The Right and Wrong Side of History

By Ilana Cohen

Have you ever heard the phrase “there’s a right and wrong side of history?” This phrase relies on each person’s personal belief on good and evil and the belief that as society moves forward through time, we are striving for perfection as a society. The problem, however, is that each person’s concepts of morality is individualized and unique to their upbringing and life experiences. If one were to ask ten people how they define good and evil, they would receive ten different answers. Thus, morality is not black and white, and what is right and wrong is not always clear. People do not like this idea that good and evil is messy and ambiguous, as many people crave guidelines to live their life by and some way to measure whether or not they are a good person. Many people agree to live by the laws as a measure of their morality, as being law-abiding citizens is a way to justify being a good person. However, this bodes the question what do you do when the laws of your society seem to be unjust or broken and conflict with your morals. This question, along with the question of what is the right and the wrong side of history, is directly addressed in Les Miserables, which follows the stories of the characters involved in a failed revolution attempt in France during the political turmoil of the French Revolution. In a cruel and unjust society, characters are caught in moral dilemmas forcing the audience to confront the questions: is following the law truly what is good, is good and bad as black and white as what is illegal and legal, and what is justice.

From the introduction of the movie, the audience is introduced to a character who blurs the lines between right and wrong. Jean Valjean has just finished 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. Even after serving 19 years, his punishment is not over. His papers not only show that he is a criminal but also that he is a dangerous man, making it impossible for him to find work or shelter or food. From the little we watch of Jean Valjean’s struggles and knowing what he was being punished for, the audience sympathizes for Jean, not believing he is truly a criminal or deserves the consequences he is facing. Jean Valjean becomes discouraged after being turned away when seeking food and shelter and attacked by children, and he begins to think that maybe he is bad like society has designated him to be after his one moral transgression. He becomes the criminal that he has been labelled and treated as when he steals from a bishop, the one man who shows him kindness and gives him a place to stay and food to eat. He takes all the silver he could from the bishop’s home and runs. He acts out of desperation and the belief that this one night of kindness does not change the cruelty of the world around him. He is caught, but the bishop gets him off the hook, supporting Valjean’s story that he was given the silver he stole and even giving him candlesticks. This is a turning point as Jean Valjean realized there is true goodness in the world, as he was treated with dignity for the first time in 19 years.  As the rest of the world sees him as a worthless criminal, Valjean begins to view himself as one too, but he is reminded of the goodness a man can have. He realizes he can rehabilitate himself and pursue good, but he knows he must shed his identity as a dangerous man to do so. Once again he is faced with a dilemma between what he believes is the right thing to do and what is legal. Jean Valjean again chooses what is right over what is legal and sheds his identity as prisoner 24601. Despite this breaking the law and breaking his parole to do so, Jean Valjean believes he is doing the right thing by starting a new life.

The audience is then introduced to Fantine. She was impregnated and abandoned by a man several years ago and works at a factory to support the child. However, she was fired and cast off to the streets after refusing to sleep with her boss. Still needing to support her child, Fantine has no choice but to sell what she can for the money to support her daughter— her hair, her teeth, and then her body. She shows her desperation and inability to say no to anything asks of her as she sings in defeat, “What can I do? It pays a debt” in the number “Lovely Ladies.” When a man is trying to force himself on her and she fights back, she is the one to get in trouble with the police, as Javert immediately believes the narrative of the honorable man over the dirty prostitute, despite her protestations that her child will die if she goes to jail and cannot support her any longer. When Jean Valjean hears this, it strikes a chord within him, as her story is much like his– a good person having to take what society sees as immoral, dishonorable, and even illegal actions in order to save their family– and calls off the police. He swears to do right by her, though society has not, and vows to take care of her daughter, Cosette. Jean Valjean is faced with a predicament– allow an innocent man to be sent away to prison as a runaway convict and quit all the good work he has done as mayor, breaking his promise to care for Cosette or take turn himself in as prisoner 24601. Once again, the audience sees that good and bad is not black and white

