Once a Wildcat, Always a Wildcat

By: Cassidy Johnson

“What team?!”

Fourteen years later, and my immediate reaction is to scream back at the top of my lungs “WILDCATS!!” When Disney Channel the original movie High School Musical (2006) they nor I knew what the prevalence this cultural monolith would have to this day. 

When I began this class, I was excited to develop into the world of musicals. A family trip to New York City in 2006 granted me the opportunity to see Wicked and Tarzan on Broadway. Save this opportunity, my experience with musical theatre before this course was scant. Preparing to write my final essay, and seeing that the phenomenal Kenny Ortega creation was an option, I realized that my previous assumption was not entirely true. High School Musical actually had the most significant effect on me as a child–more than the two Broadway shows–and served as my introduction o musical theatre as it did for a generation of children. Through this Disney movie did I begin to understand what performing really was, why people might want to do it, and what goes into a production. High School Musical is accessible, largely unproblematic, and promotes essential messages for youth, all while sporting a fairly simple plot, and for these reasons, it has maintained cultural relevance.

High School Musical is accessible. Back then, a TV and cable certainly cost less than a Broadway ticket (though maybe not a local production). Anyway, watching a movie or musical on a channel does not feel like any additional cost. And now, with a Disney+ subscription, who needs cable? My point is, that by putting the movie on Disney Channel–not even sending it to theatres–Disney ensured that the widest audience possible was able to view it. It’s likely that the cultural heavyweight that is HSM would not be what it is today if so many children and teens were not able to watch it in their homes.

Things that are different, things that are unique stand out. We could all list off musicals Disney has made until we are blue in the face. But High School Musical has something special that Tangled, Mulan, Aladdin, and all the others lack: it’s ordinary. The movie essentially about school cliques and wanting to sing. Boy meets girl, drama ensues. Very simple. There are no spells, quests, or monsters (even if you don’t like Sharpay). While the musical features a rather mundane storyline, that is not something we often see from Disney: but sticking with the ordinary, Disney has created a standout production. People can be easily be affected by others or experiences that they can relate to. As much as my generation may cherish characters like Mulan, Moana, or even Tiana, it can be difficult to draw a connection between your life and a fantastical situation. We don’t have the same problem with HSM: it takes place in a school, the characters are regular people, and the greatest conflict is to sing or not to sing? Do I see myself in the boy who just wants to play ball? The girl who wants to be a star? The shy wiz? Or can I relate to the kid who’s scared to break barriers? These realistic situations are the ones that have a real lasting effect on young viewers like myself. The production HSM is accessible is it’s format, storylines, characters, and settings.

High School Musical should be applauded for its diverse casting. We have two Black actors featured among the main six. And Vanessa Hudgens, the female lead, is of mixed descent. It has been said a hundred times (and it’s worth repeating a hundred more) but when seeing yourself reflected in (positive) roles and experiences can profoundly affect young people. Although in the first film Chad and Taylor do not participate in the school musical the audience still gets a clear sense of the talent they possess. Their chances to shine musically only increased throughout the second and third films. The socio-economic diversity within the student body is also powerful. Each kid has an equal chance at East High, whether you are rich, middle-class, or the kid who moves around each year.

Being a book musical the musical numbers featured in the film largely move the plot forward or highlight a theme. Earlier, I called High School Musical an introduction to musical theatre. This is not just because it is fiction, or that I was five-years-old the first time I saw it, but because a significant of the songs are not actually performed in a musical theatre setting. Yes, Sharpay and Ryan Evan’s “Bop to the Top” and “What I’ve Been Looking For” are stage numbers. As are the Troy and Gabriella audition and finale numbers. However, five songs in the films take place off the stage. The two ensemble performances represent the main conflict and resolution of the musical. “Stick To The Status Quo” is about keeping the existing social order of East High in place. The student body is actively pushing against its members that want to branch out and express identities outside their clique. Troy, the jock, and Gabriella, the wiz, “mess with the flow” by getting callbacks for the musical. “We’re All In This Together” shows the social growth the student body underwent by accepting the notion that people can multiple interests. The message goes from: “It is better by far to keep things as they are, Don’t mess with the flow” to “We’re not the same we’re different in a good way” supporting the differing ambitions of others. These truly thematic performances do not need the presence of a stage to get the message across. The musical and the stage are not the true focus and so the film does not rely on the stage to hold its songs. High School Musical strategically draws a line between the larger musical and Ms. Darbus’ production. In fact, is a musical featuring a musical, not the perfect introduction to musical theatre.

