On Empathy:

On March 16, 2021, eight people―six of whom were Asian women―were killed in spa shootings outside of Atlanta by Robert Aaron Long, a 21 year old white man. At the current time, Long has been charged with eight counts of murder, but has not been charged with a hate crime. For Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the absence of a hate crime charge is unacceptable due to the nature of Long’s shooting spree as “racially motivated sexual violence against women.” Choimorrow, who spoke in an interview with ABC, went on to say, “The reason they died wasn’t just because they were women, even though that’s what the killer says it is. They were murdered because they were Asian American women. You cannot separate that.”

You might be thinking, Brooke, this is a musical theatre course, why are you talking about this?

Well, you’re right. This is a musical theatre course, but it does not exist in a vacuum. Or, at least, it wasn’t designed to. While there has been an egregious amount of racially motivated violence over the past year, I bring up this attack, specifically, because we cannot ignore its implications on the material of this class. In On Trust, I urged you to trust me and to invest deeply in this course as a journey of cultural exploration and personal growth. Now is the time to dig into that space.

In the fall of 2020, when I was taking this course, I watched Miss Saigon for the first time and I was an absolute mess. I was wrecked by Kim’s story and I thought my weeping was an expression of unselfish empathy. But as I sat down to write my analysis essay about Miss Saigon, I became increasingly convicted that my “empathy” was, in fact, not unselfish, and really, it wasn’t empathy at all.

In my post, I Am Chris: An Exploration of (white) Empathy, I include a quote from the brilliant Brené Brown, a New York Times bestselling author and research professor at the University of Houston who studies empathy, vulnerability, and shame. She says, 

“Expressing empathy or being empathetic is not easy. It requires us to be able to see the world as others see it, to be non-judgmental, to understand another person’s feelings and to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. … Empathy is a choice. And it’s a vulnerabile choice. Because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”

My post tracks my own journey of discovery through the territory of empathy, and I bring my reader with me. I encourage you to read the full post, but the heart of my argument is this:

In many ways, I am Chris. I am the character I hate because it is my whiteness that begs me to express empathy toward Kim. In selfish catharsis, I cry for her.

My failure to truly be empathetic, then, holds a much higher cost for Kim [in Miss Saigon] than it does Fanny [in Funny Girl]. Where my “empathy” is higher, I am being asked more of myself. So when my tears dry and my life returns to normal, I’ve done a greater disservice to myself and others by failing to act. At this point, you might be expecting me to wrap all of this up in a nice little bow. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t do that. I don’t have an answer to this. I think radical empathy begins with acknowledging that you’re not there yet. I’ve done that part. But what next? I haven’t come up with a way to fulfill the last step of empathy—to put forth genuine effort to act upon that which I feel sadness. But for now, maybe Miss Saigon isn’t asking me to do that. For now, I think I just need to sit in this development. For now, I think I need to study the ways that I am Chris.

The reality is, until the recent shootings outside of Atlanta, I hadn’t thought much about the ways I am Chris. Not because I didn’t care, but because I didn’t know how to function out of this space between stagnation and growth. For me, Miss Saigon was the beginning of an exploration into my own shortcomings in the practice of empathy. And, while I have certainly not “arrived” at a conclusion or a way to continue on my journey, the March shootings have certainly pushed me to bring a renewed energy to this journey.

So what are the implications of the recent shootings on our course, and on us? We return to the words of Choimorrow who identifies the “harmful stereotypes that objectify and depict Asian women as what she described as ‘hypersexualized,’ ‘meek’ and ‘submissive.’” In the same ABC article Choimorrow is quoted in, it says, “Some argue the United States’ military presence in the Asia Pacific also played a role in stigmatizing Asians when American soldiers went abroad during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Philippine-American War.” As students in this class, we have an acute knowledge that this is true. We see the blatant objectification of Kim and the other Vietnamese women in Miss Saigon, and we can recognize that there is a potential for harm if Miss Saigon and other similar media representations of Asian women are not properly unpacked. We have to name these representations as what they are: representations. And we have to consider what they are asking of us.

For me, I don’t know what it looks like to really be empathetic at this moment, but I think Miss Saigon and the recent events have asked me to stay the course of this journey. I cannot run from the discomfort of not knowing what move to make next. I just have to press on searching. I encourage you to do the same.

In the Heights, but where is the history?

In the Heights is a film adaption from the same-name musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who later produced the famous Hamilton musical. Released in 2021, the movie is directed by Jon M. Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians, and the story focuses on the Latino community in Washington Heights, Manhattan, which is one of the largest Latino immigrant communities in the US.

Despite its extraordinary crew and critical recognitions, the movie landed with a box office of 43 million in contrast to its 55 million budgets. Major criticism from the audience included underrepresentation of the Afro-Latino residents, and less-than-catchy tunes. The casting issue is straightforward and the latter one we will leave to the interest of music theory experts. Here we will be discussing the “catchiness” of the characters in the movie, since the plot of this piece arises from the characters, and choreography and lines will be fixed in no time once the plot and character designs are in proper place.

The movie starts with a walkthrough of the Latino neighborhood in Washington Heights(“In the Heights”). By all the residents singing the same verse repeatedly, audiences are presented with the picture of a small and close community sharing many values. Then the lens center in on individual characters and their personal “suenito”, or small dreams.

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In the Heights movie poster. From left: Venessa, Usnavi, Nina, Benny

Usnavi, who got his characteristic name from the first thing his parents saw landing in the US, is a second-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic running a corner store or bodega, and wants to go back to the DR to revive his late father’s business. Vanessa, to whom Usnavi seems to have a feeling for, is currently working in a beauty salon but wishes to be a fashion designer downtown. Nina, who has brought honor to the neighborhood as a Stanford admittee, is already dropping out in Freshman year due to unbearable racism at school and not wanting to end her father’s business for her expensive tuition. Benny is an employee at Nina’s father’s company, and is looking for a second chance on Nina.

In The Heights: The 10 Best Performances From The Cast Ranked By  Cinematography
The blackout in the movie was based from the actual power failure that happened in 1999(Wikipedia).

While the characters’ individual struggles are common ones in the immigrant population, they are also being shrouded by larger-scale problems to the community such as gentrification and ethnic conflicts. What I felt when watching the movie is that the storyline switches so often among the characters and their problems that I didn’t have the chance to sympathize or contemplate on any of them. It felt like the writer wanted to cover the entire immigrants checklist and ran out of space to go into details with the movie already being 2 hours 22 minutes. Every character is given a personal goal, but the goals were just there from the beginning, and we don’t know why they had those goals.

For example, we don’t exactly know why Usnavi, who spent most of his lifetime in Washington Heights, wanted to inherit his father’s pub in DR long after his father died——he was not even sad when seeing the place he grew up in got wrecked by a hurricane; nor do we know why Vanessa was interested in high fashion and how she became the talented artist as portrayed in the movie——but we do know that she was not very determined in that dream as in the end she gives up her downtown life to be with her boyfriend (*rolls eyes*).

Why the 'In The Heights' Movie Changed the Broadway Show's Ending
Vanessa and Usnavi(I did not realize they were the main couple until the second half)

Nina, whose romantic relationship with Benny was the only one that made sense in the movie, was struggling about whether to continue her education at Stanford. As a student in an American university, I feel that the racial discriminations mentioned in the movie (of Nina being searched when her roommate is missing valuables was because of her race in the first place) are at least a decade away from the present, and universities now are doing great at including students from all backgrounds. I am not saying that racial discrimination does not exist at all, but that they should have come up with a better example (I had been an Asian in a mostly-white school, I know what I am talking about). Even if the racial discrimination made sense, it would still not have been a satisfying motive for Nina dropping out of Stanford (she told her dad that the racial discrimination, not economic difficulties, was the real reason she wanted to drop out), unless the writers wanted to depict her as wanting to stay in her comfortable enclosed community without facing the real world, which would not have been a likable trait.

Nonetheless, there was one line in Nina’s story that caught my attention. When Nina was mistaken as the server at the donors’ party, she said that the non-white servers looked at her with the what-side-is-she-on face. Whether purposefully or not, this line put forth the ethnic identity issues and the expectation to take a side that multicultural individuals face every day, especially if their home country and the country of residence are not in the best relationship (I am from China and living in the US, ehem). Again, the problem was over in the movie before any discussion or a second mention.

In contrast to the main characters, the side characters seemed to have more of a personal history and thus motives. For example, Nina’s dad wanted Nina to stay at Stanford because she now has the opportunity of education that was taken away from him. This is personally relatable to me as my mother was accepted by Johns Hopkins University 30 years ago but was not able to go because her visa application was rejected, and now I am at a university in the US to continue the dreams of both her and myself. The point is, everyone lives with the history of their family and their culture, although definitely not by reciting one’s ethnic history in a gossip session like that by the salon ladies in the movie.

How 'In the Heights' pulled off subway song 'Pacienda y Fe' - Los Angeles  Times
The brilliant staging using the NY metro in Abuela’s number “Paciencia y Fe”, after which she rested eternally. This is the only number in the movie that I want to watch multiple times.

The memorable number of Abuela, the grandma of the neighborhood, tells her life story as a child growing up in poverty in Cuba, coming to the US with her Mama to find jobs, and working low-income job while people looked down at them. Knowing from the movie that she is now economically stable and has a big found family that cares for her, her line “Mama what do you do when your dreams come true?” shook me. As mentioned before, I myself as well as many immigrants inherit our dreams from the previous generation, and it is easy to lose ourselves under the heavy weights of family and cultural history, one mental struggle many immigrants face but is overlooked in the movie. The death of Abuela was the emotional climax of the movie because she connected all the characters and the community together, but the emotion did not linger as the story quickly moved on again.

In the Heights was a good attempt at giving its audience a picture of the underrepresented Latino community and immigrants. However, it only brushes on the surface of their life and difficulties despite its message of “small dreams” and “asserting dignity in small ways”. Miranda’s later work, Hamilton, was much more a success with its ready-made characters and motives from history, contrasting to the shortcomings in original character design of this piece, and its absence of personal, family, and cultural history.

In The Heights: Being Reminded How Proud I am to be Puerto Rican

Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day. I wake up and I remember that I’ve got to write an essay. 

Corny jokes aside, the film adaptation of In the Heights, directed by Jon Chu with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, starring Anthony Ramos as Usnavi, tells the story of a vibrant community of Caribbean and Latinx people located in Washington Heights, New York City. The musical does a masterful job of portraying a real perspective of Caribbean culture, which resonated strongly with myself, a proud Boriqua descendant. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s influence on In the Heights is a perfect example of the value of identity and background in shaping cultural resonance on the stage (or in this case, in front of the camera). 

First, let’s talk about the intro song, also titled “In the Heights.” Wow. Just wow. Never before have so many little things from my upbringing been dropped into a musical number before. Now, obviously I wasn’t drinking copious amounts of coffee as a young child, but café con leche is definitely something I was aware of from a young age. And then there’s Abuela Claudia’s mother’s condensed milk recipe. I cracked up at this, because there’s so much condensed milk in Puerto Rican recipes, especially desserts. Condensed milk became popularized because it’s canned, so it’s non-perishable and can be easily shipped out to the islands. Then there’s quarter waters! Wow I forgot those existed. They’re so bad for you, but so good. And don’t forget BEANS AND RICE. The crown jewel of hispanic cuisine. Add in the music: salsa inspirations (brass, piano, hand drums and a guiro, which creates that sort of maraca-esque sound) throughout the chorus parts of the song, mix in some reggaetón over Vanessa’s solo and some old-school hip-hop accompanying Benny, and you get a rather well-rounded cross-section into actual Caribbean music in a way that Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s West Side Story fell sorely short. Oh, and I almost forgot the piraguero’s adlibs: “le lo lai le lo lai.” This is a cornerstone of old-school salsa, a phrase that means absolutely nothing but has become synonymous with the sounds of Puerto Rico. And who better to deliver it but Mr. Miranda himself? It’s a perfect summation of his stamp on this musical as a Puerto Rican. Towards the finale of this opening song, we see a more structured choreography that blends the fluid, hip-swaying movements of Caribbean salsa with sharp, heavy-footed moves that reflect more hip-hop traditions. It’s a testament to the dual identity of this specific community: a mixture of both their Latin American roots and the streets of New York they reside in. Several aspects of the scenery also encompass the Latinx experience well, especially the flags. While there is a strong sense of greater community between all the ethnic subdivisions of Washington Heights, each individual still takes pride in their homeland, and this is most often seen through displays of flags. Often times, this goes beyond traditional cloth flags, and you can find flag patterns on pretty much anything, from that one dancer’s tank-top in the movie to the side of the piraguero’s cart in the original Broadway production. 

Beyond just the opening song lyrics, there are so many little details throughout the production that encompass this culture so well. There’s the blessings exchange, where characters ask Abuela Claudia for a “bendicion,” or a blessing, to which Claudia replies “dios te bendiga,” or God bless you. This is one of the most common ways to greet your elders, and were probably the first Spanish words I was taught as a kid. On a similar note, Alejandro addresses Usnavi as “papa” which literally translates to “dad.” While it may seem counterintuitive, many Latinx parents refer to their kids as “mama” or “papa” as a term of endearment. And then there’s the FOOD!! (You can tell what I get really excited about). Never have I felt more homesick this semester than when I saw Abuela Claudia’s ropa vieja y lechón. There are so many small tributes to Caribbean culture throughout the musical that elevate the experience for me, as a sort of affirmation of my background and upbringing. And there’s probably a thousand other details that others can relate to as well!

This is all present thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, a born-and-raised Nuyorican (Puerto Rican living in NYC), who actually grew up in northern Manhattan. He created a story that mirrored many aspects of his own background, and brought a fairly underrepresented culture in the Broadway sphere to the center stage. His identity, his experiences, and his stories shape In the Heights in a way that only they can, and it leaves us with an expression of culture that Latinx/Caribbean people can actually relate to. Now, I don’t know much about the pre-Broadway lives of either Robert Wise or Jerome Robbins, but I sure hope they weren’t running around stabbing people in racially motivated territory wars. 

A major source of conflict in the musical revolves around identity. The main characters can be divided into two major groups: those born in the islands, like Usnavi and Sonny, and those who have spent their entire lives in Washington Heights, like Benny and Nina. Even amongst the island-born characters, there’s varying levels of citizenship, from the natural-born citizens of Puerto Rico to the documented immigrants such as Abuela Claudia to the undocumented like Sonny and Usnavi. Each group faces their own struggles, from balancing assimilation with identity to being able to go to college. One of the premiere examples of assimilation is Vanessa’s character. Dare I say, it almost borders on white-washing. Her part in the opening song is immediately recognizable as a departure from what we’ve heard up until that point: the reggaeton beat is overshadowed by her more jazzy vocals as she negotiates with a “Mr. Johnson.” This trend continues in her solo “It Won’t Be Long Now.” The brass section features a combination of jazzy and salsa elements, and the piano is a lot more gentle and wispy than traditional salsa, though it retains a similar rhythm. The result is a song that reflects the evolving nature of assimilation: both cultures are present in the music, but one is more dominant than the other, and you know which side is taking over because of the way Vanessa sings. Not only does she sing about getting out of the barrio, she does so in a voice that, for lack of better words, is whiter than the rest of the main characters. She wants to be a downtown New York fashion designer, and she’s altering her identity to fit what she thinks will get her into that role and, more specifically, into that apartment. Navigating identity is something that we see so many of the musical’s characters struggle with, from Abuela Claudia’s hardships as a cleaning lady, to Usnavi’s homesickness, to Nina’s alienation at Stanford. It’s one of the few universal struggles between all of the residents of Washington Heights, regardless of citizenship. 

There is a downside to Lin’s perspective, however. And it’s certainly caught the attention of the public, especially since the film adaptation’s release. A large bulk of the musical’s criticism stems from the lack of Afro-latinx representation in the musical. The majority of the musical’s black characters populate the background, while the two main black characters, Benny and Nina, are non-hispanic and mixed, respectively. This is an unfortunate byproduct of having the story influenced by Lin’s upbringing, because, though he is hispanic, he has rather pale skin and can pass off as white at an off glance. His story is not one of the Afro-latinx community, and we see this in the musical. The most blatant act of racism in the musical, when the Stanford donor mistakes Nina for a server, is centered around her latina identity, not her black heritage. We see a similar situation play out with Vanessa, where she doesn’t get the apartment she wants because she doesn’t have credit and, most likely, because of her name. All of the acts of racism and xenophobia the musical describes focus on the more ethnically hispanic aspects of the characters, and race itself is not really addressed. Miranda never had to deal with that side of prejudice before, and it shows in the musical.  

Nonetheless, In the Heights is revolutionary in terms of bringing audiences across the country some much-needed exposure to the wonders of Caribbean hispanic culture. It’s a far departure from the Puerto Ricans in West Side Story, which were a group of gangsters played by white men in brownface with inauthentic music and even more inauthentic accents. For me, it was such a breath of fresh air to see so many aspects of my culture and upbringing portrayed accurately on the musical stage, especially after Robert Wise’s interpretation of my people left such a bad taste in my mouth. This brings us back to the most important point of all: representation means nothing if it’s not done right, and In the Heights, to a certain extent, does it right, at least more so than ever before. Lived experiences are worth their weight in gold when it comes to storytelling, and Lin-Manuel Miranda displays a dazzling amount of gold in this musical.

Breaking Stereotypes In High School Musical

I’ve watched High School Musical for quite some time as a kid (2006), but I believe rewatching the movie as an adult I understood more things about the movie than before. One of the things that I noticed was how the main character Troy Bolton reversed stereotypes that are usually put on high school athletes. It was unique to see that Troy Bolton was the star of the basketball team and had a lead role in the school’s theatre production.

The usual stereotype for male athletes in high school is to be a jock, which is what could be seen in the movie, but Troy Bolton chose to do theatre which a lot of the other athletes didn’t agree with including his dad who was the head coach of the high school basketball team. I honestly believe that the major reasoning behind him wanting to be in the school’s musical production was because of the romantic relationship between him and Grabriella Montez. As they played a major role in the musical together with duets and being the main characters in the movie alone. When Troy lost a bit of focus on the basketball season the song “Get’cha Head in the Game” showed how he was battling between theatre and basketball.

Troy-Bolton-Basketball – Starling Voice Studio
“Get’cha Head In the Game”

“My heads in the Game but my hearts in the song, She makes it feel so right” Was a lyric that I found to be the main line of the song. Another song that showed the stereotypes that the movie pointed out but were broken was in the song “I Don’t Dance” that was performed in the movie. That shows a sports match between Chad and Ryan. The two coming together showing they both can dance and sing together showed how the movie did a great job of joining the two groups of people like highschool athletes and theatre students together which is not the usual.

I Don't Dance | The Hardball Times

Overall the Movie was a great showcase of a musical within a musical and did a great job of being relatable movie to people who were in high school at the time. It achieved every element with romance, comedy, drama, etc. There was a great deal of breaking stereotypes in Highschool Musical that were on show case that I didn’t notice until I got older.

A Eulogy for My Hometown Store – In the Heights and Community

It’s physically harder to breathe in Salt Lake City. The elevated valley is 4,000 feet above sea level, and what little oxygen remains is often clogged with some of the worst air quality in the US. But the human body, amazing and adaptable as it is, manages to live under these conditions.

When I was eight years old, my family moved to Utah. We stayed there for ten years, moving to South Carolina after I graduated high school. It was the longest place we’d ever stayed – and to this day, the place I still consider “home.” One of my childhood highlights was going shopping at a small Korean store on 700 East – the Oriental Food Market. At the time of writing, the store has closed its doors for good.

While watching In the Heights (the 2021 movie directed by Jon Chu and based on the stage musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda), I found myself oddly nostalgic for the musical’s setting. At face value, this was preposterous – I’d lived in the western US for most of my life, and had never set a foot in New York. And yet, there was something in Usnavi’s bodega that reminded me about the Oriental Food Market thousands of miles away. And the more I began reminiscing about my own childhood and community, the more I appreciated how beautifully In the Heights captures the people and places of an immigrant neighborhood. My life experiences were both culturally and geographically different than the ones portrayed in the film, but the musical’s world-building and relatable characters brought to life an immigrant story that I deeply resonated with.

An Aside

The purpose of this essay is twofold – first, to praise In the Heights for its excellent setting and characters. The other reason, however, is more personal.

In the Heights ends on a hopeful and optimistic note – Usnavi decides to stay in Washington Heights, reuniting with his community and his remodeled bodega. And as a musical and film with a fixed narrative, its ending will stay hopeful and optimistic with every rewatch. The bodega lives on forever.

I learned about the Oriental Food Market’s closing in my junior year of college. My parents had heard about it through the grapevine and brought it up nonchalantly over dinner. At the time, it barely registered for me. We’d been living in South Carolina for three years at that point, and I had no plans to live in Utah in the future.

The more I ruminated on it though, the more I realized I didn’t remember the last time I visited the store. And this thought rubbed me the wrong way. It hurt that I didn’t have definite closure on my memories of this childhood place. As if it was somewhere I thought would exist forever, until it suddenly didn’t.

Thus, the other half of this essay will be a pseudo-eulogy of sorts to that small Oriental Food Market – and hopefully pay respects to a closed chapter of my life.

Small Neighborhood Stores

Oriental Food Market, Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo from Google Maps
Usnavi’s bodega in In the Heights. Compactness is key!

Above are pictures of the Oriental Food Market and Usnavi’s bodega. There are differences of course – the contrast of different lighting and products, for example. But both locations excel in utilizing as much space for their products as possible. Usnavi’s bodega is covered with a variety of products, with stacks of goods surrounding narrow aisles. This lack of space is the greatest similarity between the two stores – I remember walking through the Oriental Food Market with shelves that piled towards the ceiling, and corridors that could only handle one person at a time. The set design brings a realistic sense of practicality; the bodega is small and family-run, not some generic corporate grocery store.

Another highlight that adds to the realism is how familiar Usnavi and the others are with the store. In the intro song, “In the Heights”, Usnavi goes through his regular routine. He checks the milk (which has gone bad) and sells lottery tickets and café con leche to the regulars. Later, we see how efficiently he and Sonny clean the shop.  There’s a sense of intimacy between everyone and the bodega – it is not simply a location for transactions, but a dynamic yet familiar part of the community.

In Salt Lake City, the Oriental Food Market was one of the few places my family would be considered “regulars.” The woman who owned the store grew sesame plants in the front of the store, and we’d always be some of the first to buy sesame leaves when they were fully grown. I can visualize the store in my mind – how we would start by grabbing soft drinks, then frozen foods, instant meals, vegetables, and then snacks.

In the Heights excels at creating a snapshot of an immigrant community – whether it’s the hair salon, the smaller yet homely kitchens, or the community pool highlighted in “96,000,” the set design and selection highlight the Dominican and Latino immigrant experience. Everything is carving out meaning in small places – the movie scenes are crowded yet vibrant. And in these humanized pictures of Manhattan life, I find myself remembering the intimacy I once had back in Salt Lake City.

Piragua and Yogurt

I also want to talk about the pervasiveness of the piragüero – and how his constant presence in the film serves as a metaphor for the tenacity of our culture and identities. To do this, I’ll have to cheat a little bit by talking not only about Salt Lake City, but about Korea as well.

In Korea, there’s a popular sugary drink that we call yogurt/yakult. The most common way to buy yogurt is from yogurt ladies, who walk the streets in beige uniforms and carts. They’ve been a part of South Korean culture since the 1970’s, but their role has shifted and diminished with the rise of delivery services and larger grocery stores. And of course, we don’t have yogurt ladies in the United States, so I had to settle for perma-frozen (and leaky!) yogurt bottles from the Oriental Food Market.

This narrative aligns with the tale of the piragüero. We first see him greeting Usnavi in “In the Heights”, then going about his day selling piragua. In “Piragua”, we hear a little more about his struggles to compete with the Mr. Softee truck. Finally, he appears to have claimed victory, after the Mr. Softee truck breaks down in the movie’s last scene. The piragüero is not someone who is immediately plot-relevant. And yet, he’s not a one-time character either. Instead of being a part of a single “world-building” number and disappearing, he has his own mini-story and cameos through the musical. The character is pervasive – someone who continues to be in the neighborhood. Someone who’s just there, but in a good way. Someone like the yogurt ladies in Korea, who deliver the same yogurt, the same day of every week. The piragüero is representative of the communities and cultures that tenaciously hang on in a world with changing economic and social pressures.

I think that’s why losing the Oriental Food Market eventually got on my nerves. To me, the store was something that would forever be there, always stocked to the brim with yogurt and banana milk. After all, if the nearby Smith’s and Costco were still there after all these years, why wouldn’t it? In the end, the store was a part of my home community that I took for granted.

With hometown stores, yogurt ladies, and piragüeros diminishing in numbers, I find solace in the triumphant ending of In the Heights. Just as the bodega lives on forever, the piragüero will continue to sell his piragua. While my real life community may be gone, this realistic yet optimistic snapshot of Washington Heights can bring back fond memories.

“Breathe” and Today

Photo from Google Maps

The Oriental Food Market is now permanently closed. I don’t remember my last visit to it, nor did I ever see it closed myself. One day, it was a store I could always go visit again. The next, it was gone for good.

When watching In the Heights, I found myself relating to “Breathe” in many ways. Nina’s worries about living up to the community’s expectations echoed my personal doubts in my freshman year at Vanderbilt University. But perhaps most relevant is her relationship to her home neighborhood – when she softly sings “I think of the days when this city was mine,” I imagine Salt Lake City again. I imagine being a kid again, picking candy in the crowded aisles of the store.

In the Heights captures a precious snapshot of the immigrant neighborhood – depicting its people, places, and struggles. The set design is realistic and oozes with the personality of its inhabitants. The day-to-day living of people like Usnavi, Nina, and the piragüero is not a one-off world-building number, but integral to the narrative of the musical. The musical is alive with a community that has been underrepresented in media and on Broadway, and this realism allows other immigrants like me to relate to its powerful story.

And most importantly, In the Heights reminds me why I cherished that small Oriental Food Market so much, and why I don’t need to miss it. I loved that store because of the people I met, the experience of buying sweets from back home, and all the other adventures and memories I had. I fell in love with the small community that was built around this store. And while it may not be physically there anymore, it does still exist in my memory as a fond snapshot, just like the beautiful picture painted by In the Heights.

So, I’ll end off this pseudo-eulogy with one of my favorite lines from the musical. So long, Salt Lake City and that hometown store – I’ll remember you.

The neighborhood waved, and said

Nina, be brave, and you’re gonna be fine

“Breathe”

High School Musical and ‘Sticking to the Status Quo’

By: Megan Walters

Alrighty friends, I feel the need to level with all of you. Until two days ago, I had never seen High School Musical. I’d seen the third one… I’m pretty sure? Growing up for me, Disney was not as present. My Mom hated, and I cannot emphasize this enough, HATED television. Anything involving mean characters, snarky comments, and witty quips? (Something, by her definition, that Disney Channel was filled with.) Absolutely not. We all stuck to Veggie tales instead (Has anyone seen my hairbrush?).

Now, I’m a bit older now and probably could have watched this ages ago, but just never really got around to it. In all seriousness, I didn’t really care to watch it either. When I was six and it was the only thing that the other girls in my class would talk about it sure mattered but it kind of faded out of the limelight for a few years, only coming up in scattered conversations. Looking back however, the whole musical created kind of a sore spot for me. I wasn’t allowed to watch it and so I could never really bond or connect with the other girls in my class. I didn’t know who Troy Bolton was and I couldn’t sing any of the songs. In turn, I would just say that I hated High School Musical. Which wasn’t true because I really didn’t even know what it was, but I was upset because I really didn’t belong. And also saying you hate something that everyone loves, especially when you’re six, does not go over well either.

So here we are, this became an option to view for the final essay. In my recent years when I see other people look back on it, I’d heard mostly positive things about the movie. Sure, it’s not an accurate portrayal of high school, but the awkwardness, Gabriella’s shyness of being in the spotlight for being just too smart, and Troy and Gabriella’s relationship is a surprisingly healthy and accurate one. While I don’t have the luxury of comparing watching it when I was little, it’s overall kind of a charming, adorable musical. It’s like what little kids will think high school will be like and honestly? I think that was the intention. And as far as cultural relevancy goes, as someone from the outside I can blatantly say this defined a generation of kids growing up and eventually made way for Olivia Trevino’s musical career and fame when the spinoff series was created. (Spent the whole summer listening to SOUR pretty much.)

However, the movie isn’t really all that perfect. And that’s a fact, not just that I may or may not have a personal vendetta against this film. In hindsight I would say 2005 to 2012 was about the peak of the early 2000’s era. Say hello to low-rise, bootcut jeans, and a ridiculous amount of layers on top and 2006 is no exception to this era. The movie’s whole message is about sticking up for what you want to do with your life, doing what makes you happy, and not ‘sticking to the status quo.’ Which is a good message, fits the lightheartedness of the musical and is well, very Disney in the end. The idea of following your dreams is a good idea, but after a viewing and some afterthought, I think the movie missed its own message.

The musical never takes any risks with its characters. Which I could argue is the point, everyone is too scared to stand out and conformity is the ‘in’. But everyone is simply so stereotypical its like the creators were terrified of making a person. Kelsi, the composer of a musical at age fifteen, is a shy band kid and a doormat of a character. She wrote a musical–and if I followed the plot correctly, she not only wrote the music, but the script, plot, and stage directions as well. That’s really impressive for a fifteen-year-old why don’t I know more about her? Why is there a Sharpay spinoff and not one about Kelsi? Broadway would love another writer, not ANOTHER blonde diva to take center-stage?

Chad, the ‘best friend to male main character Troy Bolton and obligatory black person,’ is constantly belittled and disciplined by teachers because he is ‘slow’, ‘doesn’t know how to read’, or is known for being a ‘trouble-maker’. Why does Chad struggle so much? Clearly everyone in this school is from upper-middle class judging by the houses and state of the school as a whole (has a strong arts and sports program as well as STEM, school is clean and looks relatively new, etc.) And while again, this is 2006, the whitewashing seems just a little too pristine for two major characters to be black and have no backstory.

The only real people we really get to know and see in this entire film are the two main characters and the ‘Villains’: Sharpay and Ryan. Which even then is a subject of controversy. Let’s face it, Ryan is the closeted gay figure in this film. His mannerisms, clothing, gestures all point to the stereotypical effeminate mystique. And yes, this is 2006 and people weren’t exactly on board with people being out, but this is a very, very Disney thing to do. The constant closeting and pushing of queer characters under the rug isn’t new, and to see it in a high school setting when so many people I knew revealed themselves is overall almost hurtful.

The movie’s message is to not ‘stick to the status quo’ and yet? That message can only be true to our two main leads. Not only because we know the most about them and the boundaries they are making, but because they are also in the ‘in’ crowd. Troy is extremely successful; the star player. Gabriella is the best and brightest child in the school with a very successful businesswoman as a mother. Even from the beginning, they aren’t the status quo; they are above and beyond it. It’s almost not a surprise that they are successful on stage too. If Disney really wanted to show what not sticking to the status quo looked like, it would have been about Kelsi, writing and composing at such a young age and the obstacles she goes through. Or it would have been about Ryan and his struggles with being closeted and the relationship he has with his family because of it. It would have been about Chad or Taylor (Gabriella’s new best friend) and their struggles with excelling and falling continuously behind in school. But instead, they are side characters, not as important and boiled down to their most basic stereotypes. Instead of sticking to the stuff we know (basketball star and smart shy girl), would it hurt to know about the stuff we don’t know?

Now, it’s a simple Disney channel movie that took the world by storm. I don’t think the creators thought it was going to be as big as it turned out ever and as previously mentioned, 2006 wasn’t the most progressive year and neither was the early 2000’s in hindsight. I have other smaller issues with the musical. I went into this expecting to feel sorry for Sharpay. I was told she worked her whole life to be on the center stage and has been in musical after musical. So yes, it is a little unfair that two randos come in and steal the spotlight. However, as someone who has performed in multiple productions and concerts and having countless people like her, I strongly believe she deserves to be put in her place. She is rude, constantly takes advantage of people lacking confidence, cannot handle when things do not go her way, uses and constantly abuses her brother and is overall, unkind. A whole internal theme of the plot and even throughout the series is that we should feel slightly sorry for Sharpay because she is ‘sometimes’ kind. However, none of that kindness is to believed to be genuine and she is really truly not a good person at all. And while we learned a little bit about Sharpay’s backstory and how hard she works to take the stage, she really only buys into the stereotypical diva. She falls into the category ultimately of spoiled brat. If the movie really wanted to fight the status quo, maybe they shouldn’t have made her as rich or come from some sort of hardship, showing the audience that the stage is truly all she has and therefore create sympathy for her and make her more of a person.

Overall, I enjoyed the experience of the musical. I got to heal my inner child a little bit by finally watching something that everyone seemed to grow up on and got to bond with my roommates over it as well. (We watched The Greatest Showman afterwards to see how Zac Efron grew up.) I enjoyed watching it being older now and acknowledging how different it would be if the show came out today and the issues that simply came with the era it was created in. Disney made a fun musical, because that’s what it was good at. It refused to take a risk with a musical where the whole point is to take a risk, but that goes along with the pattern that Disney holds over many, many of it musicals. While uncovering a piece of my childhood, I also got to be critical of the film and all of its endeavors.

On Revision:

Oh, revision. How dreadful it can be.

I don’t know about you, but I hate revision——or, at least I used to. Until recently, I would despise “revising” my work because it felt like editing something I already wanted to be done with. “Revision,” in an academic sense, usually happens by force, typically so you can achieve a better grade.

But what, really, is revision? Let’s define what it means to revise something (you know I love definitions): “to re-examine or make alterations to.”

To re-examine or make alterations to.

I love the first part of this definition: “to re-examine” because it feels much deeper and more significant than editing does. Editing is surface-level——it is grammatical or organizational. Revision, on the other hand, is deeper——it demands that the core of your piece (your primary question, your thesis, etc) be re-examined. Revision demands you take a step back from your writing, inquire deeply about why you are returning to your work, and then set out on a new path that will drive your piece forward.

When returning to your writing, I think it is helpful to consider the following questions:

  • Why am I returning to this piece? Is it to edit, or to revise?
  • If it is to edit, you might consider:
    • What are the areas that need attention?
    • Are my title and opening sentence engaging?
    • Is my argument both provocative and clear?
    • Is the flow of the piece effective?
  • If you are revising, you might consider:
    • Since last reading this piece, what has stuck with me? Do I remember feeling like something was missing?
    • Is this piece still as relevant now? Or perhaps it has lost or gained relevance? Why?
    • Are there areas I can go deeper here? How can I engage with my own story to invite empathy and reciprocity from my reader?

Allow me to let you in on my own recent experience with revision.

Dr. Essin asked me to write a final post in my semester series entitled “On Revision.” I really should’ve written this post a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t find a hearty reason why I needed to write about revision… (because, really, I was thinking about revision as editing.)

But a few days ago, devastatingly, a friend of mine from high school, Dylan, passed away. Dylan’s passing sent me back to an all-too familiar feeling I had when I was a senior in high school and another friend, Malcolm, died. For me, Malcolm’s death will always be tied to the musical Rent, which I wrote my final blog post on last semester. When this tragic similarity stirred up in me, I knew I wanted to revise my post on Rent. With a new sense of urgency to tell the redemptive story of Rent’s power to heal communities in tragedy, I got to writing.

