with eight counts of murder, but has not been charged with a hate crime. For Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the absence of a hate crime charge is unacceptable due to the nature of Long’s shooting spree as “racially motivated sexual violence against women.” Choimorrow, who spoke in an interview with ABC, went on to say, “The reason they died wasn’t just because they were women, even though that’s what the killer says it is. They were murdered because they were Asian American women. You cannot separate that.”

You might be thinking, Brooke, this is a musical theatre course, why are you talking about this?

Well, you’re right. This is a musical theatre course, but it does not exist in a vacuum. Or, at least, it wasn’t designed to. While there has been an egregious amount of racially motivated violence over the past year, I bring up this attack, specifically, because we cannot ignore its implications on the material of this class. In On Trust, I urged you to trust me and to invest deeply in this course as a journey of cultural exploration and personal growth. Now is the time to dig into that space.

In the fall of 2020, when I was taking this course, I watched Miss Saigon for the first time and I was an absolute mess. I was wrecked by Kim’s story and I thought my weeping was an expression of unselfish empathy. But as I sat down to write my analysis essay about Miss Saigon, I became increasingly convicted that my “empathy” was, in fact, not unselfish, and really, it wasn’t empathy at all.

In my post, I Am Chris: An Exploration of (white) Empathy, I include a quote from the brilliant Brené Brown, a New York Times bestselling author and research professor at the University of Houston who studies empathy, vulnerability, and shame. She says, 

“Expressing empathy or being empathetic is not easy. It requires us to be able to see the world as others see it, to be non-judgmental, to understand another person’s feelings and to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. … Empathy is a choice. And it’s a vulnerabile choice. Because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”

My post tracks my own journey of discovery through the territory of empathy, and I bring my reader with me. I encourage you to read the full post, but the heart of my argument is this:

In many ways, I am Chris. I am the character I hate because it is my whiteness that begs me to express empathy toward Kim. In selfish catharsis, I cry for her.

My failure to truly be empathetic, then, holds a much higher cost for Kim [in Miss Saigon] than it does Fanny [in Funny Girl]. Where my “empathy” is higher, I am being asked more of myself. So when my tears dry and my life returns to normal, I’ve done a greater disservice to myself and others by failing to act. At this point, you might be expecting me to wrap all of this up in a nice little bow. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t do that. I don’t have an answer to this. I think radical empathy begins with acknowledging that you’re not there yet. I’ve done that part. But what next? I haven’t come up with a way to fulfill the last step of empathy—to put forth genuine effort to act upon that which I feel sadness. But for now, maybe Miss Saigon isn’t asking me to do that. For now, I think I just need to sit in this development. For now, I think I need to study the ways that I am Chris.

The reality is, until the recent shootings outside of Atlanta, I hadn’t thought much about the ways I am Chris. Not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t know how to function out of this space between stagnation and growth. For me, Miss Saigon was the beginning of an exploration into my own shortcomings in the practice of empathy. And, while I have certainly not “arrived” at a conclusion or a way to continue on my journey, the March shootings have certainly pushed me to bring a renewed energy to this journey.

So what are the implications of the recent shootings on our course, and on us? We return to the words of Choimorrow who identifies the “harmful stereotypes that objectify and depict Asian women as what she described as ‘hypersexualized,’ ‘meek’ and ‘submissive.’” In the same ABC article Choimorrow is quoted in, it says, “Some argue the United States’ military presence in the Asia Pacific also played a role in stigmatizing Asians when American soldiers went abroad during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Philippine-American War.” As students in this class, we have an acute knowledge that this is true. We see the blatant objectification of Kim and the other Vietnamese women in Miss Saigon, and we can recognize that there is a potential for harm if Miss Saigon and other similar media representations of Asian women are not properly unpacked. We have to name these representations as what they are: representations. And we have to consider what they are asking of us.

For me, I don’t know what it looks like to really be empathetic at this moment, but I think Miss Saigon and the recent events have asked me to stay the course of this journey. I cannot run from the discomfort of not knowing what move to make next. I just have to press on searching. I encourage you to do the same.

I Just Really Love White Christmas

My all-time favorite Christmas movie is White Christmas. And since Christmas is my all-time favorite holiday, season, time of year, etc., that might make White Christmas a top contender for my favorite movie of all time. I was raised on it, and I can’t help but admit nostalgia is a huge factor in why I love it so much. But I remember showing it to my best friend for the first time in high school, and he was also hit with waves of nostalgia. How, why? He’d never seen the film before. It’s because White Christmas was meant to embody the modern idea of Christmas spirit, secular Christmas season, and all the nostalgia that ties to that time of the year.

White Christmas kind of created that nostalgia, in fact. It came out in 1954, nine years after the end of WWII, when the country was reestablishing an identity and the baby boomers were just old enough to love Christmas. The film is built around Irving Berlin’s hit song “White Christmas,” which hit big after showing up in Holiday Inn in 1942 (Bing Crosby’s recording is still the most-sold single of all time). White Christmas was a film that coincided with and guided the creation of the modern idea of Christmas as the season took shape in post-war America. The highest grossing film of the year and highest-grossing musical of its day, the movie’s still a holiday classic, but there’s more to be said on its content.

Let’s start, of course, by seeing that key first number of the film, “White Christmas,” where Bing Crosby sings the classic tune. The film has opened during WWII (Christmas Eve, 1944, in fact), in an active war zone, and the soldiers are trying to enjoy some holiday fun before a change of command and the division moves up. The number is simple, Bing Crosby (as Bob Wallace) stands on stage and sings against a barrel organ. There’s a tone to the performance, both in its visual presentation, and Bing Crosby’s vocal performance, that lends itself to the bittersweet, melancholy sense to the number. The camera pans back and forth from Captain Wallace singing, in uniform, thumbs hooked in his belt, to the soldiers arrayed in front of the stage. Wallace has on his face that pleasant, resigned look that so evokes the bittersweet, and the many men sitting past him are in uniform, helmeted too, holding their guns, staring at the ground. Maybe they’re remembering what they’ve lost or hoping for the future Christmases they can have if they live to return home. Maybe they’re simply wishing they were home with their loved ones. They smoke and stare and fiddle with their guns and there’s no choreography, just a sense of mourning crossed with nostalgia. And I can’t separate Crosby’s voice and Christmas, so let’s say he sings with Christmas spirit or something, although that’s a stretch.

The set is a ruined town, destroyed by bombs and war, with a little stage set up, a tree and a painted backdrop of a classic snowy country scene. As the song goes on, you can hear the bombs going off in the distance, flashing in the sky beyond the scene. And the scene ends with an enemy attack, further driving home the immediacy of the danger and death that surrounds these soldiers. These are men who live in fear of their lives and spend their holidays missing the comforts of home and family. The audience of this movie when it premiered would have been full of people who remember themselves in a position not so different from this one. All that longing built and ended up creating the nostalgia we see today, so intertwined with the Christmas season.

The film’s not all Christmas, though. In the plot, Wallace and Davis are putting on a musical show, and many of the number make their way into the film itself. Out of these, let’s start with the infamous “Minstrel Number.” I’ll admit, I had never heard of a minstrel show outside of White Christmas. I assumed they looked like that (they don’t) and weren’t racist (they were) and were related to medieval minstrels (nope). So the number feels more than a little gross to watch, as I see Bing Croby and Danny Kaye sing about how much they love watching blackface shows.

Admittedly, it ages well in the shadow of ignorance, because they don’t say anything obviously racist. They make some puns, but puns aren’t racialized today like they were when minstrel shows were most popular. Structurally, the number imitates a minstrel show, but otherwise, characterization, costuming, acting, and music don’t denote minstrelsy in any way. The evening dress generally imitates the high-class presence of white stage performers from the turn of the century onwards. The big banjos painted behind the set are, in fact, the biggest indicator of the topic, besides those lines directly referencing minstrel shows. And, most significantly (and boy am I grateful for this), nobody’s in blackface.

It feels like a big step in the right direction, compared to, say, Holiday Inn, but it’s also a dangerous erasure. The number takes the racist history of the act, tosses it in the trash, and moves along, promoting racist media on a huge national platform. And for what? Not for an excellent product, just for filler. The music is fun and swingy, but lyrics and lines fall short. There is some slight recovery in the delivery, because of the strong chemistry of the lead roles on camera. They bring some comedy and reality to a number that otherwise takes itself too seriously, and keep the audience from placing too much expectation on the quality of song and dance. But even then, it’s a disingenuous performance of white ignorance that doesn’t do the work of removing racism from the entertainment industry.

Past the quiet, two-man opening on a sketched background, we get an immediate overload of garish, vaudeville-esque set design, with bright purple backdrops and platforms, white and red chairs and women in sparkly dresses, men in green and red suits. It’s intense, but it succeeds in evoking a strong vaudeville aesthetic, calling back to Follies routines, though with a little less elegance. The color palette is just bad. And for a minstrel number, everyone’s conspicuously white. The dance is excellent, as far as skill goes, but unremarkable in choreography. It’s simply an exuberant number with strong choral dance and tap presence.

We see this final strange erasure in the set design, costuming, and dance. After all the minstrel callouts, we see little to no minstrel elements. It’s strange (“Mandy” was actually originally written as a blackface number, and there is a later dance number to the music from “Abraham,” the blackface number from Holiday Inn) to have these potentials unused but I’m honestly relieved. If there was a real blackface number in White Christmas (like the one in Holiday Inn), I don’t know if I’d be able to let myself watch it. It would have been wonderful if minstrelsy was never brought up, and as a cherry on top, black actors were present in notable roles in the film. But even when it’s a mediocre number with strong racist history, it doesn’t hit so hard as to keep me from enjoying the rest of the film, which I’m grateful for.

This isn’t the only non-Christmas song in the film, there’s a whole slew of them, with the standout being “Choreography.” What in the world is going on here? “Through the air they keep flying, like a duck that is dying;” this song can get so nonsensical it hurts, but there’s kind of a point to that. On a strange, abstract backdrop, an ensemble of simply-clad women performs jerky contemporary dance moves, until eventually Vera-Ellen and John Brascia show up to do a classic tap and dance routine. Some throwaway lyrics at the start about contemporary dance lowering theater, and a few silly faces from Danny Kaye. There’s nothing much to this, and besides the impressive dance skills, there’s not a lot that lends it a place in a holiday movie. It’s here as filler, but it also shows some of the stranger sides of nostalgia. This isn’t a song in the public mind, not played on the radio with Christmas music, and honestly not super good. But I still love it because every year I know what’s next in the movie and I look forward to the next familiar, silly song.

There’s a lot more to be said about the musical, but I’ll close out by talking on “Snow.” This number feels classically Christmas to us in the modern day, with lines like “no white Christmas with no snow,” and “a great big man entirely made of snow, but it’s a new type of Christmas song at the time. “Frosty the Snowman” came out in 1950, and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” the year before (the animated specials didn’t come out until the 60s). Secular Christmas music was still new, songs about snowmen and reindeer and Christmas spirit, not Christ and glory and angels and advent. “Snow” never entered the national repertoire as a classic Christmas tune, but it does mark a change in the Christmas ethos at the time, when non-religious Christmas began to exist as mainstream.

The song’s simply set, they sing in a box car on their way to Vermont, which serves the story but does little for the number. In fact, they sit through the whole song. The sense of realism in this film comes through especially strong here, where nobody dances in froofy costumes unless the plot allows it. Simple harmonies, classic and endearing Bing Crosby warmth, and some simple lyrics with wintery imagery frame a pleasant interlude in the film. What does it do? It makes this song, and film, feel classic. Somehow this film captures all those things we tie so closely to our own national love for Christmas.

Watching this film, every single time I watch it, every year when Christmastime rolls around, I’m steamrolled with nostalgia. It’s a film built around nostalgia in the first place. White Christmas tried to tap into the American nostalgia for a classic Christmas at a time when people still remembered well the Christmases they’d lost. The film didn’t just use nostalgia, but in the end it also built it, helping to create the idea of a Christmas season, and of Christmas music, and even Christmas movies. It was on the cutting edge of a new cultural phenomenon and a new industry. With Christmas so loud in our lives each year (even for those who don’t celebrate it), there’s no surprise it secured a spot as a classic. Some numbers aren’t so memorable (or high-qulaity), and secure their spot in my memory simply because I’ve been watching this movie since as long as I can remember. Hearing utterly un-Christmas songs like “Choreography” still bring up a well of reminiscence in me and I love them for that. And now that I’m older, I can’t unsee the racist associations in the “Minstrel Number,” and further throughout the film. But of course, classic numbers like the all-time “White Christmas” stand in a league of their own. This era of Christmas music still plays nonstop on the radio every December, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” remains the best-selling single of all time, the whole movie ends up a permanent fixture in households around the world. I’m going to watch this again with my family in like a week and it’ll be wonderful still. Merry Christmas!

You Will Regret It If Your Kid Missed Out On This Movie

Inevitably, an entity, a school of thought, an individual, or an establishment becomes represented by a few key factors. In some forms that factor may be an idea, event, a value, or even in this case a movie. America is just like any other institution or organization, the values that are upheld can be represented and viewed through some significant productions or events. It is always of value to prospect what may occur during the present that will impact the future by studying the past. These are the fundamentals of cultural assimilation. In other words, watching High School Musical made my life easier as an immigrant. 

When I came to America at the age of 10. The world was vastly different from the one back in Taiwan. Disregarding that I knew zero English or the color of my skin. This difference can be further attributed to popular culture and values. So how did I eventually blend in and make friends? The Entertainment Industry. Specifically, the Walt Disney Company was one of the best in the field, specifically catered towards kids and adolescents. Not only does it revolve around current pop culture but it also has many different layers in racial and gender implications. Furthermore, the frequent references in production lead the audience to become a more well-rounded individual. 

It may sound to be absolute insanity for anyone reading right now. But, consider this,  High School Musical. It’s not an argument of whether or not it’s an unrealistic expectation for high school. It is simply one of the best films to be watched not solely for entertainment, but to learn about high school. Furthermore, it is constructed based on the plotline from Romeo and Juliet (but English class is a totally different story). I will make an argument that the most fundamental level is desirable. And from my personal understanding, students would love it if their high school were like East High. To understand a person, understand their passion and desire. I remember walking into high school and everyone was just as High School Musical stated: segregated. Unfortunately, the real world has no songs and choreography to dissipate the segregation to form a utopia. However, the school could be perfectly represented by every act of the movie except for the last act (it was simply too perfect for the world). 

Troy Bolten, the basketball team captain, predicted to receive a scholarship, the most popular person on campus. Gabriella Montez, a shy transfer girl and an absolute genius in natural sciences. Both are victims of generalization and stereotyping in this movie. But, that is why this production is amazing. A huge factor in an adolescent culture that is widespread is bullying and malicious action or criticism. Whether or not there is the failure of acceptance or criticism for being unorthodox. Both of the above are reenacted multiple times in High School Musical. The social divide between the basketball players, academic achieving students, and performing arts students reinforces that idea. Sharpay can be seen multiple times in the film, visually disgusted at the other clique. Moreover, Sharpay goes above and beyond to protect the success of theatre (even though she is portrayed as a selfish character). This concept of a clique is extremely important to understanding the social hierarchy of k-12 education for immigrants. 

Life would be extremely hard if I attempted to become friends with the theatre kids, football team, and orchestra kids at the same time. My public high school had somewhat of the same sectioning of the student body as in the number, “Stick To The Status Quo”. In the film, there is a heavy distinction between the athletic student body and the academic student body. One significance is the placement of their table at the center of the cafeteria. That is something that was interesting to me as an immigrant. American public schools diverge a lot of effort and resources into maintaining the sports program. Sequentially, the athletes receive a good amount of publicity and attention. Thus, they are usually also the center of attention. Furthermore, the choice of outfit for all the groups are somewhat accurate representations of their clique. The sports section is filled with pregame warm-up gear and sweatpants. The nerd section is dressed more formally and everyone has a book in their hands. Last but not least, the last group that is representing skateboarders all have hats, beanies, or hair that somewhat shows their more relaxed personality. It is also culturally accurate that during the choreography, every table in the cafeteria is involved in this “freak out”. It shows that there is no single group that would be nonchalant towards change and chaos (representing an important value that groups are hesitant towards change). Furthermore, it means that every group by definition has a certain set of expectations and a blacklist of actions that should not be done. Lastly, the song lyric, “stick to the status quo … if you want to be cool, stick to the stuff you know” really shows the mixture and diversity of American culture. No matter the personality or interest, there is a fitting group if you search hard enough. And within that group, you have a chance of being “cool”. So within a limit, being oneself (conservatively) is enough to make friends and have supportive social relationships.

 Secondly, High School Musical highlights a masculine society. Most notably, the “Get’cha Head in the Game” is very masculine with the choreography of sharp muscle movements. Specifically, the coach’s encouragement to throw harder and move faster are fundamental encouragements of masculine traits. Furthermore, masculinity is portrayed throughout the musical simply by both cast choice and the dynamic that is created between the basketball players. A notable scene is in the locker room where Troy declares basketball first and is recorded for Gabriella. 

Personally, I am really glad I watched High School Musical as an immigrant. To some academic degree, the tropes and cultural references in the movie helped me grow savvier about American social interaction. At the most basic level, it was an absolute hit movie that every kid watched and made reference to. Till today, I still hum “Bop To The Top”. 

In the Heights, but where is the history?

In the Heights is a film adaption from the same-name musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who later produced the famous Hamilton musical. Released in 2021, the movie is directed by Jon M. Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians, and the story focuses on the Latino community in Washington Heights, Manhattan, which is one of the largest Latino immigrant communities in the US.

Despite its extraordinary crew and critical recognitions, the movie landed with a box office of 43 million in contrast to its 55 million budgets. Major criticism from the audience included underrepresentation of the Afro-Latino residents, and less-than-catchy tunes. The casting issue is straightforward and the latter one we will leave to the interest of music theory experts. Here we will be discussing the “catchiness” of the characters in the movie, since the plot of this piece arises from the characters, and choreography and lines will be fixed in no time once the plot and character designs are in proper place.

The movie starts with a walkthrough of the Latino neighborhood in Washington Heights(“In the Heights”). By all the residents singing the same verse repeatedly, audiences are presented with the picture of a small and close community sharing many values. Then the lens center in on individual characters and their personal “suenito”, or small dreams.

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In the Heights movie poster. From left: Venessa, Usnavi, Nina, Benny

Usnavi, who got his characteristic name from the first thing his parents saw landing in the US, is a second-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic running a corner store or bodega, and wants to go back to the DR to revive his late father’s business. Vanessa, to whom Usnavi seems to have a feeling for, is currently working in a beauty salon but wishes to be a fashion designer downtown. Nina, who has brought honor to the neighborhood as a Stanford admittee, is already dropping out in Freshman year due to unbearable racism at school and not wanting to end her father’s business for her expensive tuition. Benny is an employee at Nina’s father’s company, and is looking for a second chance on Nina.

In The Heights: The 10 Best Performances From The Cast Ranked By  Cinematography
The blackout in the movie was based from the actual power failure that happened in 1999(Wikipedia).

While the characters’ individual struggles are common ones in the immigrant population, they are also being shrouded by larger-scale problems to the community such as gentrification and ethnic conflicts. What I felt when watching the movie is that the storyline switches so often among the characters and their problems that I didn’t have the chance to sympathize or contemplate on any of them. It felt like the writer wanted to cover the entire immigrants checklist and ran out of space to go into details with the movie already being 2 hours 22 minutes. Every character is given a personal goal, but the goals were just there from the beginning, and we don’t know why they had those goals.

For example, we don’t exactly know why Usnavi, who spent most of his lifetime in Washington Heights, wanted to inherit his father’s pub in DR long after his father died——he was not even sad when seeing the place he grew up in got wrecked by a hurricane; nor do we know why Vanessa was interested in high fashion and how she became the talented artist as portrayed in the movie——but we do know that she was not very determined in that dream as in the end she gives up her downtown life to be with her boyfriend (*rolls eyes*).

Why the 'In The Heights' Movie Changed the Broadway Show's Ending
Vanessa and Usnavi(I did not realize they were the main couple until the second half)

Nina, whose romantic relationship with Benny was the only one that made sense in the movie, was struggling about whether to continue her education at Stanford. As a student in an American university, I feel that the racial discriminations mentioned in the movie (of Nina being searched when her roommate is missing valuables was because of her race in the first place) are at least a decade away from the present, and universities now are doing great at including students from all backgrounds. I am not saying that racial discrimination does not exist at all, but that they should have come up with a better example (I had been an Asian in a mostly-white school, I know what I am talking about). Even if the racial discrimination made sense, it would still not have been a satisfying motive for Nina dropping out of Stanford (she told her dad that the racial discrimination, not economic difficulties, was the real reason she wanted to drop out), unless the writers wanted to depict her as wanting to stay in her comfortable enclosed community without facing the real world, which would not have been a likable trait.

Nonetheless, there was one line in Nina’s story that caught my attention. When Nina was mistaken as the server at the donors’ party, she said that the non-white servers looked at her with the what-side-is-she-on face. Whether purposefully or not, this line put forth the ethnic identity issues and the expectation to take a side that multicultural individuals face every day, especially if their home country and the country of residence are not in the best relationship (I am from China and living in the US, ehem). Again, the problem was over in the movie before any discussion or a second mention.

In contrast to the main characters, the side characters seemed to have more of a personal history and thus motives. For example, Nina’s dad wanted Nina to stay at Stanford because she now has the opportunity of education that was taken away from him. This is personally relatable to me as my mother was accepted by Johns Hopkins University 30 years ago but was not able to go because her visa application was rejected, and now I am at a university in the US to continue the dreams of both her and myself. The point is, everyone lives with the history of their family and their culture, although definitely not by reciting one’s ethnic history in a gossip session like that by the salon ladies in the movie.

How 'In the Heights' pulled off subway song 'Pacienda y Fe' - Los Angeles  Times
The brilliant staging using the NY metro in Abuela’s number “Paciencia y Fe”, after which she rested eternally. This is the only number in the movie that I want to watch multiple times.

The memorable number of Abuela, the grandma of the neighborhood, tells her life story as a child growing up in poverty in Cuba, coming to the US with her Mama to find jobs, and working low-income job while people looked down at them. Knowing from the movie that she is now economically stable and has a big found family that cares for her, her line “Mama what do you do when your dreams come true?” shook me. As mentioned before, I myself as well as many immigrants inherit our dreams from the previous generation, and it is easy to lose ourselves under the heavy weights of family and cultural history, one mental struggle many immigrants face but is overlooked in the movie. The death of Abuela was the emotional climax of the movie because she connected all the characters and the community together, but the emotion did not linger as the story quickly moved on again.

In the Heights was a good attempt at giving its audience a picture of the underrepresented Latino community and immigrants. However, it only brushes on the surface of their life and difficulties despite its message of “small dreams” and “asserting dignity in small ways”. Miranda’s later work, Hamilton, was much more a success with its ready-made characters and motives from history, contrasting to the shortcomings in original character design of this piece, and its absence of personal, family, and cultural history.

In The Heights: Being Reminded How Proud I am to be Puerto Rican

Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day. I wake up and I remember that I’ve got to write an essay. 

Corny jokes aside, the film adaptation of In the Heights, directed by Jon Chu with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, starring Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, tells the story of a vibrant community of Caribbean and Latinx people located in Washington Heights, New York City. The musical does a masterful job of portraying a real perspective of Caribbean culture, which resonated strongly with myself, a proud Boriqua descendant. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s influence on In the Heights is a perfect example of the value of identity and background in shaping cultural resonance on the stage (or in this case, in front of the camera). 

First, let’s talk about the intro song, also titled “In the Heights.” Wow. Just wow. Never before have so many little things from my upbringing been dropped into a musical number before. Now, obviously I wasn’t drinking copious amounts of coffee as a young child, but café con leche is definitely something I was aware of from a young age. And then there’s Abuela Claudia’s mother’s condensed milk recipe. I cracked up at this, because there’s so much condensed milk in Puerto Rican recipes, especially desserts. Condensed milk became popularized because it’s canned, so it’s non-perishable and can be easily shipped out to the islands. Then there’s quarter waters! Wow I forgot those existed. They’re so bad for you, but so good. And don’t forget BEANS AND RICE. The crown jewel of hispanic cuisine. Add in the music: salsa inspirations (brass, piano, hand drums and a guiro, which creates that sort of maraca-esque sound) throughout the chorus parts of the song, mix in some reggaetón over Vanessa’s solo and some old-school hip-hop accompanying Benny, and you get a rather well-rounded cross-section into actual Caribbean music in a way that Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s West Side Story fell sorely short. Oh, and I almost forgot the piraguero’s adlibs: “le lo lai le lo lai.” This is a cornerstone of old-school salsa, a phrase that means absolutely nothing but has become synonymous with the sounds of Puerto Rico. And who better to deliver it but Mr. Miranda himself? It’s a perfect summation of his stamp on this musical as a Puerto Rican. Towards the finale of this opening song, we see a more structured choreography that blends the fluid, hip-swaying movements of Caribbean salsa with sharp, heavy-footed moves that reflect more hip-hop traditions. It’s a testament to the dual identity of this specific community: a mixture of both their Latin American roots and the streets of New York they reside in. Several aspects of the scenery also encompass the Latinx experience well, especially the flags. While there is a strong sense of greater community between all the ethnic subdivisions of Washington Heights, each individual still takes pride in their homeland, and this is most often seen through displays of flags. Often times, this goes beyond traditional cloth flags, and you can find flag patterns on pretty much anything, from that one dancer’s tank-top in the movie to the side of the piraguero’s cart in the original Broadway production. 

Beyond just the opening song lyrics, there are so many little details throughout the production that encompass this culture so well. There’s the blessings exchange, where characters ask Abuela Claudia for a “bendicion,” or a blessing, to which Claudia replies “dios te bendiga,” or God bless you. This is one of the most common ways to greet your elders, and were probably the first Spanish words I was taught as a kid. On a similar note, Alejandro addresses Usnavi as “papa” which literally translates to “dad.” While it may seem counterintuitive, many Latinx parents refer to their kids as “mama” or “papa” as a term of endearment. And then there’s the FOOD!! (You can tell what I get really excited about). Never have I felt more homesick this semester than when I saw Abuela Claudia’s ropa vieja y lechón. There are so many small tributes to Caribbean culture throughout the musical that elevate the experience for me, as a sort of affirmation of my background and upbringing. And there’s probably a thousand other details that others can relate to as well!

This is all present thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, a born-and-raised Nuyorican (Puerto Rican living in NYC), who actually grew up in northern Manhattan. He created a story that mirrored many aspects of his own background, and brought a fairly underrepresented culture in the Broadway sphere to the center stage. His identity, his experiences, and his stories shape In the Heights in a way that only they can, and it leaves us with an expression of culture that Latinx/Caribbean people can actually relate to. Now, I don’t know much about the pre-Broadway lives of either Robert Wise or Jerome Robbins, but I sure hope they weren’t running around stabbing people in racially motivated territory wars. 

A major source of conflict in the musical revolves around identity. The main characters can be divided into two major groups: those born in the islands, like Usnavi and Sonny, and those who have spent their entire lives in Washington Heights, like Benny and Nina. Even amongst the island-born characters, there’s varying levels of citizenship, from the natural-born citizens of Puerto Rico to the documented immigrants such as Abuela Claudia to the undocumented like Sonny and Usnavi. Each group faces their own struggles, from balancing assimilation with identity to being able to go to college. One of the premiere examples of assimilation is Vanessa’s character. Dare I say, it almost borders on white-washing. Her part in the opening song is immediately recognizable as a departure from what we’ve heard up until that point: the reggaeton beat is overshadowed by her more jazzy vocals as she negotiates with a “Mr. Johnson.” This trend continues in her solo “It Won’t Be Long Now.” The brass section features a combination of jazzy and salsa elements, and the piano is a lot more gentle and wispy than traditional salsa, though it retains a similar rhythm. The result is a song that reflects the evolving nature of assimilation: both cultures are present in the music, but one is more dominant than the other, and you know which side is taking over because of the way Vanessa sings. Not only does she sing about getting out of the barrio, she does so in a voice that, for lack of better words, is whiter than the rest of the main characters. She wants to be a downtown New York fashion designer, and she’s altering her identity to fit what she thinks will get her into that role and, more specifically, into that apartment. Navigating identity is something that we see so many of the musical’s characters struggle with, from Abuela Claudia’s hardships as a cleaning lady, to Usnavi’s homesickness, to Nina’s alienation at Stanford. It’s one of the few universal struggles between all of the residents of Washington Heights, regardless of citizenship. 