Though certain franchises and fandoms may be popular (think: Star Wars, Star Trek, My Little Pony, etc.) there is still a level of stigma that comes with discussing them (or openly loving them) outside the internet. Anyone who has ever been called a nerd for liking something–including theatre nerds–knows exactly what I am talking about. Things that are animated and/or not fully rooted in reality are otherized. High School Musical does not have to deal with that extra categorization. Every character is human, the conflict is fully resolved, and it’s rated PG with a happy ending. Just average kids with above-average talent. Perfectly acceptable.

High School Musical inserts critical messages regarding acceptance and plurality throughout the book and the songs. And the audience sees the characters struggle with intrapersonal discoveries and desires across three musicals. It’s okay to want to be a star and bop to the top. It’s okay if all you want to do is play ball, or if want to sing too. Creme brulee makers are welcome as well. There is a place for the shy kid; resist the status quo; the rich kid doesn’t always win; people can be more than one thing. There is nothing to gain by stifling your talent or your interests.

There is an aspect of High School Musical that speaks to everyone. Musical theatre? Diverse representation? Breaking free of social constraints or norms? Zac Efron? If the movie did not resonate with audiences there would not be two sequel films. Nor would we have the wonder that is High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. HSM remains culturally relevant because what it represents remains culturally significant. Also, it just a really good movie.

How The Original Cast of HAMILTON is a Powerful Display of Community On and Off the Stage

By Cassidy Johnson

The pop-culture phenomenon and Broadway smash hit Hamilton: An American Musical is a revolutionary and symbolic piece of work for a plethora of reasons. It’s not revolutionary because it happens to feature a revolution, but instead, because the work shatters preconceived notions many held about a Broadway musical by integrating hip-hop and R&B themes, and the “color-conscious” casting to highlight the dichotomy between 1776 and modern America. What is truly revolutionary to me is the impact of the cast itself on stage and off.

A musical can have amazing songs, thoughtful choreography, and smart acting, but if it doesn’t resonate with audiences, then is the musical really great? That was never a question for Hamilton, written by playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda surely deserves the majority of the credit for how Hamilton got its success and subsequent name recognition –and he receives it– but the musical as we know and love today would not be the same without the original cast. The original cast of Hamilton, featuring Leslie Odom Jr. Phillipa Soo, Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, and more, not only created a visible community among the characters in their performances, but banded together behind the scenes, and continues to be symbolic or representation elsewhere. Miranda wrote an amazing script, intelligent songs, and emotional storylines, but he owes the success of his work to those who performed, and we owe them for what they have given us.

The first act of the musical (everything before Jefferson’s number “What Did I Miss?”) is where we see the greatest sense of community among the characters. It’s not particularly a hard conclusion to come to: sisters stick together, and war (and shared trauma) has a way of bringing people together. Like most musicals that I’ve seen or heard, the show begins with an ensemble number. “Alexander Hamilton” maybe one man but the effect we are told he has on the cast of characters before we even meet is impressive. We get a sense of each person in the ensemble without knowing who they are. From the start, it’s more important for the audience to see how each person is bonded by their connection to Alexander Hamilton before knowing any other name. Whether the character loves him in the first act, resents him, or leads him, they all possess an emotional connection to him. 

The finale of Hamilton, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is a mirror of the ensemble introduction. Yet again, each character — now Jefferson instead of Lafayette — tells the audience Hamilton’s impact, not on them, but the nation. At the end of the musical, the characters, from Jefferson to Eliza, still have strong feelings about him, but they are further connected by their recognition of the lasting national contributions of one man. Alexander Hamilton is the single thread connecting each character who graces the stage; he goes from having a place in everyone’s life to having a place in the history of the nation. 

