The Girls on the Go: Female Character Roles and Society
If you happened to read my bio, you would know I have musical theatre training and experience writing about social issues.
What my bio doesn’t tell you outright is that I look nothing like a Disney Princess. I do not wear a sample size. I am not a coloratura soprano. Also, sadly, I was never a lyrical dancer at the Abby Lee Dance Company.
I am a mezzo with a comedy background and “Unconventional Beauty,” whatever that means. In short, I am a character actress. And I am truly happy with that.
Not every character actress feels this way. I haven’t always been this confident in my type. When I was growing up, it used to really piss me off that the ingenue usually gets the “Happily Ever After” while the female character role gets a punchline or two.
Now that I’ve gotten a little older (but can still inexplicably pass for a teenager onstage), I understand the root of that anger: Musical theatre, my favorite art form, reflected some societal truths that are decidedly less than harmonious.
Don’t worry – I won’t be yet another feminist theatre fanatic telling you that a vast majority of the female leads in the musical theatre canon need an activist makeover.
In traditional musical theatre, leading men are everymen and leading ladies are idealized damsels. There’s a major inequality there, and those are just the protagonists.
Ingenues get enough attention, though. I want to talk about the soubrettes, the villains, the crazy ladies, the crones, the ugly ducklings, the women living with disabilities, the prostitutes, the lesbians, the fat girls, and the “Ethnic” characters who make snappy jokes in strong accents. Why are these characters presented as jokes or ultimately dismissed so we can focus on Broadway Barbie finding her Baritenor Ken?
To a degree, I believe that art does imitate life. Women in a patriarchal society are expected to be beautiful and have “It all.” Female musical theatre performers experience pressure to have a “Broadway Body” and be a Triple Threat. Female protagonists in musicals get what they set out for in the “I Want” song and get the guy, too.
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t fit into the breakdown of a “Young Lover,” but I am still the lead in my life story. That’s what I believe can and should change about the female character role in musical theatre. The “Sassy Best Friend” has a life of her own, and I’d like to focus on it for once.
Fat men, older men (who still have and enjoy sex!), gay men, cross-dressing men, men with mental illnesses, and men of color have more representation as leading roles in the musical theatre canon than their female counterparts.
A male character role can carry a show; why can’t a female character role do the same?
Some people argue that our world isn’t ready to hear the stories of outcast women. Caring about misfits is okay when they’re covered in Emerald MAC powder and literally flying, but Broadway producers are wary of funding a story whose lead is marginalized by our real-life society (unless, of course, you can cast an established star in the role). They want something easy on the eyes, so it will ultimately be easy on their wallets.
There’s a method to that madness. I mean, why do you think the Radio City Rockettes are basically a New York City institution? They’re not going to have a diverse, Pitch Perfect-esque revamp, complete with Fat Amy, anytime soon. Why would they? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Aside from the confidence of investors, there has been another large roadblock to telling a wide range of women’s stories in musical theatre. A vast majority of recognized composers, lyricists, and book writers have been white men.
In 67 years of Tony Awards, only 38 women have been nominated for Best Original Score (Music and Lyrics) and Best Book of a Musical combined.
Thankfully, times are beginning to change. This year, Cyndi Lauper became the first woman to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score without collaborators. Pasek and Paul told the story of a stereotypically ugly woman (played by the gorgeous Lindsay Mendez) to great success in Dogfight Off-Broadway. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s adaptation of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s memoir, Fun Home, received a love letter from the Times.
In future The Girls on the Go pieces, I hope to explore the nuances and trends of unconventional female leads and supporting characters in today’s musical theatre. Whether you’re a character actress or you like to write for them, things are going to change for the better, and you get to be a part of it.
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