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:
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?)
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.)
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.”
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!
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.
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 (especiallyVandy 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?
Titles must be underlined or italicized. This includes the titles of plays (Medea), musicals (Medea!), primary source texts (The Poetics). Song, poems, scenes, or other components of larger texts are placed within quotation marks (“Maria” from West Side Story).
Performance critiques use proper nouns to cite relevant material. “Kelli O’Hara won a Tony Award for her performance of Anna Leonowens in the Lincoln Center Theater‘s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s The King and I (2015).
Also cite source material. “Based on Margaret Landon‘s popular novel Anna and the King of Siam (1944), the musical premiered…”
Use dates to distinguish original Broadway productions from revivals or film adaptations. “Adapted for the Broadway stage in 2000, the musical White Christmas first appeared on film in 1954.” Dates can also appear in parentheses. “Theatre scholars define Oklahoma! (1943) as the first integrated musical.”
If you don’t know this information, may I introduce Google…
Avoid passive verbs, especially when they allow the author to fall short of providing relevant information. Change “Anna was portrayed as an angelic savior in hoop skirts” to “O’Hara portrayed Anna as an angelic savior in hoop skirts.” Even better, to include more specificity: ” “O’Hara portrayed Anna as an angelic savior in hoop skirts, swishing through the court and capturing hearts in dresses designed by Catherine Zuber.”
(Essentially, know the major players and use their names to attribute artistic choices.)
Use terminology correctly:
Reference “actors” and “performers” as distinct from fictional “characters.”
Reference a “production” as distinct from a “performance,” the first being the cumulative work of artists who have produced something for the stage and the second being a time-bound event, the occasion of artists presenting their production.
Distinguish a “play” from a “musical.” Both are dramatic texts. Drama is a genre of literature.
Distinguish scenery (stuff on stage) from scenic design (artistic concept developed for production) from stagecraft (the construction of and manipulation of scenery).
Distinguish costumes (stuff worn by actors) from costume design (the artistry) from costume craft (the construction and manipulation of stage clothing, wigs, makeup, etc.)
Distinguish lighting (illumination) from lighting design (the artistry) from light cues (moments of distinct lighting created for a scene).
Distinguish sound (incidental noise or music) from sound design (the artistry of noise and amplification) from composition (the writing of music) from sound cues (moments of noise or musical created for a scene).
Distinguish a cast album (recorded by stage performers) from a soundtrack (recorded for a film).
When Stephen Chbosky’s film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen began screening in cinemas in the fall of 2021, I intentionally avoided buying a ticket. This may seem bizarre given my devotion to the source material: I have seen the 2017 winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical twice on Broadway and, admittedly, several more times via bootleg (my sincerest apologies to the Broadway community). The show holds a very special place in my heart, and I automatically knew it would stick with me ever since I first listened to the original Broadway cast recording (OBCR) of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s newest musical back in 2016.
The book of the musical, written by Steven Levenson, focuses on a severely anxious and depressed high schooler who, over the course of the show, comes to terms with his own suicidality in the wake of a classmate’s suicide and ultimately begins to heal his relationship with himself. I was awestruck: this musical addressed with incredible specificity the struggles I found myself experiencing as a sixteen-year-old high school student. I was diagnosed with anxiety when I was thirteen and had been taking medication ever since; however, it wasn’t until the fall of my junior year that I had my first depressive episode. By November 2017, I was weeks away from attempting suicide. I was very lucky to receive psychiatric help that saved my life.
During that particularly dark time of my life, I listened to the OBCR of Dear Evan Hansen constantly. The story of this kid, Evan Hansen, who was just as anxious and depressed as I was, was a source of unquantifiable comfort. I still find it difficult to express the impact of seeing Evan’s character transform from someone who hated himself so much he wanted to die into a person who could genuinely say “today is going to be a good day because today at least you’re you and that’s enough.” Dear Evan Hansen contributed to keeping me alive long enough to receive the help I needed. For that, I will always be grateful.
So, when the film hit theaters in 2021, I was heartbroken when I saw the initial reviews. There was almost universal criticism of the adaptation — the film still holds a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes which, if you ask me, is abysmal. I was deeply saddened that the musical that helped save my life hadn’t translated well to the silver screen; I simply couldn’t bring myself to buy a ticket to witness the wreckage of something so important to me.
Nevertheless, I have finally viewed Dear Evan Hansen (2021). And, in the interest of stirring the pot, I must admit it wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be. It definitely had a plethora of issues, but it wasn’t terrible. In fact, I found some things about the film to be welcome additions to the stage production. Specifically, I found the new depth of Alana’s storyline (played by Amandla Stenberg in the film adaptation) and the addition of the song “The Anonymous Ones,” written by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Amandla Stenberg and performed by Stenberg, to contribute significantly to the emotional impact of film, particularly for those of us who can identify with hiding our mental health struggles.
In “The Anonymous Ones,” Alana, the high-achieving student body president of Evan’s high school, confesses that she, too, suffers from anxiety along with many others neither of them will ever know. Chbosky’s direction of the scene emphasizes Alana’s vulnerability in sharing her mental health issues with Evan (played by Ben Platt). The scene begins with just Alana and Evan sitting together on a childhood swing set in the stillness of the night as Alana quietly begins to share one of her deepest secrets. Throughout Stenberg’s performance, she repeatedly avoids eye contact with Evan while she confesses, giving the viewer the sense that they are part of a very intimate moment. The acoustic guitar and synthesizer chords in the song’s first verse invite the listener to carefully listen to Stenberg’s quiet, breathy vocal performance. Lyrics like “ever look at all the people who seem to know exactly how to be?/ you think ‘they don’t need piles of prescriptions to function naturally’” are like a punch to the gut for those of us who are all too familiar with this specific envy.
As the song transitions into the first chorus, minor chords are introduced on the piano to add to the emotional effect of lyrics like “the anonymous ones/ never let you see the ache they carry.” The synthesis of the emotional music with the poignant lyrics is designed to resonate with the target audience of teens and young adults who are used to hiding their mental health struggles in order to maintain impressive outward appearances. The message of the song is particularly salient in communities where high-achievement is a prerequisite, such as elite universities like Vanderbilt. It’s in these communities that brutally candid lyrics like “spot the girl who stays in motion/ she spins so fast so she won’t fall/ she’s built a wall with her achievements/ to keep out the question/ ‘without it, is she worth anything at all?” are difficult to swallow. For me, it is startling to have a mirror held up to my experience with such searing accuracy, giving a voice to thoughts I would rarely ever utter.
When the song transitions into the second verse and final chorus, the scene transforms from the swing set into a flashback to the first day of school. Chbosky shifts the audience to follow Alana’s journey as she navigates her anxiety instead of focusing on Evan’s point of view (“Waving Through a Window”). Stenberg’s subtle acting beautifully and accurately shows the carefully choreographed dance of avoidance and placation that those of us with anxiety perform on a daily basis. She quickly oscillates between darting eyes, fidgety hands, and brief unconvincing smiles. Stenberg begins singing in her resonant chest voice, complementing the added orchestration of strings and percussion. As Alana steels herself for another day of pretending to be fine, Stenberg passionately belts a G4 to express Alana’s frustration and desperation. When the song reaches its conclusion, Stenberg repeatedly sings the lyrics “the parts we can’t tell, we carry them well/ but that doesn’t mean they’re not heavy,” performing the lines like a mantra. The repetition makes the emotional weight of Alana’s confession truly sink in for the audience — Alana carries the weight of feeling as though she must hide her pain every single day. The instrumentation concludes with a rallentando allowing Stenberg to perform the final few lines a capella. The effect is haunting.
With the addition of “The Anonymous Ones,” Pasek, Paul, Stenberg, and Chbosky have done something special: they have provided a voice specifically for the high-achievers who most people would never suspect of struggling with mental illness. Sure, this subset is definitely a small minority, but, for me, I am so grateful to have this representation and to feel as though someone understands and recognizes my experience. After all, isn’t the point of art to help us feel a little less alone?
Who is the target audience of The Sound of Music (1965)? – Is it women? Or specifically, the tomboys out there who can really relate to the protagonist Maria? Or maybe it’s just children who are interested in learning how to sing? Well, even if those little kindergarteners are not the main audience, this film—directed by Robert Wise, starring Julie Andrews, and including music written by the prominent duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein—certainly is the textbook for all primary school music classes with its renowned musical number, “Do-Re-Mi.”
At a first glance, the audience could interpret The Sound of Music as a film that relays the story of a woman who doesn’t quite fit the standards of a “proper lady” and how this characteristic of hers becomes a great charm. The appearance of Maria plays an important role in setting up the tomboy of the character: her short hair, ugly dress, and makeup-less face.
Unlike the typical long and voluminous hair, colorful and classy dresses, and sparkly makeup that women wore to appeal to men, Maria maintains a short cut hairstyle, a bland dress—which everyone in Captain von Trapp’s mansion brutally criticizes—and a bare face. These costume choices make it apparent that Maria is someone who prioritizes convenience over fashion.
Not only visually, but Maria’s attitude also excludes her from the group of “proper ladies.” She is exceptionally talkative, even in situations where women are expected to stay speechless; from her very first encounter with Captain von Trapp, Maria straight-up refuses to abide by the house rules of using a whistle to call the children. The film once more affirms her strong intuition to point out a flaw when she sees one when Captain returns home after he visits Vienna and disapproves of the children having fun on a boat ride with Maria. Even in the very moment of the Captain trying to fire her, Maria shoots words like they’re bullets about how the Captain is unnecessarily obsessed with keeping discipline and that his children deserve some playtime.
Furthermore, Rodgers and Hammerstein dedicate a whole musical number to other nuns talking crap about Maria.
The whimsical melody and the light high flutes playing staccato notes in the back well describe how the nuns view Maria. The lively mood of the song alleviates the problem of whether or not Maria should be kicked out of the abbey (which is what the song is actually about), which also matches Maria’s personality of making everything joyful. The lyrics add on by verbally describing Maria’s character; “She climbs a tree / And scrapes her knee / Her dress has got a tear” and “She’s always late for everything / Except for every meal” clearly illustrate how unorganized and out-of-standard Maria is. In the musical number, the nuns call Maria “A flibbertigibbet! / A will-o’-the-wisp! / A clown!” as well as “a cloud [you cannot] pin down”—which leads to my interpretation of Maria: a free spirit. Her attachment to freedom is frankly symbolized by the hill that appears three times throughout the film. It is the hill where Maria is first introduced; the hill to which Maria escapes from the strict rules of the abbey and where she can freely sing and dance and run around. She introduces this freedom to the children who she also loves dearly by bringing them on a field trip and teaching them how to sing and dance. The symbol is emphasized once again when the whole family crosses the hill to search for safety and freedom from the war.
The director intentionally chooses a hill that is above and distant from the whole civilization, representing isolation and freedom from the world. This selective setting implies a detachment from not only society but its norms and stereotypes as well, which also aligns with Maria’s atypical character. However, when Maria is back amongst the people, her free spirit is considered “not woman-like” by both the abbey and Captain’s house.
The director further emphasizes Maria as a character who breaks the standard stereotypes of women when he introduces the baroness. The Baroness is a literal personification of all the typical qualities of a “proper lady”: perfectly set blonde silky hair, flattering dresses with lots of jewelry, and visible makeup. She is the epitome of beauty and elegance as shown through her style as well as her soothing voice and smile.
The two drastically different characters of the same gender highlight both personalities much more, and by resolving the film with Maria as the winner of Captain von Trapp’s love, the film transmits a message that even without being a typical woman, one can be loved by her innocent and enthusiastic personality.
However, after multiple re-watches, the flaws of this film stand out. Though Maria should be the symbol of a figure against the gender stereotypes of women, the character did not completely break the qualities, as she still had blonde hair (one of the biggest symbols of a pretty lady after the famous Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953) and, though they were ugly, wore dresses only. These feminine characteristics of Maria prevent her from completely being ostracized by society. Also, Maria is essentially white, which allows her more freedom to be individualistic and rebellious against societal norms. If Maria was not white, but of a different race, her so-called “unique” aspects of her personality wouldn’t stop at only being called weird, but would most likely lead to her losing her job and having no hope of being loved by a wealthy man. These loopholes in detail weaken the film’s argument that it is okay not to follow societal expectations.
Additionally, Maria is still a “female” in her heart, as her strongest quality is innocence. Wise well-emphasizes her innocence throughout the whole film through her love for singing, dancing, and playing. Particularly in the musical number, “Favorite Things,” Maria uses a somewhat childish method of avoiding the storm by listing things that make her happy: “Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels / Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles / Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings / These are a few of my favorite things,” “When I’m feeling sad / I simply remember my favorite things / And then I don’t feel so bad.” Not only in this song, but almost as soon as they meet, Maria empathizes well with the children and wins their hearts, proving that she shares commonalities with the young mind.
The societal expectation that the purpose of women is to find a wealthy man, create a family, and take care of children remains as well. When Maria returns to the abbey after realizing that she loves Captain von Trapp, Mother Abbess sends her back to the house with the mission of “living the life that [she was] born to live,” or in more explicit words, pursuing her love and supporting a family as a motherly figure. As Maria ends up being the actual mother of the von Trapp family, it makes the audience question: do all women, despite how unladylike they are, end up being a mother?
Wise also leaves some questionable scenes regarding gender stereotypes involving other characters as well. First and foremost, Captain von Trapp is also the epitome of a “manly” man by being shy of emotions, not knowing how to handle kids, being unnecessarily strict, etc. It may have been intentional for the story to only focus on female gender stereotypes, but we cannot ignore the fact that males are also restrained from gender stereotypes.
Also, in the well-known “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” Rolfe attempts to teach Liesl about the world, despite him only being a year older. He promises to protect and guide her like a reliable man; “You need someone older and wiser / Telling you what to do / I am seventeen going on eighteen / I’ll take care of you” (but he’s only 17!). By assigning a note to each syllable, Rodgers lengthens the song to allow the actor to enunciate each word. Also, his facial expressions and straight posture make the audience wonder if he’s talking to a kindergartener. Rolfe also sets a great example of what men expect of women: “Totally unprepared are you / To face a world of men / Timid and shy and scared are you / Of things beyond your ken”—again, touching on societal expectations towards females.
Though The Sound of Music attempts to encourage the elimination of gender stereotypes, especially regarding women, it lacks full coverage. This could be due to the period in which this film was produced: 1965—when people just started noticing racial discrimination and didn’t even touch on sexual stereotypes yet. Nevertheless, this film still stands as an impactful attempt to mitigate the standards that women had to live up to. The film is especially relevant to the current world, where women are still fighting to break free from gender stereotypes; artists of many genres constantly try to popularize the atypical image of women. Recently, South Korea has been facing this change in its main music industry. The K-pop girl group, ()I-DLE (formerly known as (G)I-DLE), earns great fame and praise for one of their recent songs, “Tomboy,” by speaking about being called a tomboy for behaving outside of the societal norms for a “girl.” The lyrics trigger gender expectations by tolerating exes “Tattoo my ex’s name,” swearing “Yeah I’m fxxking tomboy,” and enjoying sex and drinking “I like to sex on drinking whiskey.” By publicly targeting the ubiquitous opinion that women are supposed to be pure and submissive, ()I-DLE states that it is absurd for women to be called a “tomboy” just by doing some socially stigmatized actions (that ironically men can do). Also, by removing the “G” from their name, which represented “Girl,” ()I-DLE supports non-binary gender identities and calls off the stereotypes that define a certain gender. Along with great fame, this song received much attention for its message, especially in the middle of a very conservative country.
Similarly, considering how conservative the world must have been when this film was released, the audience should acclaim this film for being bold and pointing out a big flaw in society, just like Maria did when she saw one.
I got into a debate with my Vanderbilt interviewer. After he mentioned that his favorite novel was Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” we got into a passionate conversation about some of its philosophical ideas. After about ten or so minutes of this esoteric analysis, he confirmed that I was intending to be an English major. When I said “Chemistry,” he nearly spit out his $7 oat milk latte. After clarifying to make sure I was not in fact joining, he stated “I just seemed like so much more of an English/History person than a Math/Science one.” After I said I consider myself to be a “Science/English person,” he was surprisingly resistant to this idea. I probably spent the next ten minutes justifying myself and challenging his schema regarding this idea of labeling people.
Rather than just forcing myself into the bounds that society places on people to fit into these clear divides, whether it be based on interests, race, or gender, I continuously have tried to stay true to myself in spite of the pressure to fit into oversimplified categories. Recently, my father even referred to my “inability” to fully immerse myself in one thing as “immature.” He believes my many different pursuits are a consequence of my not yet finding my “one thing.” While he absolutely despises that my classes do not have some sort of “theme,” I am totally content with my transcript classes ranging from Shakespearean tragedies, child psychology, chemical engineering, and Chinese society courses. I like to think about my desire to follow multiple passions as increased maturity in being able to overcome societal stereotypes to live in a state of liminality.
Armed with this desire to fight back against the societal norms society imposes on people, it makes sense why I am absolutely obsessed with the 2006 Disney masterpiece “High School Musical”. This musical follows Troy Bolton, a talented basketball player, and Gabriella Montez, an intelligent academic, who both discover a passion for singing and subsequently, must combat stereotypes and uproot societal norms to pursue their passions. Director and choreographer Kenny Ortega, writer Peter Barsocchini, and an array of film stars wonderfully depict these characters escape the traditional roles and stereotypes in order to embrace their true selves. This message is particularly relevant today, as society often puts pressure on individuals to conform to certain norms and expectations. By showing that people can be multidimensional, “High School Musical” encourages viewers to fight back against society’s problematic tendency to categorize people and inspired people to be their true complex selves.
Everything about the satirical number “Stick to the Status Quo” perfectly exemplifies the pressure to conform and the gratification that people receive when they can escape such norms and be their multidimensional selves. Ortega’s vision of this scene is flawless. The number starts as various students come out and confess their secret interests that do not adhere to the norms that people expect them to fall into. Specifically, the stereotypically nerdy character Martha shares her love of hip-hop dancing, basketball player Zeke describes his passion for baking, and skater boy Ripper admits he enjoys playing a musical instrument. As Kaycee Stroh, who depicts Martha shares her interest, a smile lights up her face as she demonstrates how she can “pop and lock.” Additionally, Stroh’s sharp movements are performed with immense confidence that contrasts her otherwise more small, awkward motions. Here, Stroh perfectly exemplifies how her character of Martha feels when she can be her true self. Yet, as soon as she expresses such feelings, her peers exhibit a disproportional look of disgust, with several of them leaning away from her as if Martha had just admitted she murders puppies for fun. When Zeke and Ripper share their hidden passions, they are met with similar levels looks of repulsion from their friends. The negative reactions of their peers cause these three students to immediately open their mouths and look down in sadness, demonstrating the way that people who you have previously considered friends can be so unsupportive of one’s activities if they conflict with their own choices.
The musical’s production artists are highly effective in depicting the segregation that exists within the school. Mark Hofeling’s set design of having each clique around a separate table in the cafeteria visually establishes the physical separation between groups to emphasize the various classifications of the students. By using different round tables, each group of students faces the others, with their backs turned to other groups, underscoring the division based on social groups. Moreover, the costume designer Tom McKinley’s choice to put each group in a distinct style of dress that adheres to cultural stereotypes reinforces these separations. The costumes for athletic students include track jackets and sneakers, while the nerdy students wear more formal clothing such as blazers and bowties; the skater kids, don baggy shirts and beanies. The immense discrepancy in styles contributes to the social segregation within the school.
Another way these stereotypes are depicted is through Ortega’s variety of choreography. In contrast, the nerdy people literally march around the table holding textbooks, in which such forced movements emphasize their more uptight nature, in what most people would imagine being the dance moves of most Vanderbilt students. Such rigid motions make Martha’s rhythmic fast paced hip hop dance more striking. Yet, the girl in the gargoyle sweater topped with a pink blazer still manages to read her “Modern Biology” textbook in the midst of walking, which is just true dedication. In contrast to most of the nerdy students’ more uncomfortable maneuvers, the skater students are the epitome of the word “chill.” Their flowy movements resemble the inflatable tube men at car dealerships that let the wind move them. Similarly, the elongated words in their speech sound as laid-back as their dancing. Such wave-like movements and vocals also exasperate Ripper’s differentiation from the group. By playing the cello, which requires intricate hand placements and immense precision, Ripper would be making clean-cut sounds. The next scene depicts Ripper looking in at his friends from outside the circle, conveying the social isolation that threatens those who choose not to abide by a label.
To further depict the pressure students get from their peers, Barsocchini crafts the character of Sharpay Evans, the epitome of a typical high school mean girl. Likely feeling threatened by Troy and Gabriella’s singing talents and fear of losing her star role in the school musical, Sharpay does all she can to maintain stringent social norms. In this way, Sharpay serves as a foil to the main characters, who challenge societal expectations. Actor Ashley Tisdale’s portrayal of Sharpay’s narrow-mindedness includes very exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. When Sharpay watches those around her attempt to break away from social expectations, she raises her eyebrows and sneers in a way that conveys her disdain and contempt for them. Another specific acting choice Tisdale uses to highlight Sharpay’s beliefs is her use of a high-pitched and nasally voice. This voice helps to convey Sharpay’s self-importance and entitlement and makes her sound haughty and pompous.
However, as people get more comfortable with the idea of breaking the constraints of their social roles, they are able to overcome even the meanest of looks from Sharpay, symbolizing how people can uproot even the strongest social normatives. To represent this, the dancing shifts dramatically. The students no longer dance just with their clique around their table, but instead begin to branch out and intertwine with others. The students break from singing the lines “stick to the status quo” in favor of instrumental music, showcasing the lack of conformity. Everyone begins to dance at the same time but all perform different movements in a fast-paced and energetic routine. This dance employs a variety of different styles, incorporating elements of jazz and hip-hop as students go from more graceful twirls to sharp stomping. The cafeteria feels like utter chaos, that I so wish I could partake in. Ortego’s decision to have everyone engage in unique choreography rather than dance in unison demonstrates how so many students have been inspired to break free from social expectations.
However, just like in the real world, societal forces are incredibly hard to diffuse. Parents play a key role in shaping children’s identities. The dialogue that Barsocchini crafts to exemplify this idea really reminds me of some of the conversations I have had with my own parents. For example, Troy’s dad, Mr. Bolton, tells his son that he is “a playmaker, not a singer,” to which Troy responds “ever think maybe I could be both?” These quotes really spoke to my own relationship with my father constantly tries to curate and shape every aspect of my life. Just like Mr. Bolton was a basketball player himself and wants the same for Troy, my dad desperately wants me to follow in his footsteps to pursue scientific research. Yet, even though I spent summers in high school working in a UCLA research lab, I could never dedicate my entire focus to that, to my dad’s disappointment. Troy’s struggle to balance his own desires under the pressure of his parent resonates with me and so many other young adults trying to find themselves.
While I know there will likely never be a world completely free of societal expectations to act a certain way, High School Musical demonstrates that people should not let these social constraints define and dominate them. At the beginning of the movie, Troy’s friend Chad stated “the musical… isn’t hip hop or rock or anything essential to culture.” I hope if the fictional Chad were to read this essay, he would totally realize that his line could not be farther from the truth.
“High School Musical’s” message remains particularly relevant today, as so many people will continue to navigate an abundance of societal influences that begin to feel suffocating. This movie musical has so much value in reminding viewers of the importance of not limiting yourself to societal norms and the importance of being one’s most authentic self.
When I sat down to watch High School Musical again as a 21-year-old woman, I expected to see the straightforward love story that I understood as a child. A heartthrob basketball player and a quirky science girl fall in love and fight against all odds to audition for the school musical. And admittedly… that’s exactly what I got. But! I also noticed a little more nuance than I did 15 years ago. This musical is one big commentary on self-discovery and inner conflict. More specifically, High School Musical uses music composition and choreography to challenge our views toward social norms and encourage individuality.
The best song that shows this (and also my favorite) is “Stick to the Status Quo” which occurs during the end of Act I. The song happens just after the school learns that the star basketball player Troy Bolton, likes to sing and wants to audition for the school musical. For some reason, this is very controversial. But soon after, Troy’s exploration into unexpected hobbies inspires other students to do the same. This entire song shows the tension between the people who want to expand their identities and their peers who want them to assimilate. Altogether, the composition and choreography of this number help visualize this social tension and further the musical’s purpose to encourage self-discovery.
Let’s start with the music. The song begins simply with a casual percussive beat and an electric guitar riff in the background. The vibe is upbeat yet suspenseful, mirroring the cafeteria energy and the tension in light of the recent news. We watch as a basketball player lightly paces and then steps forward. He clearly has something on his mind. Suddenly the music goes quiet and only the suspenseful percussion remains. The attention lies completely on the athlete as he confesses his desire to bake (*gasp* such a faux pas).
Suddenly the music crashes in much louder and stronger than it was before. The percussion picks up speed, the electric guitar amps up energy, and a strong piano melody is introduced. Combined with the crowd simultaneously screaming, “NO NO NO!” with this crescendo, the audience very easily feels the emotion of the room. The crowd of students are upset and are very energetically rejecting the idea that a basketball player can be anything other than sporty.
The rest of the song follows a similar pattern. The music softens when a character confesses their interests, and then immediately picks up energy as the crowd responds negatively to the news.
Clearly, David Lawrence doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination. He is very deliberate through his lyrics and composition to show the conflict of straying from conformity. These characters want to be more than their high school stereotypes, but the fact that they are met with resistance in both the music and the lyrics helps show the challenges of straying from expectations.
Okay, the choreography is arguably the best part of the song. I will die on this hill. There’s just something about fiftyish teenagers dramatically stomping on lunch tables that gets me every time. But besides being an unintentional comic relief for me, the choreography of this song is the perfect visual of groupthink. Just before a character reveals their secret, their peers are engaged. The music is soft and the crowd leans in. But the second the spotlighted character reveals something unexpected about their own identity, the crowd erupts into a frenzy. They clutch their heads and belt to the sky. They thrash and stomp, almost like a tantrum, as they beg the character to stop talking. Their movements are aggressive and punctuated. It feels very disciplinary as if they are trying to force the spotlighted character to assimilate through strength and power.
This blatant shift in style from soft to aggressive shows the audience that the revelation was deeply upsetting to their social environment. As long as the character acts according to their expected identities, there is no problem. Everything is peaceful. But the moment a character shows a bit of individuality, it’s chaos.
The unified movement also contributes to the song’s portrayal of social norms. Throughout the song, the crowd of students move as one with energy and passion. Not only are they in sync with each other in terms of how they think, but also how they move – like some sort of hive mind. This effectively visualizes the idea of a social group and the people within them sharing the same thoughts and behaviors. It also emphasizes the power imbalance between the crowd and the individual and shows the pressure to act according to the group.
Given that the song overall portrays the clash between individuality and the pressure to abide by social norms, the choreography is very effective in visualizing this dynamic.
Now, before you say no shit sherlock, I completely agree with you. This theme isn’t very difficult to pull from the production. But I wanted to reflect on how differently I resonated with High School Musical as a child versus as an adult. As a kid, I thought “Stick to the Status Quo” was just about dumb high school politics. To be considered “cool” or “popular” you can’t embarrass yourself by doing anything other than what your group does. Don’t get me wrong, the song is certainly about that. But as an adult, I digested the message a bit differently. The song isn’t just a commentary on high school politics, but is also a reflection of our society as a whole. We, like East High, have social guidelines that we must follow in order to be accepted by our communities. Behaving outside of those guidelines might result in backlash (although probably not as dramatic as a cafeteria flash mob). So yes, High School Musical might be a very simple coming of age story with uncomplicated storytelling. But perhaps teenagers dancing on tables will also inspire you to have an existential reflection on our society.
Intothe Woods by Stephen Sondheim is a fantastical musical that combines many different fairytales- Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Giant Bean Stalk– and forces them down the dark rabbit hole of the woods. This song cycle, as most Sondheim musicals are, flourishes in the characters’ selfishnesses. The musical includes themes of growth, parenting, and morality. It’s a commentary on human action and reaction, but mostly it’s a commentary on Sondheim’s life. As such, this musical bases its cultural relevance on the common pain as well as flaws within society.
“…most fairy tales are about the loving yet embattled relationship between parents and children. Almost everything that goes wrong—which is to say, almost everything that can—arises from a failure of parental or filial duty, despite the best intentions.”
Stephen Sondheim was born to Etta Janet and Herbert Sondheim. Herbert left Sondheim at an early age. Etta became psychologically abusive, forcing her anger at Herbert onto Sondheim. Stephen Sondheim said, “”When my father left her, she substituted me for him. And she used me the way she used him, to come on to and to berate, beat up on, you see. What she did for five years was treat me like dirt, but come on to me at the same time.” Additionally, she once wrote Sondheim a letter saying that the only regret she ever had was giving birth to him. Sondheim remained estranged from his mother for 20 years until her death in 1992.
With this in mind, there is a degree to which the characters in Into the Woods are Sondheim’s mother, which is why all mothers within the story either leave or die (the latter being the more common). While making each character relate to his personal life narrative, we are forced to question the actions of characters and their morality in it. Are there any good characters at all?
To catch you up, I have made a list of how every mother left in Into the Woods (based off of the 2014 movie adaptation). So it goes without saying: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT
The Baker’s mother died, causing his father to leave
Cinderella’s mother was dead from the beginning, but just to be sure she’s really super dead, the giant steps on her grave, killing her magical spirit.
The Witch’s mother is dead or gone; she’s the one that curses the Witch for losing the beans by making her ugly
Little Red Riding Hood’s (LRRH) mother AND grandmother are killed during the giant’s initial attack. Even the wolf who pretended to be a grandmother is dead smh.
Jack’s mom is killed after being pushed by the steward.
Cinderella’s stepmother just dips out.
The Baker’s wife, after having a quick affair with the prince, falls off a cliff.
The Witch, who stole Rapunzel as a child and thus became her mother (adoptive would probably not be the term, it’s giving ‘kidnapping’), dies from evil spirits, it seems.
Unclear if the giant had children. Signs point to no. In any case, she’s dead for sure.
Oh sorry. Wrong musical.
This is from Beetlejuice: the musical, The Musical, The Musical!
“Right and wrong don’t matter in the woods“
from the song “Any Moment”
The musical starts with the repeated line “I wish,” which is heavily referenced throughout the plot. Every character gets their wish, but the characters, as well as the viewers, are faced to confront the consequences of wishes. It replaces the theme of hope with an aura of selfishness. Within that, the characters are forced to deal with their anger and grief within the woods, where morality is often set aside. All their emotions build up in the song “Your Fault” in which the music swirls in a dark minor key. The song not only gives the viewers a recap of the consequences the wishes gave rise to but also allows the viewers to see the common result of anger: blame. The song is repetitive because, in the face of rage, there seems to be no clear solution thus moving the song cycle into the next sequence of “Last Midnight,” the Witch’s final song.
In “Last Midnight,” the Witch sheds light on the fact that the characters, blinded by their wishes, did possibly wrong things to get what they wanted. She says, “Had to get your wish—Doesn’t matter how—Anyway, it doesn’t matter now.” She, throughout the story, is representing moral ambivalence, thus becoming intertwined with the moral ambivalence of the woods. It all bursts to a conclusion with this song where she is explaining that blame doesn’t matter anymore or anyhow. Despite that fundamental truth, the “world” as the Witch calls them will be greedy. This is shown in the blocking as the Witch, played by Meryl Streep, is throwing the beans around, on the ground. Despite everything, the other characters scramble around her to catch the beans.
“I’m leaving you my last curse: I’m leaving you alone.”
The Witch in “Last Midnight”
The Witch takes the moral apathy of the woods with her, turning into a tar pit, one with the woods. The characters are not only forced to face their actions but also how alone they are. In doing so, they are also forced to analyze their relationship with their mothers (we’re back at the mothers!). This analysis blossoms in the song “No One is Alone.”
LRRH repeats the line “Mother said straight ahead not to delay or be misled,” but now she has no mother to guide her morality.
[CINDERELLA] Mother isn’t here now.
[BAKER] Wrong things, right things
[CINDERELLA] Who knows what she’d say?
Sondheim points out that mothers aren’t always right and that despite the fact that they aren’t there, the characters and the viewers are not alone. They then go on to point out that everyone makes mistakes- mothers, fathers (like Sondheim’s family). The Baker and Cinderella say they are, “Holding to their own…Thinking they’re alone.” This may be in reference to Sondheim’s mom only caring for herself after she was left ‘alone’ by Sondheim’s father. In the greater context of the musical, it calls upon the societal ideal of oneness and that one should put themselves first despite everything else. It’s this thinking they’re alone that allows for selfishness and its consequences because there are other people in any context. No one is alone.
Witchescan be right
Giants can be good
You decide what’s right
You decide what’s good
Baker and Cinderella in “No One is Alone”
Not only are the characters forced to confront their own morality, but the viewers get to decide finally what throughout the story was right or wrong, as we suspended our disbelief, because of the fantastical nature of the story and the way of the woods, up until this point. Not making a choice between the right and wrong, as Cinderella mentions in “On the Steps of the Palace” and the Baker’s wife mentions in “Moments in the Woods,” is no longer an option. What in our own lives is good? What in society is good? What in our own lives is wrong? What in society is wrong? It becomes about an individual’s responsibility to society in making morally just decisions, but also a responsibility to learn from others’ mistakes as well as our own.
It’s the way that each fairytale is meant to teach a moral. Sondheim took that very literally.
“You are a phony celebrity. You’re a flash in the pan, and in a couple of weeks, no one is going to give a shit about you. That’s Chicago.” -Billy Flynn
“KYLIE IS PREGNANT,” “KIM AND KANYE ARE GETTING DIVORCED,” “KENDALL SHOWS OFF HER MODEL FRAME;” these are just a few of the many headlines that circulate mainstream media. Although all of these headlines revolve around the Kardashians (which is no accident, as they are frequent headline occupiers), many of the more gossipy, scandalous, and therefore more entertaining stories involve female celebrities. The motive of any magazine is to produce the headlines and stories that society wants to read or hear about, reflecting women’s role in entertainment and what society wants or even expects from women. Though headlines and celebrity gossip are seemingly unimportant, after watching Chicago, I’ve realized it is a greater reflection of societal norms and values since it corresponds to the information that people seek, which is inherently influenced by their biases and preconceptions about societal structures, including but definitely not limited to the patriarchy.
