A Bloody Revolution Means Messy Social Statements

Charlotte Lange

A bloody revolution. Brilliant chemise gowns. Seductive love triangles. An ex-convict with a heart of gold. From the opening scene, Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Miserables is the epitome of an enthralling, edge-of-your-seat musical that combines ensemble ballads and heart-wrenching trios to consistently leave its audience with goosebumps. Within its four musical walls, however, exists pertinent and at times careless depictions of socioeconomic interactions and gender relations. Les Miserables commentary on broken, biased judicial systems provides contemporary insight into the disparities that incarcerate lower-socioeconomic status individuals at a much higher rate, highlighting the prejudiced interactions between socioeconomic classes vastly different in privilege and power. In the same sense, the musical features tendentious gender depictions of women unapologetically relying on men to provide for them financially and postitionally, confining them to supporting roles that undercut the control these female actresses command. 

Beginning in a dirty prison stocked with social rejects, Les Miserables immediately paints a clear divide between the regally moral, pretentious character of Javert and the beaten skeleton of Valjean. While one gallops onto the stage on their literal high horse, the other carries his own cross, shaking at his malnutrition and frustrations of unjust imprisonment. Socioeconomically, the two could not be more different, and yet their prevailing, rock-solid conviction to morality characterizes them as foils far beyond those within their same social class. Even after Valjean saves his life, Javert insists “once a thief, always a thief;” by depicting Javert’s aversion to renouncing Valjean’s eternal identity as a thief in his eyes, Les Miserables criticizes the nature of prevailing social stigmas, thus challenging the audience to question their own inevitable implicit biases. In portraying the prisoner as the true knight in shining armor, the musical fundamentally highlights the duality of every interaction between upper and lower classes, thus denouncing the snap judgements that audience members often make about the groups they personally view as inferior in their own lives. 

The two mens’ unceasing showdown throughout the musical offers an unprecedented commentary on the biased nature of France’s judicial system, where a man’s life can be upended in a torturous prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. Those with power demand to maintain it, to keep it from those who are inferior based on the status of their bank account or family influence, and to seize control of that power, prison guards degrade and belittle others to be less than human beings despite their inherent similarities. In the same way, America’s overcriminalization of minor offenses, especially drug offenses, among lower-socioeconomic classes threatens to violate human rights as overcrowded prisons offer abhorrent living conditions for incarcerated individuals, suggesting the overabundance of influence police, judges, and juries each possess when their implicit, unchallenged biases repeatedly determine the condemnation of others. Even nearly two hundred years after Les Miserables’ revolution, the broken judicial systems of our nation – a nation who modeled for France the very depiction of revolution and democracy from across the Atlantic Ocean – have yet to be mended of their partiality, making Les Miserables an imperatively confrontational musical for American spectators to view and address the blatant socioeconomic disparities that still exist in our modern-day society. 

After hearing the pleas of Fantine to protect her young daughter – “if I go to jail she’ll die!” –  Javert turns a blind eye to the struggles of the lower-class woman, instead insisting “honest work, just reward, that’s the way to please the Lord.” Javert’s nitpicky morality throughout the musical offers critical insight into how oblivious humans are when they feel their values make them superior to others; just as Javert favors dishonest rich men while dominating upon a beaten prostitute, privileged Americans endorse their own hard-working “bootstraps narrative” while looking down upon marginalized minorities and immigrants as somehow less-deserving despite the immensely greater life obstacles they must continuously overcome. While viewers may judge Javert’s hardened disregard for Fantine and Cosette’s well-being with disgust, their engagement with the musical should spark personal reflection over where in their lives they fail to consider the struggles of others when stigmatizing their actions or decisions. 

