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!


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.


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.

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.

Breaking Stereotypes In High School Musical

I’ve watched High School Musical for quite some time as a kid (2006), but I believe rewatching the movie as an adult I understood more things about the movie than before. One of the things that I noticed was how the main character Troy Bolton reversed stereotypes that are usually put on high school athletes. It was unique to see that Troy Bolton was the star of the basketball team and had a lead role in the school’s theatre production.

The usual stereotype for male athletes in high school is to be a jock, which is what could be seen in the movie, but Troy Bolton chose to do theatre which a lot of the other athletes didn’t agree with including his dad who was the head coach of the high school basketball team. I honestly believe that the major reasoning behind him wanting to be in the school’s musical production was because of the romantic relationship between him and Grabriella Montez. As they played a major role in the musical together with duets and being the main characters in the movie alone. When Troy lost a bit of focus on the basketball season the song “Get’cha Head in the Game” showed how he was battling between theatre and basketball.

Troy-Bolton-Basketball – Starling Voice Studio
“Get’cha Head In the Game”

“My heads in the Game but my hearts in the song, She makes it feel so right” Was a lyric that I found to be the main line of the song. Another song that showed the stereotypes that the movie pointed out but were broken was in the song “I Don’t Dance” that was performed in the movie. That shows a sports match between Chad and Ryan. The two coming together showing they both can dance and sing together showed how the movie did a great job of joining the two groups of people like highschool athletes and theatre students together which is not the usual.

I Don't Dance | The Hardball Times

Overall the Movie was a great showcase of a musical within a musical and did a great job of being relatable movie to people who were in high school at the time. It achieved every element with romance, comedy, drama, etc. There was a great deal of breaking stereotypes in Highschool Musical that were on show case that I didn’t notice until I got older.

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


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.

Review of “Newsies”

Jansen Preston and Remy Ricciardi

Disney’s 2017 musical rendition of Newsies’ is based on the New York City newsboys Strike of 1899. The musical is about a group of teenagers living in New York City, and they are struggling to battle bigger dreams and rising paper prices. The three main characters are Jack Kelly, the rebel leader of the newsboys, who wants to reach his dreams of traveling and being an artist, Crutchie, the lovable sidekick who sticks with Jack till the very end, and Katherine, who is a beautiful ally helping the newsboys have a voice.  

Remy: Ok lets start. How did you feel about Newsies?

Jansen: The musical was exceptional. It strayed away from the typical Disney rom-com plot, like shown in High School Musical. It touched on a deeper event, a more serious matter. It incorporated romance, drama, and action to create a piece that tackles equality while also depicting a brotherhood like no other. How did you feel about it? I remember you saying you were a little bored during it. 

Remy: At first, I definitely was bored at some scenes as I felt they were a little dragged out, especially the fight scenes in particular. However, looking back at it, this was an incredible musical that showed masculinity more than the one-dimensional way that we are so accustomed to. 

Jansen: When I was watching it for the first time, I picked up on that early on. The opening number Santa Fe shows two male figures, creating a juxtaposition and showing that masculinity can be expressed in numerous ways. It opens up with Crutchie limping up with a long-sleeve collared shirt and a raggedy vest on. Jack is in a muscle tee and well-fitted clothes, clearly exposing his outer and inner strength to the audience. 

Remy: Jack is also seen in this scene lifting Crutchie up with one hand (damnnnnn). The creators were intentional with the formation of Jack Kelly. He was strong, attractive, and masculine, yet still emotional. In the opening scene, he immediately shares his opinions and dreams to the audience. I liked that he expressed emotions throughout the musical as a lead. It definitely contradicts some of the masculine stereotypes we have nowadays – that men can’t do that. Being a Disney film, kid’s do watch this and it allows them to see that it is acceptable to be strong yet sensitive. 

Jansen: Needless to say, it is also what allowed the brotherhood feeling to emerge. Throughout the musical, the theme is seen and it is even written about in Katherine’s article that she published. It is the main thing that keeps the newsboys together. It drives the storyline, showing that they are one unit that will conquer the inequality they are facing. 

Remy: It is also present in the number “Seize the Day.” This was in fact my favorite number of the musical. From the newspaper slamming on the floor, to the pirouetting, the number was filled with lively and energetic movements. The ripping of the newspaper and the switching back and forth shows their strength and unity. 

Jansen: Christopher Gattelli did a great job choreographing. It takes a lot of precision to choreograph that many cast members whilst using the props they used. They had the pipes up in almost every scene symbolizing the New York buildings, and people had to learn how to run up and down and fight each other. This dance number displayed many themes of the show. It showed brotherhood and unity through the synchronous movements and flips through the air. The flips and jumps also showed bravery, which is another characteristic that the newsboys hold.

Remy: The incorporation of Crutchie into the dance number took it from great to excellent. Because of Crutchie’s condition, he was unable to partake in many of the moves, yet his significance was still felt on the stage. 

Jansen: The different masculine forms were also present within this number. It was filled with pirouettes and graceful moments, yet it was still able to convey this undeniable strength and unity. This is another instance of the musical showing us it is important to be strong and sensitive at the same time.

Remy: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. It was empowering and was the moment where the switch flipped for the boys. This is also when Davey commits fully to the cause. 

Jansen: I am glad you mentioned Davey. I wanted to say something about the leadership dynamic. Davey and Jack were both depicted in well-fitting clothes. Obviously, Davey looked cleaner, but by his outfits and intelligence, I would have pictured him to also be a leader. 

Remy: Yes, but Jack was and he was from the very beginning. No one questioned his authority or even fought for it. It was just an accepted concept. I don’t know if it’s because he has more of these “masculine features” or if it’s because of Davey’s lack of interaction with girls and Jack’s ability to smooth talk. Jack pursued Katherine the whole musical and was extremely confident in this aspect and other parts of his life. 

Jansen: Davey had this awkwardness to him, which may have played into his lack of contact with girls. His younger brother even made a comment about a woman’s long legs, which surprised me that Davey did not. Every main character always ends up having a relationship, especially in Disney movies. It was no shock they ended up together at the end. 

Remy: Did you like their relationship? 

Jansen: I liked that they were brought together at the end. I have seen where people call it sexist or playing to the patriarchy, but I do not think that is the intention and it definitely is not what I saw. 

Remy: Really? I disagree. I wish the girl would have rejected him or continued writing for the newspaper. It seemed as though Katherine wouldn’t be fully happy until she ended up with a boy, and it just took away from her own storyline that she ended up with Jack. 

Jansen: I will stand by it. Jack and Katherine’s relationship is what allowed there to be a solid ending to a musical that fixated on the strikes. It was an added storyline that allowed for more volume within the musical and created a joyful connection for the audience. 

Remy: It would have been more valuable for all the young girls out there watching this musical to see a strong woman lead. This film was dominated by males, and males that were persistent in their remarks about her. If a male lead was given the ability to show emotion, then why shouldn’t a female lead be able to be strong and not have a love interest? I know this is loosely based on an event in history. However, I doubt that these men shared what we would classify as “a feminine side” back then because that was just not widely accepted. So my point is, if the creators changed it to allow these men to show more emotions openly, then why couldn’t they change the end for Katherine? It seemed as though she was giving up part of her passion to be with a man and had settled. 

Jansen: Do you see Katherine’s power questioned anywhere else in the play? 

Remy: Yes, specifically in the song, “Watch What Happens.” She sings about having no clue what she is doing, and she says it repeatedly. It makes the audience question her talent as a writer. She doesn’t exhibit a confident persona, which in the end makes us question her abilities. She also sings about Jack and makes a desirable comment about his looks. She had just previously rejected him numerous times in the scene before, so when hearing this, it just caught me off guard. She went back on everything she just did. She was strong and then basically drooling over him minutes later. The musical painted men in this masculine way, where they could accomplish anything if they set their minds to it, and they never really doubted themselves. 

Jansen: I do see what you are saying. She does accomplish a lot, but it’s these smaller details that make what she accomplished less important than it should be. She was so confident in front of the men, and then not right afterwards. It would have been incredible to see her, as one of the only women in the show, be strong in her abilities while she was alone too. 

Remy: Overall, the musical has a lot of positive features to it as it shows young kids that masculinity can take many forms. It would have been nice to see Katherine have a different ending, but her talent is not forgotten and it is a start to something. 

Jansen: This musical was good because of the different rom-com feel it had to it, and it portrayed many important themes throughout, such as bravery, sensitivity, confidence, brotherhood, and friendship. The dance numbers were powerful, yet elegant, and the songs were meaningful as well. Overall, I enjoyed this musical more than most. 

“I love you more…than when a guy gets a girl at the end of a book” ~Morgan Wallen~

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.

I love snow white, so I must critique it:

No, I don’t, is there even anything good about snow white???