There is a downside to Lin’s perspective, however. And it’s certainly caught the attention of the public, especially since the film adaptation’s release. A large bulk of the musical’s criticism stems from the lack of Afro-latinx representation in the musical. The majority of the musical’s black characters populate the background, while the two main black characters, Benny and Nina, are non-hispanic and mixed, respectively. This is an unfortunate byproduct of having the story influenced by Lin’s upbringing, because, though he is hispanic, he has rather pale skin and can pass off as white at an off glance. His story is not one of the Afro-latinx community, and we see this in the musical. The most blatant act of racism in the musical, when the Stanford donor mistakes Nina for a server, is centered around her latina identity, not her black heritage. We see a similar situation play out with Vanessa, where she doesn’t get the apartment she wants because she doesn’t have credit and, most likely, because of her name. All of the acts of racism and xenophobia the musical describes focus on the more ethnically hispanic aspects of the characters, and race itself is not really addressed. Miranda never had to deal with that side of prejudice before, and it shows in the musical.  

Nonetheless, In the Heights is revolutionary in terms of bringing audiences across the country some much-needed exposure to the wonders of Caribbean hispanic culture. It’s a far departure from the Puerto Ricans in West Side Story, which were a group of gangsters played by white men in brownface with inauthentic music and even more inauthentic accents. For me, it was such a breath of fresh air to see so many aspects of my culture and upbringing portrayed accurately on the musical stage, especially after Robert Wise’s interpretation of my people left such a bad taste in my mouth. This brings us back to the most important point of all: representation means nothing if it’s not done right, and In the Heights, to a certain extent, does it right, at least more so than ever before. Lived experiences are worth their weight in gold when it comes to storytelling, and Lin-Manuel Miranda displays a dazzling amount of gold in this musical.

A Eulogy for My Hometown Store – In the Heights and Community

It’s physically harder to breathe in Salt Lake City. The elevated valley is 4,000 feet above sea level, and what little oxygen remains is often clogged with some of the worst air quality in the US. But the human body, amazing and adaptable as it is, manages to live under these conditions.

When I was eight years old, my family moved to Utah. We stayed there for ten years, moving to South Carolina after I graduated high school. It was the longest place we’d ever stayed – and to this day, the place I still consider “home.” One of my childhood highlights was going shopping at a small Korean store on 700 East – the Oriental Food Market. At the time of writing, the store has closed its doors for good.

While watching In the Heights (the 2021 movie directed by Jon Chu and based on the stage musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda), I found myself oddly nostalgic for the musical’s setting. At face value, this was preposterous – I’d lived in the western US for most of my life, and had never set a foot in New York. And yet, there was something in Usnavi’s bodega that reminded me about the Oriental Food Market thousands of miles away. And the more I began reminiscing about my own childhood and community, the more I appreciated how beautifully In the Heights captures the people and places of an immigrant neighborhood. My life experiences were both culturally and geographically different than the ones portrayed in the film, but the musical’s world-building and relatable characters brought to life an immigrant story that I deeply resonated with.

An Aside

The purpose of this essay is twofold – first, to praise In the Heights for its excellent setting and characters. The other reason, however, is more personal.

In the Heights ends on a hopeful and optimistic note – Usnavi decides to stay in Washington Heights, reuniting with his community and his remodeled bodega. And as a musical and film with a fixed narrative, its ending will stay hopeful and optimistic with every rewatch. The bodega lives on forever.

I learned about the Oriental Food Market’s closing in my junior year of college. My parents had heard about it through the grapevine and brought it up nonchalantly over dinner. At the time, it barely registered for me. We’d been living in South Carolina for three years at that point, and I had no plans to live in Utah in the future.

The more I ruminated on it though, the more I realized I didn’t remember the last time I visited the store. And this thought rubbed me the wrong way. It hurt that I didn’t have definite closure on my memories of this childhood place. As if it was somewhere I thought would exist forever, until it suddenly didn’t.

Thus, the other half of this essay will be a pseudo-eulogy of sorts to that small Oriental Food Market – and hopefully pay respects to a closed chapter of my life.

Small Neighborhood Stores

Oriental Food Market, Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo from Google Maps
Usnavi’s bodega in In the Heights. Compactness is key!

Above are pictures of the Oriental Food Market and Usnavi’s bodega. There are differences of course – the contrast of different lighting and products, for example. But both locations excel in utilizing as much space for their products as possible. Usnavi’s bodega is covered with a variety of products, with stacks of goods surrounding narrow aisles. This lack of space is the greatest similarity between the two stores – I remember walking through the Oriental Food Market with shelves that piled towards the ceiling, and corridors that could only handle one person at a time. The set design brings a realistic sense of practicality; the bodega is small and family-run, not some generic corporate grocery store.

Another highlight that adds to the realism is how familiar Usnavi and the others are with the store. In the intro song, “In the Heights”, Usnavi goes through his regular routine. He checks the milk (which has gone bad) and sells lottery tickets and café con leche to the regulars. Later, we see how efficiently he and Sonny clean the shop.  There’s a sense of intimacy between everyone and the bodega – it is not simply a location for transactions, but a dynamic yet familiar part of the community.

In Salt Lake City, the Oriental Food Market was one of the few places my family would be considered “regulars.” The woman who owned the store grew sesame plants in the front of the store, and we’d always be some of the first to buy sesame leaves when they were fully grown. I can visualize the store in my mind – how we would start by grabbing soft drinks, then frozen foods, instant meals, vegetables, and then snacks.

In the Heights excels at creating a snapshot of an immigrant community – whether it’s the hair salon, the smaller yet homely kitchens, or the community pool highlighted in “96,000,” the set design and selection highlight the Dominican and Latino immigrant experience. Everything is carving out meaning in small places – the movie scenes are crowded yet vibrant. And in these humanized pictures of Manhattan life, I find myself remembering the intimacy I once had back in Salt Lake City.

Piragua and Yogurt

I also want to talk about the pervasiveness of the piragüero – and how his constant presence in the film serves as a metaphor for the tenacity of our culture and identities. To do this, I’ll have to cheat a little bit by talking not only about Salt Lake City, but about Korea as well.

In Korea, there’s a popular sugary drink that we call yogurt/yakult. The most common way to buy yogurt is from yogurt ladies, who walk the streets in beige uniforms and carts. They’ve been a part of South Korean culture since the 1970’s, but their role has shifted and diminished with the rise of delivery services and larger grocery stores. And of course, we don’t have yogurt ladies in the United States, so I had to settle for perma-frozen (and leaky!) yogurt bottles from the Oriental Food Market.

This narrative aligns with the tale of the piragüero. We first see him greeting Usnavi in “In the Heights”, then going about his day selling piragua. In “Piragua”, we hear a little more about his struggles to compete with the Mr. Softee truck. Finally, he appears to have claimed victory, after the Mr. Softee truck breaks down in the movie’s last scene. The piragüero is not someone who is immediately plot-relevant. And yet, he’s not a one-time character either. Instead of being a part of a single “world-building” number and disappearing, he has his own mini-story and cameos through the musical. The character is pervasive – someone who continues to be in the neighborhood. Someone who’s just there, but in a good way. Someone like the yogurt ladies in Korea, who deliver the same yogurt, the same day of every week. The piragüero is representative of the communities and cultures that tenaciously hang on in a world with changing economic and social pressures.

I think that’s why losing the Oriental Food Market eventually got on my nerves. To me, the store was something that would forever be there, always stocked to the brim with yogurt and banana milk. After all, if the nearby Smith’s and Costco were still there after all these years, why wouldn’t it? In the end, the store was a part of my home community that I took for granted.

With hometown stores, yogurt ladies, and piragüeros diminishing in numbers, I find solace in the triumphant ending of In the Heights. Just as the bodega lives on forever, the piragüero will continue to sell his piragua. While my real life community may be gone, this realistic yet optimistic snapshot of Washington Heights can bring back fond memories.

“Breathe” and Today

Photo from Google Maps

The Oriental Food Market is now permanently closed. I don’t remember my last visit to it, nor did I ever see it closed myself. One day, it was a store I could always go visit again. The next, it was gone for good.

When watching In the Heights, I found myself relating to “Breathe” in many ways. Nina’s worries about living up to the community’s expectations echoed my personal doubts in my freshman year at Vanderbilt University. But perhaps most relevant is her relationship to her home neighborhood – when she softly sings “I think of the days when this city was mine,” I imagine Salt Lake City again. I imagine being a kid again, picking candy in the crowded aisles of the store.

In the Heights captures a precious snapshot of the immigrant neighborhood – depicting its people, places, and struggles. The set design is realistic and oozes with the personality of its inhabitants. The day-to-day living of people like Usnavi, Nina, and the piragüero is not a one-off world-building number, but integral to the narrative of the musical. The musical is alive with a community that has been underrepresented in media and on Broadway, and this realism allows other immigrants like me to relate to its powerful story.

And most importantly, In the Heights reminds me why I cherished that small Oriental Food Market so much, and why I don’t need to miss it. I loved that store because of the people I met, the experience of buying sweets from back home, and all the other adventures and memories I had. I fell in love with the small community that was built around this store. And while it may not be physically there anymore, it does still exist in my memory as a fond snapshot, just like the beautiful picture painted by In the Heights.

So, I’ll end off this pseudo-eulogy with one of my favorite lines from the musical. So long, Salt Lake City and that hometown store – I’ll remember you.

The neighborhood waved, and said

Nina, be brave, and you’re gonna be fine

“Breathe”

I’ll Make a (Wo)Man Out of You

I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t particularly care for a lot of Disney princess movies growing up. I guess a part of it has to do with the fact that I am simply not a part of the target audience for princess movies. Don’t get me wrong, these movies were always entertaining to me, but I never particularly found them to be all that relatable. I could enjoy the well-crafted, heartwarming stories of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, but I couldn’t identify with the main characters because I was not an innocent, young girl searching for my Prince Charming to save me from the hardships in my life. 

I thought that I would never be able to relate to a Disney princess movie musical until I saw Mulan for the first time. Mulan made me realize that I didn’t have to be a young girl to relate to a Disney princess film, and once I got past the gender barrier I was able to see the deeper, more widely applicable messages buried underneath the princess story. Mulan was the first time I saw my Chinese heritage represented on screen in a way that was empowering and made me realize how important representation is in speaking to the experiences of a wider audience. By showing stories that normally aren’t told, media companies can connect with broader audiences and break down race and gender barriers in unique ways.

Mulan is a Disney princess musical unlike any other. For one, the movie strives to represent Chinese culture at the forefront, rather than a typical white story with white characters. The movie is based on the traditional Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, but revised to fit a more kid-friendly audience. The titular character isn’t even a princess, she is just a young woman who wants to bring honor to her family – a concept that is very important in traditional Chinese culture. 

The music also drives home concepts important to Chinese culture in a way that is relatable to Western cultures. The song “Reflection” serves as Mulan’s “I am” song, and describes Mulan’s desire to make her family proud and failing, which reflects the importance of collectivism and family in Asian culture but also serves to have a broader message about not living up to familial expectations. This song happens as Mulan slowly walks around her family’s altar and melancholically looks at her own reflection, doubling down on the sense of failure she feels toward her family duties. As she wipes away makeup from half of her face and belts the line “when will my reflection show who I am in inside,” she ties her own self worth to her failures as a woman to be a good wife. 

It is so rare for any race other than Caucasian to have representation in media like this, which is why it was so important for me to see my culture represented on a screen. Hollywood is full of white actors and even animation rarely features anything other than white leads. Minorities and especially Asians are typically relegated to side characters, if they are even represented at all in popular media. In extreme cases, white actors can actively harm Asian representation by taking roles intended for Asian people, such as Scarlet Johanssen, a white actor, being cast as a Japanese character in the 2017 live-action Ghost in the Shell adaptation. To have a musical, regardless of animated or live-action, take place in China and have Chinese actors and characters and tell a Chinese story is so refreshing to see in a high-profile movie by a high-profile studio like Disney and creates conversation about why representation matters.

The plot of Mulan largely hinges on breaking down gender stereotypes. When the Huns invade China, the emperor orders a man from each family to join the Chinese Army to fight back. From the very beginning, the Chinese Imperial Army establishes that male status is the only factor that they care about when determining who can fight for the country. Mulan’s elderly and crippled father is the only man in the family, which means that he is the only one who can fight even if he isn’t physically able to. Mulan decides to take her father’s place in the army to protect him and bring honor to her family, and in doing so breaks down toxic standards of masculinity and femininity and proves that a woman can be as powerful as a man by the end of the story. 

The musical number “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” directly references the standards of masculinity placed on the members of the Imperial Army, and the movie uses dramatic irony to break down these gender norms. The song’s key lyric, “I’ll make a man out of you” idealizes masculinity as peak strength and power, implying that the untrained soldiers were more feminine because they were weaker and less skilled as fighters, and that to become better warriors they have to “be a man.” Other lyrics of the song analogize the qualities of a man to natural processes like the swiftness of a coursing river, with the force of a typhoon, and with the strength of a raging fire, all of which elevate masculinity to beyond-human levels. While these lyrics are being sung, Mulan, disguised as a man under the alias “Ping,” is training with the other army recruits under Captain Shang. At first, Mulan is unable to overcome the obstacles thrown at her and is told by Shang to return home because she is too weak for the war, upon which she proves her worth using her intelligence to retrieve an arrow stuck to the top of a pillar, all while the lyrics “be a man” are being chanted repeatedly in the background. There is a beautiful irony in this scene where Mulan proves herself worthy as a woman of things previously built up to be things only a man can succeed in. 

The booming percussion and horns give the song a very masculine war-march sound to complement the lyrics. In terms of choreography, at the beginning of the musical number the characters are all very uncoordinated with the only coordinated one being Shang. By the end, once the characters have trained and persevered, they are coordinated and manly enough to join Shang in unison, showing their progression into the men the Imperial Army wants them to be. Yet again, Mulan defies these gender stereotypes by proving herself to be as strong if not stronger than the men in army with her intelligence and quick thinking, qualities of hers that come back later in the story to eventually aid in defeating the Huns and saving China. 

Listen to a new version of 'I'll Make a Man Out of You' that was pitched  for Disney's live-action 'Mulan'


All in all, Mulan the Disney animated musical succeeds in connecting a broad audience to a fairly specific story through the use of race and gender to say universal messages about gender roles. It’s nice to see a big studio like Disney be so progressive in its representation as early as 1998, even if the live-action remake in 2020 ruined everything good about the original movie (which is a conversation for another day, seriously it’s not even a musical anymore). Disney has always been great at telling princess stories, and it’s especially great when these stories are used as an effective medium to connect more general lessons in an easily digestible way.

High School Musical and ‘Sticking to the Status Quo’

By: Megan Walters

Alrighty friends, I feel the need to level with all of you. Until two days ago, I had never seen High School Musical. I’d seen the third one… I’m pretty sure? Growing up for me, Disney was not as present. My Mom hated, and I cannot emphasize this enough, HATED television. Anything involving mean characters, snarky comments, and witty quips? (Something, by her definition, that Disney Channel was filled with.) Absolutely not. We all stuck to Veggie tales instead (Has anyone seen my hairbrush?).

Now, I’m a bit older now and probably could have watched this ages ago, but just never really got around to it. In all seriousness, I didn’t really care to watch it either. When I was six and it was the only thing that the other girls in my class would talk about it sure mattered but it kind of faded out of the limelight for a few years, only coming up in scattered conversations. Looking back however, the whole musical created kind of a sore spot for me. I wasn’t allowed to watch it and so I could never really bond or connect with the other girls in my class. I didn’t know who Troy Bolton was and I couldn’t sing any of the songs. In turn, I would just say that I hated High School Musical. Which wasn’t true because I really didn’t even know what it was, but I was upset because I really didn’t belong. And also saying you hate something that everyone loves, especially when you’re six, does not go over well either.

So here we are, this became an option to view for the final essay. In my recent years when I see other people look back on it, I’d heard mostly positive things about the movie. Sure, it’s not an accurate portrayal of high school, but the awkwardness, Gabriella’s shyness of being in the spotlight for being just too smart, and Troy and Gabriella’s relationship is a surprisingly healthy and accurate one. While I don’t have the luxury of comparing watching it when I was little, it’s overall kind of a charming, adorable musical. It’s like what little kids will think high school will be like and honestly? I think that was the intention. And as far as cultural relevancy goes, as someone from the outside I can blatantly say this defined a generation of kids growing up and eventually made way for Olivia Trevino’s musical career and fame when the spinoff series was created. (Spent the whole summer listening to SOUR pretty much.)

However, the movie isn’t really all that perfect. And that’s a fact, not just that I may or may not have a personal vendetta against this film. In hindsight I would say 2005 to 2012 was about the peak of the early 2000’s era. Say hello to low-rise, bootcut jeans, and a ridiculous amount of layers on top and 2006 is no exception to this era. The movie’s whole message is about sticking up for what you want to do with your life, doing what makes you happy, and not ‘sticking to the status quo.’ Which is a good message, fits the lightheartedness of the musical and is well, very Disney in the end. The idea of following your dreams is a good idea, but after a viewing and some afterthought, I think the movie missed its own message.

The musical never takes any risks with its characters. Which I could argue is the point, everyone is too scared to stand out and conformity is the ‘in’. But everyone is simply so stereotypical its like the creators were terrified of making a person. Kelsi, the composer of a musical at age fifteen, is a shy band kid and a doormat of a character. She wrote a musical–and if I followed the plot correctly, she not only wrote the music, but the script, plot, and stage directions as well. That’s really impressive for a fifteen-year-old why don’t I know more about her? Why is there a Sharpay spinoff and not one about Kelsi? Broadway would love another writer, not ANOTHER blonde diva to take center-stage?

Chad, the ‘best friend to male main character Troy Bolton and obligatory black person,’ is constantly belittled and disciplined by teachers because he is ‘slow’, ‘doesn’t know how to read’, or is known for being a ‘trouble-maker’. Why does Chad struggle so much? Clearly everyone in this school is from upper-middle class judging by the houses and state of the school as a whole (has a strong arts and sports program as well as STEM, school is clean and looks relatively new, etc.) And while again, this is 2006, the whitewashing seems just a little too pristine for two major characters to be black and have no backstory.

The only real people we really get to know and see in this entire film are the two main characters and the ‘Villains’: Sharpay and Ryan. Which even then is a subject of controversy. Let’s face it, Ryan is the closeted gay figure in this film. His mannerisms, clothing, gestures all point to the stereotypical effeminate mystique. And yes, this is 2006 and people weren’t exactly on board with people being out, but this is a very, very Disney thing to do. The constant closeting and pushing of queer characters under the rug isn’t new, and to see it in a high school setting when so many people I knew revealed themselves is overall almost hurtful.

The movie’s message is to not ‘stick to the status quo’ and yet? That message can only be true to our two main leads. Not only because we know the most about them and the boundaries they are making, but because they are also in the ‘in’ crowd. Troy is extremely successful; the star player. Gabriella is the best and brightest child in the school with a very successful businesswoman as a mother. Even from the beginning, they aren’t the status quo; they are above and beyond it. It’s almost not a surprise that they are successful on stage too. If Disney really wanted to show what not sticking to the status quo looked like, it would have been about Kelsi, writing and composing at such a young age and the obstacles she goes through. Or it would have been about Ryan and his struggles with being closeted and the relationship he has with his family because of it. It would have been about Chad or Taylor (Gabriella’s new best friend) and their struggles with excelling and falling continuously behind in school. But instead, they are side characters, not as important and boiled down to their most basic stereotypes. Instead of sticking to the stuff we know (basketball star and smart shy girl), would it hurt to know about the stuff we don’t know?

Now, it’s a simple Disney channel movie that took the world by storm. I don’t think the creators thought it was going to be as big as it turned out ever and as previously mentioned, 2006 wasn’t the most progressive year and neither was the early 2000’s in hindsight. I have other smaller issues with the musical. I went into this expecting to feel sorry for Sharpay. I was told she worked her whole life to be on the center stage and has been in musical after musical. So yes, it is a little unfair that two randos come in and steal the spotlight. However, as someone who has performed in multiple productions and concerts and having countless people like her, I strongly believe she deserves to be put in her place. She is rude, constantly takes advantage of people lacking confidence, cannot handle when things do not go her way, uses and constantly abuses her brother and is overall, unkind. A whole internal theme of the plot and even throughout the series is that we should feel slightly sorry for Sharpay because she is ‘sometimes’ kind. However, none of that kindness is to believed to be genuine and she is really truly not a good person at all. And while we learned a little bit about Sharpay’s backstory and how hard she works to take the stage, she really only buys into the stereotypical diva. She falls into the category ultimately of spoiled brat. If the movie really wanted to fight the status quo, maybe they shouldn’t have made her as rich or come from some sort of hardship, showing the audience that the stage is truly all she has and therefore create sympathy for her and make her more of a person.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience of the musical. I got to heal my inner child a little bit by finally watching something that everyone seemed to grow up on and got to bond with my roommates over it as well. (We watched The Greatest Showman afterwards to see how Zac Efron grew up.) I enjoyed watching it being older now and acknowledging how different it would be if the show came out today and the issues that simply came with the era it was created in. Disney made a fun musical, because that’s what it was good at. It refused to take a risk with a musical where the whole point is to take a risk, but that goes along with the pattern that Disney holds over many, many of it musicals. While uncovering a piece of my childhood, I also got to be critical of the film and all of its endeavors.

In the Heights: Representation Done Right


One word. Wow…

My first interaction with the film, In the Heights, was actually when Nicole, my classmate, showed me the first eight minutes of the musical before it was released onto streaming platforms. From that moment, I was hooked but didn’t yet see it in its entirety — that is until we watched it for class during our module about ethnicity and immigrant stories.

The musical/drama film directed by Jon M. Chu and co-produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes is the 2021 film rendition of the Broadway musical bearing the same name. The Broadway musical, co-written by Miranda and Hudes, first premiered in 2008 and received a whopping 13 Tony Award nominations (winning 4 out of the 13 noms). So, obviously, why wouldn’t they turn it into a musical film?

It is safe to say this film has my heart.

Within the first 30 minutes, I was captivated by the personal stories of some of the main characters, Usnanvi and Nina. What’s so enchanting about this film rendition is its reflection of representation as illustrated by the plot of both the stage production and film. The casting for this film reflects a large Latinx population, aiming to rectify the lack of representation the Latinx community has faced in Hollywood for many years (finally!). Not only does the plot and casting of the film contribute to this representation, but it also reigns victorious in choreography, musical numbers, cinematography, and the American Dream as understood in this film to be far from cultural assimilation but rather multiculturalism. 

Let’s get into it…

You Got It Salute GIF by In The Heights Movie

The ethnic representation through this film is one that should serve as a role model to others and is exacerbated by the widely present themes of community and perseverance. It is evident the community in Washington Heights, New York, is nothing short of close-knit — a family if you will. For example, Usnavi’s abuela is a staple in this community, continuously hosting her friends and family for weekly dinner gatherings (when she died, it took me three business days to get over it). In addition, it seems this familial connection in the film was a genuine reflection of the comradery among the cast members while filming. For example, in a Zoom interview, Leslie Grace (who plays Nina) speaks on this comradery by stating: “We all built such a tight bond over that summer. That summer changed our lives; now we talk everyday.” In discussing the casting for this film, it is also important to note the prevalence of misrepresentation of minority groups over the years. According to USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative survey, “just 7% of major films in 2019 featured a lead Hispanic or Latino actor…” Thankfully, In the Heights has been an exception. To give some context from the greater world of musical productions surrounding minority groups, a New York Times article shares that some members of the production crew from the film West Side Story admitted they had never even met a Puerto Rican or even spent the time to sit down with them before writing the movie (Huh? Make it make sense…) In contrast, In the Heights worked diligently to cast actors that were personally tied to the experiences of the characters in which they played. The film is also not afraid to call out this very realistic lack of representation — we see this through Nina’s character during her first year at Stanford as she is misunderstood for part of the serving staff at a donor event. She walks the fine line between fitting in with her peers at school and her community that is reflected among the other members of the serving staff. The film displays this representation in such a way that I felt as though I had a sneak peek into the identity crisis Nina was facing. 

Can we also just talk about the choreography for a second? I don’t think anything will ever top the choreography that is seen in the number “96,000” as performed around the community pool in Washington Heights. Here, take a look for yourself. 

This scene itself adds so much depth to the film, considering the amount of people involved in the number. Additionally, we get a sneak peak into the unique personalities of each character, specifically as they envision what life they would have if they won the $96,000. We’ve seen ethnic representation in terms of casting, but now we’ve also seen the way in which choreography should be represented through this one scene. In case you need more evidence, check out the “Carnaval Del Barrio” scene where the community gathers in an alleyway to share grief over abuela’s passing and complaints about the hot New York summer without air conditioning. Within the choreography, the cast members are boundless and take up a substantial amount of space, moving their bodies in such a way that feeds them power — giving them the agency they have lacked for so long (especially in Hollywood). Their separate nationality groups are also displayed by the different dance styles and flags displayed in windows during the number. The choreography adds a strong component to the representation illustrated by this film.

Similarly, the song representation is among the most dynamic in a musical film that I have experienced thus far. The intro song, “In the Heights” performed by Anthony Ramos (Usnavi) includes a unique mix of singing and rapping, displaying the talent Ramos has as a performer. The storytelling piece is more than evident and gives viewers a deep look into the lives of the community in Washing Heights (I feel like I know everything about these people within the first five minutes of the film). Additionally, there are many other songs in which a large segment of the number is performed in Spanish, further adding onto the representation piece. It was clear to me just how passionate the cast members were within the musical numbers as is mirrored by the personal stories and experiences they have shared. 

Just as I thought it couldn’t get any better, the cinematography proved me wrong. Give that person a raise, am I right? The way the film reflects the plot line in such a way the Broadway stage could not certainly grabs more of my attention (as I’m sure it does others). Specifically, the “96,000” scene comes to mind again when Usnavi, Benny, Sonny, and Pete are headed to the pool. The magical realism in this scene helps to encapsulate the unique personalities and experiences of each of them. 

This can be seen again in the salon with the wigs.

image

The cinematography adds a whole other component to the representation piece and pulled me in as a viewer as I fell down a deeper hole of captivation. I was further drawn to the storytelling technique displayed in the cinematography as Usnavi jumps back and forth between the past and present, sharing his experiences with his future daughter and other children in the neighborhood.

Lastly, I find it important to highlight the ways In the Heights celebrates cultural differences in such a way that avoids cultural assimilation, and I think a lot of future productions can benefit from this example. The film celebrates the American Dream in a way that is different for each character. For Usnavi, as seen and heard in the number “In the Heights,” he sings of missing the Dominican Republic, admitting he hadn’t revisited since his parents passed away. He also owns a bodega on the corner — the place that just happens to be the one stop shop for everyone in the neighborhood and the same place that sells the winning lottery ticket. I’m still crying over his abuela leaving him the winning ticket (contact me in another three business days). The members of this community fly their flags proudly and celebrate the lives and successes of other people in the community. For example, they rally behind Nina who was the first person to make it to college from their community. Nina’s father, Kevin, is the typical overprotective father who keeps pushing Nina to succeed and represent herself proudly at school. Everyone else in the Heights is proud of her. It is refreshing to watch a musical in which differences are celebrated, not destroyed. This film gave a new definition to the American Dream. 