After experiencing Fantine’s tragic ending, the audience is hurting for her and questions what kind of society would allow for someone so good to slip through the cracks and fail her over and over again. A society like that must be built on injustice and inequality, and a society like that would have laws that uphold those inequities and reinforce a broken system. Thus, breaking those laws, especially like the audience has seen Valjean do, does not seem to make someone a bad or immoral person. Just when the audience is convinced, this society is broken and Javert, who is enforcing the laws put in place by that society, seems to be the antagonist of the story, we are introduced to the actually immoral and dishonorable couple, Thenardier and his wife, who exploit Fantine and steal whatever they can from whoever they can but never get in trouble with the law. These are two people in the play that I, as an audience member, am begging for Javert to go on a lifelong pursuit of to bring them to justice, but no. Instead, Javert has made it his mission to bring to justice Valjean, who has only committed crimes when acting as caretaker to those in need– those failed by society. The irony shows how truly pointless following the law and being a good person is, as the true criminals in the show are never brought to justice. All of these moral dilemmas occur before the revolution plot, which is the most clear question of whether what is good and what is right, necessarily is what is legal. The revolutionaries actively break the laws and stage a violent revolt in order to protest the new king, who allows his people to live impoverished, homeless, and hungry– a clear example of the moral ambiguity of violent protests.

Watching the scenes during the revolution, the audience is forced to confront their beliefs about morality, as in a war, you must pick what side you are on. Each of the young revolutionaries is given that choice, to be on the side of the people who are not heard by their government and are slipping through the cracks or the side of the law. Gavroche is a very symbolic character as at a young age, things are much more idealized and uncomplicated. He knows the right thing to do is to fight, as he knows what it is to be poor and hungry. All he knows is the status quo is not the way it should be, so he is on the side of change. When he is shot, it is a significant moment in the show, because most everyone agrees that shooting and killing a young child is not the right, moral thing to do. However, in the context of the show, he is technically a criminal, fighting on the side of the revolutionaries against the king and France, so shooting Gavorche was the right thing for the soldier to do. At this point, any of the audience that did not already completely sympathize with the side of the revolutionaries is completely horrified with the actions of the side of the law. Valjean continues to fulfill his promise to Fantine to care for Cosette and keep her happy, which he now realizes includes keeping her love, Marius, safe. Jean Valjean joins the revolution efforts to watch over Marius and is immediately faced with another moral dilemma. When Valjean is given the opportunity to kill javert and free himself forever, the audience is practically cheering for him to do so, and yet, once again, he chooses to do what he considers the right thing.Though Javert has made Valjean’s life miserable, requiring him to live in a perpetual state of hiding, Valjean knows Javert is a good man, only doing his job and what he perceives as the right thing to do, so he lets him go.

Valjean returns to his original purpose for joining the revolution– ensuring Marius’s safe return home for Cosette. He drags Marius’s wounded, unconscious body through the sewers to safety. At the same time, Javert, who has just been granted life by the criminal he has been chasing for years, is questioning his purpose. Javert walks through the destruction caused by the revolution, his feet standing in a pool of blood, walking down the line of the dead young men, and then he finally gets to Gavroche and he leaves his medal on his chest. The audience can see that Javert is no longer sure he is doing the right thing. Ignoring his doubts, Javert goes to seize his opportunity to catch Valjean. Valjean has made it to the opening of the sewer, exhausted and covered in human feces. Above him, stands Javert with his gun, ready to bring Valjean to justice. However, when Valjean begs him to let him go temporarily to get Marius home to safety and promises to return after, Javert hesitates and allows him to pass.