Chicago reflects this big, and quite frankly scary, idea in a profound, comprehensive way that resonates strongly with the viewer. Chicago is the “longest-running American musical in Broadway history;” it was revived on the stage in 1996 and has carried strong ever since. Written and first debuted in 1975, Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb transport audiences to the roaring twenties in the roaring city of Chicago. There is no shortage of flash, booze, and jazz—John Kander writes bluesy hits that I can’t seem to stop humming. Fosse’s choreography brings these numbers to life, as do Ebb’s lyrics, all of which create an incredible, theatrical spectacle that later was translated into a cinematic masterpiece. Created in 2002, Rob Marshall directs the three main characters to perfection—Velma, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Roxie, played by Renee Zellweger, and Billy Flynn, played by Richard Gere, beautifully portray this infamous story of crime, scandal, and celebrity. Both Velma and Roxie shoot someone and are being tried for murder. Locked up in their jail cells, they rely on the help from Billy Flynn, a famous lawyer, to figure out how to set them free and ultimately save their lives, mostly by figuring out ways in which to appeal to the (conveniently) all male jury. Through its plot line and theatrical numbers, Chicago captures the longstanding perception of women as props meant solely for entertainment value with little other purpose or worth, highlighting one of the many ways in which women are objectified. The film argues that they are to be looked at or observed, but not to be taken seriously—their lives don’t really matter. This idea is exemplified through the plot thread of the actual lives of these women being at stake, and to save their lives, they must make the jury want to keep them alive by giving them what they seek and putting on a “show.”
Fosse and Ebb use performance as a medium for illustrating a woman’s purpose of entertaining and serving the needs of men. They capture this by having some of the numbers, that represent a moment in a character’s life, be an act on the jazz club stage, with the announcer, intricate costuming, and a glamorized performance depicting the act. This is most prominently displayed through “the Hungarian Disappearing Act,” which was essentially a casual, glorified way of depicting her hanging, revealing that this woman’s life was purely for entertainment in society’s eyes. “It’s show business,” as Billy Flynn would say.
This line opens the number, “Razzle Dazzle,” which prominently displays women as entertainment and the inherent misogyny within that that the musical proclaims. The number occurs simultaneously with Roxie’s trial; the film cuts back and forth between a circus-like performance taking place in the trial room and the actual trial (one of the benefits of cinema), once again highlighting the idea that the trial itself is a performance that Roxie and Billy are putting on. Billy even mistakes the jury for the “audience” by calling them that and then quickly correcting himself, solidifying the idea that these women’s lives are a spectacle for the “audience’s” viewing pleasure. They both put on quite a show during the trial itself—they are very theatrical in their movements and expressions, with big swooping arms, raised voices, crying, and fainting. Billy preps her to do this during the number—he emphasizes the importance of theatrics and “dazzl[ing]” the men in order to win her case and have her life be saved.
This highly androcentric perspective is portrayed in the characteristics of the number itself. Billy—who is conveniently the star of the number while Roxie does not say a word—is surrounded by scantily-dressed women in gold jewels and red feathers posing around him. They seem to be on display without an ounce of autonomy, only moving with an occasional delicate twist of the arm or graceful leg lift or swirl from the ceiling on silks. They serve no purpose except for visual aesthetics, “complementing” Billy and the male jury members and acting as props. All of this is to point out the misogynistic undertones of the number itself, beyond the obvious messaging through the song’s sexist lyrics. Most of the lyrics place the responsibility on the woman to “razzle dazzle” the men in order to get what they want; this involves stunning, shocking, blinding, and wowing them, assigning men the power in this dynamic. He describes women as shiny objects that they can use to their advantage in order to distract these men (“How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”), showcasing the blatant objectification that existed in this world.
To add to this idea of women distracting men, the composition illustrates this well by incorporating high hats. A lot of high hats. These stick out and are very consuming to the ear, representing this “flash” or distraction objective Billy describes through his lyrics. There are also many chimes that paint an image of sparkles or “sequins” falling around these women with men left agape, reflecting an all-too-prominent standard in society of the man staring at the woman as the woman does something with her body to impress him. This outdated image is also backed by the old-fashioned instrumentality of the song. Upon hearing the piano, brass, and trumpets, my mind instantly thought “old-timey, feel good, American jazz”—verbatim from my notes. This era of musicality is a reflection of the outdated standards and expectations of women at the time, that have still carried over in many ways.
It works, though! Roxie is found not guilty! Smiles and cheers fill the screen until—bang!—another woman has shot a man. The reporters move right along to the next headline, leaving Roxie in the dust. Roxie is upset and frustrated rather than joyous and relieved that her life has just been saved, revealing how she has internalized this need to be the headline that without, her life has little value. Ultimately, we see how female performers and celebrities, like Roxie, internalize the harmful stereotypes and behaviors that show business as a capitalist enterprise perpetuates. People are just looking for the thing that will make headlines and make them the most money, which ultimately means appealing to the wants of society, reflecting society’s misogynistic views of women. This is applicable not solely for show business or for headlines but in many aspects of life. Women having to act or appear a certain way to appeal to a certain audience in order to achieve what they want is something that I think about often, especially when thinking about eventually entering the workforce in a field, STEM, that used to be heavily dominated by men. It is easy to get caught up in these ideas in order to get ahead, but after watching Chicago and writing this blog post, I’ve realized the importance of staying true to yourself and values. And even though Velma and Roxie get somewhat of a happy, successful ending, I wouldn’t say the journey was worth it. Definitely one I’m not willing to take.
Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.
If pressed to name the musicals that define modern Broadway, I would easily name Dear Evan Hansen as one within my top three. I don’t think this is an uncommon perception. Dear Evan Hansen demonstrates some of the biggest, or perhaps most successful, trends on Broadway right now. For one thing, it’s set largely in a high school with all of the main characters either being that age or a parent. Secondly, it has some brilliant new music (read: not a jukebox musical, a genre which is simultaneously becoming more common and more contested). The music was written by the dynamic duo of Pasek and Paul– that’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for those not familiar with their previous works: Dogfight, A Christmas Story, and James and the Giant Peach to name a few.
It’s also just a very emotional show. It’s the kind of show that brings up phrases like gut-punching and heart-wrenching and all the other organ-based idioms. The plot of the musical is… flawed (we’ll get into that later), but overall, it works because of the strong emotional throughline, which I’d argue only works because of the music. At its best, the musical is summarized by one lyric from the song “Disappear,” “No one deserves to be forgotten […] no one deserves to disappear.”
On Broadway, the show garnered a huge fanbase and rocketed the original Evan Hansen, Ben Platt, into stardom. (And rightfully so, that man can sing.) By all accounts, the 2021 movie version of the 2016 musical should’ve been a success, at the very least among the musical theatre fans who bolstered its initial success.
So why did the movie version flop?
Dear Evan Hansen (2021) aims to take the ‘musical’ out of ‘movie musical.’ Director Stephen Chbosky did his absolute damnedest to try and make you think you’re watching a prestigious Oscar-nominated film, not a lowly modern musical.
The film paints Ben Platt as The Protagonist, and I’ll be the first to admit that he makes some incredible acting choices in this role. He can ugly cry like nobody’s business, and with a plot so reliant on a strong singer and a highly emotional actor, he checks both of the boxes within the first few minutes of the show. “Waving Through A Window” is a masterclass on how to introduce a character. It highlights Platt’s impressive vocal range in a symphony of belts and riffs, while also introducing the central internal conflict of the main character. It’s also super catchy, pretty much as catchy as a ballad can be. It’s no wonder that this is the song that made it big. It’s the “Defying Gravity” or the “Seasons of Love” of this show, and I can’t even be mad about it.
The choice to cast Ben Platt in this role gave us many good things, but it introduced one of the most glaring errors of the show: casting a 28-year-old man to play a high school senior. This is in no way meant as an insult to Ben Platt, but he is frankly not one of those people that can pull off ‘ten years younger.’ This raises an immediate question– why not cast a younger Evan Hansen? Sure, Platt originated the role, but there have been plenty of Broadway ‘Evan’s– the then 19-year-old Andrew Barth Feldman comes to mind–who can absolutely play 18.
What most people don’t know is that there wasn’t really any competition over who got to play Evan Hansen. Marc Platt– does that name sound familiar?–is a prominent film producer and was one of the producers of the 2021 film. He’s also–you guessed it!– Ben Platt’s dad.
Now, I don’t wanna claim nepotism, but if the shoe fits…
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that Dear Evan Hansen (2021) feels less like the original musical and more like– Oh my god, look what Ben Platt can do!
One of the most grievous errors in the movie is the change in the music. Sometimes songs have to be cut in a film adaptation for time’s sake, I get it, but in a show where the music, not the plot, is the star, you have to be very careful with the songs you cut. In my opinion, they did it entirely wrong.
Four songs were cut completely (and a few reprises but who’s counting those). They were as follows: “Does Anybody Have a Map,” “Disappear,” “Good For You,” and “To Break in a Glove.” Now, I’ll be the first to admit, those first three are some of my favorites in the staged show, so this take is admittedly biased. However, objectively, all four of these songs feature a character who is not played by Ben Platt. By removing these songs, the writers effectively stripped every character’s journey down to bare bones, with the obvious exception of Evan Hansen.
There are only three songs that are not ‘Platt-led’ left in the show. One is “Requiem,” the powerhouse trio song which, to quote my brother, “people would’ve rioted in the streets if they removed.” The others are “So Big, So Small” and the newly written song “The Anonymous Ones,” which both spend a lot of time zooming in on Ben Platt ~acting~ even though he isn’t singing.
The effect is generally that in putting a spotlight on Ben Platt, the rest of the actors are left blindly moving around in the dark. This is very nearly a crime since two of the actors stripped of a good storyline are legends, Amy Adams and Julianne Moore.
What’s really heart-breaking about this, though, is the effect on the storytelling. Dear Evan Hansen is a sad show; there’s no escaping that. But by removing the “unnecessary” (read: not Evan Hansen-based) songs, the subtleties of the story are lost.
One of the best secondary storylines of the stage show is the depiction of Heidi Hansen, Evan’s mom. We see her at the beginning struggling to keep up, in the song “Does Anybody Have a Map?” Here, she honestly admits that she doesn’t know what she’s doing and that she’s just trying her best. It’s something the teenagers watching the show sometimes need to be reminded of– parents aren’t infallible. Heidi is working a difficult job with long hours trying to make ends meet as a single mom. She doesn’t spend a lot of time with Evan, and when later in the show she finds that Evan has been pseudo-adopted by a wealthy family, she understandably feels hurt and jealous. In the song “Good For You,” she expresses this frustration. The culmination of this storyline comes when Evan admits to her that he attempted suicide earlier that year. In response, Heidi sings the song “So Big, So Small,” both sharing the fear and uncertainty she’s felt with her son, but also making clear that she will always be there for him “no matter what.”
It’s absolutely devastating. There are few moments in the canon of musical theatre that make me tear up as consistently as this song. I’d highlight a few of the most crushing lines, but honestly, it’s the whole thing. It’s worth a listen. When I saw Dear Evan Hansen live with my family, I was watching this song while sobbing and holding hands with my mom, who was (no surprise) also sobbing.
As you may have noticed, the first two songs in Heidi Hansen’s storyline were cut from the movie. She only gets one song, the song that’s supposed to be the culmination of an entire storyline about a single mother’s struggles to connect with her son. Without “Anybody Have A Map” and “Good For You,” the song falls flat, despite Julianne Moore’s heartfelt performance.
Heidi’s storyline is taken from a complex one to simply one of a mother who wasn’t aware of her son’s mental health issues because she works too much.
My mom cried after watching the Dear Evan Hansen movie. Not because of the music or the performance, but because, and I’m quoting here, “this show makes [her] feel like a bad mom.”
That is not ok.
I could go into detail about my family’s dynamics and the mental health difficulties in my immediate family that make this show hit particularly close to home for her, but I won’t. It’s not necessary.
For a show that is supposedly meant to be about remembering victims of suicide and promoting discussions of mental health, the only thing it achieved in doing was making the audience feel bad. Even worse, it made someone who lived this fictional character’s circumstances feel guilty. That is a failure no matter how you slice it.
And this isn’t even getting into the problems with the original storyline– best summed up as a teenager lying about a classmate’s suicide for his own gain only for it to come crashing down around him. What a mess. It’s like watching The Titanic sink. You know what’s going to happen, but you watch that boat slowly sink into the ocean anyway. Half of the show you’re tearing up; the other half you’re cringing more than you thought was possible.
There are many, many cringy moments in the show. “Only Us” comes to mind, as Evan gets into a relationship with Zoe Murphy, the dead kid’s sister, in a relationship that is, of course, founded on a bed of lies. The casting of Zoe didn’t help; Kaitlyn Dever is a lovely actress; she dodges the pitfall of using sadness as the character’s single emotion, admirably portraying the complexity of grief. She can also sing well enough– that is well enough next to anyone other than Ben Freaking Platt. Having only one powerhouse vocalist leaves the duet feeling lopsided. (I’d argue this would’ve also been helped by better sound mixing. As much as it pains me to say it, turn Platt’s volume down. We can do that on screen, remember?)
What annoys me (amid the cringy-ness and the boiling rage at making my mom sad) is that Dear Evan Hansen (2021) tries to separate itself from the genre it’s in. It is the least musical-y musical that has ever been. The songs feel like they’re just moments to show off Ben Platt, and let me tell you, it is framed awkwardly. By removing everyone else’s songs, we’re left with Platt being the only one who sings throughout the show. Most of the songs are just Evan singing at someone while they watch him and emote. (Not to mention him starting the show by literally waving through a literal window. *Insert an eye roll pointedly aimed at Stephen Chbosky*)
They aren’t aided by theatrical lighting anymore. There’s no spotlight on Evan during “Words Fail.” The director chose to make us watch the Murphy family watch Evan admit to lying to them for the entire show. (It’s awful. I hated it. I already disliked “Words Fail” because of the wandering melody, but Good Lord, I wanted to be absorbed by my sofa. The secondhand embarrassment was too much.)
Choreography is virtually nonexistent in the show– there already was very little in the stage show, but the film was particularly lacking. The one moment of choreography I found was in “Sincerely, Me,” and it felt more like it was mocking musical theatre’s dance tradition than joining it. It feels very staged and ironic, and it’s meant to, this song is a visualization of the lies Evan is telling. The peppy music and bubbly choreography are meant to feel fraudulent and, oh boy, does the song achieve its goal, or what?
All of these choices, specifically the removal of the characteristic musical traits, leave the film feeling disingenuous. It feels almost like a movie musical made by people who don’t actually like musicals all that much. It seems like a cash grab if anything. The creators saw the success of the Broadway show and Ben Platt’s admittedly beautiful performance, and they decided to milk that for every last cent. In doing so, they lost what made Dear Evan Hansen a hit in the first place.
Dear Evan Hansen did not succeed on stage in spite of it being a musical. It worked because it’s a musical. The movie forgot that.
It was time. I tightened my belt, sheathed my sword, and sweatily clutched the handle as I entered through the backstage door and into the wings of Weiss Auditorium. I hadn’t dealt with nerves like these in a long time. I kept trying to imagine that I was running out of the locker room like Ray Lewis in Baltimore circa 2001, but I just couldn’t quite get there. Despite performing in countless plays throughout my childhood, nothing had prepared me for opening night of my first musical.
Despite these feelings of nervousness, when it came time for me to enter, I didn’t shakily stumble onto the stage; I gallivanted. That’s what I had to do. Not because I was an actor. Because I was a prince. Prince’s don’t get nervous – or perhaps, after watching the trials and tribulations of Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s prince, one might venture that they do. Whatever the anxiety levels of princes may be, as soon as I opened my mouth for the first time to begin to sing “Agony,” I was floating.
I was suddenly a passenger, whimsically being whisked through the melodious tones and intense feelings inherent in the music of Stephen Sondheim. Thus began a love affair that has been going strong for the last six years – one need only look to my Spotify wrapped to understand the commitment I have made to the “Into The Woods Original Broadway Cast Recording.” Since the conclusion of my high school production of Into The Woods, the continuation of the undying love between myself of this musical has mainly consisted of humming, a few reprisals now and then, and dreaming of the old days. But right here, right now, that all changes.
My dearest readers, I exit my prolonged hiatus from critically engaging with this musical by diving head-first into the story that I’ve held for so long in my heart, except this time, with even brighter lights, a much bigger budget, and James Corden singing – how fun! Without further adieu, I give you… my second act!
After my viewing of the film version of Into the Woods (2014), I grabbed an ice pack and threw it on my noggin for a hot minute, as I had just been hit over the head by themes and ideas that my ninth grade brain didn’t quite grasp. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that this was not a surface musical from the moment I picked up the script. I sobbed endlessly on the last night of our run, as our wonderful witch sang, “Children Will Listen.” “No More” – a tune inexplicably cut from the film – is a song that will tug at my heartstrings until the day I die.
The question that I found myself seeking to ask in my viewing, though, was: “what makes this musical, seemingly completely removed from real life, relevant today?” There is not one specific moment to point to, or one character that pulls everything together in this show. That’s the beauty of an ensemble musical. You can truly look at each scene and find something new about a character that you don’t know much about. However, there are some concrete things I was drawn to as I viewed this film, so allow me to guide you.
The construction of Into The Woods is very unique in itself. It’s an amalgamation of many fairytales from places and cultures across the Europe. In this fact, the show already takes on a unique sense of cultural relevance, as it serves as a bridge between storytelling cultures from all over the place. The reason for this may not be as deep as you think, as a fascinating article on the conception of the musical reveals that Sondheim decided to amalgamate these many characters because he thought it was simply impossible to start a fairy tale from scratch while trying to create the quest story that he had for so long wanted to conceive.
Despite the reasoning, the result is what’s important here. An amalgamation of different folktales and stories working in harmony gives this musical more meaning before the curtains even rise: there is something innately beautiful about being able to combine different people’s stories and fuse it into a bigger cohesive story? Isn’t that, in a way, what life itself is about? Cheesy, I know. But true. Very true.
From the jump this show shoots down the notion of universality: these characters are certainly not the same. They do not share the same privileges, the same financial security, and the same concerns. This musical thrives in the fact that these characters are so clearly different. There’s also a notion of hybridity in these characters. Sure – this is not as clear as it is in the analysis of some characters in West Side Story or Into The Heights, but the hybridity in these characters mainly lies in the fact that they have these set and preconceived identities associated with their fairytale. The characters never shed these identities throughout the movie – Cinderella is still Cinderella to us when the credits role. Undoubtedly, though, they take on new identities as the film continues. For example, Cinderella is not just an abused stepdaughter who eventually meets her prince, but an individual heavily grieving over her mother and someone who continues to experience problems after meeting “her prince.”
Ah, Social Class
Finally! We can dive deeper into “Agony!” The number features Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) as they commiserate about women that they cannot yet achieve. (I think it’s pretty clear who these women are, considering the names of the characters.) Anyhow, it’s a funny sight, especially when juxtaposed to what other characters in the musical are going through: two well-off and good looking princes being over-dramatic about the pain they feel because it’s officially been one day since they selected a girl they want and they don’t have her yet. I mean, seriously? You’re upset because there are no doors on your maiden’s tower? The baker and baker’s wife may never be able to have a child! Rapunzel doesn’t know what grass feels like! But please, regale us of your pain in what is (may I biasedly say, the best number of the musical.)
This is worth watching yourself before any more discussion from me, so let’s take a brief intermission and give this one a watch. Wait! Go grab some popcorn first. I don’t want you to feel like you’re watching this clip as an assignment. Watch it with the true movie-goer experience in mind. Leave the analysis for later. Anyway, enjoy!
I love Chris Pine. I just absolutely love the guy. What a ham! You see why I had you watch that? Delightful, right? More than that, it’s important to watch these princes in action to truly understand what this number is trying to say. If you were to simply listen to the soundtrack, half the meaning of “Agony” would be lost. So much of this song is in the choreography.
One of the best moments of this song is when Cinderella’s Prince rips his shirt open as he WRITHES in pain (I hope the sarcasm is detectable) and then Rapunzel’s Prince, looking to fit in, hesitantly rips his shirts as well (1:26). A similar moment occurs just a few seconds later, as Rapunzel’s Prince opens his mouth to sing of his pain again, but then is forced to look to his right and cede to his brother, as he has already continued singing (1:37). The two also take part in ridiculous displays of thrusting themselves back on rocks in pain, bumping into one another as they try to prove who is in more lovesick, and even kick the flowing stream water on one another as this number continues. Pine and Magnussen also absolutely nail the facial expressions, as they manage to render themselves as two puppy dogs, who know absolutely nothing about the world yet. I think this is exactly why my director decided to cast two ninth graders as the princes: you need to be able to portray a high level of naiveté in the role.
The main way through which characters construct cultural identity in this musical is through social class. Into The Woods shows us extreme examples of both the poor and the rich, and displays the way in which their wealth or lack thereof it has shaped them. The reason I chose to focus on “Agony” lies in the pure privilege of this number. While Little Red is dealing with a wolf that wants to eat her, and Jack and his mother are trying to sell their cow to put food on the table, the princes have time to assemble in this beautiful clearing in the woods and lament about a problem that is not a problem at all. Although abstracted by the fairy tale-ness of it all, this societal contradiction exists everywhere. “That’s a first world problem,” is certainly becoming a hackneyed phrase, but it’s true. How often do you hear someone complaining about something that you think they have no means complaining about? How often do you think you complain about something that someone else internally scoffs at? It’s all about perspective, I suppose, and these princes certainly don’t have it.
This is all made worse by the fact that the princes will get these women – and not be fully satisfied! The more you have, the less you can enjoy, I guess. The people who really deserve to catch a break, like the baker and his wife – don’t get so happy of an ending. The rich get richer.
The Good ol’ Fam
There shouldn’t be a dry eye left in the house after this one. There really shouldn’t. Into The Woods finds its most powerful cultural relevance through its musings on family. It differs heavily from a musical like Fiddler On The Roof, which focuses on the traditions and customs of a specific familial structure. Sondheim went much more broad in his statements on family, and I’d be surprised if anybody could walk out of the show and not found something that they can relate to. Between the Baker and his wife and their quest to have a child, the witch and her obsession with protecting and hiding Rapunzel, the struggle between Jack and his mother, Cinderella’s mourning of her mother, the Baker’s unresolved relationship with his father, the Baker grappling with the new responsibility of having a son, and the Baker’s eventual raising of Jack and Little Red. “No One is Alone/Children Will Listen” is one of the most gut-wrenching numbers of the entire musical, as the Baker, now left without his wife, must raise his son on his own.
Sondheim delivers a song for the ages that leaves anybody with a pulse thinking as the credits begin to roll in this film. It’s worth a watch – have a tissue box on hand.
Great, now I’m crying. I think I can still manage to say what I want to say. When the Baker’s Wife appears next to the struggling Baker and says “Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the wood,” I immediately break down. The sincerity and love in Emily Blunt’s eyes when she delivers that line is so genuine that you cannot help but think of someone you have lost in your life, or someone that you absolutely couldn’t bear losing.
Once the Baker gains the courage to begin speaking to his child, the Witch’s voice begins in the background, emphasizing the importance of being cautious with what you say to children. It doesn’t matter as much what you say to adults – they are all selfish and caught up in years and years of their own beliefs. Children, however, are blank slates. They will trust. They will care. They will listen. Thus, talking to a child, and, in a greater sense, raising a child, is one of the greatest responsibilities a human being could have. As the Baker begins to get in a rhythm of talking to his little boy, Jack and Little Red enter too, as well as Cinderella, who seems she will fill in as the motherly figure in the absence of the Baker’s Wife. Even in the face of great tragedy, people find family, blood or otherwise, to hang onto.
This song is also a very personal one for Sondheim, who was very affected by the psychological abusivness of his own mother. The two had a horrible relationship, ending in a twenty year estrangement and Sondheim not attending her funeral. With this number, Sondheim issues his own warning, serving as an example of just how deeply a parents’ treatment of their child can affect them for the rest of their life. This is perhaps the most universal cultural message of the show – in the construction of one’s identity, the role models and parental figures in one’s life are absolutely essential.
If I ever want to get the water works to get going, I know where to go. Thanks, Sondheim.
Breifly on omissions
I’m sorry, I had to just take a few seconds of your time to say the following about the parts of this musical that didn’t make the cut from the stage to the screen. I don’t get some of these removals. Clearly, I’m a purist for this musical, but it goes further than that. How do you get rid of “Agony (Reprise)?” With that, the film totally dismissed the storyline of the princes not being satisfied with their wives, and having affairs with Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.
This is so critical to this class discussion we were having earlier, as the stage version of Into The Woods seems to support the thesis of “The more you have, the less satisfied you are.” It’s beautiful comedy. Here these princes are in Act I, yelling at the universe for not allowing them to have these women that they SIMPLY MUST have. The first “Agony” ends with the two entering a falsetto to sing, “I must have her, to wife.” In Act II, the princes rejoin to sing of the new maidens they have found, and conclude the song by this time singing, “Oh well, back to my wife.”
To leave out “No More” is equally as puzzling. I get it, Hollywood. Big lights, big money, not a lot of time. Blah, blah, blah. Gotcha. That doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the most important numbers of the show. Talk about displaying the cultural significance of the show as a whole and bridging the gaps between all audience members by discussing the themes of family! Come on! “No More” is a seminal moment in which the Baker and the Mysterious Man (the Baker’s father) explore their broken relationship and how one is supposed to move forward in this scary and dark world. Another upper, I know.
There was no more universal reception at my high school performance than the reaction to this song. How could you not be shaken by the all-too relatable ideas of love, loss, fear, and broken-ness.
Try these lyrics on for size from the Baker as he unloads his fears to his father:
Can't we just pursue our lives
With out children and our wives?
'Till that happy day arrives,
How do you ignore
All the witches,
All the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies,
The false hopes, the goodbyes,
All the wondering what even worse is
Still in store?
What is a father supposed to say that??? How do we get to that day when we are with the people we love, and don't have to worry about all the things in this world standing in the way of that? Will we ever get there? The movie should at least ask this question by not making this nonsensical cut.
the ultimate quest
Sondheim set out to make a quest musical. Sure, he succeeded in doing that. But Into The Woods leaves us with a lot more than the Baker’s journey to find the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold. It leaves us with an urge to further our own quest in this world. It causes me to question my privilege. Are the problems I’m dealing with right now that bad? Or am I Chris Pine, throwing myself back on a rock over nothing while there is a James Corden right next to me in a much worse spot?
If you walk out of this movie thinking one thing, it has to be: “am I happy with my relationship with my family right now?” Into The Woods is a call to action for parents, children, husbands, and wives alike to right the wrongs in their relationship before it’s too late. The musical brings a sense of urgency to our time on this planet so acutely that I always feel a need to give my parents a call after watching this on the stage or on the screen.
With this musical, Sondheim so kindly says – “this time here is so precious, I would advise you to not mess it up.”
“It’s all a circus, a three-ring circus… these trials, the world,” stated the inimitable Billy Flynn in Chicago’s climactic court scene. “It’s all show business.”
And he’s right. If there’s one thing to take from the sleazy streets of the jazzy, 1920s setting of Chicago, it’s that the world is the stage, and the actors know how to perform their parts.
Chicago (2002) puts its audience in the shoes of Roxie Hart (played by Renee Zellweger), a sweet-faced, blonde starlet on the rise in the Midwestern Vaudevillian circuit. That is, until she kills her paramour and gets thrown into the slammer for her crime. Hence, the musical revolves around this bombshell anti-hero and her plight for a “not guilty” verdict as she encounters a plethora of devious cynics, including the seductive murderess Velma Kelly (played by the legendary Catherine Zeta-Jones), the corrupt, albeit fair matron of Murderess’ Row, Mama Morton (played by Queen Latifah), and the smooth-tongued criminal defense lawyer Billy Flynn (played by Richard Gere). Together, this ensemble of deceitful frauds characterize the oft amoral “Windy City,” manipulating the system not only for legal acquittal, but public stardom. Yet, it is not necessarily the direct plot of Chicago that reveals the two-faced and duplicit qualities of these characters, but rather over-the-top musical numbers that deviate from the gray and grimy setting of 1920s Chicago. Through the elaborate stage composition, specific lyricism, and intentional hyper-focus on choreography featured in its show-stopping musical numbers, Chicago reveals the enticingly manipulative nature of its captivating cast of crooks.
Firstly, it is important to distinguish how Chicago differentiates its linear plot from the inclusion of musical numbers. Unlike the broadway stage, where musical numbers are interwoven into the present stage setting, the Chicago film employs two different settings to tell its story: the first being the dark, sullen atmosphere of the city itself, and the second being a changing theater stage, always decked with ornate lighting, luxurious wardrobes, and glamorous detailings. The film employs the city atmosphere primarily for dialogue and plot progression, while utilizing the theater stage setting for its dynamic musical numbers.
We can deduce that this theater setting utilized in the film exists outside the physical realm of the Chicago universe. Instead (or rather, intentionally), the stage setting acts as a conduit for the characters in the film to present themselves to the world in the way that they choose to be seen. In employing this setting technique, we can identify how the film utilizes its identity as a stage musical to develop its characters, seeing as each number and its glamorous contrast to the gloomy world of Chicago allows the audience to see a glimpse into the facade worn by the film’s characters. As such, the show’s numbers can almost be considered an insight into the mind of a criminal, as through the character’s lyrics and performance, we get a front row seat to their internalized identity.
The dichotomy between Chicago’s plot development and number inclusion is perhaps best realized in one of the film’s first performances: “Funny Honey.” Prior to the transition into the number, we witness Roxie after committing the murder as her husband Amos attempts to take the blame for the killing. As Amos provides his faulty account to the police, the film fades into the dark theater setting, featuring Roxie adorned in a peach satin evening dress atop a grand piano. As the musical number segment ensues, we witness an interpolation between Roxie’s jazzy, seductive performance and Amos’ diegetic testimony. Despite the two sequences occurring in entirely different realms, the number still acts as an externalized depiction of Roxie’s internal monologue. The Roxie in the number, who presents herself as the fragile, endearing wife of Amos during his testimony, sings of her husband’s praises: “He loves me so / And it all suits me fine / That funny, sunny, honey hubby of mine.” However, as the diegetic testimony shifts when Amos realizes his wife’s infidelity, Roxie’s performance tone does as well: “I can’t stand that sap / Look at him go / Rattin’ on me.” Evident through the climactic shift, this performance is quite literally Roxie’s demeanor as Amos testifies to the police. As Fred Ebb’s lyrics expertly display the shift from a wooing, awe-filled wife to an angry, manipulative fraud when exposed, it is more than apparent that the musical makeup of Chicago acts as an image of its characters’ manipulative and deceitful facades.
It’s not just the lyricism in musical numbers that conveys the internal deceptiveness of these characters, either; Velma Kelley’s “I Can’t Do It Alone” employs intense Bob Fosse choreography to demonstrate her manipulative goals. The number occurs slightly after the film’s midpoint, following Roxie’s climb to notoriety adjacent to Velma’s fall from relevance. In an “act of desperation,” we witness Velma plead with Roxie in this number to start a two-woman show once they are both acquitted. This number differs from “Funny Honey,” as unlike Roxie’s performance as the shaken-but-steadfast wife, Velma centers her performance around her dancing and performance prowess. The number consists of a multitude of dancing sequences as Zeta-Jones springs into styles like jazz, cha-cha, swing, salsa, and Middle-Eastern-inspired movement – all of which with near perfect precision, coordination, and timing. The powerhouse performance of this choreography is exactly what establishes the manipulative irony of the number as well, as we have quite literally witnessed Zeta-Jones’ character do “it” alone. Furthermore, the flashy, neon stage design of the number only adds to the vivacity and enticement of this number, essentially drawing in the audience (and Roxie) with bright, Las Vegas marquis-like lighting atop Zeta-Jones’ stellar movements. As such, the choreographic composition of the number acts as the primary communicator of Velma’s character as she actively seeks to profit off of Roxie’s sudden rise in popularity.
Now, with all this corruption and deceit, how can anyone come to be fond of this show and its characters? Simply put: the performances. As previously distinguished, the musical makeup of this show is the front-row ticket to a world of manipulative enticement. Through the glamorous wardrobes and set designs, exciting jazzy influences, and a whirlwind of flapper-esque choreo, the world of Chicago is surprisingly exciting for a bleak and dismal city. The haze of glitz and glamor in the show’s numbers lures us deeper and deeper into caring about these characters, being captivated by the snares of jazz, sex, and liberation. As such, with each successive deceit and sabotage, we can’t help but indulge by rooting for Chicago’s collection of cons. With that being said, it only makes sense that this curveball nomination in the 2003 Academy Awards would go on to win six Oscars, including “Best Picture” and “Best Supporting Actress” for Zeta-Jones’ career-defining performance. Chicago is, for lack of a better term, the good guy’s vicarious ride on the wild side, giving into the temptations of subconscious desire, sexual allure, and all that jazz.
White Christmas certainly is, well, white. Many consider both the song and 1954 film, White Christmas, to be a quintessential part of American holiday culture. It stars some of the most famous stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, like Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, and Rosemary Clooney. It gives us feelings of nostalgia with odes to Rogers and Hammerstein, big dance numbers (choreographed by Bob Fosse and Robert Alton), and predictable love stories. But are these feelings universal to all of us, or just white Americans? I’m not going to lie, I am a sucker for old Hollywood films. I love the big dance numbers, aesthetic costumes, and predictable plots. They bring comfort to me. However, films made at this time (like White Christmas) certainly have their flaws. If we are going to continue loving White Christmas, it is necessary to give it a critical analysis, specifically of its performances of whiteness and its emphasis of traditional gender stereotypes on stage.
Come to “Holiday Inn”
Let’s start by debunking some common misconceptions regarding the musical film. First off, the musical is technically, well a jukebox musical of Irving Berlin’s songs. The infamous “White Christmas,” song was written by Irving Berlin, formerly Israel Beilin, the famous Russian-Jewish immigrant composer. Berlin wrote the song in 1942 for another Christmas musical starring Bing Crosby known as “Holiday Inn.” When asked why a Jewish American would be writing Christmas songs, Berlin responded with “I wrote it as an American.” Some attribute his creation of the song to Berlin’s identity and belonging as an American immigrant, as celebrating Christmas was seen as integral to American culture. The song first aired in December 1941, just after Pearl Harbor, promoting a sense of American cultural unity during the War. The film features other songs previously debuted in Holiday Inn, like the instrumental version of “Abraham.” The musical composition of “Snow,” was made originally for the musical “Call Me Madam,” but lyrics were changed to fit the context of White Christmas. “What Can You do with a General?” was also recycled for the film.
