All That Jazz

By Jillian Fuller

Maybe I’m biased as a native Chicagoan, but when I first saw Chicago and was able to have a dance recital opening number to the soundtrack I was obsessed even at the mere age of nine. I was definitely too young to understand the cultural relevance, the historical significance and most of the adult situations flew over my little head. But I was infatuated by the world of jazz in 1920s Chicago. Booze, gangsters and jazz were what we were known for! Chicago debuted on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre in 1975 with music by John Kander and book by Fredd Ebb and Bob Fosse. However, it is the 1996 run of this show that is most famous for being one of the longest running productions in Broadway history. Followed by my personal favorite, the 2002 movie musical adaptation starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellwegger, Queen Latifah, Richard Gere and a host of other A-List celebrities. Literally the entire cast is stacked, the production is as sensational and over the top as the story line. It was a very well done remake of a classic musical. Chicago is a story about criminal justice, the “celebrity criminal”, jazz, liquor, and I would like to argue – women’s empowerment. It’s a timeless classic and sends some important messages even if it is through the questionable dialogue and actions of the characters. 

Everybody wants the same thing it seems in Chicago – fame. Roxie killed someone for it and Velma’s using her jealous rage that ended in a double homicide to keep her name in the paper’s whilst she’s on a “performance hiatus” if you will. While one could argue that the murders of Fred Casely, Veronica and Charley are fueled by women’s inability to control their emotions – both women, though they plead their innocence, also believe their actions could be justified if they were guilty.

The “Cell Block Tango” is arguably one of the most iconic songs from the musical and a piece that many dance teams recreate every year. While it can seem anti-feminist that every woman that enters the Cook County jail is in for a crime of passion (except for sweet Hunyak who was probably framed and didn’t really stand a chance due to the language barrier and unfortunately one of the women who is sentenced to death in the musical), these women are very adamant about what kind of treatment they deserve and refuse to accept anything less. Only two women assert their innocence – Hunyak and Velma. The other women admit to their rap sheet and explain exactly why what happened to them was the straw that broke the metaphorical camel’s back. They had their reasons, how could we tell them that they were wrong? Sure, maybe a sit down conversation would have been nice but these men approached these women aggressively, cheated on them, and purposefully aggravated them while contributing nothing to the home.

Roxie Hart dreams of life on stage with her name in lights. When her boyfriend Fred Casely doesn’t follow through with his promise of getting her her big break she freaks out and shoots him. She ends up in jail and is assigned infamous lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). He’s the way to get her name in the papers and keep her there until he’s able to get her out. Billy Flynn approaches his law practice just like one would approach a performance. In the performance “We Both Reached for the Gun” we see Roxie take a backseat in some instances so that Billy can word her story in a way that’s more appealing to the press and makes her a much more sympathetic inmate. The song is prefaced by Taye Diggs, who is the Bandleader, “Mr. Billy Flynn and the press conference rag/Notice how his mouth never moves/Almost”. Here we see Roxie made up to be a ventriloquist dummy controlled by Billy Flynn himself. Sometimes she slips out of character (most notably when a news reporter asks if she’s sorry and she replies “Are you kidding?”). For a majority of the show we see these women relying on themselves to make things work while in jail, but when it comes to court appearances and remaining relevant, they suddenly have this man come into the picture (maybe it’s because women couldn’t practice law yet or women were practicing law and didn’t have the experience – either way, a man is Roxie and Velma’s ticket out of jail and into the spotlight. 

Initially, I thought that this was kind of a reliance on men to get the tough jobs done, but then I went back and thought about Amos and Roxie and then Roxie and Billy. Roxie used both of these men to her advantage, even if Billy had the legal expertise that she didn’t have she was still using his power to achieve her goals. 

Throughout the show, Velma and Roxie seem to be at odds with each other – competing for time with Billy Flynn, favors from Mama Morton, or attention in the press. It isn’t until the end of the movie/performance that these women come together to make Velma’s original double act better than ever. During the imagined performance of “Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag”, Velma and Roxie speak on how ever-changing society and culture is. They talk explicitly about freedom in relationships and freedom in living the life you like. Throughout their tenure at Cook County jail, Roxie and Velma have not only learned to rely on each other rather than compete, but they have also learned to experience life to its fullest however you please because things can change at any moment.