Pacing on the edge of the railing to a bridge, the audience can see Javert is being faced with the opposite dilemma as Jean Valjean. He has lived his life by the law, both following it and enforcing it; he spent his life in pursuit of Jean Valjean, who he saw as nothing more than a criminal who broke his parole. After seeing Valjean, a man he has decided is a bad person, a criminal, show him mercy and only protect others, he is faced with his own crisis. He starts questioning if he is doing the right thing by going after Jean Valjean which causes him to question if he is doing the right thing by enforcing the law in general. Overwhelmed by his new questioning of morality, unsure if he has spent his life enforcing laws which might not be right or good, Javert allows himself to fall off the bridge to his death. Commiting suicide, in the Christian faith, is a sin, which is perhaps Javert’s rejection of the constructions of morality he has lived by his entire life. Javert’s suicide is followed by the passing of Jean Valjean, who even in death seems to foil Javert. Javert died alone and his death was preceded by overwhelming doubt uncertainty and a complete questioning of his entire life and purpose while Valjean died, surrounded by his loved ones, at peace knowing that he lived a good life and did what he thought was best always. The final scene shows Valjean joining the rest of the fallen souls throughout the show, including Eponine, Gavroche, and Fantine, as they sail away on a ship made of furniture, like the barricade they built during the revolution. Having the final scene be all of the characters who have passed really forces the audience to think about who will be remembered and how they will be remembered. This brings me back to the question of what is the right and wrong side of history. Though Les Miserables is fiction, it is based on the struggles of real people during the French Revolution. Which forces me to post the question: which characters in Les Miserables are on the right side of history? Is Jean Val Jean or Javert?

West Side Story: The Tale of Two Ensembles

by Ilana Cohen

Although each individual has their own story and identity, one can gain a better understanding of one’s identity by seeing them in their community. A person’s community influences how one performs culture, race, religion, gender, and sexuality; thus, to fully understand one’s cultural identity, their community and how they interact with members of their community must be analyzed. In a musical theatre context, the ensemble is the community. Ensembles provide the audience a deeper grasp into the lives of principal characters by showing how the people in the principal’s life act towards them and towards each other, informing the character’s behaviors and beliefs. The film adaptation of the musical West Side Story demonstrates how important ensemble can be in understanding principal characters’ cultural identities. The distinct performances of the two ensembles in West Side Story, the Jets and the Sharks and their respective ladies, both separately and interacting, gives the audience insight into how these starkly different groups perform gender, sexuality, and race, and how each groups’ identity performances are received by one another and greater American society.

American audiences get to observe the immigrant experience from the perspectives of various Puerto Rican immigrants through the performances of the Sharks and their female counterparts. The production number “America” gives insight into the Puerto Rican cultural identity held by the Sharks and their ladies through their energetic and expressive choreography. The dance movements are sharp and quick with many kicks and turns. The footwork is intricate and is combined with arm and hip movements to give them a Latin flavor. Though the movements incorporate identifiably Latin style in the choreography, it is the energy and the expression in the way the movements are performed that truly form the Puerto Rican identity. The performers are full of happiness and spirit as their movements embody a celebration of life. With the joy they exude through their movements in combination with the lyrics celebrating their new lives in America, the ladies show their unique perspective as Puerto Rican immigrants, and their shared joy unites them and adds to their ethnic identity. While most of the number was the men and women dancing alternating back and forth, highlighting conflicting views because the women were taking to life in America better than the men, by the end of the number, they were all dancing simultaneously showing that they are united in their ethnic identity and share a passion and love for life shown through their energetic, up-beat dancing. 

Not only is the choreography of this number significant for understanding the Sharks Latinx identity, but also the lyrics show differing outlooks on their identity as immigrants is important. The song starts with Anita, backed by the ladies, and Bernardo, backed by the Sharks, arguing back and forth about how they feel about America. Anita and the women sing about the opportunities and benefits of moving to America, while Bernardo and the Sharks focus on how they are marginalized in America and were better off in Puerto Rico. The differing viewpoints of the Puerto Rican men and women on immigrating to America is significant because it shows that there is not a single opinion of a cultural group. Instead, the lyrics show that within any cultural group, individuals can still have their own opinions and perspectives. This idea is important because it humanizes each member of the ensemble, making them be seen as individuals within a group rather than a nondescript, androgynous group. Jerome Robbins cared about this concept and intentionally choreographed his dancers not completely in unison or with the same moves as to make them look like a community of distinct individuals rather than a mass of the same character. In his interview, Nikko Kimzin, who played a Shark in a production of West Side Story, talks about how the director purposefully had each ensemble member have a name, know their rank in their gang, what part of the city they are from, and who their girlfriend is, so each ensemble member would be able to create a unique character with a background that could inform their interactions with one another.