The film loosely resembles the plot of Holiday Inn (1942) as well, telling the love story between two entertainer duos: WWII veterans and sisters. Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) is a former Broadway star who teams up with Phil Davis (Danny Kaye); the two provide entertainment for troops their time serving in the war and go into business together after they return home. They soon meet Judy and Betty, the sister duo, and wind up at an Inn in Vermont as a result of Phil’s mischievous plan to set Bob up with a Betty. (Let’s not forget Phil also takes a strong liking to Betty’s sister Judy).
Let’s start with gender. The Hayne’s sisters’ first musical number “Sisters,” is strikingly resemblant to the number “Two Little Girls from Little Rock,” which features Marilyn Monroe in Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend. The sisters come out dressed in extravagant baby blue dresses holding obnoxiously large, feathered fans (designed by Edith Head). While the song lyrics seem to emphasize the strong bond the girls have as they sing “Lord, help the mister/ who comes between me and my sister,” but quickly transitions into “sister, don’t come between me and my man.” The song’s entire premise and purpose highlights the mentality that of course, they both should marry, and obviously it should be a man. The reprise of the number features Bob and Phil perform for the sisters in drag like costumes.
A truly “white” performance
The following musical number “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” features Phil and Judy singing and dancing in perfect harmony. It’s too perfect, just like the couple’s newfound love for each other. Not to mention Vera Ellen is twirling in what looks like six-inch heels. However, the audience gets to experience a beautifully choreographed romantic experience between the two. Never more have I wanted to go twirl around in a massive swing dress. This number again, emphasizes the binary reality that Judy must end up with Phil. This is what Judy wants, I guess. I would describe this number as quintessential of the Golden Age of Hollywood. A man and woman deeply in love with each other, lost in a beautiful swing dance. While Vera Ellen really can’t sing, (her voice was dubbed throughout the film), she sure can dance!
Now for the “whitest,” part of the film: the “Minstrel Number.” There is no explicit blackface or minstrel performance during the film, but the number does express the grave desire to go watch these performances. Everything in this number is loud and large. The stage is reminiscent of a Ziegfeld Follie performance. Lots of long bare legs, big kicks, and sparkles. The background dancers look strikingly similar to today’s Rockettes. Unsurprisingly, the new version of the song used in the film is a compilation of Berlin’s previous songs “Mandy,” and “I’d Rather See a Minstrel Show,” featured in Ziegfeld’s show in 1919.
The song opens with Bob and Phil singing about “pawning their overcoats to see a Minstrel Show.” “Mandy,” was originally from an army musical which featured soldiers in blackface and drag. Embodying whiteness on stage, Betty continues to sing of “the minstrel days we miss, when Georgie Primrose used to sing a dance a song to a song like this.” The whiteness on stage while not in explicit blackface, lovingly reminisces on the harmful practice. Judy then rises out of massive stage piece in a white leotard with long tail mimicking a wedding dress. She walks down the stairs past the swooning men and indistinguishable female ensemble in burlesque style costumes.
The rest of the dance number is impressive but somewhat unrelated to the plot. It features complex acrobatic choreography centering on the beauty of Judy, arguably objectifying her to just her body. She flies down the stairs as she is thrown between the arms of ensemble men. While Bing doesn’t actually perform in black face (he sure does in Holiday Inn though,) this musical number is positively reminiscent of minstrelsy and blackface, honoring it on stage, furthering the dominant form of whiteness on stage.
As I said before, White Christmas tends to remind some of cuddling up on the couch with your family during the Holiday season with a warm cup of hot cocoa. However, the film quite literally honors the racist practices of minstrelsy and blackface through its musical composition. Not only are songs used that contain lyrics verbatim reminiscing on the practice, a number of the other songs used in the musical originated through performance of the practice. Vera Ellen gets to showcase her dance skills a number of times in the show including to the instrumental version of Abraham. In White Christmas, the song exists purely as a dance break for Ellen; the song is only an instrumental version. But the original song was taken from White Christmas’s predecessor Holiday Inn. Bing Crosby’s character performs an abhorrently racist number in full blackface to this song. What was the need to include it in the new film? What does this say about the values of said American culture now and at that time?
The ending of the film is almost too perfect. It features all the characters on stage singing the iconic number “White Christmas.” A beautiful backdrop decorated with Christmas trees and presents is removed to reveal that the previously eighty degree Vermont town is having a white Christmas. I can’t help but sigh when I hear the three dinging bells fade into the soothing baritone of Bing’s voice exclaim:
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the tree tops glisten
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow, oh, the snow
This linkage between “whiteness” and American culture in White Christmas is explicit. It draws on community feelings of nostalgia, and national unity in a post world war II setting, but only by connecting to those who are white. The film creates a link between American history and culture as inherently white. Now the fact that Irving Berlin, a Jewish-American immigrant wrote a number of the songs for the musical complicate matters a bit. While he may have know first hand the struggle of assimilation and finding belonging in his new home, he never experienced life as a person of color in America. The film portrayals on gender also allow audiences to consider the intersections. of gender and race. If the story was told with characters of another race, would it cast the same meaning? And Bing, I have to ask are you dreaming of a white Christmas with regards to snow…. or a white Christmas with regards to the whiteness we see throughout the film? The film may seem merry at face value, but after a closer look at its history, I’m not sure it’s all that bright.
There is a lot to be said about Dear Evan Hansen; a musical view into mental health, a tell-all of social media, and society’s manipulation of traumatic events for personal gain. However, regardless of the complexities of my previous statement, Dear Evan Hansen is a musical that all should see, and in my opinion, rather a story that forces its viewers to confront emotional health, well-being, and surprisingly, forgiveness and understanding, in a way no other musical or story does. For me, this becomes all too clear in the powerful scene between Evan and his mom, Heidi, in the later half of the second act.
Written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “So Big/So Small” is a beautiful song about how life has shaped Hiedi’s motherhood and her love for her son. The song begins as more of a transition, from Evan’s admission of mental health struggles to his mom to a quick silent pause and Heidi beginning to tell him a story. Soft guitar begins, and slowly, we are pulled deeper into the moment, into the very living room with them, and before we know it, are hanging on to every word, every second, and every emotion. The tension in the room is unreal as if the whole rest of the world is just quiet, no distractions, only honesty. The solo guitar and comfortable range of Heide’s voice coming into the song spark a pure and raw tone, which in turn reflects the intimacy of the story and is an indication to audiences that this will be something special.
Throughout Heide’s telling of how Evan’s father left the two of them, metaphors largely play a part in anchoring and grounding our emotions further within the song and scene and make us feel for Heidi and Evan in ways the rest of the musical does not and made me reflect on my relationship to my own mom, my childhood, and my upbringing. It’s heart-wrenching. Puts that pull in the bottom of your stomach. It’s powerful.
A U-Haul truck in the driveway
But you saw that truck
And you smiled so wide
A real live truck in your driveway
lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Growing up, trucks were always a source of fascination, an oddity to the small barely battery-powered trucks and cars we would drive around in the front yard. Trucks marked for me my innocence, a curiosity for the world, and my desire to climb things that were bigger than me. To pair this innocence and personal connection with the reality of Evan’s dad abandoning him…. I’m heartbroken.
I will never forget how you sat up and said
“Is there another truck coming to our driveway?
A truck that will take mommy away”
There’s not another truck in the driveway
Your mom isn’t going anywhere
My childhood connection to trucks completely transformed into a whole new meaning, and for Evan too, trucks are no longer innocent but the loss of something no child should ever go through. No longer joy but something that could take his mom away from him. This line for me is where the emotions become too overwhelming, too present, too real, and is where Heide reminds me of my own mother; steadfast and always there.
Beautifully written within the structure of the truck metaphor, Pasek and Paul incorporate notions of feeling small in a world so big; feeling at our bottom while situations in our lives threaten to bury us, threaten to envelop our very existence; something in which I feel is all too common for people in today’s society and a choice that makes “So Big/So Small” resonate more broadly and loudly than ever.
Now it’s just me and my little guy
And the house felt so big, and I felt so small
The house felt so big, and I felt so small
Pasek and Paul’s use of metaphors and Julliane Moore’s incredible ability to deliver them through her performance of Heidi allow us to see Evan in a whole new way. It is Moore’s ability to change her voice inflection, create and play with such a raw tone that takes this song to another level. Viewers and, certainly me, at this moment learn to forgive Evan; we drop our guards, drop our moral prejudices and empathize with not only Evan but Heidi for her role as a hard-working single mother. For me, this song and this scene is a defining moment for Dear Evan Hansen and stands for why this is such an important musical for society and one which completely changed my entire perception of the musical as a whole.
Stephen Chbosky’s direction of camera shots and blocking makes audiences confront their emotions head-on. Confront the feeling of loss, the feeling of just being at our lowest, because there’s nothing to distract from it. No movement. Just sitting and embracing what is given to us makes this direction choice speak volumes. It’s almost like silence in music; the lack of sound is more impactful than the presence of sound. In this moment the lack of motion is more powerful than any motion could ever be. Throughout this scene, there are two camera angles, the main angle being a close-up of Heidi, and the second, the reaction of Evan to his mom’s personal experience of being left by her partner, without resources and help, and with a young now fatherless child. Tears flow from both sides of the screen and the scene ends with Evan embracing his mom.
This song and moment teaches so much about empathy, really making viewers think about where others are coming from, and meeting them at their lowest point; supporting them through it all. Society desperately needs more of this action, especially in a world where empathy and understanding get lost through social media and through our ever-busy lives. Dear Evan Hansen and “So Big/ So Small” also teaches us to forgive while encouraging us to love all no matter what. Bluntly, Evan conned a grieving family to gain what he felt like he lost in his own family. Yet, at this moment with his mother, sitting just the two of them, we forgive him, we forgive, and that’s what matters most and what I will remember most about this special musical.
The Sound of Music (1965; film) is an American Musical film produced and directed by Robert Wise and was originally written and composed for the stage by the legendary duo Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1959. Based on the true story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers, it begins with Maria, played by Julie Andrews, leaving the Abbey where she was training to be a nun and traveling to the von Trapp residence where she has been charged with taking care of the imitable Captain von Trapp’s, played by Christopher Plummer, seven children. Maria is independent and free spirited and never takes life too seriously, which is the complete opposite of the strict and no nonsense Captain. Taking place in Austria in the 1930s preceding World War II, Maria helps the Captain rekindle his relationship with his children while also forming relationships of her own with both the children and the Captain. This joyful storyline eventually becomes taken over by a darker threat of Nazi Germanic control.
Still Popular today
Despite coming out over fifty years ago, The Sound of Music (1965; film)is still a crowd favorite. This optimistic and sanguine film checks all the boxes. Notable actors that are charming and loveable? Check. Catchy music that is still being sung and reused while also inspiring new modern-day projects? Check. A plot that involves both an independent female protagonist as well as a swoon-worthy love story? Check. A more serious note of underlying political commentary? Check. These few features of the film are only scratching the surface of what makes this film a persistently popular culture phenomenon.
The power of music
Music is the main element responsible for moving the story along, the title is literally The Sound of MUSIC. This can be seen from the very beginning with the prelude song, “Prelude / The Sound of Music,” where Maria is seen dancing and singing in a picturesque field all by herself. Andrews gives Maria such an energetic and youthful performance full of big hearty swooping motions and enthusiastic belting that it makes me want to stop what I’m doing and find a field to do the exact same thing. This scene sets the stage for understanding Maria and how she goes about life: happy and free.
Then there are also the iconic and catchy songs such as “My Favourite Things” and “Do-Re-Mi” that can be heard at Christmas time and in elementary school music classes everywhere. “My Favorite Things” has not only become a classic Christmas song, it has even been an inspiration for modern day artist, Ariana Grande in the form of her hit song “7 Rings,” and if that’s not a reflection on the timelessness of this musical, then I don’t know what is.
As for “Do-Re-Mi,” this could be considered the origin story of the Trapp Family Singers, at least regarding the film. The von Trapp children don’t know how to sing, which is largely because of their father becoming withdrawn from all things playful and artistic after his wife passed. Maria’s character identity is largely based on her ability to sing, which Andrews embodies perfectly while also being in perfect pitch. Maria introduces the children to solfège of the major musical scale with this simple but extremely helpful song. The song, while not especially complicated, is what changes it all for the von Trapp kids because once they feel more comfortable with these musical elements, they acquire the ability to better get through to their partially estranged father.
We finally hear the whole von Trapp family, including the captain, sing together when the captain overhears the children singing “The Sound of Music” to his guests. He has an obvious emotional response to hearing and seeing them sing together where his eyes seem to light up in joy and recognition, which is when he begins to sing along. The children have a moment of questioning where they stop singing for a moment, until they realize that their father is not only appreciating their sound, but also joining in, and then we finally get to hear all the von Trapp family sing as a group. This scene in the movie was, in my opinion, the most warming and heartfelt, and definitely brought tears to my eyes because it’s where we finally get to see the love the captain has for his children and in turn the love they have for him.
The Captain’s homeland
Once Captain von Trapp finally does come around, he even has a song that’s special to him. “Edelweiss,” is a flower meaning devotion and was his statement of Austrian patriotism in the face of pressure from Nazi Germany. This song really embodies the captain’s view on the political situation that is currently affecting him and his home country. It is the first song that the captain really takes the initiative to begin, and it’s also one of the last songs the von Trapp family is seen performing. They perform it in front of a crowd full of fellow Austrians as well as officers from the German Navy who are waiting to take him to their base and force him to accept a commission to their war navy. This performance is a statement to the German officers and to the Austrians that they are still going to represent and love their country in this battle with an unforeseen outcome. With lyrics such as “Edelweiss, Edelweiss / Bless my homeland forever,” it becomes a sentimental response to the politically adverse climate that’s currently occurring. It also gives this scene as well as the remainder of the film an emotionally charged atmosphere that creates a much deeper meaning to the film as whole.
Many might question if this film has any aspects of feminism or women empowerment because it seems to be mainly about a man and woman falling in love, which has come to be synonymous with a woman becoming dependent on a man. I wouldn’t say it’s an altogether feministic masterpiece because it’s less blatantly feminist and more of a coming-of-age story of a young woman, Maria, and could even be applied to the eldest daughter, Liesl. For Maria though, she is thrown into her job as a governess by The Reverend Mother because it’s obvious that her sole purpose is not to be a nun, she even says herself that she saw the nuns singing when she was a child and decided that’s what she wanted to do. This decision was not because she was particularly religious or had a strong yearning to be a nun; she just wanted to have fun singing with a group of people. She finds just what she’s looking for in the form of the von Trapp children, after she teaches them, what music is, of course. Maria has choices that she can make for herself about her life trajectory such as whether to become a nun or whether or not to take the job as the governess, and this at least gives her some semblance of agency over her life. On the other hand, these roles that she can choose from do seem to be limited to stereotypical roles assigned to women and seemingly with no option of pursuing something outside of gender normativity. Maria is very headstrong, which gives her some power to stand up for herself by going against the captain’s orders on how to care for his children and eventually help the children reunite fully with their father, but even in this defiance she is still playing into stereotypical roles women are expected to play such as the motherly figure and the peacekeeper.
As for Liesl, played by Charmian Carr, she’s just a young sixteen-year-old girl looking for her path in life. Her father has seemingly abandoned her and her siblings emotionally, she has no mother and no older siblings to look to or ask for advice. The only person who seems to have an interest in Maria’s life is seventeen-year-old Hitler enthusiast/messenger boy, Rolf. The song, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” which is coming from Rolf, who is only one year older than Liesl, is definitely a little condescending towards her as seen by him calling her “little girl” and warning her of being too naive and being taken advantage of by older men. Then when it comes to her verse, she obviously has an agenda, which is to get to Rolf. She plays into her naivety and tells him things he wants to hear to rile him up, such as calling herself “innocent as a rose” and saying, “I’ll depend on you” (i.e. Rolf). All throughout the duet they are seen dancing in a gazebo at night while it’s raining. They partner dance close together at times, but Rolf will back up when getting too close because he doesn’t want to be seen as one that’s taking advantage of her, but at this time in her life she wants Rolf, and she knows it, even though the audience can clearly tell Rolf is not the man for her. While this scene definitely doesn’t do the film any favors for being seen as one that empowers women, the prevailing idea is that Liesl is young and looking for her purpose in life. She might currently think that purpose is getting with Rolf, but she has the agency to change that, and with the help of Maria in their “Sixteen Going on Seventeen Reprise,” she realizes that she doesn’t actually need Rolf. She has the ability to keep searching for her true passion in life, without traitor Rolf.
Women empowering ideas in this film aren’t as obvious as they are in others, and it might even be a reach to call them women empowering, but it’s more about the fact that all the female characters are still looking for their place in life. This gives the idea that they have some semblance of agency in finding their dream and pursuing it, even if the dreams given are limited.
not a love story but still very much a love story
As a hopeless romantic, I can’t help but swoon at every love story, no matter how corny or unrealistic, I come into contact with. That is to say, I did indeed swoon when Maria and the Captain are in the gazebo professing their love for each other through the song, “Something Good.” Them standing so close to each other, both singing “I must have done something good / For here you are, standing there, loving me,” was the climax to the evident build up their relationship had been going through. Yes, the Captain had intended to marry the Baroness, but their chemistry was minimal, and neither of them really loved each other, which of course makes it okay for him to break up with her for another woman, especially if that woman is Maria. Despite their relationship being a major component in moving the story along, it’s also accompanied by things already talked about such as family reconciliation, female agency, and Austrian patriotism. All of these aspects help to create a better well-rounded outlook on the events that took place for this family, and without one aspect, the story would be one-dimensional and would lack the ability to attract a large audience. Plus, who doesn’t love a good romance story nowadays? Probably a lot of people, but let me have my moment okay!
the power of music part two
Every major plot line in The Sound of Music features a unique and memorable song to accompany it. Music is the way these characters communicate and share their feelings with each other. While music is the main component in moving the story along, it also gives the film a prevalent sense of optimism no matter the situation, which could seem to make light of the heavy political situation that was going on at the time. It almost gives the idea that no matter how dire the circumstances such as being summoned to serve in the Nazi Germany Navy as a devout Austrian, you can overcome it through music, which in the real world is obviously not true. On the other hand, the music can evoke these feelings of joy and optimism from the audience, which sometimes is the sole purpose of watching any form of entertainment. Not everything watched must be deep and dark and perfectly accurate, it’s okay to make light of heavy things because it makes it easier to get through. Music might diminish the extremity of situations, but it is also an engaging and relatable experience that can draw people in and get them to listen, and potentially help them learn something new.
the sound of music in today’s time
It can definitely be said that The Sound of Music is not the most inclusive when it comes to casting. Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and the actors who play the seven von Trapp children are all very much white, and while it is historically more accurate, it doesn’t give any representation of racial minorities. This being said, race is not a central theme in this film; it’s never mentioned, and does not contribute to the plot, which allows for more representation of people of color in these roles. So, if this film/musical is ever created again, it would be great to see more diversity when casting these roles.
Also, watching this now was very interesting with all of the anti-Semitic comments being made by big time celebrities like Kanye West. The von Trapp’s are not Jewish, so they are not the ones being targeted by the Nazis and the comparisons are not the exact same, but they are still trying to escape. This film obviously portrays the Nazis as the overall antagonist of the story, and when comparing this to things that are currently happening in the world, it’s crazy to think that the events are almost a century apart, yet the hatred is coming back full circle. If I were watching this in 1965, I’d believe that it’s a sentimental portrayal of this family and their escape from the Nazis but watching it now gives a new meaning, and it even makes me wonder if our world is coming close to another similar event happening, which is honestly very scary to think about.
Despite The Sound of Music possibly being out of touch in today’s time, it’s sheer optimism and cheerfulness when facing hardships makes it, in my opinion, a timeless musical. If I’m ever feeling down, it’s something I can put on to lose myself in the lives of a singing family from the 1930s and maybe feel a little bit better.
Win together, lose together, teammates. I watched High School Musical back when my parents had flip phones and big box televisions versus the slick back televisions; we now have mounted on walls. High School Musical was the movie that was my literal EVERYTHING. The movie forced me to stay bundled up in my ‘Mickey Mouse’ pajamas and eat a box of popcorn with a cup of Coke on the side. It has been more than 10 years since I watched High School Musical, and my only question is: Will I feel differently about the movie watching it now?
I rewatched it and was mesmerized by Zac Efron’s bright blue eyes and Vanessa Hudgen’s sweet, soft voice. However, it is the other revelation of my teenage life I could see through the reel of the High School Musical.
Growing up watching High School Musical, I envied Troy and Gabriella’s ability to have the best of both worlds; being an “all-star athlete,” proving to be the “freaky math girl” and representing to be the shiniest penny on the block as the “theatre kid.” I longed for the same talent and effortless style that Troy and Gabriella carried around the halls of East High, but recently I have realized they were struggling to navigate through the multiple identities they formed. They were just like me.
Gabriella was talking to Troy and said, “Do you remember in kindergarten how you met a kid and know nothing about them, then 10 seconds later you’re playing like you are best friends because you did not have to be anything but yourself.” This line defines how my childhood was so carefree while I felt forced to be pre-defined under one category. By constituting Gabriella as the “freaky math girl” and Troy as the “basketball guy,” both individuals confine to this limited scope of freedom which disables them from growing to the best of their ability and following other aspects of their life that they are passionate about. Like their characteristics, I feel like I was labeled as the businesswoman in my family, and no one ever saw me exploring other options like becoming a pilot or a chef. After talking to people from different backgrounds and their unique journeys, I feel so regretful that I could not explore different options and stay on one path that defined “security” for me. I believe that if I were to switch careers or deter from this one “businesswoman” mindset, I would have dug myself into a hole that would simply take away my individuality. As a 20-year-old watching HSM, I can see the strength that Gabriella and Troy hold by acknowledging the backlash they received from their peers while still following their passions.
In “Breaking Free,” Troy and Gabriella are on the stage wearing his basketball outfit and her lab coat with a medal on it. They start off together in a soft and mellow tone almost as if they are confined by the outfits they are wearing and then bam when the chorus hits and they sing the words, Flyin’/There’s not a star in heaven that we can’t reach/ That we can’t reach/If we’re tryin’/Yeah we’re breaking free/Oh we’re breaking free/Can you feel it building, Gabriella removes her white coat almost as if she can feel her breakthrough moment and get rid of the suffocation she feels when she wears that. As soon as the uniform was removed from Gabriella both the passion in their voices changed and you can see how loose they get with each other, especially in their dance moves. Gabriella and Troy are two people against the world and they ‘break free; of everybody’s thoughts and they go against all odds to be together. One thing I did realize was that Troy did not have to remove his basketball clothes to feel free like Gabriella. Regardless of his status as a ‘jock’, he has the confidence to pursue everything he wants. The director of HSM, purposely kept Troy’s clothes on to show that he has more confidence than Gabriella, which is a gender stereotype that can be seen in a universal standing. Men usually use their confidence to mask the internal struggles they are going through. According to the world a real homosexual man is one that does not show emotions, and by staying true to who he is by wearing basketball clothes he stands his ground of continuing to show confidence.
I really loved how they had both the basketball and decathlon teams come out there and support them and showed that they are breaking barriers, that all humans are equal and there are no obstacles standing in the way of that. I honestly felt that same wave of relief and as if a heavy burden was being removed from my shoulders when they sang that. Looking back at my young self, I feel so naïve for just thinking they are breaking free because now I understand that being yourself and showing true authenticity is more important than ever being submissive to the opinions others have for you. It strikes a bell of childhood memories or simply has a special place in my heart along with that special someone you have. To me, the words themselves are a masterpiece. I used to think they were over-exaggerating when I was smaller, but now I know that words can have a great impact on your confidence. The message in this song is: break free from whatever’s holding you down. Worries, responsibilities, bullies, anything.
Furthermore, Troy Bolton fits the perfect mold of an American teenager: beautiful slick hair, blue eyes, and the star athlete of the Wildcat’s basketball team. Troy would only speak about basketball with his friends and gained attention from many girls at the school. As Troy is surrounded by many cheerleaders and athletes, the song “We’re All in This Together” plays in the background, and his teammate Chad passes him a basketball and says that he will be the leader of the team. Troy is celebrated by the ladies, the school, and his teammates, fitting him in as the perfect mold of a heterosexual male in our society. As Troy speaks to Gabriella in the hallways after their duet at the karaoke lounge, Troy tells Gabriella that he has never revealed his passion for singing to his friends and teammates. Troy gets caught whispering the word “singing” in the hallway as if he is questioning his masculinity by saying that he sings. In my opinion, the perception of the heterosexual male should not be confined to certain qualities and passions. Even though Troy might be represented as a “tough guy” to his friends and teammates, Troy acknowledges that he has a passion for singing and performing duets. As members of this society, we should not conform to specific rules of gender that hold us back and not truly reveal who we are as individuals.
Troy’s best friend, Chad also faces a similar stereotype. He also fits the gender norm of being a heterosexual male who represents an ideal high school athlete. I realize that I have encountered so many people like Chad in my life. Each time I find someone like Chad, I separate myself because I am aware of these types of individuals that hold a false identities. When Troy mentions that “We use to come here as kids, we would be 10 people. We would be spies, superheroes, rock stars. We were whatever we wanted to be, whenever we wanted to be it. It was us, man!” and with that Chad responds “Yeah, we were, like, eight years old”. I see the tunnel vision Chad has and it disturbs me that he is not willing to grow and unleash himself, rejecting the gender norms of typical high school guys. I wish I had the courage like Troy to try different things and not be afraid of the consequences that came with it. However, I was able to see the change in Chad’s mindset as the movie progressed and his understanding of Troy’s passion other than basketball grew. I was happy to see Chad in the theatre cheering for Troy because this shows the younger generation that it truly is okay to be yourself and try new things. Their support was a step closer to breaking the barriers our society has put up.
Watching High School Musical as a young child compared to a 20-year-old completely altered my thoughts. Watching Gabriella and Troy through their beautiful journey of acceptance had a really positive impact on how I thought about my future and how I should never be afraid to pursue my passions because of what other individuals have to say about my choices and actions. It remains important to understand that society will always place its expectations on what certain genders should act like. Thus, breaking such societal barriers is necessary to prompt positive social change and facilitate a healthy environment around us.
A Broadway musical about a man writing a Broadway musical that is about a man…. writing a Broadway musical (GASP)! This Strange loop never ends just as trying to understand who we are in relation to the world around us does not end. Having had the privilege to see this live recently, I felt the need to speak about my experience during the watch and compare it to three weeks later, after I had had some time to reflect on my experience. As I have learned in this class that there is no one way to analyze a musical, I found myself in another loop of sorts of trying to understand what it is Michael R. Jackson, (The playwright, Lyricist and Composer) wanted me to get out of his incredible play. It is through this podcast that I was able to begin to flesh out different egocentric and allocentric forms of viewing and understanding this story in the “Cis-het white gay-triarchy” that encompasses the Musical world around us. The Podcast is available here!
For my slideshow below, I have included a photo of my playbill (my first Playbill ever!), and a quick snapshot as we were shuffeling out. Then, we have some images from Google of Usher with his emotions in the background versus the next image where his emotions are taking the stage. Afterwards, an image from Google of the song Intermission Song. Finally, an image that alludes to the last part of the podcast (think Helicopter Miss Saigon).
If any of these images go against a copyright, let me know and I will take them down.
Unanimous goldmine! I have a question for you. How can someone possibly be born in their 23rd year? Where is the line between Man and Woman? How does it smell when the Motherboard bleeds? What does the Earth sound like? What do you do when The Authority has nukes, and you’re just a bunch of kids? These are only some of the questions posed by 2021’s Neptune Frost, an afrofuturist musical film directed by American musician Saul Williams and Rwandan cinematographer Anisia Uzeyman.
Top to bottom, I loved this film. The music, the costumes, the bicycle man, the dove, the giant floating rocks, the land of dreams, even the prophetic dialogue had me on the edge of my seat. The film begins with a lot of questions that Williams and Uzeyman don’t even begin to answer until about the hour mark. As a long-time science fiction fan, I enjoyed wondering, “Yo what the actual shit is happening right now?” For the first two thirds of the movie. If can stomach learning about a new reality and want to go in blind, which I recommend, SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH FOR THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD. And if not, that’s cool.
Shovels and pickaxes chink into a Burundi coltan quarry, with many of the young laborers dressed in greys and oranges that match their boulderous surroundings. An overseer towers over the laborers, clutching his assault rifle as young men mine a mineral critical for computer chips in smartphones. Tekno stops. He puts down his pickaxe. The Earth hums the sweet song of a summer synth wave. He bends down and picks up the rock at his feet. Hearing the Earth’s beautiful song, he holds the heartpiece above his head, like a treasure, or an idol, or a messiah. And then suddenly, without warning, the overseer strikes the stone with the butt of his rifle, plunging the rock into Tekno’s face and killing him. He falls to the ground a cooling sack of meat, his brother Matalusa weeping over the dead body. They hear drums in the background. The camera pans, and some of the miners now play traditional drums, pounding and wailing to the beat of the shovels and pickaxes. And when Tekno finally awakens, it’s as Neptune, the woman she always dreamed of being.
Neptune Frost features the coolest, most interesting portrayal of a trans person I’ve ever seen. Walking through an undersaturated, idyllic land of dreams, the titular Neptune narrates:
It’s here that I realized, about halfway through the film, that the odd choice to have the male Tekno narrate with a female voice wasn’t odd at all, it was because Tekno has always dreamed of becoming Neptune. And Neptune Frost is Neptune’s story. Neptune told it to me, sung it to me, danced it to me. At first, I didn’t want to believe Neptune. The things that attempt to “boy” or “gender” me in my life are not the same as in hers. I doubt that if I die, about an hour later I’ll wake up a super hot hacker genius. But still I thought to myself, how the fuck can she say that all that shit sets her free?
At the heart of Neptune Frost is Digitaria, a haven for the coltan-miners-turned-anarchist-hackers. Inspired by electronic waste landfills, Digitaria boasts giant keyboard key huts, refuse circuit boards, and kids decked out in neon chrome. When Neptune arrives, she stops speaking in prose. When others address her, she responds in poetry, in gospel, the stuff of messiahs. And for me this was evidence that she is a trans fantasy. Dubbed “The Motherboard,” she glitches in and out of existence as she becomes one with the digital heart of the land. She leaves logical conversation behind because she is a dream, a spirit. She, like much of science fiction, is “impossible.” And yet, she is. At least in my life, this contradiction is the heart of the trans experience. Never before have I seen such a powerful reflection of my own experience with gender in any piece of media. Neptune Frost is Neptune’s story because she has literally trans-scended the material plane. The film ends with her staring at the camera, arm outstretched, thrashing in and out of this world. And she is beautiful.
Singin’ in the Rain is a musical film jointly directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donlen, and was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green to feature songs written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Brown in a film setting. The film features Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, a Hollywood silent film celebrity caught in the transition from silent films to “talkies” in the Roaring Twenties. With the help of his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and romantic interest Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), he prepares a musical film while thwarting the romantically jealous efforts of his previous professional partner Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) to ruin Kathy’s career.
Singin’ in the Rain spoke directly to my elementary, puddle-stomping inner self – it’s witty, it’s cinematically awe-inspiring, yet, it doesn’t take itself too seriously to forgo face-scrunching and full-on slapstick stunts reminiscent of old-timey cartoons. And it’s not a stretch to say it spoke to many others: Singin’ in the Rain tops the American Film Institute’s “Greatest Movie Musicals,” and remains a cultural icon decades later (such that this musical theater layman came across it in their class!).
Despite being 70 years old, Singin’ in the Rain feels fresh – almost timeless. It feels this way to me because it breaks away from gender stereotypes (especially for 1952) through its female lead to give a more modern appeal – Kathy Selden is a strong, independent woman not afraid to take self-agency. Additionally, the story is in of itself witty, meta, and relatable to modern audiences – no matter the demographic – and the numbers are well-integrated spectacles worthy of their attention.
Kathy Selden’s introduction establishes her identity as a strong, independent female lead: she drives her own car (a historical symbol in the US for independence), is not afraid to brazenly criticize Don Lockwood’s livelihood as an actor despite his celebrity status (think about it: if Tom Cruise hopped into your car, would you have the gall to call his acting “dumb show”?), and rejects his aggressive (and frankly, creepy) sexual behavior (See Exhibits A and B).
Further, Kathy feels humiliated when she dances in “All I Do is Dream of You” – a humiliation which highlights Kathy’s independence and character strength. She is dressed in a pink, revealing costume, jumps out of a cake, is bombarded with streamers, and dances a routine that invites the male audience to objectify her. This abstract dance routine (along with the titular lyrics) plainly evokes feelings of ownership and power from this male audience, and when Don teases her about the situation (“I had to tell you how good you were”) she hurriedly tries to sidestep him because of this humiliation. When, however, Don throws salt in the wound (“Now that I know where you live [motions to cake], I’d like to see you home”) by demeaning her as some sort of cake-fairy, she doesn’t let the injury slide, and launches a cake at him. She has respect for herself – while she does take demeaning roles, she does it to create self-agency in a patriarchal society, and doesn’t allow them to define her self worth.
This self-respect is further prevalent when she chooses to not take a role from Don Lockwood’s studio: she chooses self-worth over money, despite the role’s possibility to jump-start her career. She is, however, eventually convinced into joining his studio – and surprise, surprise – confesses that she was a fan of his all along, but this moment gave me a sense of admiration for Kathy Selden’s character. Also, sidenote, it was pretty funny when she rejected the offer immediately after seeing Don Lockwood (because honestly, same). Anyway, Kathy Selden’s character is undeniably strong, and still feels invigorating today.
It’s hard to talk about Singin’ in the Rain’s timelessness and cultural relevance without talking about its most famous number: the titular “Singin’ in the Rain.” The set design is intricate: there’s backlighting for the rain and frontlighting for the characters in the street, the shop windows are ornate, and the street itself looks cheery despite the downpour. The set is almost inviting for the audience – and for me, most definitely cozy. Plot wise, the place of the number is also well-integrated – yes, Don Lockwood does end up bursting out in song, but it makes sense considering his lovestruckness. It also begins as more of a smile-inducing hum (“Do do-do do do”) before crescendoing into full-on singing, emulating a more realistic situation.