Below is the revised version. You can read the first version of this post here. Pay special attention to the way this post engages a personal story (to encourage empathy and reciprocity from the reader) where the first version does not.


In the winter of my Senior year of high school, one of my friends tragically died of a brain aneurysm. At only fifteen, Malcolm was full of joy and life until the very moment he passed.

Throughout the entire winter semester, I was in rehearsals for a blackbox performance of Rent where I would play Mimi Marquez. On the morning of our only performance, Malcolm’s death was announced during our chapel service. I remember the deafening silence of the building ringing through my ears. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to scream, cry, run, puke, or hide so I just froze. When we all stood up to leave the chapel, it felt like the whole school let out a collective cry.

It was obvious that we could not perform Rent that night, but we were faced with the decision of whether to perform the show at all. 

That night, sitting in my room as I thought through the options, I couldn’t help but acknowledge parallels between the moment I was in and Rent’s very own premier. Months before Malcolm’s death, when we chose Rent as our show, I did some research on the creation of the musical. I learned that the night before Rent was set to premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1996, Jonathan Larson, the creator and composer of the musical died suddenly.

I took to Google to learn more about Larons’s death and discovered he also died of an aneurysm. I also discovered that the cast of Rent decided to continue on with their opening night performance the next night. I sat in this tragic similarity wondering how they did it. In an interview with Playbill, NYTW director James Nicola said, “Life was imitating art in more ways than one, and the group of angst-ridden bohemian rockers danced in celebration of Larson’s life and work.” After the first performance, it was clear that a Broadway transfer was imminent for the show. Producer Kevin McCollum said, “We had no choice… Everybody had a higher purpose, and it was to get Jonathan’s work heard and seen. And there was no looking back. … We were breathing life into the voice of a young man who had much more to say … There was no room to be afraid.”

In that moment, I knew we had to perform Rent for the school—not in spite of Malcolm’s death, but because of it. Like the original cast of Rent, we had a higher purpose, and we had the opportunity to “breath life into the voice of a young man who had much more to say.” There truly was no room to be afraid. It was a beautiful and powerful performance that led our community toward healing. In that performance, I discovered Rent’s ability to move across time and across tragedy to address timeless questions of life and death, uniting communities through the paradox of joy and sorrow along the way.

Three years later, I would be reminded of this unique ability as I watched Rent again and felt an eerily deep connection between the musical and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Rent opens with the title song and imagery of New Yorkers shouting on balconies, living in the tension of paradoxical celebration and mourning. In a similar way, today’s New Yorkers meet each other on balconies and fire escapes every night at 7pm to sing communal praises to the medical workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. With shouting, cheering, and crying, New York exhales a collective acknowledgement of the joy that exists—particularly the joyful reality of a shared experience—and a plea for better. While the connection between Rent and COVID-19 is related to New York City, it goes far beyond just geography. 

The musical begins on Christmas Eve in 1989 with a simplistic film reel shot by Mark who is played by Anthony Rapp. Mark is filming a documentary about New York City—specifically about the lives of the homeless population and those affected by HIV/AIDS. The reel shows a shot of Radio City Music Hall, moments of extreme poverty, people experiencing homelessness, etc. These shots—which you can watch below—felt all too similar to what I can picture NYC looking like right now, absent the masks. Mark sings, “How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day. / Headlines, breadlines blow my mind, and now this deadline: ‘Eviction or pay’ Rent.” I did a double take thinking about the transcendent reality of this lyric. Not only are Americans struggling to pay rent, but breadlines have returned, except this time people have to stay in their cars.

Rent tells the story of watching an illness unfold with no ability to stop it. Its characters find solace in the community of those around them, particularly those who share the same experience as them. This community is most emphasized in the “Life Support” scenes where the characters who have AIDS meet as a support group. Some of the most beautiful moments in the film are when characters take a moment to acknowledge their illness—both Angel and Collins and Mimi and Roger share sweet sighs of relief as they recognize their shared reality.

The illness that unites this community, though, is also what ultimately shatters it (before coming back together, of course). Back in Life Support, Mimi begins to sing “Without You” as she grieves the end of her and Roger’s relationship, but we start to see the people in Life Support lose their lives and fade away. The shot fades into the Subway where Collins is holding Angel, who is dying. That image is harrowing as it once again brought my mind to the COVID era. Collins and the rest of the friends watch Angel lose her battle, unable to do anything to heal her. We see the same fate begin to unfold for Mimi, too, who takes her last breaths in the final scene of the movie. Roger holds Mimi in his arms as he sings the song he’s been writing for a year, Your Eyes, and Mimi is revived by his love. In this final moment of the movie, we feel the weight of Angel’s death and the harsh reality of life with AIDS wash over us, while simultaneously celebrating the life that we have. The cast sings “No Day But Today” as Mark plays his finished documentary in the background.

Rent doesn’t present a perfect parallel to COVID-19, I know that. But that’s the beauty of it. Rent can speak to us in its original form because the questions it asks about life transcend time. Rent can speak to me in the wake of a friend’s death, in the midst of a global pandemic, or just on a random Tuesday.

I think, now more than ever, the question of how we measure our life is incredibly important. In the middle of quarantine, maybe we did measure our life by cups of coffee… but as we continue to navigate this pandemic, I challenge you to consider what Rent’s central question—what would it look like to measure your life in love?


Thank you for tagging along with me all semester. If you ever have a moment of renewed passion to revise one of your pieces, I encourage you to do so! Most importantly, I hope you don’t let this class end today. Press on discovering, friend.

-B

I See You Shiver With Antici…..disappointment

Hi, my name is Bethany, and I used to be a Gleek.

Yikes, that’s really, really embarrassing to admit in retrospect, but there’s something you have to understand – I was a queer theatre kid. Glee was the only place I ever saw myself in media.

Glee was amazing. As show choir kids, we felt seen – there were weird, misfit kids on screen, being annoying as theatre kids always are, living out sometimes relatable and always ridiculous struggles, and making show choir… almost cool? (Or so we thought at the time). Mr. Schuester seemed like an awesome teacher, Finn a big lovable goof, Kurt a relatable LGBTQ+ icon, and Rachel Berry, while annoying, lived out all of our dreams.

However, in recent years, all of the past theatre kids have come together to realize… Hey, Glee was kinda messed up!

Why is that though? Why was a show that was so universally championed by weird little theatre kids in our high school days actually kind of the worst, and why did we not realize it at the time? Why do we realize it now? What has made us so disillusioned?

I think I have the answer – and the perfect episode to explain it. Season 2, Episode 5 – “The Rocky Horror Glee Show”. Will Shuester makes one of his most questionable decisions – which is saying something, because, God, who let this man be a teacher – and decides to program The Rocky Horror Picture Show as the winter musical at McKinley High.

Now, let’s unpack that for a second. Rocky Horror is probably the most iconic cult movie of all time – the one cult movie to rule them all. Starting off in London’s West End, written by Richard O’Brien as a queer bastardization of Frankenstein, starring the legendary Tim Curry as Dr. Frank’N’Furter, was a sensation when released for stage in the mid-1970s. When adapted into a musical, it flopped about as hard as it could’ve. It was literally pulled from its New York Halloween night premiere due to poor reviews. In the years since, however, it has become a worldwide cult phenomenon. There are screenings at every indie theatre in most American cities, where devoted fans dress in costume, bring their own props, sing and dance along, and scream “call-outs” at the screen, spraying water guns, throwing rice, toast, cards, and even whole hot dogs at the screen (or, sometimes, at the “shadow performers” mouthing along with the screen performers). There are theatres who devote themselves wholly to showing Rocky Horror weekly, and it’s a staple in any community theatre around Halloween, even in my small conservative Appalachian hometown – the Johnson City Community Theatre runs a small, ramshackle production every year.

So why is it such a phenomenon? Easy answer. It gives people who society usually labels as “freaks”, the drag queens, the queer folx, the transgender and genderqueer people, a place to be the norm. The accepted normality. Brad and Janet, the stereotypical, white, cis, home-grown Ohio couple, are the freaks. The cross-dressing, queer Transylvanians are normal – that’s just how they are! It was a triumph for the LGBTQ+ community in this era, and it gave them media that unequivocally celebrated them. O’Brien, the original script author and the co-writer of the movie, is queer himself, identifying as transgender. Rocky Horror Picture Show follows none of the societal rules and gives a firm “bug off” to the cultural norms of the time. To this day, it’s a production that tells young queer kids, “you can be normal too, whatever that means to you”. As a young queer kid myself, Rocky Horror became a cornerstone of my personality while I was trying to figure out who and what I was.

So why did Glee think they could take on this iconic cult film, and do it any sort of justice? Because Glee incorrectly prides itself on empowering “freaks” as well. It can be summed up perfectly in Will Shuester’s infamous quote, “You’re all minorities – you’re in the Glee Club”. The show equates being a minority, being part of the LGBTQ+ community, and being physically or mentally disabled with being bullied for being in the Glee Club. It paints Glee as a place that all these different types of people can come together and be celebrated and represented – except it doesn’t actually follow through on that at all. The people in Glee club who are minorities, who are different, are criminally underrepresented in performance. Rachel and Finn, two white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, conventionally attractive people get every single lead and starring solo. Really, most other characters in Glee are minorities in some way or another: Kurt is gay, as are Britney and Santata. Mercedes, Tina, and Mike are all POC. Artie has a physical disability and uses a wheelchair. The Glee Club doesn’t really accept or celebrate these differences, either – it merely tolerates them, which to be fair, is a lot more than most others in Lima do.

When Glee did Rocky Horror, all of the main issues with representation in the show are on display. The tone-deaf nature of Glee has honestly never been more present. Mercedes, a cis straight woman, plays the role of Frank’n’Furter, changing the iconic lyric from “Transsexual Transylvania” to “Sin-sational Transylvania”, but still referring to herself as a “sweet transvestite”. Like…. what? The entire performance reads as completely tone-deaf. The production is only done so that Will Schuester can impress Emma, the guidance counselor at the school who he’s trying to woo, which makes the motivation for the show itself a heterosexual relationship between two cisgender people. The queer representation is nowhere to be found in this production of Rocky Horror, because the content itself isn’t enough, it’s the performance and the spirit behind it as well.

Really, this is indicative of the problems that Glee faces throughout its run. There’s tolerance and representation without acceptance and celebration. So why did we view it so positively in 2009? That, too, has a clear answer. At the time, there was little to no representation in mainstream media. Acceptance and tolerance were enough for the community – we didn’t expect better. Nowadays, with all of the positive queer representation in media, we can expect more. Shows like POSE have brought the history of LGBTQ people into the light with stories that are full of heart, honesty, passion, and celebration. Looking back at Glee, it’s a disappointing, one-dimensional paper cutout of what representation should be, and we deserve more as a community than that.

White Supremacy and American Imperialism in Newsies: A Conversation

Hopeful Brendan: Hello! Today we’re here to talk about the representation of race and ethnicity in the musical Newsies, specifically in the 2017 recording. Cynical Brendan, I believe you came prepared with an assertion you’d like to make?
Cynical Brendan:Thank you Hopeful Brendan, I did indeed. I believe that a frank analysis of the choices made in this production — including but not limited to casting, lyrics, dialogue, and character portrayals — shows severe undertones of White supremacy, specifically in the form of American imperialism.
Hopeful Brendan:Well, that’s quite a claim. I’m not sure I agree, but let’s get into it: you mentioned casting, we can start there. What about the casting do you think contributed to White supremacy? It cast a lot of White people, sure, but that’s clearly not the same thing.
Cynical Brendan:You’re right, in itself it’s not. It becomes a problem when White actors are systematically cast to play almost all of the unionizing newsies in a story about the American labor movement, when that same movement has had serious issues throughout its history with being exclusionary toward people of color. And we’ve got to remember that this performance was cast relatively recently; methods of race-conscious casting were clearly viable and in use in other historical fiction theatre. Even fully “race-blind” casting would have provided more diversity that we saw — but the creators of this show chose to use neither, instead just casting almost exclusively White newsies in what’s hard to see as something other than an attempt to sweep race issues under the rug.
Hopeful Brendan:Alternatively, we could see it as an attempt to portray a class struggle rooted in historical reality without adding in some illusion of racial unity that wasn’t really present. Sure, I don’t think the casting was actively anti-racist, but I don’t think it was particularly racist either, just giving a reasonably accurate portrayal of the world of the show. In support of this view, look at the character of Medda Larkin.
Cynical Brendan:Oh? What about her?
Hopeful Brendan:I think she’s a good example of incorporating a Black character into a predominantly White setting without tokenism, revisionism, or reliance on stereotypes. The writers have discussed how Medda was based on a real-life Black vaudeville performer, Aida Overton Walker, and the actor Aisha De Haas builds on that foundation, bringing the character to life onstage in a very dynamic way. And it’s not only the acting: just look at the way Medda is introduced. Every piece of the production, from the glamorous costume to the set backdrops to the attention-grabbing lyrics and music of “That’s Rich,” demonstrates Medda to be a confident and self-possessed Black woman exercising control over space. In a show that has a lot of victimization, she isn’t portrayed as just a victim — we see her wielding real power in the plot.
Cynical Brendan:I’d argue that your analysis overlooks the fact that she’s only able to access that power through proximity to wealth and imperialism. But I’ll concede your basic point: the character of Medda Larkin does show that the writers and director put some thought into their portrayal of minoritized bodies onstage. The casting is only a preliminary warning sign anyway. My main concern is the unacknowledged subtext of White American imperialism and manifest destiny, for instance in the recurring “Santa Fe” songs.
Hopeful Brendan:Okay, I’m fine shifting to that point. Do you really see those songs as conveying a message of imperialism?
Cynical Brendan:Certainly a message that buys into imperialism. It’s all there in the lyrics: that whole 19th-century fantasy of manifest destiny, the idea of a vast untouched wilderness just waiting for White people to come along and claim their new homeland with a palomino-riding cowboy lifestyle — ignoring the fact that the whole region had been more or less an active war zone for the better part of the century, feature systematic violence against indigenous people. And “Santa Fe” presents this expansionist myth as aspirational, through musical devices that express more raw yearning than anything else in the show.
Hopeful Brendan:But hold on, let’s talk about that yearning. Because I agree that it’s there, but I also think it’s pretty clearly presented as an unrealistic fantasy that doesn’t actually exist anywhere but Jack’s head. Katherine remarks on how he “paints places he’s never seen,” and eventually even he refers to his image of Santa Fe as a “made-up world.” It barely has anything to do with the literal place Santa Fe; he might as well be talking about Elysium. What’s important is the role it plays in the story, and that much is made clear by Jeremy Jordan’s acting and singing choices at the end of Act I: it’s an imagined escape from the horrors inflicted on him and his loved ones by capitalism and state violence.
Cynical Brendan:Does that actually make it better though? Yes, the show definitely portrays his fantasy as unobtainable, but never really as undesirable. And from the lyrics in the final scene we see that when Jack realizes his idea of Santa Fe doesn’t have much substance behind it, he turns instead to a rosier image of life in New York City. Is he just swapping out one exclusionary fantasy for another? Another paradise for the White working class that doesn’t spare a shred of thought for who else might have occupied that space? If anything, the fact that it’s framed as a refuge from capitalists and cops just makes it more dangerous, because it plays right into the sort of imagery that racist economic populists depend on to make themselves appealing.
Hopeful Brendan:Okay, I vaguely see where you’re coming from but this is all getting a bit abstract. Can you point to anything specific within the show that actually ties it to manifest destiny, beyond the use of New Mexico as a hypothetical destination?
Cynical Brendan:Sure. Teddy Roosevelt. The concept of manifest destiny made manifest.
Hopeful Brendan:Oh?
Cynical Brendan:Yeah, in our big climactic moment who else comes in to save the day but Medda’s good friend Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore “The Winning of the West” Roosevelt. Theodore “nine times out of ten a good Indian means a dead Indian” Roosevelt. And every single piece of theatrical text and subtext presents him as nothing but a heroic leader and a father figure. Listen to his endearing bluster, look at his stately costume, look at the blocking as people position themselves around him in the scene. Above all look at the role he plays in the plot, carrying Jack as close as he gets to his westbound dreams — a ride in his carriage, if you will. And sure, you can be a massive racist and still do things that help White unions, but they don’t get to hide behind history here because the real-life Roosevelt didn’t do anything to resolve the 1899 strike. This one’s all on the musical’s creators. And if they can expect viewers to just ignore the reality of Theodore Roosevelt then they’re expecting us to ignore substantive race issues altogether, to live in this fantasy world they’ve created where Santa Fe is Camelot and any White politician who’s good enough for Rushmore should be good enough for us.
Hopeful Brendan:Wow. Okay. I don’t know. I think there’s a sense in which it’s impossible to tell stories about White American history without glossing over hugely important bits to turn things into a cohesive two-hour narrative; there will always be another set of horrors to unpack. But maybe that’s just me being cynical.
Cynical Brendan:Yeah. I don’t know. I think there’s a way to avoid giving those horrors positions of prominence in your work if you’re not prepared to at least gesture at the existence of a bigger and darker picture, a way to tell the story you want to tell without playing into dangerous romanticizations. But maybe that’s just me being hopeful.

Who is Considered a True Wildcat at East High?

By Chelsie Hall and Bella LaChance

The musical that changed it all for us as kids, High School Musical. When it was a Friday night on Disney Channel and the movie trailer came up on the TV, you knew exactly what was about to start playing. The basketballs bouncing. The crowd cheering. Troy and Gabriella singing to each other. Dancing numbers at their finest. It was time for High School Musical. Being produced by The Walt Disney Company and directed by Kenny Ortega gave HSM the perfect jumpstart that it needed to be popular. The two main characters, Troy and Gabriella both are trying out for the lead roles in the school play. Troy, the star basketball player, and Gabriella, the scholar student, both end up falling for each other. These two are almost the package deal, that little boys and girls almost dream to be like when they are older. Instead of ever tearing down students, Troy and Gabriella want the best for their friends and classmates. They are role model students throughout the whole movie, while throwing some Romeo and Juliet like scenes in there too. In this day and age, we are thinking back on HSM and realize that there are only two people of color who have lead roles. These two characters are Monique Coleman (Taylor) and Corbin Blue (Chad). As we delve deeper into the concept of POC in HSM, Chelsie Hall and I realized progressions with these two characters and negatives because of there only being two Black characters. 

Bella LaChance (BL) is a freshman who is looking into majoring in Human Organizational Development or Communications. She currently is living in Nashville and is playing basketball throughout her academic career at Vanderbilt. 

Chelsie Hall (CH) is a senior, who will be graduating this spring. She majored in Human Organizational Development and had an amazing basketball career at Vanderbilt. Chelsie is taking her talents to Louisville to complete her graduate degree. 

On April 21, Chelsie and I were texting about whether or not we were going to do the 3rd Essay and we both decided “Yes of course!!” As soon as we started brainstorming, we were thinking about different musicals on Disney we have watched as kids from The Lion King to Moana and then High School Musical popped up and rang a bell in our heads. 

BL: Hi Chelsie! I am glad to be working with you again for another dialogue conversation on this musical. What is your favorite part about High School Musical? Does it bring back any memories as a kid? 

CH: Yes! So excited we get to talk together again! Wow, High School Musical feels like ages ago.  Of course, I watched it the night it premiered but I wasn’t always the biggest fan.

I did know the lyrics to most of the songs, but I wasn’t obsessed enough to watch it over and over again. I rather try to learn the dances during the commercials than watch the actual movie. When High School Musical came out, I was 7 I think and was definitely starting to become obsessed with basketball. So, let’s say that all the basketball scenes were my favorite especially when they won the championship. I was impressed with Troy Bolton’s bball skills while also being able to sing really well. The “Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma” warmup between Sharpay and Ryan was also one of my favorites because I thought it was so funny. I remember I would do it with my friends at school randomly. The characters were all so fun, who would you say is your favorite?

BL: My favorite character is Troy Bolton of course! Funny story actually, I used to have a picture of Troy Bolton from HSM in my bedroom for so many years. At the time, I was a tomboy and wore boy clothes, but I still loved my Troy Bolton sticker. Of course I was obsessed with his looks because who doesn’t think Zac Efron is attractive. Another feature of Troy that was attractive was the confidence that he carried either on the basketball court, on the stage, or just in daily life. His basketball ability was extremely inspirational to me at a young age. I know, I know, it is JUST A MOVIE, but little girls love to be inspired by the cringiest, cutest things sometimes. He always carried this confidence with him when he would dribble down a basketball court or shot a three point shot. He received a lot of fame merely from his basketball ability in high school. When I would watch the movie, I would be like, “Wow, I want to be famous as a basketball player in high school too.” Tell me about your favorite character!

CH: I definitely feel that! I loved how much confidence he had on and off the court. I too wanted to be that famous as a basketball player! My favorite character would have to be Taylor McKessie. I loved how she had beauty and brains. I mean I wasn’t trying to be the captain of the Decathlon team, but I thought it was pretty cool. She was also a best friend that I would want. I loved how she was nice and friendly to Gabriella when she first got to school and how she always kept it 100. I know she did break up Troy and Gabby for a moment, but she did confess and apologize for what she did. And then after she does everything in her power to help Gabriella make it to the school musical in time. Her fling with Chad was also very cute.Taylor McKessie | High School Musical Wiki | Fandom

BL: Oh my God! I love Taylor McKessie too! I also did adore her friendship with Gabriella because Gabriella definitely did need a true friend being a new student at East High. This raises an interesting point for me. This was one of the musicals that Disney chose to put people of color in the musical. There were only two Black characters, which are Taylor McKessie and Chad Danforth. There were progressions with these two characters and negatives because of there only being two Black characters. Of course, them being the two black characters in the musical has allowed them to keep diversity flowing throughout the entertainment world. A fun fact about these two characters is that initially they did not have a leading role. It was only until the producers saw how influential and effective they were in the musical they were given more of a lead role. These two characters helped to get rid of the stereotype of only white people being considered “smart.” As you said, Taylor McKessie, is insanely smart and the captain of the Decathlon team. A negative thought that came into my mind was, “Why are there only two black characters throughout the film?” I feel as if there was another HSM directed, produced, and filmed now there would be more black characters because of how the entertainment business is finally evolving. 

CH: Awwww Taylor and Chad were soo cute together. #powercouple. Yeah, you bring up an interesting point Bella about the lack of Black cast members. It makes me think if they were really “All in This Together.” I read an article about Monique Coleman (Taylor) talking about how her iconic headband look was her idea AND because they didn’t have anyone on set who could do Black girl’s hair. I mean we all LOVE the look, but I guess she didn’t really have a choice. However, there are positives to having these two Black characters be leads. Along with eliminating the stereotype of only white people being smart, they also eliminated the stereotype of black women having attitudes and being sassy. Taylor was the opposite. As the class president, she was friendly and always willing to give a helping hand. I think Chad was just the average jock who loved his sport and always kept it cool, nothing having to do with his race. Chad and Taylor were also the best friends of the main characters, Troy and Gabriella, which allowed us as kids to see and encouraged us to be friends with everyone. Looking back, I feel like there were important lessons that I learned from HSM that I still use today. Were there any lessons that have stuck with you growing up and that you still use today?


BL: Oh my God Yes I totally agree. I do love the headband look on Taylor too, but it is disrespectful to not put someone on the staff who could do her hair. To answer your question, I learned very important lessons as a little girl watching HSM. In one of the beginning scenes of the movie, Gabrielle goes to sing karaoke and Troy is hesitant to go, although he has a hidden passion for singing. After going on stage with Gabriella and having a beautiful performance, he gained so much confidence and accepted his passion, instead of being embarrassed about it. The song they sang together is, “Start of Something New.” It is ironic that this is the name because Troy’s singing career is also the start of something new. This showed me as a child and others watching that it is good and okay to try something new because you may love it! I have always struggled with taking the risk and having the fear of being embarrassed, but Troy overcame that. How about you? What is your favorite song/lesson that caught your attention? 

CH: I love that!! I’m not much of a risk taker either so I definitely feel that. My favorite song and definitely one of the catchiest songs would have to be “Stick to the Status Quo.” The “NO, NO, NO,” after someone would tell their deep secret would always get stuck in my head. I also really enjoyed the dancing and how cohesive the group looked. From the break dancing to dancing on the tables, the scene was amazing to watch with how many people were dancing at the same time. The lesson I learned from this song which is actually opposite of what the song is saying but is to not always stick to the status quo. I learned that I should always be myself and that it is “cool” to be unique. During the scene, I could relate to the pressure of a group telling you how you should be and how it’s easier to just not talk about what makes you different. When I was younger, I was a tomboy and always wanted to be playing sports. The girls would look at me crazy sometimes but when I got them to play, they would enjoy it just as much as me.

BL: It was amazing working with you again Chels! I’m going to miss you! Have a great time at Louisville!

CH: I always love working with you Bella! Thank you so much!! I will miss you mucho

What it might mean to be an American

JW: Hello, my name is Jonah Williams, and I hate musicals. I like theatre, but my appreciation for musicals has always been limited for a number of reasons, but mostly due to their extravagance. However, through my stint in this class, I have begun to acknowledge the value within all forms of art including musicals, being that the beauty is in the relevance. So upon watching West Side Story, (seemingly the most music-y, musically, musical ever) I quickly overcame my contempt for the unrealistic and unnecessary dance sequences, and then got to see myself within each character. I have never quite liked the idea of there being people who control me, and this is where I garnered a love for the Jet’s. I also never quite liked the idea of people being territorial over land that was not actually their property, so this struck a chord with me in relation to the Shark’s. The identity of each character was something that deeply resonated with me as very few of them really had an established place in this world.

WM: Hi, I’m Will Murray and I’m also taking THTR 3333 here at Vanderbilt with Jonah. I’ll be answering some of Jonah’s questions and later I’ll be asking a few of my own. Before this class, I also wasn’t very familiar or inclined to engage with musical theatre, to put it in different terms. For some background, my parents love going to plays—musicals included. I’ve tagged along a few times, and the plays I’ve gone to I’ve really enjoyed. Like most people, I like a good story—one that’s entertaining, insightful, and emotionally compelling. In the past these stories have come from books, TV shows, movies. More recently, just TV shows and movies. However, I always ask myself the same question after I read a good book or see a really interesting play: why don’t I do this more often? Now after becoming more familiar with the musical through this class, I have come to appreciate this unique mode of storytelling after watching classics like Oklahoma!, Newsies, and (what we’re talking about in this essay) West Side Story

WM: For me, the great thing about musicals is that while they’re entertaining, they always have something to say about the time in which they were produced. While they might seem light and fun because of all the singing and dancing, there are often very serious and sometimes controversial themes at play. West Side Story is no different. Set in New York’s Upper West Side during the 1950’s, West Side Story (produced in 1957) draws upon tensions of race and immigration of the time (which obviously still exist today), as well as more fundamental themes such as love and conflict derived from a sense of ownership. Oh and also Romeo and Juliet. 

JW: Okay so obviously, the two groups do not like each other, but it does not really seem like their conflict is due to race, instead they are simply competing gangs fighting for turf. Similar to any group of teenagers, the kids feel defined by their status, and in this case the land in which they set foot on is their form of status. Much like you said they create conflict over their sense of ownership. Unfortunately, the law enforcement in this film favors the white kids. But it isn’t about that for the kids! So what do you think Jerome Robbins was even trying to say with this distinction? Do old people suck or something?

WM: This is a really good question and I don’t know if I can fully answer it, but i’ll give it a shot. I think there’s a defined relationship between the two. On one hand, the conflict between these two groups is motivated by many things: ambition, status, love, etc. This is the surface level, and beneath that lies notions of superiority/inferiority based on race, which we see reinforced by law enforcement. A really important part of this play is that this conflict is deeper than either the Sharks or Jets (probably) realize. While their and planned physical altercations with one another might not be outwardly motivated by race, their conflict is both reinforced by and actively reinforces a system in which status and treatment is derived from race. Maybe old people do suck, but that’s another question. 

JW: The only bridge between the two groups seems to be through the love between Riff and Maria. Ahh, what a beautiful concept. Riff, after being pushed to by Maria, does what he can in order to forge a companionship between the two, but the only time in which the two groups unite is over a funeral procession for him. So, Will, I guess I just want to hear your opinion on why you think the writer chose to do this? Can there be no cultural intersection that ends in blood?

WM: I’m glad you asked this Jonah. Very important point!. I think it would be a bit of a stretch to say that all intersections of culture and ethnicity lead to bloodshed, but on the other hand it’s foolish to assume that they don’t often lead to conflict. Bloodshed and murder and are the most extreme examples / manifestations of conflict, especially when love and lust are involved. To your first point, I think it was a really important and deliberate decision for both groups to unite at the funeral procession. It’s a point in which both groups are forced to face their shared losses, causing them to come to terms with each other’s humanity and realize that their hardships as newly-minted (or soon-to-be) Americans are very similar. 

WM: For my question, one of the themes I noticed (and I think we all notice) in West Side Story is the conflict between a group of immigrants and a group of “Americans”. However, it’s not this simple. We learn that the Jets are only 2nd/3rd generation Americans. People of the Jets’ heritage (“Polacks”) went through the same thing a few generations ago that the Sharks, and more generally Puerto Rican immigrants, are going through during the time of the play. So with this comes a somewhat murky definition of what it means to be “American” and who gets to be the arbiter of that. I was wondering what you make of this somewhat nebulous idea of American identity and if this plays a role in why the Jets feel no obligation to help out the sharks?

JW: Well unfortunately my man, I feel like it genuinely comes down to pigmentation. The simple notion of someone being anything other than caucasian was startling and threatening to the generation in which this occurred. But pigmentation is too simple of an explanation. I think that the division is also amplified by differences in culture and language. The Shark’s came from a culture of poverty and different values, while although the Polacks have only been around for one generation, they came from Europe and look white which is enough to fully establish them as a part of the American culture. I mean I really wish they would help out the Shark’s but they would not only be looked down upon by the whole of American society, but also would be forfeiting their entitlement to the block, which although a trivial matter, seems to be very important to them.

WM: While much of the musical deals with conflicting male gang members, there are several important female characters with varying degrees of influence over their male counterparts. A lot of West Side Story’s attitudes are revealed by how female characters are portrayed or treated by the gangs. The musical’s descent into chaos revolving mainly around both gangs’ relationship to Maria and both gangs treat their respective female counterparts very differently. What do you take away from these (differing) representations?

JW: This is a phenomenal question. The white females in the film are fairly underdeveloped, but maybe that isn’t too bad because both Anita and Maria experience some pretty traumatizing events. And no, I’m not forgetting about Graziella and her loss of Tony, but she was much more of a side character which in and of itself adds to the idea that the white women are fairly unimportant in this musical. Both the women and the relationships of the Shark’s seems more developed, maybe calling upon the differing values of the two cultures, The lack of compassion and downright terror enforced upon Anita shown by the Jet’s is honestly horrifying and it seems to show the lack of value of women in the American culture. Chino’s killing of Tony could be justified from a standpoint of vengeance, but the Jet’s harassment of Anita is completely unwarranted. I feel as though Arthur Laurents uses this to show how the Puerto Rican culture places a higher value on respect and humanity which are values I hold dear to my heart. I mean often the white male gets what he wants, but Riff did not and although this could be a product of many themes, it would serve me happily to think Laurents didn’t want the white man to win this time.

WM: That was a phenomenal answer. I’ve had a lot of fun talking about West Side Story in particular with you. Good talk.  

JW: Yeah man that was killer. 

How to Balance Culture and Other Themes in Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof (1971) examines the shifting nature of culture and tradition seen through Jewish heritage.  The musical focuses on Tevye, a milkman, and his family as they try to maintain their traditions as outside influences disrupt customs related to marriage. At the same time, their community grapples with ongoing threats of religious, ethnic, and social persecution at the hands of the Czar.

We’ve chosen to approach these topics in the form of an interview. Each paragraph centers around a thematic question stated at the beginning in bold. 

What role does dance play in portraying Jewish culture during the wedding party scene? What makes the bottle dance uniquely engaging and representative of this?

Weddings are a display of culture and the marriage between Tzeitel and Motel is a beautiful portrayal of Jewish traditions coexisting with inevitable generational change during a moment of celebration.  The wedding party scene is full of dancing and joyful, but also traditional, music with the bottle dance catching the attention of both the audience and other characters in the scene. Dancing is an important characteristic of wedding parties but as this scene in Fiddler on the Roof showcases Jewish weddings involve dancing that is collective and an ensemble performance. Traditionally men and women dance separately in lines and holding hands and moving their arms and legs in sync. The invitation of Tzeitel’s sister’s boyfriend to have the women dance with the men prompted another case of breaking with tradition. This was very symbolic because a wedding ceremony symbolizes a connection to one’s cultural heritage and a following of tradition but adapting that tradition to fit with the nuanced evolution of modern generations. 

The bottle dance is a favorite among fans of the show and this can only be described by the adrenaline rush of watching the dynamic moves of the dancer while balancing a wine bottle on top of their head. The dance begins with one man but slowly more men join into the festive dance that must be a distinct and special dance, characteristic of a Jewish wedding or moments of enormous celebration. The dance requires high amounts of skill especially when the dancers are squatting up and down while moving forward in a line.  This dance is seen as a representation of Jewish culture because traditional ensemble dances performed at weddings can signify Jewish culture and resemble an appreciation for cultural practices.        

How does the musical’s first number, “Tradition,” serve to ground the reader in the world and the culture of the musical?

Fiddler on the Roof opens with the musical number “Tradition” and the beginning words of Tevye serve to ground the audience in both the themes of the musical and also the issues that threaten those themes, “How do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition.” Tevye explains the social roles of the family unit and the other members of the community and how adhering to these traditional roles maintains balance and a continuation of their Jewish heritage. Tevye goes on to explain the daily habits and customs which are unique to Judaism and the cultural traditions that have kept balance for their community over many generations. It is also during this number that the audience is introduced to the setting of Anatevka, their small village in Russia. As the song goes on the camera moves through the village to different jobs being done by the other village members, there’s a nature of the collective entity and a society where the commitment of each member to their specific role is what makes the village successful. It shows only men working in town and then switches to the women singing “how to make a proper home” while bathing their young children. It is clear that the established traditions in Anatevka are rooted in the expected roles of individuals that help support the collective society.  These roles expand across gender, age, and religious commitment.       

How does Topol’s portrayal of Tevye embody the theme of the importance of both maintaining and adapting culture?

Topol’s portrayal of Tevye as a leader both within his family and his community and is highly respected. He is the embodiment of wanting to maintain balance through the tradition of Jewish culture. He is a poor man but generous and full of wisdom, it is through his character that the audience is introduced to how important the many cultural practices are to supporting their village and the people that make it up.  His struggle during the musical is to find matches for his daughters to marry and during these scenes, Tevye both upholds Jewish tradition and also adapts to generational gaps that are affecting culture.  He is hesitant when the butcher wants to marry his daughter Tzeitel because he is uneducated but Tevye agrees because he believes Tzeitel will be well fed and cared for. Tevye and his wife Golde had an arranged marriage just like many others before them, It was a way to guarantee a match that would provide financial support and security. The people of Anatevka respect the matchmaker but younger generations are being influenced by love and emotions rather than agreement-based marriages. Tevye’s love for his daughters runs just as deep as wanting to maintain his old way of life and when Tzeitel is sure that a miserable life would follow if she were to marry the butcher Tevye does not force her to. At the beginning of the musical, the audience would be quick to assume that Tevye is stubborn in his views but as much as he can pass on the significance of Jewish traditions to his children they can also teach him that change is inevitable and doesn’t constitute a loss of culture.  