I remember watching Snow White as a kid with my sisters and hearing my sisters telling my mom they wanted to be like Snow White. We didn’t know any better. I even supported them wanting to be like Snow White. Now looking back at it, as a grown-up, I would tell my sisters they don’t need to be like Snow White. They’re perfectly beautiful. I’m sure my sisters would agree to, knowing what snow white was truly about now that they’re grown-ups. There’s a lot of things wrong with Snow White and we shall talk about a few.

  • The name of the movie already gives off the wrong perception as it feeds into this stereotype that if you’re not white you’re not beautiful or even come close to being pretty. Imagine kids of color like my sisters saying that they wanted to be like snow white, it is wrong that this movie was so widespread it reached every part of the world that had access to tv.
  • The words used in this movie were also racist every time the queen stands in front of her mirror she chants “Magic Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all” this statement here totally promote colorism and racism as kids watching this movie will have a false perception of reality on who is considered beautiful based on skin color as if you’re not fair (White) you are not considered pretty. Using words like “kill her and bring her heart” are also words kids shouldn’t be listening to as they’re too young to know gruesome words like that.
  • Snow White also takes consent to a different level, imagine coming back from work only to see someone inside your home sleeping comfortably making themself at home. This is wrong, and this movie pushes that narrative that you can go into people’s houses and take a nap (if you do this you’ll probably be arrested or worst shot at). This movie is also sexist in the sense that she cleans their house and cooked food in return for letting her stay.
  • The worst of all is the lack of consent in the movie as prince charming, kissed snow white after a year of her falling asleep. It’s amazing how this scene went unchecked for years now there’s the outrage about this scene and rightfully so. It disregards all the rules about consent and gives off men are savior vibes specifically white males.

Snow White should be renamed and redone if Disney wants kids to keep watching it because this movie is racist, sexist, violent, and disregards consent in any way. I can’t see my kids or relatives watching it if there isn’t a remolded version. So I ask again is there even anything good about Snow White???

Shrek if it was reimagined in 2021

As a young child growing up in the early 2000s, there were only a few things my mother had to provide for me to be satisfied. In no correct order, my daily needs included food, water, a roof over my head, and a movie being played on our television. I have vivid memories of coming home from kindergarten, sitting down with a bowl of ramen, and watching The Emperor’s New Groove. I remember on every road trip that my family and I took that The Incredibles had to be watched at least once. Lastly, I’ll never forget that it used to be a yearly tradition to watch Shrek on Christmas Eve. As a toddler, this movie was amongst my favorites. The plot that is set in a magical world was something a little kid can only dream of. However, after watching Shrek the Musical, I’ve realized this fantasy is not too far off from reality.

Shrek the Musical was directed by Michael John Warren. It drew inspiration from David Lindsay-Abaire, William Steig, and Ted Elliot’s books and movies. Lastly, the musical came to life through the prominent performances of Brian D’Arcy James, Sutton Foster, Christopher Sieber, and many others. The musical does not stray away from the same plot I grew up watching as a child. Shrek is a green ogre that has lived almost his entire life on his own in a swamp. He carries a massive reputation of being a horrible beast that all should avoid. However, deep inside, he is just like every other individual that resides in this fantasy land. Being an adolescent, it is very easy to overlook the themes presented in the musical. Your common person may view the lesson from all this as “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Though this may be true, I believe there is deeper meaning within. If the musical was played out in the 21st century, Shrek could be seen as a black individual living in America. The same struggles, stereotypes, and discrimination that Shrek faces is extremely similar to those that African Americans go through in present day.

Shrek’s childhood was vastly different from almost every other character presented in the musical. At the early age of 7, his parents were forced to kick him out their house as is tradition of the ogres. In a sentimental moment such as this, you would think that the last words exchanged between parents and child would be wholesome. However, when describing the world ahead of him, his father and mother sang in sync, “And every dream comes true, But not for you.” Shrek being an ogre limits him from achieving the things that a regular person could accomplish. Society was not built to accommodate creatures such as an ogre. Instead, they are outlawed from living within regular civilization. I find Shrek’s parents last words similar to the “talk” a black child may receive from their parents. From personal experience, I remember being around the age of Shrek as a child and my mom having to sit me down in our kitchen. There, she expressed that I am not like the majority of my grade school class. Because of my skin color, I am naturally treated differently by peers. She stated that it’ll most likely be like this for the rest of my existence. Shrek and the African American race is similar as we are both treated differently due to something we cannot control: our appearance.

What naturally comes when you look different from the majority of society is stereotypes. Without truly knowing an individual’s heart, the public decides a whole people group acts the same. Most of the time, the described behavior is reported in a negative manner. For example, in the musical, even the fairytale creatures were terrified of Shrek solely based off of the reputation an ogre has received from the rest of society. Because it is taught that an ogre is big, scary, and tough, the fairytale creatures believed that Shrek is the only individual capable of standing up to Lord Farquaad. Matter of fact, in the musical number that shortly follows this scene, the group of creatures described him as their “only hope.” The fairytale beings would not have so much confidence in Shrek if the stereotypes of ogres did not exist. If a person actually took the time to get to know the ogre, they would realize that Shrek is truly tender at his core. Just like Shrek has been given a terrible reputation, so have African Americans in the United States. For example, it is a well-known stereotype of black people to be naturally violent and aggressive. If you take a look at history, African Americans do not give off any indications of hurting people for no apparent reason. However, the people in power gave our race this notoriety for no other reason than to be hateful. An entire people group cannot possibly act the same. In an existing race, every individual has a different character from somebody else.

At the end of the musical, Shrek becomes one of the most favored people in all of Duloc. Everything that he thought he could never achieve became a reality for him. He’s found a home surrounded by a community, he’s made friends, and he’s found true love. All of these possibilities stemmed from characters such as Donkey and Princess Fiona truly getting to know the heart of Shrek. African Americans still struggle today to overcome the social stigma placed on us. Just like Shrek did in the beginning of his fairytale, we face discrimination for the color of our skin. However, hardly any of us are inherently evil people. I’m looking forward to the day where any people of color can exist in America and be judged by their character rather than their outward appearance.

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.


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. 


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”


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.

Will Sheppard: Blackness Within the Princess and the Frog

Disney’s 2009 The Princess and the Frog, directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, featured a bunch of hollywoods stars including, Anika Rose, Keith David, Bruno Campos, and Jenifer Lewis along with many others. The film provides plenty of New Orleans themed music along with choreography to go along with it. This was Disney’s first film to feature a black princess and for the most part, it did not disappoint. The main negative to this film would be that it is missing the appeal, that is the appeal to young black girls. Other princess films appeal to young white girls and give the sense of that magic, but this film doesn’t necessarily do that in my opinion because of the fact that she was a frog for a majority of the movie. Most people were expecting to see the Princess and the Frog, but they got two frogs instead. It was a different twist on the movie, but it didn’t ruin the movie. 

We begin the film with Tiana and her friend Charlotte being read a story about the princess and the frog. They are in Charlotte’s mansion of a home because Tiana’s mother is a dressmaker for the family. While reading the fairytale we see two different perspectives from both children. With the young, rich white girl Charlotte, we see her completely invested and taken away by the story as she dreams of this. With Tiana, we see her disgusted by the kissing of the frog and much less interested in the whole concept of being a princess in the first place. One thing that the creators put in place here is a cultural difference. Being half black and half white, I feel as if I am obligated to say in the least offensive way possible that Charlotte being intrigued by kissing the frog is a whiter thing than it is black. We then go to the next scene and see the living situation of Tiana. She lives with her mom and dad in a small house in a residentially black and poorer area of New Orleans. She and her father have dreams of one day opening up their own restaurant and creating a better life for themselves. So, the viewer has shifted fro seeing a white family with everything they could ever ask for, to a black family who is just trying to get by and that has bigger hopes and aspirations. Already it’s been 10 minutes into the film and we’ve already seen racial and cultural differences.  

As we approach the first song of the film, we see Tiana working hard at two jobs and saving up enough money to get her restaurant. We learn of her father no longer being alive, which is a little stereotypical to me, but she is still working to accomplish the dream they both had. Tiana and her mother go inside the beat up old property of where her restaurant would be and then she breaks out into her first song of the film. The song “Almost There” has a big impact and basically tells her story. It is a song about how she has no time for other fun activities because she has to keep grinding because she is almost there and almost has what she’s been dreaming of since she was a kid. The line in the song that basically summed up her journey and her attitude was, “There’s been trials and tribulations. I know I’ve had my share, but I’ve climbed the mountain and crossed the river and I’m almost there.” It explains that she has been through a lot, but she has not given up and she is so close. I think this mindset can be related to a lot of black women in the world today. Black women have the same attitude of not giving up and going through rough patches just to get what they want. Being a black woman, they already have it rough because they are a minority racially and they are a woman, so there are multiple barriers to break, which is what Tiana is trying to do. The choreography of this scene is a cartoon version of an already cartoon movie, where it features her restaurant all done up how she dreamed of. 