I can attest to this situation being realistic – because being completely honest, I’ve also sang in the street before. It wasn’t because of a romance, but just out of pure joy – and something about singing while walking down a dark, lamp-illuminated street by yourself just feels right. Because of this experience, I especially related to “Singin’ in the Rain,” and I’m sure just about anyone who sang out of joy could relate as well – not necessarily to just the romantic aspect of it, but the pure happiness that exudes from the song. You don’t need to be born in the 1900s or be White to appreciate this number, and more broadly, this film: the emotions it evokes are intrinsically human.
The song is in C major, a key that evokes happy emotion. The lyrics themselves are basic, light-hearted, featuring hums (as mentioned before) and has just eleven lines. I suspect this simplicity is what makes this tune so catchy – and it certainly has been incessantly playing in my head for the past week. The lyrics are delivered almost declaratively by Gene Kelly – and drips with his warbling, warm vocals – announcing his happiness to the world.
The dance is initially pedestrian: his feet sweep the street in simple, wide arcs while he walks, communicating his joy. When Gene Kelly begins to tap, however, his dance becomes more aesthetic: illustrating an intensifying joy. In the choreography afterwards, Gene Kelly’s feet are quick and lighthearted – no longer restricted to just walking, they feature joyful skips, twirls, and simple puddle-stomping and balancing on the curb that evoke images of innocent, child-like joy.
This appeal to simple emotion and the refreshing, modern (and witty) plot stood out to me, but it’s also just genuinely hard to find anything objectively bad about this film – and if anything, I recommend you to see it for yourself!
When I was younger, I was a complete High School Musical (written by Peter Barsocchini, composed by David Lawrence) fanatic. I’m talking about a major obsession. I would convince my sister she was Sharpay and I was Gabriella, and I’m pretty sure we would even act out the whole musical (using stuffed animals for the rest of the characters). For at least a year I believe I watched High School Musical (1, 2, and 3) at least once a day. My mom even one day had enough of it that she took the DVD from me and my younger sister, and hid it from us (you’ve probably never seen so many tears before). My obsession wasn’t only with the music, the dancing, or the cute characters, but also with the love story and idealization of what high school and growing up would be like for me. Talk about cultural identity, right? Well, turns out this wasn’t quite as unique of an experience as I had thought it was at the time. Every single one of my classmates in elementary school went through a similar obsession (maybe not as deep, but knew the music at the very least). When the time came that my high school decided to put on High School Musical (my freshman year), you bet it was record breaking for the number of auditions, first time performers, and selling out so quickly we had to add foldable chairs in the auditorium. So, what is it about High School Musical that makes it so enticing to my generation? Well, after rewatching it with a more critical eye, and actively searching for the “why”, I believe I have some ideas…
Kenny Ortega is the brilliant director and choreographer of High School Musical. Ortega really knew what he was doing in terms of both and I know that because of how each musical number is choreographed to convey a particular message. There aren’t a whole lot of musical numbers in HSM, but that means that they each had to be powerful enough to convey the message Ortega wanted, and to also be catchy enough for the audience (which they definitely were). Aside from choreography, can we talk about the costumes for a moment? I mean watching this back puts us right back in the deep end of 2000s style. Costume designer, Tom McKinley, knew how to style each actor and actress in HSM to help consumers identify with an individual character that not only acts, but also looked like them at the time. So not only do we have amazing choreography, an enticing plot, and catchy music, but costumes that connected everyday people to these characters.
To begin, let’s look at the classic opener: “The Start of Something New”. This song is sung by the two love interests and leads of the movie, Gabriella (played by Vanessa Hudgens) and Troy (played by Zac Efron). Gabriella is your typical shy bookworm and Troy is the classic “coach’s son” who is the star basketball player. The thing they both have in common (other than good looks)? They have a secret passion for singing!
“The Start of Something New” really is true to its title, because it sets the plot for the whole musical that taking a chance with something new will reap positive outcomes. Now, the choreography of this is brilliant, because Ortega chose for both characters to begin singing stiffly and transition into becoming more fluid and fun after they both get into the music. The instrumentation and actual volume also follows this as it begins soft then gets much louder and upbeat. There is a curiosity that Troy has about Gabriella, and this is the beginning of his “existential crisis”. This song also captures every heterosexual female’s desire to have a man that falls in love at first sight. Which was a tactic not used lightly in the writing of the film, because there needs to of course be some kind of romantic hook in a Disney movie after all.
Next, we have the iconic “Get’cha Head in the Game” song. Now this one is a doozy. This song is representative of the “struggle” between Troy realizing how much he loves music while having been all about basketball his whole life. Back to the choreography, the dancing of the other basketball boys is almost cult-like. They surround Troy and dance with the basketballs causing him to have a melodramatic breakdown of questioning why he enjoys something that is typically more feminine (**cough cough** toxic masculinity **cough cough**). There’s a moment in this song where the spotlight is on Troy and it is almost like the boys are circling him not only physically, but mentally with their ideas that he should only care about basketball. The whole song is him questioning why his head isn’t in the game. Again, amazing choreography decisions and choices by the actor himself to display such deep personal confliction (even if it does feel childish at times).
Another thing that the whole production team and actors/actresses did well was portray the same songs but give them very different meanings. For example, Sharpay (played by Ashley Tisdale) and Ryan (played by Lucas Grabeel) sing “What I’ve Been Looking For”, and so do Gabriella and Troy. However, when Sharpay and Ryan sing it, it is playful, light, and has a “young” vibe to it. You know they are siblings, and it feels like they are singing this song together as siblings. While on the other hand, Gabriella and Troy sing this song and it becomes slow, relaxed, and a very intentional love song. Which is also telling of the two duo’s personalities, portraying the Evan’s as more out there and extroverted, and Gabriella and Troy as love-birds who like to sing secretively.
Now, finally we get to my most favorite song of the whole show: “Stick to the Status Quo”. Everyone pretty much knows this infamous song, and it’s not only because of the repetitive instrumentation or lyrics. Each group has one person who’s breaking this “status quo”, the baker, the hip hop dancer, and cellist all individually threaten the entire school’s normal way of functioning. This is exemplified by the repetition of the thunderous and aggressive “no no no no no no no stick to the status quo” lyric, and the keeping to the brainiacs, jocks, and skaters. These three people, and Troy and Gabriella deciding to veer away from their individual groups causes the whole school to have a crisis, and especially Sharpay who has always been the queen bee.
We then see our two favorite supporting actors, Taylor (played by Monique Coleman) and Chad (played by Corbin Bleu), get their groups to break up Gabriella and Troy so that things can go back to “normal”. Leading to the intensely melodramatic scene of Gabriella singing “When There was Me and You”, which causes her to realize she should have just stayed as the person people expected her to be. Which is also a deep audience hook, because we want Gabriella to win, and are heartbroken that Troy could even think these things about their relationship. However, the two groups realize that they’ve made a mistake when Troy is completely off his game, and Gabriella isolates herself. They then bring the two back together, and become supportive of their friends which is a complete switch from the message conveyed in “Stick to the Status Quo”.
This is the moment we start to see the individual group’s dynamics start to shift. They begin to accept that people have multiple different interests and values, and they don’t have to only keep to themselves. They even help each other, and Troy and Gabriella, to succeed by helping them get to the callback. This is the turning point for the school, and the way in which they start to form their new cultural identity of being diverse and accepting.
This is especially seen through both “Breaking Free” and “We’re All in This Together”. “Breaking Free” is more about Gabriella and Troy crafting their new identities, but nonetheless Gabriella is able to find comfort in combating her shyness through leaning on Troy, and Troy is able to express himself and his interests regardless of his basketball status. The moment in this song that particularly stands out to me actually has little to do with the two leads and their actions/lyrics, but rather with the incorporation of both Troy’s dad and Gabriella’s mom. When they both walk in and are zoomed in on, this is the moment that they are finally truly accepted by not only their school but their families. Which is a complete 180 from the mentality expressed in “Stick to the Status Quo”.
We then transition into the finale, “We’re All in This Together”. This song is probably the most well known song from HSM, even to those who probably have never seen HSM fully. Everyone knows the iconic dance moves and lyrics of this song. It is also a celebration of the fact that they’ve made it and accomplished everything together which also celebrates the development of their cultural identities to be accepting of each other’s similarities and differences. The lyrics “we’re not the same/we’re different in a good way/we make each other strong” are the epitome of the new identity they’ve all created, and especially the new sense of togetherness they’ve all adopted. The instrumentation is repetitive, upbeat, and cheerful in order to emphasize this final conclusion.
Overall, there is a lot to appreciate artistically, emotionally, and aesthetically about High School Musical, but if there’s one thing I’ll leave you with it’s that there is a reason we are so connected to this musical (even now), and that is the way in which we as a society idolize togetherness, happiness, and diversity (even if it isn’t perfect). The music, emotions, choreography, costumes, and individual characters all work together to pull us in and keep us there, “together”.
M: And we just watched the film version of RENT (2005).
H: And it was really weird!
M: I always go back and forth about whether I actually like RENT.
H: This was my first time, and it was certainly a trip. For those who don’t know, it tells the story of a bunch of couch-surfing, rent-not-paying, bohemian-rhapsody-ing, artist types in Alphabet City during the AIDS epidemic.
M: Rent is really trying to represent diverse perspectives. It has all these different characters going through very real experiences. I find it hard to talk about Rent starting out because I feel like it’s supposed to be taken in all at once.
H: Right, and when you compare it to other media about the AIDS crisis like Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, RENT seems watered down in comparison.
M: I see what you are saying. I mean, the only time the hardship of AIDS is brought up in RENT is with the character Angel’s death. It’s a hardship in life too, not just in death
H: Yeah, if they are trying to represent diverse perspectives within economic crises too, where did all their money come from to do the things they are doing?
M: Well, the character Joane is a lawyer but I’m not sure if she’s necessarily providing. Also, that guy Roger just picked up his life and went to Santa Fe? No one in economic distress could actually do that.
M: I mean I think part of the goal with the diversity in the casting is that you can’t talk about the AIDS epidemic without talking about the Black community. Because of the higher presence of AIDS in that community and how it caused an increase in racism and homophobia.
H: How come none of that is in the script then? It can’t be a casual representation without recognizing that race affects life. Only a white person can say race isn’t an important part of life.Just because RENT has a racially diverse cast doesn’t mean it actually portrays diverse perspectives.
M: What do you think about Mimi, Ben, or Joanne? How would that character change if it were played by a white person?
H: If race isn’t talked about, you are just effectively white. For instance, in video games where they give you this whole range of skin colors but don’t include the actual experience of race and ethnicity, it’s all effectively white.
M: Yeah, like Rent decided to be diverse for the purpose of being diverse and not for the purpose of showing the struggles of those people. Rent doesn’t really show homophobia or racism, just the idea of being a starving artist.
H: Nobody gets to be their race, they are all white.
M: They all have the same cookie-cutter struggles. You could change anyone’s race and it wouldn’t change the plot. So it kind of misses the mark of representation.
H: Also, it’s very convenient that Benny is Black. Like a rich white landlord is an unprofitable look for them.
M: And that would be more truthful.
H: The movie is also mostly the original Broadway cast.
M: The two main characters are white men, they’re the center of the plot. And the fact that this is the og cast means this is Jonathan Larson’s intent and they wanted to keep it that way. Which is important because he died right before the first showing of rent. It’s also why the number “La Vie Boheme” is performed the way it is, with the cast dancing on top of tables and across the diner. They had originally decided to perform the show by just sitting at three tables, singing it through, but when “La Vie Boheme” hit, they couldn’t contain themselves and they performed the rest of the show as it was meant to be. So “La Vie Boheme” is usually performed with three tables pushed together.
H: So it’s stiff in some ways because they want to keep Jonathan Larson’s idea.
M: Yeah, like how West Side Story changed, but they didn’t change all the bad parts. Not erasing history, but this is for multiple reasons.
H: Moving to “La Vie Boheme” though, protagonist white guy Mark is the most racialized person in RENT as a Jewish man, but he’s also white.
M: Yeah they even include the Mourner’s Kaddish in “La Vie Boheme.” References to Jewish culture throughout are almost the only references to any culture at all.
H: The cast are singing about how great it is to be indie, edgy, cool, and starving, but then the song kind of devolves into just singing the names of stuff that they all like. When the cast sings their joy at “Being an us for once instead of them” they show an interracial couple. They just kind of throw them in there.
M: It’s everything all at once again: gay, interracial, AIDS, drugs…not really representing in any way, just showing.
H: Besides race, you can’t tell who those background people are. They are essentially white.
M: And then later when they say, “rice and beans and cheese” and then “huevos rancheros” they are just trying to fit Spanish culture into there also.
H: The whole musical is “look! we all like the same white guys!”
M: They say “homo sapiens” after bisexual and trisexual as in we are all human but we all also a little gay, which slay, but there is difficulty with being gay. They’re trying to show unity but…their experiences are actually different.
H: So the answer is no: race does not exist in the world of Rent.
Having an interest in pop culture and musicals, Matthew and Ewon are students taking a course in Cultural Identity and the American musical.
As a musician, Matthew finds interest and unique perspectives in the music that drives the musical forward in its storytelling and characterization. It is this love for music that drives his curiosity in its role in musicals and how musicals shape our culture and society.
Ewon, a dancer since the age of three, deeply engages with the way choreography adds emotion to the storyline of a musical. She also is an attentive listener to music, paying additional attention to details and analyzing the layers to gain a deeper understanding of the role of the song within a bigger picture.
Here, Matthew and Ewon are coming together to engage in a discussion about Hamilton, a 2020 film of the original broadway production about the biography of the historical figure, Alexander Hamilton. The film, directed by Thomas Kail and written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, earned great fame for its diverse music and casts. It even received many awards including the Pulitzer Prize of Drama and 11 awards from the 70th Tony Awards.
The question Matthew and Ewon attempt to answer is: how is Hamilton’s attempt to diversify the race of its cast a progress in the musical industry and the way the audience view musicals?
Q. What do you think was the purpose of a majority of people of color cast?
M: I believe it was to change the way we approach this story, to change the way we connect not only to the story, but the characters and history beyond the story. Albeit… parts of history, which is interesting, as it displays the historical account of the white majority with people of color. Another primary reason in the production’s casting decision could be to prove a cast that is majority people of color can be just as if not more successful than a cast majority white. Which, if that is true, Hamilton certainly did, defying box office and musical records left and right and becoming one of the most popular musicals ever.
E: Yes; due to the vast variety of the casts’ ethnicities, I think definitely a larger audience was able to empathize with the emotions in the musical. By inviting a larger variety of viewers, the musical made space for everybody to think back on the history of their own country and remind themselves of the struggles and triumphs that their country experienced, as all nations went through some battles to be established. The mixed ethnicities clearly guided the audience to disregard the race of the figures, but focus more on the emotions intertwined throughout the story and the universal desire to win freedom. I also think that the casting director, Bernard Telsey, intentionally made non-white actors to play all the characters to imply that American history is not only all about white people, but is the history of all races in America.
Q. How does this casting choice change the way this musical is interpreted by modern audiences?
E: This purposeful casting leads the audience to view Hamilton as an opportunity to acknowledge that American history, especially the stories of successful figures, mostly involve white males as the protagonist. By avoiding any caucasian actors in their cast, Telsey makes his casting obvious and easily noticeable, which leads to the audience wondering the purpose of this choice and attempting to understand the implications of this musical.
M: I agree entirely. Hamilton is not just about Hamilton with this casting decision, but rather opening up a completely new perspective; begging the question… Why? Which is brilliant. Knowing when this musical came out (2015) I wonder how much of this decision was influenced by the growing Black Lives Matter movement and especially, the way people of color are treated in America, not only when Lin Manuel Miranda and Telsey were beginning the production of this musical, but also now. It is a powerful statement and to me, one that was executed well, despite some of the criticism the storyline of the musical might and typically gets. Even just thinking about how some of the lines hit different from actors who are people of color in a time that was ruled by the Trump administration… “history has its eyes on you….”
Q. How does this musical change how the audience relates to the story?
M: I really feel like Hamilton takes a multifaceted approach in making this story relatable to a modern audience. First through its casting decision – telling the story of America then from America now, really trying to appeal the characters to an audience that matches the principles America was founded on and should be. Second, the music throughout the musical honestly revived the industry and engagement with younger audiences. Gone is the typical sound of an orchestra.. Which I am biased towards anyways because I am a classical musician myself so I still miss it… but replaced is upbeat funk, fun, hip hop and rap music. This is what really makes the musical more approachable; it’s inviting and makes you want to sing along on each character’s journey. Plus, hip hop originates from the African American community and is another way Hamilton cleverly diversifies its production and makes it more appealing to a wider audience.
E: Exactly. I just want to emphasize more on the diversity amongst the casts and how it eliminates any racial barrier in empathizing with the characters in Hamilton. Like no one will watch Hamilton and find it strongly unrelatable because the story is too “white.” I think the diverse casting is so effective in making the audience focus less on the fact that this musical is based on a story of a white man, but more on the emotional dynamics that everyone can relate to. For example, even as an asian myself, I teared up at the final production number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” while listening to the list of accomplishments Eliza made to honor Hamilton and his unfinished dreams of establishing a better nation. I could easily empathize with Eliza’s great love and respect towards Hamilton, as well as the kind premises that Hamilton lived upon.
Q. Is this story biased regarding the portrayal of Hamilton?
M: The story is not particularly biased towards Hamilton. I would say it takes a more middle ground approach, never hiding his uglier qualities (cheating, impatient and impulsive) while celebrating his finer qualities (courageous, determined, hardworking). However, the story never mentions his or any of the other main characters connection to slavery – so its problematic and does lack in that since. I think it is a matter of perspective, some people might say that this lack is intolerable and is actually what undos the progress that this musical makes in terms of casting, while others, and I feel like this includes more of our perspective, feel as if this lack is to rather shift what this story is about entirely.
E: But it is hard to dismiss the fact that this musical does ignore America’s racist history and the unfair treatment of people of color, despite the main characters all being slave owners. Though the purpose of this musical is to give a general overview of Hamilton’s life, I do think that this musical was wrapped up with too positive of a light on Hamilton, which makes it seem biased. Yet, I think the producer tried to mitigate this bias by including other criticizable qualities of Hamilton—while being married to Eliza, he constantly texts her sister, Angelica, and later on has multiple sexual affairs with Maria Reynolds, which he even hides using his pecuniary power. I just think that the musical could have dealt the problem that Hamilton had slaves at some point of the story.
Q. How does music play a role in storytelling?
M: Like many other musicals that came before, Hamilton is no different in serving up witty, catchy earworms of musical motifs for its characters. However, Lin Manuel Miranda takes these motifs to really another level than others before. Layering them on each other over and over again, truly creating powerful and engaging moments. The music really becomes its own narrator. In “The Schuyler Sisters,” the story shifts its focus to the steadfast and bright Schlyer sisters. From the very moment they enter the song, they belt out their names, giving an audience a glimpse into their personalities and that this song will diverge from the male dominated songs before. The music drops into this deep repetitive backbeat which embodies this motif of “work work,” adding another layer of attitude and spunk that the sisters already provide. Even more so, moments of pause in the groove add more emphasis on the words being sung by Angelica and bring even more weight to the shift in tone. Angelica sings “never be satisfied,” Eliza sings “look around.” The sisters want freedom, freedom in a different sense than Hamilton, but by adding this song, this drive, and these motifs… it really sets up the musical to a wider audience in yet another way and makes the audience themselves ask more questions and engage more deeply… and this is only one example… which is just crazy.
E: As Matthew mentioned before, the diversity in the music incorporated in Hamilton allows a larger audience to relate and empathize with the story. It plays such an important role in highlighting the emotions being transferred through the storyline: the rapped lyrics contribute to the urgency of Hamilton’s personality; the melody of “Burn” being in the minor key expresses the devastation and despair of Eliza after learning that Hamilton had an affair with Maria; the percussion instruments, especially the snare drums, giving accents to the rhythm in “My Shot” represents the energy and motivation that drives Hamilton to success. The most unique aspect of Hamilton, I would say, is the fact that there are barely any words that are spoken normally; there is a rhythm to every word, which engages the audience from beginning to end.
Q. How does the music emphasize diversity?
M: I feel like this goes back to an earlier thought that we touched on in the fact that the music throughout Hamilton originates from the African American community, especially in parts of New York, which makes this musical connect to a broader audience. It is no longer buttoned up western orchestral music – but energetic hip hop that is music from today’s communities for today’s communities.
Q. How does the musical’s choreography make the production more accessible to a wider audience?
E: Because all the words are either rapped or sung, it could be difficult for some people to clearly understand each and every word. Honestly, if I did not have the option to turn on subtitles, I may have struggled to understand some of the lyrics as well. Which is why the choreography is so important. The choreography is overall very literal; it is a direct expression of what is being sung. For example, in “Alexander Hamilton,” the dancers express the story of Hamilton’s childhood by a man shaking off a woman who is desperately holding onto him to represent his father’s departure, a woman being lifted horizontally to depict his mother’s death, another man standing on a chair, tying his neck with an invisible rope to portray the suicide of his cousin, and the dancers moving their body as if pulling something hard while the voices sing “Will they know what you overcame?” Also, if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that the main actors don’t really dance at all, but there is a set group of dancers who do all the dancing for them. This is especially apparent in “Yorktown”, where Hamilton only walks and points minimally, while the rest of the dancers actively move their bodies and dance for the whole time. I believe this is purposeful to allow the singers to focus on their singing and delivery of words, while the back-up dancers aid in clarity using their bodies.
M: And it’s so powerful, the blocking, the staging, everything works flawlessly together to really push the story and the music forward. A moment that really caught my attention is the choreography from “Hurricane.” This is probably one of the lesser known songs from Hamilton, yet a greater known moment on stage as the stage begins to slowly spin, turning the entire cast into a visual hurricane right as Hamilton sings “in the eye of the hurricane.” Hamilton being the eye, remaining center stage and facing forward as the dancers around him swing chairs and other set pieces in an extremely controlled manner through the air. Plus the dancers are wearing all white, which with the lighting dimmed to a deep blue, convincingly turns them visually into a hurricane. It creates this slow motion effect and really drives the tension and emotions that are at play for an audience. It leaves you on the edge of your seat… holding your breath… and it is an incredible effect.
M: Overall, I think Ewon and I both agree on the note that Hamilton is both problematic but well-produced. As elaborated before, the musical does not completely reckon with the past and its shortcomings, but it still puts people of color in a light that has not been given before. After all, it is super successful; even more so than most other productions with mostly white casts. There is just so much to take from Hamilton, so many themes, so many lessons, and what it boils down to is how each individual sees and takes from it. For some people, we acknowledge that Hamilton is disappointing, but for others, it is a force to get behind and use to advance their voices.
By Koby Hrynkiewicz, Shahar Hartman, & Elisa Maknojia
While experiencing Rent and its timeless themes of love, acceptance, inclusion, and living life to the fullest, we decided as a group that no written assignment could do justice in explaining the importance of this musical and how it transcends the concepts of social barriers of race, gender, and sexuality. With that being said, we came together with our own unique backgrounds to discuss in podcast form how this musical, through its blurring of social barriers among the ensemble, is an homage to the lost artists within the 1980s and 90s New York City AIDs Crisis.
Below is an interactive slideshow to accompany the podcast experience and contextualize several points discussed. Photos in the slideshow include screen grabs from Rent (2005), images of the Lower East Side in 1990s New York City, anti-AIDs and anti-gay publications, pro-gay protests, firsthand evidence of New York artists lost to AIDs, and two podcasters measuring their year in cups of coffee.
It’s funny because I’d shock people by saying I never watched Hamilton. And now that I finally watched it – I think I get why they were shocked!
I can’t believe I’d never seen Hamilton until now. When it was the ‘sensation that was sweeping the nation,’ I knew it must have been good, but I had no idea what topics the show was actually tackling.
Same here! I’d heard a couple of songs here and there, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to really sit down and watch the production. I really didn’t know what I was signing up for! I enjoyed every second of it.
Dialogue Part 1: General Analysis – Casting, Immigration, and Legacy
Y: So our guiding question for Hamilton is: How does race ask the audience to rethink legacy in the musical Hamilton?
J: Right. So Hamilton redefines our identification as a country through its founding story. America is a country of immigrants, right? America is the ultimate melting pot. So Hamilton emphasizes that diversity by highlighting that one of these Founding Fathers that we look up to so greatly was an immigrant himself. And we never hear about this. Why do we never hear about this? How do more people not know that?
S: Exactly! Maybe that’s why Lin-Manuel Miranda chose Hamilton’s story. Of all of the founding fathers, why focus on Hamilton? Maybe he saw something that could represent America’s experience in Hamilton’s story.
Y: Yeah, I definitely agree. I feel like Hamilton uses race to explore America’s diversity and celebrates it. And through these celebrations of race and culture, we see an underlying theme of legacy that even extends itself beyond the stage.
S: Yes! The casting further supports this. This musical is special in the sense that it is cast mainly of African American and Latinx actors. So an audience of people with similar ethnicities could look at America’s history and see themselves.
Y: Right. And by changing the races within the story, Lin Manuel Miranda uses Hamilton to kind of give us an idea of what our history would look like with different races – he shows us a legacy that includes people of color. Additionally, he uses race to make us reexamine this legacy as something mostly white-owned.
As for casting, Lin-Manuel Miranda casting himself as the protagonist is a recurring pattern in his musical career, but has a special meaning, intended or not, to the audience in Hamilton. In a time when Hispanic immigration policies are especially fraught with controversy, the casting of a Puerto Rican man as a historically significant and white character draws special attention to a relevant, but sometimes glossed-over characteristic of our “ten dollar Founding Father”: his being an immigrant too. And by playing Hamilton as a Puerto Rican man, Miranda celebrates and argues the importance of immigration, and draws attention to the dangers of anti-immigrant rhetoric: would we be turning away Hamiltons of equal, or even greater significance, today?
J: Miranda is also playing with this idea that, “Hey, history is all whitewashed. But even your whitewashed history is incorrect.” So even though a lot of the people we learn about in history, including the founders, were white, Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant himself.
Y: Right, and in this musical specifically, we’re using people from now to represent then, right? Not only do they use people of color to represent modern America, but they also mix historical and modern costume elements. Despite wearing historical garb, actors wear contemporary hairstyles: Aaron Burr has a hairstyle featuring a contemporary line pattern and an edge-up; the Bullet has her hair dyed and in an updo; and the Founding Fathers wear natural hairstyles instead of powdered wigs or powdered hair. Miranda could have decided to keep the hairstyles historically relevant, and white, but by allowing actors to exhibit modern hairstyles greatly influenced by Black and Latinx communities, he represents these cultures on the Broadway stage.
S: Yeah. And you can even talk about that musically, as well; that is, they mix both showtune and hip hop in their numbers. For example, we get songs heavily leaning towards rap (“My Shot,” for example) but we also get songs that are more traditional showtune, such as “Farmer Refuted.” In “My Shot” there is percussive instrumentation, a rhyming scheme, and a staccato-like melodic delivery; whereas in “Farmer Refuted,” a more traditional choice of melody, rhythm, and instrumentation is chosen: the Loyalist (Samuel Seabury) sings in a simple melody reminiscent of a church hymn, and is accompanied by a harpsichord that comedically – and intentionally so – harkens back to the 16-1700s. This style sharply contrasts with the modern hip hop that Hamilton uses to “refute” Seabury, and even the characters listening are like, “Oh, look at this guy. He’s so snooty, old-fashioned.”
J: Yeah. I think the choreography is interesting, too, because when they’re telling stories, they have choreography in the background that goes with the telling. So when they talk about, for example, his cousin who committed suicide, they have somebody like mock hanging themselves behind him. Even if you feel like you don’t really understand what’s happening at the moment, you’re processing it much better than just listening to a song. Now in relation to the immigrant experience, when Hamilton pops out of the shadows, his self-introduction is a soft whisper. His choreography is also initially slow, almost as if he’s moving only slightly through the world. But by the time he’s in New York, he’s moving fast and decisively. It’s this notion of when you come to America, you have to be a go-getter – and to be successful as an immigrant, you have to work 10 times harder than you would as somebody who was born in America, and I think that’s what Hamilton had to do. And I think in a way Lin Manuel Miranda felt like he related to the idea of having to work harder to get Hamilton to be popular. And he had to work harder to even break into the industry as a minority.
S: Totally, totally. I mean, like, how much criticism do you think he got when he was like, “Yeah, let’s do this pop culture musical, and let’s have it on Broadway”?
Y: Yeah. I remember reading Obama’s memoir A Promised Land, and he was like, when Miranda first presented Hamilton at the White House Poetry Jam, people didn’t take it seriously. I even went back to that clip (here). And I saw people’s reactions, how they saw the beginnings of Hamilton and some people were just laughing. They thought it was outlandish. Even Miranda seemed to be kind of smiling to himself because he knew how audacious his musical was.
S: Exactly. I remember it being first sort of like, “Oh, what is this new thing? It can’t be serious. This isn’t the essence of Broadway.” But now when you think of Broadway, a lot of times you think of Hamilton because it was such a huge spectacle. A lot of people loved it. And if we’re gonna talk about Lin Manuel Miranda’s legacy, he’s involved in so many Disney productions. And in them, you can hear sort of his twist. Like he tries to bring that sort of, like modern music element. I’m gonna say like in Moana, for example: he had, like, the Rock rapping –
[Soleil and Yehchan laugh]
In Disney movies, you’d expect it to be sort of like Snow White singing tralala… that sort of thing. But he completely rewrote it. So he’s making an impact not only on the Broadway stage, but in other industries as well. He’s taking it with him.
J: Miranda sees so much of himself in Hamilton.
Y: And he plays Hamilton.
J: Right, it’s not even subtle. It’s beautiful in that respect. And going off this idea of like, kind of how race and ethnicity factors in and explores this concept of legacy, right? [To Soleil] You talked about a lot of early productions are like Snow White, right? And all “Falalala” –
Like we need productions in this country, where people who are not white can see themselves in the main character, right? And by addressing that need, Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t only fulfill that need for himself, but he also sets up generations to come.
Part 2: “History Has Its Eyes on You” Analysis
J: So I had “History Has Its Eyes on You.” So this is an interesting one to look at. It’s only Washington and Hamilton, so it is a smaller number – and a shorter number – but I still think there’s a lot to unpack.
Okay, so initial thoughts that I have on this number? I mean, clearly, if we’re talking about legacy – “History Has Its Eyes on You.” I mean, it can’t get more overt than that. And I mean, the first thing to look at is clearly like, again, this kind of duality, this almost double entendre – history has its eyes on Washington and Hamilton in this moment, right? What are they going to do next? Quite literally, history has its eyes on Miranda and Jackson singing to each other as minorities on the Broadway stage representing American “heroes” as people and cameras are watching them – – a meaning which I think is really cool. Also, the reason I picked this number is because there’s not a lot of people – there are only these two guys to look at.
Sometimes I feel like I get lost in my analysis when there’s so many people on stage – you can’t appreciate everybody’s performance. Here, there’s no complex choreography – there’s no crazy dancing, but that gives way to the other analyses. So something I really noticed was Chris Jackson’s face: the pain in his face, and the expression in his face.
I think the way Chris Jackson was able to play this way, gives us this idea of this imperfection of the American experience, right, which I think relates to race, because his playing of Washington draws attention to his being white. We see Washington in our textbooks – he was “the great first president,” won the Revolutionary War, stepped down, was perfect, died and is now on our dollar bill like –
S: Yeah, but it’s not that simple.
J: Right, it’s not that simple. And again, the fact that he’s being played here by a man who is a minority makes us reexamine history in a more complex manner. It’s almost a reminder that Washington didn’t live in a perfect society, right? There were people who were being forgotten in that society; there were people who were being oppressed in that society. And sometimes in American history when we analyze our founders, we forget that they lived in that imperfect society because their whiteness meant not facing the challenges that others were subjected to.
Soleil: I totally agree, I was gonna say something similar like – yeah, these are between two founding fathers historically, but if you just look at it on the stage, it’s also between two minority characters. And the audience could see them – see the situation and relate and reflect on that.
Part 3: “My Shot” Analysis – Music and Cultural Representation
S: So for my song, I did “My Shot.” This song is probably the one with the most hip-hop influence in the entire production. I felt the song was such a great representation of how Miranda mixed cultural influences to make the story representative of many different groups. Particularly, I liked how he used a lot of rap and hip hop culture from the Bronx. There’s such a strong nod towards hip hop culture that you can’t help but see it. So for some history: hip-hop was made in the Bronx in the 70s, from mainly African-American and Latinx communities.
In Hamilton, you have a story about America’s foundation set in New York, full of influences from New York’s cultural epicenter. Even though the styles and references are centuries apart, it is an homage to what makes America America. And that is diversity.
Y: I think you hit it right on the nose. I have a similar analysis for the “Ten Duel Commandments.” For some context, the “Ten Duel Commandments” is another hip-hop number that pays homage to Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments.” And this number is notable, because not only does it allow different ethnicities with ties into hip hop culture to feel included, but to a greater extent it also allows modern America to understand the historical relevance of the duel through a familiar medium.
After all, formally settling disputes with guns and pinning large importance to an outmoded concept of honor are anachronisms today – they’re uncomfortable, they’re weird, we don’t get it. And as audience members, having a more familiar medium – hip hop – introducing us to these outmoded concepts helps transition the watch into a “What?” into an “Okay, sure.” Not only does the musical wrap up that sound in order to deliver it to the audience – it also makes it modern, digestible.
S: Exactly. And in my song, “My Shot,” I liked how there were so many small details: like record scratching in the music and elements of breakdance in the choreography. So audiences of that cultural background, or even people who are just familiar with hip hop in general, could really pick up on it.
J: Instead of singing these traditional, classical songs, Miranda really dives deep into the rich culture of hip hop that was created by African Americans and Latinx creators. And by including these elements in a Founding Fathers musical, Miranda asserts that the contributions of these minority groups are just as important to modern society, if not more so, as some of the things that the Founders did.
Y: I’d like to thank my co-hosts – this podcast definitely wasn’t easy, and we spent countless hours trying to come up with our insights. I’d like to thank Soleil for kickstarting the project and organizing our structure from our scattered dialogues while helping me edit the transcript for clarity, and I’d like to thank Jonah for making time to work with us despite his busy schedule. And I thank the reader for sticking through for so long.