Even in its depictions of the compelling love triangle, social standing and financial prosperity determined the winner of Marius’ heart. In other words, Eponine never stood a chance. And how could she? If Cosette had been helping beggars in Eponine’s soiled, homemade dress, Marius wouldn’t have bothered looking twice. It was only her angelic cleanliness and beautiful bonnet and rosy cheeks and ability to hand out money to the homeless that made Marius so determined to pursue her. In Marius’ eyes – and the eyes of America today – money controls opportunities far beyond the naive concepts of capabilities or personality. Despite Eponine’s demonstrated intelligence, selflessness, and wit, Marius never even considers pursuing her as a love interest, and his lack of respect for her is demonstrated not only in his refusal to accept how clearly infatuated she is with him, but also in his attempt to bribe her to find Cosette’s address, proving he views her financial struggles as something to exploit for personal gain. The same can be said for America today, where one’s appearance blatantly dictates employment status; if Marius was a job opportunity both Cosette and Eponine were interviewing for, Epoinine’s inferior garb alone would put her at an insurmountable disadvantage. The difficulties economically disadvantaged individuals face in remaining presentable, obtaining competitive business attire, and transporting themselves to work opportunities presents a cyclical burden that often prevents individuals from achieving greater economic mobility. Les Miserables’ fatigued representation of the beautiful rich girl winning the boy parallels the same tragic narrative that impoverished individuals seeking employment often face, where those with financial backing triumph time and time again. 

Despite its fantastic, commanding female leads, the text of Les Miserables dismally confines women to a stereotypical dependence on men, plundering the characters Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, and Samantha Barks command of their deserved plot impact. Fantine’s story embodies the epitome of misery and sacrifice; as a young woman, she fell recklessly in love with a rich student who abandoned her and her unborn daughter, as any wealthy man would be expected to after impregnating a working-class grisette. The musical characterizes Fantine as a lost cause from the second her lover left her – unable to maintain work on her own, provide for herself without his income, or even sell herself without still dreaming “that he’ll come to [her], that [they] will live [their] years together.” Even after being forced into prostitution, Fantine’s wails for the man who ruined her life paint an incredibly regressive image of women as dependent on men financially, emotionally, and sexually. In her stage time, Hathaway does a brilliant job of conveying the appalling horror any individual would feel after being backed into such a steep financial corner that selling oneself was the only way out. As she stumbles to the bed of the man who just bought Fantine for a night of sexual exploitation, Hathaway’s eyes are lifeless, and her frail, grease-smeared chest heaves with anxiety and repulsion, sparking nothing but empathy for Fantine from an audience who would readily condemn prostitutes as whores and felons. Once again, Les Miserables emphasizes the duality of every story, challenging the stigmas against those who break the rules as acts of desperation to provide for their family and questioning the moral gray areas of laws that castigate individuals with a clear presence of steadfast morals. 

Cosette’s script is similarly underwhelming; after one glance from Marius, Cosette is seen whimpering in her bedroom as she questions the trajectory of her life before she’d laid eyes upon the freckled boy with high cheekbones. Cosette is angelic, innocent, and sheltered – her role in the musical is simply to heroicize the actions of Valjean and Marius. 

Eponine, on the contrary, rises through the ashes of Les Miserables’ ravaged female characterizations as a hardened, independent teenager who loathes both the dishonesty of her parents and her consequential social position in Paris. After following Marius back to his room during the “Look Down” number, Eponine amorously confronts Marius about hiding his family’s wealth, holding her own in their flirtatious teasing and starkly contrasting the shy, blushing eye contact that defines Marius and Cosette’s fling. After Marius approaches her to inquire about Cosette, Eponine is plainly devastated that the man she grew up supporting could so quickly be smitten by a “bourgeois two-a-penny thing.” Here, Banks reaps audience empathy for Eponine as, even in his search for another woman, Marius shows her character attention; by slowly turning towards Marius and bantering off of his crush on Cosette, Banks embodies the heart-wrenching feeling of suppressed disappointment any young girl feels after receiving male attention for the wrong reasons. The character of Eponine is tragic but undoubtedly noble; in disguising herself as a soldier to jump in front of a bullet for Marius, Eponine challenges the typical depiction of female subordination, demonstrating more willpower and strength in a single action than Marius does in the entire musical. At the basis of her actions, however, still persists the notion that women can’t help but fall utterly in love with men, becoming so completely obsessed that they would gladly sacrifice their own lives for boys who pursue other women and demonstrate zero commitment towards them. Hooper’s direction allows Eponine to be relatable, likable, and strong – the utter opposite from Cosette, the protagonist the audience is supposed to vy for, the protagonist who wins Marius in the end. Any woman watching Les Miserables wants the courageous, driven woman to succeed, and Eponine’s resulting position as the fan-favorite suggests Hooper’s attempt to assume a stronger feminist stance than the text of the musical allows. However, the script, confined by the 1845 gender biases crafted by Hugo, is anything but feminist; women are repeatedly depicted as objects to desire, protect, and buy out. Between Fantine’s prostitution to be a better mother, Marius’s attempt to pay Eponine off to find a pretty girl, and Cosette’s overdramatic handoff from one man to the next, the text of Les Miserables does little to advance the audience’s perception of female capabilities. Despite this, the powerful direction decisions by Hooper and compelling character choices of Hathaway, Seyfried, and Barks do all they can to demand female command onstage and propel the female liberation revolution that’s hopefully less bloody than the French Revolution.