Fast forward a few minutes and then Prince Naveen is finally arriving in New Orleans in search of a wife. Not too long after his arrival he and his butler are persuaded by Dr. Facilier to see into their futures, but it comes with a price. The price is that the butler got turned into the prince, and the prince got turned into a frog. The song features an African, voodoo type of vibe. We see a variety of bright neon colors, and other african features. The frog prince finally meets Tiana where he finally convinces her to kiss him and she ends up turning into a frog as well. Together they go through a journey to try to get changed back into humans. They meet an alligator named Louis and a cajun firefly named Ray. For the next 45 minutes or so, we are in the bayou of Louisiana and we sit through multiple different songs by all different characters. All of the songs have one thing in common, and that is the moral of the song. All these songs have meaning in them. The song that probably has the most meaning in it is the song by Mama Odie, “Dig A Little Deeper.” It is a song about how Tiana and Naveen need to find out what they really need and now just what they want. This is going to help solve all their problems in life. The moral of the song was that if they find out what they really need in their life, then it is gonna truly lead to their happiness. Since there are no huge dance numbers in this movie, the choreography is a little different. They use butterflies and fireflies to add different effects and they use a lot of bright colors to bring the song alive. In the end of the film, they both figure out that they need each other and that’s it and it turns them back into their human forms. Tiana gets her restaurant and husband, and they all live happily ever after, the end. 

The creators of the songs did a good job to add African American elements to the music. There is a very southern, just black feel to the songs. The cast is mainly full of black people, and black singers at that. So it brings a different feel to the whole movie. The songs are sung with soul and a certain richness. That is what makes this princess movie different from all the rest. It is relatable to the black community and it carries the richness of the black community. I still believe that Disney could have done better with the whole black princess aspect and they could have given her that black girl magic. Overall it was a solid film that introduced the world to its first black Disney princess, and there were a lot of elements that brought out the core of the black community.

“Miss Saigon”: The Role of Power and the Patriarchy


Remy: The Musical Miss Saigon (2016), written by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, portrays a tragic, doomed love story between a young Asian woman (Kim) and a white, American soldier (Chris). The story takes place in Vietnam as the war is going on. With Kim’s parent’s death, her refusal to marry Thuy, and the lack of opportunities for women, Kim has no other choice than to work at Dreamland, a Saigon bar and brothel. As Kim enters this world, she is told that these American soldiers are her ticket to a better life out of Vietnam. The romance seems to be going smoothly between Chris and Kim until he is abruptly forced out of Saigon with his fellow troops, leaving Kim behind when he goes back to America. This is just another way that Kim has power and happiness taken from her. As the play progresses, the powerlessness of the Vietnamese women is increasingly apparent, and the writers create ways to show this in different settings.  

Jansen: An important part to start this discussion is with the opening numbers as they portray the stark contrast between the role men and women play in the society. The second scene, “The Heat is On in Saigon,” takes place in Dreamland and is representative of the viewpoint of the dominant male figures. Men are seen throwing women’s bodies over their shoulders, controlling the movements of women, and simply dictating them. The red lights aid in the seductive feel, where men can take out their fantasies with no repercussions. The soldiers are seen in their uniforms, which inadvertently adds to their strength, power, and rank, especially representing America.  

Remy: I also think the lyrics of “The Heat is On in Saigon” are important to analyze while watching the number. From the beginning of the song, the men talk about the appearance of the women. The second line is “The girls are hotter than hell,” and although that’s a simple remark, it just foreshadows what the rest of the scene will look like as this comment is made extremely early on. It also could be referring to the women being a distraction from the hell they are living in, meaning the women are better than whatever else they would be doing. The women are seen as objects to be won as the Engineer questions the soldiers if they came to win Miss Saigon. John states to Chris, “I’m gonna buy you a girl.” Neither the Engineer nor the Marines have any regard for the women in terms of seeing them as human. They are numbers and prices that are used for pleasure solely. Likewise, the raunchy costumes the women wear work to emphasize the idea of them as objects meant for male utilization. The women are in jeweled bras, heels, and booty shorts, demonstrating their inferiority to the muscular men.   

Jansen: Yes! This juxtaposition is apparent with the interruption of “The Heat is On in Saigon” with “The Movie in my Mind.” This is now told from the woman’s perspective as Gigi sheds light on their feelings on what they do and the society they live in. The slapping of Gigi by the Engineer leads into the song as she sits in a more depressing manner. The lights no longer are red; they have turned into a light white-blue color. The chaos in the back is less apparent as people are moving slower and the women are with the men. Gigi sits with a somber look on her face, and the pain in her voice can be felt as she reaches these higher notes. She sings, “when I make love it won’t be me,” showing the emptiness in what she does. The women turn to prostitution because they see it as the only option; they do not enjoy it or even want to. How would you say the background and choreography contribute to the scene?

Remy: In the background of this number, men are seen aggressively shoving women to the side and forcing their legs open, making the audience feel for the girls while they hear what is being sung. The choreography of this scene is a lot different compared to the previous one due to it being less chaotic. The other shade of lighting takes away from the seductive feel and gives rise to the straight control of the men. Less people are walking around, allowing Gigi and Kim’s facial expressions to be available to the audience. The lack of movement during “The Movie in my Mind” works to the advantage of the women because it allows the audience to take in everything at once. Do you think the setting and props are important throughout the play or just in this scene? 

Jansen: I would say that the design of the stage is an important part of the show. For example, at Dreamland, the amount of props and people on stage creates a hectic feeling; whereas, the scene with the bedroom area is isolated and has a more yellow lighting. The audience can feel the intimacy between the two characters, starting to create this love story aspect. During these peaceful moments, we hear Chris and Kim reveal their feelings for one another. Chris tells Kim what she wants to hear. Chris holds the power. He is her ticket out, and he has her heart in his hands. What do you think? 

Remy: Yes, I agree that the props, background, and number of people on stage helped convey the power of men and overall the weakness of the Vietnamese people, especially women. Another example of how the design furthers the plot is when Thuy dies. When Kim shoots Thuy, everything else on the side of the stage seems to disappear. Everything goes black with white, narrow lightning. The background has rows of military men. This depiction between the body on the ground and the men behind them helps illustrate male power and authority. 

Jansen: I agree, and it was also during this scene that I started to pay attention to the way characters were singing. For example, Thuy was singing in his deepest register, allowing him to convey his power and anger through his voice. Kim and Gigi sang with their mouths wide open and vivid facial expressions of desperation, allowing the audience to see their hopelessness, vulnerability, and Kim’s dependence on Chris. Also, the Engineer always sang with his mouth closed and teeth showing, conveying greed.

Remy: I am glad you mentioned the Engineer because honestly, I am not a big fan of the Engineer. The audience is forced into laughing at him on numerous occasions because of the awkward situations he creates for himself and his vulgar, childish mannerisms. I think this laughter is a result of wanting to fill the silence. In “The American Dream” performance, there were many scenarios where I did not think to laugh, but the audience laughed due to tension. It seemed as though it was an intentional tactic by Schonberg and Boublil to ease tensions in the audience to maintain the enjoyableness of the play. Going along with the male superiority seen in this musical, the fact that the Engineer gets an 11 o’clock number is strange. He is not a character that the audience is dying to hear from, but it represents his desire to steal the stage from those more deserving. 

Jansen: Going off of that, I would say that “The American Dream” was a great representation of the entire musical because it depicted the men’s greed and entitlement, especially the Engineer. The flashing lights, the underdressed showgirls, the gaudy car, the flashy purple suit he had on, and the embarrassingly distasteful choreography was all depicting the greed he had and the sense of entitlement that men in this musical often feel. It was a strange but important performance. 

Remy: Overall, I think the plot of this musical is brilliant. It is not a typical setting or storyline of a musical, but the authors use this idea to convey a message and story to the audience. The musical is male-driven and focuses on the horrible situation these girls are put in and the lack of power they are given in the story. For example, even in moments when Kim should have all the power of a scene, they find a way to give the power back to the men. In the scene where Thuy is trying to take Kim back to marry her to honor their father’s vow, she should have the power to say no, but then Chris pulls out a gun to shift the focus on the conflict between Chris and Thuy. 

Jansen: Another running theme throughout this musical is the power dynamic between the Vietnamese and Americans. It constantly seems like the Vietnamese people are looking to the Americans for them to save them. The Engineer, Kim, Gigi, etc, all wanted to be saved by Americans or go to America. This is similar to the theme of male and female power throughout the musical as well. 

Remy: At the end of the play, Kim put the white gown back on. This was significant because it shows that she relinquished her power again. When Kim was on the run in rag-like clothing, she had some power; however, the dirty, uncomfortable clothes made her seem less feminine in those moments. For example, her clothing when she killed Thuy was filthy and dark versus the white gown she had on in the beginning and end of the musical. This is representative of her lack of power and freedom. Kim shot herself in the white gown in a moment she felt as if she had no control over her life anymore and wanted to end it. 

