Men: Can’t Live with ’em

By William Henke and Margaret Mershon

For our final assignment we wrote you a short essay about the 2016 Broadway production of Falsettos. To add some vivacity to the discussion, Will and I decided to do some theatre of our own and perform it as though it was a live and VERY natural conversation. Please enjoy it in the video above or in the transcript below.

Will: Hey guys! A lot of people ask me, “Will, what do you and two-time Tony-winning actor Christian Borle have in common?” Well, besides our chiseled arms, our uncanny ability to grow facial hair, and our silky tenor voices, we are both straight dudes that have played questioning or gay characters. Also, Maggie’s here. Everyone say hi or boo her; I usually roll with the latter greeting.

I honestly can’t tell the difference

Sources: Kristina Wilson; God probably

Maggie: Hello! I am here too, thank you for having me. Anyways, over the course of his career, Christian Borle has shown a knack for playing a wide range of straight, white guys from his origination of the ultimate nice guy Emmett in Legally Blonde to the less cordial William Shakespeare in Something Rotten! But, his Broadway typecast as a straight love interest or, at the very least, a sexual antagonist was challenged in early 2016, and no I’m not talking about the re-imagination of the Joker as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In early 2016, it was announced that Borle would be playing Marvin in the Broadway revival of William Finn’s 1992 Falsettos. Marvin, of course, is a recently out of the closet gay man trying to emotionally accept his identity while maintaining the already weak bond between his family, and through this convoluted game of tug-of-war, Marvin is forced to constantly change his identity and personality depending on the people and situation around him. 

W: My junior year of high school, the theatre department (along with hundreds of others around the country) decided to produce Almost, Maine. I was cast as Chad, the broest bro a bro could ever ask for, who falls in love with his best friend Randy, the second broest bro a bro could ever ask for. 

M: You seem like a Chad.


W: Thank you. The struggle of portraying a shallow frat boy and suddenly switching to his softer, emotional side was difficult but manageable because at the time, I was a shallow 17-year-old boy that pretended to have a softer emotional side by listening to Frank Ocean occasionally. Regardless, I was a straight boy playing a questioning character, despite the other auditionees that actually shared Chad’s internal struggle, and this was in a highly conservative part of Middle Tennessee. I would bet Broadway has a much greater selection of gay actors than my tiny, rural high school, so why Christian Borle for Marvin? Yes, he is a supremely talented actor and has a fantastic voice, but every Broadway actor shares those qualities.

Will giving the performance of a lifetime

Source: Mr. Henke

M: Maybe it’s because it doesn’t matter, not that a person’s identity doesn’t matter, but maybe the point Falsettos is making is that all men, straight or gay, young or old, and able to play baseball or not, are all the same. They are all, to some extent, controlling, dumb, and selfish creatures that impose themselves in every situation and relationship, and love has a funny way of bringing out the worst of these qualities or taming them depending on how true this love is. 

W: Through the ebbs and flows of Marvin, Falsettos explores masculinity in terms of the expectations that Marvin places on himself and his role to the people around him as a father, friend, and lover. The juxtaposition between Marvin and the other two adult male characters Whizzer and Mendel (sorry, Jason) provides us with a better understanding of the complexity and context of Marvin’s character.                

M: So what does it really mean to be a man? I don’t know, Mulan doesn’t know, even this team’s expert doesn’t know, so how is Marvin supposed to know? The first time we see Marvin it is with his family, and he’s leaving them for the very well-toned, Whizzer, which side note, is a crime of a name. NO ONE SHOULD HAVE TO HAVE THE NAME WHIZZER. Moving on. Marvin has been brought up on traditional family values, that he should love his wife and his kid and support them, but now he’s making a choice for himself and leaving them all alone. Marvin transfers this expectation to support his family by turning to Whizzer. Little does he know, Whizzer is more than capable of taking care of himself. This leads to Marvin and Whizzer getting into screaming matches and having a very tumultuous relationship as Marvin treats Whizzer like the wife and child he no longer comes home to. Whizzer doesn’t make him dinner when he comes home and he doesn’t want to learn how to play chess from him. Marvin even begins to walk like a hyper-masculine man. Like that. What is that! It’s not pleasant and it just shows how insecure he is in his masculinity.

