From Leading Man to Leading Boy: a look at the “ideal male” throughout broadway history

Throughout the last century of American culture, we have seen shifts in public opinion of what attractiveness is. Whether in sports, popular music or television/film, trends in attractiveness change just as frequently and quickly as trends in fashion. We see this prominently in Broadway: writers of new musicals occasionally adjust their characters to fit to certain societal standards of beauty. We see this on full display when comparing Golden Age musicals like Oklahoma! to contemporary musicals like Newsies

Before diving into the nuanced differences between the presentation of men during these two eras, it’s important to establish where the world was recording-wise in these two periods of time. In the late ‘40s/early ‘50s, the recording industry was developing more intricate and sensitive microphones, starkly opposing previous models where you could only get a sound out of them if you shrieked into them at full blast. Singers like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra took full advantage of these advancements, thus leading to the emergence of the “Crooner” era. For about 15 years, baritones and basses like Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley were at the forefront of American culture, helping establish the ideal male archetype of having a lower voice, being more masculine/developed, being more physically domineering, etc. The growing popularity of crooners in mainstream music then bled into the musical theatre world: shows like Guys and Dolls, The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie and even Oklahoma! featured crooner-esque leading men, almost all of them baritones and basses. We can see this on full display when watching these shows ourselves: the leading men of these shows, Nathan Detroit, Harold Hill, Conrad Birdie and Curly McLain, establish themselves stereotypically masculinely, none of them singing above a high F. All of these leading men move with purpose, stand up straight and rarely ever show much emotional vulnerability.

As time went on, the American cultural landscape began to shift. After the jazz crooner era, the world began to see the emergence of Rock ‘n’ Roll, a new and high-adrenaline style of music that highlighted the male tenor voice. Additionally, these emerging rockers were less afraid to tap into more feminine styles of beauty; many of them wore makeup, grew their hair long, and donned higher shoes/tighter clothes. Singers like Robert Plant, David Bowie and Elton John made their mark as the hot new male style. As the face of the popular music scene began to change, so did the musical theatre scene: shows like Rent, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar began to adjust their leading male to a more feminine, higher-voiced rocker type. This eventually set the current standard of male attractiveness: passionate, young men with soaring tenor voices, starkly opposing from the more matured, darker and masculine archetypes from the ‘40s. 

Contrasting Curly McClain from Oklahoma! with Jack Kelly from Newsies is essentially contrasting the stereotypical Broadway male in their times of release. Curly would have absolutely been a successful crooner in his day; in particular, singing his duet with Laury, “People Will Say We’re in Love”. Written like a classic ‘40s ballad, Curly playfully flirts with his female love interest, asserting physical dominance and nonchalance while he softly serenades her. In the filmed 1999 production, Hugh Jackman embodies this style: although Jackman himself is a tenor, he remains in the baritone-section of his vocal range, moves with grandeur and physical dominance, and keeps his broad shoulders far apart. Jackman’s performance, as well as Curly’s writing, also appeals to the gender roles of men outside of the entertainment industry at the time: men were supposed to be physically powerful over women, have deep and masculine voices, only be emotionally vulnerable to a very limited extent, etc. To observe Curly’s behavior and singing style in Oklahoma! is to observe the desired behavior for all men in the crooner era. 

Jack Kelly, on the other hand, is very representative of a modern male desire: to be youthful and charming, much more emotionally vulnerable, and more free-spirited than a stuck-in-his-ways leading man of the ‘40s. In the filmed production of Newsies, Jeremy Jordan moves with agility and spontaneity, shows plenty of emotional variety, and sustains a high A at the end of Santa Fe. To that same point, some of Jack’s songs, like Seize the Day, King of New York and Santa Fe, include grand messages of setting your sights on something greater than yourself. His relationship to Katherine is interesting because he is at a lower social class than her, therefore holds less social power than her in their interactions, starkly contrasting from Curly’s relationship to Laury. Jack appeals much more to a modern-day desired male, being more in touch with his emotional and feminine side, being unafraid to belt his heart out, and having much more youthful and agile movements.

In short, Jack Kelly and Curly McLain are perfect examples of the changing leading male archetype throughout American musical theatre history. From a masculine, crooner-style domineering leading man, to a boyish, passionate and free-spirited young man, the “perfect male” has undergone many physical and emotional changes throughout the generations, and it is interesting to think where the leading man will go in future shows.