In terms of diversity, Chicago attempts to deliver as much as it can whilst also remaining true to 1920s society. Queen Latifah has the most screen time and pertinence to the plot compared to other Black actors cast in the show and Lucy Liu arrives to snatch the spotlight away from Velma and Roxie when her crimes are dubbed the “Lake Shore Drive Massacre”. Roxie is quick to attempt to snatch the spotlight back by telling everyone she’s pregnant – people feel major sympathy for mother’s to be in prison. Two of the women we meet through “Cell Block Tango”, June and Mona, are women of color (though I think the casting director was playing off of Mya’s bi-raciality when they cast her as Mona). The cast is predominantly white but it was refreshing to see Queen Latifah play someone who essentially has more power than most of the white women under her charge. In “When You’re Good To Mama” she talks about the intricacies of favors in life inside and outside of prison. “They say that life is tit for tat and that’s the way I live, so I deserve a lot of tat for what I’ve got to give”. She knows she has the ability to get these women what they want in exchange for favors. Matron Mama Morton is the glaring representation of corruption within the criminal justice system, but somehow she is still motherly (hence, “Mama”) and the one who helps the women adjust to life behind bars.  To me, Chicago is an excellent “story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery – all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts.”** These same issues of corruption, greed, and exploitation are why we see increased police violence in almost every city in America compared to the rest of the world, but especially in a city like Chicago. While I enjoy the plot and the performances (seriously the way they intermix jazz club scenes with prison scenes is amazing), I understand that this is the reality of Chicago history and current life with our criminal justice system. As budgets have increased, there is a higher chance that truly innocent people like Hunyak will be forced into false confessions. We don’t have many celebrity criminals here anymore that are able to create a life of acclaim AFTER they go behind bars, so I guess Roxie and Velma were right when they said things would change in 50 years “or so”.

quotes and lyrics are from 2002 soundtrack to the film version of Chicago unless otherwise stated

** this quote comes from the 1997 Overture for the Broadway production of Chicago, soundtrack which is found on Spotify or where you stream your music.

Never Satisfied: Race, Gender, and Contending with America’s True History

By: Jillian Fuller

When Hamilton first debuted I wasn’t as excited as everyone else. It felt like one of those musicals for people who don’t like musicals or “urban music” for people who don’t like urban music. The show was well-written and I was excited about the prospect of a diverse cast. You normally see white people playing BIPOC and never the other way around (because it’s glaringly obvious and for a long time…ya know…blackface was okay for a long time – and people still get away with it, but I digress) but I noticed that Hamilton brought people together in a way that not many other things do. 

In its summary of Hamilton, Disney+ describes the show as a “revolutionary moment in theater is the story of America then, told by America now.” It’s weird to think that a diverse cast with diverse musical influences is considered revolutionary in the year 2020, but at the same time it’s not. Whiteness is still the norm especially when we consider our history and those who are typically in positions of power.

Hamilton is praised for being a show that showcases a diverse cast in positions of power and influences. For the original Broadway production, Lin Manuel Miranda cast a group of people that looked like the melting pot that Americans constantly wax poetic about but refuse to accept. Audience members are able to imagine a time long ago where people who looked like them were able to shape the trajectory of the nation we know today. There are actors that represent most ethnic or racial identities that are present in modern-day America. The goal of Hamilton seems to be to make the American revolution less white-washed than we know that it is. By inserting a diverse cast into the story of our nation’s creation, Lin Manuel Miranda attempts to give modern day audiences’ a sense of belonging that their ancestors did not necessarily have during the Revolutionary War. 

Considering the timing of the creation of Hamilton, the intentional diversity of the cast seems fitting for social changes that occurred during its 8 year development. In 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by the Alexander Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow. In 2009 he visited the White House and performed the song ‘Alexander Hamilton’ at a poetry slam for President Obama and other audience members, where he received a standing ovation. The election of Barack Obama led many to believe that we had suddenly entered into a post-racial society. As time progressed, the call for more representation was pressing and Lin Manuel Miranda delivered. He delivered not just through the cast but through the style of the music as well. The combination of jazz, hip-hop, and R&B seamlessly blended with Broadway theatrics is another tangible representation of racial influence on our culture. 