About the authors: Emily Willett (EW) is a sophomore at Vanderbilt University studying Medicine, Health, and Society. She is particularly interested in how health is defined through policy and the societal implications of this. She has been a part of musical theater for a long time—from singing The Sun Will Come Out in an Annie wig to her extended family at Thanksgiving to performing with a musical theater company through high school, her relationship with musical theater has been a long-lasting, formative one. She especially loves musicals that explore important historical topics, giving audience members a glimpse into history while also still being thoroughly entertained, like Allegiance. Allegiance also tackles systemic issues that she has been studying in her MHS classes and THTR 3333 thus far, so she has enjoyed applying and expanding her knowledge through her discussion with her co-author about this musical.
Madison Ferguson (MF) is also a sophomore at Vanderbilt University, and she is studying Biomedical Engineering on the pre-med track. She has always enjoyed watching musical theater, but didn’t fully get involved until sophomore year of high school where she became the Audio Visual club president and became the sound designer for many of the school’s plays and choir concerts. This love for musical theater developed after listening to Hamilton for the first time in 2017, and much like Hamilton, Allegiance takes a historical moment and puts it into the realm of musical theater. She is writing this post for a course she is currently in, THTR 3333: Cultural Identity and the American Musical, which has really helped expand her scope of thinking and reflection of this particular type of art.
About the musical: The musical Allegiance (2015; filmed on stage) was definitely a step in the right direction for representation of minority races and ethnicities, especially Asian Americans, on the musical stage by emphasizing and incorporating authentic Japanese themes. The musical, which is largely inspired by the personal experiences of George Takei who stars as Ojii-Chan and older Sam in the musical, is set during the Japanese American Internment of World War II and tells the story of Sam, played by Telly Leung. Sam is a second generation Japanese immigrant, and we see Sam grapple with his identity, his family, other fellow Japanese Americans, and his internal conflict to do what he believes is right.
EW:What did you think of it?
MF: I really liked it and I thought the creators did a great job portraying this piece of Japanese American history.
EW: Yeah I agree, I really enjoyed watching it—I’m surprised it’s not more popular. I had never heard of it before.
MF: I wonder if that speaks to the general attitude and messages the musical portrays that don’t align with typical racial binaries and power systems.
EW: Right, I think the musical really makes clear the racially charged motives of the US government during this time and how it was concealed through the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and specifically the character and historical figure, Mike Masaoka, who was played by Greg Watanabe. It was interesting how we see the different Japanese-American characters reacted to the inherently discriminatory actions from the government during this time period, because we see two foils almost—the protagonist, Sam, who doesn’t necessarily agree with the circumstances but wants to actively fight in the war to prove his loyalty as an American, and Frankie, whose family was locked up directly following the bombing and as a result, is resentful and angry at any person in power who allowed them all to be in this situation.
MF: It’s interesting you say foils because even though they ultimately have the same goal, the musical sets up their characters in such a way that makes them almost enemies.
EW: And we even see this with Frankie and other Japanese-American characters’ opinions towards Mike, and how they direct their frustration and anger at him rather than the white official giving Mike the orders, simply because they didn’t get to see what goes on behind the scenes like we, the audience, did.
MF: Right, which is another prime example of conflict and blaming within minority groups rather than at the larger system that is built upon and perpetuates white supremacy. It’s really interesting to think about what can be said about the racial dynamics of the country as a whole when thinking about Japanese culture portrayed on stage and the dynamics and interactions between Frankie, Mike, and Sam, and how this mirrors, or possibly contrasts, the racial dynamics of the US today.
EW: The fact that this musical not only possesses a primarily Asian cast, but also was directed by Stafford Arima, who is Asian-American and had the majority of his team and creators also be Asian-American is so important. I believe it really contributes to the musical’s success in its purpose, power, and raw authenticity. Lea Salonga, who plays Kei, says, it’s what Broadway needs—it’s what is necessary for any musical depicting a particular culture. This reminds me of the “Balancing Act” reading on Fiddler on the Roof and the importance of authenticity of minority groups, which goes hand in hand with representation and research of said group. With Allegiance, there is no balancing really—they have it all, which only contributes to impactful and profound nature as a piece of entertainment.
MF: Yes, I definitely feel like this musical has given power and opportunity to Asian actors on stage. They’ve even tried to capture authentic Japanese culture through the sounds and lyrics. Jay Kuo, who was the composer and lyricist for Allegiance, tried to replicate Japanese sounds as accurately as possible. He didn’t physically use Japanese native instruments, which would have taken up too much room, but he did make use of certain authentic elements such as an Asian gong, the Chinese Tom, and piccolo wood blocks. For other sounds, Joe Mowatt, a musician for the show, made use of different electronic devices to replicate the Taiko sounds (Japanese percussion sounds) that couldn’t be done with the instruments at his disposal.
EW: This reminds me of and very much contrasts Miss Saigon and the way in which they “capture” Vietnamese culture (they don’t). In one of our readings, a cast member mentions how they made up Vietnamese-sounding lyrics and instead of actually taking the time to research the language and incorporate it accurately.
MF: Jay Kuo, on the other hand, included many Japanese words and phrases into the dialogue and lyrics. The song “Ishi Kara Ishi” was sung by Kei and Ojii-Chan and it means “[a mountain can be moved], stone by stone.” This powerful phrase being said in the language of their culture shows that they still need that connection to help them get through this difficult time, despite being forced to let go of any connection to Japan lest they be seen as “traitors” to America. Another phrase was also said quite often throughout the show, “Gaman,” which means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” This phrase really encapsulates the attitude of the Japanese Americans through all the hardships and struggles they had to face at the hands of the U.S. government all to be considered a harmless, loyal American.
EW: I wanted to address something I read about the musical from Nichi Bei, a Japanese-American news outlet, that slightly contradicts our general views and opinions thus far but is important to discuss. This article of cultural criticism depicts Allegiance in a negative light, revealing the idea that it portrays “relentless optimism that admits no darkness.” I think a lot of this optimism can be traced back to Sam and the way in which he approaches their situation. He seems to be in a constant state of negative denial, focusing solely on his desire to fight for America, his country, despite America’s desire to keep Japanese-Americans like him locked in an internment camp. He clings tightly to this American identity, especially in his solo number, What Makes a Man. He says, “I’ll set an example / help others see beyond race,” placing the responsibility on him to help others (aka white people) see his American identity when all they can see is someone who is not the same as them, someone who is not white. Not only do we see racial hierarchies at play here, but the title of the song also upholds patriarchal standards; what Sam is essentially saying is that a man is someone who holds these patriotic, passionate values and is willing to fight despite all odds, conflating masculinity with loyalty to your country.
MF: Speaking to that point, I also had a thought on Sam’s relationship with Hannah, the internment camp nurse. This relationship puts even more emphasis on Sam and his love and loyalty to America. He falls in love with a stereotypical representation of America, a white woman. This woman, Hannah, holds a position of power over Sam and the other Japanese Americans; she has the power to provide or withdraw medical supplies and assistance, which could even be viewed as a “white savior” coming to aid the Japanese Americans because they don’t have the power to help themselves. Hannah, a woman, is higher up in the power hierarchy than any of the Japanese Americans, and for a time where women were looked down upon this really says something about how minority races were viewed as inferior no matter the gender.
EW: Tying that idea into an American context, throughout the show and even to the very end, we see Sam’s undying loyalty to his American identity and the things he achieves as a result of it. He is a “true American hero”—but the musical addresses the question, at what cost? He loses his family and holds many regrets, so even though he is named a hero, I don’t think the director and writers of the show mean to portray him as one. And yes, he is very optimistic, which may be reflective of his naivete and blindness about how his racial identity impacts how he and other Japanese-Americans are treated. The difference in tone of voice between Sam and his father is reflective of their differences in wisdom and knowledge—Sam, depicted as this youthful, passion-seeking boy, has a higher pitched voice, while his father produces a low, bellowing sound anytime he speaks or sings. This emphasizes the innocent and optimistic outlook Sam possesses, that his father knows is not a reality. But despite critiques on this optimism, Sam does encourage morale of the people in the camp, doing his best to make life for them as great as it can be.
MF: I really noticed this optimistic and lighthearted view with the dance scene that takes place at their internment camp, Heart Mountain.
This scene right from the beginning is fast paced and upbeat with swing music that was popular in America in the 1940s. The dancing also starts quickly with Charleston-esque movements that are very high tempo and fun. This decision from choreographer, Andrew Palermo, might have been trying to give the group in the camp a fun activity to break it up from the other serious troubles they had been facing, but I feel like it can also be argued that this optimistic view takes away from the hardships that were actually faced.
Everything was also very Americanized from the setting to the song to the dancing. This could be interpreted as those in charge at the camp trying to suppress the inherent Japanese culture out of these people. It’s giving the idea that because you’re in America, you need to act like an American (i.e. a white American).
Later on in the scene Frankie is seen mocking Mike Masaoka, the JACL spokesperson. He sings the lyrics, “just put up and shut up, cause you’re in paradise!” This is almost like Frankie is dissenting from this forced Americanism, albeit in a very catchy and fun way, but he is still voicing how Masaoka doesn’t seem to understand the things those in camps and in prison are really living simply because they’re in this so called “paradise” that is America. This also further perpetuates the divide of Japanese Americans, where those with different opinions on the situation are on opposing sides. Once again, the minority group is somehow becoming the victim AND the enemy, which sustains the idea of power being maintained by the white American leaders.
EW: Watching this musical in 2022 was honestly very interesting. Even though it’s set in the 1940s, I couldn’t help but notice that these themes of the inherent racism of America are still relevant to this day.
MF: Yeah, I noticed this as well, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic when Asian hate was very prevalent throughout the country. When people had heard that it had originated in China, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by 77%, and these were people who were also minding their own business, but were discriminated against simply because of how they looked. As someone who is Asian, Chinese specifically, this issue really weighed heavily on me because I didn’t want to one day become a victim of these nonsensical, vicious hate crimes. I also felt frustrated and cheated by our country and our government that as an American citizen, I even had to worry about this type of thing.
EW: That is so frustrating and unfair. And it’s what happened to the Japanese Americans in this story—getting locked up by government officials solely because of their race, despite their American identities. And it’s frightening to think about how this government is basically the same one we have today. World War II was not that long ago, and little has been done to combat these harmful concerns of structural racism that is inherently embedded in our US government.
MF: And it can be noted that our generation today has become much more aware of these issues, and we are voicing our opinions against this harmful power system.
EW: Right, I feel very proud to be a part of this generation and the change that has begun to occur largely mobilized by us. Through participating in protests for movements like Stop Asian Hate and Black Lives Matter, I was able to do a small sliver of my part in fighting for something so extremely important and standing up against systemic racism.
MF: And even though racism is still prevalent today, we are finally trying to fight against it and make positive change, which is a step in the right direction, just like Allegiance is for the musical stage.
From dissecting cow hearts to analyzing musical theatre together, Hayden and Natalie are the epitome of a dynamic duo. Whether growing up listening to Seth Rudetsky’s radio show in the car or donning a pillowcase to act in Annie in 1st grade, both women maintain a long-term love for musical theatre. Read along as these two self-identified theatre nerds debate whether the 2007 movie musical Hairspray actually advocates for racial equality or instead promotes a white savior narrative.
Natalie- So… Hairspray?
H- There’s a lot to talk about here. After all, at its core, the 2007 movie musical Hairspray focuses on a young woman trying to bring about integration and promote equality, yet the approach can be problematic at times.
N- Yeah, so definitely a lot to talk about. There are a lot of great things about the show, you know, it’s not as easy as like Miss Saigon where– there it was easy to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so racist. This is horrible.’ With Hairspray, you can’t just say this is all good or all bad. There’s a lot to be said about the great things in the show: having so many roles for Black actors and dancers, having a plus-sized woman in the main role, the fun music, Elijah Kelley…
H- Yes. Hairspray does a pretty great job of depicting Black culture in a positive light. There are no blatantly obvious negative stereotypes about Black people that we often see in Hollywood.
N- And it doesn’t ignore race like so many Broadway productions do.
H- Which, to be honest, is definitely the bare minimum. To essentially praise a movie for not being actively racist or ignoring race entirely just highlights the prevalence of such racist portrayals and how low our expectations have been made.
N- Watching this movie, it’s pretty obvious that the creative team–director Adam Shankman, screenwriter Leslie Dixon, and playwrights Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan–is entirely white.
H- Even though it is about the civil rights movement, it feels as if white people are the target audience. It’s a feel-good movie for white people to think ‘wow this is so heartwarming.’ Sort of like The Blind Side, you essentially have a white person helping the black people and it’s supposed to be like ‘wow, look how far we’ve come!’ However, in reality, viewers are looking at racism through a very whitewashed perspective – viewing the history of the struggle for integration with Rose Colored Glasses.
N- One of the most obvious examples of this is that Tracy, the white girl, is the protagonist, not any of the important black characters like Motormouth Maybelle or Seaweed. And this is exemplified when we see Tracy at the front of the march for racial equality on the Corny Collins Show in the song “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
N- This is not the role of an ally, you know? The goal isn’t to be at the front– to prove that you’re a supporter. Being an ally is about lifting other people’s voices up and respecting them and their struggles. The story places Tracy at the forefront of a movement that isn’t about her. Also, just look at her costume (chosen by costume designer Rita Ryack) compared to the others’. The white shirt draws the watcher’s eye toward Tracy– she stands out like a sore thumb.
H- Tracy has her own agenda and does not keep in mind what is best for helping the Black community. When Motormouth Maybelle specifically tells Tracy, “It’s alright… I can handle this,” Tracy completely discounts Maybelle to pursue what she wants, which puts everyone’s lives in jeopardy. By hitting the officer in the head with the sign, she severely escalates the situation. It makes this march no longer a peaceful protest and essentially gives the officers the justification they need to respond with violence.
N- And of course, this violence isn’t aimed at the white people–
H- Tracy is so ignorant about the way that Black people receive differential treatment by the police.
N- It’s worth noting that in this version of the story, the police threaten to arrest the protesters, but we don’t actually see that happen. We don’t see the consequences of Tracy’s actions on the Black protesters. We see Tracy gets to run away while the Black protesters are stuck in this position.
H- The film cuts away from the cops fighting with protesters only 11 seconds after the conflict begins. Way to gloss over police brutality–
N- But crucially, we don’t see any of the Black protesters get arrested or injured, as often happened in situations like this in real life. The film doesn’t want to talk about the very real aspects of the civil rights movement that aren’t pretty, aren’t funny, and most of all aren’t uplifting.
H- Couldn’t have said it better myself.
N- So why do the creators think it’s okay to put Tracy at the front of this?
H- Creators of the original musical Meehan and O’Donnell depict Tracy’s ability to understand the struggles of the Black community as being a result of her own struggles as a plus-sized woman. Yet, equating the marginalization of Black and plus-size people is so problematic.
N- If you don’t mind me flexing the racial theory I’ve read–
H- No, go ahead!
N- There’s this one line of thinking in racial theory called anti-Blackness. It’s sort of a counterintuitive title; the theory itself is not anti-Black– it’s about acknowledging anti-Blackness. The idea is that part of what we need to do to, I don’t know, ameliorate anti-Black racism is to identify anti-Blackness as distinct from other subjects. It’s the idea that anti-Blackness should not be classified under “racism” as a whole because it is so unique. And whether or not you agree with this line of theory, it’s an interesting concept to bring up– is it fair, is it respectful to equate racism with fatphobia? Yes, they’re both struggles, like I’ve been there– body image is its own thing. But does it minimize the civil rights movement and the continued work to combat anti-Black racism to compare the two?
H- It’s almost as if because Tracy is plus-sized, she is allowed to step into these Black spaces–
N- And at times appropriate the hell out of them! I mean she gets on the Corny Collins Show because she’s doing a dance she “borrowed” from Seaweed, a dance representative of the Black culture she’s only recently been introduced to. And, I mean, he gives her permission, but she doesn’t give him credit.
H- She also treats Black culture as if she was twelve-year-old me gushing over One Direction. Rather than appreciating Black culture, her excessive excitement feels as if she and her best friend Penny are fetishizing it. When Seaweed invites them over to a party in his neighborhood, Penny exclaims her excitement to be invited somewhere “by colored people,” which Tracy adds is “so hip.” Nikki Blonsky, the actor portraying Tracy, makes the decision to increase the pitch of her voice to a squealing sound and bring her hands to her face in a look of disbelief while delivering this line. Such a portrayal of Tracy’s elation gives the impression that integration is this sort of cool fad that she wants to be part of, diminishing the complexity of the systematic abuse that Black people face on a daily basis.
N- Yeah, and later when they meet Motormouth Maybelle for the first time, Tracy says the party is “Afro-tastic.” Which I guess is supposed to be a compliment? I mean Maybelle’s response is best described as amused and, perhaps, caught off guard, not offended.
H- There’s a fine line between praising Black culture and fetishizing it. Plus, it’s like you guys have been going to school with Black people for a while now- why are you just now discovering Black culture as if you were discovering a hot new trend? It just shows a big gap between the meaning of Black culture and what she perceives.
N- There’s an argument to be made that she starts with this attitude but then goes on a character journey and learns from this initial misconception. She has a conversation with her dad where they bring up the fact that if she helps with the march it will likely really hurt her career as a dancer, but she helps anyway. So I think you can argue that she does learn to treat the movement not as a fad but as an important and moral thing to do with real consequences, even if they’re not portrayed realistically.
H- That’s definitely a valid point of view. What are your thoughts on the ending? I found it somewhat problematic. I feel like while they pretended to bring both groups together, as symbolically portrayed in Tracy’s “checkerboard” dress, I felt like the final number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” felt more like Black’s assimilation into white culture rather than a shared appreciation of both.
N- I’d actually disagree with that. I think “You Can’t Stop the Beat” does a good job of bringing both styles of dance together.
H- Whereas songs like “Run and Tell That” really made sure to incorporate traditional elements of Black cultural dance, such as head shaking and drum sounds, I felt like “You Can’t Stop the Beat” lacked even a trace of those elements. My sister actually took traditional African dance classes growing up. When I would pick her up or watch her performances, I remember her teacher, Ms. Debbie Allen, would always speak about some of her favorite aspects of African dance: the asymmetrical body placement, the angular motions, rhythmic movements, and scuffing feet. Throughout “Run and Tell That” Elijah Kelley and friends really embody those movements such as when they drag their feet as they slide down the hallway with bobbing heads and shoulders. Yet, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” does not have these elements. Also, I might add, both “Run and Tell That” along with “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful” were choreographed by Jamal Sims, who is black. However, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” was primarily choreographed by Adam Shankman who identifies as a White Jewish man.
N- That’s a fair criticism, but I’d compare the dance moves in the white girls’ version of “New Girl in Town” to best illustrate my point. You can see that the white dance moves are very structured. There’s only one part of the body moving at any one moment, and it’s like there’s a rod keeping their spines completely straight through all of the dance, almost like a ballet dancer. Now, compare this with the Black girls’ version of “New Girl in Town,” the Black dance is full body motion. They focus a lot on head movement as well, and you can see each character’s personality in their movement and facial expressions. I’d say “You Can’t Stop the Beat”s style is closer to the latter. Its full body motion and allows for more suggestive moments, like Edna’s shimmying, where the previous white dances would never go there.
H- Ehh, that’s fair. But what about the vocals? The Black girls’ version of “New Girl in Town” incorporates traditional gospel influences and “Run and Tell That” is written in R & B style, whereas there is not even a bit of that in “You Can’t Stop the Beat.
N- I think during Maybelle’s verse there is a bit of gospel influence in the ensemble vocal pattern. But you’re right, it’s definitely not done throughout the song. One thing I really liked about that song though was that they made Little Inez the pageant queen. It was likely mostly Black people calling in to vote for her, thus showing that the integration of television affects everyone in the community, not just those on the show.
H- Well actually… just to play devil’s advocate, I kind of felt like this promotes conforming to white values. Traditionally this sort of pageant and the idea of winning a tiara as a prize has been associated with this idea of white beauty. While you could argue it breaks down this system of white beauty, to me, I feel like it imposes white ideals onto Black women.
N- Well, what’s the alternative? Some white girl gets it? I think it’s more than just about the title; winning this means that Inez will be the new featured dancer, and honestly, that’s one of the most radical acts we see in this movie.
H- Ooo. That’s a good point. I did not think about it that way, but you are definitely right.
N- So what do you think, does the movie advocate for racial equality or does it promote a white savior narrative?
A critical dialogue on race and imperialism by Lindsey Caroll, Jasmine Jain, and Claire Duffy
JJ: “Okay so this is Jasmine Jain, Lindsey Caroll, and Claire Duffy responding to the 1956 film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, directed by Walter Lang.”
CD: “Our central question is ‘where is whiteness hidden in the musical’ and we are also wondering ‘how does Anna help display this whiteness’”
LC: “Which of us had seen it before?”
JJ: “I’d never seen it.”
CD: “I’d seen clips of it.”
LC: “I’d seen it ages ago.”
JJ: “I had a completely different idea of what it was. I did not expect that at all.”
LC: “What was your overall impression of it?
CD: “I was a little shocked. I mean, I know it was made in 1956, but I guess there were some things that were still a little jarring to me.”
LC: “Like what?”
CD: “The dynamic they played between the people of Siam and the British. It really capitalized on the imperialistic idea of white is civilized and anything else is barbaric.”
JJ: “Yeah, I feel like it really showed the divide of how whiteness is elevated and people of color are below.”
LC: “I agree. The overarching themes I came away with were white supremacy, imperialism, and the white savior narrative. Anna (played by Deborah Kerr) definitely serves as a white savior. She’s bringing Western knowledge that is idealized. By the end of the musical when the King (played by Yul Brynner) dies and his son becomes the next king, they say, ‘You will take what you have learned from Anna and that will make you a good king’ because she’s brought Western knowledge that makes Siam more ‘forward-thinking.’”
JJ: “Another thing that’s interesting is the slavery piece, right? His son ends slavery. Anna, this white woman they admire (because she’s white, not necessarily because she’s a woman), shares all these ‘amazing’ things about Western culture. Then, when the King dies, his son (played by Patrick Aidiarte) gets rid of slavery. It’s proving the point that, because Anna was his teacher, he was able to do these amazing things. They villainize the King through the way he wouldn’t outlaw slavery.”
CD: “Anna’s comment when she brought up Lincoln and the U.S. was something that stuck out to me because of what Jasmine was saying. She mentions how much she admires Lincoln, but, while she’s obviously not going to Siam to enslave these people, she is still upholding imperialism and racist ideas.”
LC: “This is overt in the musical when they talk about Britain making Siam a protectorate. Anna tells the King how to avoid this: they have to prove they’re not barbaric by giving up all their customs and culture. At the ambassador’s dinner, the King of Siam is the only person of color at the whole table. He invited all the significant white dignitaries there, and it’s all just one big show he has to do in order to prove he is ‘sophisticated’ enough to not be made a protectorate, which will probably happen anyway.”
“Getting to know you” and what it represents…
LC: “We can also talk about the song ‘Getting to Know You’ and the lyrics, choreography, and costuming. As for the lyrics, written by Oscar Hammerstein II, the whole premise is ‘getting to know you,’ as in ‘I want to get to know you.’ You could interpret that as ‘I want to understand you and your culture.’ But that’s juxtaposed with the irony of the whole song being she’s acculturating her pupils to Western ways of doing things as opposed to understanding them. A lyric that stuck out to me was, ‘Putting it my way, but nicely.’ I think that encapsulates the entire song in a way.”
JJ: “I think what’s interesting with the choreography is the fact that she goes to shake the kids’ hands. That’s not something traditional to their culture, that’s a very Westernized thing. Then each of them start shaking each other’s hands to show a change in thinking and behavior. Also, when she first stands up and her son comes toward her, they teach two people how to bow or curtsy. It’s interesting because the woman bows first, and then Anna’s like, ‘No, you need to do it this way.’ It’s very subtle, but it’s that idea of…”
LC: “I think this is going to blend into costuming, but there is a dance break that’s supposed to be their indigenous dance (whether or not that’s actually true because it was choreographed by Jerome Robbins, a white man). The dancer is doing the dance, then Anna’s doing it, too. But, ultimately, the dancer has kids come around her and form the hoop skirt. In this show, you cannot miss the hoop skirt — every production is going to have a huge hoop skirt based on the original costuming by Irene Sharaff.”
JJ: “It’s the first thing your eyes go to, and that’s so intentional.”
CD: “I think it really juxtaposes Anna and ‘others’ her from them.”
LC: “I also think something interesting I hadn’t thought about before is how she gets the headpiece from the kid, and that’s appropriation because there’s a difference between, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna wear this thing’ versus ‘I understand the cultural significance of it.’ That’s her ‘Oh, I’m getting to know you, I’m gonna wear this thing’ moment, but she doesn’t know anything about it. Ultimately, there’s still the power dynamic of ‘I’m a white woman, and my purpose here is to teach you how to do Western things.’
JJ: “It’s interesting if you think about our modern world. We now learn about these different cultures, but even a couple of years ago there were people in my high school who were people of color who would continuously say, ‘I wish I were white.’ It’s still idolized, and this musical shows how rooted it is in our culture to want whiteness. In Indian culture, specifically, one thing I think about a lot is how some Indian parents tell their kids, ‘Don’t go out in the sun because your skin’s gonna get really dark, and you need to keep your skin white so people will want to be around you.’ After watching this, I see it’s ancestral and ingrained in our minds that this is the ‘right’ way and the other ways are wrong. I bet people in Thailand can relate to that.”
Conversation between Hale Masaki and Mady Johnston
Mady: I guess we’ll start with what Rent is trying to represent: diverse perspectives. It has all these different characters going through very real experiences. I find it hard to talk about Rent starting out because I feel like it’s supposed to be taken in all at once.
Hale: I’m reading Angels in America by Tony Kushner in another class and I bring it up because it’s also a story about gay men living with aids and the severity of the aids epidemic. When reading this, Rent seemed really watered down in comparison.
M: I see what you are saying. I mean, the only time the hardship of aids is brought up is with Angel’s death. It’s a hardship in life too, not just in death
H: Yeah, if they are trying to represent diverse perspectives within economic crises too, where did all their money come from to do the things they are doing?
M: Well, Joane is a lawyer but I’m not sure if she’s necessarily providing. Also, Roger just picked up his life and went to Santa Fe? No one in economic distress could actually do that.
H: What’s up with that cow udder shit?
M: I don’t know. Modernist art and mooing?
Idina Menzel as Maureen in RENT (2005)
M: I mean I think part of the goal with the diversity in the casting is that you can’t talk about the aids epidemic without talking about the black community. Because of the higher presence of aids in that community and how it caused an increase in racism and homophobia.
H: How come none of that is in the script then? It can’t be a casual representation without recognizing that race affects life. Only a white person can say race isn’t an important part of life.
M: What do you think about Mimi, Ben, or Joanne? How would that character change if it were played by a white person?
H: If race isn’t talked about, you are just effectively white. For instance, in video games where they give you this whole range of skin colors but don’t include the actual experience of race and ethnicity, it’s all effectively white.
M: Yeah, like Rent decided to be diverse for the purpose of being diverse and not for the purpose of showing the struggles of those people. Rent doesn’t really show homophobia or racism, just the idea of being a starving artist.
H: Nobody gets to be their race, they are all white.
M: They all have the same cookie-cutter struggles. You could change anyone’s race and it wouldn’t change the plot. So it kind of misses the mark of representation.
H: Also, it’s very convenient that Benny is black. Like a rich white landlord is an unprofitable look for them.
M: And that would be more truthful.
H: The movie is also mostly the original Broadway cast.
M: The two main characters are white men, they’re the center of the plot. And the fact that this is the og cast means this is Jonathan Larson’s intent and they wanted to keep it that way. Which is important because he died right before the first showing of rent. It’s also why La Vie Boheme is performed the way it is. They had decided to perform the show by just sitting at three tables, singing it through, but when La Vie Boheme hit, they couldn’t contain themselves and they performed the rest of the show as it was meant to be. So La Vie Boheme is usually performed with three tables pushed together.
H: So it’s stiff in some ways because they want to keep Jonathan Larson’s idea.
M: Yeah, like how West Side Story changed, but they didn’t change all the bad parts. Not erasing history, but this is for multiple reasons.
H: Moving to La Vie Boheme though, Mark is the most racialized person in Rent as a Jewish man, but he’s also the white main character.
M: Yeah they even include the Mourner’s Kaddish in La Vie Boheme. References to Jewish culture throughout are almost the only references to any culture at all.
H: At “Being an us for once instead of them” they show an interracial couple. They just kind of throw them in there.
M: It’s everything all at once again: gay, interracial, aids, drugs…not really representing in any way, just showing.
H: Besides race, you can’t tell who those background people are. They are essentially white.
M: I feel like when they say, “rice and beans and cheese” and then “huevos rancheros” they are just trying to fit Spanish culture into there also.
H: The whole musical is “look! we all like the same white guys!”
M: They say homo sapiens after bisexual and trisexual as in we are all human but we all also a little gay, which slay, but there is difficulty with being gay. They’re trying to show unity but…their experiences are actually different.
H: So the answer is no: race does not exist in the world of Rent.
Gypsy, the musical by Arthur Laurents, provides a core example of the film industry’s use of stereotypes regarding gender and identity. The musical portrays the character Rose, played in the 1992 television film adaptation by Bette Midler as a business-centric, a pushy “stage-mother” who controls her children’s careers. Gypsy establishes a dependency relationship between Rose and her two children–Louise and June–and uses them as pawns to fulfill her desire of always being a star. While watching the musical, I didn’t resonate with many of the characters, but as I was reflecting, I could sense a bit of Louise within me.
Louise, played by Cynthia Gibb, is a shy little girl who her mother casts as is a boy in a vaudeville act with her sister June. Mama Rose doesn’t believe in Louise becoming much of a star and torments Louise for not being as good an actor as June. Yet, as Louise evolves into a young adult, her main goal is to fulfill her mother’s desire of performing on stage. I see a bit of me in Louise when she continuously sides with her mom, even though Rose put so much pressure on her growing up. I am brought up in a modern South Asian family where my mom did not have as many opportunities growing up, and I would do anything to fulfill her wishes. June pisses me off because she can’t appreciate her mom’s harshness and resilience in getting their act booked, even if it wasn’t June’s passion.
Louise craved the satisfaction of fulfilling her mother’s dreams, and she did just that when she became a stripper. As a young girl, Louise wore cowboy clothes and draped herself in clothes that presented her as a young man. She echoed a shy young actor who didn’t enjoy speaking out because she was hiding her true self. As Louise grew older, she evolved into a stripper, which was such a big change in personality. Instantly having the added title of stripper, wearing lingerie, and dancing for the pleasure of others made her more famous than she would have been on the Vaudeville stage. It amazes me that men always put women on a pedestal when they remove their clothes and dance. Rose forced Louise’s hand into becoming a stripper, and once she did, she was proud of her. It was insane to see how Rose could give up the hope of Louise becoming a star and allow her daughter to become a stripper to progress her career. But in the end, Louise was content. Gypsy promotes the stereotype that being a successful a woman means having to flaunt one’s sexuality.
On the other hand, Rose’s other daughter June (played by Jennifer Rae Beck) shines like a bright star and does not care about Rose’s wishes for her. In “If Momma was Married,” June, sings: “If momma was married, we’d live in a house/ As private as private can be.” No matter how much Rose works for her daughters, she will always fail in giving her daughters a stable life. Imagining that “if momma was married,” the girls hints that if Rose had a husband, they would be able to fulfill all their desires. This reinforces another stereotype: children must have a dominant male figure in their life to be successful and rich. June and Louise are so young, but they are already dreaming of growing up rich versus poor.
Louise’s eyes twinkle as she fantasizes about her mom being married and her being able to live with various pets, almost as if she yearns for her childhood innocence to come back. When Louise talks about having a family filled with animals, a father, and a mother, the film’s director creates an illusion through Louise’s smile, suggesting that she would be more happy in that life than her current one. Although Louise resents her childhood as a child actor because she was never the one that Rose believed in, she still sided with her mom over June, who only wishes that her mother would leave her alone. The audience can hear the anger building up in June because as her voice rises, almost as if she is passionate to show the world how badly her mother treated her. Though the two sisters have completely different perceptions of their mother, they hold each other’s hands to show agreement in their desire to see Rose to be remarried. While June has a negative reason behind getting her mom married because she wants to get rid of Rose, Louise can’t wait, almost as if she’s a baby getting a brand-new toy.
Women are always portrayed in a harsh light and are expected as pleasers in society. Gypsy proves how they stereotype women and portray them as submissive and willing to stoop to low levels to establish their crediblity. As a woman, especially as a South Asian woman, I find it difficult to locate a middle ground where I am not only fulfilling the wishes of my mom but finding something that I love doing. As women we have expectations from both society and family, we must unite to find a way to break the stereotype and create equality amongst all genders.
It’s almost spooky season, and that means rewatching Bette Miller’s iconic role in the classic Halloween film Hocus Pocus. Whoops! Wrong spectacle.
However, her performance in the 1993 made-for-television production of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino, is iconic in its own right. At face value, this production is not an aspirational spectacle for young girls, but hidden behind its curtain are a plethora of feminist critiques. Bette Miller is the perfect embodiment of loud, gregarious, strong-willed Mama Rose—complete with fiery red hair.
Rose embodies her role as stage mother, acting as a true “Mama Bear,” striving for the best for her two cubs June and Louise (who later becomes Gypsy Rose Lee). Rose dedicates her life to making her girls stars. The beginning of the film resembles many “wannabe” Broadway stars’ struggles to stardom. She begins as somewhat of a nobody in Seattle, Rose’s ambition rewards the girls with consequent gigs around the country at any Vaudeville theater that will have them. In her role as a mother, Rose defies the traditional gentle, dainty, proper female stereotypes in all aspects of her character.
Rose’s first solo number titled “Some People,” written by Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim sets the stage, exhibiting her “go-getter” personality. Rose is not like “some people.” In fact, she is very much not like what a woman was “supposed” to be during the musical’s 1920s time period. As reminded by her father and future love interest quite often, she should be married (to a man, of course). The world expects her to have a steady family, with her children in school and her husband making money to support their family. She certainly should not be living in her Papa’s house as a middle-aged woman with two young daughters begging for eighty-eight bucks. In this regard, Rose’s character does not conform to social norms. At that time, it was unacceptable (or at least unusual) for a woman to have dreams beyond motherhood. While Rose is a devoted (albeit sometimes misguided) mother, her nurturing techniques are rather unconservative.