Jansen: I agree. The point you made and all the points we have made work to convey this larger idea of powerlessness and helplessness in the life of Vietnamese women. It also conveys the greed and controlling nature of the men and the power gap between the Vietnamese and Americans. These are all important things to point out because noticing them helps us fix them.

THE World Famous Podcast takes on West Side Story

A transcript Written by Steve Wang and Megan Walters

West Side Story (1961 film) - Wikipedia
~ The cover photo you all are familiar with and love ~

*This is an audio transcript of an episode of the world-famous podcast Cultural Identity and The American Musical: The Show by renowned hosts Steve Wang and Megan Walters. In this episode, Steve and Megan examine conversations around race and ethnicity with regards to the popular 1961 movie musical West Side Story.* 

S: Good afternoon everybody and welcome to another episode of Cultural Identity and The American Musical: The Show. I’m Steve, and I’m here with my co-host, Megan, to talk about the implications of race and ethnicity as they are portrayed in West Side Story. I think today’s episode is going to be particularly fascinating because as we were preparing, we realized that we had somewhat different interpretations on how ethnicity is presented in this musical. I’d like to start by asking you Megan what you think about how race and ethnicity are presented in West Side Story.

M: Thank you for the intro, Steve! While this musical holds a very dear place in my heart, I found myself analyzing it a bit differently that when I first watched it as a 16-year-old in high school. From the moment they began ‘dance-fighting’ to when each gang would speak of their lives growing up (the sharks with their travels to America and constant deal with racism and poverty and the jets with having difficult home lives), I seem to keep finding more similarities than differences between the two gangs. I’m here today to explain myself a bit better as on the outside, these gangs look like they couldn’t be more different.

S: I think that’s such an interesting take on this topic. From the very beginning it seems very clear that the tension between the two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, isn’t just territorial, but also racial. The Jets are an all-Polish gang and the Sharks are an all-Puerto Rican gang, so if race wasn’t important whatsoever then this separation of ethnicities would not exist. I think the portrayal of these two race-divided gangs are meant to represent the race divides in real life, where white people tend to stick together and alienate people of color, while people of color tend to stick with other people of color of the same race and alienate anyone unlike them, including other people of color. Megan, What do you have to say about this?

M: Of course, there is an obvious racial divide. Rita Moreno, the actress who plays Anita, speaks often in interviews about how they made the jets cast members put on very pale colored make-up and the sharks donned in the same shade of brown. Everyone, regardless of race or natural skin color, had to show visual the extreme racial divide. However, in more recent portrayals of the musical like the Broadway 2009 revival, the racial structure is also portrayed as being more socially constructed. The sharks dress in cooler colors such as blues and greens and the jets dress in warmer colors, such as oranges and reds. You also mentioned that the jets are an all polish gang. This is seen particularly with Tony when he makes a passing comment to Riff, “With an American, who is really a Polack!” This also shows that there is also some immigration history within the jets and they not ‘oh so above’ the Puerto Ricans who moved to America as well. I did some research on Polish Immigration history and found that Polish Immigrant weren’t even considered ‘white’ until the mid-1900’s. So, had the story taken place just another fifty years earlier, it can be speculated that the jets would be in the position that the sharks are in at the start of the musical. Not considered ‘truly American’, untrustworthy, and not worthy of belonging. So yes, there is a racial divide, but I believe it to be a lot more social and a series of misunderstandings than just purely racial.

S: Thank you for the input Megan. Going on, I wanted to mention the choreography to the plot of the musical. It seems to me that West Side Story is mostly about how the differences in race and ethnicity of these two gangs drive them apart from each other. I want to take a look at the dance number, “Dance at the Gym,” where Maria and Tony first meet each other. This is one of the clearest instances of the divide between the Jets and the Sharks in the show. Even when they are set up to be paired with the opposite gang for the dance, they go back to their original gangs and dance in a competition against each other. The Sharks wear traditional Latin outfits and dance traditional Latin dances, while the Jets wear more American outfits and dance with very sharp and rigid movements, as if fighting the Sharks. Is this a more social or racial divide between the two gangs?

M: I definitely feel like this is more of a social divide. They want to hang out and be with their friends and what more of an awkward time to shake things up than a dance? They don’t want to fight or think about the people they hate; dancing is a time to be together with their girlfriends and boyfriends and socialize. So, when outside people come in and force them to dance with other people that are very different from them and they inherently do not like because they are different, of course not only are they going to be reluctant, they are going to be upset and angry. They are teenagers and do not like being told what to do either. Defiance is a part of their lifestyle at the moment. I believe the scene would end in a brawl regardless if Maria and Tony kissed or not.

S: I think that’s a fair point to make Megan. Even though race is an issue, there are also environmental and social factors happening that contribute to each gangs actions. I now want to talk about the musical number “America.” To me, this number very clearly represents a dichotomy between immigrants of color and white Americans in terms of how they view America through the perspective of the Sharks. The women in this number sing about a very naïve and idealistic view of what life in America is like, as if to pursue the “American dream,” while the men counter the women with more cynical views on what living in America is like due to the fact that they are Puerto Rican. I also find it ironic that the instrumentation of a song about America starts off sounding very Latin, with the use of the Spanish guitar. As the song progresses, the Latin sound gets lost, almost as a metaphor for colonialism.

M: I like that you brought up the music and how it affects the story. However, I always thought of the song America as a dialogue between the two contrasting views. Anita begins the song talking about how bad life was in Puerto Rico with the “population growing, the money owing,’ and how hot it was. She cries, ‘let it sinks back in the ocean!’ and while they bring up only the positives in their new American life, it also shows how unhappy the women were in their old life. And while the men are correct, that life is also difficult here, no one truly wins at the end of the song. It is a dialogue about how ‘the grass will always look greener on the other side’ and that hardships are a part of life no matter where you go. You also mentioned that the song becomes less Latin as it moves along but I’d like to make the argument otherwise. As someone who had the chance to play the music to West Side Story a few times my senior year of high school, the song’s overall groove remains more Latin than America with its compound rhythms. You can count it out even as you listen to it! One! One! One, Two, Three! One! One! One, Two, Three!

American music is known for also using compound rhythms but that is because it is originally derived from Latin American sambas and marches and was not held in high regard until the early 21st Century. American music is also known for sound very open, using chords that are major and songs that travel to the perfect fifth and down again to the root, or the bottom of the chord. ‘America’ is crunchy, the chords are close together and rather than a perfect, open fifth, there is a strong usage of going to the fourth note in the scale rather than the fifth. It’s overall, not fully American sounding; there’s too strong of a Latin presence within the piece. The compound rhythms are too compound and the notes are too close to each other to have that open, freeing feel to it. I’m going to link Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, a classic example of ‘American’ music, and then ‘America’. They sound similar due to being written around the same time and both are written by American composers; but the argument stands, the Latin is not being erased from the Puerto Ricans even if they tried.

S: I think that is a really important point to make Megan. I didn’t know that about music either, really. We’re going to wrap it up here, but there is one more thing I wanted to discuss. I think the final scene that I want to make note of is the ending scene, after Riff, Bernardo, and Tony die. 

M: Where Maria looks at them and says how many more must die while she is holding the gun? Yes, that is a great scene to talk about! A lot has happened in the second act and all of it stems from miscommunication, a common theme throughout the musical really. I really want to bring up this other point from another song. You mentioned ‘America’, but I also want to talk about “Gee, Officer Krupke!’ The song is comedic and arguably the 11 o’clock number. It’s about how messed up all the boys are in the jets and how they ended up in a gang in the first place. And while they are primarily joking, I strongly feel like there is some truth to it. Riff plays different characters and explains what would happen to him if he actually got sent to jail. He is tossed around from mental hospital, to psychologist, to school, and back to jail. Different people blame him for being messed up and overall, not normal. The song with an almost f*ck (Krup you) you to the police officer as he is overwhelmed by the emotions that go into the song. This is particularly when I started making the connections between the jets and sharks. While they are inherently different in race and culture. Both of them come from very hard places where the usual world find them too difficult to love so they end up on the streets fighting over territory and creating disagreements where they don’t need to be. Because the world, America, in this sense, has left them behind and given them no other options. Even though the jets are white and appear to have less hardship, in this comedic song, they speak of parents who are drug addicts and don’t want them or are abusive. Without guidance for how to grow up properly, they are stuck being uneducated and without the skills to hold a job. However, even thought the Puerto Ricans are also poor, they still have their family to hold on to and are also able to find work in places that will take them. In the end, while yes, the sharks and jets are different, I also see that both groups are impoverished see fighting over territory as their only way to pass the time. This brings me back to the ending of the story, when Maria begs the question, “How many more must die?” I don’t think that is a question for the survivors of the rumble, but for the American system. The system that leaves people who are strangers to this country on the outside for generations and only when they learn to bring others down that they become integrated able to achieve the ‘American Dream.’ The musical ends in a tragedy, but with a lesson to be learned about misunderstandings and differences and what happens when they are not resolved. Perhaps if the jets had not seen the Puerto Ricans as a threat to their territory, neither of the groups would be as poor or miserable.