In the Heights is the type of production that has something for everyone. It’s the type of musical that consistently had my eyes welling up with tears, and while I could not personally understand the character’s circumstances, I felt drawn to them on an intimate level. Additionally, it had just the right amount of romantic relationships without engulfing the significance of the film’s message (because God knows we need more films centered around gushy love interests, am I right?). Not only is it a fun, feel-good 2 hours and 23 minutes, it also sets the stage for ethnic representation, and one in which many productions should follow. It is important for the greater context of the lack of representation of minority groups, specifically in Hollywood films. The way the film represents this population through multiple mediums such as choreography and lyrics makes it excel to the number one choice for me. It sets a precedent for how minority groups should be accurately represented and their talents displayed. 

Now, if you need me, I will be watching this on repeat probably forever (skipping abuela’s death of course 😭😭).

Cultural Relevance? Not in Paris

If you’re anything like me you’ll browse streaming sites for way too long, trying to find the perfect thing to watch. After skimming many synopses, I settled on An American in Paris, mainly sold by the nostalgia of music by Gershwin from my high school band days, but not knowing much else about it. The musical adaptation from 2015 directed by Christopher Wheeldon and Ross MacGibbon with book by Craig Lucas, is based on the 1951 film of the same name with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. Right off the bat I was pleasantly surprised when the three main male characters were introduced, each wanting to pursue the arts. Jerry Mulligan wants to be an artist, Henri Baurel a nightclub performer, and Adam Hochberg a composer. Ballet is the main form of dance in this musical, and the men take part too, doing leaps and pirouettes with fluid movements traditionally seen as feminine. Male characters who aren’t overly masculine and have discussions about the purpose and meaning of art? Yeah, sounded pretty promising to me too. Unfortunately, that ended real fast as soon as Lise Dassin, the love interest came into the picture. Despite its recent adaptation, the gender roles seen in An American in Paris still have traditional and outdated values, making it culturally irrelevant for a modern audience.

Before we get into everything, let’s quickly set up the love triangle. We have Jerry, an American soldier who chose to stay in Paris after the war, who runs into Lise and has a “love at first sight” moment. Adam, also an American soldier who stays in Paris, loves Lise as well. Then there’s Henri, he’s French like Lise, has been dating her, and wants to propose.

The main message I got from this musical: women have little agency in their relationships. Not exactly the first thing I want to be thinking about after watching a musical, but it’s happened more often than I would like. First, let’s discuss Lise as a character. She’s very feminine with her doe eyes, colorful, flowy dresses, and red lipstick. She looks down a lot and speaks quietly. Her feminine characteristics themselves don’t make her weak as a character, but they do emphasize the idea of femininity being weak when she acts with little to no agency in her interactions with Jerry.

From the get-go, Jerry will not take no for an answer. He goes to the department store where Lise works and causes a scene while singing that he has “beginner’s luck” in love because he happened to run into her twice in two days. Lise begs him to stop but he continues singing and disrupting the customers. At one point he picks her up and puts her on a counter while she protests, but once she’s standing on the counter and is looking out at the scene below with everyone in the store dancing, she smiles and laughs for a brief moment. That’s when I knew she was doomed. She was going to fall for Jerry’s obnoxious charms. If someone you saw twice but never talked to came to your workplace and started wreaking havoc at the risk of you being fired while professing their love for you, would you agree to meet them later? The absurdity of the situation makes Lise seem naïve. She also feeds into Jerry’s egotistical confidence. When Jerry asks Lise to meet him by the river, she refuses but he says, “I’ll see you there.” She questions “How can you be so sure?” to which he replies, “’Cause I’ve got beginner’s luck.” And of course, she shows up.

Right before Lise meets Jerry by the river, we see her writing a letter to her parents about her relationship with Henri and debating whether their love is romantic love or not. She starts singing about meeting the man she loves, and the lyrics contain themes of traditional gender roles. Take a look at some of these lines:

“And he’ll be big and strong”

“And when he comes my way, I’ll do my best to make him stay.”

“And so all else above, I’m waiting for the man I love.”

Changes have been made to the original lyrics which included lines about dreaming about the man she loves every night and never leaving the home he’ll build for them, but the original lyrics above still convey a sense of her needing a man in her life. In fact, a lot of the original songs from the film with more obviously problematic lyrics are not included in the musical. The lines above come from another song by Gershwin called “The Man I Love,” which was actually not in the original film. The writers behind this musical recognized the outdated gender roles of the original film, but their efforts to recharacterize Lise fell short, leaving her with little agency.

We start off the river scene with Jerry being Jerry and saying that Lise’s name is “Beautiful. But “sad,” trying to get a reaction out of her to stop her from trying to leave. He goes on saying “How about Lizzie? Or Eliza? Liza.” Lise says she likes her name, but Jerry replies that “Liza’s happier.” Lise keeps trying to leave, but every time she’s about to go he comes up with another way to get her to stay, soon launching into an attempt at a heartfelt moment when he confesses that he wants to forget everything about the war. Lise answers sincerely that she wants to forget too, but instead of empathizing with her Jerry immediately lights up again, having finally found some common ground he can work with. He claims that “With me you don’t have to be that sad girl. You can be Liza,” and bursts into song. He continually uses her emotions to his advantage, describing what their lives would be like together as she looks dreamily off into the distance or smiles to herself, enamored by his words. He keeps calling her Liza while he’s singing and at first, she corrects him every time. But she eventually stops, until by the end when he finally calls her Lise, she corrects him and says Liza. This is also when I remembered that she still barely knows him. Jerry’s been trying to manipulate Lise’s feelings for him, and she still gives up her name for his convenience.

Jerry has control over the situation. He’s the one singing and the one guiding the choreography, leading Lise around and trying to get closer to her. But despite Lise’s discomfort at his advances, she doesn’t do much to stop him. She’ll remove his hand from her shoulder, or edge away from him when they’re sitting on the bench, but she never leaves. Right after Jerry agrees that they can just be friends, he tries to kiss her, and she pushes him away. But even after that, she still leaves smiling as they agree to meet at the river every day as “friends.” Lise physically lacks control during much of their dance numbers together as well. Whenever her and Jerry have a ballet duet, he lifts her a lot, spinning her around and catching her in the air, or supporting her weight as she leans to the side and spins on one foot. She depends on him to perform these moves and he is in control when he lifts her in the air. Everything about their relationship has centered on Jerry having agency in the situation and Lise mildly following along.

Another character I want to talk about is Madame Baurel, Henri’s mother. Throughout the musical, Madame Baurel takes charge. She has a sharp tongue and a stern look and gives orders to those around her. Henri hides the fact that he wants to be a performer, knowing that his parents care a lot about appearance because of how they had to hide Lise during the war and would not approve of his dreams. During one of his performances his parents are there, and they find out his secret. Madame Baurel berates him after the performance, meanwhile Monsieur Baurel surprises everyone by exclaiming that Henri is remarkable and should pursue his dream. The instant he says this Madame Baurel is taken aback and quickly tries to recover by agreeing with him, saying “Oh, er, well yes, yes of course.” I couldn’t believe that she would drop everything she was worried about during the war so suddenly just because of her husband. Why couldn’t she form her own opinion about Henri’s career? Why did she need to wait for her husband’s approval first? For as much agency as she seemed to have, it was all a façade where underneath she was just following her husband’s lead.

Looking at these examples, it becomes clear that the traditional gender roles make An American in Paris culturally irrelevant. Okay, but why does that matter? It was based off a film from the 1950s, of course it might seem old fashioned and not everything needs to be revolutionary after all. But that’s just it. The fact that the story is still culturally irrelevant even after the adaptation, reflects the lingering gender roles that persist in our culture today (or 2015, if you want to be specific). The adaptation is a reflection of modern values, and we see that through the changes that were made to the song choices and lyrics. But the extent to which inequality between men and women is portrayed even in this revised version is problematic because it perpetuates these themes in popular culture. As many classic stories get brought back to life on the Broadway stage, it’s important to recognize and address the issues they may have simply due to the different cultural context they were created in. After all, it’d be nice to have our crème brûlée and eat it too.

How to be a bad person and get away with it: An essay by Evan Hansen.

(obviously this is not a real essay that’s actually written by this character, but he probably could if he wanted to… after a slice or two of introspection pie)

By Nicole Anderson

So here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure it’s nothing new that Dear Evan Hansen, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, has some problematic aspects… but just how far does it go?

For some context, Dear Evan Hansen is a little musical about an anxious and depressed high school student whose inspirational letter to himself (which turned out not to be very inspirational) gets in the hands of a boy that ends up taking his own life. The authorities assume that it is a suicide note to Evan, his only friend, and so do the boys parents. Originally, he tries to explain his situation to the parents, but they are so set on Evan having been a comfort to their son he eventually caves in and lies to comfort them.

It then gets worse.

Evan has a friend that has him forge emails that prove they were friends, he gives those letters to the family, he bonds with the family (especially their daughter (and his long-time crush)). Evan and a few friends start “The Connor Project” in memoriam of the late teen, as a fundraiser and mental health awareness website. The lies build and build and build until it all inevitably collapses. 

Blah blah blah… the end. 

Right?

Wrong. If you don’t think too carefully about it, the musical seems like a great coming of age story about a boy and a girl that are all brought together through tragic means. It seems like a story that represents those with mental illness who don’t usually get representation in popular media. It seems like a cute love story. It seems like a silly tale of a young man’s adventures in high school.

But if you do think carefully about it…

Things like this blog post get written.

There are several “minor” (I just mean, in comparison) issues that riddle the musical like casual homophobia in the song “Sincerely, Me,” having several main female characters that all somehow have zero agency, and Evan being so damn rude to his mom (a single nurse who works overtime to make sure Evan can afford college) and never apologizing for it. But I’m going to focus on what really makes the overarching plot of this musical problematic.

I know this comes as a huge shock, but the cishet white guy never gets punished for his actions (from which, he learns nothing) AND somehow manages to simultaneously play the victim by blaming it all on anxiety and depression (perpetuating very harmful stereotypes).

As I get into this, keep this list in mind. These are the most appealing benefits Evan gets from pretending to have been friends with Connor. 

  • Popularity
  • A found family
  • A romantic relationship with the girl he’s always liked
  • Less social anxiety and depression (it magically disappears!)
  • An offer for his college tuition to be paid in full

Now, I’m not saying that it would be better to get all of these things if someone were actually friends with someone who took their own life, but at least it would be somewhat morally acceptable. Evan getting all of these things because of a lie is disgusting. Especially considering he had no intentions of correcting anyone.

Here’s the thing. I’m not proud of this, but I was an Evan apologist for a long time. This musical had me convinced that Evan did not mean for any of this to happen. It was all one big misunderstanding fueled by the panic of an anxious teen, right? But then I started playing the song “Sincerely, Me” and “Words Fail” a little too frequently.

In the song “Sincerely, Me” Evan is creating fake emails sent between him and Connor. Evan says, “I wanna show that I was like, a good friend, you know?” This is clearly not him trying to make a family feel better about the loss of their son. This is not a panicked boy doing his best. This is him building an ego by manipulating parents who are mourning the loss of their son. This demonstrates perfectly the transition of him making decisions out of panic to out of greed.

“Words Fail” comes after the big reveal that it was all a hoax. This song is exhibit A on proof of why no one should be forgiving Evan for anything any time soon. Let’s go lyric by lyric and break it down.

I never meant to make it such a mess

I never thought that it would go this far

So I just stand here sorry

Searching for something to say

Something to say

“Words Fail”

Take note how he never actually says “I’m sorry.” So far, as an apology goes, it isn’t off to a great start but let’s see where it goes. There is still hope for an Evan apologist.

Words fail, words fail

There’s nothing I can say

“Words Fail”

Yikes, that’s the best you can do? You lied to this family for damn near a year and that’s the best you can do? The days leading up to this you knew things were beginning to unravel– you had time to prepare for this and yet you still don’t know what to say? This is a little embarrassing for an Evan apologist but there is still a sliver of a chance he can redeem himself.

I guess I thought I could be part of this

I never had this kind of thing before

I never had that perfect girl

Who somehow could see the good part of me

I never had the dad who stuck it out

No corny jokes or baseball gloves

No mom who just was there

‘Cause mom was all that she had to be

“Words Fail”

Woe is Evan. What is so sick about this song is somehow, despite everything, he is still painting himself as the victim. One could argue that this is his attempt of justifying his actions, but considering how long the lies went on for you can’t really play that card. Sometimes you don’t get to justify your bad actions. Sometimes you just have to admit you were wrong and a p.o.s. After everything we have seen, this comes off so cheap. Not having the “perfect” life doesn’t excuse all the things you did while you were entirely in control of your actions.

That’s not a worthy explanation

I know there is none

Nothing can make sense of all these things I’ve done

Words fail, words fail

There’s nothing I can say

Except sometimes, you see everything you wanted

And sometimes, you see everything you wish you had

And it’s right there, right there, right there

In front of you

And you want to believe it’s true

So you make it true

And you think maybe everybody wants it

And needs it, a little bit too

“Words Fail”

You don’t get to be a bad person because your mom is busy. This fully admits that he saw something that he wanted and he did what was necessary to make it a reality for himself. He is admitting his manipulation without saying it for what it is. He just keeps up this ridiculous narrative that somehow because he wanted something and felt that he was entitled to it, no one is allowed to get mad at him. Evan apologists, this is an “L” for you.

This was just a sad invention

It wasn’t real, I know

But we were happy

I guess I couldn’t let that go

I guess I couldn’t give that up

I guess I wanted to believe

‘Cause if I just believe

Then I don’t have to see what’s really there

No, I’d rather pretend I’m something better than these broken parts

Pretend I’m something other than this mess that I am

‘Cause then I don’t have to look at it

And no one gets to look at it

No, no one can really see

“Words Fail”

More dialogue about how he is the victim and his actions were justified. This screams, “audience please feel bad for me” over and over again. This is like water torture but with someone claiming to be a victim. Not only that, it screams, “Hey please don’t hate me; family that I purposefully deceived because I saw the potential benefits of having a relationship with! Still want to pay for my college tuition?”. But this next bit is when it really gets messy.

‘Cause I’ve learned to slam on the brake

Before I even turn the key

“Words Fail”

AND THEN YOU GUESSED IT: HE TRANSITIONS INTO A REPRIEVE OF “WAVING THROUGH A WINDOW”. YOU KNOW, THE SONG ABOUT HOW HE HAS ANXIETY THAT CONTROLS HIS EVERY ACTION??? Sorry Evan apologists, it’s over.

It’s one thing to have anxiety. It’s an entirely different thing to blame all of your poor decisions on it.

I’ve already pointed out how several times he all but admits he is doing things out of greed instead of anxiety but for him to finish off this banger of an “apology” by bringing it all back to his mental illness and painting this picture of him not being accountable for his own actions is damaging to those with mental health and perpetuate harmful stereotypes that the community has faced for decades.

He admits it in “Words Fail”. He admits it in “Sincerely, Me”. He repeatedly demonstrates how he was in control of his own actions but he never takes responsibility for it. Yet he still uses his mental health as an excuse to play the victim.

This musical does one thing phenomenally: insinuating that people who have mental health issues will always inevitably act out.

Let’s face the facts: everything surrounding Evan is a lie. From the fake relationship with Connor, to how depression magically disappears once you get some action with a girl, to the song “You Will be Found” (a song that is all about how Evan was not alone, when you find out later that he actually was). In hindsight, this is just about as far from a fun coming of age story as someone can possibly get. It’s dark and upsetting and filled with lies. Harmful lies. Damaging lies.

When Evan stops taking his medication without consulting his doctor it is barely even mentioned. Having a girlfriend fixed all his problems. That’s how mental health works, right? This is just another splash of inaccurate and harmful stereotypes that lead to real people in the real world getting hurt and yet this fact is forgotten in the plot of the musical as if it is insignificant.

What makes the character and the writing surrounding him truly deplorable is that his mental health is utilized as a plot device. It wasn’t put in there for representation. This was written in 2015. If Pasek and Paul wanted to accurately portray mental health there were ample resources to learn about it and then do so. However, this “representation” was put there as an excuse; both to write the musical and for Evan himself.

Without ever actually apologizing (very on brand it seems) or giving a statement about it, the production manages to admit its shortcomings. You can tell by how many things it changed with its film adaptations.

There were going to be changes anyway, that is how musical to film adaptations work, but when several specific problematic aspects disappear, one notices a trend. Especially in the change from Evan and Zoe’s first kiss happening directly after a 3 minute number that chalk-full of straight up lies from Evan (“If I could tell her”) and on her late-brothers bed (which is immediately turned into a joke), you begin to wonder how that was even allowed in the first place. In the movie this kiss is pushed back to happen after the song “Only Us,” the theme of which is to forget how they came together in the first place and how “what came before won’t count anymore or matter”. Additionally, at the end of the musical when all of Evans’ problems fade away with time, he doesn’t actually demonstrate how he has learned anything from it all. The movie spliced together a montage of him reading some of Connors’ favorite books and contacting people who knew him to learn more about who he really was. Alyssa also gets her own song in the musical, fleshing out her character a bit more, which was a refreshing change from her original iteration, that really only exists as a facet for conflict in the plot. 

The film adaptation was an opportunity to fix some of the original story’s problems and they did– but it is about time that these problems be addressed by the broadway stage production. As it stands now, Dear Evan Hansen is a story about how a cishet white man is never punished for his deplorable actions. This is exactly what Broadway (and life, really) needs less of. It’s full of stereotypes that have plagued marginalized communities for decades and this is not what a Broadway stage should represent. Not now, and not ever.

We’re All in This Together… Forever: The Timelessness of High School Musical

Disney Channel has been making original movies since 1983, but it wasn’t until over two decades later in 2006 when they released High School Musical that Disney Channel tapped into its true potential. I’m a huge fan of DCOMs (as they’re more affectionately known), even the ones about a boy who turns into a mermaid at 13 years old, or a boy who has tremendous luck only to realize that his luck comes from a magic Irish coin. That is to say, even if the movie’s premise is ludicrous, the acting is painful, and the special effects are comical, I’m going to eat it up. For while, DCOMs were easy ways for the Disney company to appeal to their audiences without having to fork up a huge budget.

But High School Musical was different. Groundbreaking some may say. And those people would be right. High School Musical, directed and choreographed by Kenny Ortega and written by Peter Barsocchini, broke through Disney Channel’s long running streak of cheap made-for-TV movies that would really only appeal to their target audience: young children. It’s difficult to pinpoint one specific reason why High School Musical was such a success. From the familiar plot pulling from classics like Romeo and Juliet and Grease, to Kenny Ortega’s tremendous choreography, High School Musical appeals to all audiences: young kids (like myself who was 6 at the time of its release), to young adults (like my current self who still rewatches the series every few months), to actual adults (like my mom who pretends to do something else while she’s actually watching). High School Musical is different precisely because it is not; it draws upon messages that have already been explored, but modernized the story with song and dance (and just enough cheese) to appeal to viewers of any age, and it’s no surprise that with a choreographer like Kenny Ortega and a young cast of rising teen heartthrobs (Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Corbin Bleu, Ashley Tisdale) that this movie would be a success. Its success, however, was record breaking.

To know High School Musical is to know “Stick to the Status Quo”, the film’s midway point chorus number. After Sharpay, Ryan, Chad and the rest of the basketball team find out that Gabriella and Troy have signed up for auditions, all the characters head into the cafeteria for lunch. The cafeteria, like in most teen movies, explains a lot. Every cliché clique sits with each other, and each have defining features and interests that separate them from other groups (see the Mean Girls cafeteria scene for reference). Despite being the place where all the students come together, the cafeteria is always divided. High School Musical stays true to this trope, and thus “Stick to the Status Quo” emerges. Sharpay, annoyed that there are outsiders infiltrating her drama club, claims that someone needs to tell Gabriella the rules. Ryan tees up the song by asking “And what are the rules?” (38:52) and the camera pans to the jocks where Zeke begins the song.

Zeke’s deep, dark secret is that he bakes, and all the jocks lose their minds. After telling Zeke to speak his mind, they shut him down immediately with the ever-famous “If you wanna be cool, follow one simple rule: don’t mess with the flow no, no. Stick to the status quo” (39:52). The song continues with each group—nerds, skaters, etc.— having their own Zeke who have a passion outside of their clique’s interests. The entire lunchroom breaks out into the same choreography and song, all declaring that sticking to what you know is what’s best for everyone.

Despite each group wanting to remain separate from the others, Ortega’s choreography displays an act of unity, with everyone joining together in the same choreography, but still keeps each group separate at their own table. The choreography is hard hitting and maybe a bit on the nose (like pointing to the basketball when the jocks sing “stick to the stuff you know”). But nonetheless, the choreography is a sign that things are starting to unravel in the school, and the stomps, fists in the air, and hands outstretched like asking “what on earth are you thinking” all compound on the lyrics to drive the point home: no one has ever broken out of their clique’s mold and the whole school might fall apart if they do.

As the song continues, the choreography has all the students dancing around their tables, and then eventually other tables, and soon enough, the people who are actively singing about keeping the status quo are hanging out with people in other cliques. A cheerleader is sitting in the lap of a skater, a nerd is doing a split leap off of the jock’s table. It’s madness! At least, that what Sharpay thinks. Sharpay seems to be the only one who is sticking to the stuff she knows. Watching over the lunchroom as the cliques begin to intermix, Sharpay starts singing and the other characters react. They go back to their tables as Sharpay tries to return things to normal (in her typical, Sharpay way, which is yelling at everyone).

Ortega’s over-the-top choreography, the very literal lyrics, and the delivery of each line cues audiences into the fact that the film is not actually pushing this message. It’s ridiculous to think that people can’t have multiple interests, but it’s exactly this ludicrous idea combined with a catchy tune and danceable choreography that makes “Stick to the Status Quo” so notable. It’s silly enough for kids to enjoy, it’s sweet enough for teens and adults to find comforting, and above all, it’s entertaining. Seeing an entire cafeteria dancing together in unison to a catchy song sung by a chorus of people makes viewers want to jump in and join. The fact that they can create a song with a terrible message and choreography that contradicts the lyrics speaks to Ortega’s genius: it’s just tongue-in-cheek enough for people to know it’s intentionally hypocritical and ridiculous without being so riddled with sarcasm that it seems insincere from the characters. We believe these characters feel this way, but the choreography hints that deep down, they not only have the ability, but the desire, to change the status quo.

Being at the almost halfway mark of the film, this number shows that these characters are stuck in their ways, but with almost an hour left, anyone who has even the faintest knowledge about Disney knows these issues will be resolved. After the basketball team and the scholastic decathalon team join forces to split up Troy and Gabriella, the school really does unravel, but not because people didn’t stick to the status quo, but because they did. Gabriella sings the melodramatic “When There Was Me and You” to a literal life size poster of Troy in the hallway and quits the decathalon.

Troy can’t make any jump shots. Suddenly, Gabriella and Troy’s friends realize that their scheme actually made things worse, and they do some self-reflecting. Realizing that doing a musical isn’t as horrifying as originally thought, they make amends with Troy and Gabriella. Now all that’s left is for Troy and Gabriella to make amends. Troy visits Gabriella’s balcony which connects directly to her bedroom and sings to her to apologize (side note: this movie gave me insanely high expectations about high school relationships, really setting me up for failure). If this explanation sounds rushed it’s because this all happens in like 10 minutes. It’s a Disney movie let’s not forget.

They all get back into the groove of things and prepare for their events: the basketball team’s game, the scholastic decathalon, and the callbacks. The basketball team gets a cake for the decathalon team, and, in response, they make a poster for the basketball team. Both groups give the drama club a present of boys with letters on their shirt spelling out Go Drama Club! Despite what “Stick to the Status Quo” established, it seems that the school is running smoothly, if not better than before, now that everyone has accepted people doing other things.

But oh no! Another problem has arisen! Sharpay convinced Ms. Darbus to reschedule the callbacks to the same day and time as both the game and the decathalon. I smell another scheme. Gabriella and Taylor, with their freaky genius minds, manage to rig the scoreboard and lights in the gym, stopping the game. They also create a mixture so foul smelling it clears out the decathalon competitors and audience. Gabriella, in her lab coat, and Troy, in his basketball uniform, rush into the theater hoping to make the callback. They’re late, Ms. Darbus gives them a hard time, but once she sees the crowds of people Troy and Gabriella have brought in, she agrees to let them audition.

“Breaking Free” (a very literal song title) shows the whole school coming together to support Troy and Gabriella. While their choreography on stage includes very innocent displays of affection like hand-holding and circling around each while staring lovingly into each other’s eyes, it’s the crowd’s choreography that shows a stark contrast to what we saw in “Stick to the Status Quo”. They stand up and clap along, intermixed in the auditorium seats. They’re no longer ironically all dancing together, but united together supporting their friends who are proving that you can be smart or good at basketball and also be great at singing.

Afterwards, we return to the basketball game where the Wildcats win and within the span of about two minutes, Chad asks Taylor out (another basketball-nerd romance), Sharpay and Ryan make amends with Gabriella, Kelsi and Jason share a moment (a basketball- drama club romance), and we break into the most famous number out of the entire movie: “We’re All in This Together”. Even more than “Breaking Free”, “We’re All in This Together” is the juxtaposition to “Stick to the Status Quo” where the whole school comes together for one final act of unity. The lyrics are clear, “We’re all in this together. And it shows when we stand, hand in hand, make our dreams come true” (1:33:30) and the choreography is spirited and dynamic. It acts as a celebration of winning the basketball game, but even more than that, it’s the culmination of all of the resolutions for the conflicts that arose throughout the film. The iconic downward fist bump to and over the head clap is ingrained within anyone born from the late 90s to the early 2000s.

The hands crossing over their faces as they sing “We’re all stars” and the claw hand movements during “Wildcats everywhere! Wave your hands up in the air” match the celebratory lyrics, giving the entire number a jovial and uplifting sentiment. It’s not as forceful as the choreography in “Stick to the Status Quo” but that’s because it’s not trying to force people into a box. This song is about letting people shine in their individuality, and the choreography accounts for that. Once again, Kenny Ortega’s choreography matches the lyrics in a way that will appeal to young children, but its simplicity is what also makes it timeless.

High School Musical doesn’t need some deep, complex message. After all, this is a movie targeted towards young children. It not only appeals to all audiences, but also stands the test of time, because it’s just plain fun. The characters retain their identifiable looks through costuming, which makes their unified and harmonious choreography all the more powerful. The movie isn’t advocating that everyone should be the same to get along, just like it wasn’t advocating for everyone to be different and separated. “We’re All in This Together” shows that everyone being different is what makes everyone special, and it doesn’t have to divide us. VERY cheesy, but it’s a message for every kid, a reminder for every teen, and an anthem for every adult.

High School Musical is the most successful Disney Channel Original Movie ever released and it’s not hard to see why. It’s got a great cast, catchy songs, dynamic and energetic choreography, and a not-too-cheesy message. Nothing about it (except maybe the clothes) has gone out of style, and its timelessness, attributed mainly to Kenny Ortega’s impressive choreography, makes every rewatch just as enjoyable as the first viewing, regardless of how old we get.

If In the Heights Was Set in New Orleans

The summer after my senior year, I realized that if I were to move past high school and onto college, my Broadway Showtunes playlist had to reflect that growth. I looked up a list of Broadway hits and started listening to find new additions. When I first heard “Breathe” from In the Heights, I started sobbing my eyes out. I had been feeling anxious about going to Vanderbilt since I was accepted, but I was never able to verbalize what I was anxious about.

 Listening to this song, I finally recognized the amount of pressure I was feeling to succeed: pressure from my family to make them proud, pressure from my friends to show that a Cabrini girl could make it at such a prestigious school, pressure from Vanderbilt to do well enough to keep my financial aid. The midpoint of the song encapsulated how I felt whenever I would try to talk to my family about how I was worried about going to Vanderbilt. In the background, the listener hears the community of Washington Heights praising Nina in Spanish, but Nina’s inner monolog overlaps, expressing her worries. There was always this disconnect between me, feeling nervous, and my family, having faith in me, that made me think they could never understand how I felt.

