M: And we just watched the film version of RENT (2005).
H: And it was really weird!
M: I always go back and forth about whether I actually like RENT.
H: This was my first time, and it was certainly a trip. For those who don’t know, it tells the story of a bunch of couch-surfing, rent-not-paying, bohemian-rhapsody-ing, artist types in Alphabet City during the AIDS epidemic.
M: Rent is really trying to represent diverse perspectives. It has all these different characters going through very real experiences. I find it hard to talk about Rent starting out because I feel like it’s supposed to be taken in all at once.
H: Right, and when you compare it to other media about the AIDS crisis like Tony Kushner’s Angels In America, RENT seems watered down in comparison.
M: I see what you are saying. I mean, the only time the hardship of AIDS is brought up in RENT is with the character Angel’s death. It’s a hardship in life too, not just in death
H: Yeah, if they are trying to represent diverse perspectives within economic crises too, where did all their money come from to do the things they are doing?
M: Well, the character Joane is a lawyer but I’m not sure if she’s necessarily providing. Also, that guy Roger just picked up his life and went to Santa Fe? No one in economic distress could actually do that.
M: I mean I think part of the goal with the diversity in the casting is that you can’t talk about the AIDS epidemic without talking about the Black community. Because of the higher presence of AIDS in that community and how it caused an increase in racism and homophobia.
H: How come none of that is in the script then? It can’t be a casual representation without recognizing that race affects life. Only a white person can say race isn’t an important part of life.Just because RENT has a racially diverse cast doesn’t mean it actually portrays diverse perspectives.
M: What do you think about Mimi, Ben, or Joanne? How would that character change if it were played by a white person?
H: If race isn’t talked about, you are just effectively white. For instance, in video games where they give you this whole range of skin colors but don’t include the actual experience of race and ethnicity, it’s all effectively white.
M: Yeah, like Rent decided to be diverse for the purpose of being diverse and not for the purpose of showing the struggles of those people. Rent doesn’t really show homophobia or racism, just the idea of being a starving artist.
H: Nobody gets to be their race, they are all white.
M: They all have the same cookie-cutter struggles. You could change anyone’s race and it wouldn’t change the plot. So it kind of misses the mark of representation.
H: Also, it’s very convenient that Benny is Black. Like a rich white landlord is an unprofitable look for them.
M: And that would be more truthful.
H: The movie is also mostly the original Broadway cast.
M: The two main characters are white men, they’re the center of the plot. And the fact that this is the og cast means this is Jonathan Larson’s intent and they wanted to keep it that way. Which is important because he died right before the first showing of rent. It’s also why the number “La Vie Boheme” is performed the way it is, with the cast dancing on top of tables and across the diner. They had originally decided to perform the show by just sitting at three tables, singing it through, but when “La Vie Boheme” hit, they couldn’t contain themselves and they performed the rest of the show as it was meant to be. So “La Vie Boheme” is usually performed with three tables pushed together.
H: So it’s stiff in some ways because they want to keep Jonathan Larson’s idea.
M: Yeah, like how West Side Story changed, but they didn’t change all the bad parts. Not erasing history, but this is for multiple reasons.
H: Moving to “La Vie Boheme” though, protagonist white guy Mark is the most racialized person in RENT as a Jewish man, but he’s also white.
M: Yeah they even include the Mourner’s Kaddish in “La Vie Boheme.” References to Jewish culture throughout are almost the only references to any culture at all.
H: The cast are singing about how great it is to be indie, edgy, cool, and starving, but then the song kind of devolves into just singing the names of stuff that they all like. When the cast sings their joy at “Being an us for once instead of them” they show an interracial couple. They just kind of throw them in there.
M: It’s everything all at once again: gay, interracial, AIDS, drugs…not really representing in any way, just showing.
H: Besides race, you can’t tell who those background people are. They are essentially white.
M: And then later when they say, “rice and beans and cheese” and then “huevos rancheros” they are just trying to fit Spanish culture into there also.
H: The whole musical is “look! we all like the same white guys!”
M: They say “homo sapiens” after bisexual and trisexual as in we are all human but we all also a little gay, which slay, but there is difficulty with being gay. They’re trying to show unity but…their experiences are actually different.
H: So the answer is no: race does not exist in the world of Rent.
Having an interest in pop culture and musicals, Matthew and Ewon are students taking a course in Cultural Identity and the American musical.
As a musician, Matthew finds interest and unique perspectives in the music that drives the musical forward in its storytelling and characterization. It is this love for music that drives his curiosity in its role in musicals and how musicals shape our culture and society.
Ewon, a dancer since the age of three, deeply engages with the way choreography adds emotion to the storyline of a musical. She also is an attentive listener to music, paying additional attention to details and analyzing the layers to gain a deeper understanding of the role of the song within a bigger picture.
Here, Matthew and Ewon are coming together to engage in a discussion about Hamilton, a 2020 film of the original broadway production about the biography of the historical figure, Alexander Hamilton. The film, directed by Thomas Kail and written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, earned great fame for its diverse music and casts. It even received many awards including the Pulitzer Prize of Drama and 11 awards from the 70th Tony Awards.
The question Matthew and Ewon attempt to answer is: how is Hamilton’s attempt to diversify the race of its cast a progress in the musical industry and the way the audience view musicals?
Q. What do you think was the purpose of a majority of people of color cast?
M: I believe it was to change the way we approach this story, to change the way we connect not only to the story, but the characters and history beyond the story. Albeit… parts of history, which is interesting, as it displays the historical account of the white majority with people of color. Another primary reason in the production’s casting decision could be to prove a cast that is majority people of color can be just as if not more successful than a cast majority white. Which, if that is true, Hamilton certainly did, defying box office and musical records left and right and becoming one of the most popular musicals ever.
E: Yes; due to the vast variety of the casts’ ethnicities, I think definitely a larger audience was able to empathize with the emotions in the musical. By inviting a larger variety of viewers, the musical made space for everybody to think back on the history of their own country and remind themselves of the struggles and triumphs that their country experienced, as all nations went through some battles to be established. The mixed ethnicities clearly guided the audience to disregard the race of the figures, but focus more on the emotions intertwined throughout the story and the universal desire to win freedom. I also think that the casting director, Bernard Telsey, intentionally made non-white actors to play all the characters to imply that American history is not only all about white people, but is the history of all races in America.
Q. How does this casting choice change the way this musical is interpreted by modern audiences?
E: This purposeful casting leads the audience to view Hamilton as an opportunity to acknowledge that American history, especially the stories of successful figures, mostly involve white males as the protagonist. By avoiding any caucasian actors in their cast, Telsey makes his casting obvious and easily noticeable, which leads to the audience wondering the purpose of this choice and attempting to understand the implications of this musical.
M: I agree entirely. Hamilton is not just about Hamilton with this casting decision, but rather opening up a completely new perspective; begging the question… Why? Which is brilliant. Knowing when this musical came out (2015) I wonder how much of this decision was influenced by the growing Black Lives Matter movement and especially, the way people of color are treated in America, not only when Lin Manuel Miranda and Telsey were beginning the production of this musical, but also now. It is a powerful statement and to me, one that was executed well, despite some of the criticism the storyline of the musical might and typically gets. Even just thinking about how some of the lines hit different from actors who are people of color in a time that was ruled by the Trump administration… “history has its eyes on you….”
Q. How does this musical change how the audience relates to the story?
M: I really feel like Hamilton takes a multifaceted approach in making this story relatable to a modern audience. First through its casting decision – telling the story of America then from America now, really trying to appeal the characters to an audience that matches the principles America was founded on and should be. Second, the music throughout the musical honestly revived the industry and engagement with younger audiences. Gone is the typical sound of an orchestra.. Which I am biased towards anyways because I am a classical musician myself so I still miss it… but replaced is upbeat funk, fun, hip hop and rap music. This is what really makes the musical more approachable; it’s inviting and makes you want to sing along on each character’s journey. Plus, hip hop originates from the African American community and is another way Hamilton cleverly diversifies its production and makes it more appealing to a wider audience.
E: Exactly. I just want to emphasize more on the diversity amongst the casts and how it eliminates any racial barrier in empathizing with the characters in Hamilton. Like no one will watch Hamilton and find it strongly unrelatable because the story is too “white.” I think the diverse casting is so effective in making the audience focus less on the fact that this musical is based on a story of a white man, but more on the emotional dynamics that everyone can relate to. For example, even as an asian myself, I teared up at the final production number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” while listening to the list of accomplishments Eliza made to honor Hamilton and his unfinished dreams of establishing a better nation. I could easily empathize with Eliza’s great love and respect towards Hamilton, as well as the kind premises that Hamilton lived upon.
Q. Is this story biased regarding the portrayal of Hamilton?
M: The story is not particularly biased towards Hamilton. I would say it takes a more middle ground approach, never hiding his uglier qualities (cheating, impatient and impulsive) while celebrating his finer qualities (courageous, determined, hardworking). However, the story never mentions his or any of the other main characters connection to slavery – so its problematic and does lack in that since. I think it is a matter of perspective, some people might say that this lack is intolerable and is actually what undos the progress that this musical makes in terms of casting, while others, and I feel like this includes more of our perspective, feel as if this lack is to rather shift what this story is about entirely.
E: But it is hard to dismiss the fact that this musical does ignore America’s racist history and the unfair treatment of people of color, despite the main characters all being slave owners. Though the purpose of this musical is to give a general overview of Hamilton’s life, I do think that this musical was wrapped up with too positive of a light on Hamilton, which makes it seem biased. Yet, I think the producer tried to mitigate this bias by including other criticizable qualities of Hamilton—while being married to Eliza, he constantly texts her sister, Angelica, and later on has multiple sexual affairs with Maria Reynolds, which he even hides using his pecuniary power. I just think that the musical could have dealt the problem that Hamilton had slaves at some point of the story.
Q. How does music play a role in storytelling?
M: Like many other musicals that came before, Hamilton is no different in serving up witty, catchy earworms of musical motifs for its characters. However, Lin Manuel Miranda takes these motifs to really another level than others before. Layering them on each other over and over again, truly creating powerful and engaging moments. The music really becomes its own narrator. In “The Schuyler Sisters,” the story shifts its focus to the steadfast and bright Schlyer sisters. From the very moment they enter the song, they belt out their names, giving an audience a glimpse into their personalities and that this song will diverge from the male dominated songs before. The music drops into this deep repetitive backbeat which embodies this motif of “work work,” adding another layer of attitude and spunk that the sisters already provide. Even more so, moments of pause in the groove add more emphasis on the words being sung by Angelica and bring even more weight to the shift in tone. Angelica sings “never be satisfied,” Eliza sings “look around.” The sisters want freedom, freedom in a different sense than Hamilton, but by adding this song, this drive, and these motifs… it really sets up the musical to a wider audience in yet another way and makes the audience themselves ask more questions and engage more deeply… and this is only one example… which is just crazy.
E: As Matthew mentioned before, the diversity in the music incorporated in Hamilton allows a larger audience to relate and empathize with the story. It plays such an important role in highlighting the emotions being transferred through the storyline: the rapped lyrics contribute to the urgency of Hamilton’s personality; the melody of “Burn” being in the minor key expresses the devastation and despair of Eliza after learning that Hamilton had an affair with Maria; the percussion instruments, especially the snare drums, giving accents to the rhythm in “My Shot” represents the energy and motivation that drives Hamilton to success. The most unique aspect of Hamilton, I would say, is the fact that there are barely any words that are spoken normally; there is a rhythm to every word, which engages the audience from beginning to end.
Q. How does the music emphasize diversity?
M: I feel like this goes back to an earlier thought that we touched on in the fact that the music throughout Hamilton originates from the African American community, especially in parts of New York, which makes this musical connect to a broader audience. It is no longer buttoned up western orchestral music – but energetic hip hop that is music from today’s communities for today’s communities.
Q. How does the musical’s choreography make the production more accessible to a wider audience?
E: Because all the words are either rapped or sung, it could be difficult for some people to clearly understand each and every word. Honestly, if I did not have the option to turn on subtitles, I may have struggled to understand some of the lyrics as well. Which is why the choreography is so important. The choreography is overall very literal; it is a direct expression of what is being sung. For example, in “Alexander Hamilton,” the dancers express the story of Hamilton’s childhood by a man shaking off a woman who is desperately holding onto him to represent his father’s departure, a woman being lifted horizontally to depict his mother’s death, another man standing on a chair, tying his neck with an invisible rope to portray the suicide of his cousin, and the dancers moving their body as if pulling something hard while the voices sing “Will they know what you overcame?” Also, if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that the main actors don’t really dance at all, but there is a set group of dancers who do all the dancing for them. This is especially apparent in “Yorktown”, where Hamilton only walks and points minimally, while the rest of the dancers actively move their bodies and dance for the whole time. I believe this is purposeful to allow the singers to focus on their singing and delivery of words, while the back-up dancers aid in clarity using their bodies.
M: And it’s so powerful, the blocking, the staging, everything works flawlessly together to really push the story and the music forward. A moment that really caught my attention is the choreography from “Hurricane.” This is probably one of the lesser known songs from Hamilton, yet a greater known moment on stage as the stage begins to slowly spin, turning the entire cast into a visual hurricane right as Hamilton sings “in the eye of the hurricane.” Hamilton being the eye, remaining center stage and facing forward as the dancers around him swing chairs and other set pieces in an extremely controlled manner through the air. Plus the dancers are wearing all white, which with the lighting dimmed to a deep blue, convincingly turns them visually into a hurricane. It creates this slow motion effect and really drives the tension and emotions that are at play for an audience. It leaves you on the edge of your seat… holding your breath… and it is an incredible effect.
M: Overall, I think Ewon and I both agree on the note that Hamilton is both problematic but well-produced. As elaborated before, the musical does not completely reckon with the past and its shortcomings, but it still puts people of color in a light that has not been given before. After all, it is super successful; even more so than most other productions with mostly white casts. There is just so much to take from Hamilton, so many themes, so many lessons, and what it boils down to is how each individual sees and takes from it. For some people, we acknowledge that Hamilton is disappointing, but for others, it is a force to get behind and use to advance their voices.
By Koby Hrynkiewicz, Shahar Hartman, & Elisa Maknojia
While experiencing Rent and its timeless themes of love, acceptance, inclusion, and living life to the fullest, we decided as a group that no written assignment could do justice in explaining the importance of this musical and how it transcends the concepts of social barriers of race, gender, and sexuality. With that being said, we came together with our own unique backgrounds to discuss in podcast form how this musical, through its blurring of social barriers among the ensemble, is an homage to the lost artists within the 1980s and 90s New York City AIDs Crisis.
Below is an interactive slideshow to accompany the podcast experience and contextualize several points discussed. Photos in the slideshow include screen grabs from Rent (2005), images of the Lower East Side in 1990s New York City, anti-AIDs and anti-gay publications, pro-gay protests, firsthand evidence of New York artists lost to AIDs, and two podcasters measuring their year in cups of coffee.
It’s funny because I’d shock people by saying I never watched Hamilton. And now that I finally watched it – I think I get why they were shocked!
I can’t believe I’d never seen Hamilton until now. When it was the ‘sensation that was sweeping the nation,’ I knew it must have been good, but I had no idea what topics the show was actually tackling.
Same here! I’d heard a couple of songs here and there, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to really sit down and watch the production. I really didn’t know what I was signing up for! I enjoyed every second of it.
Dialogue Part 1: General Analysis – Casting, Immigration, and Legacy
Y: So our guiding question for Hamilton is: How does race ask the audience to rethink legacy in the musical Hamilton?
J: Right. So Hamilton redefines our identification as a country through its founding story. America is a country of immigrants, right? America is the ultimate melting pot. So Hamilton emphasizes that diversity by highlighting that one of these Founding Fathers that we look up to so greatly was an immigrant himself. And we never hear about this. Why do we never hear about this? How do more people not know that?
S: Exactly! Maybe that’s why Lin-Manuel Miranda chose Hamilton’s story. Of all of the founding fathers, why focus on Hamilton? Maybe he saw something that could represent America’s experience in Hamilton’s story.
Y: Yeah, I definitely agree. I feel like Hamilton uses race to explore America’s diversity and celebrates it. And through these celebrations of race and culture, we see an underlying theme of legacy that even extends itself beyond the stage.
S: Yes! The casting further supports this. This musical is special in the sense that it is cast mainly of African American and Latinx actors. So an audience of people with similar ethnicities could look at America’s history and see themselves.
Y: Right. And by changing the races within the story, Lin Manuel Miranda uses Hamilton to kind of give us an idea of what our history would look like with different races – he shows us a legacy that includes people of color. Additionally, he uses race to make us reexamine this legacy as something mostly white-owned.
As for casting, Lin-Manuel Miranda casting himself as the protagonist is a recurring pattern in his musical career, but has a special meaning, intended or not, to the audience in Hamilton. In a time when Hispanic immigration policies are especially fraught with controversy, the casting of a Puerto Rican man as a historically significant and white character draws special attention to a relevant, but sometimes glossed-over characteristic of our “ten dollar Founding Father”: his being an immigrant too. And by playing Hamilton as a Puerto Rican man, Miranda celebrates and argues the importance of immigration, and draws attention to the dangers of anti-immigrant rhetoric: would we be turning away Hamiltons of equal, or even greater significance, today?
J: Miranda is also playing with this idea that, “Hey, history is all whitewashed. But even your whitewashed history is incorrect.” So even though a lot of the people we learn about in history, including the founders, were white, Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant himself.
Y: Right, and in this musical specifically, we’re using people from now to represent then, right? Not only do they use people of color to represent modern America, but they also mix historical and modern costume elements. Despite wearing historical garb, actors wear contemporary hairstyles: Aaron Burr has a hairstyle featuring a contemporary line pattern and an edge-up; the Bullet has her hair dyed and in an updo; and the Founding Fathers wear natural hairstyles instead of powdered wigs or powdered hair. Miranda could have decided to keep the hairstyles historically relevant, and white, but by allowing actors to exhibit modern hairstyles greatly influenced by Black and Latinx communities, he represents these cultures on the Broadway stage.
S: Yeah. And you can even talk about that musically, as well; that is, they mix both showtune and hip hop in their numbers. For example, we get songs heavily leaning towards rap (“My Shot,” for example) but we also get songs that are more traditional showtune, such as “Farmer Refuted.” In “My Shot” there is percussive instrumentation, a rhyming scheme, and a staccato-like melodic delivery; whereas in “Farmer Refuted,” a more traditional choice of melody, rhythm, and instrumentation is chosen: the Loyalist (Samuel Seabury) sings in a simple melody reminiscent of a church hymn, and is accompanied by a harpsichord that comedically – and intentionally so – harkens back to the 16-1700s. This style sharply contrasts with the modern hip hop that Hamilton uses to “refute” Seabury, and even the characters listening are like, “Oh, look at this guy. He’s so snooty, old-fashioned.”