And with that, we are going to end our podcast. We hope you enjoyed our discussion of our different takes on this classic story.

The West Side Story and Us

by Donald Fitzgerald, Devin Boddie, Nate Cliffton, Will Shepard.

As four Black Student-Athletes, we examine in an Interview style how this musical “The west side story” affects us in our society today. In terms of what we see and feel.

  • Will’s Question: What are some of the cultural differences between the Sharks and Jets, and what were some of the issues between the two gangs. 
    • Nate’s Answer: The Sharks consist of Puerto Ricans that immigrated from their home country. Seeking a better life for themselves and their people, the Sharks’ families transferred over to America. However, they still hold on to their cultural values. For example, simply by seeing the Sharks attire a person can tell they are foreigners. In our introduction to Maria, she is very fond of a dress that Anita created for her. The colors alone almost resemble the Puerto Rican flag. Furthermore, you can see that the Sharks hold on to their cultural values through their dances. In the musical number “America”, both the ladies and gentlemen present choreographed movements that resemble their home country. On the other hand, the Jets showcase a culture of a regular, caucasion American. Growing up in the west side of New York their entire lives, they only know the American way and values. Throughout the song “Dance at the Gym”, viewers could see the Jets performance that any typical American would recognize. Now speaking on the issues between the two groups, I believe it resembles the struggle we see today. It seems to me that the Jets have a problem with another group of people moving into their territory”. Because they are foreigners, they must be removed from the premises. Across social media, I see all the time that Americans have problems with immigrants moving into this country because they do not know the American values. “The West Side Story ” did an excellent job representing real life problems into their musical. 
    • Donald’s Answer: The jets view themselves as the true citizens of this country and any other immigrants don’t have any power in their country. They view them as different and because of that they cant co-exist, if they were  white i am pretty sure this wouldn’t have escalated to where it involved killing members of each gangs.Also the song “America” where the guys and ladies of the sharks compare the difference between Puerto Rico and American, they pointed out what makes America different from their home country. Their issue was about territory as the jets want nothing to do with the sharks and doesn’t want them around their territory. Overall their main difference is the color of their skin, race is a big divider and has been for years past and will continue to be the same.
    • Devin’s Answer:  In Westside Story the two rival gangs were the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets were an American teenage gang that originated in the streets of New York City. Their rivals were the Sharks, a Puerto Rican teenage gang full of teenagers who moved to the United States. The origin for the two gangs automatically creates major cultural differences and ways of life. Being that the Sharks and Jets were from two different cultures in the Westside Story we can notice different traditions, music, clothing, etc. I also believe that the gangs had a different amount of power and privilege in America due to the race of the gangs. The Sharks were more prone to racism in America and would receive the worst treatment from the police department in New York before the Jets.The main issue between the gang was that the Jets did not like the Sharks moving into “their streets” and wanted to put them away.  
  • Devin’s Question: How does the gang culture portrayed in the movie relate to present day gang culture in the United States? 
    • Nate’s Answer: Luckily for me, I did not grow up in an environment that gang culture affected my upbringing. Though I was born in Chicago, a place that is notorious for its violence, my mother decided it was best for our family to move when I was at a young age. Even though I haven’t had a direct relationship with gang culture, I’ve still had a family member that was raised in such conditions. I had a half brother named Willie Curtis Clifton. We called him Curtis because my father’s name was Willie. In December of 2015, he was shot and killed during a drive-by shooting. I do not know exactly if Curtis was involved in gang activity. However, I do know that it was a gang member that shot and killed my brother. Gang culture does not come without violence. For many in today’s gangs, the initiation is to get jumped by the other gang members. If you endure this beating, you are strong enough to join the group. This introduction into a gang is very similar to the introduction of “The West Side Story”. Viewers’ first impression of the musical is two gangs fighting over territory. One member of the Jets is hit hard enough to cause bleeding. The violence does not stop the entire movie. At the end of the film, the body count totals up to three people. The reason for the final murder of Tony was because he killed Bernardo in a fit of age. A core of gang culture, in both present day America and in the film, is to get revenge. If a member of the gang is killed by another rival gang, someone on the other side must die as well. You hear this mentality all the time in today’s rap music. I’ve heard countless songs state lyrics along the lines of, “If they kill one of us, we kill two of them.” Gangs going back and forth with this mindset create non-stop violence. Lastly, another core principle of gangs in today’s culture and in the film is toughness. Riff was the gang leader of the Jets. In the rumble, he was killed by the rival gang leader, Bernardo. In the scenes after the fight, viewers see Baby John trying his best not to cry. He had to completely remove himself from the rest of the Jets to let his tears flow. Even though one of his closest friends was murdered, it is shunned upon to show emotion in gang culture. The same virtues hold true today. Emotions are considered a weakness in present gang culture. You never hear about the feelings of the friends of a murdered individual. Instead, you hear the acts of violence done in retaliation.
    • Donald’s Answer: Gangs still exist and even though this movie was made a long time ago, we still see the very same thing happening today on an everyday basis. Everyday we turn on the news it’s another senseless killing of people by their rival gangs or turfs. The only difference between the gangs in the movie and the gangs now is the readily and easily accessible guns of different kinds.its also creates this mind set that being in a gang is about violence and fighting and that its only for males as we saw when a girl wanted to join but she was pushed away and told to go do some girly stuff like her sister. The race factor is always constant as back then it was mostly race gangs but in our present society we see gangs of the same race attacking each other and fighting over grounds. Now gang have a negative connotation to its name as everyone thinks you are a reckless person if you say you’re in a gang as the word has been associated with bad things.
    • Will’s Answer: In today’s world, we still can see the Gang culture has changed a lot, but there are still similarities between the movie’s gang culture and present day culture. Starting out, I think there are slightly more differences than there are similarities. To start, I think that gangs today are extremely less organized. Today we have teenagers and such that are going out and fake joining gangs and doing their own things. I’ve seen in documentaries and interviews of former current day gang members that back in the day they used to be organized and smart about what they do, and they were together like a family. You can see these same principles in the musical in that each gang bands together to form a mini family and they protect each other, and plan things out together. We can see in numerous different acts the groups travelling together, meeting together, and even when they are travelling somewhere, they all appear out of nowhere and band together. The gangs back in the musical were not associated necessarily with bad things. They were more of hoodlums and just groups of friends. In today’s gang culture, when you hear the word gang, it automatically gets a negative connotation. Gangs today are defined as thugs and bad people. 
  • Donald’s Question: As the shark ladies sang the song “America” and sang about all the good things in America, is that what we see today as minorities? 
    • Nate’s Answer: By living in the United States of America my entire life, I have come to know that this country prides itself on being the “freest country in the world”. America’s government and loyal citizens tell themselves that this is the best country to be in. According to them, living here gives you the chance to reach dreams you may have never gotten the chance to see anywhere else. As a matter of fact, a nickname for this country is “the land of opportunity”. In the “West Side Story” the group of Puerto Ricans living in New York immigrated there believing that this will lead to having a better life for themselves. In the song “America”, Anita and her friends express to Bernado and the boys that moving to America was better than staying in Puerto Rico. The entire musical number is a back and forth exchange between Anita and Bernado communicating the pros and cons of each country. Now answering the question, I believe what the shark ladies stated is correct. However, I also believe what Bernardo said is right as well. First off, to Anita’s point, America can offer a mass variety of opportunities for its citizens. The U.S. has been the reason many have risen to their highest desires. One of the words spoken by Anita is, “Everything free in America”. This is more or less true. Any person no matter the race, ethnicity, or sex can all acquire the same goods. However, the difficulty to access such goods do differ upon a variety of factors. Being a white male in America is the easiest position to be in this country. Bernardo understands this dynamic. In the banter between the couple, Anita states, “Lots of new housing with more space,”. Bernardo’s response: “Lots of doors slamming in our face”. The word “our” symbolizes his fellow Puerto Ricans in America. Because this country was not built to benefit them, minorities have additional factors to face on a daily basis than Caucasion Americans. For example, one of those is the police force. In the opening scene of the musical, Lieutenant Schrank forced the Sharks, consisting of Puerto Ricans, to go home instead of the Jets. The same thing happened after the war counsel in later scenes. Even though it looked like the two gangs were being friendly, the officer forced the Sharks to go home instead of the Jets. In conclusion, I believe both what Anita and Bernardo stated were right in their own ways. America does offer great chances for success, but it is more difficult based on your race and ethnicity. 
    • Wills Answer: The song “America”, which is sung by the Shark men and women, is a back and forth sound about the pros and cons of life in America vs life in Puerto Rico. The musical number is led by Bernando and Anita. Anita and her girls express that moving to America was a good idea and that life will be better for them there, while Bernando and his boys are arguing the opposite, and saying that life back in Puerto Rico is better and life in America will only be harder. I do believe that some of the things that the women were singing about are true, but I also agree with Bernando in a lot of the things he mentioned. The big one was when Anita said, “Lots of new housing with more space”, and Bernando retaliated with, “Lots of doors slamming in our face.” I think Bernandos claim strongly relates with what minorities deal with today. I think the slamming of doors in our face can be interpreted literally and figuratively. I think that minorities today don’t receive the same chances and opportunities as non minorities, such as the Jets do in the film. The color of your skin, or your ethnicity strongly holds you back a lot of times in today’s America. This brings me to the next point about how America can be unfair towards minorities. When the two gangs were wrestling and fighting, the police officers came and they forced the Sharks to leave instead of the Jets. Throughout the whole film the detective refers to the Sharks as all kinds of different bad things. On the other hand, Anita was right about some things, in that the United States can opper great amounts of opportunities for immigrants and minorities. Life can be easier in America for minorities in the film and in the present day, but it also comes with its cons. 
    • Devin’s Answer: The “American” song in Westside Story was performed by the Sharks from Puerto Rico. By the title of the song it is easy to expect the foreigners to talk about their experiences in America. Anita expresses her love for America along with women while the Puerto Rican men spoke about the bad things that America offered towards their race. I found that to be relatable in a sense with me being a part of a minority race as a male. I don’t think that minority women don’t have struggles in America but I think that men in minority groups go through worse circumstances depending on the matter. The overall point that Anita was making was about all of the great opportunities that America has to offer while the men expressed how hard it is to achieve those goals being a minority in America. I believe this to be true wil this day in America as it is not easy for minority races to achieve success while it is a great opportunity in America for wealth. 
  • Nate’s Question: Why was Tony’s death the peacemaker? Before the shooting, both sides had one man who passed away, but Tony’s was the final straw. Why was his passing the reason the White Americans and the Puerto Ricans made peace?
    • Donald’s Answer: Tony death was the peacemaker in the sense that someone white has to die in order to bring peace. It reminds me of the white savior mentality that has been around for years, that in order for peace to occur someone must save them, a savior preferably white a perfect example is Jesus Christ and how he was said to be white yet history has proven this isn’t the case. I believe that now the Puerto Ricans will see the white guys as saviors because one more of their people died. Now the Puerto Ricans will feel indebted to the jets.
    • Will’s Answer: The death of Tony ended up being the peacekeeper because it made them realize that all of this was not necessary. It took a non gang member dying for them to realize that. Tony was only trying to make things better and stop the feud between the two gangs. Both sides had a member of their gang end up dead in the rumble, but because it was members of their own the tension grew worse. Because Tony wasn’t technically in a gang, him getting shot made the gangs look at themselves and think about what they’ve done and all that has happened. Nobody was meant to get hurt in the first place. Once police arrive, the Jets and Sharks both help each other carry Tony’s body away, symbolizing that the feud was over. 
    • Devin’s Answer:  Tony’s death in Westside Story was the sad ending that viewers and the actors showed sympathy for. The deaths of Riff and Bernado were not peacemakers, instead they created more tension between the gangs. The Jets and Sharks looked back on their actions and saw that Tony died because of gang retaliation even though he was not a gang member. You can see both the Jets and Shark help carry Tony’s body after he was shot by Chino. This was the first scene that you would see the gangs help eachother out in the movie. I believe seeing the two gangs help carry Tony’s body was the peacemaker scene and they all came together to understand that their issues were not worth Tony’s death. 

