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Revolutions, Revelations and Angelica Schuyler

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It’s hard to talk about Hamilton’s Angelica without thinking about Eponine, that other figure of unrequited love in a smash hit musical. But once you’ve noted that they both sing a song about the guy they don’t end up with, the similarities pretty much end. Eponine, for all her iconicness, is the prototypical waif. She sadly wanders the streets, dreaming of love from the guy who doesn’t love her back, before dying tragically in a futile attempt to help him.

Angelica is not having any of that nonsense. Her story isn’t so much one of unrequited love than one of regret. She chooses to step aside and introduce Alexander to Eliza, partly because she overthinks the situation and judges things wrong, and partly because she values her sister’s happiness over her own. Her song is one of agency, of decision making and complex emotions, rather than just wistful sadness.

Even the song titles show how different they are. Eponine is on her own, lamenting her helplessness. Angelica has created this situation herself, because of ambition and overthinking, because she can never be satisfied.

And, of course, there’s Angelica’s moment in The Reynolds Pamphlet: “I’m not here for you.” Yes, Eliza has a connection to Alexander, and yes, he’s important to her, but her priority is Eliza. She’s a Schuyler sister first and always.

But although Angelica is a fantastic reinvention of the Eponine trope, is this the best thing that Hamilton could have done with her character? The musical clearly presents Angelica as a strongminded badass with political opinions and a lot to say, but (understandably) her actions in the musical are mostly focussed around Alexander. But Angelica was also close to Jefferson and was a fabulous urbane influencer for most of her life. Like she hopes in The Schuyler Sisters, she befriended Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette while in France, and even introduced Jefferson to the Federalist Papers. She was so politically-minded that she took the dangerous journey back to the US in 1789 to see Washington’s inauguration, and she took many political actions herself, including helping victims of the French Revolution, and writing to Washington for help when Lafayette was sent to an Austrian prison. Her letters to and from various revolutionary leaders are important documents about the period.

She was also something of a rebel, eloping with John Church in 1777 because her father didn’t approve of the marriage. This isn’t all to say that she was some modern-day feminist, misplanted in time, not least because there’s evidence that her husband was a slave-owner himself. But she is a fascinating figure, with a much bigger role to play in the story of the founding of America than as the sister in love with Alexander Hamilton.

To be honest, I kind of want a musical about her. A Hamilton sequel, maybe? Please, Lin-Manuel Miranda?

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Watching It Burn: Eliza Hamilton and Narrative

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Like most of the internet, I’m currently completely obsessed with Hamilton. And since I’m a sucker for meta about narrative and perspective… let’s talk about Eliza, shall we?

Eliza’s story is preoccupied with her place in the musical’s narrative. As the story progresses, she moves from asking Alexander to “let [her] be a part of the narrative” of his life, to erasing herself from the narrative after his betrayal, to finally creating the narrative herself after his death.

You can see how Eliza’s story in the musical grew directly from the fact that there isn’t much left of her story in real life. Women are often left out of historical accounts, leaving us to scrape together the tiniest pieces of evidence to guess at their feelings and actions. None of Eliza’s letters to Alexander survive, even though she worked hard to ensure that Alexander’s correspondence, including his letters to her, were preserved. She left her own feelings out of the narrative of Alexander’s life, even though she was its main curator. So what is a musical to do when representing her?

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The Modern Cinderella

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2015 seems to be the Year of the Cinderella Retelling, with book and movie versions of the classic tale cropping up everywhere.

Disney released two Cinderella adaptations this year — the live action versions starring Lily James, and the new adaptation of Into the Woods starring Anna Kendricks. The first is a rather earnest, traditional retelling of the story, while Into the Woods seems dedicated to showing how mistaken such fairy tale dreams are. With such drastically different approaches in mind, it seems like the movies should have entirely different messages at their conclusions. And yet in both stories, the different Cinderellas find happiness, can find family, by learning to accept who they are.