I was never lucky enough to see Hamilton on Broadway. Tickets were far too expensive for a college student and I was never lucky enough to win the lottery that some theaters used to give audience members discounted ticket prices. But, when Hamilton became available on streaming this summer, watching it in the midst of everything that’s happened in 2020 felt different than it probably would have in preceding years. While there have been great strides in terms of minority representation it falls flat for me. Especially considering this was released on Fourth of July weekend. Something about watching a show that glorifies the creation of a nation that still treats my identity as a threat and kills BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ recklessly was unsettling.

With each “progressive” statement made throughout the show, I caught myself questioning the integrity of said statements. I acknowledge that I would have found something like Angelica’s desire for gender equality to be amazing and groundbreaking in 2016, but now it feels like White Feminism™. I constantly find that I’m reminding myself that these are Black, Asian and Latinx people playing white people. What they are fighting for and discussing is the bare minimum in terms of freedom and equality. 

I will say that it was refreshing to see women play a large role in this show and aren’t cast in the shadows like they historically were. The Schulyer sisters explicitly state that they look forward to gender equality in the future. They allude to the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s famous words: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” which we know only really applied to white men and excluded minority men and all women. The sisters’ desire to bel=ong to this new nation is clear and both Angelica and Eliza work hard to support Alexander out of love and a hopeful vision of a new nation. 

Like gender, race plays a big role in how we view the life of Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution. King George’s character is usually the sole white actor in the cast. His whiteness makes him a clear and distinct enemy to everything that Hamilton and his peers are fighting for. He is present three times in performance. But his presence still feels as overbearing as the colonies felt it was. In today’s society it’s easy to see a white monarch as a threat to freedom – especially when he is contrasted by such a diverse group of people who are willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and fight for America. Unfortunately, I think that however well-intentioned the diversity of Hamilton is, it simplifies the successes Alexander Hamilton experienced in his life. A cast as diverse as this allows us to not question chattel slavery as much as we should be whilst watching a show about the beginning of our country. America was built not just by men who were courageous enough to fight back against a ruling class they saw as corrupt and tyrannical but also on the backs of slaves stolen from their homelands in Africa and the Caribbean. 

Hamilton is often criticized for glorifying slave owners (as many of the Founding Fathers did own slaves, not just Jefferson as the musical would lead us to believe). Yet, I was only able to catch three times in the entire performance were slavery is mentioned…in passing. The first time we are confronted with the reality of inequality in the colonies is when John Laurens sings: “And but we’ll never be truly free/ Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me/ You and I Do or die/ Wait ’til I sally in on a stallion/ With the first black battalion/ Have another shot” in the song “My Shot” and we here it again alluded to during “Cabinet #1” when Hamilton himself confronts Jefferson about his participation in chattel slavery. Finally, Eliza mentions that she continues to tell Hamilton’s story by raising money for the Washington Monument whilst also speaking out against slavery. 

This lack of attention towards chattel slavery is problematic because it feels as though there is a cognitive dissonance we experience watching people who look like ourselves sweep slavery under the rug or mention in passing as though it is a goal but its not the most pressing goal to achieve. It hits differently when your own people are seemingly lackadaisical about your emancipation compared to a white man. While I understand why Disney made Hamilton available for streaming during Independence Day weekend. A story about American independence during Independence Day weekend is excellent marketing. But, it ultimately felt like a slap in the face and a very blatant statement in regards to social unrest this summer. The Founding Fathers spoke of equality for all men and while they obviously were initially referring to white men, we are still working towards creating an America where that truth is actually self-evident and all men (women, children, and gender nonconforming) are created equal.

The final performance is entitled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” which I think is an apt culmination of everything viewers experience in the almost three hour performance. What we do during our lives is going to be subject to the storytelling abilities and editing decisions of those who come after us. How we influence those around us determines how our story will be told. The social and political climate influences how and when your story is retold as well. You can influence people long past your death in a multitude of ways.

