Nevertheless, They Persisted: Female Representation in Modern Musical Theatre
The past six months have left me, as well as much of America, confused and struggling to find their footing. I know I’m not alone when I say that, as a young woman in her 20s, the climate of our country threw me for a loop. My place of refuge and solace became Broadway and what cemented that was the Public Theatre’s production of “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire”.
Now, my college friends know how obsessed I am with this musical (David Byrne—where is the cast album???) but not many out there may realize how impactful this show was for a variety of reasons and how it has, in my perspective, added to the transformation of modern musical theatre.
Joan of Arc is a story many people know; girl cuts her hair and sheds traditional femininity to lead French army, girl is accused of witchcraft and blasphemy, girl is burned at the stake, girl is canonized. And for some people, the story ends there. But the production at the Public shook me to my core and really got me thinking.
Jo Lampert’s Joan was not the traditional Joan of Arc we see in church depictions. Her Joan was androgynous with shaved sides and wearing clothes that hid physical features attributed to females. One lyric had her declaring, “This woman shape I now renounce” and another had her proclaim, “I’m not a boy and I’m not a girl”. To me, this was completely modern and new. A female heroine renouncing traditional feminine roles, of which she is later rebuked for not following, shook me to the core in the best of ways. This was a new kind of leading lady. A leading lady for those who maybe didn’t fully identify with traditional ingénues. This was a young woman who embraced the masculine side of herself and was flawed in her decision making but still fought for what she thought was right and just.
So many of the shows in the recent years have been experimenting with this type of woman. The woman who, for lack of a better term, doesn’t fit the mold. Lampert’s Joan pushes gender binary which is a concept that modern theatre writers are experimenting with more and more to many of my generation’s delight. Women who don’t blindly follow society’s rules set in front of them are coming to the forefront and embracing all of the flaws that come with their decisions.
Of course, Shakespeare productions allow for this experimentation and exploration as Shakespeare himself played with gender norms of the time by having many of his female characters take on the guise of men. In “Cymbeline”, Imogen takes on the guise of a man for protection and finds her strength in assisting the Roman commander then on taking lawful justice out on the men who tried to manipulate her existence because she is a woman. The same can be said of the women of “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812”. Most notably, Natasha is an example of a woman manipulated because of her innocence and she is ruined by both men and women. But through all this we see her regain her integrity and her struggle against a society who shapes her and tears her down. It’s empowering to see a woman “destroyed” start to find her redemption.Natasha’s innocence and desire to express herself is a reflection of many of the theatregoers in the audience at every show, just as Joan is reflected in audiences both female identifying and not.
What else is prevalent in these characters is the desire to persist and carry on no matter what comes their way. Whether it is social shame or even death, they inspire us to carry on. The same can be said of the countless other female characters on and off-Broadway. No matter the hardships they encounter, they persist. They are the inspiring woman that I and so many other women can identify with each time we go to experience a new story. None of them are weak yet they are all struggling to find something. Whether shunning traditional gender binary or embracing it, it is vital to see this diverse range of women onstage. And I’m hopeful that in our evolving age of modern musical theatre we keep seeing women who both challenge and embrace the roles women are traditionally seen in to give representation and importance to the stories of millions of women in America and throughout the world.
Amanda Thomas is a Connecticut native who is currently attending a University in New Jersey for Theatre Arts with a concentration in Musical Theatre. You can follow her on Twitter at @AmandaThomas_ as she navigates life, theatre, and the pursuit of petting every dog she sees.