Rose has bigger dreams for her girls. Even when offered a hand in marriage to a man she arguably loves, she chooses the single route. Again, Rose defies gender stereotypes by denying what most would see as the obvious decision. The gender roles in Rose’s romantic relationship are almost reversed. Herbie, Rose’s love interest and agent, portrays the gentle, subversive partner, while Rose calls the shots. Herbie chases Rose, in this instance.
While Mama Rose is undoubtedly a strong female character, some of her parenting choices and treatment towards her daughters are questionable. At the beginning of the film, we see Baby June, played by Lacey Chabert (Chabert later stars as Gretchen in Mean Girls, truly embodying the role of “girly girl”) as the ideal, pageant queen, frilly, perfect female child performer. Her sister Louise, played by Elizabeth Moss, is there to ensure June shines on stage—whether that means dressing up as a cow or newspaper boy. Side note—June is in fact cast as a blonde and Louise as a brunette. I guess blondes do have more fun? Nevertheless, at the beginning of the film, Rose reinforces these role distinctions between her daughters, consistently doting on June, speaking words of confidence to her about her future stardom. Rose is so steadfast to follow her own path, why is she not more supportive of her daughters to defy the same gender norms she does?
The real kicker comes after older June (now played by Jennifer Raye Beck) decides to abandon both her mother and dreams of stardom to run off with a boy. Here we see another typical female giving up her dreams of a career (well, maybe they were Rose’s dreams for her) in the name of love. After Rose comes to terms with making Louise a star instead, the team arrives at a Burlesque theatre. While this rather mature theatre is surprising to the pure, innocent Louise (played by Cynthia Gibb), it is the place where she finds herself and her place in society.
Rewind to Baby June’s musical number titled “Let Me Entertain You.” Here we see an amusing, playful, childish upbeat song performed by Baby June. Dressed in a white, glittery, ballerina-like costume, with a bow almost as big as her head, June’s outfit paints her as an innocent, but talented little girl, somewhat like Shirley Temple. Were she a boy, she would not be able to capitalize on this aspect of her identity—or her female body. In this number, she refers to herself as a “bundle of dynamite,” highlighting her childlike demeanor. She then continues to boast about her ‘versatility’ and talents as well as her ability to make us feel good as she sings:
Rose has June act younger than she is in the following scenes, having her continue to capitalize on her young female body (rather creepy in my opinion, having an adult pretending to be a young child). Viewed on its own, this song seems innocent enough, and simply explains June’s talent and ability to bring joy to her audiences.
Back at the Burlesque theater, Rose and Louise are both in shock when they see the audaciously unladylike performances occurring.
Rose is so appalled she attempts to make a run for it until Louise convinces her they need the money from the gig. Louise does her first “striptease” act as a backup for a missing performer where the announcer mistakenly gives her the name “Gypsy Rose Lee.” This is the beginning of a transformation of Louise’s traditionally prude, conservative female characteristics to use her body and femininity in her performance. After Gypsy adjusts to the role of “stripper,” viewers see her fully embrace this new identity of herself. Rose has mixed feelings about seeing her baby girl act in such a provocative way.
Should she be a prude? Married? Independent? Sexy? A Stripper?
Gypsy’s ending transforms Baby June’s original “Let me Entertain You” number into Gypsy’s signature act. This new context transforms the meaning of the song. Gypsy sings to a room of mostly older men hoping to see her take her clothes off. Her “versatility,” and “talents” convey added meaning, as does her ability to “make them feel good.” It’s sexual connotations could objectify Gypsy. However, the song helps Gypsy embody the same traits of independence and rejection of social norms as her mother. Rose may not fully approve, but this new identity—a truly new identity with a name change from Louise to Gypsy—is Gypsy’s own. She is no longer the “company” of Baby June.
But…. why is Gypsy’s only path to fame one of objectification and capitalization of her feminity? In this way, the movie reaffirms traditional female gender norms which emphasize physicality and beauty. Nevertheless, Gypsy not only brings attention to taboo topics such as stripping and the complexity of women using their bodies to their advantage. The musical explores the nuances within the traditionally female stereotype and makes viewers question their initial assumptions. Women are continually and regularly objectified and used for their bodies, but when they do it on their own accord, society labels them a “whore.” Shouldn’t a woman be able to be whoever and whatever she wants? I wouldn’t call Gypsy Rose the new face of the feminist movement, give her some credit for helping us consider these themes in a Broadway musical.
The Broadway musical 42nd Street (2018; streaming on Broadway HD) constantly places its female leads in positions of seeming autonomy but this only highlights the lack of power they possess in actuality. The show constantly reminds the audience that although Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse) and Dorothy Brock (Bonnie Langford) end up ‘the stars’ of the show, their power is predicated on the decisions and money of powerful men – namely producer Julian Marsh and financial backer Abner Dillon. The song “Lullaby of Broadway” perhaps best underscores this concerning gender dynamic, when Julian (Tom Lister) attempts to coax a resistant Peggy into taking over the role which Dorothy can no longer play. This number takes place right after Peggy injures Dorothy onstage, leading to her dismissal and subsequent attempt to get on the next train to Allentown. At this point, Peggy just wants to return to her humble roots after being harmed by the showbiz industry. But after learning that Dorothy can no longer perform, Julian has other plans for Peggy, needing another leading lady to insure his own success. This is the audience’s first red flag about Julian’s character, and it extends to all the men with power in this show.
Julian does not treat Peggy like a full human. She is simply a chess piece which he must move in order to keep his show alive and continue his own fame and fortune. With this in mind, everything Julian says as he opens his mouth to sing is utter rubbish. Julian knows he must simply say the things that Peggy wants to hear to keep her in the cast. He even throws out a pitifully ridiculous line about staying “for the kids.” Rest assured, Julian could care less about the juveniles in the cast, or really anyone for that matter.
Julian begins the number with an unsettling attempt to grab Peggy’s hand. Like many of Julian’s movements, this grab can be interpreted as simply part of his attempt to get Peggy back in the show, it comes off as oddly and uncomfortably sexual. As Julian, Lister leers and smirks at Halse uncomfortably, and the scene begins to read as harassment rather than a director simply trying to convince his star to perform.
Julian then begins to sing, and immediately, problematic words escape his mouth. He describes the ‘essence’ of Broadway as: “The rumble of the subway train, the rattle of the taxis, the daffy-dills who entertain.” Apparently, to Julian, one of the core parts of Broadway and New York aren’t the strong actresses that make his show successful, but the delicate little ‘daffy-dills,’ who successfully entertain his audience. Julian’s character constantly oozes misogyny, but this seems extreme even for him. Julian shows the audience that he doesn’t view any women as talented individuals, rather he thinks of them as pretty little flowers at which his audiences can gawk.
Julian’s misogynistic rant continues when he refers to Broadway actresses as babies, saying, “When a Broadway baby says “Good night,”/It’s early in the morning/Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn.” Now, one might be fooled into believing that this “baby” reference is innocent, simply keeping in-line with the ‘lullaby’ theme. Don’t be fooled! He clearly uses the word ‘baby’ is clearly to refer to women in a patronizing, sexual way. This line reveals that this song as a lullaby for all industry women, sung by men to put their sense of autonomy ‘to sleep’. They will “hush” any women who want to make it as actresses and tell them to put any power they have to bed before they can truly succeed. Julian hasn’t come to the train station to show Peggy the beauty of Broadway – he’s come to convince her to ‘sleep’ on the injustices and misogyny of the industry and perform in his show! If there’s any doubt about this motivation, Lister constantly reinforces that this with his sly looks and sexual physicalization.
When Peggy tries to leave again, Julian puts his leg on her briefcase – another sexualized action that leaves the audience feeling horribly uncomfortable. At this point, the scene has taken a dive into full-on harassment, as there is no denying that Julian is sleazily holding Peggy against her will. It’s reminiscent of “I really can’t stay,” “baby it’s cold outside.” Although continually Julian uses his silver tongue to convince both the audience and Peggy that he is looking out for her best interests, the highly-sexualized leg raise and look he gives in this moment proves the opposite.
When other characters, or as I like to call them, Julian’s reinforcements, enter to convince Peggy to take the role, they serve as the perfect representation of both perpetrators and victims of showbiz misogyny. Rather than an innocent display of happy, enthusiastic Broadway performers, it is actually something much darker. Reading the scene in the context of the repression and misogyny, the women represent those who have endured and accepted the injustices of Broadway while the men are the beneficiaries from this broken system. This seems especially true for Billy Lawlor, (Philip Bertioli) who obnoxiously sings “let’s call it day.” Billy is an acute display from 42nd Street that things aren’t getting any better in the industry, that younger generations are correcting the misogyny of older men. The musical introduces Billy to the audience in the context of him trying to ask Peggy on a date. At the end of the day, the only value Peggy, and the other women onstage, hold is their sexual appeal. Bertioli physicalizes Billy in a highly sexualized way, similar to Lister’s portrayal of Julian. The two actors absolutely nailed the sickening sense of entitlement and power that the ‘kings’ of Broadway felt for many years in the entertainment industry, and to some extent still feel.
The look on Clare Halse’s face as she is ‘serenaded’ by the company who try to convince her to join the show displays just how reluctant she is to enter an industry that does not respect her. It’s almost as if there are about ten devils on Peggy’s shoulder as she tries to make the right decision. It’s especially interesting to see the women of the cast trying to convince her to join. This is one of those moments where you may say, “See, this song isn’t about Peggy being subject to misogyny!” Careful. Just because the women of the cast try to convince Peggy to return does not mean they are happy in their own position. It reads as a desperate cry for another ally within the industry. It’s like they are saying, “Peggy, please face the horrors of this industry with us!” That they sing this plea with a smile on their face is symbolic. No matter how bad things are on Broadway, once the curtains rise, performed must appear one hundred percent in control.
Peggy has a moment where she almost gives in, then decides to flee, but then Julian grabs her and the group surrounds her. I found this the most disturbing moment of the number. It’s uncomfortable enough that everyone is surrounding a woman who clearly wants no part of being there, but even scarier when Peggy goes to turn and Julian grabs her. It’s important to note that he doesn’t just grab her to try to stop her, but seizes her only in a way that a person seizes a person when they want to lean in for a smooch. It’s amazing how this scene continues to find ways to become even more uncomfortable. While the sexual connotations of this scene may not be quite as overt as in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” it’s still pretty clear that a woman gave a man an answer, and he simply won’t take it. It’s not easy to watch.
Of course, the group does not give up, eventually convincing Peggy to throw on a fake smile, and exclaim, “I’ll do it!” In the end, they force the woman to give in to the man’s wishes. Peggy has become just like the other women in the number, as now she smiles, and appears happy, as all performance have to on stage. But she has clearly given up. Re-joining the cast is not a triumph for Peggy; it is a concession. Julian has chased and grabbed her enough, she may as well just give in right? It’s a sickening ending to the scene, especially because it’s painted as a happy ending. Every time I watch this scene, it becomes a more pointed criticism of the power dynamics of Broadway and society in general.
If, for some possible reason, misgivings still exist about whether this scene is an example of Julian empowering or objectifying Peggy, one need not look further than the end of the show. Did Julian cast Peggy in the show and then simply allow her to shine? Of course not. He falls in love with her, rendering Peggy again more of an object than a star herself. There’s nothing more sickening than when Peggy is about to make her debut, perhaps the biggest moment of her life, and it sullied by Julian kissing her and saying, “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” Thanks, but no thanks, Julian. Neither Peggy nor the audience need to hear your empty, sly words anymore. Save your ‘lullaby’ to put yourself to bed.
It has glitter, glam, and girls?! It’s no surprise 42nd Street became nothing short of a musical phenomenon that returned to the stage only four years ago. Written in 1980, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble create a show within a show, with a plot that followed a timid, talented chorus girl, Peggy Stewart (played by Clare Halse), on her claim to fame. She navigates the highs and lows of show business through—wait for it—glamorous song and dance. Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer’s lyrics combined with Harry Warren’s composition allows her story to come alive, as well as the stories of other leading characters like accomplished yet difficult actress Dorothy Brock, aggressive producer Julian Marsh, and leading man Billy Lawlor. Gower Champion’s choreography brings the musical to life, contributing to critical reviews calling it a “gorgeously made musical.” Gorgeously made, however, does not mean gorgeously conveyed. Through the lyrics, costume, acting, and choreography, 42nd Street glorifies misogyny through the objectification of women. The number “Dames/Keep Young and Beautiful” is a prime example. Billy sings about the sole purpose of seeing a show (“Dames”) while putting forth sexist ideas that the writers and choreographer only emphasize through the chorus girls’ portion of the song, “Keep Young and Beautiful.” As a female-identifying viewer, I do not wish to see harmful stereotypes expressed through song and dance, especially when they are not followed up or addressed in some productive manner. Although not as obvious, such gender stereotypes still very much exist in today’s world. Musical numbers such as this one certainly lack in the “positively contributing to society” category.
The number opens on Billy, sing-expressing his thoughts about women (enough said). Peggy, as directed by Mark Bramble, passes him and noticeably crouches in nervousness, fear or embarrassment (most likely a combination of all three), to which Billy pays no mind. He continues singing and even gives her his hat, clearly establishing a power dynamic between the two. As this dominant figure, the audience hangs closely to the words coming out of his mouth, which include, “who cares if there’s a plot or not,/ when they’ve got a lot of dames!” This line not only diminishes the intricacies of show business, but it also underscores objectification of women, since the reason given for why men attend is simply to admire the “dames.” The male chorus echos with lyrics about how women are “temporary” and how they “don’t recall their names,” to which I say, oh-my-god-what!?! This blunt misogyny stares the audience right in the face, not only through these awful lyrics, but also through their costumes. Each man is wears (bow)ties, suspenders, and top hats, all of which reflect a typical image of masculinity (at least for the time period). The costumes also play to these men’s good nature and even innocence through the sweater vests and large smiles, depicting them as “good boys” allowing them to get away with the harmful things they say.
As the men clear the stage, they unveil a group of women, posing and looking at themselves in handheld mirrors. This image immediately sets the tone for the women’s embrace of their surface-level feminine beauty, created not only through the mirrors but also through their choreography. With leg movements to create symmetry and geometric shapes, the chorus girls’ dancing very much appeals to the song’s targeted audience, prioritizing visual aesthetic and pleasure, over showcasing their talent. Champion purposefully draws parallels to Ziegfeld’s Follies, also designed to appeal to the sexual desires of men, as well as Theoni Aldridge’s costume design (nothing screams “object of affection” like sparkly leotards) and Dubin and Mercer’s lyrics.
The chorus girls listen intently to the lyrics sung by male ensemble (and written by Maggie Jones and Bert Barry) absorbing every word with smiling faces and enthusiastic nods, despite the demeaning line (and even title) “keep young and beautiful / if you want to be loved.” The anti-feminist statements keep coming—“take care of all those charms / and you’ll always be in a guys arms” once again enforces the idea that it is a woman’s sole purpose in life to be loved by a man (which is, not to mention, very heteronormative), and to do so, they must take care of their “charms” and be physically and sexually appealing. Not only is “charms” a sexual innuendo but also defined as “giving delight or arousing please,” which is precisely what the entire number suggests in regards to female sexuality and the male gaze.
“Dames/Keep Young and Beautiful” functions as a product of the patriarchy by perpetuating sexist concepts and physically establishing power dichotomies between the male and female characters. Perhaps it is because the number is metatheatrical, depicting a 1920s period number in Pretty Girl, or it’s a product of the 1980’s feminist backlash, but either way, the lyrics, costumes, acting, and choreography express blatant misogyny. Looking forward, I hope to see more female empowerment interwoven in the book, lyrics, choreography, and acting of characters in the musicals I continue to watch, or at the very least, I hope to see less explicit sexism. Musicals are meant for entertainment, and because of the circumstances, I can’t say I felt very entertained. 42nd Street draws on old-fashioned ideals of entertainment that are rooted in misogyny (which are even spelled out in “Dames”—ironic).
Transformations intrigue us. We gasp at the Very Hungry Caterpillar’s metamorphosis as children, fixate on before and after diet photos, and unhealthily pore over Breaking Bad character analyses for days (I’m guilty of the latter). And just like Walter White’s becoming of Heisenberg, Louise Hovick’s development into the titularGypsy Rose Lee sparks interest. What prompts this change? What does this transformation say about her character and her environment?
Director Emile Ardolino adapted the television film musical of Gypsy from the 1959 stage musical (which in turn took inspiration from Gypsy Rose Lee’s autobiography). With music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy tracks the transformation of Louise Hovick from the shy, oft-overlooked sister of vaudeville headliner June to a bold, independent burlesque star. With that established, let’s try to answer the aforementioned questions.
First, what prompts this change? Easy: Madame Rose, Louise’s mother, volunteers her as a replacement for the main stripper because she believes it is a breakout opportunity. Louise, although initially unconfident, grows more comfortable as she receives (gross as it is to say) “support” from the burlesque theater audience. As Louise recognizes that she can play this role successfully, she capitalizes on it to become a burlesque star.
What does this transformation say about her character and her environment? This question is much harder to answer. Gypsy Rose Lee clearly empowers herself by embracing her sexuality, and throws aside traditional notions of demure femininity as defined by the patriarchy. However, despite the decline of this form of stage entertainment, burlesque theater is still popular enough for Gypsy to succeed… a popularity which suggests more insidious elements. Although a message of triumph, Louise’s transformation to Gypsy Rose Lee also presents a sad truth: the influence of the male gaze, and more broadly, the power of a patriarchal society.
Coined by Laura Mulvey, the “male gaze” refers to a heterosexual perspective that objectifies women in a sexual manner. Succeeding in popular media, especially in the early-to-mid 20th century, with a large – if not majority – heterosexual, male audience, meant catering to this male gaze.
Gypsy implicitly brings up the male gaze in an earlier dialogue between Louise and Tulsa, a boy that coworks in June’s act. When explaining the reasoning for why he tries to dance more than his female partner for a nightclub routine, Tulsa opines, “They always look at the girl in a dance team, especially if she’s pretty.” Tulsa is subconsciously aware of the male gaze – catering to a probably very male nightclub audience. Yet still wanting to be the main lead, Tulsa believes he must dance more.
Bette Midler playing Madame Rose in “Rose’s Turn” actively caters to the male gaze. She realizes the her desire to be a star manifests unhealthily in her aggressive pursuit of fame for her children. Madame Rose plays in an empty theater and objectifies herself to an imaginary audience (uncomfortable as it is for the viewers). She draws attention to her breasts (“How do you like them eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?”), accentuates her body through suggestive movements, and refers to herself as “Mama” in a sultry voice. Madame Rose, despite playing for an imaginary audience, anticipates needing to cater to the male gaze. Both this and Tulsa’s example illustrate that the male gaze is ever-present, that it insidiously underpins popular media. Although the actors don’t explicitly recognize this male gaze, they knowingly create products for a majority-male audience, and by doing so, give hegemonic power, or consent, to patriarchal society.
Louise’s quick shift from passive, shy girl into confident, independent woman also illustrates this power. Louise embraces her sexuality to gain personal agency as a burlesque star. And just like Tulsa and Madame Rose, she recognizes the male gaze and its power in patriarchal society – after all, she is a stripper. Such a contradiction could be confusing – that she empowers herself through her sexuality, yet that patriarchal society exploits her. While Louise does find empowerment, it is only through her sexuality; that is, within the confines of patriarchal society.
So what? Although this movie carries a message of triumph and self-empowerment, it still reminds viewers that we live in a hegemonic patriarchal society which we perpetuate. And just like Louise, Tulsa, and Madame Rose, we support its hegemonic power in some way, whether it be normalizing the male gaze in popular media, or accepting stereotypical, restrictive gender roles for women in everyday life.
And as a heterosexual, Korean-American male, that reminder is especially noteworthy. Not only did society teach me these problematic gender narratives as universal truths, but I also at one point believed them. And as I grow more aware of our society, it’s becoming increasingly important to ask: is this belief, or truth?
*While researching the male gaze, I was introduced to this phenomenon through this article. The Hawkeye Initiative is a website made “to draw attention to how deformed, hypersexualized, and unrealistically dressed women are drawn in comics…” (FAQ).
Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, directed by Robert Delamere, brilliantly plays Fanny Bryce: an icon in broadway history and a star never afraid to be herself. However, Fanny being the complete opposite of what most would consider “American beauty and desire,” fights for the spotlight, revealing a larger conversation of gender and sexuality in societies larger agenda.
On stage and off, Fanny embodies the notion of being a “funny girl:” a little awkward, quirky, and fun. Using this to fight for her own place on stage, Fanny takes comfort in her talent, her incredible singing and ability to interact with audiences and other stage members in unique ways. Fanny never wavers in this identity, choosing to live it 24/7, bringing an authentic feel to her characters and performances in ways not seen before. It is Smith who takes this performance to another level, delivering and exuding energy in ways that other cast members lack, and it is her performance that truly makes audiences understand and root for Fanny.
Disgustingly, Fanny lives in a man’s world, and it is this world that she fights to find her own place within. Men tell her yes, men tell her no, and men argue with other men on whether she deserves a yes or a no; to the point that Fanny never really controls the trajectory of her career alone. Tom Keeney, director of a small theater house, initially refuses work for Fanny until an applauding audience convinces him otherwise. Even then, Keeney underpays her until another man, Nick Arstien steps in and makes him pay up for the talent he deems “worthy.” Eventually, Fanny reaches the highest and most desirable stages, performing under the direction of Florenz Ziegfeld, the man literally responsible for defining “American beauty” through his reinvisioned show girls that Fanny does not fit represent. Ironic isn’t it? However, Zeigfeld too undervalues Fanny and wants to use her as a comic, someone to be the foil to the show girl. Not someone to laugh with but laugh at. Oh and did I mention Nick Arstien becomes Fanny’s love interest and is a stereotypical man who cannot handle a woman making more money than him and causes a lot of problems for Fanny. There’s that too.
“Don’t Rain On My Parade” perfectly encapsulates the complicated and dense environment that Fanny Bryce lives in, and Sheridan Smith’s performance of it is everything. With every beginning and end of musical phrase, Smith belts out lines that not only put a wall between her and patriarchal authority but also question the very notion of it with lyrics written by, Bob Merrell, such as “Don’t tell me not to fly/ Who told you you’re allowed to rain on my parade?” The contour of her voice and the melodic line she sings brilliantly enhance the lyrics with subtle shifts of note length, tone, and inflection that combine to add an edge, an attitude, and a confidence that highlights Fanny Bryce’s steadfast desire to live life as she chooses: fuller and undeniably herself. It is this desire that also invokes a dream-like feel for what could be and makes this song and this moment in the musical that much more special.
A jazz big band accompanies and mimics the lyrics, playing a simple upbeat swing, show tune and groove written by Jule Styne. Like Smith, the band utilizes changes in inflection, playing heavier and more staccato when questioning patriarchal authority and playing more light and airy when invoking Fanny’s dreams of a world that could be. Orchestration has a big role in pulling this off, whereas most of the time the brass have this bite to their sound, when Fanny begins dreaming, they sing and their melodic lines soar and are legato rather than being short and abrupt.
However, just as Fanny Bryce is living in a patriarchal society, so too is the song and the music. Another interpretation of the short staccato interjections in the big band throughout the song being the fight back to Fanny’s commentary, with only the longer more lyrical moments along with the slower breakdown being truly Fanny’s and Smith’s voice.
Further complicating this idea is that the actual peak, the high point, and climax of the song occurs when Smith sings “Hey Mr. Arnstein here I am.” The high point, the most critical moment of the song, directly talks to a man. In fact, in this moment of the musical Fanny is leaving her job for love, for a man, for the toxic man Arnstein, which only goes to show that despite all of the work Fanny puts in to being herself and fighting for change, ultimately, patriarchal society is still very much overbearing and present. It’s inescapable…. unable to be broken. Interestingly, this is not the only song in the musical that Merrell and Styne write together with the climax being “Mr.” which only solidifies the undertones of this song. It is a clever choice, subtle, to the point, and damning.
“Don’t Rain On My Parade” is a genius representation of gender and sexuality as it reveals and highlights the complicated layers in which Fanny has to fight for her world. From the very notion of not being the typical “showgirl” that broadway demanded of at the time, and for constantly having to fight to remain true to herself and in “control” of her narrative. Yet at the same time, the song displays the true world in which she lives, that no matter what Fanny does, as long as society is a patriarchal society, she will always be a part of this oppressive and binary society; making this musical and this song problematic to me. It is both good and bad, certainly revealing, and leaves you, me, questioning the society and world which we live in today, which I ultimately think is intended and for the better.
Funny Girl’s “I’m The Greatest Star” is one of the most iconic numbers within the musical. It’s the recognizable “pip with pizazz” and Fanny Brice’s “I am” song, setting the basis for how the audience interprets her character’s decisions. However, the themes brought up in “I’m The Greatest Star” are far from centered in Fanny’s decision-making. The song sets up the frustration that many viewers have reported when finishing Funny Girl in that Fanny seems to stray so far from her “I am.” Well, I have news about that frustration…that’s show biz, kid!
In other words, Fanny Brice’s glam in this song contrasts with the real-life struggles she faces. The plot of Funny Girl refuses to hide the misogyny that not only is a large part of Fanny’s story, but also the time period.
What’s she even talking about
In order to understand Fanny’s perspective, we have to understand what she’s saying in “I’m The Greatest Star.” For this interpretation, I’ll be referencing specifically the 2018 adaptation, directed by Robert Delamere and performed on West End. The production presents the song after Fanny’s rejection from the stage and becomes bundled with the emotions she feels from not being given a shot. What’s unique about this song is that she’s singing about her woes but she’s unashamed at the same time. She’s singing of all the great things about herself: all the things she could offer to an audience that are “six expressions” more than anyone else. What’s more, Fanny is acutely aware that she doesn’t fit what Ziegfeld and others would consider an “American Beauty Rose.” She’s proud of her Jewish heritage, her home, and her looks.
I feel this overwhelming sense of joy as a Jewish New Yorker when I hear Fanny Brice proudly sing of her “American Beauty Nose.”
John Springer Collection/Getty Images | Side profile of Barbara Streisand
Despite what the world says about her outwardness, her culture, or her character, she is dead set in her belief that she’ll make it. To prove it even more, Sheridan Smith, the actress who plays Fanny in this adaptation, stays sitting on the ground for more than half of the song, but remains exaggerated in expression hilariously, exemplifying her great ability to perform. “I’m The Greatest Star” isn’t some sad lament where Fanny sings about how many times she’s failed. Instead, she sings about all the ways she can succeed. Additionally, the song is not a “performance within a performance,” meaning that this behind-the-scenes moment between her and Eddie shows her true self and her true wishes. Her “I am” song is powerfully positive despite all odds.
Oh no! It all went wrong!
So where does her power go? Well, it left with the money that she sent to Nicky Arnstein. Only joking (stick around for the jokes). In discussion with people who’ve watched this musical with me, they all seem to have the same shtick: that Fanny shouldn’t have left her dream of performing–and therefore “losing herself”–for a guy. But consider the real-life Fanny Brice. While Funny Girl is a loose biography, it still is set in the 1900s, and regretfully, life was disappointing for women back then. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room when it came to what a woman could do during those times.
Mrs. Strakosh, played by Myra Sands, even ranks marriage over Fanny’s successful career, often talking about her daughter who is married in comparison to Fanny, or asking about Nick rather than the shows. What happened to Fanny was a product of intense love, of course, but it also was, unfortunately, a product of the time. Fanny blaming herself for pushing Nick and not letting him make money himself exemplified the mass misogyny that existed back then. Fanny had more money than Nick, and when she attempted to save him from bankruptcy, he felt emasculated by her success.
Brice loved performing–her “I am” song was the greatest 😉 –but she loved feeling like other women more. She constantly mentions how Nick made her feel “beautiful.” However, in “I’m The Greatest Star” it seems like she already feels beautiful, so let’s not forget that. But her self-view changed to what others considered normal. Her self-view became what she thought fancy people in ruffled shirts viewed as beautiful, which was “typical” Ziegfeld girls and wives with children. She no longer fit in her self-view. She loses herself because of her environment. She mentions her jokes and her faces in “I’m The Greatest Star,” acting extravagantly as the form of comedy she produces, but she wants people “to laugh with her, not at her.” This meant to be a part of the majority, and give in to what the modern eye might see as frustrating.
Finding yourself again
Great news! Fanny and Nick do, in fact, get divorced. So where does this “I am” song land now? Right back at the center like we thought it was meant to be! We get about five minutes of validation towards the end of the production when Nick leaves Fanny, and Fanny looks at herself in the mirror. She quotes her “I am” song. Knowing all the things Fanny went through as well as keeping in mind the time period, this ending unravels the return of empowerment within Fanny. This empowerment is not only women’s empowerment but also just plain old self-empowerment. Looking at yourself in a mirror and saying “Hello, Gorgeous!” is what the modern day would call “daily affirmations.” But her forgetting to do her daily affirmations is not what got us to this conclusion. Despite all the casual misogyny she experienced and the letdown of a lifetime, she still achieved the dreams she set out in “I’m the Greatest Star.” However, she went back to holding that aspiration at the highest value when the finale hits (she says beforehand she would have left performing if Nick told her to). With the reference to “I’m the Greatest Star” at the center of this finale, Fanny communicates to the audience some rendition of “I am despite what is.” The audience follows the story of Fanny Brice and Nicky Arnstein for quite some time are pulled back into the modern world suddenly. Fanny Brice can be whoever she wants to be without a man. Fanny Brice had more money than Nicky Arnstein that she made on her own. These are all things that in the modern age are relatively normal, but back then were almost offensive. Audiences leave the musical being proud of Fanny though because she returns to her progressive nature. She returns to grappling with her role in society when it comes to gender and sexuality but lands upon forming that outside of the status quo once again.
“I’m The Greatest Star” differs from common “I am” songs because it is not a basis for how we view the character, but rather a reference point for how Fanny Brice changed. Success throws Fanny into a different world, far from Brooklyn and her small fan group of family. She definitely changed moving forward, but her past didn’t. I leave you with this thought- love is difficult, but you find yourself again and again and again, with or without it.
Okay, maybe not. But still! The musical Gypsy definitely satisfies the male gaze. By that, I mean that Gypsy, the television directed by Emile Ardolino, encourages the objectification and sexualization of women. Viewers can see this in a few different ways, but I want to focus on the character Louise, played by Cynthia Gibb. More specifically, my analysis looks at the evolution of her character and how her relationship with her femininity affects her success and happiness. Let’s begin with “Let Me Entertain You,” a musical number performed twice within the musical but with significan difference in each rendition. Through analyzing the costuming, performance, and music of both performances, viewers can observe how Louise’s character evolves and what this evolution suggests about the film’s attitudes toward gender and sexuality.
Part 1: “May We Entertain You” – Baby June and Baby Louise
Let’s first dissect the costuming. Viewers first hear this song when June and Louise are young. They stand next to each other on stage, full of confidence and energy, ready to perform. Dressed in a bright colorful, frilly dress, June draws all of the attention. In comparison, the overalls her sister Louise wears swallows her small frame. This begins a pattern where June always dresses in high-quality feminine clothing whereas Louise dressees in scrappy boyish clothing. Viewers can literally see the distinction between the two characters. Everyone around June, who dresses according to female expectations, rewards her with attention and undying glory. By contrast, everyone who meets Louise, who dresses according to masculine expectations, casts her aside. Their clothing is a physical manifestation of their feminine difference and how others treat them as a result.
Source: All images were screen grabbed from the film.
The film further highlights their difference in their performance of the number. The choreography positions Louise as an accessory. She is a tool to help June shine. During the second line of the song, for example, Louise kneels on the ground and June literally dances circles around her sister. It doesn’t get any more straightforward than that. June is the cherished child, while Louise is forgotten.
June both looks and acts the part of an idealistic young girl in a sexist society during this song, and the music further characterizes the division between the girls. June sings proudly: “I will do some kicks/ I will do some tricks” to which Louise responds with, “I’ll tell you a story/ I’ll dance when she is done.”
Louise explicitly waits for June to perform before she will, proclaiming her second place status. So this song defines the relationship between the two girls, but what about the relationship between the girls and their larger society?
“May we entertain you?/ May we see you smile?”
These lyrics position the two little girls on stage to ask permission to perform and impress an audience. Servitude is their purpose, even as children. The reprise of this song will further support this ideal of servitude and satisfaction (*ahem* particularly for male spectators).
Part 2: “Let me Entertain You” – Louise
I’ll set the scene. Before this moment, Louise was the insignificant sibling. At this point, she spent her entire life living under the shadow of her sister, ignored by virtually every other character in the musical. But the very second she steps onstage in a sensual satin gown, she feels different. And so does the audience.
As a costume choice, her first dress highlights her female figure. The mermaid silhouette draws attention to her waist and radiates the energy of a poised and voluptuous woman. The silk fabric is delicate and smoothly bends with every curve of her body. This is a dramatic contrast to the oversized costuming she wore previously. The shift is so jarring that the other characters feel drawn to her, unable to hide their awe as she walks onstage to perform independently for the first time. She wears long white gloves that stretch all the way up to her bicep and a feathery boa across her chest. Altogether, the costume gives the illusion that she is tantalizing yet demure. She only hints at the beauty that lies just beneath her clothing. Similar costuming choices appear consistently throughout the number, beginning a montage of her performances. Her dresses are both skin-tight and flowing. The long silhouette highlights her height and curves. She is the personification of sexuality and prestige. This is the image of a woman embracing her femininity and finding power because of it.
Source: All images were screen grabbed from the film
Her performance only adds to this picture. She begins the number shyly and awkwardly. She has never worn a dress, let alone worn one in front of an entire audience – especially male. Mama Rose reserved the dresses for June, not for her! She has only ever known baggy pants and overalls (and a cow suit, apparently). Her body language is uptight and shy, but she is curious, drawn in by the attention that she has never received. But the tension unravels with the drop of her first glove. Viewers watch Louise blossom into her confidence and stardom with the loss of every article of clothing. By the second stanza of the song, she stands tall and confident. She rolls her shoulders back and holds her head high. She has the audience in the palm of her hand, and she knows exactly how to play with them. Just give them a little leg here… and a shoulder there… and her audience melts. Even the suggestion of her naked body is enough to give her complete power over the audience and her career as a whole.