How does Yente’s role in the community both keep tradition and also push younger generations to adopt new attitudes and views on their Jewish culture? 

Yente upholds the tradition of matchmaking, which is important because it matches people based on the safety and financial stability that men can provide for their wives amid constant poverty and anti-Semitic attacks. However, the dissatisfaction of young people such as Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava with their pool of potential matches pushes them to become involved with other boys and men out of romance and love, even when they may not be as well off as far as finances or safety go as they could be with Yente’s choices for them. 

This shift to marrying for love has its fair share of negatives as well. It creates a divide between the daughters and the older people in the community, including their parents. For Tzeitel, it also creates tension between her father and Lazar Wolf, the man Tevye promised Tzeitel to before she said that she wanted to marry Motel instead. These rifts, particularly those within the family, are exemplified by Hodel having to decide whether to stay with her family or go to Siberia to be with Perchik. Her decision to leave the community and go to Perchik signals the shift from traditional values and ways of forming marriages to new attitudes that value love and romance.

How is the dream-like state Tevye goes into during his performance of “If I Were a Rich Man” along with lyrics emulate the influence poverty and class have on him and his family? 

Tevye’s fantasizing about life with “a small fortune” shows how much more security and freedom he and his family would have if they weren’t living in poverty. He focuses a lot on how he would treat Golde and how happy she would be if they were better off, doing things like “supervising meals to her heart’s delight.” One of the moments in the song that I found most touching was when Tevye is reflecting on how, if he didn’t have to work all the time, he could join the wealthier men and spend his days praying and studying scripture, strengthening his relationship with God.

However, it’s also a great sign of strength that he is able to get so fully immersed in this fantasy he’s imagining for himself and be so happy with it, even for just a little while. Even while living in such difficult circumstances and having to constantly toil just to make ends meet, he isn’t defeated. He still has an incredibly vivid imagination and optimism, and his faith and his conversations with God are a big part of that, so it’s no coincidence that it’s one of those conversations that leads into the song.

In what musical numbers do we see Tevye’s daughter’s feeling trapped by traditions and how does the experience and sound of the songs feel different from the numbers performed by the older members in the community, or even their father? 

“Matchmaker, Matchmaker” is the first number that comes to mind here. At first, Tzeitel is complaining about matches being made for her, while her younger sisters, Hodel and Chava, are dreaming about getting married to the man of their (and their parents’) dreams. However, as Tzeitel points out the realities of less-than-picture-perfect matches, they become as afraid as she is and beg not to be married to someone chosen for them by someone else. The song has a waltz feel and is a very light, carefree melody that fits the choreography and scenery of singing it as they go about their household chores (which prepare them for being a good wife and homemaker). It’s very Americanized and modern, using a full orchestra with strings, brass, and woodwinds rather than instrumentation, harmonies, and melodic structures that are more traditional to Jewish culture, as in songs such as “Tradition” or “If I Were A Rich Man,” which are sung by older members of the community, and especially Tevye.

by: Meredith Salmon & Courtney Ellis

2013 Cinderella: A Diversified Take on a Classic Fairytale

By Alexandra de Roziere, Megan Graziano, and Enrique Bradfield.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 2013 rendition of Cinderella attempts to revamp the classic tale into a relatable story in today’s society. Similar to the original production, Cinderella follows a young girl who lives with her stepmother and stepsisters after her father’s passing. Being the odd one out of her family, she is ostracized and forced to work for her evil stepmother. They live in the royal town where the queen is determined to find the prince a wife to fulfill his happiness. This process entails throwing a grand ball, inviting all the women in the town in hopes that the prince can find the one. Cinderella’s stepmother, evil as evil can be, does not allow her to attend, but rather only allows her two other daughters to attend. However, Cinderella’s fairy godmother swoops in to save the day, dressing her with a gown and glass slippers. The prince falls in love with her in time for the clock to strike twelve. Cinderella eagerly leaves, forgetting her glass slipper at the castle which the prince utilizes to find her. And… they lived happily ever after. By casting a woman of color as Cinderella and incorporating a diverse cast, the musical production goes beyond the basics of race and ethnicity. 

As we watched Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, we collectively noticed various elements of the musical that represented race and ethnicity. 

EB: What were your expectations coming into this production?

MG: Coming into the musical, I was expecting to see a dominantly white cast – the classic Cinderella story I grew up knowing. To my surprise, Cinderella, as well as important characters such as the queen, were also people of color. Each race had equally important and small roles within the society. 

AD: For me personally, I came into the musical knowing that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version of Cinderella featured a black female as the lead role.  This actually drew me in since there have been so many renditions of Cinderella, yet there historically had not been a version where the person cast to play Cinderella was black.  Other than that, I expected this version to be pretty similar to most others.

MG: From this Cinderella edition, what were a few takeaways you noticed?

EB: I noticed how diverse the cast of the musical was, so that made me think that was a priority for Disney while making this production. The prince’s nationality is Fillipino while Cinderella is African American. In addition to this, the prince’s mother is African American while his father is white, therefore allowing a multitude of races to be seen and represented. I thoroughly enjoyed this and found that I loved seeing the normalcy in which diverse people were cast into roles. It is refreshing seeing historically white roles given to people of color and not focusing on forcing people into roles simply because of the color of their skin.

AD: I also noticed how diverse the cast was. In the opening number “The Sweetest Sounds,” we are shown the town bustling with people.  These people come from all different backgrounds and ethnicities and I could not find one race that was dominant over the others.  In addition to this, all of these different races were portrayed as equal and there was not this stereotypical portrayal of any races which I found extremely refreshing.

AD: What was your reaction to most of the lead characters being people of color?

MG: I think it was extremely important to have a woman of color being the lead within a Disney movie. The target audience of most Disney movies are young children who look up to the lead characters. Having this character be the princess lead, it allows the young girls of any race to look up to her and accept all kinds of people. Additionally, this opens up the Disney toy industry for young girls who watch this musical. As an adolescent, most girls grow up playing with dolls and Barbies. It is crucial for girls of color to have dolls who look like them and feel like all the other girls. 

EB: I loved the fact that most of the lead characters were played by people of color.  In the picture above is the royal family and as we can see, multiple races are depicted.  Being a person of color myself, the lack of diversity in popular culture sticks out dramatically to me, so this casting was a step in the right direction.  Also, a person’s skin color is not even remotely discussed or noticed throughout the movie. I cannot think of one scene where I felt that someone was being discriminated against for their skin color.

EB: What were your thoughts about Cinderella after watching it?

MG: Personally I liked how they took the original story of Cinderella and made it more modern. Incorporating the diverse cast definitely inferred this production came out more recent than other versions. Additionally, involving the talented African American singer Whitney Houston gave the musical more traction and I am more likely to watch again knowing a talented figure was Cinderella’s godmother.

AD: After watching it, I found that I enjoyed the story of Cinderella more.  The inclusion of such a diverse cast brings a completely different look to the story.  I found it refreshing to see people of all races and ethnicities collectively getting along and co-existing peacefully. In a world where there has been so much hate and exclusion lately in regards to race and ethnicity, it was nice to be reminded that we can steer away from exclusion and veer towards inclusion.
In conclusion, the addition of such a diverse cast and a strong independent African American woman allows the discussion of race and ethnicity to be included in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Due to the female lead and the queen of the royal family being African American, this sets an example for many young girls and allows them to look up to a character such as a princess. Furthermore, the use of a Filipino as the lead male character sets an example for young boys to grow up to be whoever they want. The positive audience reaction implies a need for a production like this in the musical industry and pushes for more films like this in the future.

The Wiz Live – A Tribute to Black Culture

Sophia D’Agostino, Zoe Antell, Cameron Madden

Professor Essin

THTR 3333-01

14 April 2021

In December of 2015, NBC television repaired its reputation for airing sub-par musical theater revivals with The Wiz Live. Written by Harvey Fierstein and produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, the marvel captivated viewers across the country. This live stage production featured a fresh cast and new adaption of the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz, an reinterpretation of the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Composed by Charlie Smalls, The Wiz Live brings Black musical genres like R&B, soul, gospel, and blues to the Broadway stage. Further increasing representation in musical theater, the production features an incredibly talented, all Black cast. In its music, choreography, dialogue, and casting, The Wiz Live reimagines the infamous story of Dorothy’s adventures in Oz to not only represent, but wholeheartedly celebrate Blackness. Musical theater critics Sophia D’Agostino, Zoe Antell, and Cameron Madden discuss the musical’s elements and its cultural impact as a celebration of Black culture on the musical stage.

  1. The Wiz Live is notoriously known for adapting a mainstream musical – The Wizard of Oz – to be rooted in Black culture in many different facets. One key element of The Wiz that separates it from the original concept seen in The Wizard of Oz is casting. What casting choices do you feel made the most impact on the production of The Wiz Live and why? Do you think that The Wiz was successful in using casting as an intentional approach to combating issues of race and ethnicity on Broadway?

Cameron Madden: I believe that the most impactful casting choice that was made by the producers was actually the choice of the entire cast itself. I am sure you are curious what that could possibly mean. Well, if you look below you’ll know exactly what I am talking about…

The Wiz: Queen Latifah

Evillene: Mary J. Blige

Cowardly Lion: David Alan Grier

Addaperle: Amber Riley

Scarecrow: Elijah Kelly

Tin Man: Ne-Yo

Auntie Em: Stephanie Mills

Dorothy: Shanice Williams

Holy famous! Right! So why did they do this? Well, in my opinion, the answer is simple. The utilization of such big names in music and acting were used in such a volume to bring as much attention as possible to the film. While, yes, having recognizable names within a cast will increase revenue, it is far more than that. I am confident that this was done to put the film in the spotlight to reach the highest volume of watchers. The fact of the matter is that more famous people will yield a larger audience, which in turn, will allow for more people to experience such a celebration of Black culture. In summation, the producers’ choice to utilize such recognizable people was the most important casting choice as it allowed for most people to experience Black culture and the celebration of it.

Sophia D’Agostino: To no surprise, the all Black cast wasn’t well received by all. As one angry twitter user typed, “I just learned there is a Black version of The Wizard of Oz called ‘The Wiz’– How is this not racist?” Well, @MJTM (as of 2015), I’ll tell you how!

Let’s remember that the treasured The Wizard of Oz starring Hollywood sweetheart Judy Garland included an all white cast. In fact, released in 1939, the movie was made during the segregation era. In reimagining the original movie and casting all Black actors to perform a new version on the broadway stage, The Wiz Live gives a voice and stage to a culture that has been historically and systemically suppressed. On top of that, as we have discussed in class, Black actors are often marginalized in musical theater like many other industries. They are frequently defined by their Blackness and pigeonholed into a small number of roles that have “Black” written into their character descriptions. As a revival of a Tony award winning musical that requires an all Black cast, The Wiz Live brings much needed representation and inclusion to musical theater. I just know someone wants to ask, “Why does it require an all Black cast?” Well, because Black culture is embedded in the musical. My peers and I will provide in depth analysis of this soon, but an example that comes to mind is the use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) throughout the script. Characters often call each other “brother” or “child,” language that holds nuanced meaning exclusive to Black culture. It’s only right that The Wiz’s script is performed by Black actors. Plus, I’m sure white performers will be fine auditioning for the thousands of roles left for them. 

  1. Written and composed by Charlie Smalls, the music and lyrics of The Wiz weave together gospel, blues, soul, and R&B, genres and sounds created by Black musicians. How do the musical elements – the lyrics, the tempo, the rhythm, the melody, etc – of The Wiz’s songbook celebrate Blackness on the musical stage?

Sophia D’Agostino: As a kid who grew up watching the 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz, I remember humming “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” all the time. Ever since viewing The Wiz Live, I can’t stop singing “Ease on Down the Road.” The funky beat and exuberant melody make me want to get up and dance at every listen. Another one of my favorite numbers is “You Can’t Win” because of the soul in Scarecrow’s voice. I’m no music expert, but the song sounds like a hit rhythm and blues classic, especially with the crows joining in the background like a gospel choir. I also think there is an important meaning behind the song. The Scarecrow’s first line before singing the “Crow Commandments” is “Ain’t no getting ahead for folks like me.” As Cameron mentioned, I saw the song as a metaphor for how Black Americans have been and continue to be oppressed within our racist culture and society, just as the Scarecrow was belittled by the crows. It’s certainly a dark message for such a funky song, but I believe it’s empowering, for as we know Scarecrow breaks free. 

I’ll always love “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but the classical songs from the 1939 The Wizard of Oz seem mundane and boring in comparison to the hits from The Wiz Live. It’s no surprise the creators of The Wiz’s songbook scrapped the oldies, for they were written to be performed by white actors for white audiences. In contrast, The Wiz Live weaves together musical genres, historically created by Black musicians for Black folks, to be performed by Black actors for Black audiences to resonate with. In bringing R&B, soul, gospel, and blues to the Broadway musical stage, these genres and their musicians are given the recognition and respect they deserve.

Zoe Antell: Music always has, and always will be, a very important aspect of Black culture. Dating back to the times of slavery, music has played a crucial role in the lives of African-Americans as a way to come together as one and take pride in their culture. Whether it is Motown, soul, R&B, or any of the other genres that are rooted in Black musical history, there is more meaning to songs than just their lyrics, rhythms, melodies, and tempos. Unfortunately, there is a consistent pattern that features of Black music are poached by White artists who fail to give credit where it is due, and often profit greatly. However, The Wiz Live shines a bright light on Black music and its roots in Black culture. So necessary. The R&B/soul music in the production, performed by an all Black cast, was a powerful combination that essentially takes a stand against this appropriation. Essentially, The Wiz Live re-claims Black culture by bringing it to the musical stage. Televising Black people performing these incredible songs rooted in their culture is a way of saying, “this music is ours and we want the world to know where it came from and what it means for Black culture.”

  1. Not only is the original narrative changed by the musical’s all Black casting, but The Wiz also diverges from the 1939 version with new musical numbers and changes to the plot. How do these changes in this musical adaption empower the Black characters?

Cameron Madden: So when asked this question, the scene where Dorothy and Scarecrow meet immediately comes to mind. Dorothy stumbles upon Scarecrow during her walk on the yellow brick road and immediately conceals herself observing the crows mock him for asking to be let down. It is in the beginning of this scene that calls attention to a sort of ritual lynching was experienced by Black men in the United States and segways into the musical number “You Can’t Win.” Additionally, when the Scarecrow and Dorothy are talking, we see that he has a deep desire for knowledge and how this will give him freedom. Yet, we are able to hear the crows state “you can’t win child, you can’t get out of this game” shutting down any hope towards freedom. We see in these two moments a situation between slave master, the crows, and slave, the Scarecrow. As a caucasian, this was bone chilling to think about. Through analysis, we see this relationship, but in the emotional sense, nothing can truly capture how horrible the Scarecrow must have felt. Not even the crinkles in his skin or his longing facial expressions. Lasly, I think it is important to state how this scene emphasizes knowledge and freedom and utilizes that to highlight a historic slave narrative of literacy leading to freedom and a better life. Ultimately, this scene and number highlight said slave narrative bringing forth the awful circumstances that were once upon us. Yet, it does so in a way that says, “we are not afraid of our past. In fact, we welcome you to experience us with it. This is our past and because of it, we are better.”

Zoe Antell: The most important contrast that I noticed between The Wizard of Oz and The Wiz Live is Dorothy’s character. In the 1939 version, Dorothy is portrayed as a lost and disoriented girl in a strange land, seeking guidance as she tries to navigate through the confusing circumstances. However, The Wiz Live gives Dorothy a twist. She is not just a girl in need of help, but a powerful, Black woman who has agency and the ability to fend for herself. The Hollywood Reporter frames Shanice Williams’ role very well, stating that the character shifted to be “an empowered Dorothy who sets out on a journey driven by her own desires, rather than a victim merely reacting to strong tornadoes and flying houses.” 

One of the best examples of Dorothy’s powerful demeanor in the show is right after the number “You Can’t Win” which Cameron just mentioned. Dorothy stands up to the crows, puts her hands in fists, and shows that she is ready to take a stand and fight off the crows. This is not something that The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy did in the 1939 film. Here, Dorothy is demonstrating her fierceness and strength. Later in the film, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion are all ready to walk away and give up on their journey. But, Dorothy is not on the same page. The musical number “We Got It,” written specifically for The Wiz Live, is an incredible depiction of Dorothy’s role as a strong protagonist, rather than a helpless girl. She sings, “this won’t be easy, no way, no how. But, we won’t back down.” In both of these scenes, and many others throughout the film, I really felt the powerfulness of Dorothy’s character. Dorothy in The Wiz Live really encapsulates the role of a powerful and strong Black woman, which is not often something we see on stage. Not only does this empower the characters, but also the viewers watching. For all of the young, Black females watching The Wiz Live, Dorothy is a role model and inspiration. 

Both the original Broadway production and The Wiz Live carry an important message: Black artists, Black performers, Black characters, Black music, and Black culture have a place on the musical stage and beyond. As mentioned, the all Black casting of The Wiz Live gives Black actors an opportunity to represent and celebrate Black culture on stage. The songbook, which weaves together musical genres like R&B, soul, blues, jazz, and gospel, pays tribute to African American contributions to music. By reimagining the narrative of The Wizard of Oz, the writers of The Wiz Live create inspiring characters and protagonists that empower and resonate with Black folks. The musical demonstrates the power of representation, and paves the way for musical theater to become a vehicle of diversity, inclusion, and empowerment. 

Sources:

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/wiz-live-dorothy-backstory-empowered-844161

The Clouds Between the Sun and Moon

A Discussion between Iris Tseng and Emily Leatherwood on the 2016 25th Anniversary Gala Performance of the West End Production of Miss Saigon written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg

Content warning: mentions of sexual assault/coercion, war, racism

Emily: So, I am so excited to dive into the wild ride that is Miss Saigon with Iris today because we want to determine why this problematic (to put it lightly) show has the longevity and adoration that it does. And for me, the best way to start that conversation is to consider why, according to Dr. Essin, students who have taken this course in the past hated Miss Saigon when they only had access to the script, and loved it when watching the stage version. At first, I thought this was a no-brainer. The melodies are beautiful, there are entertaining, over-the-top dance numbers, there’s a freaking helicopter on stage! Of course that is going to be the preferable way to consume this musical; the spectacle distracts from the problematic content, or at least makes it easier to digest. However, when I considered this further, I realized that I do not think that the live performance simply is a diversion from the content, but that in some ways it actually transforms the content for the audience, and much of that is due to the actors themselves.

Iris: I for sure agree with you Emily, the format and production of a musical is absolutely meant to be performed and visually admired on a stage and not read from a page. Miss Saigon is no different. And in many ways, the shiny, bright lights of the flashy production numbers do contribute to the racist tropes and largely negative representation of Asian identities in Miss Saigon. However, actors like Eva Noblezada and Jon Jon Briones have worked to reclaim agency and power from this show through their performances, and that should not be diminished.The Broadway stage has limited opportunities for Asian actors but as change has been far too slow, performers are doing what they can with these already existing roles.

Emily: I couldn’t have said it better myself. And to start with looking at the negative, nothing better illustrates how Miss Saigon perpetuates the harmful representation of Asian identities on the musical stage than the choice of setting made by two French white guys: the Vietnam War. How do you think that this affected the portrayal of these characters – both the American soldiers and the Vietnamese citizens? 

Iris: Yeah the Vietnam War definitely is one of the last settings most people expect of their fun, Saturday night date in the city Broadway musical. America’s role in the Vietnam War against the VietCong and North Vietnamese communists being such a focal point in Miss Saigon was politically concerning for many audience members even during the revival. The first large production number, “The Heat is on in Saigon”, featured the American soldiers stationed at Saigon as instant heros waiting for their “treasures”. Yep, they are immediately feminizing the women in this scene by having them be won by the men, I mean how else should a production start. The women hope to be chosen. Like imagine The Bachelor but circa 1970s and an over animated Jon Jon Briones instead of Chris Harrison kind of to a T. These bargirls, underage let’s add, are fending for the title of Miss Saigon as they are raffled to different soldiers, hoping that their bodies will be enough for a trip back to America. It’s possible that this diminishes pity across American audiences as they wonder, why should Americans always be saving the day? Isn’t their country the reason we are losing soldiers in this war? I mean are audiences really buying tickets to relive the pain of the dreaded years of the war or are just looking for a classic romance story with a man in power. Like that infamous helicopter scene before the intermission. As the families left behind push in hope of escaping the warzone, the focus is less on the issues they are leaving behind, but more on “Oh no Chris what about Kim!!” 

Emily: Exactly! Listen, I am ALL for criticizing America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. And textually, in my eyes, Miss Saigon seems to at least attempt to do just that. The key word there being attempt. The soldiers are seen taking advantage of the coerced women in the brothel, and abandoning the citizens as their city and lives fall apart around them (in the aforementioned helicopter scene). But like you said, in so many ways the commentary falls short and we go right back to glorifying America and diminishing Vietnam. One of the best examples of this happening that comes to mind is the song “Bui Doi” – or what I like to call the “our bad” song. In theory, the number is supposed to highlight the suffering of the Vietnamese people, especially the children, after the war has ravaged their country and modern productions, including this one, emphasize that even further by literally including a slideshow of pictures of actual orphans as a backdrop. This is supposed to be one of the big activist moments – calling out the United States military for the forgotten they have left behind. They missed the mark by, not just a mile, but the whole 8,584 miles between America and Vietnam. Seriously, I don’t think they could have done this worse if they tried. Already the song has issues because it is a tearful lament sung by John, an American soldier that we have seen purchasing women in a brothel and abandoning the citizens as the city falls. Now, this is the guy who is supposed to be the voice for the forgotten? Yeah, I don’t think so (no shade to the talented Hugh Maynard). On top of that, the lyrics only concern the children fathered by Americans with Vietnamese women, glossing over the fact that many of those children were the result of sexual assault as well as ignoring all of the other Vietnamese people whose lives were destroyed by the fighting. And that slideshow just screams exploitation. I do not know if you agree with me on this, Iris, but the choice to set this show during the Vietnam War is not an inherently bad one. It was an opportunity to fully explore the impact that the conflict had on these citizens without making them helpless, nameless, faceless victims. The story could have been driven by their choices, but instead, the writers relied on tired narratives and largely worked to make us care about the Americans like Chris and John over the Asian characters. 

Iris: You know I think that my first initial response to learning about Miss Saigon, was in fact that the intentions were meant in a way to actually give representation to an undermined and underrepresented group of Asian Americans. For sure as producers of a consumer product, the addition of romantic and theatrical elements were a selling point to draw people in the doors, how else were they to pay for the helicopter. But in actuality watching the musical for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect. I still don’t know what I expected from an American team of producers as the appearance of this culture continues to be portrayed as victims in war and their relationships. There seems to be attempts in this production that should be acknowledged and appreciated. Setting the scene of a musical in a warzone is no easy feat which for that I give them props. I would love to know how the performers of Miss Saigon, especially those playing Kim, as Asian Americans, felt on whether this was a step in the right direction or back. 

Emily: There is something to be said for exposing the horrors of war. I really think Lea Salonga and Eva Noblezada said it best in the New York Times article we read – that women were and still are forced into prostitution around the world. Their stories deserve to be heard as well, although it’s very clear that Boublil and Schönberg were not the people to tell it. And that is what makes Kim such a fascinating and controversial character – she is a study in contradictions. As a victim of war and poverty, how much agency would Kim realistically have? Probably not a lot. But she is fictional, and as such two white dudes were the ones who put her in the position of a victim of war for white audiences to gawk at. In many ways she fits the stereotypes that have objectified Asian women for centuries. Yet, the actresses that take on this character have made her one of the most beloved leading ladies on Broadway of all time, and the role has been the launching pad of successful careers. God, I really, really love Lea Salonga. 

Iris: I mean who doesn’t love Lea Salonga (especially as Mulan singing Reflection) but we can’t discount Eva Noblezada especially in the 25th Anniversary Gala version our class was so fortunate to watch. She continues to leave me speechless and I’m a talker. Kim is just one woman, but her story in this production speaks to the lives of thousands of other Vietnamiese women as well as other socially feminized minorities during the Vietnam War and today. In the audience’s first look at Kim, she is shy and timid, quickly thrown up to the viewing by the Engineer, in a modest, virginal white traditional dress. Her introduction included “legs unparted, parts uncharted” which quickly placed her as a fresh piece for people to play with. She had no agency at this moment and she continues to be powerless in her relationship with Chris. Although he showers her with nice words he still has ALL the power in their relationship. It is interesting that in their loving ballad, “Sun and Moon”, the lyrics one and the same, you and I”, are sung by Kim not Chris, showing the naivety of the power she lacks in that moment. Of course no one is singing a lovey-dovey romance ballad and expecting their man to be shipped away to another country and leave you for a girl and actually have a son with this man and he doesn’t know and… Oh I wish there was a warning button for men who are probably going to leave you we could push. 

Emily: Ugh, that is the dream. But anyway, great point! The love-at-first-sight musical standby does not work in this show because of that unbalanced power dynamic. Kim is in such a vulnerable state that not only does it feel like she is being taken advantage of by Chris, but it also feeds into the white savior trope. I’ve seen one other production of Miss Saigon – the 2018 Broadway Tour – and the blocking of “Sun and Moon” made it even worse (if possible) because he was physically on top of her for a lot of the making out, which made me uncomfortable. Thankfully, that was not the case in this version, but still definitely not a relationship to root for. 

Iris: I didn’t know that scene could be more uncomfortable but I guess that would certainly do it. From “Sun and Moon” Kim to post time jump Kim almost is like introducing a new character to the stage. She is most definitely the strongest person of power on the stage in both “You Will Not Touch Him” and “Give My Life for You”. Although she is extremely vulnerable in both numbers, she is regaining her own sense of self as a woman and a mother. The scream and pain in “You Will Not Touch Him” as she watches her own son get ripped from her arms, showed audiences a new Kim, then the one in the white dress at the brothel. She immediately gains the power over Thuy as he is staged on his knees at gunpoint. Being a mother brings out a different side of a woman, one that should never be messed with when their child is at stake. There aren’t enough awards that could be handed out to Eva for that performance. 

Emily: That scene! I get chills every time. But, of course, we should note that Kim’s most powerful moments not only occur when she is essentially out of options, but also revolve around her identities as a mother, which in some ways slots her right back into that neat, feminine box. But thank you for bringing up the performance, because I think this is the perfect point to talk about how Kim’s character is transformed and empowered by the actor, in this case the incredible Eva Noblezada. She owns this role, and by bringing Kim to life in this way, we as viewers also see Kim differently. How she holds herself over the cowering Thuy, I mean! Eva chooses to hold her gun steady and true, never wavering, which for an audience member changes this scene from a desperate mother with no options left to a woman strong in her convictions, freeing herself from one of her many oppressors. Vocally, Kim is a very technically demanding role that requires extreme control, range, and agility, especially during the most emotional songs, and Eva DELIVERS. This talent communicates again to us that Kim has more agency than she actually does on paper. I would even argue that she makes us believe that Kim loves Chris out of her own volition due to her progressive opening up and the joy in her eyes – and that is no easy feat. 

Iris: The performer’s impact on their characters is especially apparent in, like you said, Eva’s raw and vulnerable emotion as she established herself as more than just a piece in the puzzle. She shows that even in a person’s supposedly lowest state, before their death, she was able to actually display power in her decision. Knowing that the best outcome for her son, who she’d “give her life”, is a life in America, would be less feasible as she stands a barrier is dominating. As performers continue to give entitlement for their characters and how they represent more than just themselves but also a culture of society is encouraging for the future of performance. Although Kim’s character leads most conversations about the representation of Asian Americans on a stage, a production wouldn’t be complete without the roles of the ensemble and supporting roles. What do you think about the agency of performance supporting performers got in this production? 

Emily: Well, even before getting into the supporting cast we can look to the other iconic Miss Saigon lead – and no I’m not talking about Chris, I’m talking about the Engineer. Yes, the role originated by a white dude in yellowface, the pimp, the one who sings on top of a car about the “American Dream” – that guy. See, the interesting thing for me is, like I mentioned earlier, that I had already seen a production of this show prior to this class and that Engineer seared himself into my brain. The actor, Red Concepción, (shoutout to my mom for finding my program at home so I could get the right name) had a very different interpretation of the character that completely skewed how I view him ever since. He was still conniving and self-serving, but he was not the comic relief. His presence on stage felt threatening; everything from his deeper voice to his body language contributed to a feeling that this man knew more than he let on, and would do anything to achieve his goals. So I was shocked to hear that this character is often performed in a very comical, even effeminate manner. For me, this just showcases how an actor has agency over how their character is perceived, and can take power from a role that might traditionally be performed in a certain way or with a stereotype in mind. 

Iris: See I think that in hindsight the writers who came up with the Engineer character were definitely like yeah you know this musical is kinda depressing like with all the war, failed romance and death, let’s add a feminine, overly exaggerated, borderline terrifying comedic relief to add a little spice. I mean he’s supposed to be the one character in this terribly depressing saga that when he comes on the stage, hopefully the audience will at least let out a chuckle. Obviously, in your experience that is not what happened and he probably just gave little children nightmares. The character should not however be overlooked as he has the largest, upscaled production of the whole musical. The performance of Jon Jon Briones in “American Dream” as he dances amongst showgirls, falling money and a car I guess feels out of place in all regards. Even with the lighting choices, this number uses spotlights and colored lighting that was absolutely not utilized in other parts of the show. As a character who literally made his way promoting underage bar girls and hoped to just tag along as “family” with Kim to America, he had little to no power in regard to escaping Saigon. However Jon Jon was able to throw all that out the window when he stepped into his character for this eleven o’clock number. He once again regained power where power was absent. It’s certainly a performance that is hard to forget (both good and bad). 

Emily: Absolutely. If you want to talk about an actor infusing power into their character, you have to talk about Gigi. I mean, Gigi is probably the one other named character who is a contender in the battle for the title of person-with-the-least-amount-of-agency with Kim, and that is explicitly spelled out in the song “Movie in my Mind” – or as I like to call it, the “trauma-induced fantasization” song. I could literally quote every lyric here but I’ll restrain myself. Suffice it to say, the song is doing everything it can to make Gigi out as a helpless victim who will “just close her eyes” when she is physically abused by the soldiers, and whose only hope is that a white man will whisk her away and provide for her. Not good. Enter Rachelle Ann Go. All of a sudden, this number has a new energy, and somehow, against all odds, it feels like Gigi has power. She stands tall, with her shoulders squared, and belts the chorus with immense strength, volume, and talent. You cannot take your eyes off of her. She does not appear as a victim or an object of pity that we can use to make ourselves feel better, which is how she is written. The performance choices are monumental in making Gigi a standout character that defies tropes, even as she sings lyrics that are full of them. 

Iris: I mean even the lighting of this emotional song encapsulates the lyrics and performance you mention in a perfect way. As it is this “trauma-induced fantasization”, they spotlighted Gigi in her powerhouse ballad as she sings about the potential “dream I long to find” encouraging the audience to solely focus on her. Meanwhile looking closely at the ensemble in the back, instances of drug usage, domination of the soldiers over the women are all seemingly in the blur. Yes, let’s give representation and power to Gigi, but not enough to clear the stage of American dominance. 

Emily: Yeah, exactly, this is not to diminish the glaring problems with the text of this song (or the rest of the show for that matter). But I think we can acknowledge the effort that actors like Rachelle Ann go put in to reinvent these characters, and provide better representation. 

Iris: And that’s our big takeaway isn’t it. With all the characters we’ve discussed today how has Miss Saigon been a breaking point for positive or negative representations of Asian identities. Past productions of this musical has led to serious issues with the Asian community as representation is clearly lacking. I mean the casting of Jonathon Pryce, a white male, as the Engineer, not a white male role, stirred conversations to actually fight back. Uses of yellow face were indeed negative representations of the Asian community, a group already at a low 4.5% of Broadway musical actors from recorded data in 2014 to 2015 , to have even less power in performance. The fight for more equal representation is still ongoing as casting for both Hollywood and Broadway performers are still unequally proportionate between minority groups, especially Asians, and white actors. As an Asian American woman, it is incredibly exciting to be able to see people who look like me on the stage in a role that might not necessarily be written for Asians. Although many minority groups are at the crossroads of fighting for their equality, especially in the past unprecedented year, light was just recently shone on the racist discrimination of the Asian American population. It is important the Miss Saigon is not the last production that emphasises how feminizing the other is demeaning to the community. They strive to continue work within the theater world to increase the representation and provide more stories that follow the empowerment of this community. 

Emily: The Engineer himself, Jon Jon Briones, said he “truly believes that, because of ‘Miss Saigon,’ Asian actors are seen in a different light.” There is power in that, and I think we both agree that so much of that power comes from the Asian actors themselves. They are the ones who have made Kim and Gigi and the Engineer. They are who we remember when leaving the theatre (or pressing X in the corner of our screens). Change needs to happen, and minority groups deserve better opportunities and positive representation on stage, but as the fight continues, we can acknowledge how these marginalized communities have transformed work like Miss Saigon into something, well, a little less terrible than it is on paper. And screw the helicopter. 


Works Cited 

Onuoha, Mimi. “Broadway Won’t Document Its Dramatic Race Problem, so a Group of Actors 

Spent Five Years Quietly Gathering This Data Themselves.” Quartz, 4 Dec. 2016, 

qz.com/842610/broadways-race-problem-is-unmasked-by-data-but-the-theater-industry-i

s-still-stuck-in-neutral/.

Paulson, Michael. “The Battle of ‘Miss Saigon’: Yellowface, Art and Opportunity.” The New York 

Times, 17 Mar. 2017, 

www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/theater/the-battle-of-miss-saigon-yellowface-art-and-oppo

rtunity.html. 

Modern Femininity, Mama Rose, and Why She Deserved a Dream for Herself.

I’ve been trying to decide for years now if it’s messed up that “Rose’s Turn” is one of my pump-up musical theater songs.

Everyone has that playlist of songs that you go to before a competition, a job interview, a performance, or really anything that they need a boost of adrenaline and confidence for – or if you’ve just had a terrible day and need a pick-me-up to get through the next four hours of classes and assignments. “Rose’s Turn” is easily one of my top picks from my version of that playlist.

Like yeah, sure, Mama Rose is literally having a nervous breakdown in song, and I’m definitely not supposed to root for her or think she’s a great person, and I’ve just watched her inflict some serious psychological damage on her kids for two hours… and yet… “Rose’s Turn” is one of the most exciting, adrenaline-pumping, satisfying musical theater ‘I want’ songs EVER. Why is that? Why am I obsessed with this song? Why is it one of my go-to songs to screlt in the car when I need a boost?  