W: Alright Maggie calm down. She’s still mad at Christian Borle for what he did to Sutton Foster.

M: The Bastard!

W: As the show progresses, we continue to see Marvin and Whizzers masculinity ebb and flow. When Marvin breaks up with Whizzer, he becomes friends with the lesbians next door, two people who cannot tempt his need to act masculinely. But wait! Right when Marvin thought he was in the clear, Whizzer comes to Marvin’s son’s baseball game and shows him how to swing a bat, something that Marvin is helpless at, and Marvin swoons all over again. After seeing such a display of masculinity, strong fatherly skills, and support, Marvin realizes he wants to be taken care of like that and starts flirting it up.

Even Jason is shocked he hit that ball!

Source: Joan Marcus

M: Classic Christian Borle.

W: Maggie!

M: Sorry.

W: But as the relationship progresses again, Marvin starts to feel insecure in who he is as a man when Marvin kicks his ass at racquetball. He tries to compromise and discusses this insecurity in his song “What More Can I Say?” which is the point in the musical where I begin openly weeping until bows. He softly sings “stay calm / untie [his] tongue / and try to stay / both kind and young.” His goal is to remain as kind and sweet and not feel as threatened by Whizzer and his tendency to make him feel like less of a man, attempting to see it as more of a give and take because of the pure love he feels for Whizzer. That isn’t to say Marvin doesn’t have any more slip-ups. When they’re playing racquetball and Whizzer is beating him once again, Marvin flourishes his poor sportsmanship, saying “please forgive me for winning one game.” It’s at this moment that Whizzer’s body starts to feel the symptoms of the disease ravaging his body, and when he insists that the game be done, Marvin stays on him, insisting that he not let him win. Marvin continues to be so threatened by Whizzer’s masculinity that he is blind to the pain that his partner is feeling.

M: If redefining his masculinity as a response to his redefinition of his sexuality wasn’t enough, the one guy that was supposed to be on Marvin’s side, his therapist Mendel, swoops right in to snatch up Trina once he’s out of the picture.

W: I would kill him

M: Me too. During “Marvin at the Psychiatrist,” we see Mendel discuss Marvin’s difficulty with his wife Trina withholding love, which Mendel proclaims to be untrue. Mendel turns the blame around, saying “perhaps she held back love from you,” and then continues to unload a series of questions about Trina’s personal life. Two songs later, the same song where Marvin is miffed that Whizzer won’t make dinner, sitting with Mendel he says “this had better come to a stop, Mendel/ don’t touch me/ don’t condescend.” Marvin has lost touch with the one man that was supposed to always have his back and on top of all that Marvin feels like Mendel is treating him like a child. To be treated like a child by the man who is now fathering your child? That can’t feel good.

W: Yeah I would doubt it. Later, after receiving the wedding invitations to Trina and Mendel’s wedding…

M: Yay.

W: Exactly, yay. Anyway, Marvin screams at Trina that she “chose [Mendel] to make [Marvin] look bad”

M: Talk about insecure.

W: Yeah it’s a mess, and it only gets worse.

M: Great.

W: Yeah so the wedding invitation song continues, and Marvin mutters to himself, “I am so dumb.” Immediately after that, as if in an echo chamber, everyone in the show, Jason, Trina, Mendel, and Whizzer, all begin shouting “Dumb!” at him. It’s like a manifestation of all of the thoughts Marvin THINKS they all feel about him are being shouted at him in reality.

M: Sounds like a dream.

W: Well, I bet he wishes this next part was just a dream. Acting out of rage and insecurity, as the prophecy fulfills itself and as the title of the song suggests, “Marvin Hits Trina.” In order to take control of his life, prove he is still the man of the house, not Mendel, and show he is as masculine as he needs to be, he strikes someone he loves. After this move, Marvin removes himself from the entire plot and, after taking some time off for himself, making different friends, and living “without a lover,” Marvin makes tenuous peace with Mendel, though he continues to make snide comments about him, especially when he comments on how he is raising his kid. When Mendel tells Trina and Marvin they don’t need a bar mitzvah for Jason, Marvin turns to Trina and remarks, “Isn’t he an asshole?” “Isn’t he too much?” and my personal favorite, “Jesus, what an asshole!–It still gives me hives.”