Contemporary Communities Don’t Involve… They Exclude

Charlotte Lange

Today’s generation of stereotypically over-sensitized, underworked college students starkly contrast the image of grease-streaked baby boomers who spent their afternoons fighting in wars and smoking cigarettes alongside their mob of loyal conspirators. The gritty nineteen-fifties aesthetic of unrestrained, youthful sexuality; tough, boyish scuffles; and audacious, adolescent rebellion against authority incites passion and nostalgia across any audience yearning for a lusty depiction of the childhood they crave. West Side Story’s portrayal of gracefully choreographed ensemble violence depicts the mid-century time period as a ruggedly beautiful era filled with concupiscent love affairs and equally romanticized gang conflicts. In its depiction of the constant antagonism between the wrangling Jets and Sharks, West Side Story offers a unique cultural critique on how deep-rooted rivalries – based upon perceived, surface-level differences between groups – create and perpetuate socioeconomic and ethnic stereotypes despite the opponents’ outstanding social similarities. The musical utilizes its representation of interethnic interactions and relationships to encourage the creation of communities that blend diverse values and backgrounds rather than separate individuals into homogenous categories, thereby boldly discrediting human nature’s timeless tendency to seek and form relationships with those who appear similar while ostracizing and othering those who seem different. 

Given the inclination to limit public interaction within one’s invisibly rigid social group, musicals that construct unpredictable character couplings possess the unique ability to traverse the castes that otherwise limit plot development and cultural reform. West Side Story’s unprecedented pairing of Tony and Maria, star-crossed lovers stemming from rival gangs, details an ill-fated romance more influenced by stigmatized social constructs than by the caliber of its infatuation. Throughout the production, members of both the Jets and Sharks denounce Tony and Maria’s rendezvous by continually assaulting the two with unsubstantiated claims of their transgressions against the respective gangs, citing the other gang’s hatred as the sole reason why the relationship will never succeed, without ever noticing how unquestionably infatuated the two were, or examining whether the stigma against interethnic relationships was worthy of being challenged. In depicting the ease in reinforcing existing stereotypes without active thought or objection, the musical boldly criticizes the ethnic prejudices perpetuated into the twenty-first century and emphasizes how fruitless external judgments are on forming classes, calling instead for the creation of relationships and communities based upon shared values and loyalty. The intangible dishonor Tony and Maria bring to their families for loving one another shapes their actions throughout the musical; during each of their interactions, the two fundamentally discuss how extensively their parents or friends would disapprove of their decisions. While hiding together in Maria’s bridal shop, the pair choreograph their hypothetical wedding while postulating how their parents would react to the couple’s differing backgrounds. Their interethnic relationship is therefore not only socially despised but also socially determined, established on the very foundation of their differences. Each musical number compares the two’s opposite beliefs, creating a sexual tension onstage as the two flirtatiously celebrate how seamlessly their disparities merge to form a mutually respectful connection. Rather than contributing to the belief that contrasting individuals must remain isolated and insulated within their own groups, West Side Story provides spectators with a glamorized depiction of an interracial relationship to discourage individuals’ intolerant exclusion of those ethnically, religiously, or socioeconomically different from them while advocating for the creation of communities that invite all backgrounds to contribute and foster cultural appreciation. 