There is a reason why Obama said that this musical was one the one thing that he and Dick Cheney agree on. It provides us necessary artistic representation without completely vilifying and exposing the dark underbelly of American history. Lin Manuel-Miranda essentially pulled Alexander Hamilton out of historical obscurity whilst maintaining the prestige of the other Founding Fathers. On a larger scale, I think that this skipped over conversation regarding race relations in Revolutionary America is an act of attempting to belong as well. Miranda’s play assuages growing demands for minority representation on a larger scale but also plays into the status quo of revering America and the Founding Fathers without villainizing them completely.

Ultimately, we will never be completely satisfied with any retelling of American history. But it’s important to keep telling these stories in any way that we can so that we can continue to have dialogue and see the growth and progress that continues to be made.

His Love Makes Me Beautiful: Race, Gender, and Relationships in ‘Funny Girl’

By Jillian Fuller

Set just after World War I, Funny Girl is a story of a woman trying to make it in show business in New York. Throughout the play, we follow Fanny Brice as she reminisces on her journey to mega-stardom, we watch her failures, her triumphs, and her relationships as she prepares for her next performance. While Funny Girl follows the story of a Jewish woman, the story of Fanny Brice and her relationship with Nick Arnstein not only reflects negative stereotypes of Jewish people, but also showcases the power Fanny Brice possesses within herself by not limiting her to the typical beauty standards and the male gaze. However, her success still comes at a price and Fanny is forced like many women to choose between love and her professional life.

When we are first introduced to Fanny Brice she is already a star. She is preparing for a performance with Ziegfeld’s Follies when she begins to recall her journey to fame. We are then transported to her teenage years when she has a job working in vaudeville. Fanny believes this is her big break, but her mother, Mrs. Brice and her friends try to convince Fanny to be more realistic about her showbiz dreams. They tell her that when she was younger and able to make people laugh simply with a funny face it was okay, but now because she is older and people are paying to see someone (especially men) then she has to be pretty and they believe Fanny is just average. There is an emphasis on the importance of the male gaze. In the 1920s, women are expected to be essentially one dimensional. “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty” basically showcases the importance of the male gaze in regards to show business and the amount of success women can achieve outside of the home. The actors on stage ask Fanny to, “[k]indly name a star who hasn’t won a contest or a pageant” (Merril, 1964). Her family, friends, and boss believe that no matter how much talent Brice may possess, it’s not enough to gain her the notoriety she dreams of. 

Thankfully, Fanny is not discouraged. Merely, frustrated when she is initially let go from the vaudeville act that she is rehearsing for. At the end of rehearsal, Fanny proclaims that “beautiful girls won’t stay in style forever”. Fanny is confident that she possesses more talent than the beautiful girls that continuously beat her out for jobs. As she expresses her frustration with not being appreciated for her abilities. Fanny laments that she is like “a bagel on a plate of onion rolls”. Initially, you’re turned off by the presence of something different, but if you were to give the bagel (or in this instance – Fanny) a chance, you’d realize you actually like it. Fanny is constantly pushing the boundaries which is unheard for a play set in the 1920s and was initially released in 1964.

Fanny is a Jewish woman from Henry Street. There are many stereotypes surrounding race and gender throughout the play and Fanny herself seems to be a juxtaposition to common Jewish stereotypes like the ‘Jewish American Princess’ or ‘belle juive’ as she is not revered for her beauty or wealth but still maintains confidence in her abilities. For example, the Ziegeld girls are known for their elegance and beauty. Fanny is not someone known for her elegance and beauty, yet, Ziegfeld hires her.

 In her performance with the Follies, Fanny cleverly flips the script on what is supposed to be a romantic number. Whilst performing “His Love Makes Me Beautiful”, Brice pretends to be a pregnant bride rather than a vision of typical beauty that the audience is expecting. Here we witness her quick thinking and undeniable talent. Brice doesn’t play into the male gaze — something that is often expected of women, especially in the performing arts. Fanny’s decision to adjust the performance in this way is a snap decision and just another way those around her and audience members can see the star quality she mentioned previously. It’s clear that Fanny has a  desire to be acknowledged for her vast amount of talent rather than superficial things like the way she looks compared to other women on stage. So much so, she changes a number set by the famed Florenz Ziegfeld.