Hear me out – it’s because Bette Midler’s iconic 1993 performance of Rose’s Turn reads to a modern viewer as a fiery show of self-acceptance, a rejection of cultural norm, and a discovery of non-traditional femininity. It’s no secret that Rose doesn’t exactly embody traditional femininity, especially not in 1959, when Arthur Laurents wrote the book to Gypsy and Jules Styne and Steven Sondheim turned it into the classic musical. Traditionally, women are demure, beautiful, nurturing, and soft-spoken. They are not too confident, and while they may have goals, they aren’t working too hard or getting in anyone’s way to achieve them. They are subservient to men. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Mama Rose is none of those things. She’s bold, brash, confident – she is not afraid to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. In the first scene, we see her barging into an audition and ordering everyone in the room around to make sure her daughters look like the stars that she firmly believes she can make them. She isn’t afraid to essentially ask Herbie to marry her in their very first meeting. She bribes and silver-tongues her way through every situation that dares stop her.

Mama Rose certainly tries to show us that she loves being this way. She exudes confidence. This is written into the book, but Midler also brings an anger and a passion to the character that makes her utterly impossible to ignore. She doesn’t care that she isn’t the star, that she often rubs people the wrong way – her character and perception are secondary to the success of her children. But throughout the show, we see little hints at Rose’s insecurities, in the way Midler delivers a line or in the ghost of a facial expression. Is she truly accepting of her lot in life? Is seeing the success of her children enough for her? As she slowly alienates all the people who love her – first June, then Herbie, and finally ever-devoted Louise, we see the cracks in her façade start to show.

And see, here’s the thing – I feel bad for Rose. I can’t help myself! Even though I am well aware that Rose is a toxic maternal figure, and she has not by any means done what is best for her children, I absolutely feel sympathy towards her. She has been forced to attempt to fit a mold that she will never conform to. Mothering is the “natural” occupation for women of this era, so where does Rose direct all of her dreams, her goals, and her ambitions? Onto her children. Before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it wasn’t commonplace for women to have their own careers while still being mothers. If you were a mother, that was your job. This was the age of the housewife and the picture-perfect nuclear family. I understand why Rose would’ve felt forced to direct all of her goals onto June and Louise – “don’t I get a dream for myself” was the cry of every stereotypical 1950s mother.

Today, it would have been far more societally acceptable for Rose to have that dream for HER, not for her daughters. Our modern concept of an “ideal woman” (at least from my perspective as a 22 year old who’s ready to get rid of gender roles) is unafraid to pursue her goals. She’s capable of juggling lots of different hats: mother (Rose), careerwoman (Rose?), dreamer (definitely Rose). She’s a master of networking, of finding opportunities where there are seemingly none, and getting to her end goal in whatever way possible. Midler’s portrayal definitely plays into this bold and almost conniving side of Rose in a way that shoves all those character traits front and center. And I ask you this, reader – if Mama Rose was Papa Rose, would we view the character differently? It’s appropriate for men to be pushy and know what they want. When men obnoxiously advocate for themselves, it’s seen as admirable and forgivable instead of unacceptable. Would these aspects of her character be seen in a warmer light?

Obviously, I’m not saying we should forgive Rose for the way she treated her children. She undoubtedly caused them a lot of trauma and stunted their growth and mental development. She was by no means a good mother.

However, Rose is a product of her time (and I usually hate that excuse). It’s so easy to see how these naturally occurring personality traits could have been warped by outward expectations and turned into the poisonous things that they become in Gypsy. And with that lens, it’s hard to NOT view “Rose’s Turn” as a satisfying and thrilling realization of what Rose has lost because of what society has told her is acceptable. It’s never been her turn. She doesn’t get a dream for herself. She isn’t allowed it. But God, she could’ve had it, and Midler makes that obvious. The showpiece that she makes “Rose’s Turn” gives us a vivid picture of how Rose could’ve turned her energy and charisma into an incredible stage persona. Rose is finally showing herself. She’s exploring her inner show woman. She is accepting herself as she is, while mourning what she has lost. And man, it is so satisfying. I was waiting for her to let loose from the first moment she sauntered into frame, and she finally does it here.

Yes, it’s a breakdown, but sometimes breakdowns are necessary to come to terms with important realizations. Who hasn’t had a screaming collapse in the worst moments of their lives, when all their buried frustrations are finally escaping out into the world? (okay maybe I’m revealing too much of myself here, but I digress…) That’s why I want to hear “Rose’s Turn” when I need to get my adrenaline going. It’s cathartic, it’s healing, it’s loud and, for the first time, it’s truly unapologetic.

When I hear “Rose’s Turn”, I want to do it for her, and all the women she represents, who didn’t get dreams for themselves.

Black Representation in The Wiz Live!

By Olivia Simmons and Princess Mazagwu

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

If Cinderella’s Shoe Fit, Why Did It Fall Off? and Other Questions About the Timeless Tale

By Natalie Stigall and Chloe Hodge

We sat down and had a discussion on Cinderella (1997). Focusing mainly on the casting, we talked a lot about the importance of the diversity in this production, how unfortunately normalized white-centered stories are, and how this is harmful. Though this cast was diverse, was the story and the world they were playing in? We examined this question; tune in below for our thoughts.

 
*Authors’ Note: We also had a discussion before this conversation started about how important it was to us both, as two white women, to not overshadow voices in discussions about race and the perspectives and stories of BIPOC, but how it’s also important for us to examine our privilege and help bring light to issues that need to be discussed and examined, particularly in the world of theatre, but in every aspect of life. At some points we felt uncomfortable talking about things that quite honestly we don’t entirely know how to talk about yet, but we think that’s the point.  Because even though we, Chloe and Natalie, sometimes pretend we know a lot (for example, we love analyzing Chekov like nobody’s business), we really know nothing at all.

Natalie: When you take a look at Disney princess stories in general, a large majority of them are white-centered, with only a few (such as Princess and the Frog) written specifically for representation of BIPOC characters and stories. Cinderella was not one of these, which seemed to make the decision for color-blind casting a bold move. What are your thoughts on how this relates to the storytelling of the piece and the reception of the casting? 

Chloe: I’ve got to give you a little background on my viewpoint before I answer this question. A few years ago, I read an article by Matt Dicinto about why “diversity encouraged” is not enough, and I’ve been a pretty firm believer in that since then. BIPOC people need stories written that are FOR THEM, not that they can just be stuck into, because the white story should not be the universal story, yet it is. On top of that, there is also an importance in these stories not being solely about BIPOC oppression or struggle; people should have normal stories of them just existing (like white people have gotten beaucoup of for forever). I think BIPOC people should be able to play whatever role they want, be it written for “diversity encouraged” and not explicitly stated that it’s written for a “white is the norm” type role, or be it a role written specifically as a BIPOC role, like Moana or Tiana, as you said, but the lack of roles written specifically as BIPOC roles is a major issue to me. This reminds me of Mimi Onuoha’s article we read during Miss Saigon week, “Why Broadway Won’t Document its Dramatic Race Problem” about how lots of times on Broadway, a production that may give actors of color a large amount of roles creates these parts as being “one-dimensional, stereotypical, or vestiges of a not-too-distant racial history.” That being said, I think the color-blind casting and the “diversity encouraged” mindset of the producers of this version of Cinderella was such a huge step forward for 1997 because it gave normal roles to people of color, and not just any roles, these were roles that were not one-dimensional, or if they were its just because the character was a one-dimensional character (see: stepsisters). Would a color-blind casting of Cinderella be enough in today’s world? Absolutely not. The entire storyline just wouldn’t be enough, the whole thing would need to be rewritten, maybe like a situation similar to The Wiz, specifically for BIPOC roles. But was it a start for 1997, and quite honestly, pretty amazing when situated in its time? Yes, I think so. Yes, BIPOC people were still having to play roles written for the “white norm” which should not be the “norm,” but they were finally being given space to be what white people have been able to be, no questions asked, for forever; princes and princesses, kings and queens.

So finally, with this production of Cinderella, we got people in roles that may not “normally” have been considered to be leading prince or princess material, like a Black Cinderella in Brandy and a Filipino Prince in Paolo Montalban. I, like some of the original producers, was appalled but not surprised that a few people at Disney were so opposed to having a Cinderella that was anything but white all the way up to the premier, but think that this group’s conscious decision to make this production inclusive was so forward thinking for the 1997 movie industry (sad that a step towards EQUALITY is forward thinking, right?), even if Disney may have eventually agreed on it just to gain Whitney Houston’s followers, and it opened a lot of doors for people. I do not think the color-blind casting had any affect on the storytelling of the piece; even at the parts that seemed to be “plot holes,” such as a BIPOC queen and a white king having a Filipino child or the prince not being able to rule out half the kingdom in his search for his mystery princess because the girl he danced with was not white; I think the producers from the article were right in that the story was so immersive and full that you’re so into it by this point you as an audience member don’t even think about these things as questions. The only way in which I think the color-blind casting changed this storyline was making it more accessible to more people; in this storytelling of Cinderella, BIPOC watching could look at this cast and see themselves in the characters on screen.

Chloe: Let’s talk about the plot of Cinderella. Being a Cinderella aficionado yourself, can you touch on this? Can you compare this purposefully racially and ethnically inclusive version of a story written with white people in mind to a story that was originally written for BIPOC?

Natalie: I think that the comparison is definitely an interesting one. When you look at productions such as the Wiz, which was written specifically to center and give creative agency to BIPOC performers, you see that Cinderella was not written or rewritten in any way to have this same effect. Robert Freedman talks about changing some words in “Stepsister’s Lament” to re-write  the white-centered lyrics such as “neck being white as a swan’s,” but says he did so almost in secret, without asking permission. There were also some executives at Disney that expressed backlash for having two strong, Black leads, wanting instead to market a “multicultural production” with a white Cinderella. The idea of having a Black Cinderella was certainly opposed by certain producers. If you look at it in the reverse, however, to instances such as Natalie Wood being cast in a non-white role in West Side Story and Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in Miss Saigon, you have producers that were opposed to having a BIPOC in a role originally designed for them. I think this speaks to the larger problem of the huge lack of representation and systemic racism in the entertainment industry in general. In a more modern parallel, I remember reading about some of the backlash Disney received in its recent casting of the new live-action Little Mermaid. The casting, in my opinion, is immaculate (I mean, Halle Bailey and Daveed Diggs, like the talent in those two alone is astronomical). There were a lot of angry people on Twitter, however, that pushed back at the casting of Halle as Ariel because “her hair wasn’t red,” which is really just another way of saying they didn’t want Ariel to be Black. Frankly, I think this “reasoning” about these stories being “realistic,” particularly in regards to the fairy tale genre, is ridiculous. They’re fairy tales. If you can willingly believe that a pumpkin can turn into a carriage, and the mouse can turn into a horse to pull that carriage to get Cinderella to the ball, then why is it so hard to believe that the Filipino prince has parents that don’t match his race? If you want to talk about plot holes, let’s talk about how the slipper literally didn’t fit another single foot in the entire kingdom (like was Cindy the only size 6 in the entire kingdom?) or how the mice could sew. So to answer your question, while I think that these originally Eurocentric stories don’t do much to actively induce diversity in their writing, that doesn’t mean that these stories can’t be diverse and inclusive, and Brandy’s Cinderella proves this. This could mean that more of the task of giving that creative agency to BIPOC performers falls more on the performers and creative team themselves, but this is why change is so necessary. Especially since these Disney princess stories, many of which are Eurocentric and feature white characters, are such a big influence on little girls growing up, it’s so important to have representation so that girls from all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities can be inspired by someone that looks like them. I vaguely remember an old Disney channel commercial from when I was around seven or eight years old, about how “anyone can be a princess if they believe they are.” Well then, that’s it. Practice what you preach, Disney (@ the rest of the world too. Seriously, Ariel does not need to have red hair.) To digress just a little, on the topic of Disney marketing and live-actions, if you take a look at the 2015 Cinderella remake, you’ll immediately notice that the cast is not diverse at all. While I love a good Richard Madden moment *swoon*, the casting in terms of diversity and inclusion takes major steps back from where Brandy and Whitney’s version worked to make strides forward. Nobody really questioned it, however, at least not in the way the new Ariel is being questioned. This trend of it only being a big deal when there is diversity and inclusion in casting just speaks to how biased casting is the norm, and how this needs to change. 

Natalie: Let’s shift the conversation to dance, since who better to ask than a dancer like you? In Cinderella, we see a lot of waltzing as the dance of choice at the ball, which is a traditionally German/Austrian (aka Eurocentric) dance. How does this compare to the choreography and movement such as that of which we see in shows such as the Wiz? What about in comparison to the dancing in a show such as West Side Story? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 


Chloe: Ah yes, throwing it back to my dance days. You’re right, most of the choreography in Cinderella is either at the ball where the characters are doing some sort of waltz or ballroom dancing variant, or it’s in the streets with background dancers doing what I call Broadway style dancing; it really doesn’t fit into a normal category of dance for me like jazz, hip-hop, or ballet, it’s just Broadway-geared choreography. Both these styles of dance are very Eurocentric to me; they are sharp, concise movements, everyone does the same thing, there’s no point in the music where anyone is given a chance to improv or show any sort of individuality. In contrast, in choreography such as The Wiz, West Side Story, and even Fiddler on the Roof, the dancing is decidedly individualistic. It is full of movement and fun, it is full of life and passion. Each character, whether main or an ensemble member, has these moments of individuality in these more culturally-centered-and-embracing shows, such as snapping and breaking out in WSS, having an individual movement for each character in The Wiz, or having characters do the same thing for some pieces but then break off and have one member do something that stands out like in Fiddler. In my opinion, there’s almost no better way to express yourself than through dance, and I think you can really see the differences between this show written originally with white people in mind and the shows written originally with BIPOC in mind when comparing choreography between them.

Chloe: Just to wrap up our discussion on the casting of this production of Cinderella, do you want to speak on the production team’s role in this diverse cast?


Natalie: Yes. I think the production team’s willingness to fight so hard for such a diverse cast, especially when some of the people opposing them were big shot producers at Disney, is part of what made the 1997 Cinderella remake so successful. Craig Zadan emphasized quite clearly their commitment when making the film by saying that they “weren’t interested in a white Cinderella. Still aren’t!” This statement and their mentality from the get go is part of the reason for the casting: the production team went in with a backbone despite “nervous” (racist) Disney producers. I think this is an important detail to note, because so often people throw around the term color-blind casting without the commitment. So many instances creative teams have sworn by color-blind casting yet still ended up with white leads because let’s be honest: color-blind casting is sometimes just a blanket term for encouraging diversity without following through, or a performative phrase. This is why a lot of creative teams have now switched to pushing for color-conscious casting, or the deliberate decision to acknowledge color when casting and push for inclusivity and diversity in the casting process. Given this definition, I think we could even make an argument that some of the casting in Cinderella was color-conscious, as it was a deliberate push. Perhaps that’s what made it so successful.

I like to think the photographer said, “Now a serious one,” but Whitney obviously didn’t get the memo.

BONUS

The Wiz: The Journey of Black America Behind the Curtain

A dialogue between Annie Chen and Joanna Lundquist:

Joanna: Hello! My name is Joanna Lundquist, and I am a junior studying political science. I am very grateful that I got to view The Wiz Live and examine how it gave racial representation to the African American community. I have always been a big fan of Wicked the musical, so it was very exciting to see another adaptation of the traditional Wizard of Oz movie. 

Annie: Hey! This is Annie Chen. I’m a junior studying Sociology and Business. Here my partner Joanna and I will analyze the relationship between the black culture and The Wiz. I like watching The Wiz, the particular reason for the circumstance is that The Wiz expressed the truth of life which is insistence. Besides, The Wiz reflects the real life of people in the United States in the 20th century.

Joanna: Annie and I both were both intrigued by different parts of the The Wiz, which made this experience even more insightful. Personally, I was intrigued by why The Wiz was so necessary to be produced and how it acts as a cultural statement. The lyrics from many different songs were very poignant to me, so I was drawn to how different characters are able to say so many impactful things through so few words, and within the context of something that could simply be understood as a story rather than a historical account and rallying cry for justice and cultural appreciation all in one production.  

Annie: It’s very nice to see that we both love watching broadway musicals. Can you share some points of views on the purpose of The Wiz Live? 

Joanna: Of course! To start off, The Wiz is a necessary production for African Americans, because they still need representation within the United States, and it is important for everyone to see and hear both the struggles and successes within their community. 

Racial liberation for African Americans within the United States is not something that was fully gained during the Civil Rights Movement – it is something that is continually fought for by African Americans and that should be fought for by all Americans. ‘The Wiz’ 1975 Broadway Musical certainly emerged out of the progress made socially and economically in the Civil Rights Era, but “The Wiz Live!’ was (and is) the progressive political statement that Black America needed in 2015 and still needs today. NBC’s television event, produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, shows that Black lives matter, social progress and representation matter, and that Black culture and identity need to be celebrated alongside this fight for progress. Did you see that the plot says anything about progress in this way?

Annie: Sure! The theme of the play is the persistence of the African American dream despite the difficulties. The original stage play uses Dorothy’s journey home from the land of Oz to explore slavery, liberation, great migration and faith, while the film updates it to the post civil rights era. The whole story is mainly about an amazing journey. When Dorothy and her dog Toto were blown into the land of Oz by a tornado, she set off on a long journey back to the land she misses everyday. She met the scarecrow, tin man, and the lion on the way to Emerald city. They went through many hardships to forge ahead for the common goal. Finally, the scarecrow became wise, and the tin man became loving, and the lion became brave, and so did Dorothy and her little dog. The most attractive part of a classic is that people can interpret various deep-seated connotations from different aspects, and the wizard of Oz is no exception. Even if it’s just a simple fairy tale, it will still make people feel more meaningful after watching it countless times. The Wiz was more than an all-Black musical but a powerful critique of anti-Blackness and racism within America. The Wiz pays homage to African American culture and black identity on Broadway. 

Joanna: I agree that it is a powerful critique of anti-Blackness and racism within America. ‘The Wiz Live!’ seamlessly addresses economic turmoil historically for Black people within the United States, while pronouncing the message that it is difficult for an individual to overcome challenges alone so strong community is needed to overcome obstacles in the face of adversity and discrimination. Dorothy and her companions all work together in order to overcome their personal struggles and end up making progress because of their strength, determination, and support for one another, which I believe reverberates the sentiment of the Black community today. You also mentioned the companions that Dorothy meets along her way – do you have any ideas about how they serve the purpose of this musical?

Annie: Interesting! The way you speak about ties in African American culture with history and media provides a good start for our conversation. The characteristics of the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion both play an important role in saying about the racial analysis and the deeper meaning of the show. In fact, scarecrow is not stupid. Whenever he encounters difficulties, he will try to come up with brilliant ideas at the first time. When there was a gully, he immediately thought of letting the lumberjack cut down the big tree to cross the bridge; the huge lion was poisoned in the poppy, and the scarecrow tried to make a stretcher and gather the power of his partners to carry the lion out of the sea of flowers; when he met the poisonous bee, the scarecrow immediately thought of taking out his straw and spreading it on Dorothy and the lion to protect their flesh and blood. When the scarecrow sings the chorus part, the crows live in harmony with him, showing a sense of brotherhood and unity. I think the picture and the tone of affection illustrate the power of the black community in America, and the wizard of green fields conveys this message to a wider audience. 

In addition, the tin man is not heartless. He is considerate from beginning to end. He would shed tears even if he stepped on a small beetle; when the vole was chased by a wild cat, he did not hesitate to help; he did not want to see any small animals hurt, otherwise he would shed tears and rust himself. What’s more, the lion often feels timid, but he often has to face many things alone in the long journey. When meeting the fierce and cruel monster Calida, the lion’s heart beats, but he bravely turns to challenge both of them and protects Dorothy behind them. When meeting the Winky on the road, the lion bravely roars and drives away the Winky who attacked them. Even if the lion is caught and becomes the prisoner of the evil witch, the lion is not soft hearted and stubbornly confronts the witch to the end. They experienced all kinds of things in their journey. In the end, they gain the ability they want to have in the constant honing.The black community has been fighting oppression because stereotypes and racist attitudes make it difficult for many black individuals to succeed. Do you have any ideas how the witches represent as an essential part for the characters I mentioned above?

Joanna: Definitely! I think the witches are able to shed some light on how the United States has been fractured by slavery, and how ironic to its name, unity does not ring true within the nation. Throughout the musical, I have pictured the land of Oz as a stratified society, where the citizens exist under different conditions depending on the place in which they dwell. This stratification based on the dominion of the witches, depicting the good witches of the North and South and the ‘wicked’ witches of the East and West, blatantly exists in my mind as a reverberation of the division between the North and the South both during the time of succession and within the portrayal of the Black experience and acceptance within each region. When the Wicked Witch of the West, Eveline, stormed onto the stage in her carriage and her servants bowed down at the wheels while chanting “All hail Eveline,” I witnessed a clear representation of slavery. The lighting during this scene is lowered, and the shadow of evil cast upon the United States with the proliferation of slavery is evident. The Wiz Live! blatantly reveals oppressive constructions. The choreography with Eveline stealing center stage and towering over her servants uses the physicality of the actors and actresses to portray inequality, while Eveline’s actions such as when she trips one of her indentured servants and laughs at them sprawled on the ground reveals the despicable cruelty that defines slavery.

I often find it necessary to reflect on how the United States as a whole needs to accept that slavery and the continual oppression of African Americans is a national rather than a regional issue. Often times, we relegate the atrocity of slavery to the South, when the sentiment and inequality of slavery ran rampant across the United States. In “Don’t Bring Me No Bad News” by Mabel King, Eveline sings the lyrics “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news ‘Cause I wake up already negative And I’ve wired up my fuse,” which I understand to have multiple meanings indicative of the unaccountability of the United States for slavery throughout history. On a smaller level, I hear the lyrics describing the relationship between a plantation owner and their slaves, where the owner instills fear and asserts domination. However, on a larger scale I see the United States not wanting to deal with the consequences of the nation’s actions. Like Eveline can not bear to have “bad news” burst her bubble, the United States has often existed in denial of the full depth of slavery and how it has lasting, detrimental effects on the African American community in the present day. Did you also recognize any connections between The Wiz and the historical impact of slavery or oppression as well? Your depictions of Dorothy’s companions were very insightful earlier, so did they help in any of these connections if you have any?

Annie: This is exact what I want to say next! Let me give an example from The Wiz to show the relevance to the political and historical opinions. The scarecrow symbolizes farmers in the Midwest of the United States. He’s smart, but naive, and is dominated by three uncontrollable factors: the environment, the economy, and the government. A mind or wisdom can help him solve these three problems. Scarecrow has a good temper. He is like a tumbleweed on the deserted grassland, like Baum who stumbled through a series of early career failures. On Scarecrow’s journey in search of wisdom, it is very similar to the way that black Americans fought against racial discrimination and oppression and fought for political, economic and social equal rights from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. The black community has been fighting oppression because stereotypes and racist attitudes make it difficult for many black individuals to succeed.  I have strong feelings with the lyrics from “You can’t win”—”people keep saying things are changing, but they look just like they’re staying the same.” This is the description of the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and even today’s Black Lives Matter movement. From a historical point of view, after the end of the civil war, the newly liberated slaves had no education and no savings, so they stayed on the original farm and continued to be farmers. The period from 1865 to 1877 was called the “reconstruction period”. The central government ruled the South directly and approved a set of laws and policies to improve the life of black people. At this time, black people could be elected to the Senate and the House of Representatives. The big farm of the government landlord was distributed to the original slaves. However, due to the political problems between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, the Republican Party gave up the reconstruction policy in 1877, and then the southern United States began the 100-year Jim Crow system, which implemented the black-and-white separation system in all public places (shops, buses, schools). This system has seriously restricted the development of African Americans and has a profound impact on today’s racial differences.

Joanna: Through what you just told me about various parts of African American history, I can see that African Americans have definitely been shaped by both social and economic policies. I understood that the yellow brick road sort of represents this journey, with its twists and turns and ups and downs. Did you find any significance in the yellow brick road? 

Annie: To be honest, behind every literary work, there are the author’s life experiences and their experiences in the real world, and The Wiz is not an exception. In The Wiz, there was an amount of saying about a yellow brick road. The Emerald city that this road leads to refers to the capital, Washington. Oz, who lives in the city, is a complete liar – if people follow the “golden road”, the capital will be occupied by fraudsters. Scarecrow is the embodiment of farmers, and the iron woodcutter with axe represents the working class. When they found out that Oz was a liar, it was too late, because they had finished the “golden road”. At the end of the story, Dorothy finally gets help, but when she flies back to her hometown, she finds that her silver shoes are gone. At this moment, the rout of the silver faction is a foregone conclusion, and the monetary value of silver is gone forever. The author’s life experience, always imperceptibly penetrated into the works, and became a part of the works. If we look closely at these works, it is not difficult to trace these traces. In general, I think we have talked about the profound meaning of The Wiz. Do you have anything to share from the perspective of the ending? 

Joanna: Yes, the ending between The Wiz, Dorothy, and her companions was the most impactful part of the musical for me! The end of The Wiz Live! left me with a feeling of hope, and I am sure that the African American community must feel uplifted if they view this musical where they finally get recognition of their continuous struggles as well as positive representation of their culture. When Dorothy and her companions catch the Wiz in her true state and you can see the look of panic on her face and her frantic movements to put together some semblance of her usual attire and grandeur, it bares the question – what factors make her feel the need to put on a facade? When I think about the representation of the individual, I recognize that we often try to fulfill what society expects of us even when it does not coincide with our true selves. The Wiz emphasizes this notion when she says “It’s not enough to go where you’re going, you have to know where you’re coming from.” The Wiz overall shows that we have to be our authentic selves. The Wiz’s messages to Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion reveal even more about finding internal strength to fight the external pressures and expectations, as well as judgements placed upon people. To Lion, the Wiz highlights how he did show courage by “respecting danger and still taking care of business.” From this, I thought about the struggles the Black community has faced, and how members of the community valiantly work towards progress but also have to be weary of how their fight can lead to danger in terms of something like police brutality. With this in mind, it is understandable that the Wiz tells Dorothy in this scene that “it’s easier to hide in the dark” – but the musical is a rallying movement for representation and recognition that brings the Black community to the light. Glinda’s glorious descent from the ceiling in her shimmering gold costume and her belting out “believe in yourself” is one of the most empowering moments of the musical and inspires Black individuals to see hope for themselves and for finding equality within the United States. And with Dorothy’s final moment in “Like Home” at the closure of The Wiz she sings: “And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find A world full of love like yours and mine Like Home.” Dorothy’s journey is not complete, as she knows she must continue to look for love in herself and the world, but she is able to make it back to her aunt. Here, I gained the understanding that a journey is comprised of bumps in the road, but also small victories, and I see why the Wiz is often revered by African Americans within the United States. The journey for racial equality and acceptance is not complete, but the musical The Wiz is one step on the yellow brick road towards this hope in the future. 

Annie: I totally agree with your point that racial problems are still something we need to explore and analyze further in terms of the development of society. Also, I feel like our conversation is quite meaningful because we shared our personal ideas and opinions towards the incomplete system and the historical remaining issues.

Joanna: Yes, it was very meaningful. Thank you for helping me to gain even more insight into The Wiz Live!. I especially appreciated how much knowledge you shared about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and how it ties into the musical. I am eager to speak with you again, especially as we continue to see how the Black community’s fight for justice progresses. Until next time!

Annie: Yes, we should speak more about the race and ethnicity topics since the advancement of society. I really enjoy talking with you. Hope to see you next time. Have a nice day! Bye.

Behind the White Curtain: A Look into Racial Representation in Miss Saigon.

Dialogue between Gabe Robles-Nieles and George Zhu.

GZ: Today Gabe and I are going to be talking about one of the musicals that we watched in class titled Miss Saigon. The rendition that we watched was the 2014 West End Revival version which featured a more demographically appropriate casting of characters, addressing a few racist aspects of the original. In this discussion, we’re going to try and center our conversation around Miss Saigon’s depictions of how the framework of whiteness impacted the non-white characters in this musical. Before we begin, let’s both tell everybody a little bit about ourselves just so they can better understand the perspectives that we’ll be speaking from. To start, I am a Chinese American male who grew up in the States. So culturally, I’ve grown up in an environment shaped by American mass media which is predominantly shaped by white America. Having been indoctrinated into white society, there was definitely a disconnect in my mind when watching this musical. I saw and identified with certain tropes that Chris displayed but found it difficult to reconcile the other parts that painted Asians in a lesser light.

GRN: As for me, I am Latino, and I grew up here in the States, just a little out of Nashville, so I’ve got a pretty similar media upbringing in terms of a white standard with minorities set as others.

GZ: Now that we’ve taken a second to understand where we as individuals stand, let’s begin to explore some of racial tension within this musical. First and foremost, there is the relationship between American soldiers, representing a white society, and the native Vietnamese population. Immediately from the beginning of the musical, a sharp distinction is drawn between the portrayal of the American soldiers versus the Vietnamese “bar girls”. If we break down this opening scene a little, what we find is that the American soldiers are characterized as better than the overtly sexualized Vietnamese women working in Dreamland. Seemingly desperate for a way to get to America, these Vietnamese characters were never given a chance to be equally respected. Beyond this, while John, an African American soldier, wanted to engage sexually with these bar girls, Chris, the White American Soldier, seizes the moral high ground and refuses to get with Kim, a young innocent bar girl, perpetuating the idea that white morality is superior.

GRN: Yeah, exactly.  They’re treating them as though that’s what their purpose was in being there.  They’ve basically gone in and set themselves as the standard, and even though this is their country and their home, the soldiers treat the locals as though they are there to serve their desires and their wishes.

GZ: This really seems like the classic colonialist vision where white individuals go to a foreign space, do what they deem is right, and take what they feel like they deserve. Oftentimes like this musical portrays, after these individuals take action, they fail to take responsibility for those actions. We see in the Fall of Saigon, many Vietnamese people who were relying on American protection from the Vietcong get inhumanely left as US soldiers quickly retreated in the face of a defeat. Kim is also abandoned by Chris during this time but of course Chris does not leave without first placing a huge burden on Kim. Chris and Kim’s son, Tam, offers an avenue to continued explication of their relationship. Even though Chris left, Tam serves as a continual reminder of the impacts that one individual can make on another’s life.  

GRN: It’s almost as though, in writing this, they were trying to embody these consequences that we see after Chris leaving.  In the grander scheme of things, it’s as though Tam were personifying the foreign impact in Vietnam. Yeah, because Kim is there, and she raises Tam and is dealing with this every day.  On the other hand, Chris goes home and has no clue: it doesn’t cross his mind, and it doesn’t bother or matter to him.  And I think that this is very reminiscent of the position that we take as a foreign power—and when I say “we,” I mean the United States.  We go in, and we do what we decide is best, and then when the situation is not as beneficial for us, we pull out and leave the people that were already there to deal with whatever situation that we’ve just left them in. 

GZ: Yeah I think in positions like this, it’s especially interesting to consider the burden that’s placed on different races. I’m not saying Chris didn’t go through any hardships while fighting the Vietnam War. Chris definitely experienced trauma to a certain degree but it’s a stark contrast from the physical representations of burden that had been left to Kim. And because she had a child with Chris, her well-being became challenged by Thuy who wanted to kill her son and get with her, and also the Engineer who wanted to turn her over to Thuy.  While I’m unsure if I can say that Chris is responsible for all these bad things happening to Kim, the framework of whiteness allows for Chris to leave Kim in Vietnam with all these burdens. This kind of plot paints an image where white people are able to be detached from the consequences of their actions, but even when they attempt to remedy those consequences, this musical doesn’t distribute the repercussion in an equitable way. The musical was scripted in a way where Kim had to die at the end even though she didn’t do anything too wrong throughout the entire musical. She risked her life to save her son, she saw her parents get massacred, the tragedies and hardships that Kim had to endure were arguably greater than what Chris had to go through.

GRN: Even then, having gone through all of that, Kim doesn’t deflect her responsibility with Tam and with what we’ve sort of personified as the consequences of the situation; she remains a devoted mother all the way until the end.  On the other hand, we have Chris and Ellen, who are initially very interested in doing what’s best for Tam, until suddenly they realize that what’s best for Tam would require some sacrifice on their part, and so they slowly start to distance themselves from their responsibility to Tam.  Especially on Chris’s part, as he realizes what bringing Tam to the United States would entail and how it would involve Kim and the strain that this would put on their relationship; he creates all of these reasons why he can’t step up and accept his responsibility when in reality, it’s fully within his power to give them his support.

GZ: A really interesting aspect here is that even though all these problems center around a white man’s decision, I really felt that the entire musical was still rooting for Chris. We saw that Kim wanted to get to America and find Chris throughout the entire musical, that John was a secondary character who was in support of Chris the entire time, and that Ellen was also supportive of Chris the entire time despite not knowing about Chris’ relationship with Kim. It seemed like whatever Chris did, regardless of the impact toward other people, the majority of the characters were always on the side of the main white character.

GRN: I think you have a really good point about how the avenue for the story is based around Chris’s decision and then ultimately his lack of follow through with the consequences.  Even the way that they portray him and Ellen, as opposed to Vietnamese majority that there is in the story: Chris and then Ellen are portrayed as the “saving grace.”  They approach these situations as though it’s their responsibility to make everything better.  Well, the way that I saw it, anyways, especially as we’re going through this last little bit of the musical where there is this meeting and this reckoning between Kim and Ellen, is that Americans and the white folk are meant to be seen as this “bastion of goodness,” as though they were sent into the world to do good and to save others and lift them up from their circumstances, and I thought this was really ironic, because if you look at the cast, Ellen and Chris are very much the minority in terms of race, and you would think that it would follow the standard for these majority versus minority situations, whereby within this binary we see the majority portrayed as the one to root for and as that bastion of goodness.  I thought it was really interesting to see that even with this role reversed, where Chris and Ellen are the minority, they’re still meant to be seen as better than or the purifying force.

GZ: Yeah I think that’s a really interesting observation. Despite the fact that white is the minority in this musical, white American culture is still definitely championed especially through the American Dream. Even among the Vietnamese characters, taking the Engineer as an example, the white way of life in America was his greatest dream.

GRN: Yes, and the whole song!  I, personally, thought it was a really funny song: it played to this idea of the “American Dream” and how great that it’s meant to be while at the same time satirizing the whole thing.  There was one line that really stuck with me as relates to this and I think it was “Cocaine, shotguns, and prayer: the American Dream!”  And he’s not wrong!

GZ: The aspect of having to pimp his own mother out definitely contributed to that satire-ization. While the song described the American dream perfectly, it also helped the audience to understand how twisted the outcome of the American Dream could turn out, you know? Not everything is as clean as glamorous as it appears and the things people have to do to achieve those dreams aren’t always the most wholesome either.

GRN: Also, I know that we discussed previously in the course, representation and the familiarity bias, and I thought that this was really important to discuss in terms of representations of race within Miss Saigon. If we think about it, the only two Vietnamese male characters that we see are the Engineer—who is clearly not meant to be a role model—and Thuy—who is the very traditional, very domineering male.  In terms of female representations, it consists almost entirely of the girls in the club—all competing for this spot of Miss Saigon, competing for the top spot.  They’re all meant to be objects of desire for the GIs, especially, and they are all meant to submit to the will of the men that surround them.  I thought that there was a major issue in terms of the fact that these are the only representations of the Vietnamese that we see, as opposed to a character like Chris, who is instantly meant to be viewed as the moral standpoint, especially in the beginning: he identifies an issue with what’s happening and their acceptance of the situation.  We later see a similar thing from Ellen, who claims that she wants the best for Tam, and, again, I thought it was very interesting to see this dynamic whereby this idea of majority/minority are flip-flopped to still fit the context of the American standpoint.