Along with the niche relationships developed in West Side Story, the production utilizes charged ensemble interactions to propel the musical’s depictions of community. Set in opposition to each other, the immigrant Puerto Rican Sharks are enemies of the Jets born and raised in the Upper West Side, and the Sharks’ receive blatantly biased treatment in nearly every interaction with the Jets and the police alike. Lieutenant Schrank perpetuates racist sterotypes across the musical by immediately assuming the Sharks are to blame for scuffles clearly instigated by the Jets, brazenly voicing his xenophobic theories that immigrants will take the jobs and livelihoods of those born in the country and effectively characterizing the Sharks as unequivocal outsiders in their own community. Despite his derogatory insistence that they wish to “turn this town into a freakin’ pigsty,” the Sharks unabashedly whistle “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” as they leave the scene of a fight, highlighting the irony of societal prejudice against immigrants in lieu of the love they demonstrated towards America in choosing to immigrate, and in their refusal to take any of the challenges they playfully complain about “In America” for granted. Lieutenant Schrank’s intolerant opinions reflect the community-held assumption among Caucasians in the West Upper Side that Puerto Ricans diminish the neighborhood’s value, trashing the landscape and sullying the pristine white culture. Their racist beliefs are abhorrent, unfounded, and still disgustingly cited in contemporary debates against inclusive immigration policies; their presence on West Side Story’s stage is intended to invigorate deep disgust towards the systemic racism flagrantly present in twenty-first century police forces. The musical provides a necessary depiction of the decades of implicit bias that has despicably infiltrated communities with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, using the police’s xenophobic treatment of the Sharks to highlight the existence of prejudices against marginalized identities. In this case, the Puerto Ricans’ sense of belonging to the Shark community is what causes their persecution, proving communities’ ability to include members while still inherently causing their exclusion. 

West Side Story’s “The Dance at the Gym” uses sharply contrasting musical movements to beautifully romanticize the violence between the two groups. By opening the scene with an energetic adolescent shout, producers immediately set the scene of a wild high school dance; the homogenous blend of flailing arms, contorting bodies, and twirling skirts unites the gangs under one mischievous class, each sharing the same rejection of authority and embodiment of teenage rebellion. From a distance, the gymnasium appears to be brimming with close friends – it’s only upon closer inspection of the ethnic dress and dance movements that the Jets truly define themselves as rivals to the Sharks. The Jets’ dancing style possesses an energizing, romantic quality; by seamlessly transitioning from the men rapidly spinning their dates, entwined only at the hands, to slowly swaying with their entire bodies pressed together at the waist, within a single beat of the song, they embody a giddy group that expect to control the room because of the privilege they so often enjoy. The Sharks, on the other hand, enter more nervously; as Maria and her date enter, they stand around for a minute, exchanging greetings and warming up to the room before jumping into the strides. Their hesitation to jump onto the dancefloor highlights the overall hesitation Puerto Ricans – and all immigrants – experience when approaching their meld into American culture. Although initially following along with the style of dancing the Jets had normalized during the dance battle, they quickly used the more vivacious spinning and dipping traditional of Puerto Rican celebration. In the same way, immigrants may initially find it easier to assimilate into the dominant American society, but truly beautiful culture is created when they’re allowed to contribute their own individual roots. 