J: Yeah. I think the choreography is interesting, too, because when they’re telling stories, they have choreography in the background that goes with the telling. So when they talk about, for example, his cousin who committed suicide, they have somebody like mock hanging themselves behind him. Even if you feel like you don’t really understand what’s happening at the moment, you’re processing it much better than just listening to a song. Now in relation to the immigrant experience, when Hamilton pops out of the shadows, his self-introduction is a soft whisper. His choreography is also initially slow, almost as if he’s moving only slightly through the world. But by the time he’s in New York, he’s moving fast and decisively. It’s this notion of when you come to America, you have to be a go-getter – and to be successful as an immigrant, you have to work 10 times harder than you would as somebody who was born in America, and I think that’s what Hamilton had to do. And I think in a way Lin Manuel Miranda felt like he related to the idea of having to work harder to get Hamilton to be popular. And he had to work harder to even break into the industry as a minority.
S: Totally, totally. I mean, like, how much criticism do you think he got when he was like, “Yeah, let’s do this pop culture musical, and let’s have it on Broadway”?
Y: Yeah. I remember reading Obama’s memoir A Promised Land, and he was like, when Miranda first presented Hamilton at the White House Poetry Jam, people didn’t take it seriously. I even went back to that clip (here). And I saw people’s reactions, how they saw the beginnings of Hamilton and some people were just laughing. They thought it was outlandish. Even Miranda seemed to be kind of smiling to himself because he knew how audacious his musical was.
S: Exactly. I remember it being first sort of like, “Oh, what is this new thing? It can’t be serious. This isn’t the essence of Broadway.” But now when you think of Broadway, a lot of times you think of Hamilton because it was such a huge spectacle. A lot of people loved it. And if we’re gonna talk about Lin Manuel Miranda’s legacy, he’s involved in so many Disney productions. And in them, you can hear sort of his twist. Like he tries to bring that sort of, like modern music element. I’m gonna say like in Moana, for example: he had, like, the Rock rapping –
[Soleil and Yehchan laugh]
In Disney movies, you’d expect it to be sort of like Snow White singing tralala… that sort of thing. But he completely rewrote it. So he’s making an impact not only on the Broadway stage, but in other industries as well. He’s taking it with him.
J: Miranda sees so much of himself in Hamilton.
Y: And he plays Hamilton.
J: Right, it’s not even subtle. It’s beautiful in that respect. And going off this idea of like, kind of how race and ethnicity factors in and explores this concept of legacy, right? [To Soleil] You talked about a lot of early productions are like Snow White, right? And all “Falalala” –
Like we need productions in this country, where people who are not white can see themselves in the main character, right? And by addressing that need, Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t only fulfill that need for himself, but he also sets up generations to come.
Part 2: “History Has Its Eyes on You” Analysis
J: So I had “History Has Its Eyes on You.” So this is an interesting one to look at. It’s only Washington and Hamilton, so it is a smaller number – and a shorter number – but I still think there’s a lot to unpack.
Okay, so initial thoughts that I have on this number? I mean, clearly, if we’re talking about legacy – “History Has Its Eyes on You.” I mean, it can’t get more overt than that. And I mean, the first thing to look at is clearly like, again, this kind of duality, this almost double entendre – history has its eyes on Washington and Hamilton in this moment, right? What are they going to do next? Quite literally, history has its eyes on Miranda and Jackson singing to each other as minorities on the Broadway stage representing American “heroes” as people and cameras are watching them – – a meaning which I think is really cool. Also, the reason I picked this number is because there’s not a lot of people – there are only these two guys to look at.
Sometimes I feel like I get lost in my analysis when there’s so many people on stage – you can’t appreciate everybody’s performance. Here, there’s no complex choreography – there’s no crazy dancing, but that gives way to the other analyses. So something I really noticed was Chris Jackson’s face: the pain in his face, and the expression in his face.
I think the way Chris Jackson was able to play this way, gives us this idea of this imperfection of the American experience, right, which I think relates to race, because his playing of Washington draws attention to his being white. We see Washington in our textbooks – he was “the great first president,” won the Revolutionary War, stepped down, was perfect, died and is now on our dollar bill like –
S: Yeah, but it’s not that simple.
J: Right, it’s not that simple. And again, the fact that he’s being played here by a man who is a minority makes us reexamine history in a more complex manner. It’s almost a reminder that Washington didn’t live in a perfect society, right? There were people who were being forgotten in that society; there were people who were being oppressed in that society. And sometimes in American history when we analyze our founders, we forget that they lived in that imperfect society because their whiteness meant not facing the challenges that others were subjected to.
Soleil: I totally agree, I was gonna say something similar like – yeah, these are between two founding fathers historically, but if you just look at it on the stage, it’s also between two minority characters. And the audience could see them – see the situation and relate and reflect on that.
Part 3: “My Shot” Analysis – Music and Cultural Representation
S: So for my song, I did “My Shot.” This song is probably the one with the most hip-hop influence in the entire production. I felt the song was such a great representation of how Miranda mixed cultural influences to make the story representative of many different groups. Particularly, I liked how he used a lot of rap and hip hop culture from the Bronx. There’s such a strong nod towards hip hop culture that you can’t help but see it. So for some history: hip-hop was made in the Bronx in the 70s, from mainly African-American and Latinx communities.
In Hamilton, you have a story about America’s foundation set in New York, full of influences from New York’s cultural epicenter. Even though the styles and references are centuries apart, it is an homage to what makes America America. And that is diversity.
Y: I think you hit it right on the nose. I have a similar analysis for the “Ten Duel Commandments.” For some context, the “Ten Duel Commandments” is another hip-hop number that pays homage to Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments.” And this number is notable, because not only does it allow different ethnicities with ties into hip hop culture to feel included, but to a greater extent it also allows modern America to understand the historical relevance of the duel through a familiar medium.
After all, formally settling disputes with guns and pinning large importance to an outmoded concept of honor are anachronisms today – they’re uncomfortable, they’re weird, we don’t get it. And as audience members, having a more familiar medium – hip hop – introducing us to these outmoded concepts helps transition the watch into a “What?” into an “Okay, sure.” Not only does the musical wrap up that sound in order to deliver it to the audience – it also makes it modern, digestible.
S: Exactly. And in my song, “My Shot,” I liked how there were so many small details: like record scratching in the music and elements of breakdance in the choreography. So audiences of that cultural background, or even people who are just familiar with hip hop in general, could really pick up on it.
J: Instead of singing these traditional, classical songs, Miranda really dives deep into the rich culture of hip hop that was created by African Americans and Latinx creators. And by including these elements in a Founding Fathers musical, Miranda asserts that the contributions of these minority groups are just as important to modern society, if not more so, as some of the things that the Founders did.
Y: I’d like to thank my co-hosts – this podcast definitely wasn’t easy, and we spent countless hours trying to come up with our insights. I’d like to thank Soleil for kickstarting the project and organizing our structure from our scattered dialogues while helping me edit the transcript for clarity, and I’d like to thank Jonah for making time to work with us despite his busy schedule. And I thank the reader for sticking through for so long.
About the authors: Emily Willett (EW) is a sophomore at Vanderbilt University studying Medicine, Health, and Society. She is particularly interested in how health is defined through policy and the societal implications of this. She has been a part of musical theater for a long time—from singing The Sun Will Come Out in an Annie wig to her extended family at Thanksgiving to performing with a musical theater company through high school, her relationship with musical theater has been a long-lasting, formative one. She especially loves musicals that explore important historical topics, giving audience members a glimpse into history while also still being thoroughly entertained, like Allegiance. Allegiance also tackles systemic issues that she has been studying in her MHS classes and THTR 3333 thus far, so she has enjoyed applying and expanding her knowledge through her discussion with her co-author about this musical.
Madison Ferguson (MF) is also a sophomore at Vanderbilt University, and she is studying Biomedical Engineering on the pre-med track. She has always enjoyed watching musical theater, but didn’t fully get involved until sophomore year of high school where she became the Audio Visual club president and became the sound designer for many of the school’s plays and choir concerts. This love for musical theater developed after listening to Hamilton for the first time in 2017, and much like Hamilton, Allegiance takes a historical moment and puts it into the realm of musical theater. She is writing this post for a course she is currently in, THTR 3333: Cultural Identity and the American Musical, which has really helped expand her scope of thinking and reflection of this particular type of art.
About the musical: The musical Allegiance (2015; filmed on stage) was definitely a step in the right direction for representation of minority races and ethnicities, especially Asian Americans, on the musical stage by emphasizing and incorporating authentic Japanese themes. The musical, which is largely inspired by the personal experiences of George Takei who stars as Ojii-Chan and older Sam in the musical, is set during the Japanese American Internment of World War II and tells the story of Sam, played by Telly Leung. Sam is a second generation Japanese immigrant, and we see Sam grapple with his identity, his family, other fellow Japanese Americans, and his internal conflict to do what he believes is right.
EW:What did you think of it?
MF: I really liked it and I thought the creators did a great job portraying this piece of Japanese American history.
EW: Yeah I agree, I really enjoyed watching it—I’m surprised it’s not more popular. I had never heard of it before.
MF: I wonder if that speaks to the general attitude and messages the musical portrays that don’t align with typical racial binaries and power systems.
EW: Right, I think the musical really makes clear the racially charged motives of the US government during this time and how it was concealed through the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and specifically the character and historical figure, Mike Masaoka, who was played by Greg Watanabe. It was interesting how we see the different Japanese-American characters reacted to the inherently discriminatory actions from the government during this time period, because we see two foils almost—the protagonist, Sam, who doesn’t necessarily agree with the circumstances but wants to actively fight in the war to prove his loyalty as an American, and Frankie, whose family was locked up directly following the bombing and as a result, is resentful and angry at any person in power who allowed them all to be in this situation.
MF: It’s interesting you say foils because even though they ultimately have the same goal, the musical sets up their characters in such a way that makes them almost enemies.
EW: And we even see this with Frankie and other Japanese-American characters’ opinions towards Mike, and how they direct their frustration and anger at him rather than the white official giving Mike the orders, simply because they didn’t get to see what goes on behind the scenes like we, the audience, did.
MF: Right, which is another prime example of conflict and blaming within minority groups rather than at the larger system that is built upon and perpetuates white supremacy. It’s really interesting to think about what can be said about the racial dynamics of the country as a whole when thinking about Japanese culture portrayed on stage and the dynamics and interactions between Frankie, Mike, and Sam, and how this mirrors, or possibly contrasts, the racial dynamics of the US today.
EW: The fact that this musical not only possesses a primarily Asian cast, but also was directed by Stafford Arima, who is Asian-American and had the majority of his team and creators also be Asian-American is so important. I believe it really contributes to the musical’s success in its purpose, power, and raw authenticity. Lea Salonga, who plays Kei, says, it’s what Broadway needs—it’s what is necessary for any musical depicting a particular culture. This reminds me of the “Balancing Act” reading on Fiddler on the Roof and the importance of authenticity of minority groups, which goes hand in hand with representation and research of said group. With Allegiance, there is no balancing really—they have it all, which only contributes to impactful and profound nature as a piece of entertainment.
MF: Yes, I definitely feel like this musical has given power and opportunity to Asian actors on stage. They’ve even tried to capture authentic Japanese culture through the sounds and lyrics. Jay Kuo, who was the composer and lyricist for Allegiance, tried to replicate Japanese sounds as accurately as possible. He didn’t physically use Japanese native instruments, which would have taken up too much room, but he did make use of certain authentic elements such as an Asian gong, the Chinese Tom, and piccolo wood blocks. For other sounds, Joe Mowatt, a musician for the show, made use of different electronic devices to replicate the Taiko sounds (Japanese percussion sounds) that couldn’t be done with the instruments at his disposal.
EW: This reminds me of and very much contrasts Miss Saigon and the way in which they “capture” Vietnamese culture (they don’t). In one of our readings, a cast member mentions how they made up Vietnamese-sounding lyrics and instead of actually taking the time to research the language and incorporate it accurately.
MF: Jay Kuo, on the other hand, included many Japanese words and phrases into the dialogue and lyrics. The song “Ishi Kara Ishi” was sung by Kei and Ojii-Chan and it means “[a mountain can be moved], stone by stone.” This powerful phrase being said in the language of their culture shows that they still need that connection to help them get through this difficult time, despite being forced to let go of any connection to Japan lest they be seen as “traitors” to America. Another phrase was also said quite often throughout the show, “Gaman,” which means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” This phrase really encapsulates the attitude of the Japanese Americans through all the hardships and struggles they had to face at the hands of the U.S. government all to be considered a harmless, loyal American.
EW: I wanted to address something I read about the musical from Nichi Bei, a Japanese-American news outlet, that slightly contradicts our general views and opinions thus far but is important to discuss. This article of cultural criticism depicts Allegiance in a negative light, revealing the idea that it portrays “relentless optimism that admits no darkness.” I think a lot of this optimism can be traced back to Sam and the way in which he approaches their situation. He seems to be in a constant state of negative denial, focusing solely on his desire to fight for America, his country, despite America’s desire to keep Japanese-Americans like him locked in an internment camp. He clings tightly to this American identity, especially in his solo number, What Makes a Man. He says, “I’ll set an example / help others see beyond race,” placing the responsibility on him to help others (aka white people) see his American identity when all they can see is someone who is not the same as them, someone who is not white. Not only do we see racial hierarchies at play here, but the title of the song also upholds patriarchal standards; what Sam is essentially saying is that a man is someone who holds these patriotic, passionate values and is willing to fight despite all odds, conflating masculinity with loyalty to your country.
MF: Speaking to that point, I also had a thought on Sam’s relationship with Hannah, the internment camp nurse. This relationship puts even more emphasis on Sam and his love and loyalty to America. He falls in love with a stereotypical representation of America, a white woman. This woman, Hannah, holds a position of power over Sam and the other Japanese Americans; she has the power to provide or withdraw medical supplies and assistance, which could even be viewed as a “white savior” coming to aid the Japanese Americans because they don’t have the power to help themselves. Hannah, a woman, is higher up in the power hierarchy than any of the Japanese Americans, and for a time where women were looked down upon this really says something about how minority races were viewed as inferior no matter the gender.
EW: Tying that idea into an American context, throughout the show and even to the very end, we see Sam’s undying loyalty to his American identity and the things he achieves as a result of it. He is a “true American hero”—but the musical addresses the question, at what cost? He loses his family and holds many regrets, so even though he is named a hero, I don’t think the director and writers of the show mean to portray him as one. And yes, he is very optimistic, which may be reflective of his naivete and blindness about how his racial identity impacts how he and other Japanese-Americans are treated. The difference in tone of voice between Sam and his father is reflective of their differences in wisdom and knowledge—Sam, depicted as this youthful, passion-seeking boy, has a higher pitched voice, while his father produces a low, bellowing sound anytime he speaks or sings. This emphasizes the innocent and optimistic outlook Sam possesses, that his father knows is not a reality. But despite critiques on this optimism, Sam does encourage morale of the people in the camp, doing his best to make life for them as great as it can be.
MF: I really noticed this optimistic and lighthearted view with the dance scene that takes place at their internment camp, Heart Mountain.
This scene right from the beginning is fast paced and upbeat with swing music that was popular in America in the 1940s. The dancing also starts quickly with Charleston-esque movements that are very high tempo and fun. This decision from choreographer, Andrew Palermo, might have been trying to give the group in the camp a fun activity to break it up from the other serious troubles they had been facing, but I feel like it can also be argued that this optimistic view takes away from the hardships that were actually faced.
Everything was also very Americanized from the setting to the song to the dancing. This could be interpreted as those in charge at the camp trying to suppress the inherent Japanese culture out of these people. It’s giving the idea that because you’re in America, you need to act like an American (i.e. a white American).
Later on in the scene Frankie is seen mocking Mike Masaoka, the JACL spokesperson. He sings the lyrics, “just put up and shut up, cause you’re in paradise!” This is almost like Frankie is dissenting from this forced Americanism, albeit in a very catchy and fun way, but he is still voicing how Masaoka doesn’t seem to understand the things those in camps and in prison are really living simply because they’re in this so called “paradise” that is America. This also further perpetuates the divide of Japanese Americans, where those with different opinions on the situation are on opposing sides. Once again, the minority group is somehow becoming the victim AND the enemy, which sustains the idea of power being maintained by the white American leaders.
EW: Watching this musical in 2022 was honestly very interesting. Even though it’s set in the 1940s, I couldn’t help but notice that these themes of the inherent racism of America are still relevant to this day.
MF: Yeah, I noticed this as well, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic when Asian hate was very prevalent throughout the country. When people had heard that it had originated in China, hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by 77%, and these were people who were also minding their own business, but were discriminated against simply because of how they looked. As someone who is Asian, Chinese specifically, this issue really weighed heavily on me because I didn’t want to one day become a victim of these nonsensical, vicious hate crimes. I also felt frustrated and cheated by our country and our government that as an American citizen, I even had to worry about this type of thing.
EW: That is so frustrating and unfair. And it’s what happened to the Japanese Americans in this story—getting locked up by government officials solely because of their race, despite their American identities. And it’s frightening to think about how this government is basically the same one we have today. World War II was not that long ago, and little has been done to combat these harmful concerns of structural racism that is inherently embedded in our US government.
MF: And it can be noted that our generation today has become much more aware of these issues, and we are voicing our opinions against this harmful power system.
EW: Right, I feel very proud to be a part of this generation and the change that has begun to occur largely mobilized by us. Through participating in protests for movements like Stop Asian Hate and Black Lives Matter, I was able to do a small sliver of my part in fighting for something so extremely important and standing up against systemic racism.
MF: And even though racism is still prevalent today, we are finally trying to fight against it and make positive change, which is a step in the right direction, just like Allegiance is for the musical stage.
From dissecting cow hearts to analyzing musical theatre together, Hayden and Natalie are the epitome of a dynamic duo. Whether growing up listening to Seth Rudetsky’s radio show in the car or donning a pillowcase to act in Annie in 1st grade, both women maintain a long-term love for musical theatre. Read along as these two self-identified theatre nerds debate whether the 2007 movie musical Hairspray actually advocates for racial equality or instead promotes a white savior narrative.
Natalie- So… Hairspray?
H- There’s a lot to talk about here. After all, at its core, the 2007 movie musical Hairspray focuses on a young woman trying to bring about integration and promote equality, yet the approach can be problematic at times.