While Fanny seems to defy stereotypes based on her gender and race, her husband, Nick Arnstein seems to reinforce them dramatically. When we meet Nick Arnstein he is presented as a dapper young man of wealth. Darius Campbell (as Arnstein) carries himself with a confidence and superiority of someone born into money – not merely chasing it. However, we soon see that Arnstein is money hungry and willing to do whatever it takes (legally and illegally) to make a quick buck. Though he seems to not understand much about his Jewish roots in practice, he, unfortunately, falls victim to embodying the negative stereotype of the greedy Jewish man. This greed is what ultimately lands him and prison and subsequently ends his relationship with Fanny.

Arnstein is also a product of a white patriarchal society in which he feels he is the one with all the power. Any time he fails in a business venture, Fanny tries to make light of the situation in an effort not to discourage him. However, it is her refusal to take these failures seriously that frustrates Nick. He feels as though he is being treated like a child and somehow failing in his ability to provide and be a breadwinner as a man. This belief makes Nick too sure of himself and self-aggrandizing. One of his final deals before prison has him telling a man he is equal to a $68,000 advance – risk or no risk. The ability to place a monetary value on himself as a partner even after so many failed ventures is astounding and a product of the patriarchal society he lives in.

The relationship between Fanny and Nick seems doomed from the start even though Fanny is determined to make it work. As Fanny gains critical acclaim and notoriety, business venture after business venture fail for Nick and he ultimately ends up in prison. Fanny is so enamored by Nick Arnstein and this life of grandeur that he falsely represents that she allows herself to continuously be convinced to bank roll his various get rich quick schemes. 

In the beginning of their relationship, Nick is flaky. When he returns after almost a year Fanny is rightfully upset and maintains her pride in order to protect herself and not fall all over him as she would have in the past. They come to a truce and Fanny decides to have dinner with him. When Nick orders for them she feels out of her league due to his use of French, she quickly asks, how will she even know if he’s making advances if she can’t tell when he orders them roast beef and potatoes for dinner. To which Nick simply replies, “I’ll be much more direct” and proceeds to sing the extremely sexist song “You Are Woman I Am Man” wherein he spends two minutes reinforcing stereotypes of men and women being the complete opposite of one another. Nick states that she’ll be smaller and softer than him so that he can be taller and stronger. However, these simple differences and ideas of masculinity and femininity are the very things that Fanny continuously works against as a comedienne and dancer. 

It’s disappointing that as strong of a woman as she is, Fanny allows her to be swept away by the image and words that Nick Arnstein presents to the world when he can’t even bother to support her at major moments in her career due to fear or “business” ventures. Fanny continues to give him pass after pass and handout after handout. Is it because he is the first man that she was interested in to return her romantic intentions? If this is the case – which it seems to be, this unfortunately detracts from the self confident woman that she presents herself as in the beginning. However, it’s possible that this self confidence Fanny possesses is merely in her talent and does not, unfortunately, translate into her belief that she is desirable. As much as Fanny fights against the male gaze in her performances, it seems that Nick Arnstein has the ability to force her to perform for the male gaze,as he continues to pursue dicey ventures.

In the end, Nick is released from prison and Fanny and Arnstein make the mutual decision to split. Once again, Fanny makes a decision that many women in that time may not have made. However, she doesn’t necessarily come to this conclusion all on her own. Her mother once again enters the picture to put things into perspective for Fanny. For most of the show while she has been chasing and achieving her dream of show business fame, she has been seeing Nick and his business practices through rose colored glasses. When Nick is finally caught, Mrs. Brice tells Fanny that her “handouts” were choking Nick and making him embarrassed. Funny Girl is a world renown musical and somehow still manages to villainize the concept of a strong woman. In the beginning, Fanny sees no success because although she’s funny and talented she doesn’t have “the look”. When it’s clear that she doesn’t need “the look” to be successful for show producers she achieves massive success, but somehow this success is consistently undermined by the fact that her husband refuses her assistance and refuses to come by his money honestly. With all this success – Fanny has still failed by embarrassing her husband. Thankfully, Fanny decides to cut ties with Arnstein and move forward with her professional career. Despite the harsh realities of her relationship with her ex-husband. Though there are aspects of her behavior that are questionable, Fanny still remains a unique and strong female character. No thanks to the men in her life.