The Jets offer audiences observation of a group that is usually overlooked by society: the teenage children of the previous generation of immigrants that came to America. Their parents came from Europe seeking a better life and were treated as outsiders when they came to America.  The majority of these immigrants struggled greatly when they arrived in America, having to live in small, crowded apartments and work long hours at factory jobs. However, not many people think about the struggles of the next generation, being raised in these impoverished neighborhoods with their parents not around because they are constantly working. In the musical number “Gee Officer Krupke!,” the audience sees the struggles and marginalization of the Jets by American society. The Jets are seen as punks and delinquents to the rest of society, especially Officer Krupke, which makes sense as they are shown only as combative and rowdy previously in the show. This number is the first time that the audience members are supposed to sympathize with the Jets, as they blame their depravity on their harsh home life and adolescence. While the Jets previously only portrayed themselves as hypermasculine and mature, during this number, the Jets infantilize themselves– dancing around, making silly faces, and using funny voices to act out various scenarios– to elicit sensitivity from the audience by making the audience see them as children still. The number ends with the Jets in unison saying “Gee, Officer Krupke, krup you,” which represents the Jets attitude toward greater society. Society has cast them off as delinquents despite all of the mitigating factors that made them so misbehaved, so the Jets decided to cast off society and just stick to one another. 

By understanding the background of the Jets and how they are treated in society, it is easier to understand why they cling to their identity as Jets. Outcast from the rest of society, the Jets found community within each other, bonded by their shared upbringing and resulting marginalization. The strength of their Jet community is shown through the Jet Song, in which the members of the Jets sing about their pride for being a Jet. The Jets walk tall and fast down the street in a large clump, showing the strength of their community, and they climb onto elevated surfaces like see-saws and park benches to show their pride and their clout. However, to fully understand the Jets identity, the audience must examine how the Jets interact with their rival gang, the Sharks.

Production numbers in which the two ensembles interact allow the audience to understand what relations were like between these cultural groups. The relationships between the different ensembles in West Side Story can be seen most clearly in the number “Dance at the Gym.” Both groups begin walking in circles, girls on the inside and boys on the outside, to find their partners for the dance. As they walk in a circle, the hostility between the groups is visible through the dirty looks exchanged, and when the music ends and they are to partner with the person in front of them, the looks of disgust when the Jet girl sees she is to dance with Bernardo followed by the Sharks going to the Shark girls and the Jets doing the same without a word said, shows how obvious their feud was that though it was unspoken, the Sharks and Jets knew they could not dance with one another. Once the partners are all sorted out, both groups begin the Mambo, doing the same dance all together in the gym, with only the reds and purples of the Sharks costumes allowing the audience to distinguish them from the Jets, dressed in blues and yellows. The contrasts between the groups can be seen early on in the number, as the Sharks begin to incorporate hip and arm movements that show them as distinctly Latinx. In contrast, the Jets incorporate popular American dance moves like the Twist and head bobbing into their dance, showing them as culturally white, especially when compared to the Sharks.  Additionally, the Sharks and their ladies have their hands all over one another while they dance while the Jets and their ladies do not really touch each other. These stark contrasts in dance show how the Sharks and Jets express their sexuality and ethnicity differently, giving the audience some idea why the Sharks and the Jets do not get along.

Though the film is revered and is most people’s only familiarity with West Side Story, the film adaptation of the musical gets rid of the emphasis on ensemble and takes away the viewer’s ability to choose who they watch. The film imposes the director’s own artistic interpretation of the piece on film as it is his choice what the audience is shown and what is highlighted. Thus, the film version of West Side Story does not show the full impact an ensemble can have on the audience’s understanding of the cultural identities of characters in a musical. Without a film director choosing to focus the camera in on the ensemble, it is important for the audience to choose times to focus on the ensemble in a stage production, observing how they perform the choreography, how they act toward one another, and how they act towards outside characters. It is through these community interactions and performances of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity that the audience can understand the cultural identities of the principal characters.