N- Yeah, so definitely a lot to talk about. There are a lot of great things about the show, you know, it’s not as easy as like Miss Saigon where– there it was easy to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so racist. This is horrible.’ With Hairspray, you can’t just say this is all good or all bad. There’s a lot to be said about the great things in the show: having so many roles for Black actors and dancers, having a plus-sized woman in the main role, the fun music, Elijah Kelley…
H- Yes. Hairspray does a pretty great job of depicting Black culture in a positive light. There are no blatantly obvious negative stereotypes about Black people that we often see in Hollywood.
N- And it doesn’t ignore race like so many Broadway productions do.
H- Which, to be honest, is definitely the bare minimum. To essentially praise a movie for not being actively racist or ignoring race entirely just highlights the prevalence of such racist portrayals and how low our expectations have been made.
N- Watching this movie, it’s pretty obvious that the creative team–director Adam Shankman, screenwriter Leslie Dixon, and playwrights Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan–is entirely white.
H- Even though it is about the civil rights movement, it feels as if white people are the target audience. It’s a feel-good movie for white people to think ‘wow this is so heartwarming.’ Sort of like The Blind Side, you essentially have a white person helping the black people and it’s supposed to be like ‘wow, look how far we’ve come!’ However, in reality, viewers are looking at racism through a very whitewashed perspective – viewing the history of the struggle for integration with Rose Colored Glasses.
N- One of the most obvious examples of this is that Tracy, the white girl, is the protagonist, not any of the important black characters like Motormouth Maybelle or Seaweed. And this is exemplified when we see Tracy at the front of the march for racial equality on the Corny Collins Show in the song “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
N- This is not the role of an ally, you know? The goal isn’t to be at the front– to prove that you’re a supporter. Being an ally is about lifting other people’s voices up and respecting them and their struggles. The story places Tracy at the forefront of a movement that isn’t about her. Also, just look at her costume (chosen by costume designer Rita Ryack) compared to the others’. The white shirt draws the watcher’s eye toward Tracy– she stands out like a sore thumb.
H- Tracy has her own agenda and does not keep in mind what is best for helping the Black community. When Motormouth Maybelle specifically tells Tracy, “It’s alright… I can handle this,” Tracy completely discounts Maybelle to pursue what she wants, which puts everyone’s lives in jeopardy. By hitting the officer in the head with the sign, she severely escalates the situation. It makes this march no longer a peaceful protest and essentially gives the officers the justification they need to respond with violence.
N- And of course, this violence isn’t aimed at the white people–
H- Tracy is so ignorant about the way that Black people receive differential treatment by the police.
N- It’s worth noting that in this version of the story, the police threaten to arrest the protesters, but we don’t actually see that happen. We don’t see the consequences of Tracy’s actions on the Black protesters. We see Tracy gets to run away while the Black protesters are stuck in this position.
H- The film cuts away from the cops fighting with protesters only 11 seconds after the conflict begins. Way to gloss over police brutality–
N- But crucially, we don’t see any of the Black protesters get arrested or injured, as often happened in situations like this in real life. The film doesn’t want to talk about the very real aspects of the civil rights movement that aren’t pretty, aren’t funny, and most of all aren’t uplifting.
H- Couldn’t have said it better myself.
N- So why do the creators think it’s okay to put Tracy at the front of this?
H- Creators of the original musical Meehan and O’Donnell depict Tracy’s ability to understand the struggles of the Black community as being a result of her own struggles as a plus-sized woman. Yet, equating the marginalization of Black and plus-size people is so problematic.
N- If you don’t mind me flexing the racial theory I’ve read–
H- No, go ahead!
N- There’s this one line of thinking in racial theory called anti-Blackness. It’s sort of a counterintuitive title; the theory itself is not anti-Black– it’s about acknowledging anti-Blackness. The idea is that part of what we need to do to, I don’t know, ameliorate anti-Black racism is to identify anti-Blackness as distinct from other subjects. It’s the idea that anti-Blackness should not be classified under “racism” as a whole because it is so unique. And whether or not you agree with this line of theory, it’s an interesting concept to bring up– is it fair, is it respectful to equate racism with fatphobia? Yes, they’re both struggles, like I’ve been there– body image is its own thing. But does it minimize the civil rights movement and the continued work to combat anti-Black racism to compare the two?
H- It’s almost as if because Tracy is plus-sized, she is allowed to step into these Black spaces–
N- And at times appropriate the hell out of them! I mean she gets on the Corny Collins Show because she’s doing a dance she “borrowed” from Seaweed, a dance representative of the Black culture she’s only recently been introduced to. And, I mean, he gives her permission, but she doesn’t give him credit.
H- She also treats Black culture as if she was twelve-year-old me gushing over One Direction. Rather than appreciating Black culture, her excessive excitement feels as if she and her best friend Penny are fetishizing it. When Seaweed invites them over to a party in his neighborhood, Penny exclaims her excitement to be invited somewhere “by colored people,” which Tracy adds is “so hip.” Nikki Blonsky, the actor portraying Tracy, makes the decision to increase the pitch of her voice to a squealing sound and bring her hands to her face in a look of disbelief while delivering this line. Such a portrayal of Tracy’s elation gives the impression that integration is this sort of cool fad that she wants to be part of, diminishing the complexity of the systematic abuse that Black people face on a daily basis.
N- Yeah, and later when they meet Motormouth Maybelle for the first time, Tracy says the party is “Afro-tastic.” Which I guess is supposed to be a compliment? I mean Maybelle’s response is best described as amused and, perhaps, caught off guard, not offended.
H- There’s a fine line between praising Black culture and fetishizing it. Plus, it’s like you guys have been going to school with Black people for a while now- why are you just now discovering Black culture as if you were discovering a hot new trend? It just shows a big gap between the meaning of Black culture and what she perceives.
N- There’s an argument to be made that she starts with this attitude but then goes on a character journey and learns from this initial misconception. She has a conversation with her dad where they bring up the fact that if she helps with the march it will likely really hurt her career as a dancer, but she helps anyway. So I think you can argue that she does learn to treat the movement not as a fad but as an important and moral thing to do with real consequences, even if they’re not portrayed realistically.
H- That’s definitely a valid point of view. What are your thoughts on the ending? I found it somewhat problematic. I feel like while they pretended to bring both groups together, as symbolically portrayed in Tracy’s “checkerboard” dress, I felt like the final number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” felt more like Black’s assimilation into white culture rather than a shared appreciation of both.
N- I’d actually disagree with that. I think “You Can’t Stop the Beat” does a good job of bringing both styles of dance together.
H- Whereas songs like “Run and Tell That” really made sure to incorporate traditional elements of Black cultural dance, such as head shaking and drum sounds, I felt like “You Can’t Stop the Beat” lacked even a trace of those elements. My sister actually took traditional African dance classes growing up. When I would pick her up or watch her performances, I remember her teacher, Ms. Debbie Allen, would always speak about some of her favorite aspects of African dance: the asymmetrical body placement, the angular motions, rhythmic movements, and scuffing feet. Throughout “Run and Tell That” Elijah Kelley and friends really embody those movements such as when they drag their feet as they slide down the hallway with bobbing heads and shoulders. Yet, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” does not have these elements. Also, I might add, both “Run and Tell That” along with “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful” were choreographed by Jamal Sims, who is black. However, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” was primarily choreographed by Adam Shankman who identifies as a White Jewish man.
N- That’s a fair criticism, but I’d compare the dance moves in the white girls’ version of “New Girl in Town” to best illustrate my point. You can see that the white dance moves are very structured. There’s only one part of the body moving at any one moment, and it’s like there’s a rod keeping their spines completely straight through all of the dance, almost like a ballet dancer. Now, compare this with the Black girls’ version of “New Girl in Town,” the Black dance is full body motion. They focus a lot on head movement as well, and you can see each character’s personality in their movement and facial expressions. I’d say “You Can’t Stop the Beat”s style is closer to the latter. Its full body motion and allows for more suggestive moments, like Edna’s shimmying, where the previous white dances would never go there.
H- Ehh, that’s fair. But what about the vocals? The Black girls’ version of “New Girl in Town” incorporates traditional gospel influences and “Run and Tell That” is written in R & B style, whereas there is not even a bit of that in “You Can’t Stop the Beat.
N- I think during Maybelle’s verse there is a bit of gospel influence in the ensemble vocal pattern. But you’re right, it’s definitely not done throughout the song. One thing I really liked about that song though was that they made Little Inez the pageant queen. It was likely mostly Black people calling in to vote for her, thus showing that the integration of television affects everyone in the community, not just those on the show.
H- Well actually… just to play devil’s advocate, I kind of felt like this promotes conforming to white values. Traditionally this sort of pageant and the idea of winning a tiara as a prize has been associated with this idea of white beauty. While you could argue it breaks down this system of white beauty, to me, I feel like it imposes white ideals onto Black women.
N- Well, what’s the alternative? Some white girl gets it? I think it’s more than just about the title; winning this means that Inez will be the new featured dancer, and honestly, that’s one of the most radical acts we see in this movie.
H- Ooo. That’s a good point. I did not think about it that way, but you are definitely right.
N- So what do you think, does the movie advocate for racial equality or does it promote a white savior narrative?
A critical dialogue on race and imperialism by Lindsey Caroll, Jasmine Jain, and Claire Duffy
JJ: “Okay so this is Jasmine Jain, Lindsey Caroll, and Claire Duffy responding to the 1956 film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, directed by Walter Lang.”
CD: “Our central question is ‘where is whiteness hidden in the musical’ and we are also wondering ‘how does Anna help display this whiteness’”
LC: “Which of us had seen it before?”
JJ: “I’d never seen it.”
CD: “I’d seen clips of it.”
LC: “I’d seen it ages ago.”
JJ: “I had a completely different idea of what it was. I did not expect that at all.”
LC: “What was your overall impression of it?
CD: “I was a little shocked. I mean, I know it was made in 1956, but I guess there were some things that were still a little jarring to me.”
LC: “Like what?”
CD: “The dynamic they played between the people of Siam and the British. It really capitalized on the imperialistic idea of white is civilized and anything else is barbaric.”
JJ: “Yeah, I feel like it really showed the divide of how whiteness is elevated and people of color are below.”
LC: “I agree. The overarching themes I came away with were white supremacy, imperialism, and the white savior narrative. Anna (played by Deborah Kerr) definitely serves as a white savior. She’s bringing Western knowledge that is idealized. By the end of the musical when the King (played by Yul Brynner) dies and his son becomes the next king, they say, ‘You will take what you have learned from Anna and that will make you a good king’ because she’s brought Western knowledge that makes Siam more ‘forward-thinking.’”
JJ: “Another thing that’s interesting is the slavery piece, right? His son ends slavery. Anna, this white woman they admire (because she’s white, not necessarily because she’s a woman), shares all these ‘amazing’ things about Western culture. Then, when the King dies, his son (played by Patrick Aidiarte) gets rid of slavery. It’s proving the point that, because Anna was his teacher, he was able to do these amazing things. They villainize the King through the way he wouldn’t outlaw slavery.”
CD: “Anna’s comment when she brought up Lincoln and the U.S. was something that stuck out to me because of what Jasmine was saying. She mentions how much she admires Lincoln, but, while she’s obviously not going to Siam to enslave these people, she is still upholding imperialism and racist ideas.”
LC: “This is overt in the musical when they talk about Britain making Siam a protectorate. Anna tells the King how to avoid this: they have to prove they’re not barbaric by giving up all their customs and culture. At the ambassador’s dinner, the King of Siam is the only person of color at the whole table. He invited all the significant white dignitaries there, and it’s all just one big show he has to do in order to prove he is ‘sophisticated’ enough to not be made a protectorate, which will probably happen anyway.”
“Getting to know you” and what it represents…
LC: “We can also talk about the song ‘Getting to Know You’ and the lyrics, choreography, and costuming. As for the lyrics, written by Oscar Hammerstein II, the whole premise is ‘getting to know you,’ as in ‘I want to get to know you.’ You could interpret that as ‘I want to understand you and your culture.’ But that’s juxtaposed with the irony of the whole song being she’s acculturating her pupils to Western ways of doing things as opposed to understanding them. A lyric that stuck out to me was, ‘Putting it my way, but nicely.’ I think that encapsulates the entire song in a way.”
JJ: “I think what’s interesting with the choreography is the fact that she goes to shake the kids’ hands. That’s not something traditional to their culture, that’s a very Westernized thing. Then each of them start shaking each other’s hands to show a change in thinking and behavior. Also, when she first stands up and her son comes toward her, they teach two people how to bow or curtsy. It’s interesting because the woman bows first, and then Anna’s like, ‘No, you need to do it this way.’ It’s very subtle, but it’s that idea of…”
LC: “I think this is going to blend into costuming, but there is a dance break that’s supposed to be their indigenous dance (whether or not that’s actually true because it was choreographed by Jerome Robbins, a white man). The dancer is doing the dance, then Anna’s doing it, too. But, ultimately, the dancer has kids come around her and form the hoop skirt. In this show, you cannot miss the hoop skirt — every production is going to have a huge hoop skirt based on the original costuming by Irene Sharaff.”
JJ: “It’s the first thing your eyes go to, and that’s so intentional.”
CD: “I think it really juxtaposes Anna and ‘others’ her from them.”
LC: “I also think something interesting I hadn’t thought about before is how she gets the headpiece from the kid, and that’s appropriation because there’s a difference between, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna wear this thing’ versus ‘I understand the cultural significance of it.’ That’s her ‘Oh, I’m getting to know you, I’m gonna wear this thing’ moment, but she doesn’t know anything about it. Ultimately, there’s still the power dynamic of ‘I’m a white woman, and my purpose here is to teach you how to do Western things.’
JJ: “It’s interesting if you think about our modern world. We now learn about these different cultures, but even a couple of years ago there were people in my high school who were people of color who would continuously say, ‘I wish I were white.’ It’s still idolized, and this musical shows how rooted it is in our culture to want whiteness. In Indian culture, specifically, one thing I think about a lot is how some Indian parents tell their kids, ‘Don’t go out in the sun because your skin’s gonna get really dark, and you need to keep your skin white so people will want to be around you.’ After watching this, I see it’s ancestral and ingrained in our minds that this is the ‘right’ way and the other ways are wrong. I bet people in Thailand can relate to that.”
Conversation between Hale Masaki and Mady Johnston
Mady: I guess we’ll start with what Rent is trying to represent: diverse perspectives. It has all these different characters going through very real experiences. I find it hard to talk about Rent starting out because I feel like it’s supposed to be taken in all at once.
Hale: I’m reading Angels in America by Tony Kushner in another class and I bring it up because it’s also a story about gay men living with aids and the severity of the aids epidemic. When reading this, Rent seemed really watered down in comparison.
M: I see what you are saying. I mean, the only time the hardship of aids is brought up is with Angel’s death. It’s a hardship in life too, not just in death
H: Yeah, if they are trying to represent diverse perspectives within economic crises too, where did all their money come from to do the things they are doing?
M: Well, Joane is a lawyer but I’m not sure if she’s necessarily providing. Also, Roger just picked up his life and went to Santa Fe? No one in economic distress could actually do that.
H: What’s up with that cow udder shit?
M: I don’t know. Modernist art and mooing?
Idina Menzel as Maureen in RENT (2005)
M: I mean I think part of the goal with the diversity in the casting is that you can’t talk about the aids epidemic without talking about the black community. Because of the higher presence of aids in that community and how it caused an increase in racism and homophobia.
H: How come none of that is in the script then? It can’t be a casual representation without recognizing that race affects life. Only a white person can say race isn’t an important part of life.
M: What do you think about Mimi, Ben, or Joanne? How would that character change if it were played by a white person?
H: If race isn’t talked about, you are just effectively white. For instance, in video games where they give you this whole range of skin colors but don’t include the actual experience of race and ethnicity, it’s all effectively white.
M: Yeah, like Rent decided to be diverse for the purpose of being diverse and not for the purpose of showing the struggles of those people. Rent doesn’t really show homophobia or racism, just the idea of being a starving artist.
H: Nobody gets to be their race, they are all white.
M: They all have the same cookie-cutter struggles. You could change anyone’s race and it wouldn’t change the plot. So it kind of misses the mark of representation.
H: Also, it’s very convenient that Benny is black. Like a rich white landlord is an unprofitable look for them.
M: And that would be more truthful.
H: The movie is also mostly the original Broadway cast.
M: The two main characters are white men, they’re the center of the plot. And the fact that this is the og cast means this is Jonathan Larson’s intent and they wanted to keep it that way. Which is important because he died right before the first showing of rent. It’s also why La Vie Boheme is performed the way it is. They had decided to perform the show by just sitting at three tables, singing it through, but when La Vie Boheme hit, they couldn’t contain themselves and they performed the rest of the show as it was meant to be. So La Vie Boheme is usually performed with three tables pushed together.
H: So it’s stiff in some ways because they want to keep Jonathan Larson’s idea.
M: Yeah, like how West Side Story changed, but they didn’t change all the bad parts. Not erasing history, but this is for multiple reasons.
H: Moving to La Vie Boheme though, Mark is the most racialized person in Rent as a Jewish man, but he’s also the white main character.
M: Yeah they even include the Mourner’s Kaddish in La Vie Boheme. References to Jewish culture throughout are almost the only references to any culture at all.
H: At “Being an us for once instead of them” they show an interracial couple. They just kind of throw them in there.
M: It’s everything all at once again: gay, interracial, aids, drugs…not really representing in any way, just showing.
H: Besides race, you can’t tell who those background people are. They are essentially white.
M: I feel like when they say, “rice and beans and cheese” and then “huevos rancheros” they are just trying to fit Spanish culture into there also.
H: The whole musical is “look! we all like the same white guys!”
M: They say homo sapiens after bisexual and trisexual as in we are all human but we all also a little gay, which slay, but there is difficulty with being gay. They’re trying to show unity but…their experiences are actually different.
H: So the answer is no: race does not exist in the world of Rent.
Gypsy, the musical by Arthur Laurents, provides a core example of the film industry’s use of stereotypes regarding gender and identity. The musical portrays the character Rose, played in the 1992 television film adaptation by Bette Midler as a business-centric, a pushy “stage-mother” who controls her children’s careers. Gypsy establishes a dependency relationship between Rose and her two children–Louise and June–and uses them as pawns to fulfill her desire of always being a star. While watching the musical, I didn’t resonate with many of the characters, but as I was reflecting, I could sense a bit of Louise within me.
Louise, played by Cynthia Gibb, is a shy little girl who her mother casts as is a boy in a vaudeville act with her sister June. Mama Rose doesn’t believe in Louise becoming much of a star and torments Louise for not being as good an actor as June. Yet, as Louise evolves into a young adult, her main goal is to fulfill her mother’s desire of performing on stage. I see a bit of me in Louise when she continuously sides with her mom, even though Rose put so much pressure on her growing up. I am brought up in a modern South Asian family where my mom did not have as many opportunities growing up, and I would do anything to fulfill her wishes. June pisses me off because she can’t appreciate her mom’s harshness and resilience in getting their act booked, even if it wasn’t June’s passion.