M: Yeah that’s pretty good.

W: Thanks.

M: All of this is to say, Marvin’s core identity doesn’t change. One thing remains constant through lovers, through divorce, and through a weird fatherly bond with his therapist. Marvin is a man. What does change is his understanding and relationship with masculinity. At the beginning of the show, being a man is about “bringing home the bacon” and raising his son to conform to society’s expectations of men, and if being the patriarch and moneymaker is not enough, he’ll shout and strike to impose his masculinity. But, Marvin modifies these tactics when he realizes that is not the man his family needs him to be. He supports Mendel’s commitment to raising and loving his son, he makes amends with Trina and Jason, and most importantly, he realizes Whizzer doesn’t need a man to take care of him. He needs a lover to love him unconditionally and a friend to keep him company in this confusing, lonely world. Oftentimes, society determines what it means to be a man for us when being a man may be just being there for the people you love when they need you most.

Feel free to jump in the air…you just learned something about Falsettos!

Source: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

W: just like I’ll always be there for you. Oh-all right. Bye guys!

The Heights of Controversy: Lin-Manuel Miranda Made A Mistake

Lovingly Written by Maggie Mershon

When Lin-Manuel Miranda developed In the Heights, he intended for it to be a story of his Latin heritage for other people of Latin heritage. At the root of the show, this sentiment remains. Miranda weaves the story of Usnavi, Benny, Nina, and Vanessa, The Rosarios, Abuela Claudia as they go from day to day in their community in Washington Heights. As was his intent, Miranda created characters for Latino people that weren’t seen on the Broadway stage. These were not gang members or criminals, but people with dreams, striving for a better life.

However, as the show continued to move up the ladder of financial success and those risking capital became integral to your production. An artist can, in some cases, become beholden to the whims of those who pay hundreds of dollars to see these shows, and perhaps lose focus of his intended audience in favor of their paying audience. In other words, It’s a majority white, incredibly privileged audience who expects to be involved in the story that’s on stage. So how does that affect the way the story is told? Does it change the meaning of the musical when the people who are watching are expected to be “in on” what’s going on? Does it force the show to shed its intended identity? I believe that in the context of performance to a majority white audience, In the Heights compromises its original intention-to exhibit a genuine picture of Latin culture-and instead through its story, lyrics, and casting actively caters to this audience and tokenizes what should be empowered.

If you don’t know Miranda from Heights or Hamilton, perhaps you recognize him from Internet lip-biting infamy

Source: @Lin_Manuel via Twitter

In this class, we’ve been talking a lot about Hamilton, another show written by and starring Miranda. Specifically, we’ve talked about the piece delivers a centrist narrative that appeals to both sides of the aisle and is unable to communicate an impactful message of systematic change. I believe that this commentary also applies to In the Heights, where even then, Miranda is fully aware of who his audience is. In the opening number, we hear him sing, “You may be thinkin’ / I’m up shit’s creek / I’ve never been north of 96th street,” a direct reference to the demographic difference across the geography of Manhattan.

In this story we follow several diverse members of a neighborhood in Washington Heights, as they simply go about their lives. They work incredibly hard to sustain themselves: Usnavi demonstrates this in his opening rap, rattling off the orders of his bodega’s regulars; Mr. Rosario sells his business to provide for his daughter; and  Vanessa works from the crack of dawn every day to try and get out of her toxic home life. There is a sense that because these characters all work extremely hard and look out for one another, they will achieve what they are aiming for, as The Engineer in Miss Saigon refers to it, The American Dream. The audience wants to see them achieve this dream: financial success, a family, and a home where they are happy and loved. The musical does not disappoint in this regard. When Abuela Claudia gives Usnavi her lottery winnings, she gives him a chance to do whatever he wants-he has earned this money through his hard work and caring for the people around him. In the beginning of the musical he talks about how desperate he is to get back home to Puerto Rico. Once he has that money? Usnavi ruminates on his live in New York and is no longer driven to return to the Dominican Republic. He concludes he is already at home, Washington Heights is his home and his dream.