The first glimmer of budding friendly connection between Hamilton and other characters is at the end of “Aaron Burr, Sir.” After Lawrence and company take turns essentially roasting Burr, Hamilton makes his presence known by uttering “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?” Noticing him now, Lawrence, Mulligan, and Lafayette ask who is this? In the next number, “My Shot” the three men are thoroughly impressed with the newcomer declaring the need to get him in front of a crowd. Hamilton has quickly differentiated himself from Burr, shown that he has a man of action and conviction, not someone who prefers to “wait for it.” Because of this Lawrence, Mulligan, and Lafayette see him as one of them and respect him from there on out. He belongs with them in the revolution. We see the bond between this band of brothers grow through both renditions of “The Story of Tonight,” “Farmer Refuted,” “Right Hand Man” and “Ten Duel Commandments.” However, the bond between the quartet is something only seen in the first act and has no counter in the second. This is due to both practical and dramatic reasons. Lawrence dies and Lafayette goes back to France. The second act of the musical is less about how Hamilton gets to where he wants to be, and more about the challenges he faces as he keeps taking his shots. In the last half of the musical, the ensemble does not lend themselves to his rise, but his downfall.

The connection shown between the Schulyer sisters goes beyond their blood relation and represents the bond between women in that era and now. Much like the men fighting the Revolutionary War, the Schuyler sisters have a little community full of love, support, and sacrifice for one another. These women are bonded by shared societal expectations of young wealthy women. This is exemplified by “Helpless” and “Satisfied.” Both sisters are ensorcelled by the same man, but only one of them is aware of that fact. In “Helpless” Eliza introduces us to her loves tory with Hamilton, but in “Satisfied” Angelica gives us the real story, Eliza fell in love with his persona, Angelica fell in love with his mind, but she relents. She loves her sister more than anything else, and she confessed her feelings Eliza would be “silently resigned” and let her have him. She knows only one of them wins. Angelica sacrifices a life of love, happiness, and satisfaction so that her sister can experience just that. This devotion between Eliza and Angelica continues throughout the second act, unlike the bond between Hamilton and his friends. Peggy may be dead, but the remaining Schuyler sisters stick together. Even though Angelica and Alexander are still a bit flirtatious, Angelica never fails to stand by her sister. In “The Reynolds Pamphlet” Angelica crosses an ocean to be there for her heartbroken sister. Even though she and Alexander are now “only a moment away” she lets him know “I’m not here for you.” The sense of community among the women is stronger than any attraction to a man.

In my opinion, the sense of community the original Broadway cast of Hamilton formed off the stage is just as important as their performances on stage if not more. While their subsequent power results from the talent they showed on stage, the impact and symbolism of their actions as a group and as themselves actually moves me more. When reading the module materials related to Hamilton, I was struck by the Bloomberg article “How Hamilton’s Cast Got Broadway’s Best Deal.” And at the risk of straying from the prompt, I feel it is worth discussion. The article details how the cast argued for a share of Royalty Participation profits from the smash musical. In the 3-page long letter, they wrote to lead producer Jeffrey Seller the cast notes “we did not write the show, we didn’t choreograph, direct, design, or produce it . . . We do, however, take great pride and comfort in the knowledge that our contribution was just as vital as the aforementioned in the creation of HAMILTON an American Musical.” While going back and forth with production on offers and counteroffers the performers stuck together. Their position was that being allowed to “share in the success of this show that we have dedicated ourselves to for so long” would be the right to do and only add the legendary reputation that Hamilton was gaining. In the end, the original cast was successful, sharing 0.33% percent of net profits from all U.S. productions except Broadway and any future revivals. This display of community resonates deeper with me more than any performance on stage because the fight they fought for themselves was real. They knew worth, they knew their contributions, and were determined to be recognized and compensated for their efforts. 

As a person of color, you often expect that fighting for your worth will be more difficult than it should be. You already had to work harder to get in the door, and now you have to fight to be recognized for what you contribute once you’re there? That’s exhausting. But it’s stories like this that are inspiring to audience members like me. Due to the “color-conscious” casting, this community that sought proper monetary compensation looks like me. The symbolism of having persons of color play famous Founding Fathers and prominent members of society is amazing and forward-thinking. But knowing that an ensemble of people of color fought a battle that I may have to fight myself one day is both sobering and awe-inspiring.

The cast members banded together regardless of their gender unlike the characters they play in Hamilton. The single thread that tied them all together was the shared knowledge of their worth. They may not have agreed at every step of the negotiations, but they stuck together. Their community as performers was more important than any one person’s desires. To be corny, they took their shot and didn’t give up until they were satisfied. Forget Alexander Hamilton, it’s the story of the original cast that’s inspiring. 