The lyrics even further support her sexuality as a means for success and power. Perhaps the most glaring difference between the two numbers lies in who sings lead. June sings the lead in the first appearance of this song, but now, Louise is the sole singer and completely owns the stage. Furthermore, instead of questioning “May we entertain you?” Louise purrs the slightly more alluring lines of “Let me entertain you/ Let me make you smile.” The sexual undertone is heavy as she continues with “And if you’re real good/ I’ll make you feel good/ I’d want your spirit to climb.” Through her words, audiences hear the power dynamic between Louise and the audience. She will please them, but only if they behave for her. The audience is at the complete mercy of what Louise is willing to give, and they love it. In fact, they pay her for it. These routines give her massive stardom, and she rises to a level of opulence of which her mother and June could only dream. She has surpassed the success of her sister and transcended the desires of her mother. By embracing her sexuality and femininity, she is happy, confident, and successful.
Part 3: Putting it all together (by stripping it down)
So how does Louise’s character arc support the idea that women are tools for sexualization and objectification? Let’s review. Throughout the majority of the movie, characters regard Louise as insignificant. They ignore her and maker her feel as if she is not good enough to receive even an ounce of attention. How does the movie visually depict this? It virtually erases her femininity, clothing her in oversized masculine attire with little makeup and no stylized hair.
But the moment Louise wears something sensual, the very second that she acknowledges and highlights her femininity, she receives all of the attention and power that she was denied for years before. It’s almost as if the movie screams in your face, “Ladies, look at the old Louise. Do you want to be ignored and belittled? No? Then act like this shiny and sexy Louise instead! She has everything she wanted in her wildest dreams!” It’s like a campaign for women to invite men to ogle at their bodies because Louise did it and look how happy she is now!
That being said, I completely support women embracing the reality of our misogynist society and using their sexuality to reclaim control over their bodies. But it is harmful that Louise wasn’t ever accepted before claiming her sexuality. The film constructs this narrative that it is not okay for women to ignore beauty standards. Because if they do, society will reject them, and they will fail. So maybe the moral of the story isn’t quite to quit our jobs and become strippers, but apparently, we should be comfortable with the idea.
These lyrics come from the song “Dames” from the musical 42nd Street. With playful music draped over them, you might interpret these sleazy lyrics as satirical, honest, or even critical. But the 2017 West End revival of 42nd Street is none of these. From Hamilton to Newsies, it plainly states the political mission of many musicals: to distract viewers from bad politics with song and dance.
The show’s “handsome heroes” sing the above lyrics, suggesting that “Dames” is a man-to-man conversation. One could argue that director Mark Bramble, choreographer Randy Skinner, lyricists Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer, and composer Harry Warren are poking fun at “unsophisticated” Broadway conventions. But the next section of the song continues:
What cute about a little cutie?
It’s her beauty, not brains!
Old father time will never harm you
if your charm still remains!
After you’ve grown old baby
you don’t have to be a cold baby.
Keep young and beautiful
[Chorus] Oh yes!
It’s your duty to be beautiful
[Chorus] Oh yes!
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved.
[Chorus] Oh yes! Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes!
Even though women sing these lines on stage, men wrote, set to music to, and choreographed them, making women sing them in nude leotards. Underneath the playful musical exterior is a clear, patriarchal message: only girls beautiful enough for Broadway get to find love. The number then features a dance break, where the countless, nameless chorus girls, costumed to look naked, dance for the spectator’s male viewing pleasure. These women are cute, dainty, basically naked, and most importantly, nameless, so that audiences don’t have to think too hard about whether or not they should take one home tonight.
The song ends with the triumph of Broadway spectacle. The orchestra plays a fanfare as the beautiful, nameless dames parade around stage wearing extravagant dresses and accompanied by tuxedoed heroes. The music reaches a victorious crescendo as the leading lady, dressed in brilliant white, graces center stage like Venus in the jaws of a shark. Therefore “Dames” is not satirical because it does exactly what it pretends to make fun of: sexualizing unnamed chorus girls. And this is not an accident; it’s the result of a long list of decisions made by men to exploit young women for profit.
A musical that celebrates the history of Broadway, 42nd Street puts its female performers on a pedestal without stopping to think about the bigger picture. The antifeminist overtones of “Dames” carry through the rest of the show and the history of the stage on which it stands. 42nd Street asks the fundamental question: what is the point of a Broadway musical? The answer: dames!
But the song and dance do not cover up the monstrosity beneath. To leave the message and meaning out of the overall analysis of a production misses the point. For in 42nd Street, the costuming, choreography, music, set design, and writing objectify the female cast. It celebrates the trend that producers can reinforce whatever structures of evil they want, as long as they wrap it up in song and dance. Personally, I’m tired of illusions, and even more tired of settling for “fun” shows with abysmal politics. Instead of celebrating their roots, those who write American musicals need to take a good look at the past and realize that the present can be so much better.
With a true New York wit and a voice like buttah’, Barbra Streisand’s breakout performance in Director William Wyler’s Funny Girl remains one of the best performances in any film musical. Not only did her role as Broadway pioneer Fanny Brice give way to the iconic phrase “hello, gorgeous,” but also to an unprecedented tie for Best Actress alongside Hollywood titan Katherine Hepburn at the 1969 Academy Awards. With so much iconography emerging from this classic musical film’s titular comedic lady, I would expect that it also pay a certain reverence to the story of Fanny Brice — which it does, but only for the film’s first half. The film falls victim to the stereotype of the worrisome lover (then wife, in the film’s latter half) by placing Streisand’s character amid male-centric songs . While the film remains one of the most important musical performances ever made, numbers like “Don’t Rain on my Parade” render Streisand’s Fanny Brice a poorly-developed character whose desire for male validation surplants her identity as an unparalleled Broadway star.
Now, I am not questioning the legendary status of “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” which is arguably one of the most pervasive and iconic musical songs ever to emerge. However, it is important to interpret the song’s context within the film. The performance occurs near the midpoint of the film while Brice and the Follies complete their touring engagement in Baltimore. However, after a week-long love affair with the enigmatic Nick Arnstein, Fanny – in her typically Fanny way – spontaneously leaves the tour to follow Nick to Europe. Perhaps the most crucial detail within this scene is her co-stars’ attempts to persuade Fanny to stay, stating lines like “you’re making a fool of yourself” and “haven’t you any pride?” These moments lead Streisand to burst into “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” with the film’s director William Wyler compelling the audience to view the Follies as the conflict, despite the actuality of their efforts to support a fellow female castmate. As such, the outburst into “Parade” – detailing the ways in which Brice will not be swayed from living out her true passions – feels like a slap in the face to Fanny’s character development. Sure, she’s standing up for what she believes in, but this sudden need to justify her want for male validation feels awkward. Throughout the film, Wyler has oriented us to Fanny’s daring, won’t-take-no attitude, but in this moment – the film’s most iconic performance, may I add – reduces her personality to appeasing her desires for a man.
Bob Merrill’s lyrics, however, are strikingly empowering. Simply put, Fanny’s not letting anyone ruin her high – evident when she belts “I gotta fly once / I gotta try once” and “I’m gonna live and live now / Get what I want, I know how.” Only aided by the amazing range and emotion in Streisand’s vocal display, this song encapsulates a sense of go-getter aspiration and pursuit for Funny Girl’s protagonist. Yet, it is the full-bodied, reverberating crescendo of, “Hey, Mister Arnstein, here I am,” that ultimately reduces this empowerment anthem to a surface-level coo for the attention of a man. The fact that this singular lyric is the “highpoint” of the number indicates that this – the affections of a man she has been romantically involved with for only a few days – is the definitive motivator for her passions and aspirations. Throughout Act I, Fanny had been a shining beacon of pursuing her professional dreams, and has done so without once requiring the consultation of a male suitor. As such, this grandiose number ultimately waters down the vibrant aspirations Fanny pursues throughout the film’s former half.
What makes the “Mr. Arnstein” lyric all the more shallow is the fact that “Don’t Rain on My Parade” shares its melodic buildup and lyricism with “I’m the Greatest Star.” Unlike “Parade,” “Greatest Star” lets the audience see the go-getter mantra in a Fanny-centric way. In this previous number, Fanny pursues acknowledgment of her stage presence and raw talent. “I’m the Greatest Star” indicates Fanny’s celebration of herself through lyrics like “Some ain’t got it, not a lump / I’m a great big clump of talent,” unlike the way “Parade” reduces her personal ambitions to a measly, little crush. The “Hey Mr. Keeney, here I am” lyric feels more powerful here, because Fanny knows she’s good enough on her own. Her call for Keeney is a sign of her boldness rather than a meager cry for validation. As such, the juxtaposition between the “Hey Mr. [insert surname here]” lyrics just hurts the authenticity of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. The emphasis and dynamism Wyler placed on the “Parade” number rather than “Greatest Star” asks audiences to see Fanny’s pursuit for male validation as superior to her pursuit for talent recognition and the fulfillment of her dreams.
As for the choreographic performance of “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” there is not much notable movement, but rather a series of long shots following Fanny as she makes her way back to New York and subsequently into Arnstein’s room on the ship. Many of these shots depict Streisand running frantically with her luggage and employing a multitude of transportation means to get to Nick. Within this supercut of Fanny’s unprompted return, I can’t help but notice how much this performance differs from the film’s prior numbers, those multitude of grandiose performances whether on the elegant Follies stage or wandering between street lights on Henry Street. This number feels small in comparison. Given what we know about Fanny Brice thus far – whether it be through Merrill’s audacious lyrics or Streisand’s zest-filled performance – small is not an appropriate adjective for describing this character. In most shots – specifically the train window shot and the shot of the taxi arriving to the seaport– viewers can hardly even make out Streisand’s bodily and facial characteristics. Wyler’s use of a supercut assumedly attempts to empower the audience alongside Fanny while she undergoes this triumphant return to her “love,” but I cannot help but feel a disconnect through this distanced orientation. For being such a bold and booming act closer, “Parade” undoes the nerve and excitement of earlier performances like “Roller Skate Rag” and “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” Unfortunately, the lack of grandiose choreography or cinematography only prolongs the song’s vapidity.
With all that being said: I love Barbra Streisand, and I personally think she should have edged out Katherine Hepburn for that Best Actress win. I can’t even count the times I passed a mirror on the way out the door and thought to myself “hello, gorgeous.” Funny Girl is – whether you like or not – a piece of cultural iconography. However, it is important to acknowledge the inherent flaws present in this adaptation of Fanny Brice’s revolutionary role in the formation of modern musical theater culture: Brice is a standing column of inspiration, not only for women, but for first-generation Jewish individuals, and her role in the theater industry should be immortalized with total reverence and respect. Despite the powerhouse performance of Barbra Streisand in this film, the unfortunate hyper-fixation on her romantic obstacles takes away from the wondrous qualities which should have been the focus of this biopic.
When I came to college, did I ever imagine writing an essay (that I would be submitting to a literal professor) singing the praises of stripping? Not in the slightest. But is that what this essay will be about? Yes. Yes, it will.
“Misogynistic” is the term most people would use to describe sexy dancing or envision women getting almost naked on a theatrical stage to please horny men. These men clearly are objectifying women as sexual objects rather than seeing them as multidimensional beings. Yet, the 1993 made-for-television musical Gypsy challenges the idea that embracing one’s sexuality is inherently misogynist. Instead, Gypsy highlights the way females can deploy their sexuality to gain power.
This musical film follows Rose, the archetype of the domineering stage mother, as she pushes her daughters, June and Louise, to perform vaudeville acts out of her misguided desire for fame. It is obvious that Rose strays pretty far from the ideals of traditional femininity, as she rejects the ideals of marriage, yells at the men around her, and often employs brazen vocals. While my grandmother might rebuke such “unladylike” behavior, I do not find it troublesome. My issue with Rose is that she desperately attempts to enforce her own beliefs about sexuality on her children. To achieve what she believes will lead to success in show business, Rose forces her daughters to essentially suppress their burgeoning sexuality by pressuring them to act more youthful and, in Louise’s case, perform with a masculine appearance. It is problematic to tell women to suppress their sexuality or femininity as a means to gain power because it reinforces the idea that acting feminine is inferior. It suggests that those who embrace their femininity and sexuality are less empowered. However, women should not have to wash away their femininity to be taken seriously. Through Bob Mackie’s excellent costume design, Louise’s costumes become less and less feminine as she grows older. Starting with a more gender-neutral clown costume as a young child, she then must dress like the other boys on stage wearing trousers and overalls when performing behind June. Her loose pants and shirt buttoned all the way to her neck prevents people from viewing her silhouette. The cow costume she ultimately wears strips away any semblance of her figure.
Cynthia Gibbs, who portrays Louise, excels at revealing the pressure Rose places on her to act masculine in their vaudeville but also how Louise has internalized her stage persona and translated it into her real life. When wearing these costumes, she seems unsure of herself. The suppression of Louise’s sexuality is not just performed on stage but also permeates her everyday life. In their initial Vaudeville performance of the song “Let Me Entertain You,” Gibbs’ dancing appears highly robotic. She is stiff and unsure in her movements as she marches and waves her arm in front of her. Gibb’s constrained movements highlight the lack of freedom the character Louise has under the control of her mother, who essentially forces her into a masculine appearance. Later, when they enter the burlesque theatre, Rose calls the strippers “filth” before she realizes how she can benefit from the situation. This word choice highlights Rose’s belief that flaunting one’s sexuality is somehow dirty. Rose wants Louise to mask her sexuality as she believes showing it off will make her lose her respect and dignity. Herbie even walks out on Rose because he disagrees with Rose encouraging her daughter to essentially reduce herself in front of men.
Only when Louise truly embraces her sexuality does she transition into a more confident, empowered woman. When she dons a dress for the first time at the strip club, I felt like I was watching someone who just had cosmetic facial and breast enlargement surgery look at themself for the first time after the bandages have come off. I could feel the sexual tension between Cynthia Gibbs and the mirror. As she caresses her body, Gibbs’ choice to take a slight, not-so-subtle pause when holding her breasts highlights her newfound sense of identity as a woman. Jule Styne’s musical score perfectly reinforces Louise’s shift in self-image, as the soft violin music in the background oscillates at a high pitch, increasing feelings of tension. Then, the sound of a bell kicks, symbolizing her freedom. In high school, the ringing of the bell would mean I would finally be free from the horrors of calculus. By playing on these associations of a bell with freedom, Styne reveals the freedom Louise feels now that she has escaped her mother’s influence and can embrace her sexuality.
The dichotomy between the different performances of “Let Me Entertain You” convey the newfound empowerment Louise gains as she taps into her femininity and sensuality. In Gibb’s portrayal of Louise, the viewer can clearly observe how she gains ownership of her body. Her stiff, robotic movements from the past routine are gone; once dressed in a more feminine mannor, she begins to move much more naturally. Through Jerome Robbin’s choreographic expertise, she now exhibits greater musicality as she dances burlesque onstage. With shoulder rolls and shaking hips, Gibbs portrays Louise as being able to exhibit a more fine-tuned control over her movements. The link between the more sensual dancing and Louise’s bodily authority speaks to the way in which tapping into her femininity has granted her this greater autonomy.
Additionally, Louise begins to project her voice, a demonstration of her confidence in what she has to say. Sondheim’s lyrics in Louise’s new performance of “Let Me Entertain You” further highlight her empowerment. Louise states that she is “not a stripper” but rather “an ecdysiast, [which] is one who,/ or that which,/ sheds its skin.” While at first, I thought such language was just Louise’s excuse to avoid the stigma of stripping; but upon further inspection, I recognized the difference between being a stripper and ecdysiast. The term stripper evokes ideas of someone just taking off their clothes or “stripping” away part of them, reducing them in essence. Meanwhile, an ecdysiast “sheds its skin,” which implies that there is a new layer underneath. Rather than taking away part of oneself by stripping, the character of Louise views herself as taking off the old part of herself to expose new skin. Such nuances reveal how Louise sheds her more tomboyish persona in favor of tapping into a new part of herself. Rather than simply donning a new costume to perform her sexuality, she shows a part of herself that always existed but was just waiting to be revealed.
Director Emile Ardolino’s choice for Rose to hang the cow head in her daughter’s dressing room further speaks to this idea of using a costume as a sort of mask of one’s true self. Gibbs’ eyes glare as she firmly demands that her maid to take it down, emphasizing the repulsiveness Louise feels with this stark reminder of a time when she had to cover up her feminine identity. Just like she changed her name to “Gypsy Rose Lee,” Louise continues to reject what her mother laid on her. Now, Louise favors stripping, which she feels is the most honest, “stripped down” version of herself. As a burlesque performer, Louise has the autonomy to choose what she does or does not want to show, thus taking back the power of her own body.
For such a long time, like Louise, I would cover up. My high school dress code specifically stated that no “sexual-looking” clothing was allowed. We had to completely cover our shoulders, cleavage, stomachs, and thighs at all times. The dress code instilled within me a belief that I needed to maintain what they referred to as a “professional appearance” to be taken seriously. I remember Ms. Letchworth explicitly complimenting me for wearing a t-shirt under one of my dresses to show less skin, literally telling thirteen-year-old me that I looked so much more “respectable” than some of my peers who were “pushing the limits.” Yet, as I got to college, I came to the realization that people telling me what to wear to prevent me from being objectified felt just as misogynist. Thus, I was very impressed that Gypsy, despite the original book being written in 1959, created a progressive representation of sexuality, that women do not have to choose between embracing their sexuality and feeling empowered. Instead, Gypsy reveals how women can be both feminine and powerful.
As a Boston middle-schooler, I learned to identify the complexity of a well-written character, one exhibiting multiple facets. Rounded characters exhibit multiple facets; they are split between identities. Tom Brady’s retirement and quick unretirement in 2022, for example, revealed his struggle with the idea that he might need to become a father/husband more than a Quarterback. The gothic classic, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde demonstrated that sometimes split identities can lead to many people’s death. In contrast, “flat” characters can be fully understood at a surface level and have little impact on the plot. Our teachers discouraged the writing of flat characters, and yet many men have done just that to their female characters. Fanny Brice, as played by Barba Streisand in the 1968 film rendition of Funny Girl, is a complex character plagued by conflicting identities. Is she a woman or a professional performer? This binary existed for Brice in 1910, as society assumed it was simply impossible be both. One identity tugs against the other to drive the story’s plot. When her identity as a performer exudes, she constructs her life independent of the men around her. However, when she follows her desires as a woman, her life becomes wholly dependent on her husband, Nick Arnstein (played by Omar Sharif). Fanny Brice is a powerful performer on stage, but her immense success could not give her what she has always desired–to be as beautiful as a rose.
“Hello, gorgeous!” are the first words the audience hears Fanny exclaim. Speaking to herself in the mirror, Fanny tries to convince herself that she is pretty. Her backdoor entrance into a dressing room establishes her identity as a performer. Still, immediately, the focus of the audience shifts their attention towards her voice which compliments her own looks. Confirmation of her occupation as a performer, but not of her stardom, occur quickly when John, the stage manager, gives her a thirty-minute warning. Fanny thanks him and John asks about Mr. Arnstein – a character still unknown to the audience. Fanny does not know anything, and Emma walks in and asks the same question about Mr. Arnstein. At this point in the show, Fanny has not even been mentioned. She has referred to herself as “gorgeous”, but no one has named her.
The film names Mr. Arnstein twice, and people seem to want to know where he is. To the audience, he is a person of greater importance than this insecure, nameless character. The scene continues with Emma revealing that Ziegfeld, the show’s producer, is waiting for Fanny– demonstrating her significance to the show. Yet, as Emma says this, Fanny is in awe of the fact that she is worth waiting for: that she has value. Quickly, however, the next scene transports the audience back to a pre-star/pre-Nick era with Fanny’s mom and family friends in a modest kitchen on Henry Street. Family friends parroting that Fanny is not pretty enough for Broadway sets up an “ugly duckling” motif and explains her insecurity. As if their point was not emphasized enough, they break out into a song aptly titled “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty.” The friends continue to barrage Fanny, singing that as a non-pretty girl, she will never attain success. Fanny responds confidently that the world will be stunned at her performing abilities, disregarding the comments about her looks. Fanny has internalized her ugliness and bets on her talent to compensate for her looks. At this point, “Hello, gorgeous” is not a phrase that Fanny can even imagine. The journey of accepting her beauty parallels her rise to stardom, yet the desire to have something unattainable ultimately grabs and holds her attention.
Success is a matter of intrinsic ambition (if the American Dream is true) while beauty is in the eye of the beholder (does not depend on the American Dream). Fanny is rational and understands that talent is easier to attain than getting rid of her “skinny legs.” Her desire is palpable as she recognizes that the best way to showcase her abilities is to just get on stage. She auditions for the seemingly unimportant chorus girl position at a theatre run by Keeney, who eventually fires Fanny because of her looks. In this moment of rejection, Fanny understands that she is the only person who actually believes in her future. She quickly tries explaining the predicament in the way her Jewish New York heritage and my baking obsession know best: an analogy involving bagels and onion rolls. In her world, onion rolls are ubiquitous, and she implies that they are worse than the unknown Jewish delicacy– the Bagel. Fanny is a delicious bagel “on a plate full of onion rolls.”
Finding it impossible to succeed as the bagel, she pulls herself up by her bootstraps and bursts out into a song, “I’m the Greatest Star,” that displays her performance abilities through lyrics, her vocal range, comedic interludes, and the movement of her skinny legs. She starts off, not yet in song, displaying her “36 expressions” in their most juxtaposed manner. The producers easily ignore her, and she tries again to demonstrate her value as a bagel by outright singing, “’ ’Cause I’m the greatest star/ I am by far/ but no one knows it.” Unable to look at her anymore, Keeney walks her out, suggesting that beauty is more important than skill. It’s a simple message that has stood up well to the test of time.
Yet, Fanny won’t accept it. She rapidly shifts her tones and intonations like car gears as she the producer kicks her out, a seemingly final attempt to get a job. Standing outside, she begins to understand that she needs to hype herself up. The violin accompaniment shifts instantaneously from legato high notes to staccato low notes as she gathers herself-creating a sense of urgency for the audience. She powerfully jumps forward, pauses, and then steps forward and backwards signifying her breaking through the hesitation of rejection. At her first mention of her beauty–“Who’s an American Beauty Rose?–she searches for reasons to be confident. Running back inside, voice growing louder, the accompaniment of strings seems to reach the climax until she finds herself on the stage. The music pauses which allows Fanny to gather her thoughts and exhibit her beautiful voice without distractions. Fanny’s confidence on the stage allows the audience to see past her insecurities with her looks. She is jovial, and her movements and notes are fluid. The tone and rhythm repeatedly transform, demonstrating why she is the “Greatest Star.” Her performance ends with her collapsing in tears as she has given the theater one last shot to establish her identity as a performer, and “Bam!”
Fanny attempts to construct her life and success independently of what people around her say. Luckily, Eddie sees her and offers her a small role. Obviously, with Fanny’s ambition, she accepts. Ecstatic at the thought of being hired, she forgets her bagel status. Forgotten for a whole few seconds as we see her look ridiculous attempting to roller skate. Yet now, her ugliness isn’t her looks, it’s her clumsiness, and the audience loves her performance. It’s ridiculous enough to look purposeful and comical. With her comedic performative abilities, whether intentional or not, Fanny Brice solidifies her role on the stage and crafts her identity as a performer.
Love is empowering. Love is beautiful. However, what makes love absolutely mesmerizing for Fanny is that someone will love her even with her looks. Her ugliness is ingrained so deeply that as she attains stardom at the highest level, she must separate her role as a performer from feeling pretty. As a superstar, she could do whatever she wanted, and the crowd would eat it up (Remember, she is a delicious bagel). This only works because she is so innately funny–and she knows it. However, she doesn’t know how beautiful she is. The validation of others is the only way to certify the level of prettiness she desires. For a handsome and wealthy man to come and give her everything she feels like she is missing is simply life-altering. When she first meets Nick, she cannot help herself but blurt out, “Gorgeous!” calling to mind the first line of the play. They eventual marry, and Fanny works on convincing herself that she is as “gorgeous” as Nick. Yet, she always wonders if she is worthy of his love–does she have value? During their initial conversation, Nick drops that he thinks Fanny is a star while dallying with some beautiful girls in the background. In one conversation, Nick has given her the validation that she’s always wanted: Stardom, beauty, and romance. No wonder she fell in love.
Fanny thoroughly idealizes this first pseudo-romantic interaction, so it’s unsurprising that she pursues it. A single compliment was not enough to remove the ingrained feeling of inadequateness, which the audience sees when Fanny alters her beautiful bridal performance by stuffing a pillow under her dress for comedic effect. Premarital pregnancy was not favorable in the public’s eye in 1911. Yet, society understood very well how unfavorable it is, and so it is absolutely hilarious to the crowd. It’s important to note that Fanny’s inability to convince herself to sing a line about being beautiful indicates how deeply seeded her feelings are. Yet, Fanny’s stunt is pivotal as it leads Nick to sing directly about how he finds her attractive, potentially uprooting her feelings of shortcoming.
Nick’s song is fascinating as he does not call her beautiful but implies so by singing, “I want to be seen with you.” Analogous to the slow kneading required for a pristine bagel, Nick begins a series of flirtatious teases that draws Fanny and the audience closer to imagining a possible relationship. He comes to her neighborhood party and is cordial but leaves as soon as the idea of intimacy comes up. Eventually, he holds her chin, kisses her, and then quickly leaves and does not call back. They meet again by ridiculous chance, and he invites her for a private dinner. Nick calls her beautiful for the first at this extravagant private dinner, first by mentioning that her outfit looks “wonderful with [her] eyes” and then by outright saying “you look beautiful.” These compliments are accompanied by a sexual tension that makes Fanny feel awkward. They get into a screaming match and order dinner, and by then- the tension is sky high, and they break out into a song that sets up the nature of their relationship. “You are woman… You are smaller, so I can be taller!” Now not referencing her beauty or talent, but her gender, Fanny becomes uncomfortable and literally gets up and moves away. Yet he persists, “our friendship leaves something to be desired… you are woman, I am man/Let’s kiss.” She shivers, fans herself, saved only by the waiter’s knocking. Visibly uncomfortable, she loses all the power she’s earned on the stage. Through her verse, she attempts to convince herself, “Should I do the things he’ll tell me to?/ In this Pickle, what would Sadie do?” Sadie would do what the man wants to do as she is only his wife. As Nick has given Fanny a sense of beauty, Fanny finds herself wanting to be his Sadie more so than a Ziegfeld girl.
Fanny commands the stage and the performance on Broadway. Even the mighty Ziegfeld listens to Fanny. Through her identity as a performer, Fanny achieves everything she sets out to do as a performer. However, what she cannot get as a performer, is what she desires as a woman who has been scarred by insults about her appearance her whole life. With the career organized and successful, what is left to achieve is to be called beautiful by her husband. Nick provides that and allows her to flourish as his wife as she wants to. Although, years of mistreatment by her family and the industry push Fanny to constantly seek external validation about her beauty. This perpetual search leads Fanny to agree to leave the theatre if need be. At the end of the day, “you can’t take an audience home with you,” and Fanny establishes her agency with the decisions she wants to make. She is the producer, the stage manager, and the main character of her own life.
If you’re a musical theatre geek (like myself), surely the name Fanny Brice makes you light up. Fanny Brice is the leading lady in Jule Styne, Bob Merrill, and Isobel Lennart’s musical Funny Girl. The musical was first performed on Broadway in 1964, but the production I recently watched was filmed live on stage at Manchester’s Palace Theatre in 2018 under the direction of Robert Delamere and Michael Mayer. Ricky Milling edited the film, and did so beautifully through zoomed in and out panels of the actors. Funny Girl portrays the talented life of Fanny Brice (played by Sheridan Smith) with a side of love/heartbreak portrayed through her relationship with Nick Arnstein (Darius Campbell). In this rendition, Smith fantastically portrays Fanny’s character through her facial expressions, choreography, and acting talents. The music also helps craft Fanny’s character a loud and pompous, yet solemn at the same time. Merill (lyricist) and Styne (composer) worked hand in hand to craft the emotional music of Funny Girl. Through the addition of instruments, varying tempos, and repetitive melodies, they tell the story of Fanny in the most emotional and exciting way. Whether through the “I am” songs “Don’t Rain On My Parade” or “I’m the Greatest Star” or the hysterical “Sadie Sadie”, Funny Girl will always remain a classic. I say this, because Funny Girl presents the gender barrier between men and women in a way that makes it easy to understand, providing comic relief while also highlighting its seriousness.
Smith's Brice is fully confident in her talents and abilities, and she continuously breaks out of the status quo. Today we would look at Brice performing and would probably say something like “slayyyyy,” “you go girl” or even “she’s an independent womannnnn.” But, it pretty much goes without saying that back then in the 1900s, this was definitely not the case. People celebrated Fanny’s success, but the moment she overshadowed Nick Arnstein, everyone started to shake their heads. Fanny was the only one to not notice until her mother pointed out that she basically had her hands around Nick’s neck due to her success. Funny Girl is important because it shows an anomaly to the glorification of the American idea of feminine behavior. Gender and sexuality play a very big, and sometimes lucrative role in musical theatre, and especially within shows performed on Broadway.
There is a common image of the “perfect American woman,” and Fanny Brice offered a contrast to show the hypocrisy of the time, and even though that may not have been seen when it originally had come out. The effect of watching Funny Girl is seen within society very much so nowadays. Fanny Brice was performing under the talented Florenz Ziegfeld. She provided comical relief, and the theatre profited greatly off her talents. However, Fanny was different from the other Follies women. Ziegfeld presented a distinct image of Americanism in his shows by choosing the most objectively beautiful performers; Fanny served as a contrast to this idea. Ziegfeld was astounded by her ability to be successful while also being herself, and again, in modern days we actively look for this, but back then there was a certain look that was preferred by directors and men in general. We even see this through Fanny’s relationship with Nick. She begins to fawn over him, and he’s looked at as this suave gentleman who could never want to be with someone like herself. However, he chooses to be with Fanny even though he could most likely have his pick of any girl, which is an interesting contrast to what is expected of men like him during that time.
Even though Nick seems like this amazing person at first, we start to see his personality as his relationship with Fanny begins to develop even more. Specifically, after Fanny agrees to go out with him, and the song “You Are Woman, I Am Man” is performed. The way that Sheridan Smith walks into the scene is hysterical. She walks in and is cracking all these jokes, and not acting as she’s “supposed to”. She presents herself as a strong woman because she refuses to just become enamored with his dreaminess, and demands that he not play with her emotions. During this time period, women were expected to plan their lives around men, and Fanny presents the opposite. Nick admits to being scared of Fanny which is also unusual, but eventually Fanny admits to not knowing when he will make “advances” which is when he goes right into the musical number. This song is intriguing to me, because Nick is trying to convince Fanny to participate in his “advances”, and we see her inner struggle between doing what she thinks she should do and what she wants to do in this situation. The lyrics that particularly stick out to me are as follows:
“You are woman, I am man/ you are smaller, so I can be taller than”
These particular lyrics are interesting to me, because we see the gender stereotypes from the beginning where there is this idea that a man is greater and stronger and taller than a woman and he tries to feed this to Fanny (someone who doesn’t see the world this way), and thus begins her inner struggle of wanting him, but also not wanting him.
The next set of lyrics I find entertaining is when Fanny begins to sing the following:
“Isn’t this the height of nonchalance/ Furnishing a bed in restaurants?/ Well, a bit of dinner never hurt/ But guess who is gonna be dessert?”
This is when Fanny begins to crack jokes (as she typically does), and calls out male misogyny in a satirical way while also showing us the inner conflict she has between staying true to herself or being the woman she’s expected to be in this time period(submissive to men and what they want). I find it interesting that Fanny goes from singing this kind of a song and dives straight into “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, which is often noted as her “I am” song and also her expression of strength. Not only is this a shocking series of songs, but right after “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” Fanny goes into singing her song “Sadie, Sadie” which also is very different from the vibe of her “I am strong” song. I always find “Sadie, Sadie” to be the first point we see a huge change in Fanny’s character as she begins to fall deeper into the expectations of women at the time. She even calls herself “Ziegfeld's married lady” which allows for her new "characteristic" to be that she is married (the opposite of what she was known for, which was breaking the status quo).
Overall, I believe that the director (Robert Delamere and Michael Mayer) did a brilliant job with the way the performance was done to emphasize the gender stereotypes that eventually were soaked up by Fanny unintentionally. After discussing these songs and Fanny’s slow, but progressive, change to becoming more of the typical woman for Nick I also want to point out that Fanny was also still true to herself. I say this because Fanny knew how successful and talented she was throughout the entire show, and never once gave up performing. She also was the “breadwinner” between her and Nick which is what caused a lot of strife between the two of them. To be frank, I believe that the way Nick acted out towards Fanny helping him was immature, ungrateful, and narcissistic. However, this is also me responding to his behaviors as a 19 year old, “woke”, female in the modern world. Back then, Nick’s reaction to a woman being on top was not unusual, but still disappointing. It was normal for a man to feel upset and have his superiority feel diminished at the success of a female counterpart. This was exemplified in Funny Girl and in the modern world it feels like this amazing production can be viewed as a satire about the “old-fashioned” societal norms.
The character Fanny Brice created by the musical authors (Merill and Styne) was mostly successful in presenting her as a strong, confident anomaly of a woman that struggles with her place as a woman in society. I also believe that through the way that the song list is set up the story makes her inner struggle between performing and being a good wife/mom even clearer. I also believe that the costumes (made by Victoria Toni) were successful in communicating the struggles that Fanny went through as we saw her dressed glamorously towards the end, but in the beginning of the show we saw her wearing more normal clothing that wouldn’t be identified as fashionable or glamorous. The music and the costumes worked hand in hand to present us with Fanny: the strong, yet troubled woman trying to find her way through a career with a difficult stereotype expected of her. Sheridan Smith also provided the audience with a version of Fanny that was paired with the expectations set by both musical authors and costume designers. Through her facial expressions, increase in confidence while performing, and increased maturity she was able to present us with a Fanny that was strong but also sensitive to what was expected of women.
To wrap up this long-winded assessment of gender and sexuality in Funny Girl (2018), I believe that people watching this today should be looking at this with eyes wide open as to how Fanny broke out of the gender stereotypes of the time, but also not take everything too seriously in terms of what was expected of her. I say this because it is easy for us to become wrapped up in our anger over the way men treated women in the early 1900s, but we shouldn’t look at this production as something to be angry about or “shun” the musical out of spite. Rather, we should view it as something that was terrible, but be proud that Fanny was brave enough to keep her confidence on the up-trend (for the most part), and we should look at it as an example of exactly what we don’t want our society to revert back towards. In absolutely no way am I saying that the way women were treated by men and others within society was right by any means. I really want to emphasize that this is still a struggle for modern women (gender equality), and we have made progressive strides but should continue to learn from the past (by watching shows like this) in order to correct our present times. Gender and sexuality is usually something that is touched on in almost every famous musical, and this is because it is something that is important to be aware of, and also to use it as a tool for learning and understanding what we as a society need to do in order to continue in the fight towards equality within the workplace, and life in general.