And this is a thread I see in almost every modern Cinderella adaptation I find. Whether the adaptation is traditional or radical, the modern Cinderella is reframed as a story of self-discovery, rather than prince discovery, where she needs to have the courage to be truly herself to find her happily ever after.

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Into the Woods

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As a fan of fairy tales — and of twisted fairy tales especially — it’s kind of ridiculous that I had never seen or heard anything from Into the Woods until I went to see the movie last weekend. Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack and Rapunzel combined into one cross-fairy-tale adventure, with the “happy ending” in the middle before all of the characters’ wishes turn dark and fall apart? Perfect!

Obviously, I can’t compare things to the Broadway version, so take this as a commentary on the movie only. But I thought this was a really fun and interesting movie. It had its flaws — especially when it came to pacing and its attempts to lighten up the subject matter — but it was visually gorgeous, magical to listen to, and, best of all, had a fantastic range of fascinating female characters.

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The Problem with Les Miserables

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I’m going to start this post by saying that I LOVE Les Miserables. I love the music, I love the characters, it’s one of my favorite musicals, and I was thrilled when I got the chance to see it on the West End last week.

That said, boy does this musical lack good female characters.

Sure, Fantine and Eponine have great solos. And who hasn’t angstily empathized with Eponine and wished Marius would just see sense already? As far as I’m aware, her unrequited love makes her one of the most popular female characters in any musical.

But every female character in Les Miserables is consumed by male characters. Eponine sings of almost nothing but her unrequited love and then dies in that man’s arms after running errands to enable his relationship with Cosette. Cosette herself has spent life locked away, falls in love with Marius at first sight, and spends the rest of her time swooning over him and desperately wanting to be with him. Madam Thenardier is a fun double act with her husband, but no one would deny that Thenardier himself is the main comic relief character and that his wife is an accessory in his scenes. And although Fantine comes the closest to being an independent character, she sings about her wish that Cosette’s father would return to her, and her story is framed entirely by Jean Valjean — him ignoring her plight at the beginning, and then him rescuing her and promising to care for Cosette when she dies.

It’s pretty bleak, when the musical has so many complex and compelling male characters. Jean Valjean struggles with how to be a good man. Javert has a similar struggle on the other side of the fence in his dogged pursuit of a criminal. The students are all passionate about politics and freedom. The bishop shows unexpected goodness. And even Marius gets time to be loyal to his friends and care about revolution along with his longing for Cosette. Yet the female characters are all about romance, or accessories to the male protagonists in some way.

The portrayal of all female characters (bar Mme Thenardier) as helpless and weak even makes the male characters look worse. Are we supposed to call Jean Valjean a hero for taking sympathy on a dying Fantine, or think him a good person for keeping Cosette locked away her entire life? Can we like Marius, when he agrees to lie to Cosette about where her father has gone, and only brings her to see him when he learns that Valjean saved his life? He keeps them separate as long as Valjean only means something to Cosette, but once he realizes that Valjean is important to him as well, he reunites them. And this is sympathetic?

Of course, the musical is constrained by the plot of the original novel, and as I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment the material that the writers of the musical had to work with. But even the basic plot would have allowed for more depth and interaction between female characters, if someone cared to give it to them. Eponine gets a couple of lines about how she remembers Cosette, but it would have been far more interesting to see the two interact, given their history. Perhaps female characters could have had more to say about the revolution, besides mourning the dead. What was Eponine’s opinion on it? And how does Eponine feel about her family? Does she want anything in life beyond Marius? And Cosette: what does she think of her mother? We could easily hear more about how she’s frustrated at being kept in the dark, an idea that is introduced in In My Life. And yet we don’t. It’s all men, all the time.

And that’s incredibly disappointing in a musical that gets so many other things right.

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Appreciating Wicked

Last week, I found this fabulous article on The Toast: Wicked, haters to the left, please. In it, writer Sarah James recalls her teenage self’s obsession with the musical, and then her about-face to superior loathing, based on the idea that real Broadway fans don’t like musicals that are so teenage girl-y. She then explores how this “grown up” view on Wicked reveals the idea that teenage girls’ needs and emotions are inferior.