GZ: I definitely agree with that analysis. From what I saw, the white perspective was the right perspective. Despite having been put on this moral pedestal, ironically enough, Chris still gets with 17 year old Kim and actually impregnates her despite his “moral superiority.” Chris has sex with an underage girl and the entire remainder of the musical romanticizes this relationship. Ultimately, I think this musical can only serve as an artifact of a contribution to the dialogue of race. It really offers no comprehensive picture of how race should be understood and addressed. Because of this, it can only offer a glimpse of what past ideologies on race looked like and what decisions were made. It’s nice that producers aren’t using slant eye prosthetics anymore to depict Asian characters but this musical inherently contains a lot of themes and overall plot lines are racially problematic. I don’t think any amount of superficial change in costume or performer can rectify the backwards aspects of this musical.

GRN: 100%.  This storyline is just inherently problematic, like you said.  It’s good to be appreciated within the context of it being a product of its time and its viewpoints being antiquated, and definitely as a conversation-starter and as a means for discussing and learning and getting people to think about the way that their thought processes can harm and be harmful. 

GZ: That’s a really good point, I think if anything, this musical can serve as a good start point for dialogue and conversation is a tremendously important aspect for understanding each other.  

GRN: Exactly. It’s really important to have these conversations and to ask ourselves why we accepted this as the standard and why, even today, we allow this standard to pervade our media and our own views.  As a global community, we are definitely in the midst of sea change among public perception toward race. It’s because of these conversations that topics of race can be continually challenged and be made more just. Will Miss Saigon ever be revised again? And more importantly, can there be enough change in the musical to uphold contemporary ideals? 

The Wonderful World of The Wiz Live!

An Essay By: Brannon Johnston

I am honestly ashamed to admit that before taking this class I had never seen The Wiz. I know, I know, it is truly a shame and I did not realize just how much I was missing out on until now. I mean, The Wiz Live! has Mary J. Blige, Ne-Yo, Queen Latifah, Uzo Aduba, AND Amber Riley (from Glee!). How could anyone not be excited about a cast that star-studded?!  Released in 2015, The Wiz Live! is a made-for-television adaptation of the 1978 Broadway musical, The Wiz. The Wiz is based on the classic novel The Wizard of Oz but it is a modernized version that includes an almost entirely Black cast. This live version of The Wiz was directed by Kenny Leon and choreographed by Fatima Robinson. The Wiz Live! was adapted from the original musical book from The Wiz by William F. Brown. The songs and lyrics also came primarily from the original production and were written by Charlie Smalls. The Wiz Live! subverts and alters the traditional thematic and design elements of The Wizard of Oz throughout all aspects of production and ultimately crafts a representation of Blackness on the musical stage that seeks to redefine traditional ideas of race in musicals.

When I was watching The Wiz Live! I couldn’t help but notice how much both the music and choreography of the “Emerald City Ballet” stood out from most other numbers in the musical. Throughout the number, we hear this intense, rhythmic, four-on-the-floor backing beat that feels reminiscent of a club. Composers Timothy Graphenreed and George Faison also sprinkle in horns and some synth effects to really take us back to the 1980s. Upon my first viewing of this musical, I noticed the distinct style of dance that is used in this number but after reading some fellow classmates posts about “Emerald City Ballet” and doing some googling I found out it is called voguing. Thanks to this article from the National Museum of African American History & Culture, I came to learn that this style of dance originated between the 1960s and 1980s in Black and Latino LGBTQ communities. I found it so interesting to compare voguing to my own traditional expectations of ballet. When I think of ballet, I can’t help but imagine slow, smooth twirls and leaps, but voguing appears more sharp, angular and very rhythmic. Choreographer Fatima Robinson’s choice to use voguing in a number titled as a ballet felt like an intentional reclamation to me. Ballet has been historically an extremely white-washed style of dance that has, in the past, been limited to very specific body types, genders, and appearances. In this number, we see dancers of multiple races, genders, and body types in insanely ornate and diverse costumes performing a style of dance created by minority LGBTQ communities. The “Emerald City Ballet” therefore redefines not only our ideas of ballet, but also reclaims and reminds us of the origins of voguing as accredited to the Black community. 8 Jaw-Dropping Moments from The Wiz Live! | Playbill

Growing up, I probably watched the original Wizard of Oz movie more times than I’d honestly like to admit. Not only did my grandmother love the movie, but so did I and I’m sure she enjoyed playing that more than my other typical choice, Scooby-Doo. To this day I find it nearly impossible to watch the film and not be left singing, 

“Oooooh

Dorothy gale GIF - Find on GIFER

We’re off to see the wizard

The wonderful wizard of Oz

We hear he is a whiz of a Wiz

If ever a Wiz there was

If ever, oh ever, a Wiz there was

The wizard of Oz is one because

Because, because, because, because, because

Because of the wonderful things he does

We’re off to see the wizard

The wonderful wizard of Oz!”

Just as “We’re Off To See the Wizard” repeats throughout and bookmarks Dorothy’s journey to Oz in The Wizard of Oz, “Ease on Down the Road” makes its fair share of reprises in The Wiz Live! as well. By the end of the live musical I found myself now singing,

“Come on and ease on down, ease on down the road

Come on and ease on down, ease on down the road!”

I found it so interesting that The Wiz chose to change the iconic and horrendously catchy “We’re Off To See the Wizard”, but I found this change incredibly necessary for the musical as well. To me, The Wiz recreates and reimagines The Wizard of Oz with a much more modern and fresh look and soundtrack. By changing those iconic songs from the original, The Wiz is better able to establish itself as an independent story that is based off of The Wizard of Oz rather than just a remake. In “Ease on Down the Road,” composer Charlie Smalls creates a number that feels more relevant today than the sing-songy tunes of “We’re Off To See the Wizard.” Rather than a song to skip down the yellow-brick road to, Smalls provides us with a track that makes us want to dance down the road. With a funky baseline, catchy low horns, and a studio backbeat that could arguably be in a radio rap song, “Ease on Down the Road” just feels cooler. The song makes The Wiz Live! more accessible to teenagers and many young people than Judy Garland’s soprano voice backed by strings, tambourine, and what sounds like a full-on orchestra. While both songs make use of horns to some degree, The Wiz Live! has ditched the violins for bass guitars and the Christmas-level cheeriness for a funky and fun tune. 

Just as The Wiz Live! has modernized classics like “We’re Off To See the Wizard,” it has also modernized our perceptions of Blackness on the Broadway stage.  Featuring an almost entirely Black cast and modernizing the music, The Wiz Live! is able to become a musical for everyone. Between fabulous representation for aspiring young actors and actresses and offering non-traditional musical music that would be able to be played on the radio, The Wiz Live! has something that appeals to everyone, musical lover or not. Songs like Tin Man’s “What I Would Do If I Could Feel” are reminiscent of classic R&B tracks while other songs like “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” have elements that sound like samba or salsa music. The musical influences in The Wiz Live! provide yet another great example of musical diversity on the Broadway stage.

 Ease on down the road | Explore Tumblr Posts and Blogs | Tumgir

While The Wiz Live! kept many characters in costumes very close to the original Wizard of Oz looks, the costume designer Paul Tazewell gave Dorothy a completely new look. Shanice Williams comes onstage as Dorothy in a plaid schoolgirl’s skirt, bright red sneakers, and a matching red jacket. This is a huge change from the Judy Garland Dorothy who wore that knee-length blue frock with ankle socks and carried her basket the whole time. For modern viewers, farm girl Dorothy feels distant, and out of touch with the lives of most children today. However, a fun schoolgirl Dorothy feels instantly more within our reach. By changing Dorothy’s look, Tazewell automatically tells us from the very beginning of the show that The Wiz Live! is new, fresh, and definitely set in a more recent time period than the farm girl Dorothy we have come to expect. All the characters costumes are somewhat updated, but the shining star is Dorothy’s new outfit. It is absolutely essential to making the musical both stand out from The Wizard of Oz and also appeal to a younger generation. 

The Wizard of OZ…A Business Story?
A First Look At 'The Wiz Live!' Costumes & Dorothy's Silver Slippers –  Footwear News

From its star-studded casting to its modern songs and fabulous choreography, The Wiz Live! was destined to impact our views on race and representation on Broadway. The Wiz Live! subverts and alters the traditional thematic and design elements of The Wizard of Oz throughout all aspects of production and ultimately crafts a representation of Blackness on the musical stage that seeks to redefine traditional ideas of race in musicals. The songs featured in The Wiz are a refreshing new look at how diverse and different musical soundtracks can be now as compared to the stricter and more narrowly defined musical and movie soundtracks of the early 20th century. The Wiz shows viewers how we can and should transform our cultural products over time in order to keep up with the cultural institutions within which we exist. Ultimately, by revamping and creating a new musical based off of a classic like The Wizard of Oz we are better able to see the direct comparison in representation not only through the casting, but also through music and choreography. The Wiz Live! boldly calls attention to better representations of Blackness on the Broadway stage and sets a precedent for all musicals to follow. 

The Black Magic of The Wiz! Live

By: Amaya Allen and Hassatou Diallo

The Black Magic of The Wiz! Live by Amaya Allen and Hassatou Diallo 

The Wiz is considered to be a prized possession within the African American community as this is one of the first musicals to contain an all Black cast, African American linguistics, and musical elements. This production is about how Dorothy, a young shy school teacher from bustling Harlem, who finds herself lost in the Land of Oz. The audience follows Dorothy on the many adventures she experiences while trying to reach the Wiz so that she can be sent back home to NY. The show was incredibly successful from the amazing music to the heartfelt lyrics and everything in between that served as a reminder to African Americans that their culture is in fact beautiful and carries with it meanings that show the resilience and love that is apparent in the community. 

Amaya and Hassatou are currently in a small living room in EBI answering questions about The Wiz! Live after watching it together. 

Amaya Allen is a senior (yay!) from New York City majoring in Law, History and Society and minoring in Theatre. She speaks an impressive amount of Mandarin and a little Italian. After graduating from Vanderbilt in May, she will be moving to London, England.

Hassatou Diallo is a junior majoring in Medicine, Health and Society with a minor in Anthropology. She is currently studying Spanish and French to prepare for when the international borders are open. 

Amaya: Before we start discussing the performance, I think it is really important to talk about our backgrounds a little bit, since the show talks about race and identity.

Hassatou: YES! 

Amaya: So we have a lot in common! We are both Black women, and I believe we are both first-generation Americans as well.  We are also both New Yorkers who live in majority Black parts of town. My parents are from the Caribbean, but my mother spent a lot of her childhood in the United States. I think that is important because there are some cultural differences between the Black American culture and Black Caribbean culture that she (and later I) were exposed to, but we both grew up pretty Americanized, so I think it is safe to say that our viewpoints on some things are different than the typical American one. What about you Hassatou, do you agree with this?

Hassatou: I 100% agree! We do have a lot in common from us both being Black to being first generation Americans but I think the main difference would have to be that I grew up in an African household. For me, the only time I was exposed to American culture was at school or when I watched Disney (YUP, I was a Disney kid growing up). I wasn’t really exposed to African American culture until I was in high school since all of my peers were either Caribbean, Asian American or Hispanic. But when I got the chance to watch the WIZ in high school, I fell in love! It was beautiful to see a Black woman as the main character going through struggles that society typically associated with white women. Being Black is an already broad topic being a Black woman in America, nonetheless, is rather complex especially in regards to the intersectionality that is apparent. 

Question: The first song that I really think we should discuss is Ease on Down the Road. What about the song caught your attention? Especially in regards to the relationship between race, the lyrics of the song and the overall meaning of the song. 

Amaya: So Ease on Down the Road is one of those songs that I just listened to growing up. My mother loved the movie version of The Wiz (she is a huge Michael Jackson fan) and I always thought that this song was THEE song to know from the movie. In this production, the song is updated from a very funky song with a horn and drum centric instrumentation for the hip hop generation. The Wiz! Live’s “Ease on Down the Road ” keeps its signature horns but adds a drum kit instead of a traditional drum, making the song sound more new age. In terms of lyrics, this song was the theme of the movie for a reason! It is catchy and has a message that resonates with a lot of Black people. I mean, “ease on down the road// don’t you carry nothing that might be a load”? The song is literally begging Black people to keep going towards the path TO FREEDOM and leave all of their worries in the past. There are no verses in the song, but the song does allude to the fact that being Black in America is enough to drive everyone crazy, saying “ Cause there may be times//When you think you lost your mind//And each step you’re takin’// Leave you three, four steps behind.” I think these lines are especially important because following that with “we need to keep on keepin’ on” is still super relevant despite this production being 5 years ago and the original production being 45 years old. It’s just such an iconic tune, we stan.

Hassatou: I really enjoyed this song because of everything that Amaya just said! Whenever I hear this song, I feel a sense of happiness consume me because of the connotation that the song provokes. The song just reminds me that there will always be someone on the guidelines  rooting for me and who will be able to pick me up. In my opinion, the scarecrow serves as an analogy of the fear that African Americans face in this country. I know that this may seem like a stretch but I only came up with this conclusion after seeing the scarecrow continue to cower with fear in his eyes, how he can’t stand with confidence and overall this terror consuming him. The scarecrow, like many African Americans, has to deal with uncertainty and fear in their daily lives. This analogy between the scarecrow and African Americans brought back memories of the my  community mourning the loss of Trayvon Martin, and George Floyd due to police brutality, of my community facing discrimination in the work force, school settings and honestly, every day of our lives. However, even when these terrible things were plaguing my community, we stood with each other, and we held each other tightly while whispering motivational words to each other. We knew that we were stronger together than being by ourselves, and this is executed beautifully in this song. For instance, it seems that the scarecrow finally gains courage when Dorothy grabs his hand prompting him to exclaim: Ease on Down! Come on Dorothy, don’t carry nothing that might be a load.” I doubt the scarecrow would have been able to have the endurance if it wasn’t for Dorothy reminding him that he was not alone and that she would be there to help him “carry the load” that consumed him. 

Question:  Not only does the song do an excellent job of creating such a motivational theme, the choreography helps further this theme. Can it be argued that by the choreography not being restrictive, it further helps perpetuate the idea of being optimistic during fallen times? If you did not notice this about the choreography, is there something that you noticed that should be discussed?

Amaya: So the choreography is clearly influenced by b-boy culture. Like, there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it, and I think that is why this version of the show just works. Dorothy and Scarecrow are on stage hitting the Lil’ Uzi dance for gosh sake! In my opinion, the choreography was definitely intentionally set in this era as opposed to a more “traditional” musical theatre style for two reasons. Firstly, they wanted to root the choreography (and the show itself on a grand scale) in Blackness. Although Broadway has a tendency to appropriate some forms of Black culture, many Black people don’t view traditional Broadway style dancing as something that is ours, because the industry shut out Black people from either performing or having access to musical theatre (particularly Broadway) for so long. I mean, theatre became a thing in like, 1750, but Black people weren’t even allowed to see a Broadway show until 1921’s Shuffle Along). So for Black people who didn’t have the privilege of being exposed to Broadway for whatever valid reason they had, they weren’t alienated when watching this production. Black viewers could look up and see the same dances that they have seen their favorite artists do hundreds of times. On that note, the second reason is because showrunners wanted the message to stick. As a Black person in America, a lot of mainstream media likes to talk about the civil rights era and how progressive it was. To oversimplify the situation (by a lot) we have made progress, but we haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to race relations in this country (or granting Black people basic rights). The show is essentially a love story to America. Dorothy is thrown into this whimsical world with great characters and is able to defeat the bad gal easily, so from a surface level she is better off in Oz than she is in America. Despite that, ever since she puts on those silver shoes, all she can think about is going home where her roots are, where she belongs. And of course, the music and cast members help that message come through, but basing the choreography in something that is so intrinsically Black and American, as opposed to them doing heavily African influenced dances (or anywhere else really), really shows non-Black people the influence what Black people have created in the United States, and reaffirms Black people that they are American.

Hassatou: YES Amaya! I did also notice that the choreography for this particular song did contain Black dances that I grew up around and was familiar with. It was great to see that the choreography was not intense or complex but rather simple one-two steps that were easy to catch on. I am honestly one of the worst dancers EVER (hahah) but when I was watching I got up and started dancing in my room. The exuberant energy that is displayed in the lyrics is paralleled in the choreography, in my opinion, by the fast paced moves that Dorothy and the Scarecrow do. They never seem to miss a beat, they are always in sync, consistently hold hands and make eye contact even as they spin around the road. I didnt even think about the idea that this song could be a love letter to America from the Black perspective. Honestly, I can see that from the upbeat choreography that combines both Black and American routines to show America that they can be both Black and american without alienating the other. Honestly, I resonated with this song because of the overall optimistic tone that is perpetuated throughout the song, there is never a moment where Dorothy or Scarecrow leave each other behind from making sure that they stand next to each other, that they are dancing to the same beat and giving each other smiles throughout the performance. They represent a pure friendship that is only focused on lifting each other up. 

Question: Ease on down is a great musical number that shows how impactful an optimistic outlook has on overcoming hardships but is this also applicable to the song Be a Lion? I loved watching the performance of Be a Lion and was wondering if there are any similarities or major differences that you noticed between the two performances? 

Hassatou: I am so glad that we are analyzing these two performances! I would first like to begin with the differences as that is what I noticed first when watching the production. I think the main difference that was blatant was that in Ease on Down there was no shift in tone or mood. The mood and tone, when Dorothy and the Scarecrow were singing, was consistently jovial and upbeat. You could hear the loud bass, blues music, and the trumpets blaring loudly (hahah) as they sang “Ease on down, come on down, don’t carry nothing that might me a load.” However, when you watch Be a Lion, you can see the motivation and encouragement that Dorothy gives him when she sings “But not even lightning; Will be frightening, my lion”. She reminds him that there is nothing he should be afraid of in this world because he is a powerful lion that deserves to be respected and feared by others. The constant in these two performances is that Dorothy is always there providing emotional support to the characters. I kind of wonder if this is due to her being a woman or being a black woman at that. She was empathic and caring to both the lion and scarecrow even when she had to put her emotions and thoughts aside. Honestly, when I think of a black woman, I think of Dorothy not what society stereotypes us as but instead as people who feel things, who help others grow and who make sure that comfort is a reality for everyone so that no one is ever excluded. 

Amaya: Well firstly, I think that “Be A Lion” is a church song. Period. It is so clearly rooted in the African American church tradition that anyone who has stepped inside of a African American church would know exactly what I’m talking about. The instruments are the church’s usual piano and drum (specifically the drum kit’s cymbals) and the focus is really on the vocals. It’s giving Martin Sapp, heavy. And I think that is beautiful. In the show, Dorothy is this breath of fresh air for the other characters and is validating their emotions and fears to an audience consisting of Black men who do not have the chance to express their emotions and have them be validated by society. Dorothy is consistently uplifting the Lion with lyrics such as “You’re standing so tall//you’re the greatest of them all” in what is essentially a ballad to him. On the other hand, “Ease on Down” sends a more general message to keep going, rather than taking the time to explicitly uplift. Once again, both are positive, please don’t misunderstand me, but “Be A Lion” is a ballad, so the way it will communicate love and pride will be different than a song that is meant to serve as a catchy theme song.

Question: What is the significance of the song shifting from a melancholy tone to a courageous tone? Why is it important to note that when the mood was rather sorrowful, Dorothy was singing by herself but when the Lion gained confidence in himself, he and Dorothy harmonized together? What does this juxtaposition show about the overall theme in the production?

Amaya: I wouldn’t say that the mood was melancholy, it was just slow because it was a ballad. However, I do think that the harmonizing at the end was beautiful. Dorothy sees something in the Lion that he does not see in himself. So the shift was really the Lion believing in himself and loving himself as much as the people around him, which, again, is beautiful and falls in line with the overall message of the show.

Hassatou: That is such a great question! Honestly, I think the significance of the shift shows the impact that people can have on another person’s mood. Dorothy is soooo powerful she is able to help the Lion believe in himself and see the potential that he has to become a commanding lion. The lion was only able to finally see that he could be a powerful force when Dorothy reminded him that when he feels scared or nervous he should remember to “stand strong and tall; [and be] the bravest of them all”. 

Question: Speaking of lions, we should talk about the Lion’s character arc and his song “Mean Ole Lion”. How did you think his character and this song addressed stereotypes about Black people? Do you agree with how his character was handled?

Hassatou: I think that this song definitely perpetuates the stereotype of Black people being violent. When I listened to this song, I felt very uncomfortable because it showed me how other people see Black people through a negative lens. The lyrics that caught my eye were “For I just might knock you down; You know I’m ready to fight; All you strangers better beware,” because I wondered why the producers would keep those lyrics since the connotation contradicts the overall message of the musical being about uplifting Black people. Like how they changed every character to be Black, the music to be more inclusive of Black culture, why could they not change the lyrics to be more positive? Since this version of the WIZ is connected to the identity of African Americans, I do think that this particular song should have been revised. They could have used words like: I am strong, I am brave, For I just might knock you down, when you try to scare me”. Those don’t have to be the exact lyrics but something along those lines would be better. (Sorry I am not really musically talented Haha but those lyrics would sound great with the beat of the song!) 

Amaya: In my opinion, the Lion has the most interesting character arc. He is introduced as this “Mean Ole Lion” (pun intended) who sings that he wants to be left alone. In the instrumental of the song, the Lion is snarling, he is snarling and growling, and his choreography is slow and calculating. He definitely looks like a predator, and the other three members of the core four are his prey. This is definitely a nod to the way Black people (specifically Black men) are perceived in society. They are seen as dangerous predators, especially in the media. But the Lion is, in layman’s terms, a wimp. He wants courage and he has a lot of fears. Although I don’t think Black men are wimps by any means, the juxtaposition between being a softie with a “hard” exterior exists in the Black community a lot. I think that the song was meant to distance listeners, because that is what the Lion wanted to do. And it makes sense, because distancing yourself is a trauma response… Anyways, I digress. I disagree on the point that the song could have been taken out, although I do acknowledge your perspective. To me, the Lion was very thought out and had this song and plot line for a reason (it is actually kind of scary how much depth this character has when put in the Black context considering that he is not an original character). 

Question: Another notable part of the Lion’s character is his age. He is noticeably a lot older than the other characters in the core 4, particularly Dorothy and the Scarecrow. What do you think that making the Lion older has to say about the generational differences amongst Black Americans? Feel free to talk about your favorite Lion moments.

Hassatou: I did notice that the Cowardly Lion was somewhat older than the rest of the characters. In my opinion I thought that the Cowardly Lion served as an analogy for the African Americans who grew up in times of deep oppression like slavery, or during the Jim Crow era. This was only because he was more cautious, fearful and worrisome than Dorothy and the scarecrow were. Older African Americans, in my experience, tend to be more cautious than my peers because they lived in a time where they faced overt racism and exclusion in any way shape and form. For them survival meant being timid, speaking when spoken to, and making sure that they did not take up space. Doesn’t this sound familiar? Don’t these characteristics remind you of the Lion? However, while the Lion may have grown up in an era where submission equals survival, Dorothy and the Scarecrow grew up in a time where your true self, regardless of being Black, was applauded and celebrated. This may explain why Dorothy tends to be more outspoken, and somewhat rebellious compared to the Lion, who shies away from conflicts that arise. I think that it was a great idea to make the Lion older than the rest of the main cast because they do an incredible job of highlighting the differences between the older African Americans and younger African Americans. Afterall, even if they are all Black, their experiences are very different depending on the era they grew up in. 

Amaya: Yeah, when watching the movie version of The Wiz as a child, I never noticed the age difference between the Lion and the other characters but it was really apparent in this production. The Lion keeps up well with the rest of the cast, but he moves differently, as if he has been weathered from all of the years he has been in the world and lacks the optimism that the Scarecrow, Tinman and Dorothy have. It showed a lot in the way he moved specifically. I agree with you when you say it reminds you of the attitude of older generations. It is hard as hell being Black. Like, hard as hell, especially in America! Older generations have watched leaders get shot, broken promises thrown on them, and more. They have seen the worst of this country, and although younger generations have seen it too. They haven’t experienced for as many years and have not seen the inhumane treatment of Black people evolve yet stay in the exact same place. It’s incredibly sad but it’s super true at the same time. I think that my favorite Lion moment was when he was at Oz and they realized that the wizard can’t do anything for them, and that they’ve had what they wanted all along. The reason I like it is because older generations can see that and they can feel validated that the courage that they’ve had all these years have not been in vain nor have they been ignored, even if they couldn’t see it themselves. 

Question: The Tin man’s song “What Would I Do If I Could Feel” is also super interesting. What do you think the song and presentation of it say about Black vulnerability?

Hassatou: I believe that this song does an incredible job of highlighting the juxtaposition of being Black and vulnerable as it pushes the false narrative that African Americans are supposed to be strong and capable which causes their experiences to be constantly pushed aside or questioned. In other terms, African-Americans were constantly perceived as second class citizens. For instance, the Tin Man serves as an analogy for the hard shell that African Americans are forced to have so that they can survive as they do not have the same liberties as their white counterparts do.  I mean if you think of the lyrics “ what would I do; if I could suddenly feel; and know once again; that what I feel is real”. These lyrics are questions that African Americans think about everyday like “is it okay that I am feeling this way, will my emotions be validated or will they be seen as inappropriate or useless”. Like the Tin Man, the black community is not given the same opportunities like everyone else but we crave to have our feelings be validated, to be heard and to be given the chance to cry without being stereotyped as victims or angry. Like the Tin Man, black people just want to be given the space to feel. 

Amaya: So firstly I just have to say I love Ne-Yo. He’s one of my favorite bald headed Black men. I think the Tin man’s song was really interesting just because he wants a heart. Like the Lion, he also has a hard exterior and he wants to push people away, but in the Tin man’s case it’s because he’s scared of disappointing people because he thinks that he can’t feel. So when he is in front of the wizard singing this song he’s being super super vulnerable, he’s pouring his heart out, begging the Wiz to allow him to feel something so that he can feel better about himself. And I think a lot of Black people particularly Black women have been forced not to feel a lot of things. We are commonly labeled as angry or aggressive for having emotions so in order to survive a lot of us happen to just bottle it up and I think it’s really poetic that the tin man could feel the whole time and just had to allow himself to feel and allow himself to be vulnerable and you see that in this moment. The song starts off with the Tin man saying he “could cry, he could smile” and  “he would be more than glad to share all that he has inside” of him and I think that’s really the message that was meant to take away from this. It’s not just about being able to feel, it’s about being able to openly express how you feel. 

Question: Now let’s talk about the Scarecrow. Elijah Kelley had HUGE shoes to fill playing the role Michael Jackson originated, but he did it really well. In his song “You Can’t Win” Scarecrow and the Crows sing together about being stuck in a game that they just can’t get out of or win. How do the lyrics and choreography of this interpretation of the song make a statement about race?

Amaya: Firstly, rest in peace  Michael Jackson, you would’ve loved this staging. This song is about being trapped in a system that is not meant for you, and I think that something that every Black person, no matter what class or ethnic background you come from, can relate to in this country. It was super interesting that both the crows and the scarecrow were singing the same thing because they are technically supposed to be enemies. However, they’re simply just playing their part because there’s not much else that they can do. Both sides sing “You can’t win//you can’t break even//And you can’t get out of the game//People keep saying’ things are gonna change//But they look just like, they’re staying’ the same.” The Scarecrow thinks that he is trapped in his system and thinks that having a brain will fix it. That’s something that was told to Black people all the time. Black people are constantly thouhgt of as dumb and in institutions like Vanderbilt you have a select crop of Negroes who get this degree and then are shown off everywhere to show that if they can do it anyone who looks like them can. However, that’s that’s not the case for everyone. That’s not the case for a lot of people who live in New York City, which is supposed to be a liberal paradise. During the performance the crows never leave the stage. They can fly but they can’t leave and that is so important to note because it symbolizes the fact that they are literally trapped where they are. 


Hassatou: I really resonated with this song because of the symbolism that is created when the Scarecrow was stuck on that pole throughout the whole performance and even when he made it off the pole, he was bright right back to it. This song symbolizes the struggles that African Americans go through as they are reminded constantly that they “can’t win, [and] can’t break even [regardless of] people keep saying, things are gonna change”. In other words, like how the Tin Man was given false hope that he would be freed from the pole, African Americnas are also given this false hope throughout their lives. They are told that if they go to schools like Vanderbilt, like Amaya was explaining before, they will be seen as one of the few people that made it out of the “hood” but it is a disillusionment. Even when they arrive in these spaces, nothing really changes, they still “can’t win”, they are continuously judged, and made to feel like imposters. I mean it is kind of ironic isn’t it? Like how a crow helped the Scarecrow but then he put the Scarecrow back on the pool? That is what it is like to be black in America- thinking change will happen but it’s only for a split second then the horrific realities appear reminding you of your place.  

Question: Now we can’t wrap up without talking about “Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day) or “Home”. They are both iconic moments from the show for very different reasons. Even though they are both very happy songs, they express that happiness differently. How would you compare the joy in the two songs. Which song was more powerful to you? Why?

Amaya: I love “Everybody Rejoice”! It is one of those songs that just sticks with you and it’s excellent. Period. However I thought it was ironic that the two songs were so close to each other. “Everybody Rejoice” Is about change, it’s about something new coming and is a very happy go lucky song. The change that everyone in Oz was looking for finally happened. They overcame. Everything is good! The Wicked Witch is dead. Their elation is shown in the choreography. The core four stand on a platform as heroes while the ensemble around them sings as a choir about how happy they are. The colors are bright, a sharp contrast to how the set was when the Wicked Witch was there, and it’s a song that draws the crowd in and asks them to celebrate with them (which I definitely did).Yet, Dorothy decides to go home. Not only does she decide to go home, she makes her decision by singing a ballad to the United States specifically. The weight of this decision makes “Home” a little bit more powerful to me than “Everybody Rejoice”. The reason I say that is because, and I wrote about this in my discussion post, Dorothy has something to lose by going home. Everything in Oz is fixed. If she stays in eyes she will have no worries. Despite that, she decides that she wants to be in America because America is her home, and that is a really really powerful message to sum up what the Wiz is saying The show takes all of these different aspects of being Black in America: coming from the older generation with the Lion, to being able to express your feelings with the Tin man to being perceived as dumb and not having a brain with Scarecrow, and they add Dorothy to it to say despite the negative perception people may have of you, a.) you have everything you need right inside of you and b.) you are just as American as any other person.

Hassatou: I think this is such a good question to ask to wrap up because of the meaning that these two songs have in common. Both songs succeed in highlighting the importance of going back home, being in an environment where they feel comfortable and feel wanted. Even if it means having to deal with discrimination of some sort because they have succeeded in creating welcoming spaces where they can be their trueselves with people that understand their struggles. I really loved the parallels between the two songs as they both create a jovial mood, and optimistic outlook through the lyrics. For instance, in Home, I loved watching Dorothy have a solo where she’s standing in the middle of the stage looking straight at the audience singing “When I think of home;I think of a place; where there is love overflowing”. The actress who performs this song does an amazing job of displaying her emotions for the audience, and making us teary eyed that she isn’t home with her family and community. However, in Everybody rejoice, everyone is on stage with Dorothy singing the lyrics “Everybody come out; And let’s commence to singing joyfully; Everybody look up; And feel the hope that we’ve been waiting for.” They are all in sync, dancing the same choreography, and harmonizing beautifully. By everything being in sync while they are singing, it further goes on to show how African Americans know that regardless of any obstacles they face, they will always have each other there to help; they are never truly alone. This song succeeds in highlighting the optimism within the black community that things will get better if they just believe. 

This performance of The Wiz! Live was excellent. The team behind this production was able to keep the same message that came from the popular 1978 movie and the musical that came before that, but updated how the message was being told for a younger generation. This message is clear to Black people, and it is “we love you, you belong here, and it’s going to be okay.” Being that the show premiered in 2015, soon after it was announced that Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States, this message was definitely necessary. The show premiered on NBC, granting people who may have not been able to see the show otherwise a chance to experience it. The showrunners were cautious of this and did not try to force traditional musical theatre norms on the screen. Instead, the production did things that Black Americans would do in order to not alienate them. They also deliberately made the show brighter than the movie, which had dark undertones, in order to keep the audience feeling positive. It is a great watch, and both of us would watch it again (or rather, on a brand new day:D )

Cinderella: Race Representation on a New Level

Luke Murphy (LM) is a junior majoring in American Studies from Tennessee. He is a student- athlete and plays baseball for Vanderbilt University.  

Hugh Fisher (HF) is a senior majoring in Human and Organizational Development from Tennessee. He is a student-athlete and plays baseball for Vanderbilt University. 

Ethan Smith (ES) is a junior majoring in American Studies from Tennessee. He is a student- athlete and plays baseball for Vanderbilt University. 

Below is our discussion of the production Cinderella by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

HF: What’s up guys, what was your initial feeling of the production? Did it stand out to you in any way?

HF: I’ll go first, but in my opinion this production was well planned and thought out. I enjoyed the production the entire way through. For me this production stood out because of its racial inclusion compared to the origin of Cinderella. As a kid, I’m assuming when we all first watched Cinderella, every character was white, and to this day if we approached someone and asked what race Cinderella was, that is the answer we would receive. However, this production took a different approach and truly worked on their inclusivity of race in the production. Between the king, queen, prince, and Cinderella, there was only one white character casted to play in these roles. I think this speaks volumes to what this production was trying to create and the route they were trying to take. Their goal, in my head, was to create a production of cinderella in which people of color or minority groups could identify with, not just white audiences, and I think they hit that mark right on the head.

LM: Hugh, I agree. I thought this was a very well-thought-out production. I never watched the original Cinderella, so watching this production gave me a good understanding of what it was like, and I thoroughly enjoyed the musical. The multi-racial casting was something that stood out to me as well. Having a little knowledge of Cinderella, I knew that the original cast was entirely white and the glass slipper’s significance. Other than that, everything else was new to me. I thought the producers did a fantastic job by including stars like Whitney Houston (Fairy Godmother), Whoopi Goldberg (Queen), and Brandy (Black Cinderella). The multi-racial cast was very natural, and people never questioned the Black mom and White dad having an Asian son. The multi-racial cast was quite significant because they proved to the audience that anything can be done. 

ES: My first initial impression of this musical was that it was perfectly put together.  You can really start to understand the characters and their roles from the beginning.  I am on the same page as you Luke, as I have never seen the original Cinderella.  Just from people talking about it and seeing pieces of it here and there, I knew the characters were all white.  I loved how they brought different races into this particular play and had different ethnicities within a family.  I agree with you Hugh on the route they took with this production.  They created a production that could be enjoyed by all people, without anyone having to raise an eyebrow about the race and ethnicity of the cast.  The subtle jokes and sarcasm were placed at the perfect times to lighten the mood in the room, so to speak.  These producers achieved their goal of making a production that had many different races and found a way to weave them all together while not affecting the play at all.    

HF: What were yall’s thoughts on the choreography, did you see any major differences from other productions we have seen, or did you find any similarities?

HF: I would say the choreography in certain scenes of this production reminded me of The Wiz. One of the opening musical numbers, “The Prince is Giving a Ball” and “Everybody Rejoice” from The Wiz, seemed to be the two numbers that drew that conclusion for me. In both musical numbers, the choreography contained bits of controllable chaos, which linked them together in my mind. However, unlike The Wiz, throughout this production I felt that the choreography mimicked what I would come to expect from Disney films, especially princess films. From an inviting arms open dance from the Fairy Godmother, Waltzing through the ball, and some awkward dancing with the evil step sisters and possible suitors, the choreography mimicked what an audience would come to expect from a princess fairytale story. 