Louise craved the satisfaction of fulfilling her mother’s dreams, and she did just that when she became a stripper. As a young girl, Louise wore cowboy clothes and draped herself in clothes that presented her as a young man. She echoed a shy young actor who didn’t enjoy speaking out because she was hiding her true self. As Louise grew older, she evolved into a stripper, which was such a big change in personality. Instantly having the added title of stripper, wearing lingerie, and dancing for the pleasure of others made her more famous than she would have been on the Vaudeville stage. It amazes me that men always put women on a pedestal when they remove their clothes and dance. Rose forced Louise’s hand into becoming a stripper, and once she did, she was proud of her. It was insane to see how Rose could give up the hope of Louise becoming a star and allow her daughter to become a stripper to progress her career. But in the end, Louise was content. Gypsy promotes the stereotype that being a successful a woman means having to flaunt one’s sexuality.
On the other hand, Rose’s other daughter June (played by Jennifer Rae Beck) shines like a bright star and does not care about Rose’s wishes for her. In “If Momma was Married,” June, sings: “If momma was married, we’d live in a house/ As private as private can be.” No matter how much Rose works for her daughters, she will always fail in giving her daughters a stable life. Imagining that “if momma was married,” the girls hints that if Rose had a husband, they would be able to fulfill all their desires. This reinforces another stereotype: children must have a dominant male figure in their life to be successful and rich. June and Louise are so young, but they are already dreaming of growing up rich versus poor.
Louise’s eyes twinkle as she fantasizes about her mom being married and her being able to live with various pets, almost as if she yearns for her childhood innocence to come back. When Louise talks about having a family filled with animals, a father, and a mother, the film’s director creates an illusion through Louise’s smile, suggesting that she would be more happy in that life than her current one. Although Louise resents her childhood as a child actor because she was never the one that Rose believed in, she still sided with her mom over June, who only wishes that her mother would leave her alone. The audience can hear the anger building up in June because as her voice rises, almost as if she is passionate to show the world how badly her mother treated her. Though the two sisters have completely different perceptions of their mother, they hold each other’s hands to show agreement in their desire to see Rose to be remarried. While June has a negative reason behind getting her mom married because she wants to get rid of Rose, Louise can’t wait, almost as if she’s a baby getting a brand-new toy.
Women are always portrayed in a harsh light and are expected as pleasers in society. Gypsy proves how they stereotype women and portray them as submissive and willing to stoop to low levels to establish their crediblity. As a woman, especially as a South Asian woman, I find it difficult to locate a middle ground where I am not only fulfilling the wishes of my mom but finding something that I love doing. As women we have expectations from both society and family, we must unite to find a way to break the stereotype and create equality amongst all genders.
It’s almost spooky season, and that means rewatching Bette Miller’s iconic role in the classic Halloween film Hocus Pocus. Whoops! Wrong spectacle.
However, her performance in the 1993 made-for-television production of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino, is iconic in its own right. At face value, this production is not an aspirational spectacle for young girls, but hidden behind its curtain are a plethora of feminist critiques. Bette Miller is the perfect embodiment of loud, gregarious, strong-willed Mama Rose—complete with fiery red hair.
Rose embodies her role as stage mother, acting as a true “Mama Bear,” striving for the best for her two cubs June and Louise (who later becomes Gypsy Rose Lee). Rose dedicates her life to making her girls stars. The beginning of the film resembles many “wannabe” Broadway stars’ struggles to stardom. She begins as somewhat of a nobody in Seattle, Rose’s ambition rewards the girls with consequent gigs around the country at any Vaudeville theater that will have them. In her role as a mother, Rose defies the traditional gentle, dainty, proper female stereotypes in all aspects of her character.
Rose’s first solo number titled “Some People,” written by Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim sets the stage, exhibiting her “go-getter” personality. Rose is not like “some people.” In fact, she is very much not like what a woman was “supposed” to be during the musical’s 1920s time period. As reminded by her father and future love interest quite often, she should be married (to a man, of course). The world expects her to have a steady family, with her children in school and her husband making money to support their family. She certainly should not be living in her Papa’s house as a middle-aged woman with two young daughters begging for eighty-eight bucks. In this regard, Rose’s character does not conform to social norms. At that time, it was unacceptable (or at least unusual) for a woman to have dreams beyond motherhood. While Rose is a devoted (albeit sometimes misguided) mother, her nurturing techniques are rather unconservative.
Rose has bigger dreams for her girls. Even when offered a hand in marriage to a man she arguably loves, she chooses the single route. Again, Rose defies gender stereotypes by denying what most would see as the obvious decision. The gender roles in Rose’s romantic relationship are almost reversed. Herbie, Rose’s love interest and agent, portrays the gentle, subversive partner, while Rose calls the shots. Herbie chases Rose, in this instance.
While Mama Rose is undoubtedly a strong female character, some of her parenting choices and treatment towards her daughters are questionable. At the beginning of the film, we see Baby June, played by Lacey Chabert (Chabert later stars as Gretchen in Mean Girls, truly embodying the role of “girly girl”) as the ideal, pageant queen, frilly, perfect female child performer. Her sister Louise, played by Elizabeth Moss, is there to ensure June shines on stage—whether that means dressing up as a cow or newspaper boy. Side note—June is in fact cast as a blonde and Louise as a brunette. I guess blondes do have more fun? Nevertheless, at the beginning of the film, Rose reinforces these role distinctions between her daughters, consistently doting on June, speaking words of confidence to her about her future stardom. Rose is so steadfast to follow her own path, why is she not more supportive of her daughters to defy the same gender norms she does?
The real kicker comes after older June (now played by Jennifer Raye Beck) decides to abandon both her mother and dreams of stardom to run off with a boy. Here we see another typical female giving up her dreams of a career (well, maybe they were Rose’s dreams for her) in the name of love. After Rose comes to terms with making Louise a star instead, the team arrives at a Burlesque theatre. While this rather mature theatre is surprising to the pure, innocent Louise (played by Cynthia Gibb), it is the place where she finds herself and her place in society.
Rewind to Baby June’s musical number titled “Let Me Entertain You.” Here we see an amusing, playful, childish upbeat song performed by Baby June. Dressed in a white, glittery, ballerina-like costume, with a bow almost as big as her head, June’s outfit paints her as an innocent, but talented little girl, somewhat like Shirley Temple. Were she a boy, she would not be able to capitalize on this aspect of her identity—or her female body. In this number, she refers to herself as a “bundle of dynamite,” highlighting her childlike demeanor. She then continues to boast about her ‘versatility’ and talents as well as her ability to make us feel good as she sings:
Rose has June act younger than she is in the following scenes, having her continue to capitalize on her young female body (rather creepy in my opinion, having an adult pretending to be a young child). Viewed on its own, this song seems innocent enough, and simply explains June’s talent and ability to bring joy to her audiences.
Back at the Burlesque theater, Rose and Louise are both in shock when they see the audaciously unladylike performances occurring.
Rose is so appalled she attempts to make a run for it until Louise convinces her they need the money from the gig. Louise does her first “striptease” act as a backup for a missing performer where the announcer mistakenly gives her the name “Gypsy Rose Lee.” This is the beginning of a transformation of Louise’s traditionally prude, conservative female characteristics to use her body and femininity in her performance. After Gypsy adjusts to the role of “stripper,” viewers see her fully embrace this new identity of herself. Rose has mixed feelings about seeing her baby girl act in such a provocative way.
Should she be a prude? Married? Independent? Sexy? A Stripper?
Gypsy’s ending transforms Baby June’s original “Let me Entertain You” number into Gypsy’s signature act. This new context transforms the meaning of the song. Gypsy sings to a room of mostly older men hoping to see her take her clothes off. Her “versatility,” and “talents” convey added meaning, as does her ability to “make them feel good.” It’s sexual connotations could objectify Gypsy. However, the song helps Gypsy embody the same traits of independence and rejection of social norms as her mother. Rose may not fully approve, but this new identity—a truly new identity with a name change from Louise to Gypsy—is Gypsy’s own. She is no longer the “company” of Baby June.
But…. why is Gypsy’s only path to fame one of objectification and capitalization of her feminity? In this way, the movie reaffirms traditional female gender norms which emphasize physicality and beauty. Nevertheless, Gypsy not only brings attention to taboo topics such as stripping and the complexity of women using their bodies to their advantage. The musical explores the nuances within the traditionally female stereotype and makes viewers question their initial assumptions. Women are continually and regularly objectified and used for their bodies, but when they do it on their own accord, society labels them a “whore.” Shouldn’t a woman be able to be whoever and whatever she wants? I wouldn’t call Gypsy Rose the new face of the feminist movement, give her some credit for helping us consider these themes in a Broadway musical.
The Broadway musical 42nd Street (2018; streaming on Broadway HD) constantly places its female leads in positions of seeming autonomy but this only highlights the lack of power they possess in actuality. The show constantly reminds the audience that although Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse) and Dorothy Brock (Bonnie Langford) end up ‘the stars’ of the show, their power is predicated on the decisions and money of powerful men – namely producer Julian Marsh and financial backer Abner Dillon. The song “Lullaby of Broadway” perhaps best underscores this concerning gender dynamic, when Julian (Tom Lister) attempts to coax a resistant Peggy into taking over the role which Dorothy can no longer play. This number takes place right after Peggy injures Dorothy onstage, leading to her dismissal and subsequent attempt to get on the next train to Allentown. At this point, Peggy just wants to return to her humble roots after being harmed by the showbiz industry. But after learning that Dorothy can no longer perform, Julian has other plans for Peggy, needing another leading lady to insure his own success. This is the audience’s first red flag about Julian’s character, and it extends to all the men with power in this show.
Julian does not treat Peggy like a full human. She is simply a chess piece which he must move in order to keep his show alive and continue his own fame and fortune. With this in mind, everything Julian says as he opens his mouth to sing is utter rubbish. Julian knows he must simply say the things that Peggy wants to hear to keep her in the cast. He even throws out a pitifully ridiculous line about staying “for the kids.” Rest assured, Julian could care less about the juveniles in the cast, or really anyone for that matter.
Julian begins the number with an unsettling attempt to grab Peggy’s hand. Like many of Julian’s movements, this grab can be interpreted as simply part of his attempt to get Peggy back in the show, it comes off as oddly and uncomfortably sexual. As Julian, Lister leers and smirks at Halse uncomfortably, and the scene begins to read as harassment rather than a director simply trying to convince his star to perform.
Julian then begins to sing, and immediately, problematic words escape his mouth. He describes the ‘essence’ of Broadway as: “The rumble of the subway train, the rattle of the taxis, the daffy-dills who entertain.” Apparently, to Julian, one of the core parts of Broadway and New York aren’t the strong actresses that make his show successful, but the delicate little ‘daffy-dills,’ who successfully entertain his audience. Julian’s character constantly oozes misogyny, but this seems extreme even for him. Julian shows the audience that he doesn’t view any women as talented individuals, rather he thinks of them as pretty little flowers at which his audiences can gawk.
Julian’s misogynistic rant continues when he refers to Broadway actresses as babies, saying, “When a Broadway baby says “Good night,”/It’s early in the morning/Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn.” Now, one might be fooled into believing that this “baby” reference is innocent, simply keeping in-line with the ‘lullaby’ theme. Don’t be fooled! He clearly uses the word ‘baby’ is clearly to refer to women in a patronizing, sexual way. This line reveals that this song as a lullaby for all industry women, sung by men to put their sense of autonomy ‘to sleep’. They will “hush” any women who want to make it as actresses and tell them to put any power they have to bed before they can truly succeed. Julian hasn’t come to the train station to show Peggy the beauty of Broadway – he’s come to convince her to ‘sleep’ on the injustices and misogyny of the industry and perform in his show! If there’s any doubt about this motivation, Lister constantly reinforces that this with his sly looks and sexual physicalization.
When Peggy tries to leave again, Julian puts his leg on her briefcase – another sexualized action that leaves the audience feeling horribly uncomfortable. At this point, the scene has taken a dive into full-on harassment, as there is no denying that Julian is sleazily holding Peggy against her will. It’s reminiscent of “I really can’t stay,” “baby it’s cold outside.” Although continually Julian uses his silver tongue to convince both the audience and Peggy that he is looking out for her best interests, the highly-sexualized leg raise and look he gives in this moment proves the opposite.
When other characters, or as I like to call them, Julian’s reinforcements, enter to convince Peggy to take the role, they serve as the perfect representation of both perpetrators and victims of showbiz misogyny. Rather than an innocent display of happy, enthusiastic Broadway performers, it is actually something much darker. Reading the scene in the context of the repression and misogyny, the women represent those who have endured and accepted the injustices of Broadway while the men are the beneficiaries from this broken system. This seems especially true for Billy Lawlor, (Philip Bertioli) who obnoxiously sings “let’s call it day.” Billy is an acute display from 42nd Street that things aren’t getting any better in the industry, that younger generations are correcting the misogyny of older men. The musical introduces Billy to the audience in the context of him trying to ask Peggy on a date. At the end of the day, the only value Peggy, and the other women onstage, hold is their sexual appeal. Bertioli physicalizes Billy in a highly sexualized way, similar to Lister’s portrayal of Julian. The two actors absolutely nailed the sickening sense of entitlement and power that the ‘kings’ of Broadway felt for many years in the entertainment industry, and to some extent still feel.
The look on Clare Halse’s face as she is ‘serenaded’ by the company who try to convince her to join the show displays just how reluctant she is to enter an industry that does not respect her. It’s almost as if there are about ten devils on Peggy’s shoulder as she tries to make the right decision. It’s especially interesting to see the women of the cast trying to convince her to join. This is one of those moments where you may say, “See, this song isn’t about Peggy being subject to misogyny!” Careful. Just because the women of the cast try to convince Peggy to return does not mean they are happy in their own position. It reads as a desperate cry for another ally within the industry. It’s like they are saying, “Peggy, please face the horrors of this industry with us!” That they sing this plea with a smile on their face is symbolic. No matter how bad things are on Broadway, once the curtains rise, performed must appear one hundred percent in control.
Peggy has a moment where she almost gives in, then decides to flee, but then Julian grabs her and the group surrounds her. I found this the most disturbing moment of the number. It’s uncomfortable enough that everyone is surrounding a woman who clearly wants no part of being there, but even scarier when Peggy goes to turn and Julian grabs her. It’s important to note that he doesn’t just grab her to try to stop her, but seizes her only in a way that a person seizes a person when they want to lean in for a smooch. It’s amazing how this scene continues to find ways to become even more uncomfortable. While the sexual connotations of this scene may not be quite as overt as in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” it’s still pretty clear that a woman gave a man an answer, and he simply won’t take it. It’s not easy to watch.
Of course, the group does not give up, eventually convincing Peggy to throw on a fake smile, and exclaim, “I’ll do it!” In the end, they force the woman to give in to the man’s wishes. Peggy has become just like the other women in the number, as now she smiles, and appears happy, as all performance have to on stage. But she has clearly given up. Re-joining the cast is not a triumph for Peggy; it is a concession. Julian has chased and grabbed her enough, she may as well just give in right? It’s a sickening ending to the scene, especially because it’s painted as a happy ending. Every time I watch this scene, it becomes a more pointed criticism of the power dynamics of Broadway and society in general.
If, for some possible reason, misgivings still exist about whether this scene is an example of Julian empowering or objectifying Peggy, one need not look further than the end of the show. Did Julian cast Peggy in the show and then simply allow her to shine? Of course not. He falls in love with her, rendering Peggy again more of an object than a star herself. There’s nothing more sickening than when Peggy is about to make her debut, perhaps the biggest moment of her life, and it sullied by Julian kissing her and saying, “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” Thanks, but no thanks, Julian. Neither Peggy nor the audience need to hear your empty, sly words anymore. Save your ‘lullaby’ to put yourself to bed.
It has glitter, glam, and girls?! It’s no surprise 42nd Street became nothing short of a musical phenomenon that returned to the stage only four years ago. Written in 1980, Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble create a show within a show, with a plot that followed a timid, talented chorus girl, Peggy Stewart (played by Clare Halse), on her claim to fame. She navigates the highs and lows of show business through—wait for it—glamorous song and dance. Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer’s lyrics combined with Harry Warren’s composition allows her story to come alive, as well as the stories of other leading characters like accomplished yet difficult actress Dorothy Brock, aggressive producer Julian Marsh, and leading man Billy Lawlor. Gower Champion’s choreography brings the musical to life, contributing to critical reviews calling it a “gorgeously made musical.” Gorgeously made, however, does not mean gorgeously conveyed. Through the lyrics, costume, acting, and choreography, 42nd Street glorifies misogyny through the objectification of women. The number “Dames/Keep Young and Beautiful” is a prime example. Billy sings about the sole purpose of seeing a show (“Dames”) while putting forth sexist ideas that the writers and choreographer only emphasize through the chorus girls’ portion of the song, “Keep Young and Beautiful.” As a female-identifying viewer, I do not wish to see harmful stereotypes expressed through song and dance, especially when they are not followed up or addressed in some productive manner. Although not as obvious, such gender stereotypes still very much exist in today’s world. Musical numbers such as this one certainly lack in the “positively contributing to society” category.
The number opens on Billy, sing-expressing his thoughts about women (enough said). Peggy, as directed by Mark Bramble, passes him and noticeably crouches in nervousness, fear or embarrassment (most likely a combination of all three), to which Billy pays no mind. He continues singing and even gives her his hat, clearly establishing a power dynamic between the two. As this dominant figure, the audience hangs closely to the words coming out of his mouth, which include, “who cares if there’s a plot or not,/ when they’ve got a lot of dames!” This line not only diminishes the intricacies of show business, but it also underscores objectification of women, since the reason given for why men attend is simply to admire the “dames.” The male chorus echos with lyrics about how women are “temporary” and how they “don’t recall their names,” to which I say, oh-my-god-what!?! This blunt misogyny stares the audience right in the face, not only through these awful lyrics, but also through their costumes. Each man is wears (bow)ties, suspenders, and top hats, all of which reflect a typical image of masculinity (at least for the time period). The costumes also play to these men’s good nature and even innocence through the sweater vests and large smiles, depicting them as “good boys” allowing them to get away with the harmful things they say.