The most prevalent bias across Broadway is against marginalized women who demand power in the roles they command while being consistently and systematically denied the respect or responsibility effortlessly handed to their male counterparts. West Side Story’s antifeminist plot confines female roles to devoted, ardent spectators; in the creation of the contrasting Jets and Sharks communities, women are time and time again kept on the outskirts, excluded from the narrative. Bernardo considers Maria his property and repeatedly, forcibly imposes his control over her decisions, despite her constant protest that she can handle herself without protection. Girlfriends Anita, Velma, and Graziella are prohibited from engaging in any gang proceeding on the assumption that their pretty, fragile minds would be overwhelmed by the sophisticated, intricate talk of deciding between guns or knives at the rumble. Velma is forcibly kicked out by Riff arrogantly slapping her backside while she attempts to retain a figurative and literal spot at the table during War Council, an action that effectively objectifies her body while making clear the power he has over her, physically and socially, to determine the opportunities available to her. Most blatantly, Anybodys begs for a chance to make a name for herself as a true Jet and is consistently ostracized from every meeting, despite being more eager than any other current Jet to prove her worth. Although they belong to the Jets or Sharks by name, although they’re expected to strictly date, even associate with, members of their own gang, no woman is allowed to truly contribute to the community, limiting their sense of true belonging among a group so deeply ingrained into the local culture that it will define the entire trajectory of their life. 

The women’s involuntary silence, despite being allowed membership, forms an incredibly relevant argument for the implementation of anti-discrimination laws among companies notorious for excluding women in executive panels that make true corporate decisions. Granting female membership in order to appear inclusive for self-serving benefits is the epitome of sexism in America – bigotry that is interwoven into the very foundation of hiring and promoting practices. The imperative difference lies in the distinction between diversity and inclusion: diversity forms the gateway allowing entrance into the community, but inclusion requires the regular involvement of all members in decisions affecting the community. Both the Jets and the Sharks have diversity – they doll their girlfriends up for dances and rumbles to appear sexy and desirable; what they lack, and what companies across America and the globe simultaneously lack, is inclusion – the active, intentional decision to allow females to contribute rather than limiting the power to men preoccupied with asserting their dominance over all who threaten their perception of personal clout. Women, and all marginalized groups, are consistently denied this inclusion they demand and deserve, and West Side Story highlights the necessity of both components of involvement to truly belong to a community. Their shameless exclusion from the gangs reflects the glass ceiling present in any female’s ambitions, a glass ceiling created by men to perpetuate the stereotype that women are inherently weaker, duller, and inferior. Every female spectator undoubtedly empathizes with the tenacious resolve these women persistently display throughout the production, as every female spectator, too, has been beaten and limited in the responsibility afforded to them despite their extensive qualifications.  The rag-tag team of misfit individuals that comprise the two inseperable gangs in West Side Story all bring diverse ethnic, sexual, and gender perspectives to their groups, groups whose staunch, unrelenting exclusion and hatred of each other is inevitably counterproductive to the well-being of the overall Upper West Side community. The two’s reluctant inability to resolve differences results in casualties, grief, and wasted effort spent battling rather than improving the neighborhood each gang simultaneously inhabits. In its unique depiction of a community that concurrently excludes those outside of and within it, West Side Story highlights the limitations of constructing organizations that rely on individual resemblances rather than celebrating the potential for collective differences that beautifully meld to offer new perspectives on gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. The Jets and Sharks both exacerbated the dissimilarities assumed to exist between the groups without ever investigating what they could learn from each other, a trap that much of society often succumbs to, contributing to intense xenophobia and reluctance to offer due opportunities to marginalized groups, ranging from women in the workplace to immigrants seeking job opportunities in America. West Side Story thoroughly proves the necessity to form communities that will honor the differences of each individual rather than demanding each member rigidly conform to the group’s homogeneous identity, communities ranging across social, religious, and political contexts to encourage acceptance and respect for all perspectives.