Men & Power: Funny Girl and Miss Saigon

By: Cassidy Johnson

Power. Both a concept and a goal that has been around along as there was life on this planet. Yet, the way we as people view power is changing in terms of accessibility and who should have it. The default picture of a person in power largely remains a man. Because art often reflects the ideals of the society that created it, this same view of power is seen in characters on Broadway: men retaining power over women in the stories that are told. In Funny Girl and Miss Saigon, one or a few men hold the power. In Funny Girl it is the charmer Nick Arnstein, and in Miss Saigon, the Engineer. The journey of these two men in their attempts to attain or maintain a modicum of power drives their stories. The difference between them is that Mr. Arnestein is a charming, well-to-do white man in America, while the Engineer is a conniving, man, prone to violence in Vietnam. Though the motivations behind their actions may be similar, their different identities impact the way they are represented in the musicals.

Funny Girl is a 1960s musical from Jule Styne (music), Bob Merrill (lyrics), and Isobel Lennart (book). Each of these individuals is white. Given the racial identity of the and time period of the authors, it is no surprise that Mr. Arnstein is a white man. Nick Arnstein is the epitome of status and power at the beginning of the twentieth century. We’re given a man who will do anything to maintain his comfortable life in America. Miss Saigon was also written by white men (Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg). While they create a musical that gives a glimpse of what life might have been like for those left behind in the Vietnam War, there are no positive depictions of Asian men in the entire musical, the Engineer included. He only has power over those who are worse off than him: women. We’re given a man who will do anything to get to America. In fact, the Engineer’s dream life is not too far off from the life Nick Arnstein lives before meeting Fanny.

The audience is first introduced to Mr. Nick Arnstein as an admirer of Fanny Price, who uses his reputation and status to increase her salary. And though his last name is traditionally Hebrew, the character includes no obvious Jewish depictions or features. Fanny even questions his heritage at one point when he doesn’t know the meaning of a Yiddish word. Arnstein is for all intents and purposes a white man. He uses charm and seduction to gain (romantic) power over Fanny. In fact, he seems to have a similar effect on every woman he meets admitting that he has been with “merely dozens, nothing serious.” He is a perfectly suave man who goes after what he wants. He is established enough to carry casual conversational with Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. As an entrepreneur and gambler, Nick Arnstein moves through the world with ease, playing games and making connections across the country and even internationally in places such as Monte Carlo. For Arnstein, his sense of power is directly tied to money. Everything is alright in his world until he finds himself in need of serious cashflow to avoid going bankrupt.

Initially, Fanny’s fame and power do not matter to him; as long as he has his own why should he care? As soon as that hurricane wipes out his casino development in Florida, we see a different man. This Arnstein is not simply acting on wants, he is acting on needs. And when he is in need of cash, who does he go to? Other white men. Does he go to his rich wife? No. Even when Fanny offers him a check he puts up a resistance. To him, these men, these white men are the only acceptable sources he can to for help. They might currently have more money, but they are still comparable to him, on the same level. While he loves Fanny, he cannot fathom actually asking her for help. What man needs help from his wife, let alone financial help? When Arnstein yet again finds himself in need of more money, instead of asking Fanny who he knows would not refuse him, he seeks funding from illegal sources. Criminality is more appealing that comprising his perception of himself as a man. Fanny’s mother later puts things plainly for her daughter, telling her that her husband “needed his own money.” That was so integral to maintaining his sense of self, to him feeling that he still had power, that he compromised his freedom and family. His wife made him feel small constantly offering help and support. Nick Arnstein didn’t love Fanny as much as he loved feeling powerful.

Darius Campbell, the actor who plays Nick Arnstein has no trouble portraying a good looking suave man but adds depth to performance with his obvious trepidation during Arnstein’s most trying moments. His voice is softer and his hands are tightly balled up as he pleads “Please Fanny don’t hold so tight, give me some air, give me some light” as she’s about to hand him a check. In the same pensive moment, he tells himself, “Nicky you’ve got to just set her straight” because he cannot reconcile that the source of money is his wife. However, as soon as the check is in his hand, his expression lightens. Campbell immediately enters the musical number “Temporary Arrangement.” With cold hard cash in his hands and signing contracts, this is the most expressive the audience has seen Mr. Arnstein so far. He sports a full-face smile and largely performs the same choreography as the dancers on the stage. Of course, the other men he’s interacting with on stage are white men too. The audience can see his confidence build back up again as he uses his fresh power to cement his plans. That is, right before he gets the devastating phone call.