For the first 19.5 years of my life, I existed in a state blissfully unaware of the plot of the 1968’s hit film Funny Girl. In this time (excluding, I suppose, the first few years), I held on to the childlike belief that the story was one of an unlikely star making her way in a male-dominated industry. This year that innocent dream shattered.
The music is still incredible– “Don’t Rain on my Parade” remains one of the Best Songs of All Time. Barbra Streisand’s performance as Fanny Brice is just as amazing as people say. Her Oscar was well deserved. What was not deserved, however, was the film taking up two hours and thirty minutes of my life, not exploring Fanny Brice’s glass-ceiling-breaking career, but instead detailing the ins and outs of her relationship with a lackluster man. Apparently, Ray Stark, the producer and the real life Fanny Brice’s son-in-law, thought this an appropriate representation of a woman’s life.
Never is this horrific story choice more obvious than the cringe-inducing song, “You Are Woman, I Am Man.” The film paints the song as terribly romantic but in actuality enforces a strict gender binary and blurs lines of consent. Take a watch if you can stomach it. (Frankly, I’ve seen enough.)
Let’s take a look at the first section of the song, sung by Omar Sharif’s Nicky Arnstein:
You are woman, I am man.
You are smaller, so I can be taller than.
You are softer to the touch.
It’s a feeling I like feeling very much.
You are someone
Still our friendship leaves something to be desired.
Doesn’t take more explanation than this.
You are woman, I am man.
[Insert retching sounds here.] In a few sentences, Nicky Arnstein defines what it means to be a woman AND what it means to be a man. There’s no room for nonbinary folk in Mr. Arnstein’s eyes, or perhaps more accurately, in lyricist Bob Merrill’s eyes.
As he sees it: woman = smaller, softer; man = taller, rougher (by process of elimination). More than this, he defines being a woman as not being a man. He does not say “You are smaller, and I am taller than.” He says “You are smaller, so I can be taller than.” Women are thus defined by their relation to men, existing only so men can exist in contrast. Thus femininity is an identity of not being: not being tall, not being rough, and more than anything not being a man.
However, this is not the only arbitrary rule Merrill applies to men and women. And I do not use the word ‘arbitrary’ lightly. If one defines gender by height and “softness,” my sandpaper elbows and above-average build have me looking a lot like ol’ Nicky Arnstein.
No, the most crucial definition of gender that Arnstein introduces in this song is that women inherently desire men and men inherently desire women. Every woman and every man. The sheer simplicity of “You are woman, I am man. / Let’s kiss” erases the necessity of consent. If one defines femininity as an unfiltered attraction to men, then the consent of any woman, or any person a man deems feminine, is a given.
This is absolutely insane.
The song’s oversimplification perpetuates the myth that sexual attraction, specifically heterosexual attraction, is a fundamental truth of humanity. By Arnstein’s definition, a lesbian is not a woman, and a gay man is not a man. An asexual person, like myself, is none of the above. I am not less of a woman because I don’t want to have sex. Period. End of story.
But perhaps I’m overthinking what is contextually a moment between two romantic partners, not a statement on society’s gender norms. Or perhaps I’m thinking just the right amount. After all, director William Wyler must’ve known the cultural impact he was making; he’d already seen his power over defining society’s perception of gender in the reception of Audrey Hepburn’s debut film Roman Holiday (1953). Regardless, if a man said any of this nonsense to me, he’d notice pretty quickly that “softer” hands punch just as hard.
Now, this isn’t to say that Omar Sharif isn’t terribly charming and handsome in his performance. He is. In fact, his charm works so well that Streisand’s Fanny goes from being visibly unsure to head over heels in love.
This initial discomfort is not just textual– repeatedly Arnstein puts Fanny into positions in which she is clearly physically uncomfortable.
In one moment, Arnstein has Brice, for lack of a better word, trapped between him and the fireplace. He goes in for a kiss, from which she shrinks away. Three minutes later she’s melting into him after only some wishy-washy internal monologue and some kisses on the neck.
There are no discussions of boundaries or consent, and none are apparently needed as the story establishes this moment as a peak in their relationship, the beginning of their ensuing honeymoon period.
I know I’ve joked about this song making me feel sick, but really, it just makes me sad. Isobel Lennart, a woman, wrote the screenplay; she also wrote the book for the stage musical. She saw it fit to portray romance in this way.
This film tells all the girls, who watch this movie to belt along with “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” that a man not respecting a woman’s boundaries is a good thing. It simultaneously tells young men not to take no for an answer, that a partner’s discomfort will subside if you push hard enough. This is not only infuriating, but it is actively harmful.
I could go on and on about the sexism ingrained into Funny Girl– the demonization of women with prominent careers and financial independence springs to mind–but what really bugs me about this song, in particular, is its simplicity.
That’s the point of the song– to oversimplify, to talk about a complicated thing like love in its most basic terms. In doing so, this song defines love as something that it doesn’t have to be. This version of love is unrelenting, male-oriented, and limited only to a specific subset of people (read: straight people). Arnstein and Brice’s relationship inevitably fails, but a plot-line of a doomed romance only works if the love was once there.
Love is the most common emotion one can experience; one loves their family, friends, significant other, or pet dog. But what if love is not equal for everyone? What if some are unfamiliar with the concept of being loved due to their appearance? The 1968 musical film, Funny Girl—directed by William Wyler and written by Isobel Lennart—illustrates the impact of beauty in romance through its protagonist Fanny Brice. As a girl who did not meet the typical beauty standards, Fanny was completely new to the experience of being loved. Consequently, she was vulnerable to the romantic appeals of a man named Arnstein and ended up prioritizing her love for him more than her long-held professional dream.
The production instantly establishes Fanny as a girl with bland looks; in the opening production number “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” her mother and her friends comment about Fanny not being pretty enough to become one of the Ziegfeld girls. The film further emphasizes her lack of beauty by including the musical number “I’m the Greatest Star,” in which Fanny repeatedly clings to the manager for a chance to stand on stage, despite his judgment that she does not have presentable visuals. Though Fanny coincidentally earns an opportunity to perform, it is only a minor role of a roller skater. She only manages to remain on stage by becoming a comical character, embarrassing herself by making mistakes or being a pregnant Ziegfeld girl.
The film’s characterization of Fanny as a “not-so-pretty” girl makes audiences assume that she has never had the experience of being loved by someone. Fanny not only desires love in a romantic sense but also desires the love of an audience; even after embarrassing herself onstage, she reacts quite delightedly when she receives applause. To a “normal” girl like Fanny, having people be interested in you is a brand new feeling.
Audiences notice Fanny’s unfamiliarity with receiving affection even more when Arnstein appears. He straightforwardly expresses his interest in Fanny, which mesmerizes her enough to cause a drastic shift in her focus in life; even though Fanny is on the road to being a successful star after miraculously joining Ziegfeld’s Follies cast, she ditches her lifelong dream to marry Arnstein.
Specifically in the production number, “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” the screenwriter emphasizes the dramatic effect Arnstein’s love has on Fanny. The lyrics depict Fanny’s determination to sacrifice her dream to stay with Arnstein. In fact, Fanny suddenly sings as if her life-long dream was to be in love with a man all along; she declares, “I’m gonna live and live now! / Get what I want, I know how!” as she rides the train that takes her to Arnstein.
The lines “Get ready for my love, ’cause I’m a ‘comer’ / I simply gotta march, my heart’s a drummer” also demonstrate Fanny’s blind curiosity for a romantic relationship. Without any prior experience, Fanny merely admires the fact that a man has an interest in her. To Fanny, this opportunity is just too precious to overlook.
On her way to meet Arnstein, the woodwind instruments under Fanny’s vocals play sequences of staccatos that climb up the scale, building an exciting tension for what Fanny will find at the end of her journey—Arnstein. This further highlights how vulnerable she is to his love.
During the number, Fanny wears the most conspicuous orange dress with an extravagant fur hat that implies her high socioeconomic status achieved by being a Ziegfeld girl. Despite possessing the power and freedom from financial abundance, she ignorantly chooses an impermanent relationship with a man over the stage she desired to stand on since she was young. The costume that emphasizes her capabilities represents the splendid aspects that Fanny potentially gives up for this relationship.
The lyricist also displays Fanny’s decision as a bold action against the common standards of women, as she sings “Don’t tell me not to live, just sit and putter” and “Who told you you’re allowed to rain on my parade?” The actress exaggerates her pronunciation, as if she is yelling at the people who are thwarting her from quitting her job, which adds to the sense of breaking free and behaving strong. However, women traditionally have given up their place in the workforce and devoted their lives to supporting their husbands and family. From this ironic depiction, we can observe how the writers of this song—Jule Styne and Bob Merrill—purposefully characterized this decision to feel like a bold and romantic move for Fanny, as if it was not common to give up everything for love.
The lyricist further implies that Fanny has transformed, believing that love is the greatest goal that she can achieve: “I gotta fly once, I gotta try once.” This number enforces the standard belief that a woman needs to give everything to her romantic relationship in case someone might try to steal her man, revealing her desperation to keep Arnstein’s love, to the point where she believes she is making the right decision for herself.
This indirect “privilege” still prevails. I could also find myself in Fanny’s shoes, as I do not 100% match the current beauty standards set for women. Before being aware of the privileges one holds by being pretty, I strongly believed that it was only right for me to date someone who I truly liked. If I stepped into a relationship without sincerity, I would only hurt the other person by undermining their emotions. So I waited until the day I would magically find someone who liked me and who I also liked back. It was not easy to find someone who was willing to have a mutual relationship with me without meeting set beauty standards. Gradually, I doubted my initial belief, waiting for an opportunity to be in any romantic relationship, disregarding how I truly felt about the person. Without the privilege to choose who I love, I might instantly say “yes” to receiving any love. Therefore, I understand Fanny’s primitive tendency to prioritize Arnstein’s love over her own ambition in work.
Under Funny Girl‘s humorous lines and story about a talented yet ordinary girl achieving both her dream and love lies a premise that beauty standards cause subtle inequalities by giving more opportunities to certain people who meet the expectations. By portraying Fanny as a victim of this inequality, the musical alerts the audience that beautyism should not impede anyone from loving or being loved.
Funny Girl: a Broadway musical where the woman holds power over the man…or does she? The West End revival of the musical Funny Girl (2018; BroadwayHD) was directed by Michael Mayer and stars Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice and Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein. It biographizes the life and love of Fanny Brice through her journey of becoming, and then thriving as, one of the most famous Ziegfeld Follies performers. The question at hand…who held the power, Fanny or Nick? I’m going to take two songs from the musical and analyze them in an in-depth, systematic way, and see if I can convince you, the reader, to come to a conclusion.
First, in the song “Sadie, Sadie” from the second act, Fanny and Nick have just gotten married, and the song describes Fanny’s thoughts and plans for her new life as a wife. The lyricist, Bob Merrill, has Fanny sing: “Nick says nothing is too good for me,” which makes it seem as if she hasn’t believed she’s been deserving of nice things until a man came around and told her so. Fanny glorifies these pretty words from a man rather than believing in her own self-worth. Smith lets the lyrics do most of the talking during this number with very few deviations from relaxed, lackadaisical movements. This choreography further enhances her now being a married woman who is supposed to rely on her husband. Merrill even has the company sing similarly interpreted lyrics, as heard with “Not every girl can get herself/A guy who looks like Nick.” As an attractive male, Nick sits on a higher pedestal than the average looking woman with no regard to her success or her accomplishments. It’s as if Nick can do better than someone like Fanny or on the flip side, Fanny doesn’t deserve to be with someone like Nick; it’s an honor that he glanced at her at all, much less married her. Although Smith does put a comedic spin on the song with her exaggerated actions of her relaxed day-to-day activities as a wife and her over the top facial expressions that illustrate the bliss she feels about being married, it still doesn’t take away from the words of the song diminishing her to solely Nick’s wife, or a “Sadie” as the song puts it. Despite Fanny being the musical’s main character, who eventually rises to entertainment stardom, this particular song diminishes her into one thing: the average wife of an attractive man.
Then, Mr. Arnstein, the businessman, is in need of sixty-eight thousand dollars so he can open a casino somewhere in Florida. He needs investors, but because he is in fact a father, and has to babysit his own kid so Fanny can go back to work and make money for the family (because he’s not making any), he’s out of luck. But who swoops in and saves the day? That’s right! Fanny. She provides him with his money because she claims that “[They] are in a real marriage/And what’s [hers] is [his].” He then suddenly starts singing “Temporary Arrangement,” beginning with the lyrics, “Please Fanny don’t hold so tight,” as if Fanny giving him money is somehow stifling. Campbell accentuates this with the discordance between each line of this part of the song and then with his head-shaking and how he moves his hands in an abrupt, authoritarian way when he sings “You’ve got to just set her straight.” The song emphasizes that his lack of money is only “a temporary estrangement/From the crystal dish and the silver knife.” The number includes a minute long dance break for Campbell where choreographer Lynne Page sets Campbell’s moves in a very smooth and suave way, matching the song’s lyrics and showing the audience how Arnstein wants to be presented, despite his less than ideal circumstances. In this case, Fanny is the provider, but Nick discredits her because his current financial position is only temporary; he never even thanks her for her contribution. The woman provides for the man, making him insecure.
In the first song, a man has power over a woman, and in second a woman has power over a man. But who really holds the power? Fanny is Nick’s wife, yet he barely acknowledges her help. Nick eventually leaves Fanny and their child, never to be heard from again, while Fanny continues performing with the Ziegfeld Follies as a famous comic, mourning her failed marriage to a man she’ll probably always love. Does Fanny being a divorcee make her any less exceptional both as a person and as a performer? Does Nick leaving Fanny cause his reputation to be ruined? When looking at who really had the power in the relationship, Nick seems to triumph. Despite him not being the financial provider, he still has the freedom to come and go as he pleases, which in the end he makes the choice to go indefinitely. This freedom stems from the fact that Nick is an attractive man, which automatically puts him on a pedestal in the society of that time. Fanny has the money and the fame, but she is lacking society standardized beauty, and she has the higher chance of getting hurt. As seen by her being left to be a single mother by the man she loves. Nick clearly has the power and the advantage in this relationship, where he can do with Fanny and her love as he pleases.
If you’re a mezzo-soprano belter in musical theatre, chances are you’re familiar with the 1964 musical Funny Girl. In fact, it’s likely you have sheet music from the show in your collection — I know I do. “Don’t Rain on My Parade”is a song every mezzo should know, even if Barbra Streisand’s iconic show-stopping performance in the 1968 film adaptation has made it off-limits in the audition room. Still, if you can belt, you should know it.
But there’s a song from the film even more taboo than “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” The finale: “My Man.” Seriously, sing it at your own risk. The song is synonymous with Streisand’s performance, which clinched her Best Actress win at the 41st Academy Awards. Anyone listening to you sing it will instantly compare you to Streisand, and no one can sing it like Streisand. Trust me and save yourself the trouble. However, if you’re looking for a song to sing on your own time with an octave jump up to a Db5, be my guest. I find it impossible to resist breaking it out in the practice room every once in a while.
However, when singing “My Man,” I never think about the number’s cultural implications. The lyrics compel me to swear as a woman my devotion to my male partner, daring others to challenge me as I follow him to the ends of the earth. I will give up my career, my passion for performing because my love for my husband is stronger. Wait…what? I’m giving up myhard-earned, successful career as Fanny Brice, the headliner of the Ziegfeld Follies, to stay with my insecure husband? You’ve got to be kidding me.
The addition of “My Man” as the finale to the film adaptation, a song not included in the original Broadway production, transforms Funny Girl from a musical about an empowered artistic trailblazer to one about a woman who is ultimately subservient to men — how disappointing. Why would director William Wyler put this song in the defining position to end Brice’s story? To counter Second Wave Feminism? To feature one of Brice’s most famous Ziegfeld numbers? To show everyone Barbra Streisand is one of the best musical theatre performers we’ll ever have? No matter the reasoning, the song, as well as Streisand’s performance, makes Funny Girl’s ultimate message one championing the “devoted wife” above all else: an antiquated and sexist idea.
The lyrics of “My Man,” translated from the work of Albert Willemetz and Jacques Charles, paint a picture of a woman absolutely submissive to her husband. Brice, one of the most successful performers of her time, sings “all my life is just despair/ but I don’t care/ when he takes me in his arms/ the world is bright,” sharing that her success means nothing to her without a man’s love. This sentiment sharply contrasts Brice’s repeated assertion that she wants to be “the greatest star” the world’s ever seen. Additionally, Brice sings “what’s the difference if I say/ I’ll go away/ when I know I’ll come back/ on my knees one day.” These lyrics vividly depict a woman so beholden to a man that she will metaphorically crawl back on her knees to him no matter what. Lyrics like “whatever my man is/ I am his” further emphasize how Brice will stand by her husband even when he treats her poorly. With these words, “My Man” transforms Brice from a strong woman making her own way in the world to one dependent upon the approval of a man — a feminist nightmare.
Composer Maurice Yvain’s score for the piece supports Brice’s transformation. Romantic mezzo-piano violins set the tone at the beginning of the song, encouraging the audience to listen carefully and believe Brice’s words. The score repeatedly fades throughout the song, allowing breathier vocals to dominate, forcing the audience to give their full attention to the lyrics. As the third verse begins, Yvain adds staccato snare drums and horns to the instrumentation, creating a bombastic atmosphere that captivates the audience as the vocalist soars into a forte full-chest belt. A rallentando before the final few lyrics imbues the song with drama and suspense that captures the audience in the performer’s emotional world. Every musical choice furthers the storytelling provided by the song’s lyricism.
Streisand’s “My Man” is one of the most iconic musical theatre performances because her acting and vocals spellbindingly convey Brice’s devotion to her husband. Before she begins singing, Streisand shows us a new side to Fanny — she is hesitant and unwilling to make eye contact with the audience, nervous to shed her theatrical persona to become vulnerable. These acting choices clue in the audience that this is the “real” Fanny singing, and they should heed her words. Throughout the first verse, Streisand blends her speaking and singing voices to add intimacy to the song, specifically speaking the line “I don’t care” as she chokes back tears; it is obvious how much “her man” means to her. Streisand produces actual tears as the song continues, infatuating the audience. As the third verse begins and the instrumentation picks up, Streisand takes more space physically and vocally, challenging the audience to get in the way of her devotion. With an octave jump from Db4 to Db5 on “alright,” it is impossible to focus on anything else. Streisand (and Brice) become completely lost onstage during the final sustained note, singing for themselves rather than for the audience. With this performance, one is unable to deny the conviction behind Brice’s commitment to her husband.
The combination of lyrics, music, and performance creates an unforgettable finale, and the song’s message is difficult to forget. Brice is a woman undeniably loyal to her husband, willing to give up everything she has built to stand by him no matter what he does or how he treats her. She transforms from a confident performer, willing to do whatever it takes to achieve stardom, to a wife focused only on maintaining her marriage and gaining her husband’s approval. This is a wildly disappointing character arc for an icon of the Great White Way. While it’s hard for me to ignore the sexist implications of “My Man,” I must admit — damn, the song’s fun to sing.
As a theatre studies professor at Vanderbilt University, I regularly assign attendance at theatrical performances to my students, and this May I had the opportunity to design a course completely around live performance. Each summer, Vanderbilt offers a series of “maymesters”—month-long intensives held in international locations. During the spring, I spent many hours researching productions and booking tickets for the “Theatre in London” maymester, including performances at a variety of commercial, state-sponsored, and independent venues. Such a trip, I determined, required a full day in Stratford-upon-Avon to see the classical offerings of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).
I landed nearly sold-out tickets for a Saturday matinee of John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife, directed by Phillip Breen, and same-day evening performance of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Justin Audibert. I had familiarity—albeit no fondness—for Shrew, but I hoped that Audibert’s “reimagined 1590 England” as a matriarchy and casting “Petruchia” as a woman would generate a rich post-show discussion. While not familiar with Vanbrugh’s play, I was excited for students to see a Restoration comedy performed by such a skillful ensemble, and the RSC’s website promised that Breen’s “comedy Midas touch” would enliven this “romp that shocked seventeenth century society.
In my rush to book tickets, however, I did not think through the possible repercussions of Vanbrugh’s play. When I teach Restoration drama in my theatre history classroom, I regularly assign Aphra Behn’s The Rover; my syllabus includes a content warning (or “trigger warning”) because the plot hangs on the threatened rape of one of the female characters by multiple male characters. Teaching on a residential college campus, I am confronted daily with reminders that sexual assault and rape continue to be the lived reality of my students. If they are going to confront violence, even on the page, I want them to be alert rather than shocked, to be able to recognize early warning signs—a raised voice or grabbed wrist—so they can question the necessity of its deployment as a rhetorical or narrative devise. Still, if they find themselves triggered while reading a play, they can put it down or even throw it across the room (as I did in graduate school when reading Ben Jonson’s Volpone). But, as my students’ experience with the RSC’s Provoked Wife reminded me, escaping representations of sexual violence at a live performance means having to wade through a crowd packed into rows of seats, fielding glances of surprise or frustration from those disrupted.
Responding to Gendered Violence
Seven students, one teaching assistant, and I journeyed to Stratford-upon-Avon after a busy first few days in London; we had attended the revivals of both Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Royal National Theatre and Inua Ellams’s new play The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln Theatre. As I settled in to the matinee performance of The Provoked Wife, I was encouraged. Actor Natalie Drew masterfully delivered Vanbrugh’s playful Restoration-era prose and threw mischievous glances even to those seated in the Swan Theatre’s second gallery, inviting us into the world of the play. Alexandra Gilbreath, playing Lady Brute, also dazzled and charmed as the wife of boorish Sir John Brute (Jonathan Slinger). Being familiar with Restoration comedy, I was not surprised when Vanbrugh’s plot used threats of violence against Lady Brute to move the action forward. But I was unsettled by the rough viciousness with which Brute took his wife by the ear and dragged her offstage in act one.
To quell my rising anger, I made mental notes to address the violence in the post-show discussion with students. I could ask how the play presented actors and spectators an opportunity to reflect on questions of gender and power, or how Vanbrugh’s playful use of language—“Brute”—contrasted with Breen’s choice to physicalize the character’s brutality to such an extreme. I reminded myself to emphasize the purely representational nature of the stage violence and suggest that a top-notch fight director would choreograph the movement to give the actress control, despite its opposite appearance.
Certainly, the same discussion would give us an opportunity to contrast this production’s realistic violence with the more theatrical mode of storytelling used by actors in The Half God of Rainfall. Ellams’s play, performed by Rakie Ayola and Kwami Odoom, drew from oral traditions in Nigerian culture to tell the story of Demi, a half god born from Zeus’s rape of his mother, Modupe. Director Nancy Medina gave Ayola full control over telling Modupe’s story; she narrated rather than dramatized the violence, standing solo beneath a spotlight and emphasizing Modupe’s anguish rather than Zeus’s wrath.
One of the students beside me had shed silent tears, clearly affected, and when the lights came up, they gushed their approval. I guessed that this student had experienced some level of trauma connected to sexual assault, and I was glad that the performance had given her an emotional outlet and safe space to grapple with the questions raised.
Unfortunately, I found the same student crying in distress against the back wall of the Swan during The Provoked Wife’s act two rape scene. The RSC’s promotional materials described Sir Brute’s character as a “tedious drunk,” evoking the classical image of a less merry Falstaff or less ribald Sir Toby Belch. But what we saw was a convincing portrayal of a belligerent, malicious alcoholic who staggered on stage before roughly throwing his wife on a table, bending her over, and ripping away her skirts. Performed hyper-realistically, the rape was shocking in its brutality, and the scene contrasted significantly with the playful theatricality that began the production. Writing for the Guardian, Michael Billington praised both Slinger’s performance and Breen’s direction of the scene that “rightly does nothing to soften Brute’s attempted rape of his wife” to realize this “unsparing portrait of a soured relationship.” Rightly or wrongly, the scene became unbearable for my student and myself to watch.
While I was conscious of my next action, I do not remember making the decision to stand, knowing only that the explicit violence had provoked my fury. Despite being fully visible to others on the front rail of the second level, I left my seat, wondering only briefly how I would explain myself to my students before finding one crying against the back wall. “Do you want to leave?” I asked, worrying less about my volume because their distress was now more important than interrupting the performance. They signaled “No, I’ll be okay,” but instead of returning to my seat, I kept walking to the exit.
Being triggered is more than merely being offended by content or feeling uncomfortable with ideas that contradict someone’s beliefs; it is a physiological response to external stimuli caused by past trauma, seemingly uncontrollable and often unpredictable.
I paced the lobby for a minute before the door opened again, and my student, still crying, joined me, followed by two other students. As an authority figure who had walked out of the theatre, I had given them permission to do the same. Knowing my own tears were imminent, I suggested that we go outside for some fresh air.
Current statistics suggest that at least one of the eight students I had brought to the performance is a survivor of sexual assault. But in that moment, I had three standing beside me, expressing, through a mix of anger and tears, that the performance had triggered some level of past trauma. To the RSC’s credit, when I approached the box office to return half of our tickets for that evening’s performance of Shrew—giving students the option to skip a second round of domestic abuse—they were incredibly accommodating.
Content Warnings and Triggered Responses
Had the RSC offered a content warning, I might have made different decisions about my students’ viewing experience. In his review of The Provoked Wife for Broadway World, Gary Naylor wondered “how long it will be before trigger warnings are required for works like these—it would be a sad day indeed, but I suspect it’s coming.” Naylor’s sadness over trigger warnings echoes many sentiments I have encountered recently, alongside grumblings about political correctness run amok and the regrettable coddling of the millennial generation. The increasing prevalence of trigger warnings in professional theatres is a trend, argued Michael Paulson in the New York Times, “bubbling up from college campuses.” But plenty of my colleagues who teach in theatre departments around the United States remain skeptical about their use.
My department has raised the possibility of providing content warnings on lobby displays and in programs, but the issue remains unresolved. Faculty opposing their use worry about lessening the impact and spoiling the experiences of spectators. In Paulson’s essay, Joseph Haj of the Guthrie Theater argued: “As grown-up people, we should be able to grapple with difficult ideas together,” and Suzie Medak of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre asked: “What’s the point of experiencing art if you don’t expect to be surprised?”
What my students and I experienced at the RSC was not an aversion to being surprised or unwillingness to grapple with difficult ideas. Being triggered is more than merely being offended by content or feeling uncomfortable with ideas that contradict someone’s beliefs; it is a physiological response to external stimuli caused by past trauma, seemingly uncontrollable and often unpredictable. My past traumatic event not only radically changed my perspective on the world but also changed the biochemistry of my body, as I now manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. People’s experiences with trauma differ widely, but many suffer symptoms—growing tension, quickening of breath, tears welling in eyes—that make sitting quietly in a theatre impossible. Whether one stays or exits, disruption becomes inevitable, adding to that person’s distress.
The debates around trigger warnings largely neglect an acknowledgement of traumatic response as valid justification, focusing instead on less compelling excuses of ideological bias or discomfort. Do opponents believe that the relatively small number of potential spectators who legitimately need a warning does not justify inconvenience to a majority who want a performance experience sans “spoilers?” These critics perhaps need a reminder of the current statistics verifying high rates of sexual assault or a recap of the #MeToo movement that gained momentum from the shocking abundance of survivors who gave voice to their previous trauma.
The debates around trigger warnings largely neglect an acknowledgement of traumatic response as valid justification, focusing instead on less compelling excuses of ideological bias or discomfort.
Responsible Warnings and Ethical Staging
Had the RSC provided a content warning, would I have alerted my students? Probably. Would I or they have decided not to attend? Probably not. Would the warning have prepared us differently—preempting our distress or dulling our fury? Maybe. The Kiln Theatre posted a content warning on their website for The Half God of Rainfall. But my students and I ultimately felt this was unnecessary; the playwright, director, and actors had taken the care of survivors into account with the creation and production of the piece. Created in “solidarity with women who have spoken against or stood up to male abuses of power in all its forms,” Ellams’s play helped spectators “grapple with difficult ideas together,” including sexual violence, but in a manner that honored and gave voice to survivors. Is it unfair to compare representations of sexual violence from a dramatist writing in the seventeenth century against one writing today against a burgeoning #MeToo movement? Perhaps. But both were available simultaneously to the British public during this summer season, and Breen and Medina had the same charge to translate these stories for a contemporary audience. The production that provided a warning was the one that needed it least.
This is not to say that I specifically advocate for the use of content warnings in theatres, much less their requirement, as Naylor predicts in his “sad day” scenario. The current debate over content warnings obscures a more necessary discussion about the ethics of producing theatre for a changing spectatorship that refuses to turn a blind eye to abuse against the disempowered. The more significant comparison between these recent RSC and Kiln offerings is not who provided a content warning but who produced a compassionate representation of women suffering abuse: the classical text staged realistically to shock audiences into remembering a violent past or the new play staged theatrically to help audiences understand cycles of abuse through a retelling of classical mythology.
Clearly, I am partial to Ellams’s text, but I can also imagine a performance of a Restoration play in which a content warning is superfluous because the production team honored and gave voice to the perspective of the abused; I can imagine a season selection meeting in which producers give the same attention to the ethics of representing violence as they do to representing race, gender, and ethnicity; I can imagine a department meeting in which the discussion to hire a fight choreographer necessarily prompts a consideration of which characters continually bear the brunt of stage violence and whether our production choices contribute to the silencing of their voices or suffering. (Charlene Smith’s recent essay, “Staging Sexual Assault Responsibly,” gives productive shape to these imaginings.)
In the meantime, as an educator and—not insignificantly—as a consumer who purchases blocks of theatre tickets on a regular basis, I will show preference towards producers who provide guidance and warnings to those who need them. Because my courses regularly require attendance at performances, I feel ethically bound to provide my students with such information and give them permission to leave if that is how they need to take care of themselves. Unlike Naylor, finding a content warning posted on a theatre’s website would not be a sad day for me; it would signal that the organization’s artistic leaders are compassionate people with respect for audience members who need a different kind of viewing experience.
On March 16, 2021, eight people―six of whom were Asian women―were killed in spa shootings outside of Atlanta by Robert Aaron Long, a 21 year old white man. At the current time, Long has been charged with eight counts of murder, but has not been charged with a hate crime. For Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the absence of a hate crime charge is unacceptable due to the nature of Long’s shooting spree as “racially motivated sexual violence against women.” Choimorrow, who spoke in an interview with ABC, went on to say, “The reason they died wasn’t just because they were women, even though that’s what the killer says it is. They were murdered because they were Asian American women. You cannot separate that.”
You might be thinking, Brooke, this is a musical theatre course, why are you talking about this?
Well, you’re right. This is a musical theatre course, but it does not exist in a vacuum. Or, at least, it wasn’t designed to. While there has been an egregious amount of racially motivated violence over the past year, I bring up this attack, specifically, because we cannot ignore its implications on the material of this class. In On Trust, I urged you to trust me and to invest deeply in this course as a journey of cultural exploration and personal growth. Now is the time to dig into that space.
In the fall of 2020, when I was taking this course, I watched Miss Saigon for the first time and I was an absolute mess. I was wrecked by Kim’s story and I thought my weeping was an expression of unselfish empathy. But as I sat down to write my analysis essay about Miss Saigon, I became increasingly convicted that my “empathy” was, in fact, not unselfish, and really, it wasn’t empathy at all.
In my post, I Am Chris: An Exploration of (white) Empathy, I include a quote from the brilliant Brené Brown, a New York Times bestselling author and research professor at the University of Houston who studies empathy, vulnerability, and shame. She says,
“Expressing empathy or being empathetic is not easy. It requires us to be able to see the world as others see it, to be non-judgmental, to understand another person’s feelings and to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. … Empathy is a choice. And it’s a vulnerabile choice. Because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”
My post tracks my own journey of discovery through the territory of empathy, and I bring my reader with me. I encourage you to read the full post, but the heart of my argument is this:
In many ways, I am Chris. I am the character I hate because it is my whiteness that begs me to express empathy toward Kim. In selfish catharsis, I cry for her.
My failure to truly be empathetic, then, holds a much higher cost for Kim [in Miss Saigon] than it does Fanny [in Funny Girl]. Where my “empathy” is higher, I am being asked more of myself. So when my tears dry and my life returns to normal, I’ve done a greater disservice to myself and others by failing to act. At this point, you might be expecting me to wrap all of this up in a nice little bow. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t do that. I don’t have an answer to this. I think radical empathy begins with acknowledging that you’re not there yet. I’ve done that part. But what next? I haven’t come up with a way to fulfill the last step of empathy—to put forth genuine effort to act upon that which I feel sadness. But for now, maybe Miss Saigon isn’t asking me to do that. For now, I think I just need to sit in this development. For now, I think I need to study the ways that I am Chris.
The reality is, until the recent shootings outside of Atlanta, I hadn’t thought much about the ways I am Chris. Not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t know how to function out of this space between stagnation and growth. For me, Miss Saigon was the beginning of an exploration into my own shortcomings in the practice of empathy. And, while I have certainly not “arrived” at a conclusion or a way to continue on my journey, the March shootings have certainly pushed me to bring a renewed energy to this journey.
So what are the implications of the recent shootings on our course, and on us? We return to the words of Choimorrow who identifies the “harmful stereotypes that objectify and depict Asian women as what she described as ‘hypersexualized,’ ‘meek’ and ‘submissive.’” In the same ABC article Choimorrow is quoted in, it says, “Some argue the United States’ military presence in the Asia Pacific also played a role in stigmatizing Asians when American soldiers went abroad during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Philippine-American War.” As students in this class, we have an acute knowledge that this is true. We see the blatant objectification of Kim and the other Vietnamese women in Miss Saigon, and we can recognize that there is a potential for harm if Miss Saigon and other similar media representations of Asian women are not properly unpacked. We have to name these representations as what they are: representations. And we have to consider what they are asking of us.
For me, I don’t know what it looks like to really be empathetic at this moment, but I think Miss Saigon and the recent events have asked me to stay the course of this journey. I cannot run from the discomfort of not knowing what move to make next. I just have to press on searching. I encourage you to do the same.
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!