LM: I would say the choreography in some scenes in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella reminded me of the Newsies. The musical number Something to Believe In” stood out because Katherine gave Jack something to believe in his life. Katherine was looking through Jack’s drawings of the refuge, which led to an argument and shortly to a kiss. She would help share the article and the exploitation of kids to the newspaper for a “strike”. I thought there were some similarities in the musical number “Impossible / It’s Possible” the fairy godmother and Cinderella sing and elaborate on the impossible, but what stood out was the “possible.” Whitney Houston and Brandy are telling each other that all things are possible, never give up and have something to believe in. However, she overcame the impossible and found her prince charming at the ball that she assumed she would never get to go to. These musical numbers didn’t require much choreography but their movements, hand gestures, and facial expressions are what revealed the similarities between the two numbers. 

ES: I thought the choreography was well done.  The dancing and movement from the characters lined up with their personalities throughout the production.  Cinderella, at the beginning of the production, was dancing in her quiet room alone, which in my opinion fit for the time as she was shy in my eyes.  But as the play went on, she began to dance more confidently and gain more confidence in herself when the Prince danced with her.  I saw differences, in the choreography, to “I Cain’t Say No” because the women in this play were lacking emotions when singing and this is the complete opposite in this Cinderella production.  The women in this play are full of emotions and you can see that in their facial expressions, along with tone of voice and movements.  

LM: Did y’all enjoy the songs and lyrics throughout the production? What was yall’s favorite song and why?

LM: I enjoy musicals a lot, so therefore I appreciated this one too. Although it was much different than what I normally watch, it still grasped my attention. I would catch myself moving to the rhythm of songs. These musical numbers are also very engaging due to the repetitiveness of lyrics. After a couple of minutes of listening, you can discover yourself humming along to the various musical numbers. My favorite musical number, if I had to choose, would probably be the “Impossible / It’s Possible.” I spoke about it earlier, but that song really stood out to me. The song is very inspiring, and it depicts that anything is possible in life. As a white American, I don’t know what it’s like to be an African American and go through the things that they go through on a daily basis. I like this song in the musical because Whitney Houston is explaining to Brandy that African American women can live out their lives and dreams, too, just like everyone else. 

ES: While I liked all the songs that were sung during this musical production, “A Lovely Night” is one that stood out to me.  Cinderella sings with so much emotion behind her words, that I really feel for her.  When her step sisters join in, I feel it brings a connection together that is lovely to see.  Her pure happiness and hope to dance with the prince is shown through her voice and actions she makes while singing. Spinning around the house as if there is nothing else on her mind.  It sets a very bright mood during this part of the play, that is shut down by her step mother, telling her she will never get the chance to dance with the prince and should give up on that happening.  While I enjoyed the songs in the play, like Luke, this one was beautifully written and completed by their fantastic voices.  

HF: Yeah, I’d agree with both of y’all. I think the songs and lyrics were extremely catchy. I think my favorite song from the production was “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful. I think the lyrics in the song mimic similar aspects of romance that a lot of people go through and I think this made the song more relatable on a personal level. Not only were the lyrics through this song appealing, I think the story they were telling through the song truly caught my eye. The prince and Cinderella were falling in love with one another, but they weren’t sure why, and sometimes you’re just never sure why. That’s why I enjoyed this piece more than any other. 

ES: What was yall’s opinion of the open dialogue between characters?

HF: I honestly thought that the dialogue throughout the production was extremely well done. The dialogue was serious when a scene required it, and witty and humorous at other times, and honestly was not what I was expecting. An example was when the Prince had come to the stepsisters and Cinderella’s home. They bickered and even poked at each other, which was something I wasn’t quite expecting, but I really enjoyed those scenes.

LM: I agree with you Hugh; the open dialogue in the production was properly done. Not having a background of Cinderella, I didn’t really know what to expect from the dialogue. I figured it would be serious and all about love throughout; however, the sense of humor of the characters was something that caught my eye. The two stepsisters in the production had quite a sense of humor, and I thought it was used in the right place at the right time. In the production, the audience would also be acquainted with the serious and intimate moments that were presented between the characters. I thought the production crew did a fabulous job by integrating different personalities, which is why the dialogue was properly done. It made it much easier for the audience to engage with the cast members; therefore, it felt like they were living in the moment.

ES:  I completely agree with you Luke, about the producers finding a way to combine the personalities.  The dialogue within this production is very well thought out and perfectly executed.  I also had no idea what to expect before watching it.  I figured it would be about love and happiness without any conflict, but shortly I noticed I was wrong.  The producers do a great job of placing funny scenes at the right place just when things are getting serious.  Part of me wanted to see more conflict and issues be resolved, but I had to remember this is produced for a younger audience.  The step mom rubbed me the wrong way through her actions and words, being very selfish and wanting things for herself instead of for others.  Overall, the dialogue was well put together and caused for a great successful production.

HF: Alright guys, last question. What do you think made this production an important piece in creating a representation of race?

LM: Race has become a more prevalent topic since the original Cinderella was created and produced. The Rodgers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella plays into the importance of racial diversity when casting a film or production. It’s important that children and adults alike are seeing different races and cultures portrayed in popular, world-renowned films. For people of color, it’s encouraging to see people who look like them on the stage. The multi-racial cast is what the world looks like, and I believe that’s why this production creates a great representation of race. The production of Cinderella can remind people that “it can be done.” 

ES:  Race is completely different in this production of Cinderella compared to the first one.  It  shows different races within a family, and different races working together to create a great product.  It is made for everyone to watch no matter the race or ethnicity of the audience.  It brings different cultures together, which is what the world needs at this time.  It holds a great deal of importance to the minority groups that have been left out of musicals for a long time, to really show that they can recreate a well known play, and do it very well.  It shows the people watching it that no matter the race, people can come together and work together to produce something that will be remembered forever.  I enjoyed the different races of this musical as they all brought something different to the table and made it work.  

HF: This Cinderella production also stood out to me as representing race due to the casting. I watched the original Cinderella animation as a kid and when I think back to it, there was not one character who was not white throughout the entire film. This production was casted in a way that had multiple races represented, and I’d agree with what both of you said that this gives a sense of community and the feeling that no matter what race you were born under, you still have the chance to do something meaningful and can live a great life, even be a princess if you want to. 

Brandy’s Wearing the Glass Slippers: The Importance of Representation in Cinderella (1997)

First Broadcasted on ABC in 1997, “Cinderella,” was deemed revolutionary, as Brandy Norwood was casted as the first black actress to play the role of a Disney princess. It also starred the notable names of the late Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg, and Bernadette Peters. The use of actors of color in a live action Disney movie greatly signified the importance of representation and cultural diversity in an already predominantly white industry. In this essay, three theatre students will discuss Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1997 production of Cinderella, and how the musical paved a way for representation of people of color in Disney’s notorious projections of the realms of princes and princesses. This representation was exemplified through specific choices made in the musical productions authors, artists, and actors that lead to cohesiveness that this boundary pushing musical embarked. 

Haley Hopkins is a senior studying Medicine, Health and Society. She is both a soccer player and Wicked! enthusiast.

Vida Raietpavar is a first semester freshman undecided on her major, but is leaning towards Medicine, Health, and Society. She plays for the Vanderbilt soccer team and was ignorant of all things regarding musicals prior to this class. 

Mairin Boyle is a junior currently studying Medicine, Health and Society. She is a casual musical theatre fan quickly learning to appreciate it on a deeper level. She is also a long time Disney fan excited to analyze this production. 

VR: In what ways does this production affect Disney’s largely youth fanbase? 

HH: Disney already being a 70 billion dollar corporation with arguably the largest youth fanbase of any surpasses all competitors. They have created and established an unwavering platform in all communities, targeting young audiences with impressionable minds about dreams of princes and princesses as well as make believe, realms of happiness. Disney has been under scrutiny of being “too white” by only creating fair skin characters with little diversity and exemplifying racial stereotypes in some of their films. This production of Cinderella was groundbreaking in more ways than one. Brandy Norwood was the first actress of color to star as a Disney princess, with other african american supporting actors. The 1997 production of Cinderella went against the norm of the Disney princesses all being fair skinned and pertaining to a younger audience who resemble them. Young girls of color were able to see and experience the representation of a princess of color and relate to these hopes and dreams of being a princess. This representation of a minority population is so incredibly important because it instills the feeling of a place in society and greater self esteem, especially in these younger audiences Disney targets. It also creates a sense of identity for the youth fanbases in seeing older people who look like them. 

VR: Are there any limitations to the progressive message projected within Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella?

MB: It is difficult to think of limitations that pertain to a production that breaks down so many barriers. The color-blind casting used in the show is wonderfully welcoming and creates joyous inclusivity in royalty’s portrayals. However, one particular limitation that comes to mind is rooted in the origins of Cinderella. In class, we discussed these origins. The production uses scores from two white men in Rodgers and Hammerstein and is based on a Western perspective. To build on this, how inclusive can a show really be when it’s evolved from one, overused culture’s view? Can simply placing actors of color into predominantly white roles be considered progress? Although essential to do so, I think even more important is giving actors of unique color spaces to call their own. For example, in casting Filipino American actor Paolo Montalbán as Prince Charming, the character sought after by many women may be opposing previous emasculating or evil portrayals of Asian men. However, what this fails to do, and what I believe to be much more critical, is to show how being Southeast Asian illuminates one’s identity. Even Prince Charming’s main appeal comes from his class and wealth, which is rooted in whiteness. This allure is specifically noticeable in the ballroom scene where all eligible young women attend and drool over the chance to be with him. Although some may argue that this shows the production’s unique portrayal of a desirable Asian male, limitations to the progressive message show as his appeal is more tied to the potential of joining the royal family. 

HH: How does this depiction of Cinderella compare to the other movies and princesses that Disney has created and what impact does this have? 

VR: The defining factor that differentiates this depiction of this Cinderella from another Disney princess of color is in the way people of color are indisputably linked to royalty without race being an obvious limitation to the plot. When taking a step back and looking at most modern and progressive pieces of media that implement representation for people of color, the topic of race is usually involved in the story as a barrier. For instance, shows such as Blackish and Dear White People, whose casting is predominately black, always seem to talk about the struggles of being black in a white dominated world in the plot. And this isn’t just in these specific shows, it is a trend in mass media to cast people of color for the sole purpose of talking about the struggles that that community faces. It is as if people of color can not exist in entertainment without their skin being a topic of discussion. Disney was no exception. When looking at the 1995 animation of Pocahontas, a Disney film noted for its representation of Native Americans, we see how the romantic plot had racist depictions of Native Americans, portraying them as evil and hateful towards the white settlers. While the movie was meant to be inclusive for a specific community, the plot largely revolved around the differences between the Europeans and Native Americans. Their differences of race WAS the movie. We never see these issues with the other princesses, such as Snow White, Aurora, and Ariel, who were white with white romantic interests. More notably, these white characters fit the mold of the ideal princess Disney projects versus Pocahontas, who isn’t even considered a real princess due to her lack of royal connection. This portrays to the audience of Disney that people of color are not REALLY included in their depictions of princess fairytales. 

Fast forward to Rodger and Hammerstein’s 1997 Cinderella. The most crucial theme created in the production of this movie musical was to maintain the same structure that Cinderella’s white princess counterparts had, while implementing a color-blind cast. This production did not diversify the cast and then change the entirety of the plot to talk about the struggles of certain races. It instead allowed race to just be a characteristic of Cinderella. This version allowed a black woman to play into the fantasy that Disney is known for that was believable and authentic to the audience. This is something that was not previously done by Disney and the most impactful part was not the differences between this Cinderella and the other iconic white princess, but the large similarities and equalities they shared regardless of race. It allowed an inclusion of people of color to Disney princesses that didn’t divide them based on their race, but instead pushed the notion that girls of any color can be real princesses.  

HH: What is the significance of this adaptation of Cinderella and the legacy it leaves?

MB: The best way I can think to describe how revolutionary this adaptation of this classic story is to say that it was way ahead of its time. The legacy it leaves even surpassed issues from today’s age. Over 20 years later, there are huge issues of white-washing and lack of diversity in Hollywood. Today’s directors should take notes on this 1997 production of Cinderella. The apparent answer to its significance is the diversity of the cast. This production was a space where different races coexisted without any comment or question. This film was so good that you don’t even question a world where a black woman and a white man produce a Filipino son. It was never explained or treated like it was unusual, and they were simply left to exist and thrive. It entirely made sense, which I believe to be revolutionary. The film followed the same storyline as the classics but, adding to its legacy, added a much-needed twist. Disney movies are often plain sexist. Girls are always portrayed as helpless beings who need a man to rescue them. The 1997 production combats these stereotypes, which is a much-needed message back then and today. For example, the Prince tells Cinderella that a girl should be “treated like a princess.” She quickly corrects him saying, “No. Like a person, with kindness and respect.” The film also focuses on following your dreams and making them a reality—another vital message for today’s time. Finally, for many, this was the first time seeing a Black princess, which is momentous in its own right, as discussed previously. Overall, the film was revolutionary and sent timeless and essential messages to people everywhere to add to its ageless legacy. 

MB: Is there a particular scene or musical number that exemplifies the unique choices made in this production? 

VR: One particular scene that highlights the choices made in order to create a cohesiveness to the plot and the diverse cast is the opening scene. The usage of bright vivid colors in the scenery and over the top dresses and jewelry was used as a way to combat how noticeably different the cast was from each other. If instead the musical production artists had decided to have a more toned down, neutral color palette to the scenery, the differences between the cast would have been exemplified and obvious. This would have taken away from one of the main goals of the producers, to show diversity in a realistic manner without taking away from the plot. The bright colors ensure that boldness is the norm and the varying skin tones are just as normal as the different colors of flowers. When taking a look at the step sisters, their dresses are both bright in color and objectively obnoxious, with details of ruffles, bows, and pearls. These dresses add depth to their even more so obnoxious character and create a symmetry between the likes of them. It depicts that they are nearly the same person with similar dresses and fashion sense, even though one of them is black and the other is white. This is an example of how costume choices were used to combat highlighting racial differences in the production, but instead create unity and equality.

MB: Did the diversity of the cast evoke a different reaction/experience for you as a viewer compared to other versions of Cinderella’s story? Why or why not?

HH: I can speak to this question from a perspective of my younger self. Growing up, I watched and loved all things Disney. There is a certain magic in Disney’s storytelling that greatly influences the minds of both children and adults alike. Their films and messages within extends through generations and creates imaginative minds of all. I remember first watching the 1997 production of Cinderella. I was in first or second grade, scrolling the channels of my TV and saw that Cinderella was on ABC. I immediately clicked on it and was surprised when I didn’t see the classic animated movie I already knew and loved. It was not only a live action remake, but I noticed the diverse cast. I remember loving the soundtrack and multi-racial cast. I appreciated it then with the very naive, innocent child mind not understanding the capacity of how revolutionary this remake was. I have seen it many times since then, but now have a newfound appreciation for how important the representation is. It most definitely evoked a different response for me, but it was far from negative. Disney movies are already obviously sexist, often portraying women as the “damsel in distress.” The 1997 adaptation of Cinderella also contributes a feminist point of view in how Cinderella is independent and doesn’t rely on the needs of a man. Many credit Cinderella as the most important movie of the 90’s, and it’s easy to agree. 

And they all lived Happily Ever After!

Racial and Gender Driven Narratives in Miss Saigon

By Abigail Parker and William Lopes

Below is a transcript of our recorded dialogue essay. We hope you enjoy!

A: So let’s first talk about the character of Kim. So how old is she?

W: She’s 17 at the beginning.

A: So she’s 17 and her family dies in the war and she’s left with no other option but basically resorting to prostitution and I think that the portrayal of her innocence at the beginning is really interesting.

W: yeah for instance her innocence is prescribed to her. How much is she actually innocent or is it what’s forced on her from society? ‘Cause, she talks about how she’s betrothed to this man and she’s looking like she doesn’t have agency in that and then also it’s talked about how in the first scenes where we meet her with the engineer and eventually with Chris, she’s there because her family died so she has nothing and now she has to find some more work so her innocence was only there because she’s being told what to do. 

A: Definitely! Who knows what she would have done if she was in control of her life and you can see that at the beginning when she first walks into the brothel she’s wearing shorts under her dress which are ripped off of her, she’s wearing a white dress, her hair is in a bun, she is very like tidy and I guess just the overall stereotypical depiction of innocence. and then, that sort of goes out the window when she gets involved with Chris and they get married. She’s left alone with her son and so you can see as her hair goes from being a bun to kind of messy and down it’s just like the progression and loss of her innocence as she works towards gaining agency at the final like the conclusion of the play so she becomes more and more unraveled in her physical appearance.

W: Also I think it’s interesting, this might be a little tangential, but I feel like there are two depictions of Asian women in American media. One is the innocent model minority – you know the type – and then the other is the promiscuous type you know like you always hear about that in Southeast Asia and the poor nations of Asia.

A: Yeah and not just with women but also with men. So you can see the contrast between Thuy and the engineer. The engineer’s made out to be this conniving, evil, slimy character and then the cousin is more of a stronger soldier depiction. In essence, he is more of the model minority but with the masculine overtone so there’s that dichotomy with both female and the male perspective, the model minority like you said, and then also sort of just this last fall from innocence. 

W: I would the engineer kind of also fits the model minority in the way that he is trying to attain the American dream. It’s kind of this stereotype that like the Asian community will work. That’s why the model community is a stereotype because they will work, they will try to fit into our society as best they can because they know how to succeed in each environment.

A: Yeah I agree but I think that his fascination with American culture sort of detracts from his own culture, and it’s putting across the message that American culture is better and superior to Asian culture. This is where I think that this musical fails first. Beyond the stereotyping that we talked about, but the almost ranking or hierarchy of cultures. He views America as the land of opportunity where there’s no need to resort to the prostitution that the engineer and Kim and all the other women in the show are involved in.

W: Yeah there’s definitely that aspect I see, but also it is coming from the perspective of the character that they are portraying as dirty conniving. So I mean I agree with you overall but I think it’s just interesting that the character they have romanticized America is also the one that we hate and that we are made to hate ’cause he’s conniving again and backstabbing.

A: OK OK … Now let’s talk a little bit about Kim’s relationship with Chris.  It was a little weird how quickly it progresses. I mean it’s in a time of crisis where he’s isolated from his family, she has lost her family, and it’s also in a place where marriage isn’t the same as what we view marriage. For instance, she was already arranged to be married to someone so marriage isn’t viewed in the same light as traditional American perspectives and that’s where the odd nature of Chris’s infatuation with Kim stem from. 

W: Yeah no I definitely think the height of emotion is definitely why it happened and I think that probably there are a lot of are these faster-paced relationships during times of war, but I think the weirdest part to me is at the beginning of the first scene where Chris says she’s just a girl or a little kid. I mean he is made to look older in the production, but given the historical context, he is probably actually around 18 or 19 or 20 (you know the age of conscripted people), but he characterized as an adult in the show and she’s characterized as a child. He remarks about this difference and then he still has sex with her and is infatuated with her after – which is again probably not too off from what actually happened – but it is just weird given the contrasting depictions. 

A: I definitely agree. While contrasting Chris and Kim’s relationship with his relationship with Ellen, it’s definitely an entirely different nature than you see with Kim and Chris together. Even in the musical number “Sun and Moon,” they’re on top of each other practically the entire number and they’re drawn to each other but then when you see Chris with Ellen it’s much more like a respectful and equal relationship. Kim is trying to make something out of Chris so that her life can be something else, and even when she has her son, she is really pushing even harder. Kim and Chris’s relationship is rooted in passion but also necessity they want human connection but she needs support and she needs family. Ultimately, she’s alone, but he has a whole other world to return to.

W: Yeah I definitely think the emotion is what makes the difference between these relationships just how we’re talking about the heightened emotions of war is close-to-death experiences I think that probably is why they’re so different because of the context in which they came about. I also agree with the point you made about how Ellen and Chris are more equals and Kim and Chris were more of this weird power dynamic type of thing where he’s the savior kind of like the concept of the white savior concept.

A: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the poem “A White Man’s Burden” by Kipling. It’s all about how the white man is burdened with making peace in these foreign countries and it’s his responsibility to bring civilization. But, you see that even when Chris returns when he gets word of his son like it’s a burden for him to go there, and he goes as far as saying that he will just be fiscally responsible for his son without uprooting his new life. I think it’s a parallel with the war and with the American perspective on other countries.

W: Yeah that’s actually a very interesting point, but at the same time, I honestly don’t think Chris consciously understands the difference between race in this instance you know.

A: OK no I agree that Chris isn’t entirely aware, but we are looking at a musical where people were making conscious decisions. While the character of Chris may not be aware of it the producers and writers were. But also, that sense of being unaware, the sense of being naïve is what a lot of Americans are: we are naïve of how harmful American dominance is and how we view ourselves as the protector of the world, and that ideology is harmful to other people.

W: But at the same time, I’m trying to think of to what extent Chris actually thought of as a protector. He was going to pay for his son, but he ultimately wanted to forget and leave them in Thailand.

A: I think he was a protector. He wanted to be a protector at the beginning of the musical when he wanted to save Kim from working in prostitution for the engineer. He wanted to get her out of that place, but then you know he leaves, he forgets – well he doesn’t forget about her but he’s out of sight out of mind, and there is no follow-through. 

W: Also I think it’s talked about in Ellen’s first song when she sings “now that I’ve seen her like everything is different.” Kim becomes dispensable to Chris and Ellen. 

A: Yeah, because before the letter Chris is completely unaware of what happened to Kim. She could have died. Kim is just a memory to Chris, and to Kim, it is her reality. He is her husband he’s the father of her child and she’s sort of left alone to fight and defend her family.

W: Now that I’m thinking about it, that is so true. It is so much more real for Kim ’cause she knows the reality of the situation. For Chris, it was like two days that they spent together. I’ve talked to people for a lot longer and just forgotten about them, you know. I mean I didn’t have a marriage ceremony or whatever but still. 

A: But also he’s not really clear on the reality of the marriage ceremony. 

W: Yeah exactly it’s not clear and so now that– you know, thinking about it, I’m like I probably wouldn’t have come back– maybe I would have come back but like it’s different 

A: You wouldn’t have uprooted.

W: Yeah and if I knew I had a son, obviously yes, I would, and I think he would have been the same as me, and he did come back after he found his son, but like, it was like 2 days you know. 

A: Yeah.

W: So it’s like, to what extent he owes her that or is it just that the situation sucks, more than that it’s someone’s fault, you know?

A: Yeah no I agree. OK uh, we’ve talked about that um let’s talk a bit about how Chris was unaware of the wedding. So in the ceremony song, he sort of dismisses his confusion by saying they didn’t really know what else to sing. Kim says this is what they always sing at weddings which startles him but then he brushes it off after she says that’s the only thing could think of to sing in this situation. But also, as we previously talked about, the concept of marriage is very different in the United States or in the American culture. It’s out of love for the most part and it’s something that would probably take more planning and time before the actual wedding than in an arranged marriage, you know?

W: Yeah and it’s also specific to this culture they’re portraying–it’s less it’s more formulaic and there is less effort needed in establishing a relationship you know, it’s more about money I guess. And western cultures up until probably, what, like 100 years ago was the same way but also it’s kind of more like a promise ring to me as a concept than a marriage. I don’t think she was trying to trick him into a marriage you know, they were just doing a ceremony, but then I guess what’s the point of the ceremony. If it’s not marriage then what is it? Because Thuy from before comes in and looks at what’s going on says “You broke the vow your father made” or whatever so he understands it as a marriage too.

A: Yeah I think that’s just showing the discrepancies between the cultures

W: No yeah I definitely agree. Okay, maybe we should talk about the songs now.

A: Yeah let’s talk a bit about the “American Dream” which was– I really liked that song.

W: I was impartial.

A: Or no “If you want to die in bed” that shows the grit and true character of the Engineer and how manipulative he is of Kim. I think it really explains the situation of how he’s taking advantage of Kim and he knows it and he’s going to get himself to America.

W: Yeah he’s definitely like a parasite. But no I definitely think it’s like it’s interesting in the context of his life but it doesn’t like me doesn’t make me like him anymore, I still have the same opinion of him.

A: Oh yeah he’s still slimy, but now you understand his thought process.

W: It adds dimension to his character. 

A: Yeah and I think the melody just in of itself it was like 

W: Oh yeah 

A: It was fun to listen to and that’s what adds that dimension to the Engineer. Obviously, you hate him, he’s a terrible person, but I loved watching him on the screen. His numbers were probably the most extravagant propswise. “The American dream” had the car and the big dance numbers with all the women in wigs and short skirts, and it was just like a big production. Whereas in “I’d give my life for you like it’s just her on the stage with her son. There’s just very different choreography and production choices and that goes to show you the differences between the characters and what they value.

W: Also I think their difference in upbringing is shown in the fact that Kim lived a rather average Vietnamese life for the time. She was by our standards, but probably pretty close to standard for Vietnam at the time. She grew up in a traditional place and family was her priority. The Engineer, however, was alone for a long time with no money and had a difficult experience in the military, so it’s understandable how he became such a lone wolf and his priority was to fend for himself.

A: Maybe you should start us off with “I’d give my life for you” since it’s your favorite.

W: AH yes, one of my top three favorite musical numbers definitely. It really shows where Kim stands and shows her agency or lack thereof I guess. It makes you think about how the agency of Asian women is being portrayed, like is it her choice to value these things in a certain way, or imposed on her by society. I would assume that most parents would say they’d give their life to their kids, but Kim’s whole value seems to be based on other people. Throughout the entire show, whether it’s her father, Thuy, Chris, or her son she is always characterized by her relationships with other people and like that’s her ultimate fate– dying for another person.

A: It’s also interesting that her suicide, which could be seen by some as an ultimate act of agency, can also still be characterized as an obligation she feels. It’s because of Chris that their son is going to be forced to stay in Bangkok, but that is only on the condition that Kim is there to take care of him. It’s just interesting how this one-act can be viewed in such opposing ways.

W: It is her choice ultimately, but it’s also how she views the situation and how the situation was something essentially handed to her. None of her choices have really led her to this situation, it was all reactions to things happening to her. The situation with her son having to stay in Bangkok wasn’t even life or death for him, but she still valued the apparent better life he would have in America higher than her own life and ability to raise her son. It’s just really crazy to think about.

A: I think it’s that Kim views it as a life or death because here she is stuck. She is working as a prostitute for the second time, she has no other options, she’s lived her entire life in service to other people and has never had true agency. Ultimately, Kim doesn’t want that for her son, so she would rather not have a life than have to live knowing that her son will have the same fate as her.

W: Yeah, that is very true, and I think we were talking about the romanticization of America before for warring countries or refugee situations, but at the same time it really is. America is this place where people can come and succeed to some extent like specifically with the Vietnamese women in America.  I just watched this video about how so many nail salons are owned by Vietnamese women. At this point, it’s all because some person went to Vietnam and taught people and then they came back. It’s just crazy the opportunities that can be afforded in our country. I don’t want to be super pro-American because that is not the whole truth but there is some truth in the romantic view of the American Dream.

A: Yeah, but also, that dream and the opportunity comes with the racial disparities and the stereotypes that we’ve talked about so far. Yes, you will have a lesser chance of living in poverty, you have more choices but those choices are limited or those opportunities are closed off with these racist perspectives.

W: I remember reading about an Asian family that came here, and they accepted racism because they knew that that’s the trade-off, it is the cost of coming to the United States for a better life. The family accepted being called names in the street so they could give their kids more opportunities. That was the choice they made. 

A: Yeah it’s a choice. Do you choose a life for yourself or for your kids? Kim made her choice for her son. 

Moving forward, let’s talk about our reactions and experiences watching Miss Saigon and how we felt about the racial portrayals. 

W: Oh yeah. Honestly, this is probably from my white male perspective, but I didn’t see a lot of overt racism. Obviously, there was some blatant racism in the racial slurs being yelled out in the scene of the fall of Saigon. As they were leaving, there were racial slurs being shouted. Now, obviously, I don’t condone that but, like, I don’t think the structure of the show necessarily was racist. 

A: I agree at face value you don’t really see it definitely takes investigation or critical thinking. We watched this musical twice together. The first time around, I saw the issue of race but watching it the second time around you really delve into what these characters and their roles are. The second time you know the plot: you can look at the engineer as a tool and you can look at Chris as a tool, you can look at Ellen and Kim all as functions and representations of the larger historical and cultural narratives. I feel like it requires some digging to get to the racial representation or narrative but I do think there are elements of overt racism. Like you said the slurs and then just the way the American dream is depicted, I thought that number specifically was just wow America is really being portrayed as so much better than Asian countries and Asian culture and that was a little hard to watch and listen to. Overall, I think that they did a good job of starting the conversation but it definitely took some digging.

W: I don’t know. I think they did a good job of casting.

A: Oh yeah they did choose Asian actors to play the Asian roles which I think is a big step.

W: The bar is so low.

A: Yeah the bar is low. I would say that the conversation about race isn’t as obvious as it could have been the critique of racial stereotypes isn’t as overt as it could have been.

W: I think there is a lot of truth to this story and a lot of truth in how Kim acted. I don’t think that’s necessarily racist or playing on stereotypes, I really feel like someone like her who’s parents were just killed will obviously be stoic. I don’t know. I feel like it definitely doesn’t address the issue of cementing these stereotypes in the viewer’s mind, but also it’s like a Broadway show like it’s not entirely a critique of culture.

A: Yeah it’s supposed to be entertainment alongside critique. 

W: I guess racist notions of our relations like with Vietnamese people and Asian people as a whole also don’t really get into relations inside of America. The musical mostly deals with race outside America, but I think for what it is it does a good job. 

A: Thank you for listening to our dialogue essay! This is Abby and Will; have a great day!

Miss Saigon Shows More Power in the Form of a Broadway Musical than Pad Thai

(tho it’s funny that pad thai isn’t a vietnamese dish)

Ejew: This is Ejew Kim and I’m here with Megan Lin and Sally Kim to talk about race and ethnicity in the 2014 West End production of Miss Saigon directed by Laurence Connor and starring Eva Noblezaga as Kim and Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer. Based on the original production by writers and composers Schönberg and Alain Boublil, Miss Saigon (2014) illustrates the life of Kim, a Vietnamese orphan girl trying to reunite with her American boyfriend Chris who had fled to the US after Saigon’s fall, whom she met as the Engineer’s employee. Through the musical, we can see the tribulations the Asian characters go through due to racial disparities and how in light of these troubles, they show aspiration and power by fighting for themselves.

Ejew: Here’s my first question. In Miss Saigon (2014) which Asian characters stood out to you? For me, the Engineer really stood out. As a half-French, half-Vietnamese man, he owns the steady Saigon strip club, “Dreamland.” Already, from how he names his business, you can sense that he is a man full of aspiration. In fact, after Saigon falls, every action, every speech coming out of him is dedicated to achieving his “American Dream” of great wealth, fame, and authority. After Saigon’s failure, he receives no opportunities to achieve the wealth and fame that he wants because he is Vietnamese instead of American. Yet, he persists on trying to achieve his desires as he names his dream the “American Dream,” showing internal power in the form of persisting aspiration, standing strong against a helpless reality.

Megan: I think that the Engineer is interesting, especially with his determination to pursue the American dream, but I think that Kim is the character that really stood out. Firstly, I think that being a woman makes her life comparatively harder than the Engineer. Especially a woman with no family left in a war ridden country, Kim’s life is bound to be difficult. As the main character, Kim has more spotlight on her, which allows the musical to more thoroughly develop aspects of her character. Being a Vietnamese woman, Kim is surrounded by an environment where women are objectified and controlled by men. She has to conform to Vietnamese societal rules, never having the power to break free. However, she is still able to recognize and execute her inner power to fight for what she loves in this restricted environment. Kim’s life is full of tragedy, but she shows resilience and strength even in the face of despair.  

Sally: I was also able to notice how the Engineer and Kim are able to push through and fight for what they aspire despite all of the ups and downs they have been through in their life. In my opinion, they were the ones who have been through the most tribulations and experienced the most helplessness due to their race. However, they are able to find the strength to get past them.

Ejew: To bring the focus more on the acting, how do the actors’ movements portray power? Do they show helplessness in any way? Aspirations? I think the Engineer’s power comes from his sly, rather joyful—and sexual—body movements. His number “The American Dream” really emphasizes this: He seems to be really enjoying the vision, flying his hands up to the sky so many times and striking his head back to laugh hilariously at his fancy stipper ladies and showering money. At one point he grinds on “his” fancy white car, and this seems to be conveyed as his best, true-to-self expression of joy about his “American Dream”—all his life he’s been working with prostitution…how else could he have expressed pleasure? This level of joy he seems to show is quite amazing, especially to think about how much of a depressing time he is spending post-Saigon, earning merely 10 cents an hour under a boss—definitely something that a born-to-be-ceo, money-lover man would have a hard time with, and something other characters seem to not be able to show. And it’s this ability to keep dreaming—with positivity—in a devastating reality represents the Engineer’s internal power. 

Megan: Kim is very different from the optimistic Engineer. She is naive, innocent, and doesn’t have the same playfulness that the Engineer has. Yet she shows her own internal power in several musical numbers, such as ‘The Heat is on in Saigon” and “This is the Hour”. She’s only a 17 year old girl, yet she’s able to stand in front of all these people (the prostitutes and the American soldiers alike) and present herself to make a living. Just imagine witnessing the horrifying deaths of your family and your next best option is being a prostitute. Really just shows how helpless Vietnamese women were during this time period. So Kim having that amount of determination and strength after this tragedy, just shows so much about her character. The way that she holds herself and her straight posture shows that she has an internal power that is incomparable. Instead of cowering, acting submissive, or holding her head down, Kim looks ahead fearlessly. In “This is the Hour” her inner power manifests and fully emerges. She is willing to stand in front of her son, Tam, when Thuy is holding a knife to try to kill him. Then the scene that really took the cake was the scene where Kim actually holds a gun to fight against Thuy and she holds Tam right behind her. This scene was really powerful because it showed how she was willing to stand up against her cousin, someone who is her family, for her own son. She could have agreed to marry him and had an easier life as a housewife, but instead she decides to fight against him. Her determination and strength in the face of tragedy just go to show her inner power. 

Ejew: How do the songs and lyrics from the musical’s authors show the characters’ emotions? How does this contribute to the three factors of our discussion: aspiration, power, and helplessness?

Sally: Kim holds a lot of power internally and in the musical number “This is the Hour,” she is finally able to emit this power and use it to give herself a voice. Kim is willing to do anything for Tam. When he is in danger, Kim knows how to emerge from this internal power in order to save him. Kim’s strong vocals while singing, “You will not touch him” towards Thuy adds on to the demands that she is putting on him. Instead of potentially saying, “Please don’t touch him,” shouting “You will not touch him” has a stronger and demanding tone. Continuing on, she sings, “I’m warning you, for him I’ll kill” while holding a gun towards Thuy and before pulling the trigger she adds on, “You will not take my child.” In this number, the lyrics fully portray Kim’s fearlessness against powers who try to take control of her. The lyrics are way more adamant and relentless. In addition, the way she sings these lyrics by slightly belting and putting as much controlled power as she can shows how Kim is now able to go against those who have taken control of her in the past. I was so glad to see Kim portraying her inner power and not using any words that allow room for Thuy to manipulate and control her.