My dad and I the day I was accepted to Vanderbilt

When I started classes at Vanderbilt, I overcame some of these anxieties, but new ones soon took their place. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by this pressure to succeed, I would listen to “Breathe” and feel a little relief. I may have felt like I was being crushed by other people’s expectations of me, but someone else understood how I felt. 

When I saw that we might be studying In the Heights for this course, I wasn’t sure how to feel. I had seen the trailers for the 2021 film version, directed by Jon M. Chu, and knew it would be amazing from a production standpoint. However, I had this feeling that I would ultimately be disappointed. I figured that the connection I felt to “Breathe” would be the only way I could relate to a musical written in the early 2000s about the latinx community in New York. However, after watching this musical I realized that I had a much deeper connection with the people of Washington Heights than I first thought. 

Back home, I live with my grandmother, who used to be a hairdresser. Because my grandparents could not afford to lease a storefront, my grandmother and my aunt (who’s not really my aunt) opened a salon in the backroom of our house. The up-tempo, bright singing in “No Me Diga” reminds me so much of sitting in that backroom, listening to the regular customers laugh while they get their hair done that I can almost smell the perm solution.

Since my grandmother has stopped doing hair, she has come to more closely resemble Abuela Claudia. She loves taking care of everyone in our neighborhood, finds small ways to assert her dignity, and tends to treat herself to a lottery ticket but then forgets to check the numbers (but believe me, I will definitely go get her a ticket whenever she asks from now on). 

While I was able to draw these comparisons despite the fact that I am not latina, there were notable points in the story that I did not relate to. One such example is Abuela Claudia, especially when she sings “Paciencia y Fe”. I will never experience the events that Abuela Claudia sings about: I did not have to move hundreds of miles away from my home to a new country, watch my mother struggle to find work, get a job to support my family, or learn English as a second language. However, the emotion that Olga Merediz infuses into the performance and the dynamic movement of the backup dancers tells a story that the audience cannot help but feel empathetic for.

Another example is when Usnavi asks Sonny’s father if Sonny can come with him to the Dominican Republic. In a somber tone, Sonny’s father highlights the fact that Usnavi pays Sonny in cash. Watching this scene, I had no idea what he was implying. However, when Sonny expresses to Nina that he is undocumented, the connection clicked and my heart broke. While attending college, especially a school like Vanderbilt, was difficult for me, it was never as unreachable as the position Sonny is in. Again, I have never gone through the experience that Sonny is going through, but the dramatic structure that explains this part of his story elicits such empathy.

 Being able to appreciate the connections while recognizing the differences between my life and In the Heights showcases the musical’s cultural relevance. The show’s 11 o’clock number, “Carnaval del Barrio”, highlights the fact that the community of Washington Heights is made up of people from many different countries in Latin America. While they all experience the greater sense of community by living in Washington Heights, there is no one right way to be a part of the Washington Heights community. The main example we see throughout the story is how the main characters envision their futures. Nina and Vanessa want to leave Washington Heights, going to different places in America. Usnavi wants to go back to the Dominican Republic to reconnect with his roots. Sonny wants to stay in Washington Heights, helping the neighborhood to grow. None of these opinions are presented as the “correct” option.

This idea that a community is not a box that the members must fit in allows a white girl, like me, to feel understood by this musical.

The fact that there are parts of this story that I do not personally connect with does not invalidate the fact that other parts provide me with comfort and understanding. It is this connection that highlights the importance of giving different communities a platform to tell their stories. A group that I am not a part of sharing their stories does not lessen my experiences. Musicals, like In the Heights, allow people to recognize the similarities they share with others and better understand their differences.

“Motive” and the absence of motif in Miss Saigon

A: Alright! Set Hike Go! 

C: Okay? 

A: Oh, I’m recording already. 

C: Give the introduction then. 

A: Good afternoon on this fine autumn day. You are listening to a critical dialogue about the modern interpretation of the forces that constructed Miss Saigon. I am Alex Shen and I am here with Connie Wu. I must say we are quite daring with our interpretation. 

C: We must not ignore the overwhelming existence of the writer’s will to make money by satisfying the consumer’s will to be entertained. 

A: Still it feels like I joined the dark side. I would have been so scared to present this back in high school. But, I bet if there are middle or high school students listening they would clap their hands. 

C: Let’s give more background information than just the name. 

A: Miss Saigon is a stage musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil premiered in London in 1989. It opened on Broadway in 1991 and is the 13th longest-running show on Broadway. This musical has stirred up controversies ever since its debut, so what do you think is the message it tries to convey to its audiences?

C: I wouldn’t say that the book writers of Miss Saigon intended a meaningful message through Miss Saigon since it is just a Vietnamese version of Madame Butterfly. Of course, the audience may be able to get something out of it based on their personal experience, but I think Schonberg and Boublil wrote this musical solely for its tragedy and people love to pay for tragedies.

A: So what would you say is the driving force behind them creating this musical?

C: As far as I know, the authors saw a picture of a Vietnamese girl giving away the child she had with an American soldier, and reminding them of the famous Madame Butterfly, so they created another version of it set during the American Vietnam war, which the target audience, white America, would be much more familiar with than the war Madame Butterfly was set in.

A: That’s true. The Vietnam war here is also portrayed in a very American perspective, where the American soldiers are powerful, and Vietnamese people are having no agency over anything and fall into the claws of communism.

C: There was definitely some white savior complex going on in Miss Saigon. Anyway, I was saying that the authors saw the potential of the tragic love story pattern in Madame Butterfly so they copy-pasted it into a new setting. Kim is just a symbol of innocent, naïve love that we are supposed to be empathizing for, and it reminds me of last-century Disney princesses.

A: In contrast to Kim, the other bar girls, like Gigi, would be a more realistic version of what those girls were actually like and going through, but they don’t get the spotlight because they are not the stereotypical innocent Asian girl straight out of American fantasies.

C: I have to say I sympathized with Gigi more than Kim and a powerful woman like her would make a great main character, rather than some girly daydreaming about a prostitution client giving her a good life and protecting her from her arranged fiancé.

A: That Vietnamese guy, Thuy, is indeed an interesting character. We only know that Kim is betrothed to him, but somehow he acts like the villain in the plot.

C: Of course, that’s because arranged marriage sounds as evil as communism to Americans and Thuy had them both. I mean even though the practice of arranged marriage has decreased in many Asian countries, it is ridiculous to use today’s standard to judge people from another culture half a century ago. I personally think Thuy was a better choice than Chris- I mean he even came back to take Kim with him no matter if she has become a bar girl or lives on the street, even after he has become a high-ranking official. Thuy does not care how he would be judged by the society as long as he could be Kim, and compare that to Chris, who just wants Kim to disappear from his “normal” American life.  Thuy is probably the only main character I don’t hate in Miss Saigon.

A: What about how other characters play into the love drama. 

C: The Engineer is definitely an entertaining character. Oh wait, I also don’t hate the Engineer. 

A: You don’t hate the Engineer? Elaborate?

C: He’s funny.

A: Okay… I mean, he is funny, and he’s got the eleven o’clock number. The engineer is like an embodiment of the American dream. He has got all those false imaginations about Capitalism and wishes to go to America to continue his human trafficking business.

C: The human trafficking he has done in Vietnam wasn’t necessarily bad though because otherwise the girls and women in war are left to starve to death, or even if they could earn money from being prostitutes, they are very likely beaten or killed by their clients so they need a mafia-like male to look over them, who is the Engineer.

A: You’ve got a point there. I think the Engineer acts as another contrast to Kim, just like how we said Gigi was a less idealized Kim. While Kim represents true love, the Engineer is characterized by his material desires, so he is almost like a satirical character mocking capitalism.

C: We learned about the Engineer’s past through his number “The American Dream”, but I feel like telling such a tragic backstory in a comical way takes away the opportunity to both give more dimensions to the Engineer’s character. His character design leaves almost nothing human in him, except the short moment of affection he showed toward Kim’s son in Let Me See His Western Nose. I would be curious to learn more about his emotional evolution over the course of the years and if he ever felt bad for himself. This entertaining number also tried but did not succeed in putting forward a serious message of how capitalism has intruded the culture and lives of those being invaded, as something similar is happening just until recently, ahem, Afghanistan, ahem.

A: Ooh getting a little political here are we. I do want to state quickly that even though we interpret the construction of this musical as mainly prompted by fame and money. The message of the musical is dynamically changing with each different time period and the movement that sways the audience. 

A: We also see in the beginning that Kim is wearing nice clothes, meaning she could be from a prominent family, and we don’t really know what happened to all that.

C: Agreed. I would be much more intrigued by this musical if more of it is on life struggles during wartime rather than some old-routine toxic love story, which is also my feeling toward the Les Miserable musical.

A: So you think that the authors of Miss Saigon were just using a love story plot that is attractive to the white audiences and install it to the Asian woman stereotype.

C: Yes. However, that did make Miss Saigon the first major musical centering on Asians and especially Asian women, so it helped in the way that it made the audiences pay more attention to the Asian community.

A: Yeah, and it has provided opportunities for Asians in the musical industry, who have a hard time getting the roles they deserve. When I watched Miss Saigon in LA several years ago, a large portion of people on stage were Asians, but still, about ninety percent of the orchestra and orchestra terrace were Caucasian.

C: What about the Asians?

A: Emmm… There were definitely not as many Asians as in the boba Tea shop next door.

C: Of course there wasn’t. I mean, that is even in LA where a significant portion of the population is Asian. When I saw the Madame Butterfly opera in Nashville two years ago, I felt like the only Asians in the audience were other Vanderbilt students. Also, a lot of the geishas in the show were performed by white people, so yellowface and the geisha makeup and choreography were terrible. I am talking a lot about Madame Butterfly because I am much more familiar with Japanese culture than Vietnamese, but I am sure there exist some racial stereotypes and cultural inaccuracies in the choreography and staging of Miss Saigon as well.

A: I don’t know a lot about Vietnamese culture either, but I think the performance in Miss Saigon creates tension between the power dynamics of Vietnamese people and the American. For example, we see a demonstration of masculinity when the Vietnamese communist party takes over Ho Chi Minh city.

C: That’s because brute force equals masculinity and power according to popular beliefs, especially in America. What do you think then, of the trio of Kim, Chris, and his American wife, Ellen?

A: I thought the American wife would be more of a side character, but it turned out that even she had more agency and control than Kim.

C: I wished so badly for her not to be the stereotypic jealous woman, who she just turned out to be exactly. Then the story becomes two women fighting for one man and the one who loses commits suicide. This iconic portrayal of women in popular media across the world is far different from how women interact with each other in real life and demonstrates how patriarchy is implanted into the media and people’s minds. I hate it so much that you are now stuck with me judging the entire musical hard.

A: It is true that we don’t know anything about Ellen except her being a stereotypical jealous (white) woman and the authors lost another chance to create a meaningful character, but if she is not such a character and those people actually sit down and talk out a solution, we will not have the tragic ending of our princess Kim killing herself, and the authors cannot make big money.

C: I feel like Kim’s suicide was there either for the sake of tragedy, or because that’s just what happened in Madame Butterfly, but pride suicide, like hara-kiri, is a very Japanese practice. Or maybe Kim killed herself because her prince doesn’t love her anymore so she has no longer a reason to live, haha.

A: I do want to state that both characters Kim and Ellen portray more cowardice in the final scenes. One refuses to acknowledge that her husband loves the woman in his past. And the other one just dies. Perhaps this was constructed to play towards the fantasy of the general population. I do think many in the modern era wish for a time simpler and a universe where the world is 

brimming with naivety. 

C: It very well may be a fantasy. People definitely seek things that are far from the truth. 

A: We see that Kim wears her white gown at the beginning and the end of the show when she commits suicide, and that is symbolism for her innocence, or naiveness, depending on how you want to put it. This shows that Kim stands at a moral high point in the show, even compared to Chris.

C: Although I personally do not believe naiveness makes you morally correct, Chris was not doing better either. His character just summarizes what happens when people don’t do their cultural background research. Of course, I’m not saying that a soldier should do a comprehensive cultural research before going to war, but as a musical that centers on cultural difference, I don’t think Miss Saigon talks about culture enough, and what’s more it does give a valid message for the future of Asian Americans.

 A: I agree. The cultural difference in Miss Saigon is mainly depicted from an invader versus the invaded perspective, and the show is about how the Vietnamese people dwell in their weakness and sorrow instead of overcoming the difficulties and adapting, so it fails to outline the vast possibilities lying in the future of the Asian American community, which is still disadvantaged in the current American society.

A: Alright I think that’s all no? 

C: Mhmm

A: Thank you all for sticking around and listening. This has been Cultural Identity of American Musicals: Criticising the “Motive” of Miss Saigon. With your host Alex Shen

C: And Connie Wu.

Self- Preservation or Self- Sabotage: How Ethnicity and Difference Shape the Divide in West Side Story

Ava: West Side Story (1961), directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo and Juliet. Instead of two feuding families, the star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, are caught in the crossfire of rival gangs: the Jets and the Sharks. White, “native” young men comprise the Jets, holding their turf against the Sharks, a group of young Puerto Rican immigrants trying to carve out a home for themselves in New York City’s West Side. While the plot roughly parallels Shakespeare’s original, Arthur Laurents’ book and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (over Leonard Bernstein’s composition) tell the story of real racial tensions in American culture. The creative design of the musical, from choreography to song, displays a division between the Sharks’ Puerto Rican culture and the “normal” whiteness of the Jets. Robbins turns a well-known tragedy in a new direction to highlight the differences between people that divide groups and make outsiders of some. By telling this story through a ethnic and racial lens, West Side Story forces audiences to reckon with the tragedy inherent in the American experience, as familiar to many as the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

Sam: There’s a lot of places we could start with this musical, including the very beginning, but I think a great place is “The Dance at the Gym” (time: 31:46) This number comes after the Sharks’ and Jets’ conflict has already been established and a little of the cultural context, but is the first scene where the two groups meet head to head, both the male gangs and the women associated with the groups. It’s a great opportunity to understand West Side Story as a whole, because the choreography in this song visually establishes the divide between the Jets and the Sharks. There’s a lot to glean about the film from just this number alone.

Ava: The scene opens with dancing within the two groups, but when Maria arrives, the Jets notice Bernardo, and the dance leader tries to soothe tensions by arranging a circular “get-together dance.” Here, the rotating circles symbolize attempted integration, but when a Jet ends up with a Shark, they all switch back and remain with someone from their own group. In the literal action of the scene, as well as the symbolic meaning, these groups are unable to mix. The film’s plot isn’t shying away from openly displaying the rivalry and animosity between these two groups, but Robbins’ choreography helps solidify the division between these groups in a physical manner.

Sam: Yes! While there are some moments where both groups are doing the same choreography, which hints at some possible unity, they quickly separate to the two opposite sides of the room. And there, they begin choreography that blatantly displays culture. The Sharks’ movements, from the elevated arm placement and the layered skirts, evoke el baile flamenco and hispanic influences. On the other hand, the Jets’ choreography is a more “Americanized” style of dancing. The women twist their feet with their arms straight up in the air and the men take long steps, crouching low to the ground.

Ava: The difference in dance style is apparent, but made more so as the music changes depending on which group the film focuses on. When the Sharks are dancing, a complex, loud brass section plays, immediately evoking the music’s Latin influence. While the Jets dance, that influence leaves the music and instead has a softer, tinnier melody, reminiscent of vaudeville songs and marching bands. The Jets’ dancing even turns to acrobatic flips and quick spins, with faddish and “white” undertones. Even during a section of music to which both groups dance, they are separated in their own dance circles.

Sam: That’s true. And notice that the leaders of each group, Riff and Bernardo, each dance in the center of their respective circle. Bridging this gap is Maria and Tony, who spot each other from across the room, and everything else goes blurry. The choreography established the divide between the Jets and the Sharks, and that seems permanent, but here Maria and Tony act as a bridge between the two groups. They meet in the center of the room, which was unoccupied before, since the groups refused to overlap. Maria and Tony are both at home within their groups; they are not outsiders. And yet, this animosity between the gangs might not be as impervious as it seems. Behind the couple, we find other pairs from both gangs, slow dancing. For a moment, Maria and Tony are typical; their relationship, like every other in the room, is welcome and simple. Let’s not forget how the scene ends just after that though; Bernardo breaks into the couple and tensions build between the gangs. The climax of Tony and Maria’s struggle is set up in that moment, and that’s a last key thing to glean from this scene.

Ava: Absolutely. Okay, moving on! After Maria and Tony’s love-at-first-sight moment at the dance, we then get a grandiose expression of love in “Tonight.” This number, firstly, gives audiences a false sense of how love works and secondly (and more importantly) establishes early on the special quality their love has. Their love is unique, however unrealistic. And the content of the scene, as well as the affectionate acting given by the performers, displays that magic. In this, “Tonight” serves a purpose in validating Maria and Tony’s actions throughout the rest of the musical.

Sam: Yep. This is something audiences are asked to accept without question. I’d actually note that this is a departure from Romeo and Juliet, since that play had some irony surrounding the idea of the lover’s fall. I don’t read any of that here, this isn’t tongue-in-cheek, they’re just very in-love. And the song really helps us buy into it all!

Ava: Tony and Maria really confirm their feelings towards one another, with Maria saying, “Only you, you’re the only thing I’ll see. Forever, in my eyes, in my words…” and Tony reciprocating with “And there’s nothing for me but Maria. Every sight that I see is Maria” (57:48). Since “Tonight” parallels Romeo and Juliet’s unrealistic immediate love, I say both relationships are valid, mutual, and full of love, and the unabashed love here gets the audience rooting for Maria and Tony immediately. The lyric “I saw you and the world went away” (58:31) isn’t just further proof that their relationship is legitimate, but shows how their love separates them from the animosity and division that defines their communities.

Sam: I agree, regardless of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, once these two fell in love, they no longer saw themselves through the lens of their division or the communities they’re from.

Ava: Yes, plus if the quickness of their developing love makes viewers wary, “Tonight” communicates through its structure that both Maria and Tony have equal parts in this relationship. The song goes back and forth between the two of them, with each of them getting their own verses to express their love for the other. They come together at certain points in the song where the music swells with a powerful and impassioned string section, symbolizing their unity as a couple. Often, musicals will give the female character very little agency when it comes to romance, and the writing and plot are meant to somehow convince audiences that it is a healthy and equal relationship.

Sam: Yeah, while Maria isn’t given much opportunity to express agency throughout the plot, I’d actually say that when given the chance, Maria’s choices are as determining as Tony’s. There’s so much value and balance placed in this relationship and so much audience investment, it seems inevitable that tension erupts around it.

Actually, that’s what we can talk about next. Conflict between the Sharks and Jets peaks into the scene under the highway, where Bernardo kills Riff and Tony kills Bernardo. It’s a big moment, but later we see the emotional fallout in a big song: Anita’s “A Boy Like That.” What are your thoughts on this number?

Ava: “A Boy Like That” doesn’t have as dynamic of a visual performance as “The Dance at the Gym,” but lyrically it furthers the difference between how Maria and Tony see themselves and how the Jets and Sharks see them, through the conversation between Anita and Maria. There’s no dancing, and little movement on camera, but the content of the song is powerful.

Sam: And the performance is powerful! Rita Morena won Best Supporting Actress in 1962 for this role, and this song is her moment to shine. There’s a strong, tortured sense to the expression and the tension she brings to the way she plays out the number.

Ava: Lyrics like “One of your own kind, stick to your own kind” (2:06:55) shows Anita’s concern about Maria getting close to Tony despite him having killed Bernardo and being a Jet. Audiences might be annoyed that Anita is trying to dissuade Maria from being with Tony, but in fairness to her, being an immigrant means she’s experiencing oppression and abuse from both the Jets and their white societal power structures. While she is making a generalization about white people, it’s to protect herself and Maria from people who barely see them as human beings, not even worthy of living in the same city as them. Not only did Tony kill Bernardo, but even the group he comes from has given Anita nothing but harm, giving her no reason to believe otherwise that he is a good person. Meanwhile Maria believes Tony is an exception to all the oppression and violence. Tony killing Bernardo only validates what Anita assumed in the first place about him, as Anita relates this, the lyrics also foreshadow the tragic end of the musical: “He’ll murder your love, he murdered mine” (2:07:41).

Sam: Oh definitely. In fact, it’s foreshadowing in two ways, kind of. Tony’s murdering Bernardo gets him killed, but also Tony does, in a sense, kill himself. He ran all around screaming for Chino, inviting death on himself. So in a strange way, Anita is proven right;Tony murders Maria’s love, that is, himself. But Maria is also proven right; she argues that the animosity between the gangs, and their lacking openness to each other or each other’s culture, brings about the violence between the groups. In the end, that violence takes the form of Tony’s death. Maria’s optimism might be dashed, but everything she stood for she finds validated. Her hope for peace would have, if fulfilled, kept from death Riff, her brother Bernardo, and her love Tony. And Anita begs Maria to “stick to your own kind,” but is Maria actually better off and safer doing so, when the combative system is already doomed? West Side Story, with this tragic ending, makes a point about the coexistence of these cultures. With tolerance between groups, and love between Maria and Tony, life could have been spared and grief saved. Maria and Tony were the only source of hope for a peaceful coexistence between the groups. There’s a question in my mind: some texts represent forbidden love, like Maria and Tony’s, as doomed to encourage an audience’s disdain and pessimism. But I’d say this tragic ending does not serve as a punishment for the characters, but a tragic reality of wasted hope in the everyday, as abusive and closed-minded norms are left to stand. 

Ava: No doubt about it. We just focused on these three numbers, but even in those songs we can see that message. The lyrics and book spell it out clearly, and the music and choreography drive it home and make it stick. This is a tragedy not just about the death of three men, but the lack of unity as a result of sticking to the status quo and not reassessing societal structures. It reflects a wider American cultural climate, and leaves a strong message on America’s need for growth, for acceptance of “other” cultures and non-white races, not only meant for the ‘60s but also for right now.

Miscarriage of Representation: Miss Saigon’s Shortcomings

A dialogue between Alyssa Champagne and Nicole Anderson

Introducing: Miss Saigon

Miss Saigon, directed by Nicholas Hytner, illustrates the romantic tragedy between Vietnamese orphan, Kim, who is forced into prostitution and her uncoventional relationship with white American soldier, Chris. This revival is very heavily based on the opera Madame Butterfly produced in 1904 in which a “Geisha” girl falls in love with a white American soldier and has a son with him. Three years later, the soldier finds out about his new child, but his mother kills herself to guarantee her child’s success in America with the father. 

Miss Saigon had its original production open on the West End in 1989 and moved to Broadway shortly after in 1992 (with most of the original cast transitioning to New York as well). It was then revived on the West End in 2014 with its transition to Broadway coming three years later. In both productions, it was wildly popular and very commercially successful, despite it’s controversial casting, problematic plot lines, and origins.

As we were watching Miss Saigon, we came up with a few questions we felt were worthy of discussion– so that’s exactly what we did.

How do the origins of the musical lend itself to the problematic aspects of the plot? How does the failure to edit these aspects affect the musical?

Nicole: The origins lend itself to problematic aspects because much of Kim’s character is based off of a character that was written to be the contrast to the strong, male, western, white, authoritative hero. She is based off of a Geisha girl, who is meant to be submissive and obedient. Already, the main female character is designed from a blueprint of problematic, stereotypical, racially othered, and “mysteriously eastern” caricature of a person. Furthermore, in Madame Butterfly her character cannot even speak. She cannot consent. This notion carries into Miss Saigon by the fact that Kim is bought solely to expand Chris’ sexual adventures. In both stories, this deep and romantic love that the soldier feels for the woman is entirely based on the thrill of being with a woman knowing there won’t be social consequences to it regardless of outcome. The men hold all of the power in their respective relationships. So not only is Kim’s character based off of problematic storytelling, but the plot as a whole is as well.

Alyssa’s Response: I think it’s important to note that Kim is represented as the “other” within this context. In being portrayed as the other, this not only means that she is different but also inferior. Her entire character is created to fulfill the sexually adventurous desires of Chris. In terms of the non-consensual piece, Kim was forced into prostitution where consent was quite literally non-existent. Yet, still, the audience loves to drool over their tragic love story while seemingly “forgetting” how their story first began. Additionally, we see Kim’s mysterious innocence on display in many ways, but I think the most important portrayal is in the number “The Movie in My Mind.” On stage, Kim is placed amid this wretched environment with the spotlight on her. She’s dressed in white as a contrast to the dark background engulfing her. She sings softly of better days and the dreams she has for herself as we see the camera zoom out to perfectly place her under the neon DreamLand sign. The innocence she embodies will ultimately not save her from the tragic ending of this musical.

How does “The Heat is on in Saigon” convey the context the rest of the musical will take place in?

Alyssa: With the opening number of “The Heat is on in Saigon” we get a very vivid illustration of what the rest of the musical entails. In this number, the American soldiers are unified in their seemingly “joyous” experiences with the girls at DreamLand, and this unification is reflected in their polyphony. The lyrics of this number also reveal to us, the audience, the extent of the sordid displays of masculinity on the stage. For example, the American soldiers are unified in singing, “The heat is on in Saigon, the girls are ready to screw.” The lyrics stand to reinforce the idea that these (eastern, mysterious, submissive) women have no agency on this stage or anytime throughout this musical. Even within the choreography, the soldiers throw and move the women around as if they are weightless objects. Within this number, the women become sexualized and seen as mysterious objects, an issue of race binaries as the soldiers are taking advantage of these women from another country and seeing no harm. This opening number gives us a glimpse into what the rest of the musical will illustrate, the lack of agency among women and exoticism as desirable through the lens of race binaries. 

Nicole’s Response: The wild lights, the chaotic and busy staging, the erratic and even desperate choreography of the girls; all of it seems to represent a trip of an experience. The soldiers know, and the audience is brought up to speed with the idea that this is not meant to be a long-lasting and meaningful time for the soldiers. They don’t care about the women, they just want to escape the war for a minute and have a good time. Not only do the women have no agency, they literally are not allowed any. By nature of how many of them became prostitutes, and how they have no means of escape, every girl that the audience gets to witness are all trapped and have no agency as a result. This is also all facilitated by the fact that they are told to embody these characteristics. The pimps recognize that no one (with empathy, anyway) wants to screw a girl that is visibly upset. The pimps force them to act the way that they do. This has massive power and race implications when examining both the interactions with the pimps and the prostitutes and the soldiers with the prostitutes.

How does the controversy surrounding casting in the original cast have deeply racial implications? How is it problematic?

Alyssa: In the original production, a white, British actor Jonathan Pryce was cast as The Engineer (a Vietnamese character). In the show’s transfer from West End to Broadway, there was reasonable outrage over the lack of representation and the yellowface that came with it. The show then claimed there was no one else talented enough to do the role, and threatened to halt the transfer if he was not allowed to continue his role. While ultimately he kept his role (and went on to win a Tony) he did so without prosthetics and makeup. ~spoiler alert: racism~ It’s important to note this misrepresentation would not slow for the years to come. Specifically, the Asian American Performers Coalition (AAPC) tracked racial demographic data on broadway from 2008-2015 with not quite surprising results. Over these seven seasons on Broadway, white actors comprised 80% of roles available. Additionally, in the best season Asain-Americans had (2014-2015), they comprised less than 20% of roles available on the Broadway stage.

Nicole’s Response: Miss Saigon is a story entirely based on the fantasies of a white man. The characters are drawn from problematic and stereotypical representations of Vietnamese culture and people. Even though The Engineer won’t be played by a white man from now on, that doesn’t erase who wrote the book and the script and the music. Undeniably, the entire production is less problematic without yellowface, but it does not change the underlying problems with the musical as a whole.

How is a white savior complex perpetuated by Chris and his relationship with Kim?