This is a beautiful sentiment. The idea that the community in which Usnavi grew up is the one in which he feels happy and secure is great, but the gentrification that the characters are fighting does not disappear in the reality of these characters. The musical may end before we see our protagonists pushed out, but it is coming sure enough. And as this home Usnavi takes up becomes destined to some destitute fate, Usnavi takes up its burden, promising to keep the legacies of the people who live there, to serve them and to uplift their beautiful stories. He’s even decided to go on a second date with Vanessa, whose coworkers helped pay to get her out of her current living situation. With the money he has earned from being a good guy, Usnavi is able to uplift his community and sustain his home.

Who wouldn’t give these faces winning lottery tickets?

Source: Carlito Pucl, ‘In the Heights’ – 2008 Tony Awards Performance – 96000, YouTube

Honestly, I would be shocked if such a heartwarming ending didn’t bring a tear to your eye or swell your heart. This ending provides the audience with an inspiration sendoff that, “Wow, anyone really can follow their dreams.” But that is not the case. It’s an exceptional act of kindness for Vanessa’s coworkers to give her enough money for a down payment, but what happens when she can’t pay next months rent? It’s touching that Mr. Rosario would sell his business to support his daughter but how will he continue to afford life in the community he has called home for so long? And concerning Usnavi-lottery tickets don’t come around every day. Without this enormous completely random gift, how would he continue to support his failing business as he watches the community around him crumble? Furthermore, should it be his responsibility to take care of the community with this money now that he has it? Of course, when watching people on stage and considering morality, we all know what we should do, and what Abuela, Usnavi’s mentor, would have done. But Usnavi as an individual, supporting the community off of one lottery ticket and warding off gentrification is unrealistic and an irresponsible way to portray hope. These stories of people lifting each other up in their community are beautiful and touching but they only treat symptoms and absolve the audience from their guilt and power to stop the root of the disease.

Built into the design of the show are assumptions about the culture that Miranda has acknowledged are not necessarily perfect. In an interview he gave at Swarthmore College, he noted that Abuela Claudia’s journey was, “the farthest outside my experience, I did a lot of research on Cuba and that initial wave of migration in the 40s, and then your job is to forget about it… your job is to write this woman’s story, so you choose, “Okay, when did she get here? What was her experience?” (Zapata, Rosado, Martinez, & Miranda, 2011) Miranda as well as any one understands that there are inconsistencies within his story, which, when presented for an audience that comes from that same background, and understands these things as well as he does, works in his favor. In the case of the specific demographic of Heights’s Broadway audiences, it doesn’t necessarily support the multicultural message intended.

Multiculturalism is an essential component to the spirit of In the Heights. In the opening number, the ensemble sings, “I hang my flag up on display / it reminds me that I came from miles away.” Each member of the ensemble has a story and a culture that they individually bring to their community in Washington Heights. For example, Miranda, a Puerto Rican man, plays Usnavi, a second generation Dominican. Miranda thought it was important to accurately represent the culture of Washington Heights, Usnavi be Dominican. However, when it came down to casting him, Miranda made the decision to compact the two cultures and, instead of finding a Dominican actor to fill the role, played it himself. Miranda received criticism for the inaccuracy of his Dominican accent for other Latino members of the theatre community but was widely accepted by audiences who saw the Broadway show, a majority of whom were white. This oversight directly opposes pursuits of multiculturalism, ignoring a character trait of its main character and gently assimilating Latino culture into one generic whole. Though in word Miranda succeeded in creating this multicultural community, it feels as though an active choice was made that this small design element wasn’t important enough or would not catch the attention of its audience if not corrected.

A DC production of In the Heights throws their flags up on display!

Source: Olney Theatre Center

I sincerely hope that this piece doesn’t come across as hateful, as there is a lot of wonderful work done by In the Heights. When it opened, the producers actively tried to make some seats available to audiences of lower-income backgrounds, targeting communities represented in the show. There are students around the globe who can now study theatre through characters that were written to look and act like them. That is an incredible achievement. But all the whole house can’t be filled by people not paying full price because profits will go down. And in terms of the Broadway show, what good can the piece do if it’s not accessible to the audience it seeks to empower? Even more, if there’s no call to action, no holding the white audience it is presented for responsible, then does it simply become a tokenization of culture? A story of immigrants pulling themselves up by their bootstraps that a white audience can feel good about, totally removed from, and forget at the end of the day?