“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.

Essay 1:Identity on the Musical Stage

So far this semester we have watched a couple of musicals that I find interest in. The two that I will talk about today is The Newsies and The Prom, because both of the films showcase identity on a musical stage. There is an LGBTQ+ image on this blog because of the character Emma from The Prom, who was a lesbian high school student who was treated unfairly by her environment because of “her life choices”. In todays society, I believe there is more acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community especially here at Vanderbilt University. Although there are many places in the country that have people with different mindsets, in which the film showed Indiana to be a state where lesbians are discriminated. The music authors did a great job with aligning the lyrics to Emma’s adversity she was facing at school. In the film Newsies the character Jack Kelley showed masculinity throughout the performance of songs and acting. The songs Seize the day and Santa Fe performances demonstrated the stereotypes of men being tough characters.

The Prom’s main character Emma started her first song of the musical saying, “note to self don’t be gay in Indiana”. She said this right after seeing a girl she was attracted to in the hallway that looked at her seductive. She said this looking nervous and putting her head down slightly and a lower tone of voice. This showed the resistance of being open with sexuality to people who against gay people. That first lyric ultimately shaped the tone for the rest of the film and gave a glimpse of the circumstances she was going through in her environment. Her school James-Madison High school was approaching their prom and the principle Mrs. Greene made it clear that the school would not allow students of the same sex to go to prom together. Emma did not like this approach and wanted to be able bring a girl along with her to prom. This caused a problem that the nation would hear about and bring reporters from different states to take heed to the matter in Indiana. There was an obvious low acceptance from her peers at school and the parents of students. The character Nick told Emma, “Why don’t you exchange her with a guy”, when talking about a foreign exchange student she was planning to bring to prom. Nick said it alongside another male friend with smiles on their faces in a taunting manner. Emma had an open mouth and an embarrassed facial expression especially with this encounter being right after getting out the pool. It seemed to be a situation where a straight man wanted to flirt with a lesbian women seeing her in a swimsuit, which can qualify as sexual harassment at the high school. It was clear that Emma was bullied at the school and simply because her sexuality, there is a scene where Emma is getting balls thrown at her by a group of girls for the song name Just Breath.

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.

Stereotypes Within The Prom

Will Sheppard

Ryan Murphy’s version of The Prom, which is basically hidden in the depths of Netflix, is an attempt at taking down issues of the LGBTQ community. This becomes problematic because of the gender and sexuality stereotypes within, as they ultimately took over the goal as a whole. We start off the musical In New York, where we meet: Dee Dee Allen, Trent Oliver, Angie Dickson, and Barry Glickman singing in unison about how they are going to clear their names by doing a good deed basically. We then are in Edgewater, Indiana where prom for the local high school has been cancelled becasue of a single homosexual student. Indiana is portrayed within the musical as the most homosexual state possible. We then meet Emma, one of the main characters, who is being bullied and harassed for being homosexual. We then go through many songs and choreographed dances where the big 4 go through the efforts of getting prom back and creating a more accepting town. There are ups and downs and we learn more and more about each character. In the end Emma ends up getting her prom and relationships were formed that had been ready for formation. Throughout the two plus hours of musical time, there were a variety of issues. Even though The Prom intended to take down LGTBQ issues, there were stereotypes within the character Barry Glickman specifically which distracted us from the overall message. 

To start off, Barry Glickman, portrayed by James Corden, was shown as what most would consider a stereotypical gay person. He was a little bit on the extra side, used excessive hand gestures and movements of his body, loved to shop, said stereotypical expressions and phrases, and was more feminine, especially with his wardrobe choices. We notice in his dress the more feminine touch it has to it with the vibrant colors and the scarfs he wears all the time. When it comes time to get a dress for Emma, he automatically, without hesitation assumes the role of going shopping at the mall with her. It is almost like because he is gay, he must have good fashion sense and he has to be the one to go shopping. I also feel like Corden when he took the role of being a gay man, didnt know how to portray a gay man being that he is straight, so he went on what he knows. That being mainly stereotypes. He most likely feels as if he is doing a good job playing a gay man when really he is almost doing the opposite. 

One thing that confused me is the casting selection. James Corden is a straight man who was casted and selected to play the role of a gay man. Meanwhile, we have Andrew Rannells, who is actually a gay man outside of the musical, but he is casted and selected to play a straight man. I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t flip the roles of the two so that the characterization would flow more smoothly. Had Corden played as the straight man, then we more than likely wouldnt have seen a stereotypical gay on screen. If they had chosen Andrew Rannalls then the character Barry’s gayness wouldn’t have seemed so forced. The only reasoning I can think about that makes sense to this decision making is that it was purposely done. This might have been done purposely to give straight people a chance to interact, because it leans into all types of stereotypes to make the characters seem more understandable. I think it makes the viewer look at the characters and really get to understand them, and realize why they’re doing the things they are doing. Such as why Corden is acting the way he is acting. 

I feel as if there is an obvious storyline and plot issue as well. We have a gay girl, Emma, and she is being discriminated against by her peers and community, and of course the one leading the charge against her is her secret girlfriend, Alyssa’s,  mother. The mother, Mrs. Greene, is the PTA leader and the main one trying to keep Emma away from everyone else and she is the main one being discriminatory against her. Of course her daughter would happen to be gay as well and she had no idea. Alyssa and Emma go through their struggles of Alyssa being scared to come out and then she finally does at the end and Mrs. Greene storms off in disappointment and shock. Only to come back and embrace her daughter and change her views. It is a pretty boring and obvious plot, kind of like a high school kid was given an assignment to write a plot to a musical.  

