Black Representation in The Wiz Live!

By Olivia Simmons and Princess Mazagwu

America is a place rife with racial tensions. These past few months, we’ve been seeing more and more instances of racially motivated hate crimes because as Will Smith aptly put, they’re finally “being filmed.” This has allowed racial injustices that have long been swept under the rug to finally be acknowledged on a large-scale, at least via social media. Advocates are seeking out various films and books on how to educate themselves. The musical The Wiz is a production through which advocates can glean further insights on representations of blackness in America, and what societal practices have put the black community at a disadvantage. Oppressive racial systems are only reinforced by trends in popular culture that lead to whiteness being the norm. Musicals like The Wiz subvert this trend by being unequivocally black creations. From the anecdotes, to the music, to the casting- The Wiz is a musical production that black Americans can look at and finally see themselves represented. The Wiz set a precedent for the telling of black stories through its historical and cultural references. This interview explores The Wiz Live!, a television special that aired on NBC in 2015. The show was produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, and is an adaptation of the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz.

Masculinity and its Many Forms in Newsies!

Disney’s Newsies!, directed by Brett Sullivan and Jeff Calhoun is just about a bunch of boys who ban together to sell newspapers…right? At first glance, the 2017 Disney production of Newsies may just seem like a fun story about a rag-tag bunch sticking it to the man. However, there are several intentional choices made by the creators and on-stage performers. These choices help subvert traditional images of masculinity that we tend to see in American musical theatre. For example, musical theatre is typically portrayed as something meant for gay/gay-seeming/proto-gay boys. Newsies! subverts this image by having a “traditionally masculine” lead. Through blocking, costume choices, and music, the production shows that masculinity can take on many forms.

From the opening number, “Santa Fe,” we are presented with two vastly contrasting images of masculinity. Jack Kelly is the heroic, brotherly figure who prevents Crutchie Morris from falling off a platform. He wears a sleeveless shirt that emphasizes his muscles as he hauls Morris back onto the platform. This costume choice was likely intentional, as Jack’s muscular physique helps paint him as masculine. Crutchie on the other hand, aptly named for his bad leg, wears a long sleeve shirt and baggy pants. This makes his body look like it’s getting swallowed up by his clothes. The costume choice, by Jess Goldstein, helps characterize Jack as feeble. The casting director, Justin Huff, likely considered physique when casting the actors. Blocking further emphasizes the contrasting nature of Jack and Crutchie. As “Santa Fe” builds, Jack stands on one side of the platform, and Crutchie stands on the other. The image this creates brings to mind a scale, as if relaying that the characters’ contrasting natures balance each other out. Additionally, the space created has to be closed by one of the characters. Jack closes the distance towards the end of the number in an effort to provide comfort to Crutchie. By rushing to his friend’s aid, Jack is further characterized as a heroic, masculine figure. The costume choices and blocking in “Santa Fe” juxtapose Crutchie and Jack to emphasize that masculinity comes in many forms rather than a one-size-fits all mold. 

Society tends to place masculinity in a rugged-heterosexual mold. Newsies deploys familiar stereotypes of masculinity to bring “traditionally masculine” characters to musical theater. For example, Jeremy Jordan, the actor who plays Jack, walks around with his chest sticking out. He makes strong arm movements to emphasize his points throughout the musical. In numbers like “I Never Planned On You/Don’’t Come A-Knocking,” we see Jack as a smooth-talking boy trying to impress his love interest, Katherine Plumber. Jordan’s movements help convey heterosexual masculinity. For example, he’s positioned so that he’s above the actor who plays Katherine Plumber, Kara Lindsay. This blocking choice buys into the stereotype that men are dominating figures in heterosexual relationships. The costume choices further assert Jack’s masculinity. Jack has on a dusty blue collared shirt for a large part of the musical. This contrasts with the colorful clothes worn by female characters. For example, in the number “Watch What Happens,” Katherine wears a pinkish-red outfit. Dark, cool colors are stereotypically masculine while warm, bright colors are stereotypically feminine. Thus, the clothing choices in the musical help reinforce gender stereotypes. The costume choices in Newsies!, as well as Jack’s blocking help emphasize his heterosexual masculinity. Characterizing the lead in this way helps subvert the stereotype that musical theater is only for girls or gay/gay-seeming/proto-gay boys.

As much as Jack is portrayed as masculine, he’s also shown to have a soft-side. In “I Never Planned On You/Don’’t Come A-Knocking,” he draws a picture of his love interest. Jack sings about how Katherine “stole his heart.” The music relays a sweetness we’re not used to seeing from Jack’s touch-guy character. Additionally, prior to the strike, when asked by Katherine if he’s scared, Jack faces away from Katherine as he says “ask me again in the morning.” There’s a look of hesitance in his eyes as he faces the audience. The musical uses blocking in moments like these to relay Jacks vulnerability. These moments help show that softness and emotional vulnerability can be coupled with masculinity. This is yet another way Newsies! conveys masculinity’s many faces.

The blocking, costume, and musical choices in Newsies!  helps subvert the masculine stereotypes often prevalent in American musical theatre.It employs “traditionally masculine” elements to show that musical theatre is not only reserved for girls or gay/gay-seeming/proto-gay boys. Additionally, it conveys the message that masculinity is not one-dimensional, but multi-faceted. Even characters like Jack, who appeal to stereotypically rugged images of masculinity, have a soft side. Ironically enough Newsies! subverts American musical stereotypes of masculinity by playing into societal stereotypes of masculinity.