When he wrote In the Heights, Miranda worked closely with Director Tommy Kail, who sometimes couldn’t understand the Spanish he was incorporating, and Miranda would pull it back. In his words, “we knew our goal in this show … This is a show that I wanted everyone to feel as welcome as possible in this neighborhood, the same way I felt welcomed in Anatevka, when I saw Fiddler on the Roof, even though that’s totally outside my experience” (Zapata & Miranda, 2011). Except Fiddler on the Roof didn’t play to contemporary crowds of anti-semetic Russians. The compromise and concessions that Miranda made to create a story that would fit on the Broadway stage didn’t make it any less of a literary success. It just may have had the impact it wanted if had it actually played in the heights.

Find Below a Work I Cited:

Miranda, L. (2011). In the Heights: A Conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda [Interview by R. Zapata, A. Rosado, & L. Martinez]. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.swarthmore.edu/news-events/heights-a-conversation-lin-manuel-miranda

I’m Too Sexy: A Woman’s Guide to Being Perceived

by Maggie Mershon

A stage, showgirls, and sex appeal-the only three things you need for a successful show. Well, at least that’s the way it usually goes unless you live in the perfect conditions to combat it. Those who produce radical change can only do so if they are in the favor of those who are in power. In the musicals Funny Girl and Miss Saigon, it becomes easy to see how something as simple as culture or racial context can affect how one is expected to perform gender and sexuality and how easily they can manipulate that vision. Looking at the way they practically perform their genders on stage and how that affects their relationships with those in power, the white men in their lives, gives a nuanced look at how a woman understands their sexuality. Though Fanny Brice from Funny Girl and Kim from Miss Saigon outwardly perform the same gender, their different cultures and backgrounds mean that only one is given the choice of sexuality, which expresses itself in their performances and relationships outside of the theatrical space.

Both Fanny Brice and Kim are expected to perform for audiences, however, the way they are expected to perform is entirely different. Fanny Brice from the very beginning of Funny Girl is very much aware that because of the way she looks and is upset by how little she receives because of the way she looks. She repeatedly tells people that attractive girls won’t be in fashion forever and one day she will be a desired asset. Technically, Fanny is at the disposal of her audience in terms of being sexualized. Since she doesn’t receive this sexualization she is denied entry to the world of performance. In her first musical number, she performs gender in a joking manner, pretending to be pregnant and making fun of the traditional concept of what it looks like to be pregnant, doing various sight gags with her fake belly. In this performance, Fanny is permitted to be something other than a sexual object, aiming for a humorous take on gender. This is the basis of the rest of Fanny’s performances. She chooses to be a funny, laughable character, an opportunity afforded to her by, to be perfectly blunt, the color of her skin. Were she not a white character, the “exoticism” and “foreign interest” applied to her, would turn into a sexual other no matter what she wanted. We see this very explicitly in the character of Kim from Miss Saigon.

Can you guess which one is anti-traditional feminine looks?

from Twitter @FunnyGirl_UK

The first time the audience is introduced to Kim is as a conservatively dressed “virgin” girl in a brothel. The moment she appears on stage, she is a sexual object. This connects the audience to the soldiers who are attending the brothel who see the women there as exotic sexual items and nothing more. Outside of that context, they are nothing. After a few minutes, Kim quickly realizes that she is going to be sexualized no matter what and the Engineer encourages her to use that to her advantage. Kim continues to appear conservative and watches as the girls around her throw themselves at men to try and get a chance to better their lives, which for many of them means getting the opportunity to move to America. Kim’s only chance at survival is predicated on the fact that she accept her inherent sexuality and weaponize it. As the show moves on, she does that, dissociating her mental faculties from how she capitalizes on her sexuality which becomes crucial to her survival as it applies to her sex work. While Fanny Brice can perform a whole host of other perceptions and personalities onstage, Kim is not afforded the same luxury due to what her audience expects of her.