Then we have Principle Hawkins’ physically representing a masculine stereotype, but his actions and behaviors go against these stereotypes. We see him dress in only suits and  he is the sole authority of the school. He also wears a beard on his face. We witness him almost fangirl when he first gets to meet Dee Dee Allen. When they talk she is surprised to find out how big of a fan of musical theatre is, as the majority of her support comes from gay men. She refers to him as not fitting the demographic. Principal Hawkins is not afraid to admit his love for Broadway and theatre, which you wouldn’t think based on his physical appearance. He sings in song later in the musical to Dee Dee where he expresses what musical theatre means to him, and we see a different side to a straight male character that normally does not show up within any other film. 

The Prom has a plethora of different representations of gender roles and typical character stereotypes. Although I believe actors such as Corden may have taken the role too far from a stereotypical point of view, I also believe that it helped me understand the character more. His overdoing helped me to know more about his character. There are scenes and characterization that could have been done way better, yes, but these gender stereotypes were also challenged. We can see this with Principle Hawkins’ and how his physical appearance does not necessarily match the person he is within. I think there are changes in the narrative that are good for the musical and that give the viewer a different feel when watching.


BY Donny

Probably the best cinderella movie I have seen to date, why you might ask? Because it is inclusive. Anyone watching it in the United States or anywhere can relate to the actors in the show because of how diverse they are. I am not a big fan of theater shows, but because of the inclusivity of cinderella, I watched it till the end and enjoyed it. Would I show this movie to my future kids (if I ever have some) definitely! I will want to show them how movies should be like, after that they can watch the rest of the cinderella movies that are out there by themselves if they want to . But them seeing cinderella done in a color-blind casting so that they can understand that beauty is not only one color.

Like every good movie there’s always an even better critique, just as Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro said in her article How to love Problematic Culture “you can criticize and love pop culture”. I love this Cinderella movie so I am going to critique what I thought could have been done better. The blind casting was an amazing idea, I totally loved this movie because of it, but I felt like the production cast of this movie was trying to be extra inclusive to reach a broader audience that made it weird in a way. Cinderella family and even the prince family have a mixed combination of races that don’t sit well with me. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a musical fantasy that’s why it doesn’t matter, or I am just looking at it from a movie standpoint. Maybe a should start watching more musicals.

I should also mention that the fairy godmother being black also caught me by surprise. I was astounded! like has there ever being a black fairy godmother in movies or even in cartoons? They did a great job making sure that cinderella had someone that looked like her as her fairy godmother, also killed it with their amazing vocals.
Overall I think it was a good musical and if I was to rate it for me it would be an 8/10.

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.

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.

Prince Christopher is the definition of charisma. Right?

I am guilty!

In this progressive era of gender and sexuality reform I enjoy TV shows, movies, and musicals that frame characters in the traditional gender roles. While they might not be malice in a vacuum, social reformists definitely have the grounds to argue that popular entertainment is affirming stereotypical roles. 

Walt Disney Television revamped the famous French fairytale by Charles Perault in the late 1990s. Directed by Robert Iscove and written by Robert L. Freedmen, they modernized the musical by trying to tinker Cinderella into a stronger heroine to appeal to contemporary audiences. The executive producers (Whitney Houston, Deborah Martin Chase, Niel Meron, mike motor, Chris Montan and David R.Ginsberg) deserve praise for their choice to use color blind casting at that era. It is indisputably progressive and ambitious for Walt Disney to cast in such a way. Credit should be given even though in the 2021 society we see color blind as a form of bias and inherent racism.

In Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997), Paolo Montalban plays the role of Prince Christopher. Also just as worthy of a mention, Brandy plays Cinderella as the opposing role. Although both characters have much to be analyzed from a contemporary view. Ultimately, I believe there is much more analysis and criticism already existing on Brandy. 

The first sight of prince Christopher is at minute five of the musical where he seems to be smelling flowers and appreciating the common market place. There’s also an interaction with a woman where he gives a flower to her to conclude a conflict. Since his role in this movie is to be a charismatic gentleman. The first scene must reinforce that idea and shows his caring personality with the act of giving a beautiful flower to a random person to brighten up their day. Similarly another cliché interaction happens between Cinderella and Prince Christopher where Cinderella is hit down by a carriage and prince Christopher immediately helps her gather the fallen items. Obviously those acts of kindness or in general benefits society but repetitively in the cinematic universe it’s been played to create this idea that to be a gentleman these are the types of gestures that must be made. 

Despite my criticism, this 1997 version creates a more balanced power dynamic between Cinderella and Prince Christopher in relation to the past versions. In an older Cinderella script, the first scene of the musical is “battle with the Giants” where there is a lot of violent interaction between a crowd of knights and a giant. This obviously just displays the fearless, powerful and dominant quality of the prince which further reinforces the stereotype of traditional strong men. Where as of Cinderella 1997, the two are portrayed more as teenagers lost and stumbling around for something. 

Paolo Montalban’s personal choice of his physical stance throughout this scene creates more of a feminine characteristic of the prince. Whether not he chose to smell the flower or if it was already written in the script the way that he was walking with his elbows in and with short conserved strides sets that feminine atmosphere. In contrast with Paolo Montalban’s choice of a more aggressive and masculine stance in his role of Kung Lao in Mortal Kombat. He usually had his chest puffed up and elbows distanced away from his torso to create a bigger and more aggressive figure. That fine detail is more representative of the current dynamic where warfare and physical dominance is not an appropriate or usual sign of male traits. 

Furthermore the costume of prince Christopher throughout the musical is never seen to be wearing endorsed with any weapons. Which is a great difference from the other musicals or show’s portrayal of a masculine royalty. It definitely decreases the physical aggressiveness of the prince by using a costume choice. I personally appreciate this change because it decreases the opportunity where a person would make the connection from the presence of a sword to the weakness of the female counterpart for needing physical protection against “bad guys”.

In the magical moment where the prince lays his eyes on Cinderella there is a break in continuity on gentlemen like behavior acceptable by today’s standard. There is a short exchange between the two characters before they start dancing. In a finer detail, the prince said hello and proceeded to grab a hold of Cinderella‘s chin and lift her up while she was doing a curtsey without the usual courteous “May I have a dance with you?” It is true that the ball is made for him and the people there have the sole purpose of dancing and getting married to him. But that expectation is exactly what should be avoided being imprinted in younger children’s minds (also unavoidable since the setting and plot of the movie is surrounded around medieval royalties).

To continue this arc of courtmanship, after the night of the ball, Prince Christopher is seen being questioned by both his mother and father about his opinion on Cinderella. Although it was his mother asking questions in song, prince Christopher decides to seek approval from the king. Ignoring his mother who they were originally having a conversation with. Ending the discussion, the king gave permission to find the girl with every possible resource and marry her. Although it is always nice to have confidence. But, Prince Christopher is never seen contemplating whether or not he will gain approval or consent from Cinderella. Of course this is a fairy tale poorly representing what real life expectations are like. The ambience at the conclusion of the musical is Prince Christopher’s action to marry Cinderella rescues her from the life of misery. The above ideas are very theatrical and not very possible in real life. And would be shunned by activists today if it were to occur under any other circumstance than fairytales

In this very and only heterosexual musical, The plot follows a very patriarchal world we are by nature it is unable to escape that gender that preset gender dynamic. But through writers and actors production choices there is more of an equal gender power dynamic with the use of feminine details in the role of Prince Christopher. In the fragile world of sexuality and gender fluidity activism. I believe people can appreciate the progressivism by Walt Disney before the turn of the 21 century.

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.

The Modernized Cinderella

Nate Clifton

The story of Cinderella has been remade numerous of times. Since its first Disney animated version dating back to 1950, a total of twelve other remakes have been released, one even being televised this year. Personally, I grew up with the original edition. Even though it had been about for over half a century by the time I was born, its social impact carried on for over all those years. Anyone with eyes could tell you who Cinderella was by simply seeing her glass slippers. I vividly remember long road trips from when I was a toddler and this exceptional film being played from the car’s TV. So you’d understand my excitement when I was given the opportunity to watch a remake of this story.

The 1997 version of Cinderella was composed by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, directed by Robert Iscove, and came to life through prominent actors such as Brandy, Whitney Houston, and Whoopi Goldberg. The story stays in its traditional course with Cinderella, performed by Brandy, falling in love with the Prince of her kingdom. However, Brandy’s Cinderella is the key contributor to what makes this film truly amazing. Through her astonishing singing, her intriguing lyrics, and her dialogue with other characters, Brandy interrupts the status-quo that other women present. Instead of being the stereotypical girl who is petite and has their every need taken care of for them, Brandy simply wishes to be treated as a regular human.