Exploring the Varying Levels of Gender and Race Relations Across Musicals

Charlotte Lange

Built upon the pillars of oversexualization, extravaganization, and objectification, Broadway performances quite literally demand their place in the spotlight of controversy. From the vapid, sensually dressed Ziegfeld girls without independent ambitions or responsibilities to the dehumanizing depictions of Blackface across minstrel stages, musical theater has a grisly history of failing their spectators by portraying regressive gender and racial representations. Generations of Broadway musicals have abhorrently and forcefully diminished female actors into secondary roles, solidifying the paradigm of women being dependent upon men to command the stage, to dictate their lives. Michael Mayer’s Funny Girl revival starring Sheridan Smith, set in the World War I era, details Fanny Brice’s unconventional journey to stardom as she simultaneously navigates her turbulent relationship with an imprisoned husband. In stark contrast, Bartlett Sher’s The King and I portrays the cultural and romantic adventure that ensues widowed schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, played by Kelli O’Hara, after she agrees to tutor the king of Siam’s royal court in 1862. Despite their difference in setting, time period, and casting diversity, both hit musicals Funny Girl and The King and I make progress to break the norm of portraying women stuck in docile supporting roles in order to disprove female reliance on men and revolutionize the cultural appreciation depicted on-stage. 

The musical Funny Girl characterizes Fanny Brice as an unconventionally attractive performer who initially struggles to meet producer Florenz Ziegfeld’s outrageous yet popular standard of beauty, where his characteristically shimmering showgirls were pale, thin, blonde, luxuriously dressed women silently and meekly sprawled across the stage to be objectified. Brice starkly contrasts the ideal Ziegfeld girl in every way: she is a confident, bold, ambitious force in musical theater and demands for a chance to be a leading soloist, rather than a mediocre background dancer. At the end of the musical, Brice even leaves her husband after funding his risky business endeavors throughout the plot – a daring action that breaks the stigma of women being much more successful in their careers than their husbands and legitimizes the feminist values of the book. By shattering the norm against women who aren’t the customary depiction of femininity, Funny Girl provides a bold societal statement to free female actresses from the confines of conventional, unrealistic, and outdated beauty standards, while encouraging wives to pursue their own dreams and aspirations in an era where women still make eighty-one cents to a man’s dollar. 

The journey Sheridan Smith embarks upon with the striking character of Fanny Brice is the classic coming-of-age story; by earnestly taking the reins on the lead solo “Cornet Man” rendition at the show Brice had just been fired from, Smith exemplifies the blossoming confidence Brice begins to experience as a female actress and effectively conveys Brice’s deeper transition towards career and personal independence. As Smith intentionally shoos away fellow dancer Eddie Ryan, who had assisted her with the choreography, she makes a boldly critical decision to launch Brice’s character into the successful career she’s felt called to embody since she was young. This performance-within-a-performance concept offers a unique opportunity for Smith to overemphasize Brice’s demonstrated confidence – the poise she, too, must exhibit as a forefront actor. Smith’s choice onstage parallels the choice she’s inevitably experienced as an unconventionally beautiful female actress breaking through the glass ceilings of a male-dominated industry. In becoming a Broadway starlet, Smith has undoubtedly had to refuse the patronizing assistance of men who believe women require their help to succeed – men who, like the rest of mass media spectators, have been perpetually and systemically convinced of female inferiority. Given the scope of the riveted audiences they influence, director Mayers upheld his essential cultural responsibility by engaging in Smith’s inclusive and progressive depiction of women. The unconventional casting decision of Smith provides twenty-first century female theatergoers with the epitome of an empowered, independent woman to revolutionize the way they value themselves and their ambitions.  