As is typical for a musical, both stories include love interests. And while they both compliment two strong leads, these love interests aren’t necessarily great, giving, feminist icons. In Funny Girl, Fanny Brice becomes entangled with a rich, fancy man named Nick Arnstein. At the beginning of the show, Fanny is unable to believe that Nick would be interested in someone like her because she has always been told by her mother and the people around her that she is not beautiful enough. When Nick approaches her about a relationship, it is very much up to her whether or not she wants to continue a relationship with him. He defers to her decision about whether or not she wants to move forward sexually. This occurs rather explicitly in the song “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” where Nick continually asks Fanny to get together with him and only does so once she accepts. Her sexuality can be conditional on her consent, which is not something of which non-white women are afforded the luxury. Following this romantic involvement, Nick and Fanny become married, sharing everything with one another, including money, something with which Fanny is very well-endowed. As a man culturally engrained with toxic masculinity, Nick feels emasculated and begins to pull away from Fanny as she becomes the breadwinner of the family. Nick feels belittled by Fanny earning money by going to work, a scenario that makes her appear more masculine and less feminine, and by virtue of the latter, sexualized. In the early 20th century this kind of opportunity would only be available to a white woman, due to persisting stereotypes about those of other races that oppress them to otherness. As a member of the majority race class in America, Fanny would have been the woman to receive such an ability.

In Miss Saigon, the plot of the story is built upon the relationship between Kim and an American soldier named Chris. Beginning in Dreamland, a brothel filled with American soldiers and Vietnamese women trying desperately to appeal to men with their sexuality, Chris takes notice of Kim. She is the only girl who isn’t actively trying to sell her sexuality and as a result, Chris is immediately interested in her. Kim is sold to Chris for the night and they sleep together. When we see him the next morning, Chris is completely in love with Kim. Yes, that’s right, in love. The only things he knows about her is that she doesn’t want to be sexualized like the other women of the club, and he rewards her for that by sexualizing and sleeping with her. Think of it this way, Chris wants to celebrate Kim not actively performing her sexuality and to do so he engages with her sexually. There is no context in which Chris’s perspective of Kim isn’t dominant, not only because he is an American soldier and she is Vietnamese, it is because she is only a woman and in that perspective is a sexual object. Every encounter between Chris and Kim is sexually charged with them passionately kissing every time they are united, him leaving her wrapped in a bedsheet, asking she be in bed when he return, and him, even in death, needing to wrap her in his arms and kiss her one last time. Even though Kim becomes a murderer, mother, and martyr, she is still defined only by her sexuality whether she likes it or not.

Both the actors who play Kim and Fanny Brice seem as though they have a strong conceptualization of what it means to be a woman in their given scenarios. Sheridan Smith’s Fanny Brice is, while a little shy in her movements with Nick, closing her body language off from him, she also projects a confidence in non-feminine movements. She capitalizes on moments like “Rat-tat-tat-tat,” fully committing to forego her femininity and create oafish character movements, an opportunity Fanny Brice would have accurately relished in. The caricature in the way she speaks separates her even further from traditional femininity. In the same way, Eva Noblezada’s Kim is not unaware of the position she’s in. At the beginning of the show, when she needs to appear a virgin, she gives an air of quietness, moving in slow, subdued movements. As she becomes more empowered by Chris’s validation, she is charged with energy, giving to him all of the power he is giving her. As the show progresses, she becomes stronger, striking power poses and gripping her son with strength. Even in her singing voice, Eva gives it her full power, but only in contexts outside of Chris, in songs like “You Will Not Touch Him” and “I’d Give My Life For You,” restraining herself in songs like “Sun and Moon.” She remains strong and steadfast for the entirety of the second act, returning only to quietness when she and Chris and reunited as she dies.

Grip that kid, Eva!

from: Playbill.com, Photo by Matthew Murphy

There’s an opportunity in every piece of work to represent your characters in a way that reflects the audience in a way that empowers or hurts them. Addressing how sexuality is a vital counterpart of what it means to be a woman is incredibly necessary. It could not be more important to think about how those who are a part of multiple intersecting minority groups, are not offered the opportunity to define what that identity looks like. Funny Girl gives the audience a peek of what that choice could look like, but Miss Saigon presents an unfortunate reality for several women. This representation is valuable for those who can’t comprehend what that lack of choice looks like and provides a space for reflection on behalf of those who are perpetuating it and validation to those who are victimized by it. So, no, the world isn’t totally equal and fair for every individual, but it’s through performance and theatre that we are able to enable active discussion and empower choice and change until it is.