Megan: I think that the Engineer also really shows the three factors of our discussion. He has an entire song dedicated to his American dream (coincidentally named “The American Dream”), where he conveys his aspirations and shows his desperation to get to his goal. Many lyrics in “The American Dream” show the engineer’s dreams in America. One of the lines is: “In the states I’ll have a club that’s four-starred/ Men like me there have things easy/ They have a lawyer and a bodyguard/ To the Johns there I’ll sell blondes there”. I feel it that these lines really show his ambition and his belief in his own power to pursue his dream. This is especially because he doesn’t try to cover up anything and is very explicit with the lyrics that he uses. He also portrays his frustrations with his current living which is another he shows his aspiration and struggle for power. This is seen in certain lyrics such as: “I’m fed up with small-time hustles/ I’m too good to waste my talent for greed”. In these lines it once again shows his confidence in himself, while at the same time showing how the Engineer felt limited by the boundaries and helpless in Vietnam. He even asks why he had to be born as a citizen of Vietnam and that America was where he truly belonged.

Ejew: Last but not least, how do you think the set and costume design emphasize aspirations and power—against helplessness—in the characters?

Sally: I want to focus on the Engineer. Throughout the musical, the Engineer is seen wearing flashy costumes and also dresses in rags. As stated before, his number “The American Dream” highlights the power he holds and his aspiration for this ideal life. In this number, the set is decked out in flashy diamonds, with the ensemble dressed up in sparkly suits and bodysuits. The background is of a golden Statue of Liberty with gold pillars surrounding it. Most importantly, the Engineer is riding the convertible in a sparkly red suit with a deep v-neck blouse while the spotlight is shining on him. The design and costume in this number accurately depicts the American Dream, which is filled with overflowing wealth, authority, and fame. The shining lights, the sparkly outfits, the gold embellishments across the stage, and the bright and contrasting colors really brings this dream to life and you can’t deny the joy and pleasure it brings to the Engineer. The difference between this setting and his usual life emphasizes the struggles he goes through, but the Engineer’s ability to keep on dreaming and imagining this life despite them shows the Engineer’s internal power.

Ejew: Same!–the contrasts in artistic design that the directors implemented definitely caught my attention. The most interesting one for me was for the number “I Still Believe” by Kim and Ellen. This left a strong impression on me because of how the stage was constructed to contrast the two characters: Kim is literally on the lowest stage ground with dark and green lighting while Ellen is on a higher leveled stage under bright yellow lights—explicitly portrays how Kim is of a lower status than Ellen. In fact, Kim stays under a rusty shack, wearing torn clothes and half-sitting on her knees, while Ellen is on a silky bed with Chris, wearing flowery clothing and having city lights on her background. This difference in style highlights their financial gap, and suggests Kim as weaker than Ellen, and to be helpless about reaching her goal of reuniting with her love Chris—which means taking him back from Ellen.  However, I think eventually Kim demonstrates agency. We can see this by the clothes she pick for her son and herself right before she commits suicide in meeting Chris. She puts her son in a bright-red Mickey Mouse sweater and white cargo shorts—very noticeably different, very American—while she herself styles herself the exact way she did when she first met Chris. It strongly represents how she wants her son to have a better future in the US, while she remains in the past, in Vietnam.

Megan: Yeah. Overall, I think we all agree that Miss Saigon, through their Vietnamese characters, demonstrates aspirations, and both helplessness and power of the Asian race as a minority victimized under discrimination. The helplessness emphasizes the burdens that minorities—specifically people of the Asian race—face even today, but also gives encouragement to fight against racial injustice and help shape a world of better equity.

Ejew and Sally, synchronized: Yes! (Ejew thinks this is funny) 

Miss Saigon: Why We’re More Obsessed with America than Anything Else

A dialogue between Sophie Cohen and Lexi Blakes

Sophie: The 2014 West End production of Miss Saigon, originally composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg and written by Schönberg and Alain Boublil, was a successful revival of a well-known classic. However, the musical takes a more narrowed approach in describing Vietnamese life and culture than it should have. In Miss Saigon, there is an American tendency to shape the narrative of the Vietnamese characters through an American cultural perspective. In doing so, the musical puts forth female, Asian stereotypes while catering to American nationalism. So let’s get started!

Lexi: In Kim’s character, many of the stereotypes forced upon Asian women can be observed. She is young and in a desperate situation, one that forces her to live at the will of other people. What sets her apart from the other women in the brothel is her timidity, purity and her status as a virgin. The costume designer opted for a white dress when introducing Kim for the first time, to emphasize how central this trait is to her character. This is ultimately why her love interest, a young American soldier named Chris, falls in love with her and wants her as his wife. At first glance, the story seems sweet; it seems like the birth of love amid war and uncertainty. However, once more attention is put into why Chris was drawn to Kim, it becomes clear that the musical is subtly supporting certain views on the ideal women, and even more in this case, the ideal Asian women.

Sophie: I completely agree. While watching the musical, I noticed how Kim is such a stark contrast to the other women in the brothel because of her status as a virgin (which, by the way, should not be a defining characteristic to introduce a character, but here we are). We then see women like Gigi, who use their more seductive sides–hinted at by her use of red lipstick and significantly less clothing–to make money and try to find someone who will take them to America. Side note, America being part of these women’s dreams emphasizes America’s “greatness”, but we’ll discuss that later. Both Gigi and Kim are Vietnamese, so what separates them in this movie and makes Chris more attracted to Kim? Kim’s a young virgin from a foreign land who does not know what she’s doing, while Gigi knows exactly what she wants and actively tries to escape her current situation. 

Lexi: For the sake of assuming the best, let’s assume that what took place between Chris and Kim really was true love. Regardless, the characterization of Kim after their time together is still problematic. Once she meets Chris, her identity is framed as an extension of him. She had no real interest in moving to America before, but suddenly, she is completely okay with leaving her home with a man she met only nights before. The internal struggle she must have experienced when having to decide to move to a new place, even if her home was deep in war, is not portrayed, and instead, the writers opted for a more simplified version of Kim who now revolves her life only around Chris. For her situation, this is understandable, but what is not understandable is the almost reduction of the aspects of her own culture, compared to the other girls in the brothel. She becomes entirely obedient, and almost pliable to Chris’s beliefs. 

Sophie: So, what does this have to do with race? This scene shows that America is more attracted to the gentle, foreign Vietnamese woman rather than the more independent and headstrong one. Asian women are objectified by the Americans in this show: one who is pure is much more acceptable than the Asian woman who is not pure. In Miss Saigon, being a virgin from a foreign land is objectively “better” because it’s more malleable in the eyes of America.

Lexi: Let’s transition to the other main character: Chris. I think we can both agree that we share a great indifference toward Chris. Personally, I didn’t exactly hate his character, but I didn’t necessarily like him either. Throughout the entire musical, there was a constant nagging feeling in the back of my mind that was whispering “are we supposed to feel sorry for him the entire time?”. I felt empathy when he was forced to leave Kim behind, but after that, it faded in every passing scene. 

Sophie: Absolutely. My sympathy for him really faded when Kim’s agency of power became more about furthering Chris’s plotline. Here’s what I don’t understand: Kim’s suicide is supposed to be a powerful moment for Kim. I mean, she takes her own life so that her child can live a better one in America. That takes unconditional love, bravery, and a huge acceptance of fate. So why is her death so focused on Chris’s cries and sadness? Why does she have to die in his arms, the arms of a man who is partially responsible for her death? It’s because under the American narrative that this story is told, the writers want the audience to feel sympathetic for him. 

Lexi: I think, if anything, I have a real issue with what Chris represented. In terms of the narrative that is being presented, it seems as though it is done without neutral delivery. It caters toward the American perspective, instead of maintaining neutrality. 

Sophie: Exactly, more attention is paid to the American who lost his love rather than the suicide of the Vietnamese main character; “Oh, he lost the love of his life from three years ago who he has nightmares about”; “Oh, now he’ll be reminded about her every time he looks at their child back in America”. No! Not enough attention is directed towards the struggles Kim had to go through for three years without any support. Therefore, her suicide should be about her and her ability to fully exercise her agency and save her son. Kim’s life, and especially her suicide, is shaped by other people (ahem… Chris) who have the ability to control her fate. Instead of her death being an agent of power and determination, as assumed in “I’d Give My Life For You”, she is instead an agent of sympathy for Americans and the narrative is transformed into “Oh no, Kim died!, what does this mean for Chris?”. The tragedies that took place in Vietnam at the time are being used to convince the audience that we should feel bad for these poor Americans.

Lexi: I think the portrayal of Kim’s suicide reinforces how much the musical caters to the American perspective, and the Ameircan characters, more often than not. The musical definitely does a good job in portraying the struggle that took place in Vietnam–the scene with the citizens banging on the gate to the U.S Embassy really showcases this pain–but I think the fact that this is primarily due to American action should be mentioned. Many of the character’s primary drive is to go to America, but I think the complexity behind this is ignored. They want to move to America because they want to escape war, not because moving to America is a dream they have always had. Once again the idea that the white man always deserves our sympathy is suggested. I think the fact that Chris had a home to return to, while the Vietnamese people’s home remained war-torn, is a significant difference that warrants thought and recognition. 

Sophie: Moving on from our least favorite character, the Engineer was my favorite character in Miss Saigon. He has a complex backstory and an interesting perspective. But neither of these defines him, as the musical glosses over this complexity to instead focus on his obsession with America. His whole character and personality is defined by his strong desire to go to America. 

Lexi: I felt the same about the problematic-ness of the Engineer’s characterization. Does every American production need to scream “I’m proud to be an American and a part of the American dream?”. In his big song “The American Dream”, an inaccurate portrayal of the American dream is created. The stage gets filled with showgirls, a fancy car and money. In regards to how much race and ethnicity affects one’s opportunities within this country, the American dream is a fallacy to a certain extent and isn’t achieved by everyone. It is a winning lottery ticket that not everyone can get, no matter how smart you are or how hard you work. Honestly, while having this in mind while watching this number, it really made me sad. The Engineer is so hopeful for a bright future and the lyrics glaze over the hard work it takes to make a life for oneself in a new place. The lyrics don’t inspire pride within me, as the Engineer sings about learning that “you can sell sh*t and get thanks”, which he “learned from the Yanks”, and how greed is a large part of American business culture.

Sophie: And even despite knowing about issues in American culture, the song still implies that America is the best. He is the main messenger of the idea that American is better than Asian. I mean, he’s completely disconnected from any Asian identity. We only know him as the Engineer, and though his Vietnamese name was mentioned by Thuy, it is pretty easily forgotten. Is this his way of disconnecting himself from any Asian identity because he wants to embrace a “better” American one instead? Yes, yes it is. And let’s not forget about his defining moment and return to the 11 O’clock number all about “The American Dream”. The showstopper number is pretty much a Vietnamese man singing about leaving behind his Vietnamese identity to move to America and adopt a new one. 

Lexi: If anything, this song feels like a social commentary, and a satire of die-hard Americans who are blind to the destruction we as a nation have caused in the past. Going from scenes of great sadness and despair in Vietnam to this huge 11 O’Clock number centered around American greatness is a far way away from the emotional, thought provoking ballads that took place earlier in the musical.

Sophie: This reminds me of the song “If You Wanna Die in Bed”, which is sung earlier in the musical, which highlights the economic and racial differences between Vietnam and America. One lyric states “why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice and hates entrepreneurs?”. This is a derogatory oversimplification of Vietnamese culture that I am not in favor of. The assumption that anything not valued in American culture is seen as “primitive”, like agriculture or growing rice for instance, and “undeserving of appreciation”. On a global racial front, this suggests that anything besides American or European is “inferior”, thus connecting to a wider issue of racism especially toward Asian countries.

Lexi:  In the end, I think what both songs missed is that the Engineer doesn’t want to be American. He just wants to be free from his burdens and be given opportunities; if he could do that as a Vietnamese man in Vietnam, I think he would choose that over Americanization.

Sophie: Miss Saigon is a complex piece of American theater that people love to hate. In it, many complexities surrounding race and ethnicity are explored in a way that negates Vietnamese culture and makes America more important. Through the unique characters and difficult subject matter, audience members get the opportunity to empathize, reflect, and witness the aftermath of war, and the pain and suffering it causes. Regardless of whether it is a personal favorite, over the course of this discussion, we have proven that it is still worth analysis and deep thought. The issues this musical brings up are contemporary and pressing. More discussion about diversity between cultures and the interactions between them should be known. Miss Saigon provides its viewers the opportunity to witness the interaction of two different cultures, while getting a better understanding of how shared experiences create even more similarities and differences between them, and in this case, how one culture overpowers another.

Fiddler on the Roof: How Ethnicity Molds Identity

A conversation with Natalie Vitols and Dylan Potthoff

Dylan Potthoff: Hey everyone! Today, Natalie and I will be discussing the 1971 production Fiddler on the Roof, a film musical written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, lyrics by Bock, and produced by Norman Jewison. This musical (brought to us through the power of Netflix), follows a Jewish peasant (Tevye) through the process of marrying off his three Jewish daughters within a small village in pre-revolutionary Russia. Here, we see that this predominantly Jewish town thrives on order; men must learn a specialty, women must be assigned a husband, and religious practices must be strictly followed. However, as time progresses, we begin to see how these predetermined regulations and power structures sway and bend, resulting in changing perspectives and ideas that serve as a benefit to many of the main characters. In essence, Natalie and I will be examining how the portrayal of ethnicity in Fiddler on the Roof both constructs and inhibits the growth of a personalized identity.

DP: Natalie, I’ll start by asking you a question. What does this musical mean to you, and how do you think certain characters are inhibited?

Natalie Vitols: I really enjoyed this musical and in particular appreciated how Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava were able to go against the sexist ideals pushed on them and follow their own path in who they chose to marry. It is clear how these women were inhibited by their background in the number “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”. Here, Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava sing about the realities of being young Jewish women of this time being set up with their husbands by a matchmaker. At the beginning of the song the younger girls yearn for a good match and are choreographed looking off into the distance and smiling while dancing and folding laundry, showing the dreamy hopefulness they have. However, Tzeitel reminds them that since they are poor, they must accept whatever match Yente brings for them. Rosalind Harris does a great job of portraying Tzeitel as the pragmatic older sister by having a less dream-like voice and also joking around imitating Yente. By the end of the number, we see that the sisters are wary of who their matches may be as they sing looking straight into the camera “It’s not that I’m sentimental it’s just that I’m terrified” showing how they have little control over their future and are scared of what man they will be forced to marry. This number particularly shows how the culture that the family lives in is very limiting and constrains women to a life with little to no freedom. While ethnicity can be a positive part of one’s experience and identity it can also limit people in the life they are able to live. It is clear in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” that Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava’s ethnic background has sexist ideals that unfortunately make them fear the life that they may be forced to live, married to a man that they do not know and do not love. 

DP: That’s a really good point; the gender-bound ethnic constructs certainly provide an objectified portrayal of Jewish women (incomplete without a husband), while also eliminating the sisters’ sense of free will and choice. I get the sense that these women are figuratively (and literally) trapped from birth.

NV: Yes, and this number helps the audience understand the limitations of the culture shown in the show. While the characters Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava show the restriction of their Jewish culture, how do you think Tevye represents being a Jewish man in his community?

DP: I strongly believe that Tevye embodies what it means to practice Orthodox Judaism. At the same time, however, he also reflects a degree of open-mindedness as a result of the ever-changing world around him. As a byproduct, he (in certain instances) imagines an alternate universe where he isn’t confined to his role within the Jewish village. Specifically, the production number “If I Were a Rich Man” temporarily demonstrates Tevye’s artificial sense of pride and power. Topol begins this number by softly singing without instrumental accompaniment, illustrating just how far-fetched and weak his dream to become rich really is. This lack of general confidence and poise is also demonstrated through choreography at the beginning of the number, as Tevye continues with his laborious duties (loading hay into the horse stable). However, Tevye continually becomes more engrossed in this dreamlike fantasy, giving the character a sense of artificial power. This is first demonstrated when Topol throws his hands in the air with the words “I’d build a big, tall house”. With the word “big” specifically, the tempo for the number locks in, and the instrumentation becomes more diverse, numerous, and present. Tevye’s sense of fantastical power/liberty reaches its peak at several points within the number, as Topol furiously waves his hands in the air and shakes his body; the background music also reaches its peak volume. Here, Tevye completely loses his sense of reality; he immerses himself in his power fantasy, demonstrated by his aggressive dancing, a full instrumental background, and his loud, rich vocal contribution. New instruments are presented, including flutes, bassoon, and trumpets, differing from the traditional instrumentation of Jewish Klezmer music. It almost seems increasingly westernized.

NV: That’s how I perceived Bock’s shift in instrumentation. At specific points where Tevye feels powerful, the accented trumpets synchronize with his footsteps, giving the music a march-like effect commonly associated with Western military bands.

DP: Exactly, I think the music conveys that Western assimilation (and digression from ethnic tradition) helps to break individual limitations. In one instance, Tevye exclaims that the most important men in town will “fawn on me” as his arms are lifted widely in the air, and the orchestral accompaniment aggressively matches their note lengths with his syllabic delivery. Here, Tevye wishes to exude control over other people; the camera angle (which is below Tevye) adds to the notion of belittlement of other men. Through these moments of singing and dancing, we begin to understand that Tevye feels condemned/restricted by his socioeconomic status; he concludes that wealth will solve his problems, grow his confidence, and allow him to exemplify the man that he believes he is meant to be. Moreover, Tevye demonstrates how he feels confined by his trade and intellect; as a product of Jewish ethnic tradition; Tevye was “destined” to be nothing more than an illiterate dairy farmer. In a sense, Tevye’s circumstance is a product of such a system, yet he craves/yearns to become more of himself.

NV: “If I Were a Rich Man” is a great number and gives the viewer insight into how Tevye is held back by his life and tradition and wishes for more. While it is a fun and entertaining song it definitely has some deeper meaning behind it. 

DP: Right, and although Tevye is undoubtedly one of the more tolerant people in the village, he still has limits. As a man devoted to his religion, there are some changes that he cannot allow himself to accept. Everyone has a line that they cannot cross, right?

NV: Yes, we see how ethnicity can inhibit one through Tevye’s reaction to Chava marrying Fyedka. I think that it was very strong of Chava to follow her heart and marry Fyedka even though he is not Jewish, but Tevye does not feel that way. It is clear that Tevye loves Chava particularly in the song “Chavaleh” where he sings about how sweet and wonderful of a child she was. However, this love for his daughter is not enough for him to accept that she has married someone outside of their culture. We see Tevye having an internal debate about whether he should deny everything he believes in and embrace Chava and Fyedka or if he should deny his daughter and stay true to tradition. He determines that he cannot turn his back on his faith and his people and chooses to abandon his own daughter. Chava tries to speak with Tevye and reason with him but he replies by aggressively screaming “No, Chava, no!” at her as she pleads with him. As he walks away, Chava sobs with her head in her hands, showing how hurt she is that her father will not accept her. This scene takes place with wide empty fields in the background, which I think is a great design choice showing the isolation that Chava feels now that she is no longer accepted in her family and culture. It is upsetting to see that Tevye prioritizes strict religious and cultural traditions over his own family in this situation. While it is great that ethnicity and religion can bring community and belonging to people, it can also result in isolation and heartache to those who do not fit the mold. I think that this instance in Fiddler on the Roof can resonate with many people who are not accepted by their families because they do not conform to their values. Particularly, I think this situation with Chava and Tevye parallels the experience of many LGBTQ+ people who are not accepted by their families because their religion does not support same-sex relationships. I think that people should always value the love of their family over all else and it is upsetting when families disown their children because of who they love. This theme in Fiddler on the Roof is prominent in the setting of the story but is also very applicable in modern society. 

DP: That’s a really interesting point; although exemplified through ethnicity in this musical, people of today are still bound by the collective norms of the past. Some scenes within the musical attempt to reflect a rise in individualistic expression (breaking the “mold”) within the ethnic community, yet the group’s collective identity holds them back. This can be seen towards the end of the wedding scene in Act 1. Traditional to these religious weddings, it’s a sin to dance with the opposite sex. As Perchik, the forward-thinking “radical” among the community, offers his hand to Hodel, the community is both appalled and flabbergasted; never before had they considered the notion of choosing one’s partner. Tevye, the most sympathetic and open-minded of the Jewish community, then chooses to dance with his wife, as the rabbi mentioned such actions were not strictly prohibited; the rabbi even agrees to share a dance with Hodel as they “hold hands” together through a handkerchief. As the community begins to accept this practice, there is quite a dramatic shift in the musical background. In particular, Jerry Bock’s music adopts a significant accelerando; the melody played by the violin becomes increasingly disjunct, shrill, and explosive. This shift parallels the increase in self-expressionism through the dance; the rabbi furiously shakes his hands in the air (to the point where I first thought he was having a seizure); he (almost) physically cannot handle this revelation of personal freedom. However, this brief hiatus of bending ethnic regulations ends as the Russians ride into the village, performing a “demonstration” (also referred to as a pogrom) by destroying property and personal possessions. Once again, the religious common denominator overshadows self-expression and identity, further establishing the group’s inferiority within society. 

NV: One thing that I found particularly interesting about the wedding scene was how shocked everyone was when Perchik proposed a dance but how welcoming they were of the idea when the rabbi said it was not a sin. In this instance, you can see how much the community relies on rules and the verdict of their rabbi, as they were only willing to participate in the dancing if the rabbi confirmed that it was acceptable. 

DP: To add to that, Tevye even directly acknowledges the importance of ethnic tradition/rules through his description of his dream to Golde. Attempting to convince her that Motel Kamzoil is the perfect husband for their daughter, he details how both Golde’s grandmother Tzeitel and Fruma-Sarah, Lazar Wolf’s late wife, are strongly opposed to the idea of Tzeitel and Wolf’s marriage. This completely changes Golde’s perception, illustrating once again just how much the influence of the past affects the direction of the future. Even the production design, consisting of an eerie graveyard, ghost-like clothing, and copious amounts of cobwebs, parallel the aged and mystical nature of their ethnic tradition. In a sense, Tzeitel’s ability to marry Motel is determined by the past; her sense of individuality (in marrying whom she chooses) is undercut by the approval of those whose opinions are deemed important. Personally, I don’t think I have ever been required to adhere to such a strict and group-oriented set of regulations (at least not within the past several years). My ability to choose for myself has allowed me to create my personalized identity, granting me a degree of freedom and uniqueness unaccustomed to those practicing Orthodox Judaism within this musical.

NV: I feel the same way! I have never been held back by such firm rules or have been a part of a strict group or community. I feel very lucky to have the ability to form my own identity and live with so many freedoms. 

DP: Me too! I often take this liberty for granted. Well, I really enjoyed discussing this musical with you! You brought up several interesting points, including the daughters’ difficulties with Jewish ethnic tradition as well as the loss of identity through Tevye’s refusal to adhere to drastic traditional changes. Alternatively, I examined the ways in which tradition hinders personalized, independent growth through the implications of societal constructs and collective identity. Ultimately, the lack of progressivism and religious variation condemn this ethnic group to the flaws of past generations. As society advances and places a greater emphasis on independence and a sense of self, the ritualistic practice of ethnic dedication can undermine such developments.

The Wiz Live!: Exploring Representation of Black Women On Stage

In this podcast episode, Grace Allaman, Monica Kain, and Sarah Lu discuss NBC’s 2015 production of The Wiz Live! We argue that although The Wiz was a major step forward for the representation of Black women on stage, the strength of Dorothy’s character can have downsides, and we still need more original stories from Black creators in theatre. Join us for the full conversation!

Miss Saigon: Put Simply, Why?

Miss Saigon is a classic musical that has not only inspired multigenerational adoration, but also millions of dollars in revenues. So why is it that Chloee Spore and Star Matthew hate it so much (and, perhaps, why should you too?)

Join us in conversation concerning why Miss Saigon was created, why it continues to be performed, and why neither of these things should be acceptable with full cognizance of the complexity of race.

Coming to You Live: The Wiz Live! Black Culture Released

By Chelsie Hall and Bella LaChance

Premiering live on NBC in 2015, The Wiz Live! is a new, adapted performance of the original Broadway musical in 1975. It was produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. The Wiz Live! presents the blues, soul, and R&B in a set of musical performances. The story of The Wiz Live! is not extremely different from The Wiz!, but it has a more urban cast and setting to it. This version of the musical was so important because of the Black cast that it had, including Mary J. Blige and Queen Latifah. Compared to the Wizard of Oz, The Wiz Live! has culturally brought together so many families. Children, teenagers, and adults all enjoyed the more upbeat version of Dorothy finding the Wiz. Through the dialogue, dancing, and singing, Black culture was thoroughly represented during the whole production of The Wiz Live! 

Bella LaChance (BL) is a freshman who is looking into majoring in Human Organizational Development or Communications. She currently is living in Nashville and is playing basketball throughout her academic career at Vanderbilt. 

Chelsie Hall (CH) is a senior, who will be graduating this spring. She majored in Human Organizational Development and had an amazing basketball career at Vanderbilt. Chelsie is taking her talents to Louisville to complete her graduate degree. 

On a beautiful Sunday morning on April 11th, Chelsie Hall and Bella LaChance came together to describe and talk about their love for The Wiz Live! More information about what they thought and analyzed will be presented next! 

BL: Hi Chels! I can ask you the first question about The Wiz Live! What did you think when you watched it for the first time? 

CH: Watching The Wiz Live! for the first time was really entertaining. I had never seen it before so I was excited to watch an all black cast perform. I’m usually not the biggest musical fan because of all the singing but I really enjoyed all the singing and dancing while watching The Wiz Live! And when I looked up the cast, I got even more excited to see that Ne-Yo and Queen Latifah were in it. The musical did not disappoint. From song to song, I was ready to get up and start dancing. I could listen to them all day and for once I wasn’t frustrated with hearing a song every 5 minutes. Was this your first time watching it too or have you seen it already?

BL: I totally agree with you on your analysis of the show! This was my first time watching it and I loved it! I thought it was way better than the normal Wizard of Oz. Funny story actually. When I was younger, I saw the Wizard of Oz in Canada and I fell asleep watching. Throughout this musical, I was singing and bobbing my head to all of the different songs. They were great dancers also, which is way more entertaining than usual musicals. I feel like in other musicals the performers are sometimes off beat. The most special thing about this musical was how authentic and real it was. How did you think this play portrayed black representation? 

CH: The dancing was actually insane!! I mean I feel like I can dance a little bit but definitely not as good as them. To have an all black cast, there is obviously black representation. I really enjoyed the way this musical showcased Black culture and how talented we can really be. It’s really encouraging to see Black talent solely being displayed especially in a positive light. I feel like the producers, Meron and Zadan, knew how important this musical was going to be for the culture and they wanted to make sure they represented the Black community in a positive light. It really helps when the producers and creative team understand the culture and really make an effort to display the uniqueness of it. You can tell how much effort they put into the casting, the costumes, and even the sound and lights. Black culture is represented everywhere in the musical. Also, the musical not only showed Black excellence but also showed social progress. Dorothy being an intelligent, caring, and charismatic, young woman who was not afraid to say what she believed and would hold everyone around her accountable, represented feminism. While also having the Wiz be a gender-bending character showing the Queer culture being openly embraced on stage. 

BL: I mean yes you and I both know you can dance more than just a little bit. I also focused on the Black representation in a positive light. It did feel so refreshing to see all the smiles and passion being put into this production by such special characters. I love your mention of the gender-bending character as well. Most musicals or entertainment businesses would be scared to put out characters who are not the normal gender stereotype. The Wiz Live! really checks all of the boxes regarding inclusion of Black culture and gender-bending characters. People who watch this musical will feel involved and accepted, which also brings more viewers to the show. That really was a great point that you brought up!  

CH: For a Black queer woman like myself, the Wiz being gender-bending was something really cool to see! I was actually confused at first because I knew Queen Latifah was supposed to be the Wiz and when she came out, I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be male or female. So, I did a little bit of research and realized that they actually did it on purpose. And I also learned that during the scene that Dorothy and her crew get let into Emerald City, the choreographer, Fatima Robinson, paid tribute to the art of Vogue which is a style of dance that begun in the Black queer ballroom in the 1980s.


BL: Wow I had no clue about the connection to Vogue! That makes me love this musical even more! I love that gif too. Speaking of dancing, what is your favorite dance number in the musical? Mine is “Ease on Down the Road.” The stage was set up incredibly, especially during the Flower scene where “Ease on Down the Road” was sung. It featured several other characters that were picked up by Dorothy throughout the song. As soon as the song begins, you can tell there is an R&B, soul, and blues spin on it. The lyrics within this song were very fitting to the rest of the musical. For example, when they sang, “Come on, ease on down, ease on down the road,” the repetition of the lyrics stuck in viewers’ heads for days. I was singing “Ease on down the road,” for like three days after I watched the musical. This updated version of the song “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” keeps the listener and watcher entertained because of the continuous changes of beats throughout the number. The tempo was more upbeat and fast paced compared to the original Wizard of Oz. The dance moves were on beat and filled with rhythm throughout the entirety of the number. There were a lot of stepping and hand movements that changed as the beat would drop. I mean look at the gif of the tin man dancing! 

CH: I think we can both agree that Ne-Yo did not disappoint as Tin Man, not only was his singing amazing but his dance moves were always on point. My favorite dance number would have to be “You Can’t Win.” At first it seems like it’s going to be a sad song because Scarecrow is trapped by the Crows but as the song starts to play, you hear the up-beat tempo. From the trumpets to the crows dancing, it makes this “negative” song seem fun. I enjoyed watching the crows flip around the stage and my favorite part was when Scarecrow started to buss a move. He was able to finally get down from the pole he was on and he was able to show off some of his moves. With the dark lighting and black costumes of the Crows, Scarecrow sticks out even more with his yellow undertones.  It was a really fun performance to watch, and it made me want to get up and start dancing too. And let me show off Scarecrow real quick. 


BL: Okay okay you win for sure with Scarecrow dancing. I loved the analysis we had talking about The Wiz Live! I hope we can work together again soon Chels! 

CH: So glad we got to talk about this amazing musical! 

After finishing the discussion, Chelsie and Bella were able to discuss the different tactics used by the writers and everyone involved with this musical to show Black representation through entertainment. Black Culture was highlighted throughout every costume, dance number, and song that was sung. More musicals like this in the entertainment business must be portrayed for everyone to see and love!

“You Wouldn’t Stab a Child!”: A Discussion on Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Miss Saigon

A conversation between Paige Adams, Liv Donofrio, and Valerie Kraft on the 2014 revival of Miss Saigon.

Liv Donofrio: Okay, so we’re here to talk about the 2014 West End Revival of Miss Saigon, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr., and produced by Cameron Mackintosh. We’re probably also going to talk a lot of trash about Miss Saigon (laughs). Specifically, we’re going to discuss how the show uses people of color, specifically Vietnamese  individuals, as props to idolize whiteness. Essentially, we’ll be discussing the ways in which Miss Saigon weaponizes racism and sexism to uphold the supremacy of a white and patriarchal America.

LD: So I guess we can start by talking about, at least I am very interested in talking about, the American soldiers and the way that they are portrayed in the musical. Specifically how they are kind of seen as the standard of masculinity, especially with the entire plot revolving around this dichotomy of Chris (played by Alistair Brammer in the 2014 production)  versus Thuy (played by Kwang-Ho Hong)  as Kim’s only options. Because then it feels like what the musical wants us to do is see Thuy, who represents basically Vietnamese culture, as the villain. They want us to see him as like, the worst person ever. And like to be fair, he does try to stab a four year old, but it feels to me that the reason they’ve set up this dichotomy between Chris and Thuy is because they’re attempting to assert that the ideal is whiteness. She should be with this white man because this is the ideal is this white man, and they’re then implying with Thuy as the villain that her culture is bad, and Vietnam is bad, and so like what the musical wants is for us to root for and defend Chris, this white American soldier.

Valerie Kraft: Absolutely! The musical spends so much time building up sympathy for Chris, even from the very beginning. In the first songs of the musical, we see all the other soldiers in his troop completely happy to buy prostitutes, and yet, Chris is abstaining because he’s just so morally superior. And I think one of the biggest examples I can think of for the way in which we are supposed to see these American soldiers as completely forgivable, no matter what crimes and awful acts they commit, is through the character of John Thomas (played by Hugh Maynard). In the first minutes of the musical, we see him acting in a sexually aggressive manner towards these women who are unable to give genuine consent.

Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi and Hugh Maynard as John during “The Heat is On In Saigon”

VK: He literally purchases Kim (played by Eva Noblezada) for Chris, as if she is an object. And then in the opening number of the second act, “Bui Doi,” we see John running his new organization, and he spends the rest of the musical being this “hero” and kind man who is just so devoted to righting the wrongs of the war and “saving” these children from poverty and orphanhood. And in contrast, we don’t get any kind of redemption arc for anyone of Vietnamese descent – we hardly get any sort of sympathy for, you know, the hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese people that were left behind after the American evacuation, and yet they’ve spent so much time building up empathy for these men who have really done nothing to deserve any of the audience’s support.

Paige Adams: Yeah, I agree! And to go off of the soldier aspect that you introduced… These boys are leaving their families to go “make right” while they’re doing wrong (sometimes starting families accidentally with prostitutes- Yikes) but just like you said, Valerie, it’s okay because “boys will be boys.” Their behavior is excusable when it shouldn’t be, all while female behavior is not only not excused but also criticized. We’re looking at the prostitutes in such a harsh light without considering or focusing on what circumstances led them to that. Instead, we’re told that Gigi is unwanted because she’s considered to be a “slut,” but Kim is desirable because of her sexual purity. Meanwhile, these boys are doing God knows what to God knows who, and they’re totally offed from criticism and consequence in a way that women were (and still are) not excused from. There’s no double standard.

Kim, played by Eva Noblezada, during “The Heat is On In Saigon”

LD: Like Valerie was talking about, I think there’s also something to be said for the way that the musical gives us little sympathy for the Vietnamese people who get left behind. The only inkling that we get of that is in “Fall of Saigon,” like that very gratuitous scene of all of them falling to their knees and the camera panning over their faces over and over again. It’s like two to three minutes of these people being in anguish for our viewership, and like that is a real thing that happened to real people. To me, putting that on stage for so long and like really hammering that home the way that they do, especially considering that the fact this musical was written by two white men, feels to me more like trauma porn for American audiences than it does an accurate representation of what Vietnamese people were going through. So then it makes me really suspicious about how this musical is representing Vietnam and Vietnamese culture. And again, the way that they’re villainizing Thuy and upholding Chris, who has done nothing to deserve it.

A terrible screencap of “The Fall of Saigon”

LD: I also think there’s something to be said about the way that they cast Chris and John. It feels wrong that Chris has to be a white man. We talked about this when we were reading for this section, but the way that Broadway just does not do racially diverse casting at all, and if they do like they default to white roles. It feels like they’ve defaulted to a white role for Chris, and so they put John in this supporting role. But they also put John in a supporting role that is a sexually aggressive supporting role, so at the beginning in “The Heat is On In Saigon,” it felt very much like they were playing into racist stereotypes of Black men as being sexually aggressive. And so there’s another layer to racial representation in Miss Saigon that comes from the casting that I think was completely unacceptable. There’s no reason why Chris has to be white, but Chris is white because the musical is trying to tell us that white masculinity is the standard that we should be rooting for.