Women and their Destinies: Agency (or Lack Thereof) for Women on the Broadway Stage

by Ilana Cohen

Broadway musicals use stereotypes understood by audiences to shed light or comment on truths within society. One stereotype that the American musical utilizes is the stereotype of womanhood and femininity. American women were expected to be graceful, pure, beautiful, and domestic. They were supposed to act demure and dignified at all times and to only concern themselves with domestic issues like being wives and mothers. Anything outside of that was seen as masculine and therefore negative for women. This stereotype, however, is specific to white women, who were held to different standards and expectations than women of other races. Another group stereotyped and fetishized on the American stage was East Asian women. These women were intriguing because they are exotic and mysterious to the Western world as Americentrism makes white the norm and anything else unfamiliar. East Asian women also are expected to behave even more submissively and passively than white women, who were all expected to submit to the dominance of their man. Two musicals that highlight the American musicals use of these stereotypes are Funny Girl and Miss Saigon. While Funny Girl highlights Fanny Brice, a woman who defies all stereotypes of femininity, Miss Saigon focuses on Kim, a traditional East Asian woman who upholds all the stereotypes associated with that. Despite the contrast in Fanny breaking the norms and Kim embracing and upholding them, both of these characters’ relationships end tragically, suggesting the idea that women do not have control over their fates whether or not they conform to stereotypes.

Both Fanny and Kim are starkly contrasted with the other female characters around them to highlight their defiance against and confirmation of stereotypes, respectively, held against these women. The directors intentionally place Fanny on stage with the Ziegfeld girls, the embodiments of American beauty, in order to illustrate the contrast between her femininity and beauty and that of the American ideal.  The Ziegfeld girls were made to create the pinnacle of beauty, most likely to appeal to the masses of men who desire to see something easy on the eyes when they come to the theatre. The directors recreated the Ziegfeld Girl in both their choreography and costuming to embody the ideal American beauty. The ensemble women were all dressed in white, like brides, which symbolizes purity– a societal expectation at the time– while at the same time the costumes were provocative, as they were made to highlight the female figure. The women were also doing very simple choreography, making them seem meek and not pulling focus– another expectation for women at the time. The synchronous nature of their movement also made the women lack uniqueness, promoting a uniformity. The Ziegfeld girls look demure and beautiful on stage in order to promote an ideal standard of beauty that people would pay to look at. Fanny immediately contrasts with the other women on stage in both her mannerisms and appearance. Fanny wears a less revealing wedding gown and she moves more hunched with a wide stance, both of which make Fanny seem less feminine in comparison to the Ziegfeld girls. Fanny went further than just not upholding these ideals of femininity; she wanted to mock them. Being uncomfortable singing about being the ideal of beauty as the bride, Fanny instead parodies the ideal wedding by coming on stage as a pregnant bride. This choice was bold as weddings were a custom important to American society, that highlights a woman’s purity and beauty, and it would be taboo and completely inappropriate for a bride to be pregnant at her wedding. Fanny’s character lacks the grace and beauty to be the ideal American woman and the purity to be the ideal bride. Her choices purposefully emphasize how far from the stereotype of American femininity she is, and she is proud of that. 

On the other hand, Kim is contrasted with the Engineer’s other prostitutes in order to demonstrate how much she does uphold stereotypes held about East Asian women. The other prostitutes both look and act promiscuous. Similar to the Ziegfeld girls, the prostitutes’ costumes highlight their figure, but their costumes are more like lingerie, making them look more trashy, while the Ziegfeld girls’ costumes were made to make them look beautiful and desirable. While the other prostitutes paraded around in bras and short shorts, Kim wore a traditional, white dress that went up to her neck and down to her knees. The costume designer intentionally used the white dress contrasted against the colorful lingerie to highlight Kim’s innocence and purity. Her conservative dress made Kim seem more mysterious, a stereotype of East Asian women, as it left more up to the imagination in terms of what her body looked like. The other prostitutes also moved around the stage and danced with bold, sexual movements to draw attention towards themselves and promote their wildness while Kim was more stoic to make her seem more dignified. The Engineer uses Kim’s disparity from the other girls for his own financial gain, as he is aware that her exotic, mysterious aura combined with her purity would make her very desirable to the American soldiers. 