As the men clear the stage, they unveil a group of women, posing and looking at themselves in handheld mirrors. This image immediately sets the tone for the women’s embrace of their surface-level feminine beauty, created not only through the mirrors but also through their choreography. With leg movements to create symmetry and geometric shapes, the chorus girls’ dancing very much appeals to the song’s targeted audience, prioritizing visual aesthetic and pleasure, over showcasing their talent. Champion purposefully draws parallels to Ziegfeld’s Follies, also designed to appeal to the sexual desires of men, as well as Theoni Aldridge’s costume design (nothing screams “object of affection” like sparkly leotards) and Dubin and Mercer’s lyrics.
The chorus girls listen intently to the lyrics sung by male ensemble (and written by Maggie Jones and Bert Barry) absorbing every word with smiling faces and enthusiastic nods, despite the demeaning line (and even title) “keep young and beautiful / if you want to be loved.” The anti-feminist statements keep coming—“take care of all those charms / and you’ll always be in a guys arms” once again enforces the idea that it is a woman’s sole purpose in life to be loved by a man (which is, not to mention, very heteronormative), and to do so, they must take care of their “charms” and be physically and sexually appealing. Not only is “charms” a sexual innuendo but also defined as “giving delight or arousing please,” which is precisely what the entire number suggests in regards to female sexuality and the male gaze.
“Dames/Keep Young and Beautiful” functions as a product of the patriarchy by perpetuating sexist concepts and physically establishing power dichotomies between the male and female characters. Perhaps it is because the number is metatheatrical, depicting a 1920s period number in Pretty Girl, or it’s a product of the 1980’s feminist backlash, but either way, the lyrics, costumes, acting, and choreography express blatant misogyny. Looking forward, I hope to see more female empowerment interwoven in the book, lyrics, choreography, and acting of characters in the musicals I continue to watch, or at the very least, I hope to see less explicit sexism. Musicals are meant for entertainment, and because of the circumstances, I can’t say I felt very entertained. 42nd Street draws on old-fashioned ideals of entertainment that are rooted in misogyny (which are even spelled out in “Dames”—ironic).
Transformations intrigue us. We gasp at the Very Hungry Caterpillar’s metamorphosis as children, fixate on before and after diet photos, and unhealthily pore over Breaking Bad character analyses for days (I’m guilty of the latter). And just like Walter White’s becoming of Heisenberg, Louise Hovick’s development into the titularGypsy Rose Lee sparks interest. What prompts this change? What does this transformation say about her character and her environment?
Director Emile Ardolino adapted the television film musical of Gypsy from the 1959 stage musical (which in turn took inspiration from Gypsy Rose Lee’s autobiography). With music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy tracks the transformation of Louise Hovick from the shy, oft-overlooked sister of vaudeville headliner June to a bold, independent burlesque star. With that established, let’s try to answer the aforementioned questions.
First, what prompts this change? Easy: Madame Rose, Louise’s mother, volunteers her as a replacement for the main stripper because she believes it is a breakout opportunity. Louise, although initially unconfident, grows more comfortable as she receives (gross as it is to say) “support” from the burlesque theater audience. As Louise recognizes that she can play this role successfully, she capitalizes on it to become a burlesque star.
What does this transformation say about her character and her environment? This question is much harder to answer. Gypsy Rose Lee clearly empowers herself by embracing her sexuality, and throws aside traditional notions of demure femininity as defined by the patriarchy. However, despite the decline of this form of stage entertainment, burlesque theater is still popular enough for Gypsy to succeed… a popularity which suggests more insidious elements. Although a message of triumph, Louise’s transformation to Gypsy Rose Lee also presents a sad truth: the influence of the male gaze, and more broadly, the power of a patriarchal society.
Coined by Laura Mulvey, the “male gaze” refers to a heterosexual perspective that objectifies women in a sexual manner. Succeeding in popular media, especially in the early-to-mid 20th century, with a large – if not majority – heterosexual, male audience, meant catering to this male gaze.
Gypsy implicitly brings up the male gaze in an earlier dialogue between Louise and Tulsa, a boy that coworks in June’s act. When explaining the reasoning for why he tries to dance more than his female partner for a nightclub routine, Tulsa opines, “They always look at the girl in a dance team, especially if she’s pretty.” Tulsa is subconsciously aware of the male gaze – catering to a probably very male nightclub audience. Yet still wanting to be the main lead, Tulsa believes he must dance more.
Bette Midler playing Madame Rose in “Rose’s Turn” actively caters to the male gaze. She realizes the her desire to be a star manifests unhealthily in her aggressive pursuit of fame for her children. Madame Rose plays in an empty theater and objectifies herself to an imaginary audience (uncomfortable as it is for the viewers). She draws attention to her breasts (“How do you like them eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?”), accentuates her body through suggestive movements, and refers to herself as “Mama” in a sultry voice. Madame Rose, despite playing for an imaginary audience, anticipates needing to cater to the male gaze. Both this and Tulsa’s example illustrate that the male gaze is ever-present, that it insidiously underpins popular media. Although the actors don’t explicitly recognize this male gaze, they knowingly create products for a majority-male audience, and by doing so, give hegemonic power, or consent, to patriarchal society.
Louise’s quick shift from passive, shy girl into confident, independent woman also illustrates this power. Louise embraces her sexuality to gain personal agency as a burlesque star. And just like Tulsa and Madame Rose, she recognizes the male gaze and its power in patriarchal society – after all, she is a stripper. Such a contradiction could be confusing – that she empowers herself through her sexuality, yet that patriarchal society exploits her. While Louise does find empowerment, it is only through her sexuality; that is, within the confines of patriarchal society.
So what? Although this movie carries a message of triumph and self-empowerment, it still reminds viewers that we live in a hegemonic patriarchal society which we perpetuate. And just like Louise, Tulsa, and Madame Rose, we support its hegemonic power in some way, whether it be normalizing the male gaze in popular media, or accepting stereotypical, restrictive gender roles for women in everyday life.
And as a heterosexual, Korean-American male, that reminder is especially noteworthy. Not only did society teach me these problematic gender narratives as universal truths, but I also at one point believed them. And as I grow more aware of our society, it’s becoming increasingly important to ask: is this belief, or truth?
*While researching the male gaze, I was introduced to this phenomenon through this article. The Hawkeye Initiative is a website made “to draw attention to how deformed, hypersexualized, and unrealistically dressed women are drawn in comics…” (FAQ).
Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, directed by Robert Delamere, brilliantly plays Fanny Bryce: an icon in broadway history and a star never afraid to be herself. However, Fanny being the complete opposite of what most would consider “American beauty and desire,” fights for the spotlight, revealing a larger conversation of gender and sexuality in societies larger agenda.
On stage and off, Fanny embodies the notion of being a “funny girl:” a little awkward, quirky, and fun. Using this to fight for her own place on stage, Fanny takes comfort in her talent, her incredible singing and ability to interact with audiences and other stage members in unique ways. Fanny never wavers in this identity, choosing to live it 24/7, bringing an authentic feel to her characters and performances in ways not seen before. It is Smith who takes this performance to another level, delivering and exuding energy in ways that other cast members lack, and it is her performance that truly makes audiences understand and root for Fanny.
Disgustingly, Fanny lives in a man’s world, and it is this world that she fights to find her own place within. Men tell her yes, men tell her no, and men argue with other men on whether she deserves a yes or a no; to the point that Fanny never really controls the trajectory of her career alone. Tom Keeney, director of a small theater house, initially refuses work for Fanny until an applauding audience convinces him otherwise. Even then, Keeney underpays her until another man, Nick Arstien steps in and makes him pay up for the talent he deems “worthy.” Eventually, Fanny reaches the highest and most desirable stages, performing under the direction of Florenz Ziegfeld, the man literally responsible for defining “American beauty” through his reinvisioned show girls that Fanny does not fit represent. Ironic isn’t it? However, Zeigfeld too undervalues Fanny and wants to use her as a comic, someone to be the foil to the show girl. Not someone to laugh with but laugh at. Oh and did I mention Nick Arstien becomes Fanny’s love interest and is a stereotypical man who cannot handle a woman making more money than him and causes a lot of problems for Fanny. There’s that too.
“Don’t Rain On My Parade” perfectly encapsulates the complicated and dense environment that Fanny Bryce lives in, and Sheridan Smith’s performance of it is everything. With every beginning and end of musical phrase, Smith belts out lines that not only put a wall between her and patriarchal authority but also question the very notion of it with lyrics written by, Bob Merrell, such as “Don’t tell me not to fly/ Who told you you’re allowed to rain on my parade?” The contour of her voice and the melodic line she sings brilliantly enhance the lyrics with subtle shifts of note length, tone, and inflection that combine to add an edge, an attitude, and a confidence that highlights Fanny Bryce’s steadfast desire to live life as she chooses: fuller and undeniably herself. It is this desire that also invokes a dream-like feel for what could be and makes this song and this moment in the musical that much more special.
A jazz big band accompanies and mimics the lyrics, playing a simple upbeat swing, show tune and groove written by Jule Styne. Like Smith, the band utilizes changes in inflection, playing heavier and more staccato when questioning patriarchal authority and playing more light and airy when invoking Fanny’s dreams of a world that could be. Orchestration has a big role in pulling this off, whereas most of the time the brass have this bite to their sound, when Fanny begins dreaming, they sing and their melodic lines soar and are legato rather than being short and abrupt.
However, just as Fanny Bryce is living in a patriarchal society, so too is the song and the music. Another interpretation of the short staccato interjections in the big band throughout the song being the fight back to Fanny’s commentary, with only the longer more lyrical moments along with the slower breakdown being truly Fanny’s and Smith’s voice.
Further complicating this idea is that the actual peak, the high point, and climax of the song occurs when Smith sings “Hey Mr. Arnstein here I am.” The high point, the most critical moment of the song, directly talks to a man. In fact, in this moment of the musical Fanny is leaving her job for love, for a man, for the toxic man Arnstein, which only goes to show that despite all of the work Fanny puts in to being herself and fighting for change, ultimately, patriarchal society is still very much overbearing and present. It’s inescapable…. unable to be broken. Interestingly, this is not the only song in the musical that Merrell and Styne write together with the climax being “Mr.” which only solidifies the undertones of this song. It is a clever choice, subtle, to the point, and damning.
“Don’t Rain On My Parade” is a genius representation of gender and sexuality as it reveals and highlights the complicated layers in which Fanny has to fight for her world. From the very notion of not being the typical “showgirl” that broadway demanded of at the time, and for constantly having to fight to remain true to herself and in “control” of her narrative. Yet at the same time, the song displays the true world in which she lives, that no matter what Fanny does, as long as society is a patriarchal society, she will always be a part of this oppressive and binary society; making this musical and this song problematic to me. It is both good and bad, certainly revealing, and leaves you, me, questioning the society and world which we live in today, which I ultimately think is intended and for the better.
Funny Girl’s “I’m The Greatest Star” is one of the most iconic numbers within the musical. It’s the recognizable “pip with pizazz” and Fanny Brice’s “I am” song, setting the basis for how the audience interprets her character’s decisions. However, the themes brought up in “I’m The Greatest Star” are far from centered in Fanny’s decision-making. The song sets up the frustration that many viewers have reported when finishing Funny Girl in that Fanny seems to stray so far from her “I am.” Well, I have news about that frustration…that’s show biz, kid!
In other words, Fanny Brice’s glam in this song contrasts with the real-life struggles she faces. The plot of Funny Girl refuses to hide the misogyny that not only is a large part of Fanny’s story, but also the time period.
What’s she even talking about
In order to understand Fanny’s perspective, we have to understand what she’s saying in “I’m The Greatest Star.” For this interpretation, I’ll be referencing specifically the 2018 adaptation, directed by Robert Delamere and performed on West End. The production presents the song after Fanny’s rejection from the stage and becomes bundled with the emotions she feels from not being given a shot. What’s unique about this song is that she’s singing about her woes but she’s unashamed at the same time. She’s singing of all the great things about herself: all the things she could offer to an audience that are “six expressions” more than anyone else. What’s more, Fanny is acutely aware that she doesn’t fit what Ziegfeld and others would consider an “American Beauty Rose.” She’s proud of her Jewish heritage, her home, and her looks.
I feel this overwhelming sense of joy as a Jewish New Yorker when I hear Fanny Brice proudly sing of her “American Beauty Nose.”
John Springer Collection/Getty Images | Side profile of Barbara Streisand
Despite what the world says about her outwardness, her culture, or her character, she is dead set in her belief that she’ll make it. To prove it even more, Sheridan Smith, the actress who plays Fanny in this adaptation, stays sitting on the ground for more than half of the song, but remains exaggerated in expression hilariously, exemplifying her great ability to perform. “I’m The Greatest Star” isn’t some sad lament where Fanny sings about how many times she’s failed. Instead, she sings about all the ways she can succeed. Additionally, the song is not a “performance within a performance,” meaning that this behind-the-scenes moment between her and Eddie shows her true self and her true wishes. Her “I am” song is powerfully positive despite all odds.
Oh no! It all went wrong!
So where does her power go? Well, it left with the money that she sent to Nicky Arnstein. Only joking (stick around for the jokes). In discussion with people who’ve watched this musical with me, they all seem to have the same shtick: that Fanny shouldn’t have left her dream of performing–and therefore “losing herself”–for a guy. But consider the real-life Fanny Brice. While Funny Girl is a loose biography, it still is set in the 1900s, and regretfully, life was disappointing for women back then. There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room when it came to what a woman could do during those times.
Mrs. Strakosh, played by Myra Sands, even ranks marriage over Fanny’s successful career, often talking about her daughter who is married in comparison to Fanny, or asking about Nick rather than the shows. What happened to Fanny was a product of intense love, of course, but it also was, unfortunately, a product of the time. Fanny blaming herself for pushing Nick and not letting him make money himself exemplified the mass misogyny that existed back then. Fanny had more money than Nick, and when she attempted to save him from bankruptcy, he felt emasculated by her success.
Brice loved performing–her “I am” song was the greatest 😉 –but she loved feeling like other women more. She constantly mentions how Nick made her feel “beautiful.” However, in “I’m The Greatest Star” it seems like she already feels beautiful, so let’s not forget that. But her self-view changed to what others considered normal. Her self-view became what she thought fancy people in ruffled shirts viewed as beautiful, which was “typical” Ziegfeld girls and wives with children. She no longer fit in her self-view. She loses herself because of her environment. She mentions her jokes and her faces in “I’m The Greatest Star,” acting extravagantly as the form of comedy she produces, but she wants people “to laugh with her, not at her.” This meant to be a part of the majority, and give in to what the modern eye might see as frustrating.
Finding yourself again
Great news! Fanny and Nick do, in fact, get divorced. So where does this “I am” song land now? Right back at the center like we thought it was meant to be! We get about five minutes of validation towards the end of the production when Nick leaves Fanny, and Fanny looks at herself in the mirror. She quotes her “I am” song. Knowing all the things Fanny went through as well as keeping in mind the time period, this ending unravels the return of empowerment within Fanny. This empowerment is not only women’s empowerment but also just plain old self-empowerment. Looking at yourself in a mirror and saying “Hello, Gorgeous!” is what the modern day would call “daily affirmations.” But her forgetting to do her daily affirmations is not what got us to this conclusion. Despite all the casual misogyny she experienced and the letdown of a lifetime, she still achieved the dreams she set out in “I’m the Greatest Star.” However, she went back to holding that aspiration at the highest value when the finale hits (she says beforehand she would have left performing if Nick told her to). With the reference to “I’m the Greatest Star” at the center of this finale, Fanny communicates to the audience some rendition of “I am despite what is.” The audience follows the story of Fanny Brice and Nicky Arnstein for quite some time are pulled back into the modern world suddenly. Fanny Brice can be whoever she wants to be without a man. Fanny Brice had more money than Nicky Arnstein that she made on her own. These are all things that in the modern age are relatively normal, but back then were almost offensive. Audiences leave the musical being proud of Fanny though because she returns to her progressive nature. She returns to grappling with her role in society when it comes to gender and sexuality but lands upon forming that outside of the status quo once again.
“I’m The Greatest Star” differs from common “I am” songs because it is not a basis for how we view the character, but rather a reference point for how Fanny Brice changed. Success throws Fanny into a different world, far from Brooklyn and her small fan group of family. She definitely changed moving forward, but her past didn’t. I leave you with this thought- love is difficult, but you find yourself again and again and again, with or without it.
Okay, maybe not. But still! The musical Gypsy definitely satisfies the male gaze. By that, I mean that Gypsy, the television directed by Emile Ardolino, encourages the objectification and sexualization of women. Viewers can see this in a few different ways, but I want to focus on the character Louise, played by Cynthia Gibb. More specifically, my analysis looks at the evolution of her character and how her relationship with her femininity affects her success and happiness. Let’s begin with “Let Me Entertain You,” a musical number performed twice within the musical but with significan difference in each rendition. Through analyzing the costuming, performance, and music of both performances, viewers can observe how Louise’s character evolves and what this evolution suggests about the film’s attitudes toward gender and sexuality.
Part 1: “May We Entertain You” – Baby June and Baby Louise
Let’s first dissect the costuming. Viewers first hear this song when June and Louise are young. They stand next to each other on stage, full of confidence and energy, ready to perform. Dressed in a bright colorful, frilly dress, June draws all of the attention. In comparison, the overalls her sister Louise wears swallows her small frame. This begins a pattern where June always dresses in high-quality feminine clothing whereas Louise dressees in scrappy boyish clothing. Viewers can literally see the distinction between the two characters. Everyone around June, who dresses according to female expectations, rewards her with attention and undying glory. By contrast, everyone who meets Louise, who dresses according to masculine expectations, casts her aside. Their clothing is a physical manifestation of their feminine difference and how others treat them as a result.
Source: All images were screen grabbed from the film.
The film further highlights their difference in their performance of the number. The choreography positions Louise as an accessory. She is a tool to help June shine. During the second line of the song, for example, Louise kneels on the ground and June literally dances circles around her sister. It doesn’t get any more straightforward than that. June is the cherished child, while Louise is forgotten.
June both looks and acts the part of an idealistic young girl in a sexist society during this song, and the music further characterizes the division between the girls. June sings proudly: “I will do some kicks/ I will do some tricks” to which Louise responds with, “I’ll tell you a story/ I’ll dance when she is done.”
Louise explicitly waits for June to perform before she will, proclaiming her second place status. So this song defines the relationship between the two girls, but what about the relationship between the girls and their larger society?
“May we entertain you?/ May we see you smile?”
These lyrics position the two little girls on stage to ask permission to perform and impress an audience. Servitude is their purpose, even as children. The reprise of this song will further support this ideal of servitude and satisfaction (*ahem* particularly for male spectators).
Part 2: “Let me Entertain You” – Louise
I’ll set the scene. Before this moment, Louise was the insignificant sibling. At this point, she spent her entire life living under the shadow of her sister, ignored by virtually every other character in the musical. But the very second she steps onstage in a sensual satin gown, she feels different. And so does the audience.