But saying Wicked is not a legitimate work of art for a particular audience is saying that the particular audience is not legitimate. Teenage women deserve to see stories about characters with whom they identify onstage. They are not “brainless” for enjoying having a language with which to talk about themselves. I’m not saying the show should exist above criticism; just that “too much spectacle” can’t be code for “too much spectacle for a trivial subject like women’s emotions.”

This article is perfectly timed for me. I doubt that I would count as a “real Broadway fan,” based on the comments on the article, because I’ve loved every cliched “teenage girl” musical there is: RentPhantom of the Opera, Spring Awakening. Eponine is my favorite Les Mis character and I’ve melodramatically sung On My Own a little too often. And of course, I sang along to Wicked every morning as a teenager, and actually cried when I saw Idina Menzel play Elphaba on the West End. And although Wicked has been tucked deep into my iTunes, completely unheard for a few years, my newfound obsession with Frozen put it back on my playlist this week, leading to me singing along to it every night as I cook dinner and wash the dishes.

I don’t think I can say much about the “appeals to teenage girls” aspect of Wicked without rehashing what the article on The Toast has already said better. But I want to go further into the idea that it’s only for teenage girls. The idea of Elphaba as the ugly outsider dreaming of recognition and love is a powerful one, and the focus on female ambition and female friendship makes for an inspiring and emotional show for any teenager struggling with her own friendships and ambitions and difficulty finding her place in the world. But the dismissal of Wicked as a spectacle for brainless, over-emotional teenage girls also includes the harmful idea that “grown up women” don’t have these struggles.

Movies, novels, TV shows and I’m sure “grown up, serious” musicals are full of the themes and questions in Wicked, but with serious, male characters. Male friendship (or “bromance”) that transcends all difficulties and all other relationships. Guys pursuing their ambitions despite being outsiders. Men fighting against the system. And of course all that “spectacle” of car chases and gun fights and explosions that no real human being would ever survive. But when female characters develop close friendships and struggle to find meaning, with some spectacle and romance thrown in, it’s only for silly teenage girls.

Perhaps I’m just trying to excuse my ugly crying last night while singing along to For Good, but at twenty five, my close female friends are still as important to me as at fifteen. And although the emotions aren’t quite as raw, I don’t think women stop feeling like they’re outsiders, like they’re not pretty or good enough, or stop having intense ambition once they stop being in high school. Friends still have disagreements. Dreams still turn out to have been empty. Ambition still drives people forwards. And it’s still powerful and moving to see those struggles portrayed by female characters (and, yes, to sing along to Defying Gravity as though you can actually hit those high notes). Wicked is definitely a family-friendly musical, and teenage girls are definitely the ones most influential in driving its popularity, as they are for almost anything that reaches insane-popularity-status, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be shunned by anybody in any other category, or that “grown up” women shouldn’t be able to find an emotional connection with it as well. After all, grown up men aren’t expected to stop enjoying movies about superheroes or playing Grand Theft Auto or other things that teenage boys stereotypically enjoy. But silly things like emotional connection and representation of your friendships and struggles? Those things need to be put away with boy bands, braces and highschool rivalry, as elements of our immature, girlish younger selves.

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On Fantine

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It’s difficult to know what to think of Fantine in Les Miserables. She’s a tragic figure who sings a fantastic song, but as she dies quite early in the musical, it also seems highly possible to dismiss her as a Victorian cliche. She is, to put it simply, the tragic fallen woman, who gets pregnant, turns to prostitution to support herself, and dies (assumedly) of consumption. Yet she also represents another cliche of Victorian literature, of the selfless, self-sacrificing, utterly devoted mother, and it is partly this combination of cliches, I think, that makes Fantine a powerful character.

