Welcome to the first instalment of Curtain Up! In this series I will rate musicals based on their representation and celebration of women. I will follow a similar questioning process to the Bechdel Test: Are there two (named) female characters? And do they talk to each other about something other than men? Two of my favourite things in the world are calling cultural industries out for improper/unfair representation of women, and musicals. So what better way to mesh the two together?! I’m hoping this will be an insightful journey and I’m glad you’re here on the ride with me.
**Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to have seen or know all the shows well. A lot of the information I provide will be from intense googling.**
At the end of each round-up, I will give my pick of the musical’s best songs. This will predominantly reflect the most empowering songs for the female characters, but will also include some of my own personal favourites from the soundtracks.
The Phantom of the Opera
Now let’s start off with a classic. Everyone in the world has heard of The Phantom of the Opera (unless you live under a rock or refuse to ever engage in any sort of culture). If you’re not familiar with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, or the 2004 film starring Gerard Butler, the story follows Christine Daaé, a soprano singer who becomes the object of obsession for a disfigured and mysterious musical genius living under the Opera house she works for.
Yes, you read correctly. She literally becomes an object for the ‘Phantom’ to obsess over. Not only that, but the Phantom lures Christine into his hidden lair and declares he has chosen her to sing his music for him (apparently a great honour) and attempts to keep her hostage. Beforehand, Christine has been reunited with her childhood sweetheart, Raoul, they rekindle their love and secretly get engaged. The Phantom’s jealousy and passionate feelings for Christine lead to all kinds of abusive, obsessive behaviour, with him even committing murder to get what he wants.
Poor Christine is left in the middle of the most dramatic love-triangle, whilst expressing no hint of agency or independence. Ultimately, she is a one-dimensional character, with her enchanting voice being the catalyst for men to act possessive towards her. Additionally, she lacks female company and the moments of woman-to-woman conversation are few and far between. Christine and Carlotta do talk occasionally, though they are pitted as rivals for the role of the Opera house’s leading lady and do not form any level of friendship.
The show fails to produce any interesting, multi-faceted female characters and although there are many female roles in the ensemble, the story is extremely male-dominated. Additionally, Christine clearly suffers from some level of Stockholm-syndrome due to the Phantom’s actions and whilst continually fighting between her feelings for him and Raoul, she easily falls into the “damsel in distress” genre. When Christine isn’t dazzling men with her voice, she is either longing for Raoul or dealing with her conflicting feelings for the Phantom. The final bulb in the chandelier for me is the Phantom’s “tragic backstory” as a means to justify his abusive behaviour. Unfortunately, no amount of past heartbreak, humiliation and isolation can warrant murder and kidnapping.
Top Picks: ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’, ‘Notes…/Prima Donna’, ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’
Legally Blonde is a musical based on the novel and film of the same name. It’s a story about Elle Woods, a ditzy blonde left heartbroken when her boyfriend dumps her for someone more “serious”. She plans to win him back the best way she can think of; by following him to Harvard Law School. What, like it’s hard?
Along the way, Elle realises she can put her newly acquired law knowledge to good use, and although few people have faith in her at the beginning, she learns that she can succeed and defy expectations by staying true to herself.
Elle is portrayed as a headstrong, determined woman from the opening number. However, she is only determined to get a proposal out of her boyfriend, Warner, and the song involves her sorority sisters planning to celebrate their friend’s engagement. Not such a great start for representing female empowerment and independence. Fortunately, this band of girls support Elle through her most drastic decisions, and as she begins to succeed at Harvard, her friends are right there with her. Although there are few speaking roles and one-on-one discussions between them are rare, the Greek-chorus of sorority sisters provides a satisfying representation of female friendship during Elle’s time at Harvard. This is especially welcomed as she is prominently surrounded by male characters whilst studying.
Some of the male characters in Elle’s life are somewhat troubling. Warner, for example, is clearly only in a relationship with her because of her attractiveness; seeing her as a way to waste time before he settles down with someone sensible and more appropriate for marriage. Professor Callahan is equally problematic; he initially refuses to take Elle seriously as a lawyer. When he takes her on as an intern, we begin to believe he may be taking her seriously, until we realise it was again just because of her attractiveness. Her new friend, Emmett, is the only male who seems genuinely interested by Elle, and is willing to help her succeed. Naturally, they fall in love and end up together, but in this case Elle is with someone who sees her as an equal rather than their inferior. And what rom-com musical would be complete without a happy ending?!
Top Picks: ‘What You Want’, ‘So Much Better’, ‘Serious’
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Stephen Sondheim is one of the biggest composers in musical theatre, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of his most well-known works. Made popular by the 2007 film, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, this story follows a psychopathic barber and his quest for revenge.
Sweeney Todd’s partner-in-crime is Mrs. Lovett, who provides relief from the doom and gloom of the rest of the show. A true entrepreneur, she catalyses much of the story’s action and majorly encourages/manipulates Todd’s character. As a complex role, Mrs. Lovett can be characterised in a number of ways which have a great effect on how the rest of the show is played out. Not only is she funny, but she admits she had a “soft spot” for Todd, which makes the audience sympathise with her, whilst also arguably being the true villain of this tale.
The other women in this musical are less developed. Johanna, Judge Turpin’s ward, for example, is little more than a pretty face and sweet voice. Trapped in the Judge’s house, Johanna is a real-life Rapunzel and encounters Anthony much like Rapunzel meets her prince (he is captivated by her singing from her window). Furthermore, Anthony plans to safe Johanna from evil ward by stating they will run away and elope. In true princess mode, Johanna wholeheartedly agrees to this before realising she doesn’t even know Anthony’s name. When their plan goes awry, it is up to Anthony to save her again; and although she does exhibit some independence (by shooting a guard), it is a mere moment in a sea of classic princess behaviour.
The final female character is affectionately referred to as “Beggar Woman”. Once beautiful, now deemed insane and vermin of society she is largely ignored and isolated. Though she provides some exposition, the reasons for her insanity prevent her from being a multi-dimensional character. Furthermore, apart from her usefulness for Anthony, she is predominantly involved in the show to heighten its tragic elements.
Top Picks: ‘The Worst Pies In London’, ‘A Little Priest’
Catch the second installment of Curtain Up next week on Temper Femina!