As a costume choice, her first dress highlights her female figure. The mermaid silhouette draws attention to her waist and radiates the energy of a poised and voluptuous woman. The silk fabric is delicate and smoothly bends with every curve of her body. This is a dramatic contrast to the oversized costuming she wore previously. The shift is so jarring that the other characters feel drawn to her, unable to hide their awe as she walks onstage to perform independently for the first time. She wears long white gloves that stretch all the way up to her bicep and a feathery boa across her chest. Altogether, the costume gives the illusion that she is tantalizing yet demure. She only hints at the beauty that lies just beneath her clothing. Similar costuming choices appear consistently throughout the number, beginning a montage of her performances. Her dresses are both skin-tight and flowing. The long silhouette highlights her height and curves. She is the personification of sexuality and prestige. This is the image of a woman embracing her femininity and finding power because of it.
Source: All images were screen grabbed from the film
Her performance only adds to this picture. She begins the number shyly and awkwardly. She has never worn a dress, let alone worn one in front of an entire audience – especially male. Mama Rose reserved the dresses for June, not for her! She has only ever known baggy pants and overalls (and a cow suit, apparently). Her body language is uptight and shy, but she is curious, drawn in by the attention that she has never received. But the tension unravels with the drop of her first glove. Viewers watch Louise blossom into her confidence and stardom with the loss of every article of clothing. By the second stanza of the song, she stands tall and confident. She rolls her shoulders back and holds her head high. She has the audience in the palm of her hand, and she knows exactly how to play with them. Just give them a little leg here… and a shoulder there… and her audience melts. Even the suggestion of her naked body is enough to give her complete power over the audience and her career as a whole.
The lyrics even further support her sexuality as a means for success and power. Perhaps the most glaring difference between the two numbers lies in who sings lead. June sings the lead in the first appearance of this song, but now, Louise is the sole singer and completely owns the stage. Furthermore, instead of questioning “May we entertain you?” Louise purrs the slightly more alluring lines of “Let me entertain you/ Let me make you smile.” The sexual undertone is heavy as she continues with “And if you’re real good/ I’ll make you feel good/ I’d want your spirit to climb.” Through her words, audiences hear the power dynamic between Louise and the audience. She will please them, but only if they behave for her. The audience is at the complete mercy of what Louise is willing to give, and they love it. In fact, they pay her for it. These routines give her massive stardom, and she rises to a level of opulence of which her mother and June could only dream. She has surpassed the success of her sister and transcended the desires of her mother. By embracing her sexuality and femininity, she is happy, confident, and successful.
Part 3: Putting it all together (by stripping it down)
So how does Louise’s character arc support the idea that women are tools for sexualization and objectification? Let’s review. Throughout the majority of the movie, characters regard Louise as insignificant. They ignore her and maker her feel as if she is not good enough to receive even an ounce of attention. How does the movie visually depict this? It virtually erases her femininity, clothing her in oversized masculine attire with little makeup and no stylized hair.
But the moment Louise wears something sensual, the very second that she acknowledges and highlights her femininity, she receives all of the attention and power that she was denied for years before. It’s almost as if the movie screams in your face, “Ladies, look at the old Louise. Do you want to be ignored and belittled? No? Then act like this shiny and sexy Louise instead! She has everything she wanted in her wildest dreams!” It’s like a campaign for women to invite men to ogle at their bodies because Louise did it and look how happy she is now!
That being said, I completely support women embracing the reality of our misogynist society and using their sexuality to reclaim control over their bodies. But it is harmful that Louise wasn’t ever accepted before claiming her sexuality. The film constructs this narrative that it is not okay for women to ignore beauty standards. Because if they do, society will reject them, and they will fail. So maybe the moral of the story isn’t quite to quit our jobs and become strippers, but apparently, we should be comfortable with the idea.
These lyrics come from the song “Dames” from the musical 42nd Street. With playful music draped over them, you might interpret these sleazy lyrics as satirical, honest, or even critical. But the 2017 West End revival of 42nd Street is none of these. From Hamilton to Newsies, it plainly states the political mission of many musicals: to distract viewers from bad politics with song and dance.
The show’s “handsome heroes” sing the above lyrics, suggesting that “Dames” is a man-to-man conversation. One could argue that director Mark Bramble, choreographer Randy Skinner, lyricists Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer, and composer Harry Warren are poking fun at “unsophisticated” Broadway conventions. But the next section of the song continues:
What cute about a little cutie?
It’s her beauty, not brains!
Old father time will never harm you
if your charm still remains!
After you’ve grown old baby
you don’t have to be a cold baby.
Keep young and beautiful
[Chorus] Oh yes!
It’s your duty to be beautiful
[Chorus] Oh yes!
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved.
[Chorus] Oh yes! Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes!
Even though women sing these lines on stage, men wrote, set to music to, and choreographed them, making women sing them in nude leotards. Underneath the playful musical exterior is a clear, patriarchal message: only girls beautiful enough for Broadway get to find love. The number then features a dance break, where the countless, nameless chorus girls, costumed to look naked, dance for the spectator’s male viewing pleasure. These women are cute, dainty, basically naked, and most importantly, nameless, so that audiences don’t have to think too hard about whether or not they should take one home tonight.
The song ends with the triumph of Broadway spectacle. The orchestra plays a fanfare as the beautiful, nameless dames parade around stage wearing extravagant dresses and accompanied by tuxedoed heroes. The music reaches a victorious crescendo as the leading lady, dressed in brilliant white, graces center stage like Venus in the jaws of a shark. Therefore “Dames” is not satirical because it does exactly what it pretends to make fun of: sexualizing unnamed chorus girls. And this is not an accident; it’s the result of a long list of decisions made by men to exploit young women for profit.
A musical that celebrates the history of Broadway, 42nd Street puts its female performers on a pedestal without stopping to think about the bigger picture. The antifeminist overtones of “Dames” carry through the rest of the show and the history of the stage on which it stands. 42nd Street asks the fundamental question: what is the point of a Broadway musical? The answer: dames!
But the song and dance do not cover up the monstrosity beneath. To leave the message and meaning out of the overall analysis of a production misses the point. For in 42nd Street, the costuming, choreography, music, set design, and writing objectify the female cast. It celebrates the trend that producers can reinforce whatever structures of evil they want, as long as they wrap it up in song and dance. Personally, I’m tired of illusions, and even more tired of settling for “fun” shows with abysmal politics. Instead of celebrating their roots, those who write American musicals need to take a good look at the past and realize that the present can be so much better.
With a true New York wit and a voice like buttah’, Barbra Streisand’s breakout performance in Director William Wyler’s Funny Girl remains one of the best performances in any film musical. Not only did her role as Broadway pioneer Fanny Brice give way to the iconic phrase “hello, gorgeous,” but also to an unprecedented tie for Best Actress alongside Hollywood titan Katherine Hepburn at the 1969 Academy Awards. With so much iconography emerging from this classic musical film’s titular comedic lady, I would expect that it also pay a certain reverence to the story of Fanny Brice — which it does, but only for the film’s first half. The film falls victim to the stereotype of the worrisome lover (then wife, in the film’s latter half) by placing Streisand’s character amid male-centric songs . While the film remains one of the most important musical performances ever made, numbers like “Don’t Rain on my Parade” render Streisand’s Fanny Brice a poorly-developed character whose desire for male validation surplants her identity as an unparalleled Broadway star.
Now, I am not questioning the legendary status of “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” which is arguably one of the most pervasive and iconic musical songs ever to emerge. However, it is important to interpret the song’s context within the film. The performance occurs near the midpoint of the film while Brice and the Follies complete their touring engagement in Baltimore. However, after a week-long love affair with the enigmatic Nick Arnstein, Fanny – in her typically Fanny way – spontaneously leaves the tour to follow Nick to Europe. Perhaps the most crucial detail within this scene is her co-stars’ attempts to persuade Fanny to stay, stating lines like “you’re making a fool of yourself” and “haven’t you any pride?” These moments lead Streisand to burst into “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” with the film’s director William Wyler compelling the audience to view the Follies as the conflict, despite the actuality of their efforts to support a fellow female castmate. As such, the outburst into “Parade” – detailing the ways in which Brice will not be swayed from living out her true passions – feels like a slap in the face to Fanny’s character development. Sure, she’s standing up for what she believes in, but this sudden need to justify her want for male validation feels awkward. Throughout the film, Wyler has oriented us to Fanny’s daring, won’t-take-no attitude, but in this moment – the film’s most iconic performance, may I add – reduces her personality to appeasing her desires for a man.
Bob Merrill’s lyrics, however, are strikingly empowering. Simply put, Fanny’s not letting anyone ruin her high – evident when she belts “I gotta fly once / I gotta try once” and “I’m gonna live and live now / Get what I want, I know how.” Only aided by the amazing range and emotion in Streisand’s vocal display, this song encapsulates a sense of go-getter aspiration and pursuit for Funny Girl’s protagonist. Yet, it is the full-bodied, reverberating crescendo of, “Hey, Mister Arnstein, here I am,” that ultimately reduces this empowerment anthem to a surface-level coo for the attention of a man. The fact that this singular lyric is the “highpoint” of the number indicates that this – the affections of a man she has been romantically involved with for only a few days – is the definitive motivator for her passions and aspirations. Throughout Act I, Fanny had been a shining beacon of pursuing her professional dreams, and has done so without once requiring the consultation of a male suitor. As such, this grandiose number ultimately waters down the vibrant aspirations Fanny pursues throughout the film’s former half.
What makes the “Mr. Arnstein” lyric all the more shallow is the fact that “Don’t Rain on My Parade” shares its melodic buildup and lyricism with “I’m the Greatest Star.” Unlike “Parade,” “Greatest Star” lets the audience see the go-getter mantra in a Fanny-centric way. In this previous number, Fanny pursues acknowledgment of her stage presence and raw talent. “I’m the Greatest Star” indicates Fanny’s celebration of herself through lyrics like “Some ain’t got it, not a lump / I’m a great big clump of talent,” unlike the way “Parade” reduces her personal ambitions to a measly, little crush. The “Hey Mr. Keeney, here I am” lyric feels more powerful here, because Fanny knows she’s good enough on her own. Her call for Keeney is a sign of her boldness rather than a meager cry for validation. As such, the juxtaposition between the “Hey Mr. [insert surname here]” lyrics just hurts the authenticity of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. The emphasis and dynamism Wyler placed on the “Parade” number rather than “Greatest Star” asks audiences to see Fanny’s pursuit for male validation as superior to her pursuit for talent recognition and the fulfillment of her dreams.
As for the choreographic performance of “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” there is not much notable movement, but rather a series of long shots following Fanny as she makes her way back to New York and subsequently into Arnstein’s room on the ship. Many of these shots depict Streisand running frantically with her luggage and employing a multitude of transportation means to get to Nick. Within this supercut of Fanny’s unprompted return, I can’t help but notice how much this performance differs from the film’s prior numbers, those multitude of grandiose performances whether on the elegant Follies stage or wandering between street lights on Henry Street. This number feels small in comparison. Given what we know about Fanny Brice thus far – whether it be through Merrill’s audacious lyrics or Streisand’s zest-filled performance – small is not an appropriate adjective for describing this character. In most shots – specifically the train window shot and the shot of the taxi arriving to the seaport– viewers can hardly even make out Streisand’s bodily and facial characteristics. Wyler’s use of a supercut assumedly attempts to empower the audience alongside Fanny while she undergoes this triumphant return to her “love,” but I cannot help but feel a disconnect through this distanced orientation. For being such a bold and booming act closer, “Parade” undoes the nerve and excitement of earlier performances like “Roller Skate Rag” and “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” Unfortunately, the lack of grandiose choreography or cinematography only prolongs the song’s vapidity.
With all that being said: I love Barbra Streisand, and I personally think she should have edged out Katherine Hepburn for that Best Actress win. I can’t even count the times I passed a mirror on the way out the door and thought to myself “hello, gorgeous.” Funny Girl is – whether you like or not – a piece of cultural iconography. However, it is important to acknowledge the inherent flaws present in this adaptation of Fanny Brice’s revolutionary role in the formation of modern musical theater culture: Brice is a standing column of inspiration, not only for women, but for first-generation Jewish individuals, and her role in the theater industry should be immortalized with total reverence and respect. Despite the powerhouse performance of Barbra Streisand in this film, the unfortunate hyper-fixation on her romantic obstacles takes away from the wondrous qualities which should have been the focus of this biopic.
When I came to college, did I ever imagine writing an essay (that I would be submitting to a literal professor) singing the praises of stripping? Not in the slightest. But is that what this essay will be about? Yes. Yes, it will.
“Misogynistic” is the term most people would use to describe sexy dancing or envision women getting almost naked on a theatrical stage to please horny men. These men clearly are objectifying women as sexual objects rather than seeing them as multidimensional beings. Yet, the 1993 made-for-television musical Gypsy challenges the idea that embracing one’s sexuality is inherently misogynist. Instead, Gypsy highlights the way females can deploy their sexuality to gain power.
This musical film follows Rose, the archetype of the domineering stage mother, as she pushes her daughters, June and Louise, to perform vaudeville acts out of her misguided desire for fame. It is obvious that Rose strays pretty far from the ideals of traditional femininity, as she rejects the ideals of marriage, yells at the men around her, and often employs brazen vocals. While my grandmother might rebuke such “unladylike” behavior, I do not find it troublesome. My issue with Rose is that she desperately attempts to enforce her own beliefs about sexuality on her children. To achieve what she believes will lead to success in show business, Rose forces her daughters to essentially suppress their burgeoning sexuality by pressuring them to act more youthful and, in Louise’s case, perform with a masculine appearance. It is problematic to tell women to suppress their sexuality or femininity as a means to gain power because it reinforces the idea that acting feminine is inferior. It suggests that those who embrace their femininity and sexuality are less empowered. However, women should not have to wash away their femininity to be taken seriously. Through Bob Mackie’s excellent costume design, Louise’s costumes become less and less feminine as she grows older. Starting with a more gender-neutral clown costume as a young child, she then must dress like the other boys on stage wearing trousers and overalls when performing behind June. Her loose pants and shirt buttoned all the way to her neck prevents people from viewing her silhouette. The cow costume she ultimately wears strips away any semblance of her figure.
Cynthia Gibbs, who portrays Louise, excels at revealing the pressure Rose places on her to act masculine in their vaudeville but also how Louise has internalized her stage persona and translated it into her real life. When wearing these costumes, she seems unsure of herself. The suppression of Louise’s sexuality is not just performed on stage but also permeates her everyday life. In their initial Vaudeville performance of the song “Let Me Entertain You,” Gibbs’ dancing appears highly robotic. She is stiff and unsure in her movements as she marches and waves her arm in front of her. Gibb’s constrained movements highlight the lack of freedom the character Louise has under the control of her mother, who essentially forces her into a masculine appearance. Later, when they enter the burlesque theatre, Rose calls the strippers “filth” before she realizes how she can benefit from the situation. This word choice highlights Rose’s belief that flaunting one’s sexuality is somehow dirty. Rose wants Louise to mask her sexuality as she believes showing it off will make her lose her respect and dignity. Herbie even walks out on Rose because he disagrees with Rose encouraging her daughter to essentially reduce herself in front of men.
Only when Louise truly embraces her sexuality does she transition into a more confident, empowered woman. When she dons a dress for the first time at the strip club, I felt like I was watching someone who just had cosmetic facial and breast enlargement surgery look at themself for the first time after the bandages have come off. I could feel the sexual tension between Cynthia Gibbs and the mirror. As she caresses her body, Gibbs’ choice to take a slight, not-so-subtle pause when holding her breasts highlights her newfound sense of identity as a woman. Jule Styne’s musical score perfectly reinforces Louise’s shift in self-image, as the soft violin music in the background oscillates at a high pitch, increasing feelings of tension. Then, the sound of a bell kicks, symbolizing her freedom. In high school, the ringing of the bell would mean I would finally be free from the horrors of calculus. By playing on these associations of a bell with freedom, Styne reveals the freedom Louise feels now that she has escaped her mother’s influence and can embrace her sexuality.
The dichotomy between the different performances of “Let Me Entertain You” convey the newfound empowerment Louise gains as she taps into her femininity and sensuality. In Gibb’s portrayal of Louise, the viewer can clearly observe how she gains ownership of her body. Her stiff, robotic movements from the past routine are gone; once dressed in a more feminine mannor, she begins to move much more naturally. Through Jerome Robbin’s choreographic expertise, she now exhibits greater musicality as she dances burlesque onstage. With shoulder rolls and shaking hips, Gibbs portrays Louise as being able to exhibit a more fine-tuned control over her movements. The link between the more sensual dancing and Louise’s bodily authority speaks to the way in which tapping into her femininity has granted her this greater autonomy.
Additionally, Louise begins to project her voice, a demonstration of her confidence in what she has to say. Sondheim’s lyrics in Louise’s new performance of “Let Me Entertain You” further highlight her empowerment. Louise states that she is “not a stripper” but rather “an ecdysiast, [which] is one who,/ or that which,/ sheds its skin.” While at first, I thought such language was just Louise’s excuse to avoid the stigma of stripping; but upon further inspection, I recognized the difference between being a stripper and ecdysiast. The term stripper evokes ideas of someone just taking off their clothes or “stripping” away part of them, reducing them in essence. Meanwhile, an ecdysiast “sheds its skin,” which implies that there is a new layer underneath. Rather than taking away part of oneself by stripping, the character of Louise views herself as taking off the old part of herself to expose new skin. Such nuances reveal how Louise sheds her more tomboyish persona in favor of tapping into a new part of herself. Rather than simply donning a new costume to perform her sexuality, she shows a part of herself that always existed but was just waiting to be revealed.
Director Emile Ardolino’s choice for Rose to hang the cow head in her daughter’s dressing room further speaks to this idea of using a costume as a sort of mask of one’s true self. Gibbs’ eyes glare as she firmly demands that her maid to take it down, emphasizing the repulsiveness Louise feels with this stark reminder of a time when she had to cover up her feminine identity. Just like she changed her name to “Gypsy Rose Lee,” Louise continues to reject what her mother laid on her. Now, Louise favors stripping, which she feels is the most honest, “stripped down” version of herself. As a burlesque performer, Louise has the autonomy to choose what she does or does not want to show, thus taking back the power of her own body.