Brice’s realized confidence and success, despite her displayed lack of traditional femininity, are evidence of the tailwinds white actresses experience while landing roles in musical theater. Neither Brice nor Sheridan had to work against their race during the casting process – in the production or in real life – because both women are white and therefore have innumerable more roles written for them. This allows them the chance to be ‘funny’, to be different, to stand out while still blending in with the countless other white actresses – an opportunity that non-white actresses are rarely afforded because of the headwinds they already face in getting cast. Brice’s girlish differences define her onstage against the other Ziegfeld beauties, but her race plays no part in the struggles she faces. Set around World War I, Funny Girl takes place in a regressive time period that displayed a blatant disregard for minority races and genders. Although written and produced decades later, Funny Girl holds no difference; Mayer utilized limited artistic freedom in his casting decisions, and all members of the musical are white. To further neglect the subject of diversity in musical theater, the issue of race isn’t even mentioned throughout the production, indicative of both the production’s prejudiced casting and the historical lack of representation in performers of the early 1900s. While Brice’s white privilege is prevalent throughout her bolstered rise to stardom, her Jewish identity offers a multifaceted approach to her identity. The musical significantly emphasizes Brice’s ethnic roots in order to advance her characterization as an outspoken Brooklynite with unmistakable Semetic roots. Brice’s deep pride in her religious identity energizes generations of Jewish audiences, providing them with a distinct on-screen representation of a typically marginalized culture. In this diverse portrayal of religious diversity, Mayers utilized his Funny Girl platform to provide Jewish actors with the voice that celebrates Jewish-Americans’ rich history and contributions to society while promoting ethnic inclusiveness.  

The King and I follows Anna Leonowens as she reluctantly embraces the culture of the Siamese royal court, while also cultivating their acceptance of Western practices. Throughout the musical, Leonowens struggles to understand the king of Siam’s polygamic practices, and even interferes in Siamese tradition by abetting one of his wives to engage in an affair with her true love, thus interfering in Siamese tradition. During the “Getting to Know You” scene, she contemptuously waves her hands in fake celebration when the children excitedly exclaim the king to be “the Lord of Light”; in mocking the enthusiasm the schoolchildren display, O’Hara deliberately demonstrates Leonowens’ own whiteness by refusing to acknowledge the authority of the king, and thus depicts the Siamese culture as weak, unempowered, and silly by comparison. Although initially magnifying the differences between Eastern and Western cultures as she tells the children that Siam had previously been a “little white dot” on a map to her, Leonowens utilizes her racial dissimilarity to explain the development in her cultural appreciation; she is now beginning to understand their traditions after interacting with them for over a year. This tendency to intrude upon and ‘civilize’ cultures with practices that vary considerably from Western systems was typical of the 1862 time period, and its position on Broadway fundamentally highlights the importance of bridging cultural gaps in the twenty-first century rather than ostracizing societies with unique values – a trend with contemporary significance given the recent emergence of politically-promoted demonstrations of xenophobia in America. The King and I, therefore, holds current cultural relevance in not only fostering tolerance but also in encouraging individuals who may inadvertently participate in stereotype perpetuation to investigate for themselves the beauty of diverse cultures, as Leonowens models. 

The production consistently juxtaposes the garb between cultures; Leonowens’ enormous hoop skirts adorned with frilly pastel lace, suffocatingly fitted corsets, and trailing puffy sleeves form a stark contrast to the draping silk robes that elegantly display vibrant floral designs. The intentional costume contrast throughout The King and I reflects cultures inherently different from each other, and the difference in temperament and autonomy is apparent between the women of the musical. Leonowens is strong, bold, and resolute in her decisions to live in her own house and remain independent despite being in the royal court’s jurisdiction; in the same sense, she demands control on stage by wearing such a large skirt that others must constantly make way for her colossal Western dress. O’Hara utilizes the costume choices to command production numbers, and her wardrobe makes it clear she is the center of each choreography routine. On the other hand, each member of the identically-dressed Siamese ensemble blend into each other and occupy minimal space onstage, forming an unvarying unit that moves homogeneously during musical numbers to reflect the overall lack of agency women have in the Siamese culture. Leonowens’ status as a widowed working mother represents a refreshingly empowered approach to portray women as self-sufficient; by characterizing her role as a single mother determined to support her son, O’Hara beautifully makes female viewers feel liberated and resilient, conveying the power that widowed mothers across the globe wish to channel into their own lives. 