VK: Liv, I think that’s a great point, and I think when you talk about trauma porn, that speaks to the ending as well. The bottom, unspoken, line of the musical is that Kim was never going to get her happy ending because she is a Vietnamese prostitute. And even though that is not necessarily explicit from the beginning, knowing what we know about who is allowed to “win” and who is allowed to have a happy ending in stories that are written by Americans – and in stories that are written by white men – it wasn’t going to be Kim. So despite the fact that Chris’ wife, Ellen, (played by Tamsin Carroll) doesn’t do anything other than glorify Chris, it’s not an accident that she is the one that “wins” Chris in the end. And even when Kim’s dream of a happy ending is ripped from her, the musical shifts the audience’s focus from Kim to Chris in those final moments. It’s not solely because we see Kim’s dead body on stage that we feel grief – we’re feeling grief because of Chris’s reaction to her.

Another terrible screencap in which Chris is the camera (and audience’s) focus during Kim’s death

VK: Once again, even in her death, the feelings of white Americans are emphasized over the loss of a Vietnamese woman. Kim is sidelined, and Chris’s feelings are given priority, despite the fact that he was the one that abandoned her. In fact, anything that’s related to Kim always somehow goes back to Chris, which, once again, upholds the idea that white emotion is the most important, and thus, it is the white man who is the most important of all the characters. Whether it be John, a black man, or whether it be Kim and the other prostitutes who are Vietnamese women – they solely exist just to move Chris’s plot forward. It’s not about them or their experiences whatsoever.

PA: And strictly addressing the Vietnamese-American issue, whiteness is idolized to the point of suicide. It’s terrible because at the end, we are ‘taught’ that it’s better to be dead than to be Vietnamese. Our takeaways are that the victims are Vietnamese women, and the villains are Vietnamese men, and the Americans just sit back and reap the benefits of being considered the ideal. The Vietnamese struggle is downplayed by the emphatic greatness of being white and American. Kim would rather be dead than be Vietnamese (specifically non-American), and this is exactly what the white, patriarchal, American audience wants to hear.

LD: I think we also see that idolization of whiteness and that idolization of America in The Engineer (played by Jon Jon Briones)  a lot as well, like his entire plotline, is just he wants to get to America. And like, there’s another aspect that he wants to get to America specifically by exploiting women. I think we could honestly write a whole other essay on the Engineer, and we could probably write an essay just on “The American Dream” as a number, but we’ll touch on it a bit here.

Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer during Miss Saigon’s production number, “The American Dream”

LD: I’m honestly not sure if it’s placement in Act Two is ironic or not. I’m not sure if the musical is attempting to critique itself. While I was watching it, I had a little bit of like, “Oh, this is a little ironic that he’s talking about the American dream when we know that the American dream is literally crumbling for Kim in front of her eyes.”  So maybe that was the musical’s attempt to make an actual critique about American involvement in the Vietnam War. But what I think when you step back, what we take away is that the Engineer was obsessed with being American. He was obsessed with coming to America and it’s once again it’s this demonization of being in Vietnam, it’s calling the Bui Doi “raised in hell,” it’s pitting Vietnam against America and painting Vietnam as a place of “hell” without acknowledging the way in which American involvement made it worse. The only acknowledgement that we get of that is talking about the Bui Doi, but again, that is more of a plot point for Chris to establish that John is going to find Tam and not an actual critique of these American soldiers and their actions abroad.

VK: I think one of the best examples we get about the way that America and whiteness are shown as superior to Vietnam and “Asianess” is Thuy versus Chris, because essentially those are Kim’s two options. She can either go with Chris, she can go with Thuy, or she can die, which is what ultimately happens. And Chris – and let’s not beat around the bush here. Let’s call it what it is. Kim was bought for Chris. Kim is underage. Chris literally raped her – Chris is still painted as “the good guy.” Oh, he’s just so kind, he’s going to take care of her, he’s gentle, he’s not like the other soldiers. And in contrast, we get this villainization of Thuy. As we learn in “Thuy’s Arrival,” Thuy betrayed Kim by siding with the communists and abandoning her. We see Thuy act violent and crazed, and like Liv mentions, even willing to kill a child just to have Kim as his wife. And of course, this violence and attempted murder is horrible, but I feel like this is a very intentional dichotomy that the musical writers set up. It would be one thing if Thuy was Kim’s childhood best friend and she simply just didn’t love him the way she loved Chris. But to continuously make Thuy the villain, and in the same vein, gloss over all of the reasons that Chris is a terrible person seems to further emphasize that white soldiers are “good” and the Vietnamese characters are “bad.” Because it’s something that is highlighted over and over with Thuy – and perhaps even with his ties to communism, which has historically been villainized and portrayed as the most “un-american” ideology possible. And this dichotomy of “white/good” and Vietnamese/bad” is even further exemplified by the character of The Engineer. The Engineer profits off of the sexual abuse of women, and the American troops are not only complict in this, but active participants. Yet, only The Engineer spends the production being characterized as sleazy, whereas the American soldiers – who literally rape these women – very quickly are absolved of this and spend the second act of the musical portrayed as respectable Americans that have bravely fought for their country. Even John, who is shown as the epitome of sexual aggression and sexism in Act 1 is polished and refined in Act 2, an honest man in a clean suit working hard at his organization, completely absolved of his violence from before.

PA: It really just further reinstates the problem with depictions and realities of America- to be honest- and the American dream. We all encourage each other to pursue the American dream, but what we don’t discuss is that the pursuing is at the expense of someone else. America is the land of the free at the expense of people’s freedom (even still). It’s the land of opportunity because it took opportunities from others. I’m not sure if Miss Saigon is necessarily critiquing that or satirizing it, or if it’s simply encouraging a realist view that you have to be selfish to not be exploited in American culture, let alone accomplish what you want and achieve the great American dream. And perhaps the attraction to Chris symbolized the attraction to the American dream, despite how problematic it is? (Problematic favorites @ week 1, am I right?!)

LD: I just want to make one final point– I also think we have to recognize that this musical is adapted from source material which has been around forever and is rooted in stereotypes of Orientalism and this American fascination with the “exoticism” of Asian women. And we need to ask ourselves, why? Why is this a story that needed to be revived in 2014? Why did we need to make Madame Butterfly from a play to a musical to an opera, and why did two white men (Boublil and Schönberg) have to do it? Why are they so obsessed with this kind of tragic prostitute story? We saw them do it in Les Mis in “I Dreamed a Dream,” and there’s major parallels between “I Dreamed a Dream” and “The Music in My Mind.” Why is this? Why is this a story that we keep repeating when it is so obviously rooted in American imperialism?

The Power of Black Excellence in a Musical Production

a conversation with Mya Swinton and Dylan Disu

The Wiz Live! is a new adaption of The Wiz, a 1975 Broadway musical that utilized the talents of Black cast members to retell the classic Wizard of Oz story. Adapted for television in 2015 by NBC, The Wiz Live! recounts the story of Dorothy, Lion, Tinman, and Scarecrow along the yellow brick road to see The Wiz in Emerald City. Despite challenges along the way (THE EVIL WITCH OF THE WEST), Dorothy and her comrades eventually find their way and the items they need most in their lives. The production showcases many prominent actors and singers within the black community – Ne-Yo, Queen Latifah, Common, Amber Riley, and the QUEEN HERSELF Mary J. Blige (Mya’s personal favorite!!!). Assembled with danceable production numbers, singable songs, and a star-studded cast, The Wiz Live! leaves audiences with a timeless production that will be cherished forever by the black community. 

On a warm April afternoon, Mya Swinton and Dylan Disu met via a zoom link to discuss The Wiz Live! and to analyze how it provoked a variety of responses about the representation of race within a musical production. Although this conversation would never take place outside of this class, Mya and Dylan both enjoyed meeting each other and exchanging views. 

Some background  before we begin…

  • Dylan Disu (DD) is a sophomore studying Human and Organizational Development from Texas. He is a student-athlete and plays men’s basketball for Vanderbilt University. 
  • Mya Swinton (MS) is a freshman studying Human and Organizational Development from Florida. She is a student-athlete as well and plays for the women’s soccer team at Vanderbilt University. 

Let’s begin!

DD: Why was this production important to you?

MS: Throughout this course we have not been exposed to many musical productions that have a significant amount of black people in them. I think it was really important that Dr. Essin provided us the opportunity to view The Wiz Live! because it allowed me to actually see someone that looked similar to me. Although Dorothy can be innocent at times, it’s really cool to see her being a strong, bad-ass black woman when she needs to be. I love how encouraging she is, and how she steps up for people when they need her the most. Also, can we just take a moment to acknowledge that she killed two people in the span of 3 days. Anyways, I digress… Besides the movie musical Annie, I cannot really remember how many musical productions portray young, black female leads. That is really astonishing to me because we have such a large population of BLACK GIRLS who NEED to see themselves on television, movies, and other media outlets! Also, I just want to credit the producers of the musical because they decided to change the narrative on OZ’s character. It was awesome seeing Queen Latifah’s character (Mr. Oz) turn into a Ms. Oz, and I think it speaks to how women can play larger roles in big productions. I genuinely believe that representation matters and The Wiz Live! did a great job showcasing that.

DD: Yeah, I definitely agree with your point Mya. I am glad that you got to see yourself represented within this production. For me, I think what I enjoyed the most was how inclusive it was to the black community. Not only did it include cast members that I know of – Ne-Yo and Amber Riley – but even cast members that pertained to older audiences- Common, Queen Latifah, and Mary J. Blige. The main reason this production will be remembered is due to the solidification of black excellence and culture through its cast members. This cast really exemplified what it means to be black, and I think that is the most important thing here. 

DD: What I really want to know is which production number was your favorite and why?

MS: One thing that I really enjoyed throughout this musical was the musicality of the songs. The songs really emphasized black music, especially gospel, blues, R&B, and soul. So, as a die-hard Mary J. Blige fan, I was ecstatic to see that one of America’s GREATEST R&B artists was chosen to play the role of The Wicked Witch of the West and would be singing the number “Don’t Nobody Give Me No Bad News”. This musical number was honestly my favorite because 1) it was hypocritical of her character, 2) it incorporated the basics of gospel music, and 3) it included Mary J. Blige (duh). In response to the hypocritical nature of her character, I think it was intentional of the lyricists because The Wicked Witch of the West usually is the bearer of bad news for the citizens of Oz. Secondly, I enjoyed the number because it used the classic “call and response” used in gospel churches and choirs. For example, after Blige sings “No bad news” in the chorus (call), the background singers sing it back (response). The song also relies heavily on gospel rhythms as well. It provides a tempo that is fast-paced, simple to clap with, and repetitive, creating the perfect mixture that you will definitely be humming/dancing along to. Lastly, Mary J. Blige kills any performance she does, therefore cementing my case in point.  

DD: Wow. Your love for Mary J. Blige is weird. Anyways, I would actually have to disagree that “Don’t Nobody Give Me No Bad News” is the best production number. I think that “Ease On Down the Road” is a better production number because it is the most relied on for the characters throughout their journey to Emerald City. I think it can be classified as a rally cry for the characters in this musical as well. The lyrics throughout the entire song captures what it means to continue fighting even when times are tough. I think most people in general would agree with the overall theme of the song, thus allowing it to be universal and most memorable. Although I agree that Mary J. Blige is an iconic singer, I think that the overall message in this song trumps her any day. 

DD: What did you think of the dialogue in this production?

MS: I actually found the dialogue in this production amazing but not because of what they were saying instead, how they were saying it. I loved the use of AAVE in this production and I know it is something that is small and may be unnoticeable to some but those who use it easily recognize it. Phrases like “don’t nobody bring me no bad news” or “mean ole lion” are sprinkled throughout the production and give a fresh new take on what dialogue can be in the theater. Typically Broadway and the theater world is a space that is predominately white and because of this they cater to this demographic. Meaning, there really is no need to use AAVE or include elements from other cultures and races because they are not watching. I think that if they continued this trend of uplifting black voices the audience will definitely grow and become more diverse.

DD: I agree and I was hoping you picked up on it. I think the use of AAVE in the production was extremely bold of the writers because it is not something we have ever seen in theater. Other than in past adaptations of The Wiz AAVE is not something that has had a place outside of the African American community. Although it has been in movies I think the reason is due to a much more diverse audience than you see on Broadway. Personally, I think the lack of black stories and diversity you talked about when discussing demographics is done to try and prevent others from entering this space that is dominated by white people. That’s why the use of AAVE in the production was so important because it highlighted black voices and what they really sound like. It is such a small thing but it has a huge impact because it is representing Africans Americans and their language in a positive light rather than a negative one. It is so common that kids are told by teachers not to use AAVE in schools and to talk properly and by using AAVE in this production it lets black people and especially kids know it is okay to be yourself, you don’t have to change in order to make it to this stage. 

MS: Yeah, that definitely makes sense and I agree with you about how AAVE is generally frowned upon in school and in the business world. This production was definitely a first step in normalizing not only AAVE but simply being yourself despite what others think. Were there any visual elements that stuck out to you in the production?

DD: Yes, and it caught my eye as soon as the play started and it was how Dorothy was wearing her hair naturally rather than permed/straightened. It is very unique to see African Americans wear their hair naturally in movies and theater because society has deemed it unprofessional. The only acceptable style is something along the lines of straight or wavy which is typically the natural texture of white people. I actually saw on Twitter a couple months back that a young black woman who played a large role in the series high school musical always wore headbands because they had no one on set who could do her hair which is crazy to me because it is not that hard to hire a black hair stylist. So seeing this character wear her natural curls on one of the biggest stages was a huge surprise since it is extremely uncommon.

MS: I agree. I also noticed a ton of other styles in the production like the lion instead of having a crazy mane, he had dreadlocks going down his shoulders which is actually a really clever design if you ask me. You also have Glinda the good witch’s crown of braided hair instead of a blonde wig that has been used in the past. And although it isn’t hair you have the tin man wearing a fitted cap(a staple in the African American community) that is spray painted silver. I think the costume artist did a wonderful job of representing black style and hairstyles and putting them on full display for the audience to appreciate. 

DD: Yeah, I think the hairstyles were just another example of this production creating a representation for young black children who do not see people who look like them onstage often. It lets them know that fairytales can include them too.

MS: Did you notice any differences in choreography for this production versus other productions we’ve seen this year?

DD: This production’s choreography was unlike any other we have seen to this point and it is not even close. Dancing is a huge part of black culture and this choreography team did an amazing job bringing this to the stage. In most other plays you have running and jumping and even tap dancing as the way of dance which to me is not really dance. However, The Wiz Live! does something completely new and fresh, they opted to go newschool and mix some moves that are trending on social media with the stage that is normally pretty vanilla.

MS: I usually hate watching the choreography in plays because it’s always so bland and boring but watching this production I genuinely loved the singing and dancing because it reminded me of a cookout where everyone is just having a good time and enjoying themselves. They had crows in the background doing the nae nae, munchkins hitting the quan, and even the tin man dabbed at one point. All of these dances were made popular by black creatives and it seems they are finally hitting the big stage where they can be appreciated by an even wider audience. I thought it was especially important for black creatives to get their shine because a lot of times black culture is just seen as a trend for others to hop on here and there when it benefits them. Or, like AAVE it begins to sound cool to white people and they begin to take over something they should not much like the last couple years. But, this is our culture and this is who we are, so it was nice to see black people doing black created dances on a stage that was meant to keep them out of the spotlight.

DD: I think these are all great points you are making about the nature of culture more specifically, black culture, being co-opted by other groups which is why I thought this production was an amazing show of black excellence put on by black people. However, I am not sure if we are going to see a whole lot more of this because a lot of people were not happy with an all black cast taking over their space and I think this could cause people to push back against diversity in the theater. I hope that we can continue to see powerful black shows in the future but I think it is going to be tough to see something as black as this production was again. 

______

Overall, the conversation between Mya and Dylan enabled them to look further into the importance of race in musical theater productions and also provided them the opportunity to bond over their shared interest in black excellence in media.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack + Rose (+ huge age gap + no love affair + no boat)

Jack Kelly is a guys’ guy.

Mama Rose is a guys’ girl.

How can a girl be “one of the guys”?

What.

The.

Heck.

And how could I include such a nasty patriarchal phrase in the first three sentences of my post?!?!?!

*crickets*

Same…

But really, Jack (played by Jeremy Jordan in Disney’s 2017 production of Newsies!: The Broadway Musical, directed by Brett Sullivan and Alex Calhoun) and Mama Rose (played by Bette Midler in the 1993 production of Gypsy, directed by Emile Ardolino) have a lot more in common than what meets the eye. Jack is different from the other “newsies,” and Mama Rose is different from the other women- and men. Why? Because they both exude masculinity like their lives depend on it. And not just the boy- being-boys- type of masculinity. But real power, control, leadership, confidence: what it takes to be a man of the men- a true, by-book alpha (*tips hat to society*). They know exactly what they want to accomplish, and they accomplish it by all means necessary- and unnecessary.

This is what I mean:

Girls like him.

And the guys do too- just look at the way they look at him. Jack could be reading a grocery list or giving a social movement speech, and those boys WOULD NOT CARE either way.

Oh, and he man spreads while standing AND sitting.

Here you have it: a dude shrugging at being a dude.

But seriously, Jack is charismatic, independent but loyal, bold, and ready to rally. He’s a leader. He’s got a big heart, but he’s ~ guarded ~ and tough. And it shows in the dance numbers. Notice how Jack isn’t hopping in and flipping around with the other guys? Yeah, that’s for a reason. Instead, he is strong in his step and what they call “stage combat”- not quite dancing or acrobatics- and the effect of the tap shoes (attention-demanding, louder and ‘manlier’ than ballet, etc.) only adds to the emphasis on his confidence in word and act. His steps follow his words which follow his practically inflated chest, emphasizing the importance of his words and giving them a bit of a pump-up background beat with the tap shoes. (I’m sure if you were in the audience, you’d feel the energy of his steps.) Sometimes we see Jack wearing a muscle-exposing tank top with suspenders and dirt smothered all over because guys do physical work, duh, but most times we see him all cleaned up, ready to serve his crew’s union a plate of justice.

We know from his backstory that Jack has had a rough upbringing. He wants to bring a sense of good and accomplishment to his newsboys, so by staying angry, he stays focused. Physically and emotionally, he’s pretty stiff, but if he wants to lead a group of young males into the fight for justice AND be victorious AND be an icon, he needs to. Jack knows he needs to “be a man” to fight for himself and for others. It’s dangerous work, certainly not for the faint-of-heart.

Mama Rose, like Jack, fights for what she wants. The only difference is that her “crew” doesn’t want her to, so she’s more of a self-elected leader than a group-wide-respected one like Jack is. Instead of having her dreams and desires amplified by that of the group, Mama Rose projects hers onto the group (aka her two daughters).

Mama Rose is a woman in charge; she is a not-to-be-messed-with, absolute queen of a character.

She’s wild.

She’s brash.

She’s determined.

She’s unstoppable.

She’s accomplishing and doing.

She is… being masculine.

Being masculine is exactly that- being it, not having it. We talk a lot about how gender is performative, but that’s because it is, or at least the stereotypical characteristics of masculinity are. Do these characteristics “belong” to males? Yes? No? The boys were confident first? I don’t know.   

But regardless, Mama Rose is the perfect example of gender as a performance. Why is she “crazy”? Because she’s relentless, unsilenced, strong, wild-eyed, and ambitious. She’s an absolute hellbender. In a masculine lens, Mama Rose is unwavering, praiseworthy, and hungry to achieve. In a feminine lens, she is desperate, manipulative, threatening, and selfish. Why? Because gender norms. Where a female Rose “forced” Louise into the burlesque number, a male Rose would have “volunteered.”

This is a character that would do anything for her daughters (compared to Jack and his newsies) to have the success she did not. Mama Rose is incredibly desperate to be heard, seen, and appreciated. But she doesn’t get the “thank you for sacrificing everything (including your sanity) for me.” We know how it ends…

In this plot, we see masculinity playing out differently in male and female bodies again: A female wanting appreciation is needy, but a male wanting the same is not respected enough. Jack didn’t need what Mama Rose needed because he had it; he was respected and looked up to and appreciated, but Mama Rose was not. Would she have been if she was more than “being masculine” (like physically a male)? I don’t know. But what I do know is Mama Rose is an atypical woman because of her masculine tendencies and characteristics, and because of her biology, “being masculine” makes her less of a woman. So she’s a successful guy’s girl but appears unsuccessful because she is cRaZy for acting out male characteristics in a female body, and Jack’s a successful guy’s guy who appears successful because he exists in a male body with strong male traits, and this is not the Titanic. Oh, and you can “be masculine” without being a man.

World’s Best Mama

About a month ago on a Friday night, I was introduced to a powerful, fierce, and desperate woman while lying in bed and snacking on some deliciously pre-made popcorn. While cuddled up in my cozy movie watching outfit, I pressed play on my laptop and started to immerse myself in the movie Gypsy.

Were there times were I wanted to fast forward through the movie? Yes. But were their times were I was genuinely MESMERIZED by Bette Midler’s performance as Mama Rose? Also, yes.

A little background for the people in the back who don’t know anything about this movie:  Gypsy is movie musical based on the memoir of the famed burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee. Bette Midler, who actually won a Golden Globe for this performance, stars as Mama Rose, the world’s ultimate stage mom. Chasing fame, Momma Rose is destined to make her two baby girls the biggest stars in Vaudeville… no matter what the cost is. The musical features numerous production numbers that showcase the talents of various cast members including Peter Rieyer and Cynthia Gribb. Although written by playwriter Arthur Laurents in 1959, Emile Ardolino directs the 1993 version into a well-produced film that brings comedy and drama all into one place.

Okay now that everyone’s on the same page, let’s dive into what you came here for.

I think Gypsy allows audiences to engage with the idea of gender and sexuality in a positive way. So many times, we (women) are portrayed as weak minded and willing to do ANYTHING for men, even if that means giving away our biggest hopes and dreams. Although Gypsy doesn’t completely annihilate that entire ideology, we can see that women in this movie have a stronger role of being ambitious, unique, and headstrong bad-asses.

Some key elements within the movie that depict my clam include the musical number of  “Some People” sung by Rose. In this number, Mama Rose is singing about her dreams of making it into Vaudeville with her daughters through motivation. The song starts off with trumpets bellowing out, and you genuinely get the intention that the song is going to be fast-paced, energetic, and upbeat. Bette Midler then goes on for about a minute singing about how some people are lazy in the ways they go about success, but then she belts out the lyrics “But I at least got to try”.  In a usual film production, a female character would most likely continue the “Oh well, I tried” dialogue, but its enticing and different that Mama Rose is so driven to be triumphant in her goals. Thus, the lyrics and dialogue really show how ambitious she is; therefore, it emulates the positive representation of women in Gypsy.

Another example to support my claim of bad-assery among women includes the way Bette Midler performs Mama Rose. Everything about the character is over the top, and Midler delivers it with precision and passion, the only way that she knows how. Her ability to portray a mother who is in essence a shameless monster of a woman is admirable. She uses over-exaggerated movements to portray Mama Rose’s personality and excessive facial expressions to makes us believe in Mama Rose.

Lastly, the musical number that really stood out to me was the final performance from Rose “Rose’s Turn”. At this point, we’ve made it more than two hours into the movie, and we are waiting for Rose to finally have her turn in the spotlight. Before the song begins, Rose speaks about how if she ever let out her talent, “there wouldn’t be signs big enough, or lights bright enough” to even encompass her success. Overall, the song is chaotic. In the beginning, the lyrics and music are fiery and upbeat, and the way Midler performs as Rose, depicts how she is visualizing herself as a star. The second part of the song, Rose realizes that for the first time that she has to let go of the dreams that she has held for her daughters. The music completely changes and  for the first time, we see Mama Rose really become vulnerable with herself and this is shown when she whispers “Mama’s got to let go”. The third part of the song picks up again, and in a way Rose is angrier and continues to repeat the phrase “starting now…”. In the last part of the song, Rose finally realizes her potential and sees that she is able to be her own star and live her own dreams.

Overall, I thought Gypsy did a really great job at representing gender in a different and unique way that hasn’t been shown. I really felt connected to Mama Rose and was happy that she was finally able to let go and be the woman she always should have been.

Masculinity and its Many Forms in Newsies!

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

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

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

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

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

The Idealism of Jack Kelly

I’ve got to hand it to Disney– if they can do one thing correct it’s completely mischaracterize being a teenager, specifically in regards to romance. But in Newsies, we get to see teenagers devoid of dimension in a whole new century! Instead of a classic Disney Channel plot point such as dropping a science fair project the morning its due (gasp) or being rejected by your crush and also opposite-sex best friend to the big dance (aww), we see class consciousness, child labor, union formation and… the American Dream? Lofty undertaking, Walt. Don’t fret, though– it’s just as inaccurate of a depiction of the dynamics of adolescent relationships as we have come to love and accept of this particular company (monopoly?).

Newsies follows a group of, well, newsies, on their journey to fair treatment from the publisher of the paper they distribute. These boys live very difficult lives, having to steal food and clothes to survive and without families. These children, as young as eight, work for hours for unlivable wages from the greedy Joseph Pulitzer. This sounds like it could be the start of an inspiring case for ditching capitalism, but that’s a discussion for a different blog post. The newsies have essentially formed their own family, with unity being their glue. This show tackles not only this struggle for equality, but the relationships between these kids– all platonic of course (the Disney Corporation still maintains the official position that gays do not exist). These relationships all center around their leader, 17 year old Jack Kelly, who is the epitome of benevolent male leadership– a guy with integrity, charisma, power and empathy. While Newsies was definitely not made with the intention of being seen as a commentary on turn of the century gender relations and sexuality, I think that is exactly what makes it a good case study for analysis.

The depiction of Jack Kelly is very intentional– he is fit, attractive (heyyy Jermey Jordan), unassuming and looks like an overall good guy. He is meant, again, to be the best that masculine can be. He, along with his newsie counterparts, are deemed as overwhelmingly benevolent and masculine, with only good intentions– even during mess ups. What’s totally brushed over is the concept of toxic masculinity, which is very real, contrary to what Ben Shapiro may think. There are things that, for the most part, and looked down upon in male groups– one of these things being emotion. I would be lying if I said I don’t even slightly cringe when seeing a grown man crying or expressing his emotions in a less-than-masculine way, and I am a queer man in 2021. These notions of what a man can or can’t do or be are so ingrained in my subconscious, and I don’t spend much time at all in mascuiline groups. I bring these points up because, throughout the show, Jack has bursts of emotion and gives heartfelt monologues in rooms of his peers, and it’s just difficult for me to believe that a group of rough and tumble guys from 120 years ago would be so receptive to this, and it would not diminish his status. I am actually happy that Disney chose to do this– while I definitely don’t think it is realistic, they probably assumed their audience would be mostly children and young adults, so setting this example of acceptance of expression could begin to change the narrative. 

Continuing this conversation about the portrayal of masculinity, I just thought it was interesting to note how the song that encapsulates the entire theme of the show, masculinity and all, is segmented by a ballet-like dance break. “Seize the Day” is an overtly masculine piece, paired with masculine vocal and acting choices. This being said, the group dancing is something more connotationally feminine, but it didn’t feel like an emasculated performance. They were able to successfully portray feelings of power and revolution through, again, a ballet-like dance number, which is just an oddly more progressive display, in comparison to my view on gender as a whole is displayed in Newsies.

In terms of the dynamic of a male group of adolescents, this show falls very short in portraying a realistic one, in my experience at least. The one main component missing is competition, and in turn, jealousy. Jack assumes leadership with no opposition at all– and for a group of guys with the sole intention of standing up for themselves and knowing their worth, it is just a little odd to me that there is no one else vying for leadership. This aids in my describing these characters as one dimensional. The reason why this large component of youth masculinity is missing is because it isn’t relevant to the plot. The newsies really just seem to be bodies, there to echo what Jack says and react to his decisions. This being said, Jack takes pride in this comradery and his ability to lead, and never takes advantage of this power he was awarded. He is the ultimate “nice guy”. This just ties back to my broader take on masculinity’s depiction in Newsies— it is a sugar coated rendering, void of an addressing of the pitfalls or norms that come with the territory of being a man.

At the end of the day, I understand that this is just a Disney work, so expecting a nuanced take on gender and sexuality is rather naive. This doesn’t have to be how it is however. I love Jack and the group of newsies and their immense fraternity, but Newsies is not an accurate representation of what being a man is in the way that I am a man. Seeing groups of male friends like this, in all different forms, be so accepting of each other and under the leadership of such a great guy, always subliminally alienates me even more from my male peers, and makes me honestly jealous of what they have. While this show is about fun and revolution, we should overall start a move towards more nuanced representation, especially in media aimed for kids. Jack and his friends are an idealistic dream (especially when played by Jeremy Jordan), and it’s time Disney and all production companies alike start giving realistic and attainable representation to their audiences.

The Ironic Duality: Newsies fight to break the system while perpetuating another

Growing up in New York City, I was fortunate enough to have tremendous exposure to Broadway, as compared to most. From my apartment, all I had to do was hop on a 15 minute subway ride and there I was: walking through the streets of Times Square, blinded by the bright lights of billboards, pushing through crowds to locate the theater. On a cold December night during my holiday break in eighth grade, I begrudgingly got dressed in my “theater clothes” in preparation to go see Newsies with my father. He explained the show, and how it takes place in New York City and follows a group of young newsboys who, day after day, sell newspapers to try to make ends meet. Infuriated by Pulitzer’s selfish decision to raise the price of newspapers, the newsboys decide to take a stand, form a union, and fight for their rights. My thirteen year old mind was convinced that Newsies would never live up to the bar set by my favorite musicals. (After seeing Kinky Boots just a few months earlier, I decided that it would take second place to Mamma Mia!, modifying my ever changing list of top five musical productions.) 

As I was ushered to my seat in the Nederlander Theater, I flipped through the Playbill that I was handed upon entry, since I always like to know a bit about the show before the curtains open. The book was written by Harvey Fierstein, the music was by Alan Menken with lyrics by Jack Feldman, and, unbeknownst to me, Newsies would not only be produced by Disney, but would specifically be produced by Thomas Schumacher. I smiled to myself as I remembered that the number five musical on my favorite’s list, The Lion King, was also a Schumacher production. When the curtains closed just a couple of hours later, I stood in applause and sang Seize the Day quietly to myself as I left the theater. What I didn’t know at the time was, almost a decade later, I would be watching a recording of the musical for my theater class at Vanderbilt, analyzing the role of masculinity in the main character Jack Kelly, played by Jeremy Jordan. Through an in-depth analysis of Newsies, it will become immensely clear that countless aspects of Jack’s character such as appearance, power, and romance – play a role in promoting harmful gender roles through his amplified toxic masculinity. 

Within minutes of the opening of the show, it is obvious that Jack Kelly is the leader of the newsies. The first scene, setting the stage for the rest of the production, features Jack Kelly and Crutchie, his best friend and fellow newsboy with a bum leg, played by Andrew Keenan-Bolger. You might be asking yourself, how exactly did I make the immediate assumption that Jack would be the main character? Well, for starters, Jack is more stereotypically attractive than Crutchie. Also, he is able-bodied, highlighted by Crutchie who has to limp across the stage and can’t even climb down a ladder on his own without help. There was no doubt in my mind that Newsies would be written so that the main role was a quintessential, masculine character – and unattractiveness and disability are not two characteristics that I would pin on a male lead. I am not here to say that it is criminal for musical authors to write shows that have these types of male leads, and I do acknowledge that my immediate assumption of Jack’s lead role is one that is embedded with deep-rooted norms and expectations. However, it is still important to note that the writers did not make any active decisions to defy this norm. The fact that even at the point where I knew close to nothing about the characters and plot, I was somehow able to determine that Jack would be the star, demonstrates these overarching standards of masculinity which Newsies plays into.

The masculine qualities embodied by Jack Kelly’s character continue to be amplified as the musical progresses with the addition of power as a male gender role. All of the newsboys look up to Jack as their leader, and what would masculinity be without leadership and power? The first time we hear dialogue that gives clues into Jack’s status as – what I call – head newsie, is when he meets Davey and Les, who are just starting out selling newspapers. Crutchie makes it clear that “selling with Jack is the chance of a lifetime,” verbally affirming his superiority in the group. (00:15) As the plot continues to develop, the newsies have to brainstorm what they can do in response to the raise in prices for “papes.” After Jack suggests a strike – which requires forming a union – and Davey tells the group that they need officers, Crutchie nominates Jack as president with no hesitation. Cheering and applauding erupts amongst the newsies, as if it was a given that Jack would take leadership without second thought. Even in terms of stage direction and movement in this scene, Jack is highlighted as the head newsie. All of the other boys gather around him on stage, looking directly at him as he thinks and makes decisions from the center of the group. Jack’s position of power among the group is unsurprising. Of course, for a man to be a man, he MUST be a leader. Newsies surrenders itself to this stereotype, as Jack Kelly’s power even further contributes to his normative masculinity. 

I know you have all been waiting for this one, so I won’t leave you stranded any longer: women. There is no better indication of toxic masculinity than seeing how stereotypical male characters interact with their romantic interests and Jack Kelly’s character does anything but defy this norm. From the very first interaction between Jack and Katherine Plummer, a gorgeous reporter, it is clear that he is interested in her from how he pushes his friend away in an effort to talk to her. Later, Jack, Davey and Les make their way to Miss Medda’s theater where Katherine is writing a show review for her job as a reporter. Despite the fact that Jack knows that Katherine is busy working and uninterested, he is persistent and seems to believe that his desire is more important than anything else. He continues to minimize her as he comments on her appearance saying, “the view is better here” when she asks him to leave her alone. (00:29) Jack’s aggressive chase continues even to the extent where, when Katherine asks him what he wants in the context of a career, he responds, “can’t you see it in my eyes?” as he inches up close to her, bites his lip, and (tries to) talk in a seductive voice. (00:47) The cherry on top? You guessed it. She ends up caving and falling for Jack at the end of the show. The way that Jack essentially preys on Katherine through both dialogue and movement is yet another contributing factor to his problematic portrayal of gender and masculinity.  So, if it wasn’t clear before, it is definitely clear now: Jack Kelly lives up to many of the stereotypes of masculinity that invade our culture. Whether it’s the male ‘standard of attractiveness’, the need to be an outgoing, powerful leader to be masculine, or the idea that being masculine is accompanied by the entitlement to aggressively pursue women, Jack has the qualities that check all of the boxes. The fact that many of Jack’s characteristics are predictable and “true to form” for a male main character is evidence that Newsies is definitely not alone in representing and normalizing this toxic masculinity. However, that does not deem it justifiable. For all of the young boys out there who have watched and will watch Newsies, Jack Kelly’s character will be subconsciously added to a list of male figures that fit these problematic gender norms. Boys who look up to Jack’s character as a role model for fighting for change and are inspired to follow in his footsteps might also internalize the other problematic male gender norms that seem to often go along with these masculine lead roles. Newsies is not at fault for creating these harmful norms, but instead, Jack Kelly is just another case for why they are perpetuated over time.