Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Shows Your Story: The Narratology of Women in Musical Theatre

Musical theatre is intrinsically a medium of showing, not telling. Characters sing to elucidate thoughts that can’t be articulated simply through dialogue and dance in specific choreographed patterns that hold some narrative meaning; the various design elements in a production coalesce to visually reinforce content transmitted through the show’s text. When all is said and done, a show should evoke the impression that its narrative is unfolding in real time, congruent with the audience’s experiencing those events, rather than simply holding the audience at arm’s length to tell them about the story. So why do female characters so often get the short end of the stick when it comes to actually, you know, doing stuff onstage?

It’s easy for musical theatre creators to allude to their female characters doing stuff, and to let their female characters talk about doing stuff, but actually letting these women have meaningful, productive interactions with the world of their shows? Not so much. Even the most progressive, revolutionary shows on Broadway this season, which otherwise make tremendous strides in bringing the stories of marginalized people to light for mainstream audiences, suffer from the impulse to tell rather than show. (Warning: spoilers ahead for those not familiar with some of this season’s newest musicals.)

Though director Michael Arden has taken great care to transfigure the subtext of his production into something greater than the sum of its parts—the in-universe deafness of certain characters now serves as both a reminder of the historical oppression of deaf people and a reconfiguration of the breakdown of parent-child communication—there’s little to be done with the text itself where Spring Awakening’s female characters are concerned. In “The Dark I Know Well,” Martha and Ilse recount their experiences of parental sexual assault. It’s a harrowing scene that explodes an important issue, and we’re left wondering just how it all will play out. What happens to Martha? Is escape possible for her? Does Ilse still carry the scars of her abuse? Although we meet Ilse again, once when stumbling upon Moritz in the woods and once when reading Melchior’s final letter to the full company, what she reveals in “The Dark I Know Well” is never addressed, and Martha inexplicably disappears as a named character after the song. Instead, their twin narratives of trauma and abuse are hijacked by Wendla, who yearns to “feel… anything,” to break through the anesthetized ignorance of her world, and who begs Melchior to beat her. The appropriation of abuse survivors’ stories by characters who use them as tools is not just irresponsible—it belies the very principles of liberation and free thinking that the show claims to promote. Though we’re told in grim detail about the pain suffered by Martha and Ilse, it’s only through a reactive lens; we never get to see how they cope with their abuse or how their stories end.

Lea Salonga’s character in Allegiance, Kei, is also compelling and deeply sympathetic, but she too is denied the opportunity to assert herself—and her subjectivity as a human being rather than a wife or mother—despite the numerous instances in which the show’s creators tell us she does. We hear Kei resolve so many times to “get back on that swing,” to soar “higher up than anything” and “take what chance the future brings,” but we hardly see her do anything about it. Although she successfully organizes a covert letter-writing campaign among the interned women, the scene is approximately thirty seconds long and never carries the same emotional potency as her brother Sammy’s combat missions or their father Tatsuo’s acts of resistance. Ultimately, the culmination of Kei’s story stems not from her own choices or resolutions but from her love for Frankie, which leaves her both with child and diametrically opposed to Sammy. The seeds of agency sowed in “Higher,” Kei’s stirring anthem, never grow and blossom into action; she remains acted upon and beholden to the whims of men until her ghostly presence galvanizes Sammy’s redemption in the finale. Even if Kei can’t take up arms or embark upon campaigns during her internment, surely there are other avenues besides violence and politics that can illuminate a woman’s strength and individuality.

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The list goes on and on. Even Angelica and Eliza don’t get much to do in Hamilton, instead functioning primarily as love interests for Alexander who only appear onstage when he’s concerned, despite Angelica’s powerful feminist spiel in “The Schuyler Sisters” and Eliza’s laundry list of accomplishments in the show’s finale.

Fortunately, there are a few antidotes to this epidemic of telling. Fun Home takes us on a journey through the labyrinthine memory of Alison Bechdel, all the while unearthing and exploring her feelings on love, gender, sexuality, art, parenting, and the very nature of memory itself. Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron pull absolutely no punches in this show: Alison’s struggles are front-and-center here, presented with remarkable insight and authenticity. John Caird and Paul Gordon’s Daddy Long Legs, currently playing off-Broadway, recounts four years in the life of an impoverished orphan, Jerusha Abbott, as she furthers her education. Like Alison, Jerusha (also her show’s narrator) is given the space to navigate her place in society: we see her embrace socialism, work, make friends, write several books, and even fall in love, thereby capturing a comprehensively human experience rather than a specifically gendered one.

As Jeanine Tesori said in her recent Tony acceptance speech with Lisa Kron, girls “have to see it to be it.” We can’t simply be content with hearing about the actions, passions, interests, and beliefs of women—we have to experience them for ourselves, just as we’re shown the full lives of male characters manifest onstage time and time again. Failing to give female characters in musical theatre the space to propel their own stories simply doesn’t cut it anymore. Telling is easy—it’s the showing that’s hard. But for the sake of girls everywhere who look to musicals for inspiration and identification, we need to do better.

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