Because let’s be honest. The figure of the tragic prostitute, or the tragically fallen woman, and the figure of the sacrificing mother rarely meet as one figure. They belong in different realms — both are likely to die, but one is a cautionary tale about female behavior and a romanticisation of downfall, and the other is a sentimental (if tragic) celebration of the extreme virtues of motherhood. The fact that Victor Hugo, and eventually the musical, combine these two common tropes of the Victorian novel allows them to present a character who pulls on the heartstrings in a reassuringly familiar way… but who also makes a bold and blunt commentary on the society that Hugo saw.

I only recently learned that Fantine’s character was inspired by an actual incident witnessed by Victor Hugo in Paris. He witnessed a man harassing a prostitute in the street, and then, when the woman fought back, calling the police and insisting that she be arrested for her attack. Hugo interceded on the woman’s behalf, but could not get the unfairness of the incident out of his mind, and his ponderings on the woman’s history and the possibility of her having a child led him to create the character of Fantine. In some ways, this is a rather uncomfortable anecdote, not only for what it said about society at the time but also because Hugo felt the need to purify the woman into a completely selfless mother in his story to make her sympathetic. However, it also reveals the (plainly obvious, I think) attempts of both Hugo and the later musical at presenting a social critique, at trying to address real situations experienced by real women, and pointing out that the tragic fallen woman is not just a romantic cliche, but a reality that must be prevented.

Ultimately, I think Fantine succeeds as a character because, although she has little agency in the story and dies tragically early on, she is given a voice and a perspective of her own. She sings one of the musical’s most powerful songs, and our hearts are with her the entire time she is onstage. From the time she appears until her death, Valjean is all but forgotten. This is her story, and it is a heartbreaking one, allowing her to be somewhat cliched, utterly sympathetic and compelling, a real-feeling character, and an excellent source of social commentary, all at the same time.

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Disliking Cosette

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I, like pretty much everyone who has seen Les Miserables, am a firm supporter of Team Eponine. I fangirl Lea Salonga, I love On My Own, and my gut reactions sort Eponine and Cosette into “the awesome one” and “the annoying one.”

It’s easy for me to understand my love for Eponine. She has great songs, she’s sympathetic, and as the brave girl suffering under unrequited love, she’s fairly easy to connect with and hope for happiness for her. The general dislike of Cosette is harder to understand, because… well, because there’s not much there to dislike. And that is, I think, actually the reason why Cosette is so unpopular. She has little personality and little struggle of her own. She’s a cipher, a plot device, so that Marius can fall in love, so that Eponine can have more conflict, so that Valjean can struggle and have a reason to join the barricades in the second half of the play. And when a cipher seems to float into a position (or in this case, a relationship) that a more sympathetic character has strived for and failed to get, it is more than easy to dislike her, because she has no personality or struggles of her own to recommend her.

Young!Cosette is quite sympathetic, even heartbreaking, but if I were asked to describe adult!Cosette, I think I would get stuck on “blonde.” Perhaps I could expand it to include her rather high-pitched singing voice, and throw in “loving daughter” and “in love with Marius.” The song In My Life makes some effort to throw light on her generally isolated life and her frustration that her father is keeping secrets from her, but I think these details are quickly lost when the song merges into a love song with Marius. As an adult, her entire presence in the story involves seeing Marius, falling instantly in love with him, singing a song about it, and then getting married at the end. Happiness seems to come easily to her; her romance is unbelievable, and her pure sweetness and fairytale fortune seem rather out of place in an otherwise dark and bitter world.

I find it interesting, and a little disheartening, that it is so easy to dislike a female character who isn’t really a character at all. It’s not that her focus on romance makes her too “girly,” since Eponine’s highly sympathetic plotline also involves her love for Marius, but that, without the depth that other Les Miserables characters receive, it’s too easy to dismiss her into a dislikeable feminine trope: the simpering, unworthy other woman. There’s little evidence to support this conclusion, but there’s also little evidence to disprove it, and so a viewing public that is both used to these kinds of simple categories and immersed in a show where most people don’t get the happy endings they would seem to deserve, are happy to dislike and dismiss her.

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