We are first introduced to Brandy’s character in the setting of a marketplace. In this musical number, “The Sweetest Sounds,” Cinderella sings to her heart’s content about true love that is somewhere out there waiting for her. The upbeat tone in her voice drowns out the insults that her sisters hurl at her. In the middle of her number, one of them state, “Have you ever seen such a lazy girl in your life?” Despite her literally carrying their entire family’s shopping expenses, Cinderella continues on with her song. Already, Brandy breaks what a traditional woman would do in this setting. In this society, the girl is the prize. They take special care of their clothing and beauty to be appealing to men. However, she’s doing quite the opposite. While her sisters and step-mother are dressed in elegant dresses, Cinderella is wearing old, tattered garments. Despite this fact, she continues to sing all across the marketplace as if no one else is present. In the same musical act, she is late joined by the Prince played by Paolo Montalban. Instead of overtaking her melody, Brandy continues to perform right alongside him. Men usually get first priority to everything. In typical circumstances, they speak first. However, Brandy sets her own rules. Though they are practically inches away from each other while singing, both Brandy and the Prince shuffle while looking towards the heavens telling about their wildest dreams of love. At the end of their number, the Prince is without a doubt enraptured by the beauty of Cinderella. Following her across the marketplace, he is practically begging to know more about her. Instead of succumbing to his wishes, Brandy actually moves away from the man. If it was any other woman that the Prince was interacting with in his kingdom, they’d be throwing themselves at him. However, in this case, Brandy is the one being chased. When he states that a girl should be treated like a princess, Brandy responds with, “No. Like a person with kindness and respect.” She does not wish to be a man’s prized possession. She simply wants appreciation for being another human being.

“In my Own Little Corner” is by far my favorite musical number from this film. By the fire is Cinderella’s only quite place in the entire house she resides in. Because it is not by no means pretty and fancy, none of their relatives dare to venture into her private area. However, this does not stop them from yelling from upstairs to demand something from Cinderella. Here, Brandy tells of all her dreams that she wish could come true. The music completely matches the rhythm of Brandy’s singing. In one particular line, Cinderella wishes to be hunting on an African safari. The music does its job very well by seemingly placing watchers onto the campus of Africa as well. In this image, Brandy points her “gun” as if she was actually hunting. While her sisters are getting their beauty rest to be presentable for the Prince at the ball, Cinderella is vividly acting out her imagination. Their thoughts are on their appearance. Brandy does not have a care in the world for such a superficial thing. Her world does not revolve around men. She has goals and dreams that she wants to accomplish that would bring her joy in their own regard.

It is official that I have a new favorite version of Cinderella. Brandy’s character is one that breaks gender norms. Her character is one that is not afraid to speak her mind. Her character is very different from the version of Cinderella that I grew up with. She exemplifies everything that a women in today’s time would be proud of.

Stereotypes Imbedded Into Barry Glickman; The Prom

    The musical The Prom, Ryan Murphy’s version, was an attempt at tackling larger scale issues of the LGBT+ community; however, the gender stereotypes embedded in it slowly took away from the message. The musical starts off with four broadway stars: Dee Dee Allen, Barry Glickman, Trent Oliver, and Angie Dickson, who all attempt to clear their name by working for a cause. They travel to Edgewater, Indiana, where a prom is being canceled as result of a teenager being homosexual. Emma experiences intense bullying by her peers as they place items in her lockers with notes and hold a private prom, not including her. Eventually, in the end, there is a school prom with everyone and the main characters all end up in a relationship they were longing for, like Barry and his mother, Emma and her girlfriend (Alyssa), and Alyssa and her mom. However, as all of this is taking place, the four broadway stars still find a way to make every situation about themselves. The storyline and the casting of actors causes the scenes to not reflect Emma and her hardships. Although the musical The Prom was intended to tackle the issues striking the LGBT+ community, stereotypes are built into the formation of Barry Glickman and heteronormative belief is proved to be dominant. 

    First and foremost, the character Barry Glinkman was created based off “gay” stereotypes. He was excessively flamboyant, loved shopping, used hand gestures majority of the time, and had a feminine touch to his clothing. Barry’s mannerisms and affectations took away from the relatability of him and further caused a disconnect. The reason why these stereotypes were generated were due in large part to the choice of casting for the role. Barry Glinkman was played by a heterosexual male, James Corden. Corden tried too hard to seem as though he was homosexual that he ended up just perpetuating the common stereotypes following gay men today. Also, he brought no real-life experience or pain into the role. Corden could not relate to his character or the struggles the character would go through. This is shown when Barry and Emma’s grandma are at the dining room table, and he says “I left before they could do that,” before they could kick him out. While saying this, the pain in his voice is not there. His voice is more high pitched, and he tries too hard to incorporate certain mannerisms. The issue was, in real life, he has never had to come out to someone and does not know the fear of doing so. Furthermore, James Corden picked the moments he wanted to be more flamboyant, raise his voice, and emphasize a hand gesture. It wasn’t built into the character’s personality, and when this happened, it took away from the message each scene was trying to convey.  An example of this is when Barry and Emma are in her living room talking about his prom and her prom. He flashes his hand out when he says, “And I promise you are going to have the night of your life.” At night and life, he moves his hand out in a downward pattern that emphasizes those two words. Personally, I saw this part as unnecessary and ultimately distracting. I was paying more attention to the bad acting and the stereotypes going on then Emma’s story. After Barry says that, he starts to lean back on the couch and asks what her date is wearing. It looks as though he “forgot” to do a hand gesture because he jolts his arm out quickly and stops leaning back into the couch just to do that. These gestures weren’t natural, and they were also based off how people think a typical gay man behaves and should behave. 

    The lyrics and the choreography in Barry Glickman’s two main songs, “Barry is Going to Prom” and “Tonight Belongs to You”, continously demonstrate “gay” stereotypes in Emma and Barry. In the song “Barry is Going to Prom,” he says “who cares if you’re just a big old girl,” which in my opinion is just a very interesting line to begin with. It places Barry in this feminine light and plays into gender norms. It defines the way Barry acts and things he is passionate about as girly, and by him calling himself a big old girl, he is essentially saying that everything he does is what a typical woman should do and a man should not. Also, after that line, Barry states “Just get into that gym and twirl.” This once again shows a “gay” stereotype as it highlights that a homosexual man has to have twirling and lyrical moves as their form of dancing. He can’t just be in there and dance anyway he wants to; the character has to verbally express the idea held as standard and then go and demonstrate it. Throughout this song, Barry is prancing around on his tippy toes and doing over the top movements with his arms. He throws both out to the side high in the air as he moves in a more jazz style. An example of this is when he sticks his head out of the top of the limousine. As he belts “the prom,” he throws both hands up and to the side. He places an emphasis on certain words, where his hands move out and down to convey that. Following this part as he exits the limo, he does a salsa move as he says the big old girl part. A lot of these moves are dramatic and try to emphasis that Barry is gay. I will emphasis once again just because the writers of The Prom wanted Barry to be gay does not mean they needed to do these over the top motions since it reinforces stereotypes. In this scene, the directors also had Barry and the younger version of him be in completely different suites compared to the rest of the crowd. It accentuates the belief that gay men must be into fashion as their costumes were more thought out and fashionable. 

    The song “Tonight Belongs to You” incorporates stereotypes about both Emma and Barry. The song begins in a scene where Barry is taking Emma shopping, which defines two standard beliefs that gay men like fashion and lesbian women do not, and a lyric example of this would be when Barry states “you can borrow all my makeup.”  Emma is asking Barry for advice on how “to sell it,” and Barry is telling her how to flirt. It seems as though Emma does not know how to act or flirt because she is lesbian, which was conveyed due to the lyrics of the song. From the very minute the song starts, Corden’s choice of hand gestures for Barry becomes apparent. This is shown when he shuts the car door. He doesn’t just push the door in; he instead has all of his fingers lined perfectly next to each other and pointed up as he elegantly pushes forward. As he looks through the dresses, he pushes them with his middle finger, ring finger, and pinky all pointed up. His thumb and pointer make a circle and flick. Nothing was normal about the movements he was doing as they seemed forced and unauthentic. Another important part of this scene is when Barry and Emma are looking at the shoes. Barry is throwing pair after pair behind him as he sees a better shoe, and then when Emma tries them on, she walks like a statue. Barry is the one looking for shoes; the one interested in something fashionable, unlike Emma again. Also, it makes me question the reasoning behind making Emma not know how to walk in heels. Is it because she’s lesbian and they want her to be seen in a more tom-boy manner? Or is it because she has never had the opportunity to wear them before and just simply never learned? These elements of questioning once again distract me from the plot of the musical. 

    Overall, the musical had the grounds to accomplish way more than it did. The backstory of Emma was on the path to that but ended up being overcrowded by the gender norms and stereotypes displayed. With a better casting position for Barry, there would have been less controversy and more focus on important messages. This wasn’t all to do to James Corden though as the lyrics and choreography did emphasize these. The stereotypes of how a gay man should act, dress, and talk only redefined how a typical male and female should behave.