Curtain Up #2

Welcome back to Curtain Up and the second installment of this new series! This week I talk about two of my most-listened to shows (both excellent in their own very different ways) and one I’d never heard before:

The Book of Mormon

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The Book of Mormon is one of my favourite musicals of all time. It’s the soundtrack I stick it on if I ever need cheering up or just want to dance around in the kitchen whilst I’m making my dinner. It therefore hurts me to admit it deserves such a low rating. This musical comedy follows two young Mormon missionaries as they introduce their scriptures to the inhabitants of a remote Ugandan village. Brought to you by the duo behind South Park (one of the least likely duos to write a musical ever), the show pokes fun at the Mormon religion and the very nature of musical theatre, and manages to balance clever writing and outrageous humour with endearing and uplifting moments.

Unfortunately, The Book of Mormon is terrible for its representation of women. There are only two female characters in the entire show (unless you count Elders Price and Cunningham’s mothers, who are played by male actors and appear for less than five minutes). Additionally, Nabulungi (the female lead) is secondary to all other leading roles, and she only appears directly in two songs. The first of these expresses her naivety of the western world and the concept of ‘paradise’, and the second mimics the classic romantic-coupling duet whilst also categorising Nabulungi as a “damsel in distress”. Perhaps this is a deliberate nod to other musicals, but surely there could have been more exciting ways to push aside the female stereotypes.

Whilst writing this, I was reminded of the distasteful subplot concerning female genital mutilation. The villain of this tale, General Butt F*cking Naked, announces his demand for mutilation of all female villagers, highlighting just one of the many ways he is truly evil. However, this is quickly pushed to the side to make way for more humour and is never fully addressed or resolved. Whilst sensitive topics are expected to be the butt of jokes in a musical written by the South Park creators, it can leave an inexcusably bitter taste for some viewers.

Top Picks: ‘Sal Tla Kay Siti’, ‘I Believe’, ‘Man Up’

Hairspray

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This is another great show if you ever need to a bit of a boogie to shake yourself out of a bad mood. Fortunately, this fun-loving musical features numerous female characters who find plenty to talk about aside from the men in their life! Admittedly a lot of time is spent idolising potential love-interests, but the female lead is a teenager, so I think we can let her off. Tracy Turnblad is a confident young woman who sets out to gain a place on her favourite TV show, The Corny Collins Show. We see Tracy deal with friendships, relationships, school, her parents and her passion for dancing with unwavering positivity and enthusiasm. Throughout the story, she also becomes aware of her current political climate and soon establishes herself as a civil rights activist. A girl who never lets anything get in the way of her dreams, Tracy is a true role model.

A fair bit of the story focuses on Tracy’s friendship with Penny Pingleton, and her relationship with her mother, both which highlight the need for a genuine support system, especially when in the throes of growing up. Tracy’s mother, Edna, is first portrayed as the stereotypical housewife; constantly cooking and cleaning and too shy to leave her home. She also struggles with her weight and overall appearance and discourages Tracy from being too extroverted for fear she becomes a laughing stock. But following a city-wide adventure and shining new makeover, Tracy’s mother grows in confidence and is able to realise her true (inner and outer) beauty. Although she remains a secondary character, she is able to confront some of her psychological and real-life demons with her new found agency in the show’s finale.

In spite of the overall encouraging message of the show, the role of Edna has so far been pantomimed by men in drag (drag queen Divine). This opens the musical’s writers’ and producers’ true feelings on female empowerment  (particularly in larger women) up for speculation.

Amber Von Tussle, Tracy’s high school rival, is portrayed as the cliché ‘bitchy’ girl; manipulative and cunning, willing to do whatever it takes to defeat Tracy. Amber’s actions are somewhat explained by her mother, and their relationship. Determined to overthrow any obstacles that stand in her and her daughter’s way to success, Velma Von Tussle is a truly heartless character. Sadly, their character arcs are left unresolved as they continue to isolate themselves indefinitely.

This musical has seen numerous revivals and adaptations over the past two decades. The most recent movie and live TV broadcast have firmly placed Hairspray as a popular musical for current and future generations. This can only be a positive thing as the show not only portrays the strength possible in female characters but also highlights the need to accept oneself fully and stand up for what you believe in.

Top Picks: ‘Big, Blonde and Beautiful’, ‘Good Morning Baltimore’, ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’

Songs for a New World

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Songs for a New World is not what you would usually expect from a musical. It doesn’t follow a storyline but instead presents a cycle of songs connected by one theme: “the moment of decision”. The show is evenly cast with two male and two female performers and with a complex theme this cycle presents a multitude of characters from different walks and at different stages in their lives. With scenes ranging from the deck of a 1492 Spanish sailing ship to modern day NYC, this musical was first produced (in 1995) in an attempt to bring a new generation into the theatre. Despite this, the show hasn’t aged well and I doubt it appeals to many millennial/generation-Z feminists today.

Straight away, the musical fails the Bechdel test; none of the characters are named and there are no female-female interactions. However, the show’s format makes it difficult to establish multifaceted characters, male or female. With the underlying theme setting a specific premise for each song, we are only presented with the character’s feelings in the precise moment of making a decision. These are often heightened emotions and do not give a rounded portrayal of the people in the musical numbers. What’s worse is that the majority of the female led numbers are in fact focused on the men in their lives. Lamenting over their neglectful husbands or wallowing over the failure of their marriages due to their own greed, these women seem to only care about a few things: getting attention, money and men. The fact that one of these songs involves a woman threatening to commit suicide when she’s no longer ‘young and beautiful’ enough to be wanted by her husband, only adds to the aged tone of the show.

Don’t get me wrong, the musical is clever; particularly in its attempt to throw a new perspective on both a household name and a counterpart usually kept in their shadow. It also has characters female characters placed in some interesting scenarios. They all seem self-aware and intelligent, especially when bringing up anything other than their lovers. However, its unbalanced exploration of male and female characters prevents this musical from receiving a higher score.

Top Picks: ‘Christmas Lullaby’, ‘The Flagmaker, 1775’, ‘Opening: The New World’

Tune in next week for the third installment of Curtain Up, a new series discussing female representation in our favourite musicals! 

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