For such a long time, like Louise, I would cover up. My high school dress code specifically stated that no “sexual-looking” clothing was allowed. We had to completely cover our shoulders, cleavage, stomachs, and thighs at all times. The dress code instilled within me a belief that I needed to maintain what they referred to as a “professional appearance” to be taken seriously. I remember Ms. Letchworth explicitly complimenting me for wearing a t-shirt under one of my dresses to show less skin, literally telling thirteen-year-old me that I looked so much more “respectable” than some of my peers who were “pushing the limits.” Yet, as I got to college, I came to the realization that people telling me what to wear to prevent me from being objectified felt just as misogynist. Thus, I was very impressed that Gypsy, despite the original book being written in 1959, created a progressive representation of sexuality, that women do not have to choose between embracing their sexuality and feeling empowered. Instead, Gypsy reveals how women can be both feminine and powerful.
As a Boston middle-schooler, I learned to identify the complexity of a well-written character, one exhibiting multiple facets. Rounded characters exhibit multiple facets; they are split between identities. Tom Brady’s retirement and quick unretirement in 2022, for example, revealed his struggle with the idea that he might need to become a father/husband more than a Quarterback. The gothic classic, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde demonstrated that sometimes split identities can lead to many people’s death. In contrast, “flat” characters can be fully understood at a surface level and have little impact on the plot. Our teachers discouraged the writing of flat characters, and yet many men have done just that to their female characters. Fanny Brice, as played by Barba Streisand in the 1968 film rendition of Funny Girl, is a complex character plagued by conflicting identities. Is she a woman or a professional performer? This binary existed for Brice in 1910, as society assumed it was simply impossible be both. One identity tugs against the other to drive the story’s plot. When her identity as a performer exudes, she constructs her life independent of the men around her. However, when she follows her desires as a woman, her life becomes wholly dependent on her husband, Nick Arnstein (played by Omar Sharif). Fanny Brice is a powerful performer on stage, but her immense success could not give her what she has always desired–to be as beautiful as a rose.
“Hello, gorgeous!” are the first words the audience hears Fanny exclaim. Speaking to herself in the mirror, Fanny tries to convince herself that she is pretty. Her backdoor entrance into a dressing room establishes her identity as a performer. Still, immediately, the focus of the audience shifts their attention towards her voice which compliments her own looks. Confirmation of her occupation as a performer, but not of her stardom, occur quickly when John, the stage manager, gives her a thirty-minute warning. Fanny thanks him and John asks about Mr. Arnstein – a character still unknown to the audience. Fanny does not know anything, and Emma walks in and asks the same question about Mr. Arnstein. At this point in the show, Fanny has not even been mentioned. She has referred to herself as “gorgeous”, but no one has named her.
The film names Mr. Arnstein twice, and people seem to want to know where he is. To the audience, he is a person of greater importance than this insecure, nameless character. The scene continues with Emma revealing that Ziegfeld, the show’s producer, is waiting for Fanny– demonstrating her significance to the show. Yet, as Emma says this, Fanny is in awe of the fact that she is worth waiting for: that she has value. Quickly, however, the next scene transports the audience back to a pre-star/pre-Nick era with Fanny’s mom and family friends in a modest kitchen on Henry Street. Family friends parroting that Fanny is not pretty enough for Broadway sets up an “ugly duckling” motif and explains her insecurity. As if their point was not emphasized enough, they break out into a song aptly titled “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty.” The friends continue to barrage Fanny, singing that as a non-pretty girl, she will never attain success. Fanny responds confidently that the world will be stunned at her performing abilities, disregarding the comments about her looks. Fanny has internalized her ugliness and bets on her talent to compensate for her looks. At this point, “Hello, gorgeous” is not a phrase that Fanny can even imagine. The journey of accepting her beauty parallels her rise to stardom, yet the desire to have something unattainable ultimately grabs and holds her attention.
Success is a matter of intrinsic ambition (if the American Dream is true) while beauty is in the eye of the beholder (does not depend on the American Dream). Fanny is rational and understands that talent is easier to attain than getting rid of her “skinny legs.” Her desire is palpable as she recognizes that the best way to showcase her abilities is to just get on stage. She auditions for the seemingly unimportant chorus girl position at a theatre run by Keeney, who eventually fires Fanny because of her looks. In this moment of rejection, Fanny understands that she is the only person who actually believes in her future. She quickly tries explaining the predicament in the way her Jewish New York heritage and my baking obsession know best: an analogy involving bagels and onion rolls. In her world, onion rolls are ubiquitous, and she implies that they are worse than the unknown Jewish delicacy– the Bagel. Fanny is a delicious bagel “on a plate full of onion rolls.”
Finding it impossible to succeed as the bagel, she pulls herself up by her bootstraps and bursts out into a song, “I’m the Greatest Star,” that displays her performance abilities through lyrics, her vocal range, comedic interludes, and the movement of her skinny legs. She starts off, not yet in song, displaying her “36 expressions” in their most juxtaposed manner. The producers easily ignore her, and she tries again to demonstrate her value as a bagel by outright singing, “’ ’Cause I’m the greatest star/ I am by far/ but no one knows it.” Unable to look at her anymore, Keeney walks her out, suggesting that beauty is more important than skill. It’s a simple message that has stood up well to the test of time.
Yet, Fanny won’t accept it. She rapidly shifts her tones and intonations like car gears as she the producer kicks her out, a seemingly final attempt to get a job. Standing outside, she begins to understand that she needs to hype herself up. The violin accompaniment shifts instantaneously from legato high notes to staccato low notes as she gathers herself-creating a sense of urgency for the audience. She powerfully jumps forward, pauses, and then steps forward and backwards signifying her breaking through the hesitation of rejection. At her first mention of her beauty–“Who’s an American Beauty Rose?–she searches for reasons to be confident. Running back inside, voice growing louder, the accompaniment of strings seems to reach the climax until she finds herself on the stage. The music pauses which allows Fanny to gather her thoughts and exhibit her beautiful voice without distractions. Fanny’s confidence on the stage allows the audience to see past her insecurities with her looks. She is jovial, and her movements and notes are fluid. The tone and rhythm repeatedly transform, demonstrating why she is the “Greatest Star.” Her performance ends with her collapsing in tears as she has given the theater one last shot to establish her identity as a performer, and “Bam!”
Fanny attempts to construct her life and success independently of what people around her say. Luckily, Eddie sees her and offers her a small role. Obviously, with Fanny’s ambition, she accepts. Ecstatic at the thought of being hired, she forgets her bagel status. Forgotten for a whole few seconds as we see her look ridiculous attempting to roller skate. Yet now, her ugliness isn’t her looks, it’s her clumsiness, and the audience loves her performance. It’s ridiculous enough to look purposeful and comical. With her comedic performative abilities, whether intentional or not, Fanny Brice solidifies her role on the stage and crafts her identity as a performer.
Love is empowering. Love is beautiful. However, what makes love absolutely mesmerizing for Fanny is that someone will love her even with her looks. Her ugliness is ingrained so deeply that as she attains stardom at the highest level, she must separate her role as a performer from feeling pretty. As a superstar, she could do whatever she wanted, and the crowd would eat it up (Remember, she is a delicious bagel). This only works because she is so innately funny–and she knows it. However, she doesn’t know how beautiful she is. The validation of others is the only way to certify the level of prettiness she desires. For a handsome and wealthy man to come and give her everything she feels like she is missing is simply life-altering. When she first meets Nick, she cannot help herself but blurt out, “Gorgeous!” calling to mind the first line of the play. They eventual marry, and Fanny works on convincing herself that she is as “gorgeous” as Nick. Yet, she always wonders if she is worthy of his love–does she have value? During their initial conversation, Nick drops that he thinks Fanny is a star while dallying with some beautiful girls in the background. In one conversation, Nick has given her the validation that she’s always wanted: Stardom, beauty, and romance. No wonder she fell in love.
Fanny thoroughly idealizes this first pseudo-romantic interaction, so it’s unsurprising that she pursues it. A single compliment was not enough to remove the ingrained feeling of inadequateness, which the audience sees when Fanny alters her beautiful bridal performance by stuffing a pillow under her dress for comedic effect. Premarital pregnancy was not favorable in the public’s eye in 1911. Yet, society understood very well how unfavorable it is, and so it is absolutely hilarious to the crowd. It’s important to note that Fanny’s inability to convince herself to sing a line about being beautiful indicates how deeply seeded her feelings are. Yet, Fanny’s stunt is pivotal as it leads Nick to sing directly about how he finds her attractive, potentially uprooting her feelings of shortcoming.
Nick’s song is fascinating as he does not call her beautiful but implies so by singing, “I want to be seen with you.” Analogous to the slow kneading required for a pristine bagel, Nick begins a series of flirtatious teases that draws Fanny and the audience closer to imagining a possible relationship. He comes to her neighborhood party and is cordial but leaves as soon as the idea of intimacy comes up. Eventually, he holds her chin, kisses her, and then quickly leaves and does not call back. They meet again by ridiculous chance, and he invites her for a private dinner. Nick calls her beautiful for the first at this extravagant private dinner, first by mentioning that her outfit looks “wonderful with [her] eyes” and then by outright saying “you look beautiful.” These compliments are accompanied by a sexual tension that makes Fanny feel awkward. They get into a screaming match and order dinner, and by then- the tension is sky high, and they break out into a song that sets up the nature of their relationship. “You are woman… You are smaller, so I can be taller!” Now not referencing her beauty or talent, but her gender, Fanny becomes uncomfortable and literally gets up and moves away. Yet he persists, “our friendship leaves something to be desired… you are woman, I am man/Let’s kiss.” She shivers, fans herself, saved only by the waiter’s knocking. Visibly uncomfortable, she loses all the power she’s earned on the stage. Through her verse, she attempts to convince herself, “Should I do the things he’ll tell me to?/ In this Pickle, what would Sadie do?” Sadie would do what the man wants to do as she is only his wife. As Nick has given Fanny a sense of beauty, Fanny finds herself wanting to be his Sadie more so than a Ziegfeld girl.
Fanny commands the stage and the performance on Broadway. Even the mighty Ziegfeld listens to Fanny. Through her identity as a performer, Fanny achieves everything she sets out to do as a performer. However, what she cannot get as a performer, is what she desires as a woman who has been scarred by insults about her appearance her whole life. With the career organized and successful, what is left to achieve is to be called beautiful by her husband. Nick provides that and allows her to flourish as his wife as she wants to. Although, years of mistreatment by her family and the industry push Fanny to constantly seek external validation about her beauty. This perpetual search leads Fanny to agree to leave the theatre if need be. At the end of the day, “you can’t take an audience home with you,” and Fanny establishes her agency with the decisions she wants to make. She is the producer, the stage manager, and the main character of her own life.
If you’re a musical theatre geek (like myself), surely the name Fanny Brice makes you light up. Fanny Brice is the leading lady in Jule Styne, Bob Merrill, and Isobel Lennart’s musical Funny Girl. The musical was first performed on Broadway in 1964, but the production I recently watched was filmed live on stage at Manchester’s Palace Theatre in 2018 under the direction of Robert Delamere and Michael Mayer. Ricky Milling edited the film, and did so beautifully through zoomed in and out panels of the actors. Funny Girl portrays the talented life of Fanny Brice (played by Sheridan Smith) with a side of love/heartbreak portrayed through her relationship with Nick Arnstein (Darius Campbell). In this rendition, Smith fantastically portrays Fanny’s character through her facial expressions, choreography, and acting talents. The music also helps craft Fanny’s character a loud and pompous, yet solemn at the same time. Merill (lyricist) and Styne (composer) worked hand in hand to craft the emotional music of Funny Girl. Through the addition of instruments, varying tempos, and repetitive melodies, they tell the story of Fanny in the most emotional and exciting way. Whether through the “I am” songs “Don’t Rain On My Parade” or “I’m the Greatest Star” or the hysterical “Sadie Sadie”, Funny Girl will always remain a classic. I say this, because Funny Girl presents the gender barrier between men and women in a way that makes it easy to understand, providing comic relief while also highlighting its seriousness.
Smith's Brice is fully confident in her talents and abilities, and she continuously breaks out of the status quo. Today we would look at Brice performing and would probably say something like “slayyyyy,” “you go girl” or even “she’s an independent womannnnn.” But, it pretty much goes without saying that back then in the 1900s, this was definitely not the case. People celebrated Fanny’s success, but the moment she overshadowed Nick Arnstein, everyone started to shake their heads. Fanny was the only one to not notice until her mother pointed out that she basically had her hands around Nick’s neck due to her success. Funny Girl is important because it shows an anomaly to the glorification of the American idea of feminine behavior. Gender and sexuality play a very big, and sometimes lucrative role in musical theatre, and especially within shows performed on Broadway.
There is a common image of the “perfect American woman,” and Fanny Brice offered a contrast to show the hypocrisy of the time, and even though that may not have been seen when it originally had come out. The effect of watching Funny Girl is seen within society very much so nowadays. Fanny Brice was performing under the talented Florenz Ziegfeld. She provided comical relief, and the theatre profited greatly off her talents. However, Fanny was different from the other Follies women. Ziegfeld presented a distinct image of Americanism in his shows by choosing the most objectively beautiful performers; Fanny served as a contrast to this idea. Ziegfeld was astounded by her ability to be successful while also being herself, and again, in modern days we actively look for this, but back then there was a certain look that was preferred by directors and men in general. We even see this through Fanny’s relationship with Nick. She begins to fawn over him, and he’s looked at as this suave gentleman who could never want to be with someone like herself. However, he chooses to be with Fanny even though he could most likely have his pick of any girl, which is an interesting contrast to what is expected of men like him during that time.
Even though Nick seems like this amazing person at first, we start to see his personality as his relationship with Fanny begins to develop even more. Specifically, after Fanny agrees to go out with him, and the song “You Are Woman, I Am Man” is performed. The way that Sheridan Smith walks into the scene is hysterical. She walks in and is cracking all these jokes, and not acting as she’s “supposed to”. She presents herself as a strong woman because she refuses to just become enamored with his dreaminess, and demands that he not play with her emotions. During this time period, women were expected to plan their lives around men, and Fanny presents the opposite. Nick admits to being scared of Fanny which is also unusual, but eventually Fanny admits to not knowing when he will make “advances” which is when he goes right into the musical number. This song is intriguing to me, because Nick is trying to convince Fanny to participate in his “advances”, and we see her inner struggle between doing what she thinks she should do and what she wants to do in this situation. The lyrics that particularly stick out to me are as follows:
“You are woman, I am man/ you are smaller, so I can be taller than”
These particular lyrics are interesting to me, because we see the gender stereotypes from the beginning where there is this idea that a man is greater and stronger and taller than a woman and he tries to feed this to Fanny (someone who doesn’t see the world this way), and thus begins her inner struggle of wanting him, but also not wanting him.
The next set of lyrics I find entertaining is when Fanny begins to sing the following:
“Isn’t this the height of nonchalance/ Furnishing a bed in restaurants?/ Well, a bit of dinner never hurt/ But guess who is gonna be dessert?”
This is when Fanny begins to crack jokes (as she typically does), and calls out male misogyny in a satirical way while also showing us the inner conflict she has between staying true to herself or being the woman she’s expected to be in this time period(submissive to men and what they want). I find it interesting that Fanny goes from singing this kind of a song and dives straight into “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, which is often noted as her “I am” song and also her expression of strength. Not only is this a shocking series of songs, but right after “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” Fanny goes into singing her song “Sadie, Sadie” which also is very different from the vibe of her “I am strong” song. I always find “Sadie, Sadie” to be the first point we see a huge change in Fanny’s character as she begins to fall deeper into the expectations of women at the time. She even calls herself “Ziegfeld's married lady” which allows for her new "characteristic" to be that she is married (the opposite of what she was known for, which was breaking the status quo).
Overall, I believe that the director (Robert Delamere and Michael Mayer) did a brilliant job with the way the performance was done to emphasize the gender stereotypes that eventually were soaked up by Fanny unintentionally. After discussing these songs and Fanny’s slow, but progressive, change to becoming more of the typical woman for Nick I also want to point out that Fanny was also still true to herself. I say this because Fanny knew how successful and talented she was throughout the entire show, and never once gave up performing. She also was the “breadwinner” between her and Nick which is what caused a lot of strife between the two of them. To be frank, I believe that the way Nick acted out towards Fanny helping him was immature, ungrateful, and narcissistic. However, this is also me responding to his behaviors as a 19 year old, “woke”, female in the modern world. Back then, Nick’s reaction to a woman being on top was not unusual, but still disappointing. It was normal for a man to feel upset and have his superiority feel diminished at the success of a female counterpart. This was exemplified in Funny Girl and in the modern world it feels like this amazing production can be viewed as a satire about the “old-fashioned” societal norms.
The character Fanny Brice created by the musical authors (Merill and Styne) was mostly successful in presenting her as a strong, confident anomaly of a woman that struggles with her place as a woman in society. I also believe that through the way that the song list is set up the story makes her inner struggle between performing and being a good wife/mom even clearer. I also believe that the costumes (made by Victoria Toni) were successful in communicating the struggles that Fanny went through as we saw her dressed glamorously towards the end, but in the beginning of the show we saw her wearing more normal clothing that wouldn’t be identified as fashionable or glamorous. The music and the costumes worked hand in hand to present us with Fanny: the strong, yet troubled woman trying to find her way through a career with a difficult stereotype expected of her. Sheridan Smith also provided the audience with a version of Fanny that was paired with the expectations set by both musical authors and costume designers. Through her facial expressions, increase in confidence while performing, and increased maturity she was able to present us with a Fanny that was strong but also sensitive to what was expected of women.
To wrap up this long-winded assessment of gender and sexuality in Funny Girl (2018), I believe that people watching this today should be looking at this with eyes wide open as to how Fanny broke out of the gender stereotypes of the time, but also not take everything too seriously in terms of what was expected of her. I say this because it is easy for us to become wrapped up in our anger over the way men treated women in the early 1900s, but we shouldn’t look at this production as something to be angry about or “shun” the musical out of spite. Rather, we should view it as something that was terrible, but be proud that Fanny was brave enough to keep her confidence on the up-trend (for the most part), and we should look at it as an example of exactly what we don’t want our society to revert back towards. In absolutely no way am I saying that the way women were treated by men and others within society was right by any means. I really want to emphasize that this is still a struggle for modern women (gender equality), and we have made progressive strides but should continue to learn from the past (by watching shows like this) in order to correct our present times. Gender and sexuality is usually something that is touched on in almost every famous musical, and this is because it is something that is important to be aware of, and also to use it as a tool for learning and understanding what we as a society need to do in order to continue in the fight towards equality within the workplace, and life in general.
For the first 19.5 years of my life, I existed in a state blissfully unaware of the plot of the 1968’s hit film Funny Girl. In this time (excluding, I suppose, the first few years), I held on to the childlike belief that the story was one of an unlikely star making her way in a male-dominated industry. This year that innocent dream shattered.