Though Fanny spends most of the musical defying all stereotypes of femininity, both Fanny and Kim perform songs about the sacrifices they are willing to make for men and for love– which is an action consistent with stereotypes of women as accommodating to the man always.  “I’d Give My Life for You” gives insight into Kim’s character as it expresses her deep devotion and love for Chris and to her son, Tam, while also perpetuating the stereotypes of East Asian women as passive and subservient. The lyrics of the song express Kim’s loyalty and willingness to make sacrifices for her love. She is overly trusting, believing that Chris will come back to her, which gives Chris all the power in the relationship, as Kim is completely dependent on Chris’s decision. Kim admits how intimately and deeply she feels for Chris through the lyrics which state how she thinks about him all the time. While the melody and the lyrics of the song show Kim’s feelings as pure and true, the lyrics also present Kim as subservient and passive in her relationship with Chris, which is problematic because it reinforces stereotypes of East Asian women as desirable because they are submissive to their men. As an audience member, one might wish she was less open about how deeply she loves Chris and how willing she is to make sacrifices for their love because it emphasizes the stereotype of East Asian women as subservient. However, the audience still roots for Kim to succeed in love because the lyrics expose how genuine her feelings are and can relate to her willingness to sacrifice for her child– as the feeling of motherly care and protection is universal. While Fanny’s willingness to give up her career opportunity in the theatre to pursue Nick Arnstein goes against the rest of what the audience knows about her character, a woman who does not conform to the actions of the ideal American female, the way in which she performs the song “Don’t Rain on my Parade” can be seen as consistent with her persona as a defiant woman, breaking stereotypes. From the beginning of the song, Fanny refuses to listen to the reasoning or concerns of any of the other men and women on stage. She knows what she wants and is going to go after it despite what anyone thinks, this ambition and stubbornness is more of a masculine trait because women were not supposed to have great ambitions beyond being wives and mothers at the time, and women especially would not refuse to listen to the advice of a man. As the song progresses Fanny is alone on stage, making it clear to the audience that Fanny is the only one making decisions for her and that she is solely and completely in control of her destiny. Unlike Kim, Fanny is making the decisions in her relationship, chasing Nick instead of waiting and hoping he will come back to her. While both Fanny and Kim have faith and trust in their relationships, truly believing that they will work out in the end, Fanny performs with much more confidence because she is the one making the decisions in the relationship, so she can be more sure of the outcome. 

Despite the audiences wanting Fanny and Kim to succeed, as they are both sympathetic, relatable characters, both of these musicals end tragically, with failed relationships. The writers of these shows may be conveying a message that whether you defy stereotypes or not, it is very difficult for women at this time to be happy and fulfilled, as society allows men to do what they want and women must deal with their choices. Both Fanny and Kim were fiercely loyal and loving partners, but that did not guarantee them happily ever after. Fanny’s lack of stereotypical femininity may have been what intrigued Nick initially, but her ambition and success were too much for Nick to handle. Feeling emasculated by Fanny’s lack of femininity, Nick gets involved in illegal business dealings in order to find some of his own success, and he ends up in prison. Similarly, Kim’s conformity to the stereotypes of Eastern Asian women was what drew Chris to her in the first place, but her passivity makes it so she will not fight for her love once she finds out Chris had moved on and remarried. The harsh and problematic lesson learned by seeing the tragic endings for both of these women is that even if women attempt to control their own destinies or not, at least in terms of relationships, men still have the power to choose the fate for them, their relationship, and their women.