Nicole: Their entire relationship and every interaction that they have is framed by the fact that Chris has power and Kim has nothing. Chris is this big, strong, white, male hero. Kim is a young, innocent, even naive woman without a nickel to her name. Chris comes in, representing America and American freedom as a whole, and decides to pluck her from her life. She did not have to work for her freedom, it was offered to her. He took the moral high ground and fought in a war he opposed and decided to save an oppressed character. The story is designed to make you feel good about Chris, and by extension, white America, for simply not being a bad person. Also, by the end of the story, Chris has given up on any relationship with Kim. He has entirely moved on and gotten married to a white American woman in return for his picket fence life. Kim, desperate for her child to have a better life than she can offer, kills herself so that he can take him. Don’t forget that Kim and Chris were married long before he got married to someone else. The “right” thing to do would be to bring the both of them back to America and have the relationship they both said they dreamt about. However, he picks the white woman, and Kim kills herself. If an audience member doesn’t think too hard, Chris taking in the son is a generous thing to do. It is certainly supposed to be perceived as such. But that is literally his son. His blood. His wife. The bar was on the floor for him and he still almost managed not to clear it. For this he is celebrated. That is white privilege at it’s finest.

Alyssa’s Response: Not only does Chris perfectly embody this white savior complex, but if we think about the American soldiers as a whole, we see it occur much more often than we originally propose. Throughout the war, the feminization of the east is apparent. Vietnamese men and soldiers are portrayed as less aggressive and masculine compared to the white ideal. The American soldiers use their privilege to enter into this exotic space, categorized as the “other,” and feel as though they can act as they please without consequences before going back home to the comfort of America. They perpetuate the white savior complex by using  their privilege of entering into a space, causing destruction, and leaving without a “trace.” 

Nicole’s Response: The stand off with Thuy and Chris in “Thuy’s Arrival” is a perfect example of what you’re saying. Thuy shows up and almost immediately after getting challenged by the “manly-man” of the show decides to leave. There isn’t really a fight so much as it is a “man off”. The white guy winning this interaction certainly doesn’t help the problematic aspects of the show, and totally fits the pattern we have already witnessed throughout it.

How are negative racial stereotypes perpetuated by Thuy and Chris, given that their motivations towards Kim are the same, but one is a bad guy and one is a good guy?

Nicole: If you zoom out a little bit, both men have the exact same story. Kim was promised to both of them (Chris through prostitution, Thuy by familial promises), they want to take advantage of her, they have some halfway-valid claim that they are entitled to her love, they disappear for a few years, and they come back at the beginning of the second act with their wealth and power. While Thuy does go on to truly be a villain and threaten to kill her son, he had been painted as a villain since the moment he was introduced. Chris on the other hand, is painted as the morally righteous hero that comes in to save the day from the very beginning. Especially if you only consider the first half of the musical, it is not hard to see that the audience is supposed to root for Chris and pray for Thuy’s downfall. The problem still remains that the only real difference between the two of them is that Chris is white, and Thuy is not.

Alyssa’s Response: If you’re in the audience and not rooting for Thuy’s downfall just yet, let me convince you of the ways in which his character is painted drastically different from Chris’. In Act II, Thuy’s rage overtakes him as he launches at Kim and tries to stab Tam (Kim and Chris’ love child). Kim’s motherly defenses kick in as she kills Thuy, ending the “love story” between them. It’s important to note that our last look at Thuy on stage is labeled as an extremely negative one. While Thuy is portrayed as a murderer in his last moments on stage, Chris is painted as a hero and savior as his last moments are taking Tam back to America with him in search of a better life. The large contrast between the two in their final moments only reinforce the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the musical, considering how similar their motivations are until that point. It’s almost like the writers knew there had to be a drastically different end for the two characters so that no one would think too hard about if Thuy really was a bad guy or not.

In the end, Miss Saigon is not inherently a bad musical. However, that being said it would be amiss to not acknowledge the problems associated with its various productions. If anything, being a critical consumer of media such as this can only deepen your appreciation and understanding of Miss Saigon.

PS. I cried for the entire 2.5 hour production : )

“The Fall of [Miss] Saigon”: Racism and Representation

By Juyoung Kim, Amanda Sisung, and Jessica Zhang

In THTR 3333, students study the 25th Anniversary performance of Miss Saigon directed by Laurence Connor and Brett Sullivan. Miss Saigon is a famous (or perhaps infamous) 1989 musical written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. Inspired by Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, the musical depicts love and tragedy in the Vietnam War. Students were asked to post an analysis of characters in the Musical and how they depict racial biases to a Brightspace discussion board. This assignment sparked an interesting conversation between three students. As the students discussed individual characters of the production, they came to realize that because race is a nuanced and complex social construct, its representation is inherently difficult and is influenced by racial biases whether consciously or not. The discussion page and replies are pictured below.

Amanda chose to write about Kim.

Juyoung chose to write about Chris.

Jessica chose to write about the Engineer.

ThroUgh their discussion, the students cAme to realiZe that Miss Saigon demonstrates moments of true representation as well as stereotypical racial biases, and the intermingling of these moments result in the riveting and problematic spectacle that is still loved to this day.

Not Too Lesbian for a Kids’ Movie – Where The Prom Went Wrong

Let’s talk about The Prom. Specifically, let’s talk about Emma.

Emma’s the main character of Netflix’s 2020 musical special The Prom, a story about a lesbian teen in small town Edgewater, Indiana who just wants to dance with her girlfriend at the prom. Based off a true story, the star-studded production retells Emma’s conflicts with her high school’s PTA and the bigotry of her closed-minded community as four washed-up Broadway actors meddle self-righteously. In the end, of course, she gets to go to a prom (of her own invention) and dance with her girlfriend, partying her little heart out with all her new adult friends. Alyssa, Emma’s girlfriend, resolves the homophobic conflict with her control-freak mother, and the film closes on a kiss between the happy couple. What’s wrong with all that? A whole lot, it turns out.

On the surface, the concept sounds charming, and even a little progressive, considering the current state of the film industry and the film as a Netflix Original special. And while a lot of things went wrong with this movie, the core of the issue sits on Emma, and the film’s treatment of her.

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Alyssa’s mother, PTA president, cancels the school prom

The movie opens on the PTA’s cancellation of the prom, a few lines from the PTA president (who is, spoilers, Alyssa’s mother!) blaming Emma for the decision, and a shot of Emma looking . . . blank. She doesn’t have any look on her face, and while you might chalk it up to shock, it’s one of the most expressive moments we get from Emma throughout the film. It’s also the first time we get to take in Emma’s costuming: this time, mustard pants on black with a knee-length tweed jacket. Do I dig it? Kinda. Is it fashionable? I’m pretty sure it’s not, and the rest of her outfits are only further from the mainstream. It’s neither subtle nor remarkable, but from the very first time we see her, Emma is defined by a stereotyped and kitschy image, shoehorning her into the role of a stock-character lesbian. She’s odd, she’s an outsider, she’s unfamiliar; that’s how the film wants us to understand her situation. Yet when the film calls on caricature to outline its lead, that characterization becomes dangerously predictable. 

In fact, Jo Ellen Pellman’s portrayal of Emma falls flat due to the same caricaturization, this time, not in costume, but in expression. Oddly enough, be it an actor’s preference or a directorial decision, Emma smiles straight through the film. A perpetual smile on the face of the girl who is facing her town head-on. The girl who is hated by her peers, not only for her sexuality, but as being to blame for prom’s cancellation. At the end of Act I, Emma (spoilers!) is tricked into attending a sham prom. The event is thrown together by the school’s PTA to avoid a civil rights fiasco and to feign inclusivity, when the real prom is secretly held off-campus. At the climax of realization we see Emma cry and begin to break down, and her smile falters slightly. But one cut away, the misguided and (supposedly) comedic set of actors arrives with ice cream to cheer her up. She tearfully tells the story of her rejection from her parents. She tells of the hurt she’s endured, of the pain and weight of the way the world sees her . . . all through an ironic smile.

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Emma smiles as she talks about being kicked out of the house by her parents

In that absurd grin, the film dismisses the hardships and pressures that young queer people go through. There is no display of the hate directed against them and the anguish that can result, no honest insight into the struggle of a young midwestern lesbian. It’s not just light and silly, it denies the queer community of all pain and outrage, invalidating those who can’t just keep smiling. An attempt at representation has failed as soon as it has dismissed the lived experience of those it claims to represent. And what happened with this happy-go-lucky lesbian, complete with a smile plastered straight to her skull? Exactly that. Whether Pellman’s acting was naturally inexpressive or directorial choices restricted her portrayal to a flat caricature is irrelevant; the finished piece should have included a more humanizing and complex expressiveness to the character whose identity was being capitalized on.

We’re starting to see the concerning direction that creative choices took Emma’s character in. From costuming, acting, and even story choices, Emma is robbed of genuine trauma, of indignation and anger, and framed as a character who does not want or need justice beyond the film’s close, and will by no means demand it. At every turn, the narrative frames her passively, where principals and parents and famous Broadway stars step in wanting to make things right and Emma just wants to go to prom and dance with her girlfriend. Emma wants to be normal, but doesn’t care if the people around her change. She wants to be accepted, but never in the film does the audience get the sense that Emma really wants the bigotry in Edgewater to end. It’s a key aspect of Emma’s relationship with viewers, especially white heteronormalized viewers, that she lacks anger towards the hateful people who put her in the position she came to be in.

She is safe. She is safe for passive people who are “cool with the gays” but not enough to stand up for gay rights. She is safe for conservative straight people who aren’t sure if it’s okay to be gay but “her life choices aren’t my business” and they’ll watch the movie anyway for James Corden. She is safe for anyone who identifies with the oppressors in the film, because the moment she has rage towards those people, the viewers will be uncomfortable. Nobody has to feel threatened, because Emma very clearly states in “Dance with You,” “I don’t want to start a riot, I don’t want to blaze a trail.” The viewers won’t have to deal with their own identity, and their role in the system of oppression. Viewers won’t begin to apply fiction to real life. That’d a painful realization and it’s not easy to market. It’d even harder to pretend that it’s just a minor player in what’s meant to be a comedic, goofy, family-friendly film.

Emma even refused a national-level opportunity to fight for justice in her community; she chose to sing into her webcam and focus on grassroots instead. Emma the fictional character is not required to take on that burden of national activism, but from the viewer’s perspective, it’s important to see that she does not challenge the status quo. She doesn’t even challenge the PTA (that was the principal’s idea), she refuses to go on the news, she simply organizes her own queer prom with famous people’s money. The audience is meant to see this as a victory, but in the end, the oppressors won. They kept her out of straight people prom and marginalized her, and she didn’t fight back. And that’s the core of the issue: our idealized lesbian hero is heroic not by the standards of those she stands for, but by the standards of those she stands opposed to.

Let’s look again at the end of Act 1: she’s having a dramatic phone conversation with her girlfriend Alyssa. She’s realized that there are two proms, realized she’s been excluded and that her girlfriend is with the straight people. There’s anger, but it’s barely there, and it’s all directed at Alyssa in this scene. It’s this same issue again, she is angry but not enough to feel dangerous. And, she’s not angry with straight oppressors, only with her lover and fellow queer person. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, when it comes to showing love, she has her hands tied by the film. In the entirety of the teen romance film, she gets one kiss, which is lackluster enough (but maybe not so remarkable, some movies do it that way already). The kiss is lost in a series of medium shots thrown into a frantic ensemble dance, the grand finale number.

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Emma and Alyssa kiss during the finale
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The principal and Dee Dee Allen kiss

Compare that with the long close-up of the two middle-aged (? Meryl Streep is 72 and Keegan-Michael Key is 50, where does that put their characters?) straight adults, and their kiss before the finale number begins. They allow the audience to glean greater emotional significance from their kiss than even the central romance. In fact, the entire straight romance is given similar presence in the film to Emma and Alyssa’s relationship. Emma and Alyssa are, of course, hiding their love from the world for the majority of the film, and with conflict between the pair for a large extent of the movie, we get most of our sense of their romance through “Dance with You,” their duet. This is the song that introduces Alyssa as Emma’s lover, and I have to say I was disappointed. This song emphasizes the message continued through the remainder of the film: Emma and Alyssa can love one another, but their sexuality is insignificant. They don’t kiss, or sway, or hold each other closely besides a quick glomp from Emma. They’re not horny teens, they’re infantilized gal pals. Yes, it’s meant to be a family-friendly film, so it’s going to be somewhat sex-free, but in a film about these women’s sexuality, there’s remarkably little sexual presence.

The Prom is a film adaptation of a stage musical, and in the end some of the criticism I’ve levied might not apply to a live production. This play is satirical and on the Broadway stage that can come through in a way that the film version could not capture. Perhaps some of my criticism is less that The Prom should have been better written than that it should never have been adapted, or should have been better adapted. Either way, when it comes to the film, it’s clear that director Ryan Murphy and the rest of the creative team really missed the mark when it came to Emma. She was meant to be a queer hero for teens across the nation. We got a bland smiley-face sticker instead.

Why Queer People Love Jack Kelly and the Newsies

Queer people love musicals. 

It might as well be a fact. With all of the glitz and glamour, it allows for freedom of expression in a way that isn’t allowed in many other places. You can be as excessive as you want – in fact, it’s even encouraged, in the name of entertainment. But what is it about Newsies and Jack Kelly that makes it a fan favorite? 

Newsies The Musical (2012) is based on the 1992 film of the same name. With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman, and the book by Harvey Fierstein, both the film and the musical are based on the historical Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York City. While it premiered with Paper Mill Playhouse in 2011, the version I will be talking about today is the 2012 Broadway version, directed by Jeff Calhoun. It was opened with Jeremy Jordan as Jack Kelly, Kara Lindsay as Katherine Plumber, Ben Fankhauser as Davey, and John Dossett as Joseph Pulitzer.

I think the core reason for its status among modern fans – especially the LGBTQ+ population – is that Newsies calls upon a lot of experiences that queer people are familiar with. Essentially, Jack and the other newsies are (probably unintentionally) queer-coded for modern audiences. The story of disenfranchised populations fighting back against an oppressive system and getting their dues is one that never grows old. As the times change, it just finds a new audience to resonate with.

Let’s Start with the Basics: Costuming, Choreography, and Vocal Range

The costuming of the Newsies makes all of them look very NGC (non-gender conforming). They are all wearing pants, and the only main female character is wearing a dress, absolutely. But for the modern audience, pants are a gender neutral outfit choice. Additionally, short hair is also pretty  gender neutral, and it’s covered most of the time anyway. Although one newsie is shaving at the very beginning, none of them have beards. Anyone can put themselves in the position of one of the newsies, no matter how they identify. The newsies are masculine-leaning, yes, but they aren’t necessarily male, and that’s the key element. After all, in real life, there were a lot of girlsies too.

The choreography lends itself to this as well, because Newsies incorporates a lot of dance moves from stereotypically feminine dance practices. Even from the beginning of the musical, the third number “Carrying the Banner” involves leaps and twirls that we typically associate with ballet. Although songs like “Seize the Day” includes a lot of masculine militaristic marching elements, with sharp angles and loud stomping, the dance break also includes synchronized leaping and twirling, not to mention a 7-second long second turn (I counted). “King of New York” is fully in tap, chair choreo,  and a liberal number of splits. 

The vocal range is also of notice, because it’s mostly in the tenor/contralto range, which is the highest male range and the lowest female range, respectively. While it’s sung by men on stage, it’s not in the lower baritone/bass registers we typically associate with men and masculinity. A woman with a lower vocal range could easily sing these numbers. In fact, the lowest notes actually come from a song sung by Medda, a female character (an F3 in “That’s Rich”). 

These three are essential to the understanding of characters on stage, because it is how they present themselves to the audience. Through the discussion above, we have established how the newsies are NGC and that any modern viewer can relate to these characters, putting themselves in these shoes. Because the newsies are supposed to be pretty young, anyone can see themselves as a newsie. Kids are the most gender neutral group among humans, because their secondary sex characteristics haven’t kicked in. They literally haven’t developed gendered features, other than their privates. That’s not to say society hasn’t tried to gender them (they start at birth – just look at baby onesies!) but it is hard to tell the difference between a girl and a boy if you put them both in shirt and pants and cover their hair with a hat. At this point, you might ask, “Why so much emphasis on the gender neutrality of everything?”. Because media is usually super gendered, that’s why. Other than Jack, Spot, and Davey, none of the newsies are really gendered. You might say that it’s only because they’re past puberty, but none of that matters. The fact that they aren’t super gendered is the point. It’s one of the few outlets for people who maybe aren’t super sure of how they fit into society’s cishet patriarchal views. It’s the same reasoning for why main characters of large franchises tend to be super lame – the audience needs to relate, be able to see themselves as the main character, and the best way to do that is to give them nothing at all. Create a bare minimum character that has just enough characterization to lead the story where you want it to go, and voilà, a main character

The Quintessential Found Family Trope

Why do queer people love the found family trope? Easy answer, because a lot of them relate. Many queers deal with familial issues, so their friends become their family. On average, LGBTQ+ youth are 120% more likely to become homeless, and around 20-40% of all homeless youth are members of the LGBTQ+ community.

https://youth.gov/youth-topics/lgbtq-youth/homelessness

Even the ones that aren’t homeless grapple with mental or physical abuse at home, with many choosing to stay closeted (which is still a form of mental abuse). They can only be themselves with their friends, who are allies or also queer. The concern about losing family and familial support is one that is always on the forefront of concerns for queer youth, so when the newsies mention not having parents, it’s something that they can relate to. The line “If you can find her” in “Carrying the Banner”, in addition to the indignant “who asked you?” by a whole group of newsies is put in a whole new frame of reference through the modern queer lens. They didn’t lose their mother on purpose, and perhaps their mother doesn’t want to be found. Losing your parents to something other than death is a reality for many LGBTQ+ folks, and it’s a sensitive topic to many. This reaction must feel so different as a queer youth who still wants to make their parents proud, but can’t get that approval.

Additionally, Newsies also touches on the sentiment of missing the kind of family they wish they had, the one that would care for them and accept them for who they are. After “Carrying the Banner”,  Jack has a weird reaction when Davey and Les invite him over for dinner with their family. The hesitant way that Jack says “You got folks, huh?” exposes how, as much as he puts on a tough face with everyone, he still misses that sense of stability and belonging with family. Les says “Doesn’t everyone?”, but Davey holds him back and makes him stop talking. Davey is easily one of the more dense individuals in the show, but the fact that he immediately realized he screwed up and then invites him to dinner shows how vulnerable Jack is in that moment. He says his friends are his family, but he doesn’t really see them that way, not yet. Only through the process of setting up the union and the strike does Jack really accept them as his family. You can see the moment he considers them to be more than friends, when he breaks down after the first unionizing attempt. He doesn’t want to go through with it anymore, because he knows it’s a life-or-death situation for them. The only people looking out for them is each other, and with a bunch of newsies injured and Crutchie in the Refuge, he’d rather be a little poorer than have them dead and injured. This bond forged from dealing with the same oppressive system is something any queer – or frankly any minority – friend group can relate to.

Jack Kelly: Gender AND Sexuality

It makes sense that Jack Kelly is the most popular. He’s the main character after all. However, there’s more to him. He seems very trans-coded throughout the musical. To start off, he has a dead name, something only Warden Snyder calls him. Some people really hate their name, but for trans individuals, it’s not hate – it’s more of a deep sense of unbelonging. It could be, but the common thread seems to be the feeling that that name isn’t theirs. That that isn’t who they are. There’s also how Jack does the unmanly thing (against his whole macho act) and tries to call the entire operation off for the sake of survival. It’s very reminiscent of how people will go back into the closet for work, even though they are out in their personal life, or how people will be out at school and in the closet at home. Survival is the initial goal, and then once they’ve gotten to a place of stability and independence, then they can do whatever they want. But if there are consequences, despite wanting to do whatever you want, sometimes you have to take the temporary hit. Additionally, he has this charming charisma, but it’s conveyed through this exaggerated machismo. A masculine character is confident, so confidence is masculine, so Jack is masculine. It was definitely written this way to show how his confidence is an act, that he’s actually very worried and easily shaken. However, through a modern queer lens, it can be extended to question whether his masculinity is an act. The confidence was an act, and that’s what made him seem so masculine. If the confidence is an act, what else is? It’s an easy line of logic to follow. It is also so easy to interpret Jack to be non-binary or trans. He’s masculine, yes, but he’s also sensitive. He’s an artist. He wants to hide his stereotypically feminine side. This could be seen as wanting to hide his feminine past and then him growing to realize that it is okay to still enjoy those hobbies, or growing into his feminine side to really embrace the NGC. His love interest sees that side of him, and tells him that it’s okay, that in fact, it’s wonderful. Isn’t it the dream of anyone, much less a queer individual, to hear someone say they love even the parts you think are bad?

Sexuality is a bit more complicated, because Jack has a canonical lover at the end, Katherine Pulitzer. However, there is an argument to be made for his relationship with Davey. They’ve had tons of duets since the first act, but Davey is also the first one to comfort Jack (“Watch What Happens”) after the fight, after he truly realizes the weight of what they’re about to do.  Jack and Davey are the only ones to call each other by a nickname as well, Jackie and Davey, respectively. He regains his courage, only to be shot down again after he goes to Pulitzer’s office, sees Katherine, and is simultaneously threatened and bribed by his greatest dream (Santa Fe) and worst nightmare (Crutchie dies and the rest of the boys are also thrown into the Refuge). This is in parallel with how Katherine persuades him to come back after this incident. Jack needs both of them, Davey being his other half both in his personal life and in the union, and Katherine being his actual other half. There’s also something to be said about polyamory, because Davey and Katherine also get along very well, as seen in all the banter in Act Two. In “Watch What Happens”, Katherine pats Davey as if to say “well done” after Jack is cheered up. Then, all three of them also have a trio together, right before “Once and For All”, and singing in a duet or trio is a sure sign of unity, and maybe even chemistry. This whole operation wouldn’t be possible without all three of them, so maybe it’s inevitable that people see more than friendship between Davey and Jack too, not just Katherine and Jack.

Why Does Any of This Matter?

Newsies shows how modern interpretation can create a whole new layer of meaning on a classic musical. Context is important to any media, and putting media into new context can change its core message. Newsies went from an inspirational narrative about making change as the little guy, to a hopeful success story about found family, being true to yourself, and the power of challenging the status quo. This change in message, the modern interpretation also says something about us, the audience. It shows how we’ve evolved, how we focus on different parts of the story, and how more and more people feel free to express themselves the way they feel best. We are more willing to acknowledge and discuss topics like queer-coding and the effects it has on its audience, because it’s less taboo, less dangerous. Not only does comparing the interpretations over time show how the media can change, but also how the viewers have changed, and I think that that’s what makes media analysis so much fun, but also so important. 

Forced Romance- The Undoing of Jeff Calhoun’s Newsies

Disney’s 2017 adaptation of Newsies, directed by Jeff Calhoun and starring Jeremy Jordan as Jack Kelly and Kara Lindsay as Katherine Pulitzer, is a charming musical showcasing the story of young newspaper sellers as they strike against the monopolist Joseph Pulitzer. Sadly, however, for all its charisma, the musical does little to break free of gendered norms, especially in its two showcase characters, Jack and Katherine.

First, let’s take a look at Jeremy Jordan’s character, Jack Kelly. Jack is the unofficial leader of the newsies, as they refer to themselves. He is universally revered and admired by his fellow newsies. You may notice, however, that no character ever explicitly expresses these feelings. Nobody ever says “gee, Jack, you’re really somethin’ huh” or “I think Jack should be our decision maker.” Most people would write this off as the writers simply wanting to get the idea of Jack being a leader across without having to directly say so. I would argue, however, that there are instances where characters get 90% of the way there anyway, but fall just short of making any direct assertion, like in the opening scene when Crutchie says “I don’t need folks. I got friends” and nudges Jack in the shoulder. How difficult would it have been for Crutchie to end that line with a “like you” or even “I’ve got you and the boys”? It’s a fine line of expression that’s very easy to step over, but too many times masculine characters (and people in general) work hard to avoid stepping over that line. 

Beyond being just a leader, Jack is like an older brother to the newsies. Within a group of young men like themselves, the two roles seem to have more similarities than differences. There’s a sort of emotional support, however, that the ‘brother’ role tends to display more often. It’s characterized by lots of good-hearted teasing and hard-shouldered affection. Jack delivers a classic big-brother staple to Crutchie in the opening scene: “Would I let you down? Huh? No way.” This is followed immediately by Jack calling down to the other newsies to wake up and get ready for work. This is a classic masculine attitude of not-wasting-a-second-on-all-that- unnecessary-emotional-mush. Comfort Crutchie, then go straight to work. No time wasted. Still, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t lean on the textbook older brother mannerisms like noogies, fake punches, and standing up for your brothers when someone knocks them down (ironically, one great example of that last point came against Oscar and Morris Delancey, actual brothers, when they shoved Crutchie and called him a cripple, instigating a swift beatdown from Jack). 

All in all, Jack Kelly is a “man’s man”. He’s tough, he’s got swagger, and, like any other male lead character in a major film/theater/television production, he is keen to, and some might argue obligated to, fall in love. We hear this critique constantly of women in lead roles, and rightfully so. But it takes two to tango, and this particular tango reeks of forced, artificial love. Jack immediately latches onto the first girl he sees, Katherine, despite the fact that she’s walking down the street arm-in-arm with another man (who we will later find out is just a colleague). In fact, he shoves Romeo (aptly named for reasons you can guess) out of the way just to get a word in with her. Here, however, the real issue begins to take shape. You could read a script of this musical and maybe, maybe see how Jack falls for Katherine, but once you watch the characters act it out,  it doesn’t seem convincing in the least. Jack never takes a moment to think “Hey, do I even like this girl?” Jeremy Jordan’s character is so caught up in being the cool guy, the king of swagger, that he never drops the act. There’s no real moment of vulnerability. His actions are based on pure instinct, because he finds her physically attractive, regardless of anything else. This is an all-too-common staple of the straight male role, and is very much in alignment with the norms regarding gender roles. He advances on Katherine instantly under the guise of selling her a paper, even offering to personally deliver it to her when it gets released. He says this last bit in a somewhat creepy/pervy way that strongly contrasts the tough-but-loving face he had entered the production with. Not long after, in Medda Larkin’s theater, he barges into Katherine’s private booth and continues to harass her despite her asking him to leave because she’s literally trying to do her job. Instead, he just sits there and draws her face and sings about her as she tries to review the show as if he’s formed any sort of mutual emotional connection with this girl. “I never planned on noone like you,” he sings. Buddy, what are you doing? Jack continues to make advances throughout the production until she finally gives way and “falls in love with him.” 

I should give Jack credit, nonetheless. He’s not a complete rough-and-tough meathead in every category. He paints backdrops for Medda Larkin’s theater sets. How cute. When Medda tries to brag about his artistic abilities, he shuts down her praises, insisting that “It’s a bunch of trees.” This is not as cute. God forbid he just let the poor woman finish her compliment and give a gracious thank you. Don’t let any of the other boys know you’re a talented artist, lest you become just microscopically less of a badass in some teenage boys’ eyes. He diminishes his one ‘soft man’ quality by refusing to acknowledge his talent and shutting anyone down that brings up the subject. Humility is one thing, but to deny the art you love is all but holding up a giant sign saying “My toxic masculinity is a more important representation of me than my passions.”

On the other side of the coin is Katherine. Compared to Jack’s overwhelming sense of confidence, Katherine never seems to feel comfortable in her own skin throughout the first act. Even as she rejects Jack the first time, making up the fake headline “Cheeky boy gets nothing for his troubles,” her voice and facial expressions still carry that hint of apprehension. It’s a decently clever comeback, so why can’t she acknowledge that? Even when she does stand up for herself in Medda’s theater and basically tells Jack to buzz off, all it takes is for him to make a sketch of her face on a newspaper for her to catch feelings. She picks up that scrap paper and her entire expression changes. Where is your resolve, Katherine? Did you forget how much of an f-boy he’s been in the two interactions you’ve had since you met him? The entire sequence reeks of the stereotypical “girl suddenly, inexplicably falls for boy” theme. She does the exact same routine in the deli after the newsies declare their strike: she walks in seeming confident, determined to get the info for the story she wants to write, but as soon as the boys tell her no, she crumbles and begs them to let her write the story. 