While both musicals succeeded in depicting starring women who have forged successful careers for themselves, the feminist ideals these shows promote are distinctly qualified by the writer’s insistence to center the plot around male relationships rather than around the leading women’s careers or their cultural implications. By writing Brice’s character to turn down the elite job opportunity in Chicago for her love interest, who is heading to New York, writers normalize the cultural expectation for women to abandon their own ambitions for men and starkly contradict the female empowerment they had previously promoted with Brice’s cheekiness and spunk. Similarly, O’Hara’s Leonowens was terribly limited by the overemphasis on her sexual romantic tension with the King, especially in a scene with the unprecedented capacity to bridge cultural gaps between the West and the East as two cultures melded to learn a common courting dance. This lack of independent career ambition provides viewers with a ravaged sense of how twenty-first century women should approach their role within working families and repulsively suggests to its audiences that a husband’s career is more worthwhile than their wife’s.

The two production titles again demonstrate the dominance of heterosexual romance plots over those that emphasize the importance of careers or cultural appreciation. The King and I’s title further relocates the attention away from O’Hara’s strong female lead, instead suggesting her relationship to a man of power will be the focus of the Broadway show. The writers responsible for such a regressive decision influence spectators’ preconceived perceptions of the plot, thus calling excess attention to Leonowens’ interactions with the King rather than her independent performance. Funny Girl, however, inclusively approaches the production name. Originally titled My Man, Funny Girl initially cut Brice’s starring role out of her own Broadway title, instead choosing to focus on her relationship with her husband, of which he is suggested to dominate. By intentionally changing the show to its current title, the writer rightfully shifted the musical’s focus away from Brice’s dependence on her passionate relationship in order to bestow her credit as the independent performing phenomenon she was, and thus encourages the audience to focus on her performance in its own right, rather than in its relation to the men on stage. This is essential for the imminent nominations and performance critiques any Broadway show will engage in – by justly shifting the title, writers subconsciously shift the audience’s favor onto Brice as a liberated leading actress, rather than onto her relationship with her fiance as a pair. 

With the writers focusing on how women fall into relationships with men, racial statements in the productions hardly take the forefront. Funny Girl does nothing to engage in race relations, and its silence on the matter by creating zero diverse roles speaks volumes about the pervasive lack of representation on Broadway. In contrast, The King and I develops an interracial relationship that fosters mutual respect and appreciation between cultures previously stereotyped to be at ideological odds. In its rich blend of Eastern and Western practices, the musical highlights the importance of cultural immersion to truly understand diverse races and ethnicities. With xenophobic and racist values contributing to current political division in America, musicals such as The King and I provide beautifully diverse perspectives on often underrepresented cultures in order to trivialize the bigotry that has disgustingly become the forefront of international relations. Although the musical provided beautiful diversity onstage, it still majorly centered around the white lead character and fell short of intricately developing the roles of the ethnic ensemble. Despite their different approaches to portraying racial diversity onstage, both Funny Girl and The King and I reflect an immediate demand for greater ethnic portrayal on Broadway. Broadway executives are partially responsible for this abhorrent lack of opportunity for diverse casts, as they cyclically decide to produce shows with traditionally Caucasian plots and are reluctant to take creative liberties when it comes to casting. Hamilton is ideal proof of this issue; as a plot centered around the white historical figures that stepped on the backs of minorities to achieve political success, casting directors made the intentional choice to utilize nontraditional casting practices in order to bring a diverse ensemble to the stage. While this was a necessary step away from the elitist Broadway casting norms, musicals such as Funny Girl highlight the ease in doing the opposite – filling roles with the white actors that the outdated, intransigent plots are biased towards. 

Musical theater’s history has time and time again proven Broadway productions’ unprecedented ability to reach diverse audiences, bestowing directors the unique opportunity to either shape or solidify the racial and gender stereotypes perpetuated in their shows. Although musicals have historically fallen short in their portrayal of independent, self-sufficient women and multicultural casts with equal stage times and character development, Funny Girl and The King and I propel relevant feminist ideals to set new standards for female beauty and ambition, and serve critical examples of positive female depictions for spectators to look up to, idolize, and replicate. Both musicals offer unprecedented representations of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity onstage, shining both a figurative and literal spotlight on the progressing race and gender relations across Broadway while simultaneously highlighting the necessary progress to be made regarding female dependence and diverse racial depiction.