Welcome back to Curtain Up, where this week we have a very special Oliviers edition! With the biggest night in British theatre just around the corner, we thought we’d take the opportunity to investigate some of this year’s nominees.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
Let’s kick things off with one of this year’s youngest nominees. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was first performed at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield in February 2017, before transferring to the Apollo Theatre in November. Inspired by the story of BBC documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16; this musical follows Jamie, his family, and his friends through his last tumultuous months of school. This camp and endearing musical not only celebrates young adults accepting who they are, but also shines a spotlight on a part of the UK rarely portrayed in musical theatre.
It’s clear that Jamie is greatly influenced by the women in his life. His mother, Margaret, and her best friend Ray provide Jamie with endless love and support through heartbreak over his estranged relationship with his father, conflicts at school and his first public appearance in drag. Margaret is a stereotypical single-mum. She does all she can to ensure Jamie’s life is a fulfilling one, even if that means sacrificing her own satisfaction. She acts as both a mother and father figure, goes to extreme lengths to keep Jamie happy (like staying up all night to finish altering his prom dress) and even takes personal attacks from him. That is not to say though, that their relationship is a toxic one. In solitary moments, Margaret confesses that she wouldn’t change her life were she given the chance as, although she’s suffered heartbreak, she has been left with the greatest gift of all. Likewise, despite his dramatic outbursts (teenagers, am I right?), Jamie is in awe of everything Margaret does for him and wouldn’t change a thing.
Jamie’s relationship with his best friend, Pritti, is mutually supportive. He stands up for her when she is bullied for being a “nerd”, and she for him when his campness and sexuality mean he’s picked on. They help each other see the strength and beauty within themselves and their friendship adds an appropriate touch of sensitivity to an otherwise caricatured story. The only problematic female character was sixth form tutor, Miss Hedge. Determined that no pupil should have creative aspirations, she refuses to accept Jamie’s dream of becoming a performer. She uses every opportunity to humiliate and belittle him, with no obvious motivation other than she’s not nice. We do see a vulnerable side to her though, but only when she gets rejected by a man she’s been dating (because no woman who is anything less than sweet and innocent can be attractive).
Top Picks: ‘He’s My Boy’, ‘My Man, Your Boy’, ‘Don’t Even Know It’
A big contender this year is the National Theatre’s production of Follies. One of the more difficult Stephen Sondheim shows to stage, this musical has swept the board and picked up nominations for Best Musical Revival and Best Director, amongst many others. With two nominations in the Best Actress in a Musical category (Imelda and Janie, I love you), the show proves its brilliant opportunity for female performers to shine.
Set in the 1970s, the story invites us to a crumbling Broadway theatre and its final reunion for past performers of the “Weismann’s Follies”. We closely follow two couples (Sally and Buddy and Phyllis and Ben) but the show also gives way for other showgirls to have their moment in the spotlight and narrative. With many of the musical numbers serving as stand-alone confessions, audiences are presented with snapshots of each character’s past and present. Though this does stunt some characters’ developments, Sally, Buddy, Phyllis and Ben are given the full treatment. Their situations and current predicaments are wholly explored, and these four are able to realise something about themselves and have a chance to act upon it.
Once close friends and dressing-roommates, Sally and Phyllis recognise that they have taken very different life-paths, but struggle to admit that they wish it had turned out differently. Both are unhappily married, and upon reuniting they are reminded of their past demons and worries, a driving factor of the musical’s narrative. A central theme to this plot is confronting the ghosts of your past, but no characters do this more than the four leads. What escalates into a group nervous breakdown, the climax of the show presents Sally, Buddy, Phyllis and Ben at their most emotional and vulnerable.
My favourite moments, though, are those that give a glimpse into the lives of the supporting characters. Each former Follies showgirl has tread a different path for herself. The numbers give us varying perspectives on life after Broadway, and by offering a window into these lives, these songs are the most interesting. However, the limited interaction between the female characters is what prevents Follies from being a true tour de force.
Top Picks: ‘Who’s That Woman’, ‘Could I Leave You?’, ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’
Last, but by no means least, we have Hamilton. Ah Hamilton. What is there left to say about Hamilton? Recently breaking the record for most Olivier nominations in a year (13), to call it “critically acclaimed” doesn’t do it justice. Neither does calling it a “box office triumph”. Is it a masterpiece? Most definitely. Is it the greatest musical of all time? Quite probably. The sung (and rapped) musical about the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton has defied all expectations of musical theatre. Not only has it broken the rules, it’s rewritten the game entirely. Everlasting man of the moment Lin-Manuel Miranda has incorporated hip-hop, rhythm and blues, soul music and traditional-style show tunes to present a brilliantly unique piece of art. Not to mention its colour-conscious casting of non-white actors as the Founding Fathers and other historical figures which has opened up a dialogue on diversity in theatre; Hamilton has quite rightly made a big impression worldwide.
From the opening number, it’s made clear that all lead female roles are pivotal to the story because of their feelings for Alexander Hamilton. The character ratio also skews in favour of the men. But Miranda ensures that what is lacking in numbers is made up in depth and complexity. The female characters are equal parts troubled and troubling; they are full of emotion, hopes and fears alongside their romantic connection to Hamilton. The show’s varied musicality allows audiences to recognise the characters as individual beings.
Hamilton is filled with female-led numbers which gives their version of events and lends a new perspective to the story as a whole. For example, Eliza Schuyler instantly falls in love with Hamilton, and after a few months of exchanging letters, the couple marry. At their wedding, we hear from the maid of honour, Eliza’s sister Angelica. However, in a heart-wrenching, fourth-wall breaking confession, what we learn is that Angelica also has feelings for Hamilton. Although seemingly a better match, Angelica recognises that she has a duty to the family as the eldest sibling and chooses to find a more economically stable suitor. Additionally, Eliza is not the “trophy wife” she could easily be portrayed as. After being betrayed by her husband, Eliza takes back control of her own narrative. She burns the letters Hamilton and herself exchanged in a twist of powerful re-invention.
Hamilton’s other lover, Maria Reynolds, brings a touch of sexuality to the musical. In a saucy and sensual number (maybe my all-time fave), she uses her body to seduce Hamilton for her own financial (and sexual) gain. In this number, it is possible the performer to play an openly confident female role, and for the character to drive the plot on their own terms. Having female roles with a variety of strengths (and weaknesses), Miranda has created exciting opportunities for female performers and is both highlighting and commenting on the (lack of) representation of women in present day theatre and the need for change.
Top Picks: ‘Schuyler Sisters’, ‘Satisfied’, ‘Say No To This’, ‘Burn’
Join us again soon for the next installment of Curtain Up, a new series discussing female representation in our favourite musicals!