The music is still incredible– “Don’t Rain on my Parade” remains one of the Best Songs of All Time. Barbra Streisand’s performance as Fanny Brice is just as amazing as people say. Her Oscar was well deserved. What was not deserved, however, was the film taking up two hours and thirty minutes of my life, not exploring Fanny Brice’s glass-ceiling-breaking career, but instead detailing the ins and outs of her relationship with a lackluster man. Apparently, Ray Stark, the producer and the real life Fanny Brice’s son-in-law, thought this an appropriate representation of a woman’s life.
Never is this horrific story choice more obvious than the cringe-inducing song, “You Are Woman, I Am Man.” The film paints the song as terribly romantic but in actuality enforces a strict gender binary and blurs lines of consent. Take a watch if you can stomach it. (Frankly, I’ve seen enough.)
Let’s take a look at the first section of the song, sung by Omar Sharif’s Nicky Arnstein:
You are woman, I am man.
You are smaller, so I can be taller than.
You are softer to the touch.
It’s a feeling I like feeling very much.
You are someone
Still our friendship leaves something to be desired.
Doesn’t take more explanation than this.
You are woman, I am man.
[Insert retching sounds here.] In a few sentences, Nicky Arnstein defines what it means to be a woman AND what it means to be a man. There’s no room for nonbinary folk in Mr. Arnstein’s eyes, or perhaps more accurately, in lyricist Bob Merrill’s eyes.
As he sees it: woman = smaller, softer; man = taller, rougher (by process of elimination). More than this, he defines being a woman as not being a man. He does not say “You are smaller, and I am taller than.” He says “You are smaller, so I can be taller than.” Women are thus defined by their relation to men, existing only so men can exist in contrast. Thus femininity is an identity of not being: not being tall, not being rough, and more than anything not being a man.
However, this is not the only arbitrary rule Merrill applies to men and women. And I do not use the word ‘arbitrary’ lightly. If one defines gender by height and “softness,” my sandpaper elbows and above-average build have me looking a lot like ol’ Nicky Arnstein.
No, the most crucial definition of gender that Arnstein introduces in this song is that women inherently desire men and men inherently desire women. Every woman and every man. The sheer simplicity of “You are woman, I am man. / Let’s kiss” erases the necessity of consent. If one defines femininity as an unfiltered attraction to men, then the consent of any woman, or any person a man deems feminine, is a given.
This is absolutely insane.
The song’s oversimplification perpetuates the myth that sexual attraction, specifically heterosexual attraction, is a fundamental truth of humanity. By Arnstein’s definition, a lesbian is not a woman, and a gay man is not a man. An asexual person, like myself, is none of the above. I am not less of a woman because I don’t want to have sex. Period. End of story.
But perhaps I’m overthinking what is contextually a moment between two romantic partners, not a statement on society’s gender norms. Or perhaps I’m thinking just the right amount. After all, director William Wyler must’ve known the cultural impact he was making; he’d already seen his power over defining society’s perception of gender in the reception of Audrey Hepburn’s debut film Roman Holiday (1953). Regardless, if a man said any of this nonsense to me, he’d notice pretty quickly that “softer” hands punch just as hard.
Now, this isn’t to say that Omar Sharif isn’t terribly charming and handsome in his performance. He is. In fact, his charm works so well that Streisand’s Fanny goes from being visibly unsure to head over heels in love.
This initial discomfort is not just textual– repeatedly Arnstein puts Fanny into positions in which she is clearly physically uncomfortable.
In one moment, Arnstein has Brice, for lack of a better word, trapped between him and the fireplace. He goes in for a kiss, from which she shrinks away. Three minutes later she’s melting into him after only some wishy-washy internal monologue and some kisses on the neck.
There are no discussions of boundaries or consent, and none are apparently needed as the story establishes this moment as a peak in their relationship, the beginning of their ensuing honeymoon period.
I know I’ve joked about this song making me feel sick, but really, it just makes me sad. Isobel Lennart, a woman, wrote the screenplay; she also wrote the book for the stage musical. She saw it fit to portray romance in this way.
This film tells all the girls, who watch this movie to belt along with “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” that a man not respecting a woman’s boundaries is a good thing. It simultaneously tells young men not to take no for an answer, that a partner’s discomfort will subside if you push hard enough. This is not only infuriating, but it is actively harmful.
I could go on and on about the sexism ingrained into Funny Girl– the demonization of women with prominent careers and financial independence springs to mind–but what really bugs me about this song, in particular, is its simplicity.
That’s the point of the song– to oversimplify, to talk about a complicated thing like love in its most basic terms. In doing so, this song defines love as something that it doesn’t have to be. This version of love is unrelenting, male-oriented, and limited only to a specific subset of people (read: straight people). Arnstein and Brice’s relationship inevitably fails, but a plot-line of a doomed romance only works if the love was once there.
Love is the most common emotion one can experience; one loves their family, friends, significant other, or pet dog. But what if love is not equal for everyone? What if some are unfamiliar with the concept of being loved due to their appearance? The 1968 musical film, Funny Girl—directed by William Wyler and written by Isobel Lennart—illustrates the impact of beauty in romance through its protagonist Fanny Brice. As a girl who did not meet the typical beauty standards, Fanny was completely new to the experience of being loved. Consequently, she was vulnerable to the romantic appeals of a man named Arnstein and ended up prioritizing her love for him more than her long-held professional dream.
The production instantly establishes Fanny as a girl with bland looks; in the opening production number “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” her mother and her friends comment about Fanny not being pretty enough to become one of the Ziegfeld girls. The film further emphasizes her lack of beauty by including the musical number “I’m the Greatest Star,” in which Fanny repeatedly clings to the manager for a chance to stand on stage, despite his judgment that she does not have presentable visuals. Though Fanny coincidentally earns an opportunity to perform, it is only a minor role of a roller skater. She only manages to remain on stage by becoming a comical character, embarrassing herself by making mistakes or being a pregnant Ziegfeld girl.
The film’s characterization of Fanny as a “not-so-pretty” girl makes audiences assume that she has never had the experience of being loved by someone. Fanny not only desires love in a romantic sense but also desires the love of an audience; even after embarrassing herself onstage, she reacts quite delightedly when she receives applause. To a “normal” girl like Fanny, having people be interested in you is a brand new feeling.
Audiences notice Fanny’s unfamiliarity with receiving affection even more when Arnstein appears. He straightforwardly expresses his interest in Fanny, which mesmerizes her enough to cause a drastic shift in her focus in life; even though Fanny is on the road to being a successful star after miraculously joining Ziegfeld’s Follies cast, she ditches her lifelong dream to marry Arnstein.
Specifically in the production number, “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” the screenwriter emphasizes the dramatic effect Arnstein’s love has on Fanny. The lyrics depict Fanny’s determination to sacrifice her dream to stay with Arnstein. In fact, Fanny suddenly sings as if her life-long dream was to be in love with a man all along; she declares, “I’m gonna live and live now! / Get what I want, I know how!” as she rides the train that takes her to Arnstein.
The lines “Get ready for my love, ’cause I’m a ‘comer’ / I simply gotta march, my heart’s a drummer” also demonstrate Fanny’s blind curiosity for a romantic relationship. Without any prior experience, Fanny merely admires the fact that a man has an interest in her. To Fanny, this opportunity is just too precious to overlook.
On her way to meet Arnstein, the woodwind instruments under Fanny’s vocals play sequences of staccatos that climb up the scale, building an exciting tension for what Fanny will find at the end of her journey—Arnstein. This further highlights how vulnerable she is to his love.
During the number, Fanny wears the most conspicuous orange dress with an extravagant fur hat that implies her high socioeconomic status achieved by being a Ziegfeld girl. Despite possessing the power and freedom from financial abundance, she ignorantly chooses an impermanent relationship with a man over the stage she desired to stand on since she was young. The costume that emphasizes her capabilities represents the splendid aspects that Fanny potentially gives up for this relationship.
The lyricist also displays Fanny’s decision as a bold action against the common standards of women, as she sings “Don’t tell me not to live, just sit and putter” and “Who told you you’re allowed to rain on my parade?” The actress exaggerates her pronunciation, as if she is yelling at the people who are thwarting her from quitting her job, which adds to the sense of breaking free and behaving strong. However, women traditionally have given up their place in the workforce and devoted their lives to supporting their husbands and family. From this ironic depiction, we can observe how the writers of this song—Jule Styne and Bob Merrill—purposefully characterized this decision to feel like a bold and romantic move for Fanny, as if it was not common to give up everything for love.
The lyricist further implies that Fanny has transformed, believing that love is the greatest goal that she can achieve: “I gotta fly once, I gotta try once.” This number enforces the standard belief that a woman needs to give everything to her romantic relationship in case someone might try to steal her man, revealing her desperation to keep Arnstein’s love, to the point where she believes she is making the right decision for herself.
This indirect “privilege” still prevails. I could also find myself in Fanny’s shoes, as I do not 100% match the current beauty standards set for women. Before being aware of the privileges one holds by being pretty, I strongly believed that it was only right for me to date someone who I truly liked. If I stepped into a relationship without sincerity, I would only hurt the other person by undermining their emotions. So I waited until the day I would magically find someone who liked me and who I also liked back. It was not easy to find someone who was willing to have a mutual relationship with me without meeting set beauty standards. Gradually, I doubted my initial belief, waiting for an opportunity to be in any romantic relationship, disregarding how I truly felt about the person. Without the privilege to choose who I love, I might instantly say “yes” to receiving any love. Therefore, I understand Fanny’s primitive tendency to prioritize Arnstein’s love over her own ambition in work.
Under Funny Girl‘s humorous lines and story about a talented yet ordinary girl achieving both her dream and love lies a premise that beauty standards cause subtle inequalities by giving more opportunities to certain people who meet the expectations. By portraying Fanny as a victim of this inequality, the musical alerts the audience that beautyism should not impede anyone from loving or being loved.
Funny Girl: a Broadway musical where the woman holds power over the man…or does she? The West End revival of the musical Funny Girl (2018; BroadwayHD) was directed by Michael Mayer and stars Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice and Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein. It biographizes the life and love of Fanny Brice through her journey of becoming, and then thriving as, one of the most famous Ziegfeld Follies performers. The question at hand…who held the power, Fanny or Nick? I’m going to take two songs from the musical and analyze them in an in-depth, systematic way, and see if I can convince you, the reader, to come to a conclusion.
First, in the song “Sadie, Sadie” from the second act, Fanny and Nick have just gotten married, and the song describes Fanny’s thoughts and plans for her new life as a wife. The lyricist, Bob Merrill, has Fanny sing: “Nick says nothing is too good for me,” which makes it seem as if she hasn’t believed she’s been deserving of nice things until a man came around and told her so. Fanny glorifies these pretty words from a man rather than believing in her own self-worth. Smith lets the lyrics do most of the talking during this number with very few deviations from relaxed, lackadaisical movements. This choreography further enhances her now being a married woman who is supposed to rely on her husband. Merrill even has the company sing similarly interpreted lyrics, as heard with “Not every girl can get herself/A guy who looks like Nick.” As an attractive male, Nick sits on a higher pedestal than the average looking woman with no regard to her success or her accomplishments. It’s as if Nick can do better than someone like Fanny or on the flip side, Fanny doesn’t deserve to be with someone like Nick; it’s an honor that he glanced at her at all, much less married her. Although Smith does put a comedic spin on the song with her exaggerated actions of her relaxed day-to-day activities as a wife and her over the top facial expressions that illustrate the bliss she feels about being married, it still doesn’t take away from the words of the song diminishing her to solely Nick’s wife, or a “Sadie” as the song puts it. Despite Fanny being the musical’s main character, who eventually rises to entertainment stardom, this particular song diminishes her into one thing: the average wife of an attractive man.
Then, Mr. Arnstein, the businessman, is in need of sixty-eight thousand dollars so he can open a casino somewhere in Florida. He needs investors, but because he is in fact a father, and has to babysit his own kid so Fanny can go back to work and make money for the family (because he’s not making any), he’s out of luck. But who swoops in and saves the day? That’s right! Fanny. She provides him with his money because she claims that “[They] are in a real marriage/And what’s [hers] is [his].” He then suddenly starts singing “Temporary Arrangement,” beginning with the lyrics, “Please Fanny don’t hold so tight,” as if Fanny giving him money is somehow stifling. Campbell accentuates this with the discordance between each line of this part of the song and then with his head-shaking and how he moves his hands in an abrupt, authoritarian way when he sings “You’ve got to just set her straight.” The song emphasizes that his lack of money is only “a temporary estrangement/From the crystal dish and the silver knife.” The number includes a minute long dance break for Campbell where choreographer Lynne Page sets Campbell’s moves in a very smooth and suave way, matching the song’s lyrics and showing the audience how Arnstein wants to be presented, despite his less than ideal circumstances. In this case, Fanny is the provider, but Nick discredits her because his current financial position is only temporary; he never even thanks her for her contribution. The woman provides for the man, making him insecure.
In the first song, a man has power over a woman, and in second a woman has power over a man. But who really holds the power? Fanny is Nick’s wife, yet he barely acknowledges her help. Nick eventually leaves Fanny and their child, never to be heard from again, while Fanny continues performing with the Ziegfeld Follies as a famous comic, mourning her failed marriage to a man she’ll probably always love. Does Fanny being a divorcee make her any less exceptional both as a person and as a performer? Does Nick leaving Fanny cause his reputation to be ruined? When looking at who really had the power in the relationship, Nick seems to triumph. Despite him not being the financial provider, he still has the freedom to come and go as he pleases, which in the end he makes the choice to go indefinitely. This freedom stems from the fact that Nick is an attractive man, which automatically puts him on a pedestal in the society of that time. Fanny has the money and the fame, but she is lacking society standardized beauty, and she has the higher chance of getting hurt. As seen by her being left to be a single mother by the man she loves. Nick clearly has the power and the advantage in this relationship, where he can do with Fanny and her love as he pleases.
If you’re a mezzo-soprano belter in musical theatre, chances are you’re familiar with the 1964 musical Funny Girl. In fact, it’s likely you have sheet music from the show in your collection — I know I do. “Don’t Rain on My Parade”is a song every mezzo should know, even if Barbra Streisand’s iconic show-stopping performance in the 1968 film adaptation has made it off-limits in the audition room. Still, if you can belt, you should know it.
But there’s a song from the film even more taboo than “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” The finale: “My Man.” Seriously, sing it at your own risk. The song is synonymous with Streisand’s performance, which clinched her Best Actress win at the 41st Academy Awards. Anyone listening to you sing it will instantly compare you to Streisand, and no one can sing it like Streisand. Trust me and save yourself the trouble. However, if you’re looking for a song to sing on your own time with an octave jump up to a Db5, be my guest. I find it impossible to resist breaking it out in the practice room every once in a while.
However, when singing “My Man,” I never think about the number’s cultural implications. The lyrics compel me to swear as a woman my devotion to my male partner, daring others to challenge me as I follow him to the ends of the earth. I will give up my career, my passion for performing because my love for my husband is stronger. Wait…what? I’m giving up myhard-earned, successful career as Fanny Brice, the headliner of the Ziegfeld Follies, to stay with my insecure husband? You’ve got to be kidding me.
The addition of “My Man” as the finale to the film adaptation, a song not included in the original Broadway production, transforms Funny Girl from a musical about an empowered artistic trailblazer to one about a woman who is ultimately subservient to men — how disappointing. Why would director William Wyler put this song in the defining position to end Brice’s story? To counter Second Wave Feminism? To feature one of Brice’s most famous Ziegfeld numbers? To show everyone Barbra Streisand is one of the best musical theatre performers we’ll ever have? No matter the reasoning, the song, as well as Streisand’s performance, makes Funny Girl’s ultimate message one championing the “devoted wife” above all else: an antiquated and sexist idea.
The lyrics of “My Man,” translated from the work of Albert Willemetz and Jacques Charles, paint a picture of a woman absolutely submissive to her husband. Brice, one of the most successful performers of her time, sings “all my life is just despair/ but I don’t care/ when he takes me in his arms/ the world is bright,” sharing that her success means nothing to her without a man’s love. This sentiment sharply contrasts Brice’s repeated assertion that she wants to be “the greatest star” the world’s ever seen. Additionally, Brice sings “what’s the difference if I say/ I’ll go away/ when I know I’ll come back/ on my knees one day.” These lyrics vividly depict a woman so beholden to a man that she will metaphorically crawl back on her knees to him no matter what. Lyrics like “whatever my man is/ I am his” further emphasize how Brice will stand by her husband even when he treats her poorly. With these words, “My Man” transforms Brice from a strong woman making her own way in the world to one dependent upon the approval of a man — a feminist nightmare.
Composer Maurice Yvain’s score for the piece supports Brice’s transformation. Romantic mezzo-piano violins set the tone at the beginning of the song, encouraging the audience to listen carefully and believe Brice’s words. The score repeatedly fades throughout the song, allowing breathier vocals to dominate, forcing the audience to give their full attention to the lyrics. As the third verse begins, Yvain adds staccato snare drums and horns to the instrumentation, creating a bombastic atmosphere that captivates the audience as the vocalist soars into a forte full-chest belt. A rallentando before the final few lyrics imbues the song with drama and suspense that captures the audience in the performer’s emotional world. Every musical choice furthers the storytelling provided by the song’s lyricism.
Streisand’s “My Man” is one of the most iconic musical theatre performances because her acting and vocals spellbindingly convey Brice’s devotion to her husband. Before she begins singing, Streisand shows us a new side to Fanny — she is hesitant and unwilling to make eye contact with the audience, nervous to shed her theatrical persona to become vulnerable. These acting choices clue in the audience that this is the “real” Fanny singing, and they should heed her words. Throughout the first verse, Streisand blends her speaking and singing voices to add intimacy to the song, specifically speaking the line “I don’t care” as she chokes back tears; it is obvious how much “her man” means to her. Streisand produces actual tears as the song continues, infatuating the audience. As the third verse begins and the instrumentation picks up, Streisand takes more space physically and vocally, challenging the audience to get in the way of her devotion. With an octave jump from Db4 to Db5 on “alright,” it is impossible to focus on anything else. Streisand (and Brice) become completely lost onstage during the final sustained note, singing for themselves rather than for the audience. With this performance, one is unable to deny the conviction behind Brice’s commitment to her husband.
The combination of lyrics, music, and performance creates an unforgettable finale, and the song’s message is difficult to forget. Brice is a woman undeniably loyal to her husband, willing to give up everything she has built to stand by him no matter what he does or how he treats her. She transforms from a confident performer, willing to do whatever it takes to achieve stardom, to a wife focused only on maintaining her marriage and gaining her husband’s approval. This is a wildly disappointing character arc for an icon of the Great White Way. While it’s hard for me to ignore the sexist implications of “My Man,” I must admit — damn, the song’s fun to sing.