This leads to the infamous “Watch What Happens” number, a solo by Katherine that gives a perfect cross-section of her scatterbrained and flustered mind. Within this internal dialogue, she goes through the difficulty of writing such a topic, the backlash she may face for both writing this piece and being a woman writing it, and the weight of the issue itself. On this last point, she realizes the impact this story will have when it gets published and lets out a very girlish squeal to express her excitement. She is, up to this point, a character largely restricted by her own emotions, feeding directly into the stereotype of the woman with little constitution that will need to be ‘saved.’ Finally, she gains some traction in her writing, only to have that thought process pulled off course by the thought of Jack and “what a face” he has. Katherine is incapable of staying on track with her work because she is falling for Jack, a man who, up to this point, has been excessively flirty even when she didn’t want it, and more forward with his intentions than any civilized human being could consider ‘in good taste’ so to speak. And yet, she is a girl, and he is a boy, and despite the complete lack of chemistry and total unnecessariness of a romantic subplot in this story, the writers still force them to fall in love. This enforces societal norms of sexual orientation by implying that since the two major characters are a male and a female, they must be straight, and they must be attracted to each other, regardless of whatever outside circumstances are advancing the actual plot. 

Notice what happens to Katherine once you take Jack out of the equation, temporarily. In the opening number of Act 2, “King of New York,” she already has displayed more confidence than in the entirety of Act 1. Her and the newsies are celebrating their story making the front page, which is a beam of good news in an otherwise challenging point in the strike. She is happy and carefree in this song. The only difference? Jack isn’t there. There’s no awkward forced attraction between the two. This scene is proof that Katherine isn’t a weak or frail character at all; her interactions with Jack are the source of her awkwardness.

It isn’t long, however, before we see these two characters driven apart as Jack learns that Katherine is Pulitzer’s daughter. This leads to a moment of high tension on the rooftop where they argue back and forth, hypothetical punch threats are exchanged, and then, out of nowhere, they kiss. It’s the most inorganic, unromantic moment, though not uncommon in popular media. The fight-turned-fling scene is all too frequently used in the modern era, and is a direct consequence of the same forced romance theme we see in this production. The boy and the girl can fight all they want, but at the end of the day, love (that is, heterosexual, romantic love) wins out, and wins out quickly, as evidenced in that instant swing of emotions.

Of course, this interaction is immediately followed by a whole range of the stereotypical conversations that characterize budding relationships. Jack goes straight from the “what are we” question to the “girls like you don’t end up with guys like me” remark. At this point, the writers aren’t even making an attempt to veer this romance away from any other popular media romance. Jack’s second comment represents a thoroughly beaten-to-death story that, although on a surface level may seem ‘progressive’ by placing the woman in the more advantageous social position, is now as far from an original idea as can be and, in this case, ends up being negated anyway.

The relationship between Jack and Katherine compromises each of their individual characters’ achievements, but it is clear that it disproportionately affects Katherine’s character. All of Katherine’s hard work to be an independent woman and kickstart a successful career in journalism throughout the story is undermined by the fact that, in the end, she leans on Jack, falls in love with him inexplicably (which she admits by the way, saying that she “never saw him coming”), pledges to be by his side forever, and wraps things up as being ‘the girl the hero got’ instead of the individual hero she is. On the other hand, Jack is the hero that saves the day and gets the girl. The masculine character is framed as the winner, even though both played equal parts in reaching their desired outcome.

Newsies isn’t some backwards representation of gender roles that pushes its audience to view the characters in more conservative, traditional ways than are standard for its time. While it doesn’t help to fight stereotypes, it also doesn’t do much to advance them either. It simply feeds off of what popular media has been delivering to the general public during this period of history. It simply sits at our current spot in time, and takes in what it has been given. A casual fan will not walk away thinking “wow, that had some strong underlying sexist tones in it” just as the more critical fan will realize that it did nothing new to help fight the sexist and heterocentric biases that plague media of its time. This does not by any means suggest that it is a bad or worthless production, however. Newsies is a surprisingly pro-union story being told by a very anti-union company, Disney. There are good takeaways from it, but sadly, gender and sexuality do not make that list. One can only hope that, in the future, an updated version of Newsies will make a more conscientious effort to address these issues.

The Angel and The Deviant: Racialized Representations of Womanhood in Newsies

The virginal, well-educated white chick.

The sassy, promiscuous black woman.

Oh boy.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry while I watched these hackneyed tropes play out on the musical stage through the characters of Katherine (Plumber) Pullitzer and Medda Larkin in the 2017 Disney version of the Broadway show, Newsies, written by Harvey Fierstein. While I observed the representation of gender and sexuality amongst the only two lead females in the musical (and debated whether or not to call my therapist to work through my dismay), I couldn’t help but notice a clear intersectionality between each character’s expression of womanhood and her race. It seemed glaringly obvious to me that the intellect, substance, and purity so characteristic of Katherine’s femininity are enabled by her whiteness, and, conversely, the boldness, vulgarity, and ostentatiousness of Medda’s womanly role are spurred on by anti-black stereotypes. While both ladies’ expressions of femininity are infused with radical strength amidst a patriarchal setting, the two women assert their individual identities, degrees of personal value, and sexual positionalities in very different, very racialized ways. 

Let’s start with this doe-eyed ray of sunshine (*eye-roll*).

Katherine, played by Kara Lindsay, claims power through her witty comebacks, withholding demeanor, professional acumen, and substantive contribution to the world around her. As Jack openly pursues a romance with her, she maintains a flirty hesitance for an obnoxiously long portion of the show and responds to his efforts with snappy retorts like, “Oh somewhere out there, someone cares…Oh! Go tell them!” While these sarcastic quips in the script serve as proof that she can keep up with the smarts of the men around her (gross but true), they also establish that she has standards and therefore value. She is not a woman who will take any arm that is offered to her because she’s simply too good for that. 

In fact, she’s so good that she has substance and identity apart from her relation to male characters. Through her journalism career, Katherine has a vision attached to her intellectual abilities and a purpose removed from the era’s norms of domestication, marriage, and motherhood. While her father greedily attempts to stop the newsies in their fight for justice, she possesses a tenacious–and somewhat rebellious–belief that her story can get on the newspaper’s front page and help win the battle for fairer occupational treatment. When Jack asks her if she is following him, she responds with,  

“The only thing I’m chasing is a story.”

Amidst all of this ambition and strength, however, there seems to be a subtle commitment to keeping Katherine palatable for the audience. It’s as if lyricist Jack Fieldman and composer Alan Menkin looked at her character, thought to themselves, “She’s the white, pretty, thin one, so she’s supposed to play the charming female role; let’s make her a little more fragile so people like her,” and then created, “Watch What Happens.”

During the solo, Katherine sings, “Thousands of children, exploited, invisible, speak up, take a stand…”, adopting a nurturing, almost maternal role that allows her to settle into a more traditional frame of femininity. The lyrics, “Write what you know so they say, all I know is I don’t know what to write or the right way to write it!” reveal her waning sense of confidence, and the use of repetition hints at her ruminative thought pattern. The consistently quick tempo of the song adds in an element of rushed nervousness, and Kara Lindsay’s breathless talk-singing (interrupted periodically by her shrill vibrato) clearly indicates Katherine’s frazzled state. All of these artistic choices establish insecurity to offset Kat’s confident façade and help her serve as the Caucasian good girl everyone wants to see.

Speaking of being a “good girl,” Katherine’s sexuality–or rather, her lack thereof–consistently places her in a white light of innocence and purity. She repeatedly dodges Jack’s flirtatious advances with her characteristic, dignified restraint and responds with discomfort to communications of sensuality. For example, when she asks Jack what he wants and he responds steamily with, “Can’t you see it in my eyes?” Katherine’s shocked facial expression and stammering answer of “Yeah, okayyyy,” reveal how she is taken aback by even slight innuendos. 

However, this dismissive attitude is coupled with subtle flirtation, allowing Katherine to fit into society’s ideal of femininity: the woman who won’t give “it” up easily but wants “it” deep down. During Jack’s hokey number, “I Never Planned On You,” she gazes at him with girlish naivete and batting eyelashes, and her buried desire is further insinuated through the gasp of glee she lets out when she finds the portrait he drew of her (to be fair, I would gasp if Jeremy Jordan sketched my face, too). When the pair later engage in a heated argument, Katherine makes the bold move to kiss Jack, confirming her true passion.

Now, this could be my propensity to psychoanalyze, but I think such a gutsy act not only reveals her love but also her repressed sexuality– if it takes the emotional extreme of anger to push her toward one of the mildest forms of physical intimacy, then she is SERIOUSLY chaste…like preeminently pure.

And I think that’s what we, as the audience, are supposed to think of Katherine Pullitzer. Angelic, white Katherine Pullitzer.

Now, time for some Medda-tation (I’m sorry).

Ms. Medda Larkin, played by Aisha de Haas, asserts dominance through her gaudy presence, affinity for men and money, and excessive confidence. Her distinctive aura is perhaps best characterized through her solo number “That’s Rich” wherein she sassily taunts men from the Burlesque stage she owns. While she openly brags about her wealthy status proclaiming, “Cause, honey, there’s one thing you ain’t that I’ll always be, and honey, yeah, that’s right, that’s rich!” the wideness of her eyes, growl in her vocal tonality, and drawn-out nature of her chest vibrato make her character come across as a bit abrasive.

Jazz instruments including the saxophone, trombone, and French horn combine to create a seductive melodic backdrop for the performance, and this risqué scene classifies her as someone who (*cough*) enjoys the presence of men. In contrast to Katherine’s rejection of male attention, Medda feels very liberated to share that she’ll

“…learn to make do with the mansion, the oil well, the diamonds, the yacht, with Andy, Eduardo, the pontiff and Scott…”

In addition to categorizing her as a gold-digger, this lyric points to Medda’s lack of standards, and, consequently, establishes her as having less worth than her picky, white counterpart.

Though Fieldman and Menkin seemed to purposefully dilute Katherine’s boldness to make her more likable, certainly no one behind the scenes put forth the same effort for Medda. It’s as if they saw no possible compatibility between idealized feminine characteristics and a heavy-set black woman, so they instead embraced a narrow caricature–one of shallow identity, excessive expression, and flagrant materialism. To put it simply, they intentionally made her “a little too much.” For example, while Katherine finds her identity in her work, Medda’s personhood is driven by the empty entities of money and sex. While Katherine’s bodily comportment is consistent with timid, inward movement, Medda’s motions are aggressively expansive with outstretched arms, wide shoulders, and a dominating stance. While Katherine is dressed in conservative, simple garb that portrays her as clean and dignified, Medda’s outfits are characterized by outrageous feathers, jewels, hats, and other embellishments that mirror her personal exorbitance. All of these factors place Medda outside the realm of what is considered desirable or even acceptable.

Additionally, unlike the pure and honorable maiden discussed before, the script reduces Medda to a stereotypical Jezebel.

On top of the fact that she owns a burlesque house, innuendos serve as Medda’s main contribution to conversation, and she openly expresses her sexual promiscuity, regardless of context. Even upon meeting the esteemed figure of Teddy Roosevelt, she suggestively remarks, “Come along, Governor, and show me that backseat I’ve been hearing so much about.” When little Les is admiring the scantily-clad Bowery Beauties, she commands the person who’s shielding his view to “Step out of his way so he’s can take a better look,” encouraging lustful viewership in the young boy. This relational boldness translates to the stage where she physically embodies eroticism by swaying her hips side to side and seductively caressing her body.

Each of these examples epitomize how her way of being is, by nature, countercultural and vaguely uncomfortable.

We, as the audience, come to know Ms. Medda Larkin–bold, black Medda Larkin–as deviant. And perhaps we’re supposed to.

Kardashian photo plays off controversial black imagery
Love and Beauty – Sartjee the Hottentot Venus

So, what are we left with after all this discussion?

Still the virginal, educated white chick.

Still the sassy, promiscuous black woman.

But, we can at least rest in the assurance that we’ve viewed Newsies and its two lead female characters through a critical lens–that we’ve sorted through its harmful representations of black versus white womanhood; that we’ve illuminated the frequently-overlooked intersections of race, gender, and sexuality; and that we’ve pointed out the oppressive conventions which prejudice works so hard to keep hidden. Perhaps with this fresh awareness, our generation can create entertainment products that are just as playful, engaging, and insightful as Newsies but with fewer angels, fewer deviants, and more richly-portrayed characters of color.

Cinderella: A new decade, a new way to love you

To the reader: what is your initial reaction to this title?

Is it perhaps, “But I’m a girl, and girls don’t care why [they fall in love]…”?

Probably not – it’s a statement that sounds out of the blue. It ties gender and sexuality together in a way that sounds old-fashioned and sexist.

And yet, when Julie Andrews says it in the 1957 film Cinderella, it strangely makes sense. Unconvinced? I almost am too, typing out these words. But there’s more to a movie than its script, and there’s more to love than a single emotion.

Here, we’ll be analyzing how Cinderella and Prince Christopher’s romance unfolds in two different televised musicals: the 1957 original production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (which I’ll refer to as the 50’s production), and its 1997 television remake, directed by Robert Iscove for Walt Disney Television (which I’ll refer to as the 90’s production). In particular, we’ll be analyzing the couple’s actions before, during, and after the famous song “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful”. First, we’ll explore the 50’s production for its idealistic yet old-fashioned fairy tale romance, and then focus on how Disney tries to put a more realistic twist in their 90’s production. Through scrutinizing the details in this song, we’ll find that the nuances of love change every decade; even within the same fairy tale, we can get drastically different relationships. And while both iterations might seem antiquated for a contemporary viewer, it’s important to consider how the norms surrounding gender and love have evolved over the years, and how they can still change for the better today.

1955: The Perfect Couple of Your Dreams

Let’s rewind back to Julie Andrews, playing the flustered and enamored Cinderella, finally meeting the prince of her dreams:

The night is nothing but perfect – prior to their lovers’ duet, the handsome Prince Christopher (played by Jon Cypher) has already confessed his love to her. They’ve even passionately kissed, despite the fact that they’re practically strangers. Now Cinderella is wondering if this is all a dream – after all, it seems too good to be true. It is in this dazed state that she utters those old-fashioned lines:

Christopher: “Are you [in love]?”
Cinderella: “Oh yes.”
Christopher: “And do you know why?”
Cinderella: “Oh no. But I’m a girl, and girls don’t care why.”

Cinderella (1955)

Cinderella’s lines make sense because this is a fantastical romance of the 50’s. She is the stereotypical ingénue – the innocent woman looking for true love, the model woman of conservative 1950’s America. Within minutes at the ball, she has found the man of her dreams. She doesn’t need to care why this love happened because this is her character’s destiny. When Cinderella wonders when she’ll wake up from this fantasy, she is already entrenched in the sheer magic of this romance. Her voice is angelic, her eyes are faraway and dreamy (note how the two actors almost never look at each other). She sings, “Am I making believe I see in you / A man too perfect to / Be really true”, a direct reflection of her thoughts. And long before the pair start singing, the string orchestra plays the idyllic chords of the melody. If the song cues in the fantasy of a musical, the fairy tale has already begun.

On the other side of this romance is Prince Christopher, equally the 1950’s stereotype as a masculine and handsome man. He too, is entrenched in this fantasy, bestowing flowery praises upon Cinderella. Indeed, “Why is the color of your hair the only color a girl’s hair should be?” is a statement that sounds absurd out of context, and yet within this narrative of true love, Cinderella really is the only girl for him. Where Cinderella is daydreaming however, the prince is direct and assertive. He follows up her flustered words with the bold affirmation, “I always want to know why I do anything! Why I feel anything!” Throughout the scene, he guides her through this relationship, initiating both the confession and intimacy.

The 1955 movie idealizes this couple as a pair of fantasy characters finding true love. The song lyrics serve to emphasis this fairy tale for what it is: something extraordinary and magical. The two ideal characters find their ideal relationship in mere moments, perfectly reflecting the gender stereotypes of the 50’s.

1997: Realism in a Fantastical Romance

More than 40 years later, director Robert Iscove and choreographer Rob Marshall would take a different approach to this relationship. Note that the premise and the song lyrics are almost identical: Cinderella and the Prince take a break from the ball. Their first dance is just as electric and romantic as the 1950’s, but that’s where the similarities end:

Instead of immediately going into a passionate kiss, the scene begins with Prince Christopher apologizing for what he perceives are his parents heckling Cinderella. The conversation then turns to Cinderella’s unpleasant relationship with her family, the Prince’s distaste of the ball, and the two going back and forth about an ideal bride. This is nothing like the dreamy conversation of Andrews and Cypher – they’re closer to conversation topics that you or I could talk about.

We also see that Brandy’s portrayal of Cinderella is very different than Julie Andrews’ performance. Where Andrews’ Cinderella was angelic and passive, Cinderella is more assertive, yet also more hesitant. When the Prince starts to tell her about his wish, she advises him (from personal experience):

Cinderella: “You know the trouble with most people is that they sit around wishing for something to happen instead of just doing something about it.”

Cinderella (1997)

Cinderella is pushing the Prince to be more active in fulfilling his desires. Yet at the same time, she is nervous about being at the ball at all, worrying moments ago that her past and family make her an outcast in this luxurious ball. It is no longer just a perfect fantasy for Cinderella, but a wonderful moment highlighted in the context of her normal life.

The Prince (portrayed by Paolo Montalbán) is also a vastly different character – a man conflicted between the duties of the royal throne and his desire for true love. And when he does find the person who can fulfill both, he is elated and nervous. When trying to explain his feelings to Cinderella, he rambles awkwardly, in stark contrast to the confidence seen in his 1950’s incarnation. Prince Christopher is again the one to initiate the song, but the choreography starts him off kneeling in front of Cinderella. This height dynamic also differs from the 50’s production, where the Prince stands powerfully over Cinderella the whole time.

The new composition and choreography deserve to be emphasized here. Alongside the new height dynamics, there is more movement from Cinderella and Prince Christopher. They sit and stand, walk around the courtyard, embrace, and separate throughout the sequence. There is more agency in the choreography of the characters. When Cinderella leaves the Prince’s side for a moment, singing the lyrics “Am I making believe I see in you / A man too perfect to / Be really true”, it reflects her actual doubt about the situation. Unlike the 50’s Cinderella, who sees this as a perfect fantasy, Brandy’s Cinderella has to actively contend with the reality of her background interfering with this ideal escape. When she resolves this doubt by immersing herself in her love of the Prince, the two come back and share a passionate kiss (which realistically happens after getting to know each other a little more). The 90’s production repeats the climax of the song; the repetition by the actors affirms their union after their initial hesitance. And after Cinderella runs off into the night, the two sing the climax one more time, illustrating how the characters themselves are connected even though the “magic” of the ball is now over.

This iteration of Cinderella and Prince Christopher is more human than before – their character conflicts and personalities come into play throughout the song. It is no longer a perfect romance between perfect characters, but a seemingly perfect romance amidst the colorful reality of two vastly different people. The backdrop is now the 90’s, marked by third-wave feminism and increasing diversity and globalization. By incorporating more motion and character dynamics into the song, Iscove and Marshall paint a different and more realistic picture of the fairy tale couple.

2021: So What is Love, Really?

And now we arrive in 2021, where relationship dynamics have again changed. To the 21st century viewer, the story of Cinderella may permanently be associated with old-fashioned, sexist stereotypes about gender and love. In every rendition, Cinderella is a beautiful, kind girl that finds happiness through the man of her dreams. To some, that may mark this story as nothing but a stagnant fairy tale, which can never be progressive due to the constraints of its fundamental story.

And yet we have seen how this relationship has been shaped into new dynamics over time, even within the context of the same musical and song. With the 1955 musical, we saw the idealized fantasy of the 50’s in full force, the dreamy couple singing of perfect love. In 1997, we saw a more humanized rendition, where the titular question is more one of doubt and excitement, and the love blooms within deeper character conflicts. Indeed, the story of Cinderella is by nature antiquated. But it’s equally a product of a popular culture that shifts with the times. For every decade and new audience, Cinderella represents a different version of love – one that reflects both the story’s roots and its audience.

So to the reader, I end with a parting question: What does the love of the 2020’s look like? And how will the story of Cinderella rise to answer that question?

Don’t be Gay in Indiana (or as a Straight Man)

I first watched Netflix’s The Prom during winter break of last year, right around when the movie first released for streaming. I remember inviting one of my friends over to my Blakemore dorm (we both stayed on campus over winter break) one night to watch it, as I had wanted to see the stage show on Broadway before COVID happened and we’re both gay. We played it from her old MacBook while sitting on a soft, fleece blanket spready out on the floor, and I vividly remember us having a blast with the movie’s enthralling set design, energetic choreography, catchy musical numbers, and just the fact that it was a cheesy, feel-good teen flick.

However, not even I with my shameless love of tasteless teenage films can look past the movie’s idealistic and poor depiction of the LGBTQ+ community and their struggles. None of the movie’s flashiness can’t make up for its lack of depth and nuance with regards to two of its primary queer characters, Emma Nolan and Barry Glickman.

Starting off with the lesser of the two evils, Emma Nolan isn’t actually the worst depiction of a lesbian teenager possible, it’s just a horribly idealistic one, largely due to Jo Ellen Pellman’s portrayal of the character. Emma’s introductory number “Just Breathe,” establishes her as a severe optimist, and this is hammered in through Pellman’s constant grin. No matter how sarcastic I was about being gay in Indiana, I would not be smiling if I just got verbally berated in a crowded school hallway. Pellman’s smile undermines the horrific nature of the homophobia she just experienced and makes it hard to relate or understand her pain since it seems like she’s not even feeling any pain at all. Especially since she is the only out lesbian in the entire school, I have a hard time believing she is taking her situation this well and with that big of a smile. It doesn’t help that principal Tom Hawkins supports Emma, which seems rather unrealistic for a highly conservative high school in small-town Indiana. Had absolutely no one been on Emma’s side, we would have seen a whole new dimension to the daily struggles LGBTQ+ people face that The Prom completely skips over.

Another instance of Pellman’s questionable acting is right before and during the number “Alyssa Greene.” Yet again, Pellman maintains a smile as she confronts Ariana DeBose’s Alyssa Greene. It’s hard to believe that Emma is actually mad at Alyssa when her face does not match the words coming out of her mouth, and it is even less believable when she grins while walking with Alyssa during the musical number as if they didn’t just have an intense argument. Here, Pellman’s and Debose’s great chemistry work against each other as Alyssa’s pain is simply not reciprocated by Emma, and even when Emma breaks up with Alyssa I don’t believe that Emma actually wants to break up with her. The smile Pellman maintains while saying “it hurts too much” does not show at all that Emma is hurting, but quite the opposite. This overly positive portrayal of a traumatized teenage lesbian doesn’t provide a platform for real life gay teenagers to relate to because most kids aren’t optimistic about the trauma they face, and they need representation that shows them that it is okay to feel depressed, angry, and even unforgiving.

While I don’t think Pellman’s portrayal of Emma is particularly relatable or realistic, there still is a certain charm to Emma’s hopeful optimism that might work better if it wasn’t in a story that wants to talk about the trauma of the LGBTQ+ community particularly in young adults. On the other hand, James Corden’s Barry Glickman is straight up insulting to the LGBTQ+ community and even less relatable.

The root of the problem with Barry’s character is that he is played by James Corden, a straight man. Corden cannot properly portray a gay character because he cannot understand what it is like to be gay in a straight-dominated world. It feels almost mocking to have a straight man play an overly flamboyant gay man as it plays into the stereotypes that straight men have typically used to oppress gay men. For example, Corden’s exaggerated arm movements and sassy gait feels very forced in the opening number “Changing Lives” especially when compared to Andrew Rannell’s Trent Oliver, someone whose sexuality is never explicitly stated yet played is by an actual gay man, who is much milder yet still sassy and dramatic in a natural. Barry’s suit is even a dazzling and sparkling teal blue, adding to his aggressive flamboyance, compared to Trent’s monochromatic red.

Another scene I take issue with is the shopping scene in “Tonight Belongs to You,” where Barry takes Emma to the mall to get a makeover for the prom. This scene pushes more harmful stereotypes that are perpetuated by the fact that Corden is a straight man singing these words. The lyric “you can borrow all my makeup” reinforces two gay stereotypes, in that gay men are into makeup and lesbians aren’t to be more “masculine.” This coupled with Corden’s overly affectionate and exaggerated acting create a character that doesn’t seem realistic and only serves to perpetuate stereotypes. This scene in general implies that a gay man is better at dressing someone of a different gender simply because they are more feminine despite not being able to completely understand a woman’s experience (just like how a straight man cannot completely understand a gay man’s experience!). Hearing Barry call himself “Miss Glickman” is also particularly uncomfortable because when said by a straight man, it again plays into the stereotype that one’s sexuality makes them an expert on genders that aren’t their own. It is absolutely possible for gay men in real life to fall into these stereotypes, but in real life James Corden is not a gay man, and watching him act this way only pushes straight-male dominance.

Beyond Corden’s portrayal of Barry, I take issue with the way Barry’s main plot line of his parents not accepting him resolves. Barry’s mother surprises Barry in the school hallway. While Barry is hesitant at first, his mother is quick to admit her wrongdoings and they make up. Unfortunately, not every gay person gets to reconcile with their homophobic parents. In fact, it could have easily been a very dangerous situation for Barry to meet up with his mother in case she hadn’t changed, which many parents never do. Though an incredibly heartwarming scene, this feeds into the glittery optimism that underlies the movie, and while I love cheese and happy endings, wrapping everything up in a neatly tied bow doesn’t work with how serious of a story and subject matter the movie is trying to tell.

When the entire film is full of messy plot lines that get resolved too quickly and too cleanly, it’s hard to view the individual struggles the queer characters face as realistic. The struggles these characters face only end up grazing the surface of the trauma LGBTQ+ individuals in the real world face and get resolved by sparkling glitter and spectacular dance numbers, which no matter how well-intentioned will never reach the heart of traumatized queer folk to relate to.

Katherine Plumber: Feminist Icon for the Patriarchy

The 2017 recording of Disney’s stage production of Newsies tells the story of a young and plucky trail-blazer that risks it all to make history: Katherine Plumber. Of course, Katherine’s story is a part of the larger telling of the newsboy strike of 1899, led by Jack Kelly. While Katherine and her writing talents are essential to a successful strike, this is not her character’s only purpose. She also fulfills the oh, so necessary role of Jack’s love interest. Interestingly Katherine Plumber is not a character in the original 1992 film of Newsies. In adapting the story for the stage, Harvey Fierstein replaces Bryan Denton and Sarah Jacobs with our leading lady.  

Bryan Denton, reporter for The Sun (Newsies, 1992)

Sarah Jacobs, sister to David and Les & Jack’s love interest (Newsies, 1992)

In the musical, the importance of Katherine’s role as a reporter is obvious. Her publication of the original strike story in act 1 and her idea to write The Newsies Banner in act 2 gives the strike the public attention needed to make change. Therefore, Fierstein needed to include a reporter character that is willing to help the newsies. This begs the question: why make this character a woman? Katherine’s agency, showcased through the newly added number of “Watch What Happens”, provides the argument that making the reporter character a woman creates a rarity for the Broadway stage: a female character that has an important part to play in the plot of the story. As a feminist and female performer, I desperately want this narrative to be true, and it is to a certain extent. However, why does Fierstein also have to make Katherine Jack’s love interest? Fierstein includes Katherine’s relationship with Jack to confirm his masculinity, emphasizing Jack as the main character.

Katherine first shows her agency in the dialog break between “The World Will Know” and “The World Will Know” (reprise). When Jack jokingly asks if she is there for him she replies, “The only thing I’m following is a story.” This line asserts that Katherine is, first and foremost, a reporter. Kara Lindsay’s excitement when the reprise begins confirms that Katherine is after the story, not Jack. Her facial expressions and body language show that Katherine is excited for her big break, and this acting leads right into “Watch What Happens.” Throughout this number, Katherine goes against the norm of a female lead. This “I want” song is about her career aspirations, not about the boy, as many leading lady’s “I want” songs are. The staging of this song further supports the idea that Katherine is not your typical female character. Throughout the song, Lindsay uses space. She moves across the entire stage and fills the space with big arm movements and a spread stance. Compare this to Julie Andrews performance of “In My Own Little Corner” in the 1957 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Julie Andrews conveys that she is a good girl, mild and meek, through her small movements and confinement. 

