Monday, March 23, 2015

Modern Musical Tropes : Women's Roles

A friend is programming a season at her student camp and asked for musicals with "progressive gender politics." The conversation went in many interesting directions. I took a look at a list of contemporary musicals produced between 2000 and 2015 and began to categories the types of roles and relationships currently being written for our leading ladies. Here are some trends I found.

The Girlfriend
When the plot hinges on the man's ambition the leading lady is often reduced to the love interest. She may have hopes and dreams of her own outside the relationship, but they are rarely pursued within the plotline. Ulla in The Producers wants a show business career but she's primarily written as a love interest and foil for the leading men as they plan their caper.

  • Aladdin (2014)
  • Big Fish (2013)
  • Catch Me If You Can (2011)
  • Elf: The Musical (2010)
  • The Producers (2001) 

Spunky Ingenues
When the focus shifts from the leading man to the leading lady, but her goal still revolves around landing a man, we get this. What's a catchier term for it?

  • The Little Mermaid (2008) *** In which Ariel gets the stage time but Ursula steals the show.
  • Marguerite (2008)
  • Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002)

Mother and Daughter 
Gypsy set the gold standard but mother/daughter relationships can still serve as a focus or subplot of a musical. In several of these examples the daughter wants a boyfriend or career path that the mother doesn't approve of.

  • The Addams Family (2010)
  • Bat Boy (2001)
  • Curtains (2007) (in which the ingenue is "The Girlfriend" but Carmen and Bambi's feud gets significant focus. As an added bonus everyone is a murder suspect.)
  • Grey Gardens (2006)
  • The Light in the Piazza (2005)

Good Girl / Bad Girl
Ado Annie and Laurie. Adelaide and Sarah. Roxie and Velma.
When two leading ladies are in orbit their personalities are often polar opposites. If they have separate love interests you get the comic/dramatic couple split. If they're both interested in the same man (or job) you can get a good girl/bad girl rivalry. If the focus is on one woman the second is usually an antagonist to be overcome. Other times the women join forces towards a common goal.

  • Avenue Q (2003)
  • A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (2013)
  • Jane Eyre (2000)
  • Legally Blonde (2007)
  • Love Never Dies (2010)
  • Wicked (2003)
  • Both Wild Parties (2000)

Teacher and Students
Some interesting variations here. The teachers will often clash with parents or authority figures who disapprove of their methods. Caroline doesn't quite fit this category. She keeps refusing the mentor role thrust upon her by her employers son as she's got children of her own to raise. 

  • Billy Elliot (2008)
  • Caroline or Change (2003)
  • Mary Poppins (2006)
  • Matilda (2012)
  • Sister Act (2011)

Friendship Trio
Three women band together against a male adversary. The musicals in this mini-genre are all based on films. How many more films are left to adapt in this vein?

  • Nine to Five (2009)
  • The First Wives Club (2009)
  • The Witches of Eastwick (2000)

Here are some new musicals that didn't immediately fit into any of these categories.

  • The Drowsy Chaperone (2006) - Janet and Mrs. Tottendale want husbands. Kitty wants a career. Trix is a deus ex machina. The Chaperone wants a drink. 
  • Fun Home (2015) - the focus is a father/daughter relationship
  • The Color Purple (2005) - The many women in Miss Celie's life help her with her journey towards independence. 
  • See What I Wanna See (2005) - Three short stories in which the featured women play vamps, killers, fortune tellers and a dying mentor figure. 
  • Spelling Bee, The 25th Annual Putnam County (2005) - The three women competing in the Bee have parental and peer pressures to wrestle with. 
  • Title of Show (2008) - Heidi and Susan clash with their gay BFF's as they put together a show for a festival.
  • Women on the Verge (2011) - they all want revenge against the man who abandoned them, but it doesnt' seem to fit the Friendship Trio template.

What are some tropes for women I've missed? What are some tropes for men?
What is your definition of "progressive gender politics?"

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