The Engineer has immediate power over Kim and the other women in the club from the start. The power comes from making the women fear him, as shown by his threatening interactions with Kim and Gigi. The Engineer, like Mr. Arnstein, is a man who goes after what he wants. The entire musical, he is doing everything he can to get a visa to the United States., where he believes he can possess the ultimate power. There is no mystery or surprise regarding this character; the Engineer has no depth. His entire journey is simply trying to gain more power in every situation he finds himself in. Kim (and Tam) are special only for what they can do for him. He did not like needed them, but he made it work for him.

The Engineer is a Vietnamese man who is entirely one-dimensional. He is a scoundrel. He is a predator. The actions he willing to take better his circumstances are criminal and abhorrent. He begins by pimping women to GI’s in Saigon, controlling them with violence all while hoping to attain a visa. He escapes the grasp of Thuy and the military by murdering and donning the uniform of a soldier. In Bangkok, he is still pimping out women, now using Kim and Tam to get his beloved visa. Yet, despite having power over women and Kim in the entire production there are those who have power over him — other men. The GIs who the Engineer is hoping to get a visa from in Saigon, then Thuy, then his boss in Bangkok, and even Chris making a decision about Tam. No matter how much he tries, he is still constantly subject to someone else’s whim. That someone either a white/American man (the GIs) or another Asian man who is no better than he. He will never get what he is desperate for without the help of an American. His boss in Bangkok is also a pimp, and Thuy is arguably worse than the Engineer, wanting to murder a child.

The actor who plays the Engineer, Jon Jon Briones, does bring flavor to this foul and scrappy man. A man of Asian descent, Briones adds humor to his character. There are instances throughout the production where the audience laughs after Briones directs sarcastic quips or exaggerated facial expressions towards them. As a result, the audience is able to enjoy Briones’ portrayal of the Engineer without actually enjoying the character himself. Without adding any intrapersonal depth, Briones is able to vary the way in which he interactions with different characters on the stage. He often grabs women roughly, but tentatively places his hand on shoulders on GIs hoping they will help him out. His energy is drastically different when he is trying to get customers in Bangkok compared to when his boss accosts him and Kim backstage. But Briones truly shines in the number “My American Dream.” For the first time, we see the Engineer free with glee living his dream. Briones is enjoyable to watch as he cavorts with the dancers on stage and humps an American-made vehicle. It is such a strong performance that it’s own of the musical highlights.

Both men break the law in the pursuit of power, the consequences and resolution differ as much as their race does. Nick Arnstein gambles and commits embezzlement in order to maintain his status as a successful businessman, and really a successful man. His downfall is at his own hands and the only victims of his actions are his family. The Engineer’s crimes are on a whole other level. He facilitates prostitution throughout and even murders a soldier. His downfall is at the hands of white men: the United States when they abandon Vietnam, and Chris and his wife when they chose what is “best” for Tam and Kim. The consequences he faces are partly the result of other’s decisions. Mr. Arnstein gets out after 18 months. He is remorseful and does not want to hurt Fanny any longer. There is no resolution of the musical for the Engineer; the audience has no idea what happens to after Kim dies (but we can assume he never gets that visa).

On the one hand, we have a well-to-do white man who is given depth, likable from his first line, and is at least given a shot and redemption in the end. On the other, we have a Vietnamese man in a war-stricken country who is deplorable from the start and receives no resolution. Both are criminals. Both are primarily concerned with having a sense of power and willing to compromise those around to get it. But the white man is given the sympathetic edge. Arnstein can garner sympathy from the audience during those inner monologue moments because he is raw and real. The Engineer is not given those same latitudes. Even when he addresses the audience it’s in moments of humor and self-grandeur. During the glimpse into his disturbing childhood, Briones’ sings in such a detached tone that sympathy is not easy to feel. The audience is provided the chance to like one and can’t feel anything but disdain for the other. This is the tragedy of Broadway. It would not be such a problem if the Engineer was a white or even just an American man. But he is an Asian man in a country destroyed by the West. He makes horrible decisions because of his horrible circumstances. I want to feel bad for him, but I cannot because of the way he is written by white men.