Katherine claims her space in “Watch What Happens”

Writers Alan Menken and Jack Feldman and choreographer Christopher Gattelli further show that Katherine’s agency is crucial to and accepted by the newsies in “King of New York”.

“She’s the king of New York.”

-Race, “King of New York”

The newsies sing, “We was sunk, pale and pitiful / … / She fished us out and drowned us in ink.” They could not have accomplished what they have at this point without Katherine’s help, showing that Katherine has the power to direct the story. Furthermore, Gattelli’s choreography shows that she has even more agency than the newsies; she is able to do things that they cannot. When the newsies have Katherine take the spotlight in the tap number, she includes displays of flexibility that leave the newsies in awe. 

Race is shocked by Katherine’s abilities

Katherine has the means to make a difference, even without the help of her powerful father. She has the intrinsic motivation to write the story on the strike; as she sings in “Watch What Happens”, “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” She has the ability to make the story successful; her story makes the front page “above the fold”. There is no need for her to solidify her place in the show through her romance with Jack. This nonsense is evident in the discrepancy between Katherine’s and Jack’s ages. The crux of this story is that Jack and the other newsies are children. The show promotes the message that newsies and the other child workers should be allowed to be kids, not to be disrespected as laborers. 

“Each generation must, at the height of its power, step aside and invite the young to share the day.”

– Governor Roosevelt

Therefore, one has to assume that Katherine, the working girl that comes up with the idea to expand the strike to all child workers, cannot be a child herself. A relationship between a boy and a woman in a show that emphasizes children’s rights uncomfortably forces this love story onto the audience. In the 1992 movie, Jack’s fling with Sarah is much easier to accept because she is also a child. So what is so important about this relationship that Fierstein needs to provide Jack with a love interest, even if she is illogically older than him? The romance is not included because Katherine needs Jack (or even because she loves Jack) but because Jack needs Katherine.

Jack’s power as the leader of the newsies comes from his masculinity. As Pulitzer says, Jack is “Mr. Tough Guy”. However, analysis of Jack’s character shows that he is not this perfect display of masculinity that the other newsies see. He dreams of running away to Santa Fe so he can trade working for having a family with whom he can have lazy Sundays. He has an aptitude for painting and pursues art as a hobby, not as a means of income. He puts himself at risk to feed and cloth the boys at the Refuge. However, the newsies need to see Jack as their fearless leader. Therefore, scenes where Jack seems to lose his masculine power are followed by scenes where Katherine is solely operating as a love interest. After Jack laments about running away to Santa Fe in the Prologue, Katherine makes her first appearance as Jack offers to deliver her a paper, personally.

When Miss Medda reveals Jack’s artistic talents, Jack runs into Katherine again and sings “I Never Planned on You”.  Jack betrays the newsies and accepts Pulitzer’s bribe and Katherine and Jack kiss.

These scenes focusing on Katherine as an object of Jack’s affection reassert Jack’s masculine power. They set Jack up for his displays of leadership. Meeting Katherine establishes his role as the leader. Seeing her at the Bowery sets him up for “The World Will Know”, where Gattelli showcases Jack’s masculinity with hard and tense choreography. Jack’s kiss with Katherine propels him into “Once and for All” and through the resolution.

Jack needs Katherine to connect the contrasting elements of his character, but this development comes at Katherine’s expense. Katherine sacrifices her own agency so that Jack can fulfill his potential. While Katherine has the ability to drive the plot, she still has to be an object of male affection so that Jack can claim his power. This shift in Katherine’s position is shown in the rhetoric in the final scene. Miss Medda brings Katherine to the Governor. Jack has Katherine as an ace up his sleeve. Katherine is a feminist character, but in the most palatable way.

She has agency, goals, and a career, but at the end of the day, a man benefits from her success more than she does. 

The Prom: Where Realness Was Lost From A Real Story

Having graduated from a conservative Christian high school in the Midwest just a few years ago myself, I’ll admit that I felt good watching The Prom, the musical film on Netflix, where the Hollywood stars flinched at the fact of Applebee’s being the nicest restaurant in town (which, in my case, was also true if counting within 30-minute drive distance).

Available on Netflix in December 2020 and having been adapted from a 2018 Broadway musical of the same name, the story of the Prom starts on Broadway, where four not-young-anymore yet unavailing Broadway stars get together and decide to do something to gild themselves and their career – activism that is. Through Twitter they discover that a girl called Emma in Edgewater, Indiana was banned to attend prom just because her date was a girl, so the Broadway stars set out to rescue the girl and the insensible citizens of Edgewater.

The four Broadway stars in The Prom. From left: Trent Oliver(Rannell), Dee Dee Allen(Streep), Barry Glickman(Corden), Angie Dickinson(Kidman)

It just so happens that, I also know a guy from my high school who was almost kicked out after the school found out that he was gay, and at the same time, he was a talented singer. Therefore I could not restrain myself from substituting him into Emma’s position, and this is when problems arise.

The chapel of my high school in which students were given a 20-minute service everyday(I am not Christian by the way.)

There are some apparent cultural issues with the Prom (By the way, this Indiana resident complaining about the mall set in the movie being too luxurious for Indiana had me laughing out loud). For example, putting the Christian faith as the main motive of the homophobic antagonists (Edgewater citizens) does not put forward a practical activist message, and surely will not move anyone in my high school (if they could actually make it to the end of the movie which I doubt). The ending, where the leading homophobic, the PTA president Mrs.Greene, accepts her daughter, Alyssa, and Emma being together because she loves her daughter, is where even I was caught off guard. P.S. The villain’s daughter falling in love with the protagonist, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Not only because people usually do not change their religious beliefs suddenly in real life, the surprise I experienced was also evidence of shortcomings in character shaping in this movie.

Alyssa Greene and her “control freak” mother

Since this movie and the original musical was adapted from a true story, I looked it up, just to discover that I am more drawn to the real-life version than the adaption. Although starting way behind, we are seeing less gender stereotypes and more attention on different sexualities in musicals this several years. One problem to do this in, especially, Broadway musicals is that audiences and especially the producers are used to all the glitz and laughter they associate with music theater, and so they believe that The Prom has to be another one of those Broadway musicals. As a fan of movies that discuss serious issues, I understand that the four Broadway stars were there for comedic effect, and I have no problem of with serious story being told in a more manageable manner, but the issue comes when the subplots of the Broadway stars is overshadowing the true main characters of the story, Emma and her girlfriend. The story of Dee Dee learning to act for others’ benefit is a good one, and Streep did it very well, but that plot could become another musical instead of occupying the limited time we have for Emma’s encounters and thoughts.

Constance McMillen, whose story the Prom was based on

Emma is played by Jo Ellen Pellman, who was competent to be the main character though it may not appear so with all the starry casts around her. The character is based on the real-life Emma, Constance McMillen, who was rejected from bringing her girlfriend to prom in 2010. Instead of the Broadway stars, the person who persuaded McMillen to stand up for herself in real life is her mom, also a lesbian. The intrapersonal interactions we see of Emma in the movie is mostly with the Broadway stars, and a small portion being with her girlfriend, Alyssa. A good way to portray a character is to make their experience relatable, and hanging out with Broadway stars is just not one of those.

As said before, I wonder what the story would be like if the adaption focuses on the real story, such as the relationship between McMillan and her parents. More specifically, how McMillan was mostly raised by her dad, learned that her mom was a lesbian at the age of ten, discovered that she was also a lesbian, and was encouraged by her mom to fight against the discrimination she faced. The idea of accepting your parents as they are, accepting yourself as you are, and accepting your children as they are, I believe, will be able to put forward a more intimate story about sexuality and identity than the glittery stale popcorn we end up with, and will be able to make more audience sympathize with Emma whether they are in it for same-sex relationships or not.

The parent-teacher association in both the movie and real life organized a secret second prom which everyone in the school except for Emma knew. The almost first thing she did after finding it out in the movie, was to go meet with her girlfriend Alyssa, who sings her “I am” solo; They hold hand, and Emma broke up with her. No I did not see that one coming either. Maybe the book writers think it was a good idea to break up with their girlfriend right after she is deceived by her friends and her mother just because she made you feel embarrassed. This leads us into another major flaw in the Prom’s character design – Alyssa.

Emma(Pellman) and Alyssa(Debose)

The fault with Alyssa is not at Ariana Debose who played her and I personally think Debose did a really great job as I could feel Alyssa’s emotions from her facial expressions. Rather what went wrong is that, as the bridge between Emma and the “liberals”(also no idea why they had to be this unnecessarily political), and the conservative Midwest, you would think Alyssa has an important role in the movie. But no, she is the substitute of the old-style I-sit-here-and-do-nothing heroine waiting for Emma the hero to act. One trend we often see in queer literature is that the traditional unequal relationship remains, except that instead of boy saves girl now we also have boy saves boy and girl saves girl(couldn’t think of a girl saves boy example from the top of my head). It is not hard to make Alyssa not the daydreaming princess – she should be longing to go to the prom too! Having her by Emma’s side when she is going through all of this will not only make Alyssa Greene a fuller character, but also without leaving me wondering if the two actually likes each other.

The movie The Prom tries to create a positive message and some entertainment for its audience, but it turns out that the positivity pulls us away from the no-joke real-world issues it is aiming at, and the entertainment distracts us from getting to know the main characters enough to empathize with them. It is ironic that the gilding(glitz and stars) of this movie is exactly what the Broadway star in it were trying to do. Although musicals on gender and sexuality issues is a fairly new field, that does not mean there is no movies and plays (or, guess what, real personal stories) to learn from, and as a 2020 movie the Prom could have done better on reflecting the real world the same time as entertaining through its book and character design.

Why Would a Man Even Want a Frothy Little Bubble Anyways?

By: Andrea Dorantes

I’ll be honest.

After watching Amazon Prime’s cringe inducing girlboss Cinderella a few weeks ago, I was dreading watching what I worried would be another icky attempt to wokeify a shamelessly simple story. After all, Brandy’s performance in the 1997 made-for-TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella must have walked so Camilla Cabello’s could run, right? Surprisingly, not really.

Camilla Cabello brought us a rendition so quirky (she’s not like other girls, she’s a girlboss!) that it makes Brandy’s “frothy little bubble” rendition feels even more antiquated. Especially when held up to her counterparts, the “ugly” stepsisters, Brandy’s soft and lovely performance of a girl contentedly trapped by circumstance reflects the way Cinderella exaggerates what it means to be a desirable young woman.

The stepsisters, here portrayed by Natalie Desselle (Minerva) and Veanne Cox (Calliope), and Cinderella are clear cut examples of two classic musical theatre tropes: the scene stealers and the ingenue. The ingenue is the dream girl. She is kind and naïve, virginal but a little sexy, not stupid but not too smart for her own good. She sings in a sweet and lilting soprano so clear it might even symbolize her own purity. Meanwhile, existing on an alternate plane of femininity, is the scene stealer. She is brash and loud, raucous and funny. A little witty, sometimes bawdy. She delivers the over-the-top performance of a lifetime, and even if she has real goals, we laugh to think that someone like her could ever achieve them. When Cinderella expresses a faraway dream of marrying the prince, we believe her. When the stepsisters express the same desire, we roll our eyes and laugh. Why?

The answer appears simple enough. Someone (men, perhaps?) created the formula for a perfect woman that resembles our sweet ingenue. Maybe this version of a woman is attractive because she seems the perfect amount of submissive for wifehood, or maybe because she is more of an accessory than an independent being. Regardless, it excludes any woman who has ever had a complex thought or sung even a note as a mezzo soprano (let alone as a brassy alto). So where does this gatekeeping of femininity leave our stepsisters?

All you have to do is watch the way all three women move throughout their spaces. Brandy’s Cinderella almost floats, serenely smiling and breezing through even the crowded village streets. Stumbling in her wake come Cox and Desselle’s Stepsisters. They trip over each other, bumbling around, comically falling and smiling so exaggeratedly it resembles a painful grimace. Even Cinderella’s effortless wooing of Prince Christopher (Rupert Windemere Vladimir Karl Alexander François Reginald Lancelot Herman Gregory James) is held in stark contrast to Calliope’s “infectious” laugh and Minerva’s frenetic eyelash batting.

If the character choices aren’t enough, the audience is told exactly which slot to fit these women into through each word and note written for their music, most clearly in the contrasting “In My Own Little Corner” and “The Stepsisters’ Lament”. These two “I Want” songs are describing similar goals: both parties desire to step outside of their situation and be swept away by a handsome prince.

“In My Own Little Corner” gently plunks in ebbing and flowing orchestral swells to match moments of Cinderella daring to dream and gingerly retreating to the safety of familiarity. The music matches her delivery. She is airily fantasizing about adventures she is aware she never will have, all while contentedly characterizing herself as “mild”, “meek” and obedient. Even Robert Iscove’s staging of this performance contributes to the tease. Brandy longingly gazes out the window, but not too long to make you think she might actually do something to leave. Just like before, the ideal woman gives you a hint of a spark, but not too much that it burns out of control.

Meanwhile, “The Stepsisters’ Lament” interrupts the lovely waltz from “Ten Minutes Ago”, bursting into life with jaunty trumpets and a much faster tempo. The introductory ascending glissando tells the viewer that this is going to be silly and fun. The Stepsisters sing in a nasally pitch and full-throated short spurts. Cinderella would never belt, but the Stepsisters do to express their frustration and anger (emotions the ideal woman would never feel, let alone display). They are boiling over with jealousy at their own shortcomings in the eyes of the prince, and it all spills out into this number. Just like “In My Own Little Corner”, the staging contributes to the clumsiness of the “ugly” girls. They literally interrupt the beauty of Cinderella and Prince Christopher’s moment, spying and fighting uncoordinatedly until they end up soaked in the courtyard’s fountain, sputtering and indignant.

Now, I know it is unusual to consider the Stepsisters’ feelings. I mean, they are villains at worst and henchmen (henchwomen?) at best. Sure, that characterization contributes to their portrayal. But that’s the whole point. Strong, bold, and combative women don’t make great romantic leads when the requirement for a romantic lead is to allow yourself to be loved on a man’s terms. Women around the world watch Cinderella and leave with an unrealistic expectation of what makes a perfect woman. Walt Disney Television’s 1997 Cinderella, while groundbreaking in its own right, didn’t do much to challenge this expectation. For little girls like me, who preferred basketball shorts to glass slippers, belting to lilting, and experienced several big emotions on the daily, the “ugly” stepsisters seemed like far more relatable women. It’s a shame they aren’t given more to do than stew about being “usual” and therefore undesirable. I guess that’s a problem to tackle with the next remake! Just keep Camilla Cabello far away from it.

Folks, we finally got a headline: Women only exist to serve Men

You heard that right: all two female characters (with more than a few lines) in the 2017 live recording of Disney’s NEWSIES aren’t allowed to have interests or personality traits unless those aspects benefit the male protagonist.

By Nicole Anderson

The two characters I’ll be examining will be Katherine (Plummer) Pulitzer and Medda Larkin. While they both seem to be written as strong and independent women, you don’t have to look too hard to see the dependence the male characters’ storylines have to the traits they’ve been assigned.

First, Katherine. She is the first female character seen on stage in this musical and by far the most relevant throughout the story. You would think that would be a good thing, as there is more content to work with and more opportunities to develop as a character, but as it turns out, everything about her serves a purpose for the protagonist, Jack Kelly. With the help of the playwright Harvey Fierstein and lyricist Jack Feldmen, the plot and musical numbers pair together to perpetuate the notion that Katherines entire existence was created to advance Jack’s plot.

I’ll set the scene: a beautiful unnamed female enters stage right and walks past our handsome hero. He hits on her to no avail, and that’s the end of it, right? Unfortunately, no. It’s a broadway show! There’s gotta be a half baked romantic plot line for the cocky main character!

This takes place in the form of Katherine, an aspiring reporter. Right off the bat as he attempts to advance on her, she claims to not be in the habit of talking to strangers. His retort? “Well then you’re gonna make a lousy reporter.” Sadly, he’s got a point. Her being a reporter effectively opens the door for continued interaction between the two of them. This relationship will go on to fuel several actions for him later on.

“I’m a blowhard. Davey is the brains.”

-Jack Kelly

This quote is spoken from Jack to Katherine after the initial interview she does with the newsboys in regards to the strike. A recurring theme of the female characters is that they are everything that Jack is not. Jack is not the brains behind the strike, Davey handles that, so plot-wise he needs someone to be the brains behind the media and raising awareness.

Being female is also essential to her character because a male reporter at the time would never have to dig this hard to be able to report on “real news.” Her solo song, “Watch What Happens,” is prefaced with Jack saying, “Write it good. We both got a lot riding on this.” Jacks quote perfectly captures her necessity to him: without her being who she is, this strike potentially falls through.

It wasn’t good enough for her to just be a reporter, so they wrote her character in a way that gives her no choice but to write about their situation. Here’s a short list of reasons she has no choice but to write about the strike:

  • She is trying to depart from the social pages, a subject area she’s been stuck in for awhile.
  • She is desperate for a big scoop.
  • She has moral obligations to the newsboys and other kids working jobs around NYC.
  • She sees potential for a raise and a promotion if she takes this story.

“But all I know is nothing happens if you just give in. It can’t be any worse than how it’s been, and it just so happens that we just might win. So, whatever happens, let’s begin.”

-Katherine (Plummer) Pulitzer, “Watch What Happens”

Not only is she talking about the situation that the newsboys are in, whether it was meant to be interpreted this way or not, she is also describing her career. She has literally nothing to lose; nowhere to go but up. Everything about her ensures that this will get written about with no questions asked.

In terms of the plot, she’s after this big scoop, but only because it helps the male characters cause. It isn’t her own independent dream. The NEWSIES success is reliant on her.

Don’t believe me? Have a listen to the song “King of New York”.

When you do, take special notice to how Katherine does not sing the line, “I was a star for one whole minute” and how the newsies sing about how much she helped them. This further emphasizes how it moves the male characters plots along but not necessarily her own.

Additionally, she is Pulitzer’s daughter. There is, of course, the obvious pull to write this in: it’s more dramatic for Jack’s character when he realizes his enemy is his quasi-girlfriend’s daughter and will advance his story-lines. But, also answers the question brought up about her in regards to why she hangs around The World so much when she works for The Sun (aka how she was able to interview the newsies in the first place).

It gets worse.

As Pulitzer does his classic evil guy monologue explaining how he’s ten steps ahead of Jack and gives a little more insight to Katherine’s background, he reveals why she doesn’t work for him. He says it’s because she wanted to earn what she was given, but again, from the plot’s perspective it’s really so that her character has the liberty to write about the strike; a liberty she wouldn’t have if she worked for her father. So while on the surface it looks like she is taking initiative in her life, that decision more serves the purpose of being able to get the strike more media attention.

With such large numbers of supporters, supplied by the news, the strike becomes too big to ignore. It is no surprise when the newsboys reel in victory.

ENTER MEDDA LARKIN

Her first introduction is her allowing Jack and the boys to stay in her theater, sheltering them from the cops. From the get-go, her only purpose has been to help the men of the story. One could say that she is a business owner and a strong female character, but the sad truth is that just like Katherine, the only aspects of her character that we are told about directly benefit Jack.

Her theater is used for three things only:

  • Sheltering Jack from the cops.
  • Her show (which really only happens so Jack has more opportunities to talk to Katherine).
  • Housing the massive rally at the end of the musical (which ultimately ends with them winning the strike) .

Notice how all its’ uses help Jack?

“There’s one thing you’re not, that I’ll always be and baby that’s rich.”

Medda Larkin, “That’s Rich”

Again, we run into the realization that just like Katherine, Medda is something Jack is not: rich. She has money.

She’s exactly what Jack needs in order to succeed.

If it wasn’t enough for her to own a theater and shelter him from the cops, she also pays him for his art, and in her own words gives him, “a little something extra, just account’a I’m gonna miss you so”. Being rich is the opposite of what Jack is, making it necessary to his success for her to be just that that. Also, I’d like to mention that if it were stated that she had major investments or was trying to buy something expensive, I wouldn’t even mind that much that she’s only shown using her wealth to help the boys. However, the only thing she even mentions using her money for is to pay off the theater (helpful for Jack) and paying Jack for his art (obviously very helpful for Jack).

The first time we meet Medda she also mentions that she knows the governor. That’s cool! That definitely was not only written so that the newsboys can exploit Medda’s relationship with him to finally win the strike in the end!

oh wait…

Of course it was. Is Jack socially powerful? Yeah, maybe for the boys his age that sell papes, but overall in their society? No. Is Medda? Yes. In classic fashion, Medda has pull with high society because Jack doesn’t. The female character, again, has the opposite of the traits that he exhibits because they need to be for him to succeed. So she does what any good supporting character should do, and serves her purpose: she brings in good ole’ Teddy Roosevelt to set all this strike nonsense straight and win the newsboys their rights.

In summary, the issue is not that they aren’t given any hopes, dreams, aspirations, or duties that they want to accomplish, but that they aren’t given any that are solely for their own benefit. Consistently they are assigned traits that match what Jack needs and nothing else. Whether it was a random line about why Katherine hangs around The World so often, or a fun fact that Medda knows the governor, every aspect of the female characters in NEWSIES serves a purpose for Jack Kelly’s story.

Gender Representation in The Prom, But Give it Some Zazz

I’m going to be honest. I didn’t care for The Prom. It’s a recent film adaption of the Broadway musical on Netflix, with Ryan Murphy of Glee directing. The plot was all over the place and most of the characters were not likeable. But for an attempt at being a progressive film which ended up being a mainstream version of an LGBTQ+ film designed for straight people, it did have complex and nuanced depictions of gender in its effort to challenge the current social narratives. The most surprising part is, they come in the form of two side characters, Mrs. Greene, and Principal Hawkins.

The Prom is a satire on Broadway itself. It tells the story of four Broadway actors in need of a career boost, who attempt to help a girl named Emma who wants to attend the school prom with her girlfriend. Mrs. Greene, the PTA president, cancels prom to prevent Emma from attending, which is where Dee Dee, Barry, Angie, and Trent step in to try to help Emma for publicity. The four of them along with Tom Hawkins, the school principal, help Emma get the prom that she deserves.

Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins may seem like typical characters with nothing interesting at first glance. Their outfits are plain and their personalities ordinary next to the eccentricities of the Broadway actors. But their gendered behaviors and actions provide a complicated and nuanced depiction of gender that challenges societal ideals. So, for once, the Broadway stars won’t be the stars of this analysis, no matter how much they try to shove themselves into the narrative (except for maybe just two guest appearances from Dee Dee.)

Let’s start with one of the most obvious representations of gender, physical appearance. Mrs. Greene, president of the PTA, is always wearing business clothes, in varying shades of pinks and purples. The film emphasizes her position of power despite being a woman in her appearance, with her pink blazers helping her stand out amongst the crowd and reminding you of her femininity. Her makeup is always perfect, paired with earrings and a classic hairstyle. These are all typical portrayals of femininity.

Principal Hawkins’ character follows suit (literally), by dressing in a masculine style, wearing almost exclusively suits and sporting a beard. Both characters are stereotypically masculine and feminine in their appearance, which doesn’t challenge the current expectations of gender expression. However, it is their behaviors and actions which contrast with their standard looks that make you realize why the producers made this choice.

Mrs. Greene being the strong-willed president of the PTA needs to be authoritative. She stands up for her beliefs and is charismatic enough to rally the rest of the parents behind her. The way she acts contrasts with her feminine appearance, as she takes on characteristics that are more often associated with men. However, this is in part by her being in an authority position. Women must be more assertive to be taken seriously, even if it leads to them being deemed bossy or controlling when the same is not said for men in positions of power. The choice to have her wear stereotypically feminine colors undermines and contrasts the more masculine undertones that come with her being an authority figure. Women in higher up positions in the workplace usually dress more masculine, in blazers and pants and dark colors, rather than anything too feminine since masculinity is associated with power and leadership. Mrs. Greene embodies the ideals of being a strong and assertive woman in power, while also reclaiming her femininity in her position.

On the other hand, Principal Hawkins, also an authority figure, acts less like the usual men that we would see in these roles. In his first encounter with Dee Dee, she says that he doesn’t fit her usual demographic of gay men, to which he replies that straight people like Broadway too. Our first impression of Principal Hawkins is that he not only likes Broadway, but is an avid fan and isn’t afraid to admit it. In Dee Dee’s experience, she has seen that men liking Broadway is seen as effeminate and is associated with gay men. Later, when Principal Hawkins and Dee Dee are on a dinner date, he opens up to her and says that Broadway provides an escape from his everyday life through a soulful solo number. Despite outward appearances, Principal Hawkins shows a level of depth and vulnerability that is not often seen from men in film in general, let alone for a side character.

This opposing gendered behavior between Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins does raise the question of favoring men over women. We have Mrs. Greene as a strong woman who made it to being the president of the PTA, and who is not afraid to stand up for herself and her beliefs. We have Principal Hawkins showing that there’s nothing wrong with men being vulnerable and showing emotion. But are we not made to favor Principal Hawkins over Mrs. Greene, despite them both breaking stereotypes? The obvious answer is that Mrs. Greene is the antagonist whose homophobic beliefs leave little left to be admired about her, while Principal Hawkins is the voice of reason and is just trying to help Emma get to prom. It’s just the role of their characters in the plot, so what’s the big deal?

If audiences see Mrs. Greene as the enemy, then are we not also seeing a woman in power as the enemy? Principal Hawkins’ character is praised for his vulnerability and breaking the mold by getting a romance story and a happy ending, while Mrs. Greene is almost constantly shown in a negative light. We learn from her daughter Alyssa that her husband left her, and ever since she’s been pushing Alyssa to be the perfect student in hopes that he will come back. Besides this one small glimpse into her personal life and her redemption at the end of the film when she accepts Alyssa’s identity as a lesbian, we are made to despise her throughout the entire film. In fact, her homophobic beliefs make it uncomfortable to like her as a character (assuming you don’t share her beliefs), so how are you to like anything else about her? She is a homophobic mother who initially couldn’t accept her daughter coming out and is no stranger to personal attacks when it comes to upholding the conservative beliefs of her town. She is also a woman who made it to a position of authority, and a single mother whose husband left her for reasons we are not privy to. Yet both parts of her are antagonized in the film whether intentionally or subconsciously.

On a lighter note, everyone’s favorite part of musicals: romance. But this time, a subplot between Principal Hawkins and Dee Dee, which presents a complete 180 on the traditional musical romance. From the get-go, Dee Dee gets Principal Hawkins to take her out to dinner, subtly making the first move. Later, Principal Hawkins finds out that Dee Dee and the others originally came to help Emma for publicity, and he leaves her. To win back his favor, Dee Dee goes all out in a performance of his favorite song performed by her on Broadway.

Their roles have been reversed. Instead of the boy losing the girl and then fighting to get her back, Dee Dee has taken on the role of the boy in love and challenges that old trope. Their love story also avoids the objectification that often comes with traditional Broadway romances. Principal Hawkins, although perhaps given more depth to serve as a more compatible love interest for Dee Dee, still serves other purposes in the plot that make him a stand-alone character as well. In fact, he is the one who solved the original conflict in the film. He worked with the state attorneys and helped win the legal battle against the PTA cancelling prom. His purpose in the plot is greater than to just be a love interest. Their romance goes against the traditional narrative and flips it on its head by having Dee Dee and Principal Hawkins switch roles.

Through all of this, remember that Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins are side characters. They are hardly a part of any of the musical numbers or spectacle. Even in Principal Hawkins’ solo number he is singing about being entranced by the fantasy world and escape of Broadway. They are spectators just like us. It reveals the nature of the “real world” outside of the Broadway world and makes their stories more directly applicable. The setting of this musical reflects our own society, so any challenges to the default narrative suggest ways of change in our society. This raises a lot of questions that we are left to ponder.

