Welcome to another edition of Curtain Up! We apologise for the wait; sometimes you just need a break from listening to musicals, y’know?! This week we’re talking about three very popular musicals. Annie, has just finished a stint on the West End, just in time to welcome Fun Home from across the pond! Guys and Dolls, most famous for its film adaptation starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Vivian Blaine, was last in London two years ago. It currently shows no signs of making a return, but maybe that’s a good thing…
It’s the hard knock life for these pre-teen orphans as they try to battle life with their hateful, alcoholic matron, Miss Hannigan. Not only does she have an acute hatred of children, she also admits her sole reason for taking care of them in the first place is that she thought it would attract (rich) men. As the lead (grown-up) female, she is portrayed as a true horrifying villain. Her interactions with other women are few and far between, and often occur when they are in competition or disagree with each other.
The second most prominent adult female character, Grace, is secretary to emotionally unavailable Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks (who thought that would be a good idea?). She is so invested in her job that she puts up with Warbucks’ violent mood swings and works way over time. There are also hints that Grace has romantic feelings for Warbucks, because what’s the point of a woman if she doesn’t make a man look more desirable?
The kids themselves are a representation of what women are really like. Some are quiet, some are boisterous, some are kind; they all have the same vitality for life despite the hardships they have faced from a young age. Annie is the most eloquent and dependable of them all, bringing joy to whomever she meets and even encouraging the President of the U.S. to live his life with a positive attitude. As the titular role, she is the driving force of the story’s narrative and overall uplifting message. She also provides ample opportunity for other the female characters to not speak about men, it’s just a shame that the adult women aren’t exactly role models.
Top Picks: ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile’, ‘Little Girls’, ‘It’s the Hard Knock Life’
Guys and Dolls
Unsurprisingly, the objectification of women in the title sets the tone for the rest of the show. The two female leads, Sister Sarah Brown and Miss Adelaide, are pawns in their male counterparts’ games. They are merely play things; passive characters who serve to advance the male-dominated storyline of small-time gamblers in NYC. Sarah Brown is a passionate Christian who has fairy-tale ideals of what her husband will be like. Instead, she falls for a man whom she first encounters when he tries to “win” her as part of a bet. Sky Masterson, her love interest, is also a careless gambler and forces himself on Sarah in attempts to woo her. He also blackmails her into coming to Cuba with him, spikes her drinks and encourages her to get flat out drunk before making another move on her. But hey, nobody’s perfect right?
Adelaide is the devoted long-time fiancée of Nathan Detroit and is a performer at nightclubs. She has waited 14 years for Nathan to marry her and begs him to do so every time they meet. So wrapped up in her desperation to marry Nathan, Adelaide believes her chronic cold is a reaction to her frustration and single status (no seriously).
Though these two women do have their humorous moments, it is at their expense rather than their own agency. The two women never meet or interact and they are often depicted as whiney and boring in comparison to their confident and adventurous lovers. All in all, the women in Guys and Dolls could do a lot better. This musical shows that women can come from different backgrounds, have different professions and still end up with a**holes.
Best Songs: ‘If I Were a Bell’, ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat’, ‘Adelaide’s Lament’,
Fun Home is the double coming-out story of Alison Bechdel (the woman who brought us the Bechdel test) (yes this musical passes the Bechdel test) and her father. In a series of flashbacks, we delve into Alison’s life whilst she remembers the bittersweet moment she realised she was gay, and when her father almost immediately after realised he was too. This musical draws parallels between the pair in more way than one, and presents two complex characters that are loving but haunted by their past. This story focuses on the familial, and as Alison grew up with two brothers, it doesn’t leave much opportunity for female actors. However, the opportunities available are presented in confident and interesting characters (which is often too much to ask from other musicals). As we see Alison in different stages of her life, we see her acknowledge some dark circumstances in some heart-wrenching moments. We also see her come to terms with, explore and celebrate her homosexuality. It’s also refreshing to see Joan, Alison’s love-interest, so confident and self-assured in her sexuality, and to see their healthy relationship blossom.
It’s not only the female characters that are engaging; Bruce Bechdel (Alison’s father) is particularly haunting and heartbreaking. We see how his inability to confront feelings has led to him overcompensating; between his tantrums and aggressive moods, Alison’s father puts on his best patriarchal persona. It’s Alison’s mother, Helen, who is the real victim of this story though. She has learnt to tolerate, understand and accept her husband’s sexuality, and puts up with his anguished aggression, which is often direct at her. We watch her patiently play the piano, to cover up the sound of her husband’s advances on another man right above her. As Helen finally admits her turbulent and damaging relationship with Bruce, we realise that it is not only repressed homosexuals we should empathise with.
Top Picks: ‘Changing My Major’, ‘Ring of Keys’, ‘Come to the Fun Home’
Join us again soon for the next installment of Curtain Up, a new series discussing female representation in our favourite musicals!