We have seen how Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins show a nuanced representation of gender and don’t fit neatly into the stereotypes often seen in the media. But their representation isn’t perfect and still reflects the dominant narratives in our society. What about patriarchy? Mrs. Greene has less agency than Principal Hawkins as a woman and a single mother. For Principal Hawkins, he has a choice over how he acts and chooses to embrace the more emotional and vulnerable aspects of his personality. Mrs. Greene feels that acting more masculine is her only option to keep putting up a front in order to get her husband back. We aren’t even told her first name like Principal Hawkins. She is still tied to her husband’s identity through her last name and does what she does for him.

The Prom has complex representations of gender roles, but it still shows how those representations function within the dominant frameworks of our society. Gender roles can be challenged, and successfully so. This film normalizes the breaking of gender stereotypes by using Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins to ground the film in realism. But we must keep in mind the intersectionality of one’s identity, and how it can be harder for some people to challenge narratives than others because of the amount of agency they have. Mrs. Greene and Principal Hawkins are cisgender, straight, and have conventional gender expressions; they only break stereotypes through their actions. In reality, people have such complex identities and face prejudice from multiple systems at play. Nevertheless, perhaps changing the narrative is one aspect of this musical that doesn’t have to stay within the make-believe world of theater.

Jack-yll and Hyde?

Disney’s 2017 rendition of Newsies: The Broadway Musical!, directed by Jeff Calhoun, seems to captivate its audience and pull each spectator in many different, creative directions. Some strong feelings have been assigned accordingly surrounding the ideas of gender and sexuality when further investigating the role that Jack Kelly plays within the musical. Jack Kelly’s character and portrayal investigates the duality of masculinity, and in doing so, both reinforce and broaden the masculine male stereotype. While possibly not the model musical for progressive gender and sexuality ideals, Newsies begins to break the barriers of “previously understood” masculinity in the context of this time period while reconstructing Jack’s role as a stereotypical male leader.

Let’s start from the beginning. This production was created to encompass the true events of newsies in 1899 through musical form. I don’t know much about 1899 except for the fact that this was the year Al Capone was born and also during a time period when masculinity had a definitive reputation — Ya know, the aggressive, big muscled, confident, independent, and assertive, dashing young man type. There we go, I just described Jack Kelly…well, the “masculine” side of Jack Kelly.

Let’s address Jack Kelly’s “strong” masculine side. Within the first 6 minutes of the musical, we see him approach Katherine in a charming, confident manner in an attempt to flirt with her. Although we quickly see Katherine shut this down, Jack’s masculine side is slightly more revealed to viewers as he is not afraid to go for what he wants (assertiveness ✔). We also get the same sense from his environment and his actions. His New York accent subtly reinforces the idea of brashness and aggressiveness. This is also revealed in how he interacts with Pulitzer and the rest of his crew. When the newsies are disrespected, Jack springs into action to be their protector (✔) as they work to form a union. Within the newsies, he interacts with the others by bumping into each other and playfully hitting each other like guys do (tough love ✔). In addition to the shouting, grunting, and yelling embedded in the choreography and vocals, Jack’s body language and dance style is combative in nature at times (aggressive ✔). We specifically see this in the fight scene involving Pulitzer’s two men that sell the newspapers.

OK, I know it sounds like I’ve been really laying it down on Jack and his strong masculinity, but the importance of this post is to capitalize on the duality of masculinity and how men, specifically leaders, are “supposed to act” according to society’s standards. While we see the tough guy act from Jack often, there are numerous times we see the “softer” side of his masculinity; sometimes, we even see both at the same time. We begin to see this benevolence in the very beginning with the rest of the newsies. Jack is informally established as their leader and takes care of the group even though he’s an orphan himself (care taker ✔). He even takes the worst sleeping spot so the other newsies can sleep a bit more comfortably (humility ✔). He also sings with Crutchie about his dreams of leaving New York City in “Santa Fe” and living out the dreams he has for himself there. Here is the big kicker, are you ready? Jack is also an artist (a softy with a creative side ✔). He loves to draw and paint and has established a relationship with Medda, a vaudeville performer. She lets Jack paint backdrops for the theatre in exchange for protection against Snyder and the refuge. It’s very clear throughout the musical that Jack has a soft spot for his friends and especially for Katherine, whom he gets all flirty and gushy for (emotional ✔).

There are numerous instances throughout the musical in which we see the duality of masculinity present in Jack Kelly’s character. In addition, it’s imperative to investigate the role the musical plays in showcasing the blend between the stereotypical man and the role a male leader plays in society. Within Newsies, we can quickly identify Pulitzer as being the ideal “male leader” of this time, a stereotypically strong man with an abuse of power problem. While we also see Jack as the leader of the newsies, it’s clear these two characters display leadership in two very different contexts. We see this even during the distribution of newspapers for each new day; Pulitzer’s men, while not even in a seemingly large position of power, look down on Jack and make him out to be less than them. Through this, we can see the outdated form of masculinity clashing with the new. Jack, himself, experiences a duality of masculinity in which the “old” has a time and place, and the “new” paves the way for a dually soft but strong leadership approach.

During this time period, men in power seemed to be of the utmost masculinity. They were deemed strong, aggressive, assertive, and unafraid to fight. They were the ones who could provide and had the most influence. However, we see throughout the musical that while Jack did not have this stereotypical masculine leadership, he arguably had more influence than the ones in “power.”

While Disney’s Newsies typically gets a bad reputation for reinforcing the most basic gender stereotypes, a closer look at this musical shows just how keen the writers and directors were to begin a societal push for the duality of masculinity in male leadership. Thankfully, it is our normal. In our society now, we have this idea of our leaders being  more approachable and better listeners, as well as decisive and confident. Overall, while it may not be the most progressive model for gender stereotypes, Newsies begins to crack the barriers of strong masculinity within established gender stereotypes, and does a pretty good job at it, especially for its time. And hey, who doesn’t like Jeremy Jordan?

Nothing New(sies) Here: A Failed Attempt at Breaking Gender Stereotypes

Disney’s Newsies, tells the story of the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899, and does so through dynamic choreography, lovable characters, and empowering musical numbers. While Alan Menken’s music, Jack Feldman’s lyrics, and Harvey Fiertsein’s book all make for an enjoyable performance, the musical grapples with breaking down stereotypes and, ultimately, falls flat on its face. Specifically, in its depiction of Katherine, the ambitious journalist who takes on writing the story of the Newsies. Played by Kara Lindsay, Katherine is a character audiences should see as the modern woman who won’t take nothing from no one, especially some wise-crack (but oh so handsome) newsboy. However, she ends up as being simultaneously completely unrelatable and predictable as (you guessed it), the arrogant, dashing newsboy has a vulnerable side that softens her up, thus making her lose any and all ambition that was established in the early parts of the musical.

Katherine is presented as what most people consider modern feminists to be: bold, ambitious, and witty, which the musical amplifies through her quick retorts to Jack’s initial advances. In the interlude of “Carrying the Banner”, Jack pushes his friend out of the way to get to Katherine. Not only does this action emphasize his hyper-masculine characterization, but it allows for Katherine to establish her character only a few minutes into the musical. The man she is walking with begins to speak for her, but she pushes by him and speaks to Jack herself. Without even taking a second that most people would need to think, she responds to Jack by saying, “I have a headline for you. Cheeky boy gets nothing for his troubles” (07:39). Kara Lindsay embodies writer Harvey Fiertsein’s the words with the perfect amount of wide-eyes and gaping mouth, to imply that Jack’s offer to deliver the paper to her personally is not some generous offer like he’d think it is. From the get-go, Katherine should be something young girls aspire to be and women resonate with. But, as is a running theme in Newsies, Katherine’s character arc plateaus once the plotline shifts to her falling for Jack.

Her ability to spin a phrase and stand up to the demeaning retorts by the Newsies like, “Shouldn’t you be at the ballet?” (44:05) sets her up to be “different” from other girls. She’s snarky and bold, so isn’t that feminism? Well, kind of… but not entirely. What happens so often in modern media that wants to avoid falling into the trap of creating mild female characters with no agency, is that they overcompensate by making their characters too perfect. Basically Katherine’s only flaw is that her dad is the owner of the World. And that problem quickly finds its resolution and that’s the end of that. The problem with this kind of representation is that it is as equally inaccurate as the quiet and modest representation. Female characters do not have to always know the witty and smart thing to say, and they can have fatal flaws. However, Newsies falls right into line with other musicals, movies, and television shows that make their female characters so bold, snarky, and witty that they’re not even real people: they’re just characterizations of women.

Not to mention, the musical completely fails at providing Katherine with any sort of dignified resolution. Her song “Watch What Happens”, establishes in Act I that Katherine is a multifaceted character. She’s brave and ambitious, but also knows that female journalists are not only uncommon, but belittled. Kara Lindsay’s acting during this song shows a fierce determination in her eyes mixed with the perfect blend of uncertainty. Questioning her abilities, “Those boys are counting on you. Oh, those poor boys” (49:00), she begins to ramble her thoughts, concerns, and passions throughout the song. The quick tempo and speed at which she sings the lyrics both highlight her anxiety with taking on a project like this, while also reaffirming her sharp mind, which makes audiences aware of how good of a journalist she can be. How she sings the lyrics, and the composition of the song, going from determined and fast to almost a whisper and unsure, shows the internal struggle Katherine has with this task. She has this confidence in herself that exudes out of her when she has to be quick with a reply to the Newsies, but when it comes to actually reporting, she knows it has to be so superior no one can ignore it just because a woman wrote it, thus producing a heightened sense of anxiety. The song builds during the chorus, both through Katherine’s vocals which get louder and more assured, but also with the music. What starts as just a repetitive piano note to match her internal dialogue swells with the incorporation of brass instruments as she realizes the magnitude of what she’s about to do, and that she’s capable of doing it. The title, “Watch What Happens” is both about what the positive ramifications are of reporting about the exploitation of young boys, and how her career will inevitably take off after such a successful report.

But then the song takes a turn, which is the first inkling that Katherine, despite being a headstrong woman with a drive no one can undermine, is unfortunately going to end up with Jack. While those rooting for “Jackerine” may be excited about her change of heart, it is incredibly disappointing for yet another female character to essentially forego all her traits from most of the first act because the writer has to have a relationship arc.

If the second verse of “Watch What Happens” wasn’t enough of an indication that we were going to get a Jack-Katherine storyline forced down our throats, “Something to Believe In” sure does. Before the Act II song begins, Katherine and Jack are fighting (fingers crossed they don’t end up together). But don’t worry, the classic trope of mid-fight make-out happens and every issue is resolved with just a little bit of relieved sexual tension. “Something To Believe In” completely unravels all of Katherine’s previously established traits. The lyric “I have something to believe in now that I know that you believed in me” (1:45:30) states that Katherine essentially had no confidence in herself until getting Jack’s reassurance. So I guess we’ll just forget the whole “Watch What Happens” scene. While Jack repeats the same sentiment, it makes sense for his character: he was questioning his decision to go further with the strike and even took the money from Pulitzer, only changing his mind after hearing Katherine’s idea. The piano backing and soprano voice of Kara Lindsay is intended to bolster the sweetness of this confession of her feelings. They hold hands after Katherine’s verse and stare into each other’s eyes as they sing in unison, culminating in a passionate kiss as the triumphant brass instruments swell. The music, blocking and lyrics are a great way of affirming their feelings, and for unraveling all of Katherine’s traits.

By the end of the show, sure Katherine wrote the story, but other than it reaching Roosevelt and helping the Newsies, there is no real indication of how it helped Katherine achieve any of her previously stated goals. All we get is the knowledge that Jack is staying in New York, and is thus staying with Katherine (thank God!). Considering the fact that so much of Katherine’s character arc in the first act is about her establishing herself as a legitimate journalist, the ending leaves so much to be desired. If you were to meticulously edit out all instances of Katherine and Jack’s romance, the plot would still work on its own. The forced relationship helps appeal to more audiences, and is typical of a Broadway musical. Very rarely is there a musical that does not push two heterosexual characters together. The problem with this happening in Newsies is that it is unnecessary to the plot, and thus feels like something the writers included because, duh, who doesn’t want to see a beautiful woman and handsome man end up together. The musical doesn’t make any commentary on their differing statuses other than a comment or two from Jack like “What? A little different from where you were raised?” (1:40:14), and any issues that do arise are quickly resolved through a kiss and a song.

The bigger, more glaring problem with the unnecessary inclusion of this relationship is how it undermines Katherine’s character. Somehow Newsies managed to create Katherine as someone who embodies both extremes of how to write a female character. She begins as a too-perfect-to-be-real character with her unnaturally quick witted responses and only gets one moment of depth in “Watch What Happens”. Then, she all of a sudden becomes the exact character the “too perfect to be real character” overcompensates for. She falls head over heels for the guy, despite his arrogant disregard for her obvious disinterest, and loses all of that ambition, agency, and boldness she had in Act I. She suddenly only found confidence and motivation after Jack believed in her, and her songs switch from a quick tempo with witty plays on words to doe-eyed angelic love songs about finding purpose through Jack. While Newsies tries to represent Katherine as someone who breaks from typical expectations of what a woman is, both in 1899 and 2017 standards, it fails miserably by giving her ambition that does not amount to much by the resolution other than an artificial and unnecessary relationship with Jack. Therefore, try as it might, Newsies does not break down stereotypes (or shatter glass ceilings), which is apparent through its poor representation of Katherine, despite doing everything in the first act to make us hope for otherwise.

Love Thy Neighbor

Megan Walters

I never had heard of ‘The Prom’ Netflix film until watching it a few weeks prior. Netflix has been hit or miss recently, but I was hopeful regardless. As someone who is a musician and performs on a regular basis, and was a classic ‘theater kid’ in middle and early high school, I can’t pass up a chance to watch people randomly burst into song and dance.

However, when I read the synopsis of ‘The Prom’ before pressing play, I genuinely became excited. The film’s main characters and plot line featured two lesbians–one of them open and the other closeted and one of them fighting for them to go to prom together. As someone who identifies as bisexual and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, this would be the first time I’d really seen people like me in the major key role. It also offered a different perspective for me personally. I was never ‘out’ in high school. The crushes and little love tales came and went for me in high school and I decided it would be best for me to simply keep my mouth shut. ‘Who needs love anyway!?’ Was what I would tell myself. The world, my own personal world rather, was not ready. It was better that way.

So, I sat myself down and got to relish in my old memories of high school while the movie started to move forward. Of course, it did not start with Emma right away. We are first whisked to New York where the likes of Dee Dee Allen (Maryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Cordon) take the center stage and mooch off each other’s massive Ego. In a rash decision to prove to the world that they are good people, they hear about Emma’s story through Twitter, their two friends, Angie Dickinson and Trent Oliver join them, and they run off to Indiana in an attempt to ‘help’ Emma with her dilemma.

And then we get to hear Emma sing for the first time. Her wonderful soprano voice soars above the bullying and harassment made from her small-town classmates. She is caught in the whimsical, upbeat song of ‘Just Breathe’. The song is joyful, the point is that everything is going to be okay, just take a deep breathe and all the unjustly words said to you will evaporate. Kind of reminds me of songs in other musicals when the main character arrive in the ~Big City~ for the first time and the song is mostly just about how big and wonderful everything is going to be now that they are in the ~Big City~.

But…that’s not really how it feels being gay? Or at least, it sure didn’t feel whimsical when I realized I wasn’t like everybody else. Now, perhaps I’m interpreting the song differently. Because while ‘Just Breathe’ is about taking a deep breathe and the butterflies go away, it also begins with the line, ‘Don’t be gay in Indiana’ and throughout the piece Emma continually mentions trying to leave as fast as she can in ‘leave today, pray the greyhound isn’t full’ and how badly she feels like she’s screwed up by mentioning her severed relationship with her parents and ‘then guess what’s about to hit the fan?’ if you’re out. The song’s lyrics overarch a duality of how she is feeling, trying to relax and stay calm about being the true person she is, even though it is completely rejected by the society around her. However, the way the instrumental line moves doesn’t necessarily match the lyrics. It’s fast, upbeat, and overall joyful. The backing track has spunk to it and the musical line travels upward musically when Emma sings, ‘Just breathe, Emma’. I think this is when the musical first started to confuse me a little. Because I personally couldn’t really identify with the overall joyful theme of the music when half of the song’s lyrics is joyful and whimsical and the other half is Emma proclaiming: I have severed every known relationship I have here because I chose to openly be my true self.

If I came out in high school, perhaps my friends would have understood, but there still would have been snide remarks and jokes that overall, would make me feel hurt. My family, forever and always traditional, would have not believed me, blamed the ‘liberal’ high school ideas for the ‘influence’, and many tears later, I probably would have ended up in some type of therapy or gone off to some type of camp. I have memories of my Dad saying multiple times to my brothers “Remember, you can’t be gay in this household.” Well, little did he know he was talking to wrong kid(s). My Mom told me if I was queer she would stop paying my tuition for college when I was Freshman. Well, guess I’m waiting until after graduation to let her know. I have a distinctive memory of my Mom reading a book entitled ‘The Homosexual Agenda’ during the supreme court rulings in 2015; a book about how members of the LGBTQ+ community are attempting to ‘destroy traditional marriage’. Sometimes she would try and discuss it with me, but I had nothing to say to her. There wasn’t really room for discussion.

In the end, when I hear this song, I want to enjoy it, I really do, but I can’t find myself identifying with Emma as much as I’d hoped. While I believe there is nothing wrong with being hopeful, I feel like the character was written to blindly miss the reality of the situation. It is not a happy life she is living; it is a hurtful one. I don’t believe many people in her position would have this overall cheery disposition; especially when a spotlight is put on you during your teenaged years. Maybe certain types of people loved to be in the spotlight, but in high school, I could not WAIT to get out of it. I enjoyed being put in the back (I am tall), I could love what I got to do when I performed and at the same time, no one got to stare at me while I did it.

I continued to watch the musical, pondering the different songs that came on and the morally ambiguous choices that the Broadway squad make in their’ humble’ efforts to help Emma. They go through the motions of protesting and failing at it horrendously. Emma’s classmates continue to be rude and misunderstand her until Trent Oliver meets up with them at the mall and a musical number ensues called ‘Love Thy Neighbor.’ It was this musical number where I finally understood why this musical was written the way it was. The Prom is a gay musical for straight people. Because straight people aren’t ever going to fully understand or identify with Emma’s character. They are not going to understand the fear and reality of getting thrown out of your own house like Emma, or the unnecessary mockery and hate Emma receives from her classmates. Or the fear of the possibility that is what could happen if you chose a path similar to Emma’s; a fear that constantly drives Alyssa Greene, Emma’s girlfriend, further into the closet. Straight cis people can empathize and educate and help, but they never have to fear being in the same position as our main character.

Enter the Broadway squad to steal the show constantly with their over the top musical numbers, glitter, and sparkling lights. This is something everyone can get behind and easy for everyone to understand and accept. Like in the song ‘Just breathe’, there’s almost two stories happening at the same time in ‘The Prom’ and gap is bridged with the song, ‘Love Thy Neighbor’. The number is an ensemble piece, but with the mean high schoolers and not the Broadway stars, it starts with them talking and discussing the current events of the terrible prom that was given only to Emma in the high school gym. Trent Oliver is by himself with the students and begins singing about the different types of ‘sins’ each of the kids has committed that would cause them to ‘burn in hell’ if they treated those action the same way they treat homosexuality. He goes through pre-marital sex, getting tattoos, and someone’s Mother getting a divorce. Eventually the cast of the touring musical, Godspell, joins Oliver for support and the song ends when the high school kids also decide to join in the song and dance. They determine that Emma did not turn gay, she was in fact, always gay and that doesn’t make any better/worse than they themselves.

The musical, in short, is for people like the high school kids that do not understand. Because at the end of the musical when the lies have been revealed and settled and Emma’s partner shows her true self to the world and her mother, there is another prom. And it is not a prom specifically for members of the LGBTQ+ community, it is a prom for everyone. A prom where Alyssa Greene’s mother shows up and decides to love and accept her daughter even though it goes against everything else her character has done throughout the film. The musical is for the broad spectrum of people and the reality is, it is for straight people to get an inner glimpse of what being different might be like. Of what being different was/is and probably will always be like; specifically in terms of sexuality. It doesn’t really try to make you fully understand what being gay is like; Emma is after all, only a character and while she is the main character she only takes center stage briefly. The Broadway wannabe mega-stars are the true spotlight with all of the glitter and show. It’s an introduction to life within the gay community. The musical plays it safe, has many character stereotypes and tropes, and doesn’t veer too far from the typical structure of what makes a musical a musical.

So at the end, when I had finally finished watching, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little hurt. It would’ve been a little nice for Emma to be a bit more realistic and for her story to be more personal. It would have been nice to see her as the full person she is, her fears and loss and all to get her to become the person we see her as. I know I am fully a person and have a story to tell with being in the closet and slowly coming out to trusted friends one at a time as my years in college wore on. However, I still enjoy musicals and the song dance and well the overarching message of the film: “Love Thy Neighbor.” When it all comes down to it, there is nothing morally wrong with the film because that is the message that it wanted to portray. I still enjoyed the musical and the journey it took me on even if it wasn’t completely realistic. While the film may not be specifically for me, I still chose to enjoy it, because at the end of the day, the most important thing I can do is ‘Love Thy Neighbor.’

On Revision:

Oh, revision. How dreadful it can be.

I don’t know about you, but I hate revision——or, at least I used to. Until recently, I would despise “revising” my work because it felt like editing something I already wanted to be done with. “Revision,” in an academic sense, usually happens by force, typically so you can achieve a better grade.

But what, really, is revision? Let’s define what it means to revise something (you know I love definitions): “to re-examine or make alterations to.”

To re-examine or make alterations to.

I love the first part of this definition: “to re-examine” because it feels much deeper and more significant than editing does. Editing is surface-level——it is grammatical or organizational. Revision, on the other hand, is deeper——it demands that the core of your piece (your primary question, your thesis, etc) be re-examined. Revision demands you take a step back from your writing, inquire deeply about why you are returning to your work, and then set out on a new path that will drive your piece forward.

When returning to your writing, I think it is helpful to consider the following questions:

  • Why am I returning to this piece? Is it to edit, or to revise?
  • If it is to edit, you might consider:
    • What are the areas that need attention?
    • Are my title and opening sentence engaging?
    • Is my argument both provocative and clear?
    • Is the flow of the piece effective?
  • If you are revising, you might consider:
    • Since last reading this piece, what has stuck with me? Do I remember feeling like something was missing?
    • Is this piece still as relevant now? Or perhaps it has lost or gained relevance? Why?
    • Are there areas I can go deeper here? How can I engage with my own story to invite empathy and reciprocity from my reader?

Allow me to let you in on my own recent experience with revision.

Dr. Essin asked me to write a final post in my semester series entitled “On Revision.” I really should’ve written this post a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t find a hearty reason why I needed to write about revision… (because, really, I was thinking about revision as editing.)

But a few days ago, devastatingly, a friend of mine from high school, Dylan, passed away. Dylan’s passing sent me back to an all-too familiar feeling I had when I was a senior in high school and another friend, Malcolm, died. For me, Malcolm’s death will always be tied to the musical Rent, which I wrote my final blog post on last semester. When this tragic similarity stirred up in me, I knew I wanted to revise my post on Rent. With a new sense of urgency to tell the redemptive story of Rent’s power to heal communities in tragedy, I got to writing.

Below is the revised version. You can read the first version of this post here. Pay special attention to the way this post engages a personal story (to encourage empathy and reciprocity from the reader) where the first version does not.


In the winter of my Senior year of high school, one of my friends tragically died of a brain aneurysm. At only fifteen, Malcolm was full of joy and life until the very moment he passed.

Throughout the entire winter semester, I was in rehearsals for a blackbox performance of Rent where I would play Mimi Marquez. On the morning of our only performance, Malcolm’s death was announced during our chapel service. I remember the deafening silence of the building ringing through my ears. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to scream, cry, run, puke, or hide so I just froze. When we all stood up to leave the chapel, it felt like the whole school let out a collective cry.

It was obvious that we could not perform Rent that night, but we were faced with the decision of whether to perform the show at all. 

That night, sitting in my room as I thought through the options, I couldn’t help but acknowledge parallels between the moment I was in and Rent’s very own premier. Months before Malcolm’s death, when we chose Rent as our show, I did some research on the creation of the musical. I learned that the night before Rent was set to premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1996, Jonathan Larson, the creator and composer of the musical died suddenly.

I took to Google to learn more about Larons’s death and discovered he also died of an aneurysm. I also discovered that the cast of Rent decided to continue on with their opening night performance the next night. I sat in this tragic similarity wondering how they did it. In an interview with Playbill, NYTW director James Nicola said, “Life was imitating art in more ways than one, and the group of angst-ridden bohemian rockers danced in celebration of Larson’s life and work.” After the first performance, it was clear that a Broadway transfer was imminent for the show. Producer Kevin McCollum said, “We had no choice… Everybody had a higher purpose, and it was to get Jonathan’s work heard and seen. And there was no looking back. … We were breathing life into the voice of a young man who had much more to say … There was no room to be afraid.”

In that moment, I knew we had to perform Rent for the school—not in spite of Malcolm’s death, but because of it. Like the original cast of Rent, we had a higher purpose, and we had the opportunity to “breath life into the voice of a young man who had much more to say.” There truly was no room to be afraid. It was a beautiful and powerful performance that led our community toward healing. In that performance, I discovered Rent’s ability to move across time and across tragedy to address timeless questions of life and death, uniting communities through the paradox of joy and sorrow along the way.

Three years later, I would be reminded of this unique ability as I watched Rent again and felt an eerily deep connection between the musical and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Rent opens with the title song and imagery of New Yorkers shouting on balconies, living in the tension of paradoxical celebration and mourning. In a similar way, today’s New Yorkers meet each other on balconies and fire escapes every night at 7pm to sing communal praises to the medical workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. With shouting, cheering, and crying, New York exhales a collective acknowledgement of the joy that exists—particularly the joyful reality of a shared experience—and a plea for better. While the connection between Rent and COVID-19 is related to New York City, it goes far beyond just geography. 

The musical begins on Christmas Eve in 1989 with a simplistic film reel shot by Mark who is played by Anthony Rapp. Mark is filming a documentary about New York City—specifically about the lives of the homeless population and those affected by HIV/AIDS. The reel shows a shot of Radio City Music Hall, moments of extreme poverty, people experiencing homelessness, etc. These shots—which you can watch below—felt all too similar to what I can picture NYC looking like right now, absent the masks. Mark sings, “How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day. / Headlines, breadlines blow my mind, and now this deadline: ‘Eviction or pay’ Rent.” I did a double take thinking about the transcendent reality of this lyric. Not only are Americans struggling to pay rent, but breadlines have returned, except this time people have to stay in their cars.

Rent tells the story of watching an illness unfold with no ability to stop it. Its characters find solace in the community of those around them, particularly those who share the same experience as them. This community is most emphasized in the “Life Support” scenes where the characters who have AIDS meet as a support group. Some of the most beautiful moments in the film are when characters take a moment to acknowledge their illness—both Angel and Collins and Mimi and Roger share sweet sighs of relief as they recognize their shared reality.

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

Rent doesn’t present a perfect parallel to COVID-19, I know that. But that’s the beauty of it. Rent can speak to us in its original form because the questions it asks about life transcend time. Rent can speak to me in the wake of a friend’s death, in the midst of a global pandemic, or just on a random Tuesday.

I think, now more than ever, the question of how we measure our life is incredibly important. In the middle of quarantine, maybe we did measure our life by cups of coffee… but as we continue to navigate this pandemic, I challenge you to consider what Rent’s central question—what would it look like to measure your life in love?


Thank you for tagging along with me all semester. If you ever have a moment of renewed passion to revise one of your pieces, I encourage you to do so! Most importantly, I hope you don’t let this class end today. Press on discovering, friend.

-B