Archive for April, 2013


So I have this friend. She’s a little smarter than me. (Maybe more than a little.) She also writes about theatre, feminism, and generally gender and social issues in theatre and other entertainment media. And we often talk about this stuff in written form, because we don’t live near each other, and then I sit back and think gee, I wish I’d written that as a blog post instead of it just being a chat between two nerdy friends. Can I just copy and paste these conversations and call it a blog? And then she, because she is a little smarter than me, or maybe just more willing to sound pretentious – you decide – says things like “Hey, if Diderot did it…” (Side note: Say that sentence out loud once or twice. Wasn’t that fun?)

In conclusion: Dialogues between She and Me are now a thing.

Today we talked about the Broadway adaptations of Matilda and The Little Mermaid and what it means that the character of Miss Trunchbull is portrayed by a male actor in drag (Bertie Carvel, nominated for a Tony for his performance) while Ursula, whose animated origins were inspired by a drag queen, is given to a female performer. 

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Me: I don’t know much about Matilda the Musical. Apparently Trunchbull is a drag role. That sorta sucks. Big, brassy, tough women need roles too.

She: Well, I think that it is highly British in tradition? Because it’s like a panto role. (Speaking of which, the Trunchbull from the Matilda movie is in Call the Midwife.)

Me: I’ve never seen the movie. I kind of … refuse. I just have too many feelings about the book.

She: Oh. Well, it has its moments. It’s weird because it’s American. But the Trunchbull, playing an American character in this movie, is actually this British woman. BUT, I agree with you about drag roles, generally.

Me: There’s also… this whole vibe in the book, I’m not sure I can articulate? I’m sure it’s been written about many many many times. But something about different kinds of female power. Because Trunchbull obviously, and Matilda’s physical powerlessness being overcome by her intelligence channeled into a physical force; and then Miss Honey’s powerlessness in her own situation, but her strength of character helps her there; and then in Matilda’s family, the dynamic with the mother and father, affects that message, too. And making Trunchbull a drag role doesn’t necessarily make that message go away, or undermine it even, but it does change it.

I don’t know much about the show, like I said. So it might be that the creators thought about that, realized it, wanted to make it a drag role BECAUSE of that – to emphasize something about misogyny, the patriarchy, female agency, power, etc? Because Trunchbull is the one primarily keeping down both Matilda and Miss Honey, she is the manifestation of oppression. So, okay, make her a man on one theatrical level, and you’re maybe highlighting that power imbalance. BUT… I do feel like it’s likelier that she was made a drag role because she’s this big, loud, athletic, ‘unfeminine’ character. And that’s not good enough. I may be completely underestimating the show and its writers. That might be completely unfair.

She: I like your reasoning but I think that it would probably not be a drag role if it were not a British import. I haven’t seen it, but I wonder if it’s like when they do various fairy tales as pantos in Britain – they often have characters like the Wicked Stepmother played by men.

Me: That’s done a lot in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, too, with the stepsisters. But then back up into THAT reasoning, British it may be, or more traditional though it may be – it’s still the unpretty, unfeminine, villainous, big/broad/brassy characters. Maybe that’s obvious – ‘the unfeminine females are played by men’ – but that’s still something to notice. Opera tradition, in contrast, seems more willing to have … I don’t know how to say this. ‘Pretty’ gender switching? In both directions – soubrettes and castrati. I mean, castrati are a whole other can of worms, but.

Back to Broadway, though –in Hairspray, the whole kind of charming thing about Edna is that she’s a very feminine character, and very sympathetic, and very dainty, and also romantic. Edna and Wilbur get a love duet and everything, and she’s also very maternal, and yet a drag role. She’s physically large, but she’s not the villainized masculine woman, the un-woman, of characters like the Trunchbull. And that (Edna) is sort of unusual and rather nice. Though I still throw out a little weak flag of “more roles for women!”

I can’t remember the details or exact context now. But I remember someone talking, when The Little Mermaid opened on Broadway, about how Ursula should be a drag role. That she’s a drag queen-type character, based on a drag queen in the original animated movie, so the Broadway production should have her as a drag role. And I was like, okay, but wait, sometimes women can play those brassy, broad, ‘un-feminine’ or over-feminine characters, too. Come on, Sherie Rene Scott is SHERIE RENE SCOTT so let’s not talk about replacing her with a man just for a shock value that isn’t shocking. Or for a bit of comedy that’s based on an inherent discomfort with effeminate men and gender role issues. Aside from the movie’s animation inspiration, there is no dramaturgical reason for Ursula to be a drag role, however much she fits into that character type. And you can’t keep taking away all the larger than life, brassy female villains from female performers.

She: Real. So real. I get so mad when people don’t recognize the inherent discriminations and the lack of female roles.

Me: There are already a LOT of male roles in that show.

She: Yeah. All the sidekicks are men. Sebastian, Flounder, Scuttle.

Me: Eric, King Triton, the Chef. Either way, the other mermaid daughters get very little to do, and aren’t fleshed out characters. It’s really just Ariel and Ursula. And Ursula, turning into the alterna-Ariel, fits fits into both the wicked (drag) stepmother slot and the (dark-haired) anti-virgin slot. (Only in the original movie, though. They cut that for the stage show, replacing that plot line with some kind of Cinderella’s-slipper-singing-contest thing.) And that added character, Carlotta the castle housekeeper, as an added mother figure type of thing. An anti-Ursula, perhaps? But that’s it.

[At this point, we started discussing the article “Where Do The Mermaids Stand? Voice and Body in The Little Mermaid” by Laura Sells, published in From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture. We’ll wait while you go read it.]

Me: Going off that premise– Ursula teaching Ariel how to perform gender– I can see the argument for Ursula as a drag role but even more, the argument for Ursula to NEED to be played by a female, still. Premise: Ursula teaches Ariel about gender performativity. Therefore: A female character (Ariel) CAN perform the idea of female. (This version being, voiceless for a man.) I posit that the performative and artificial nature of the construct of gender are better highlighted by a female actress, performing Female past the point society has, at this time, arbitrarily decided is acceptably feminine – performing, in fact, on a level of Male-as-Female (appropriation by the male?) – guiding a female actress/female character to perform her own femininity to exactly the point arbitrarily deemed acceptable and desirable for a female. CONCLUSION: Let us have Ursula. You get everyone else.

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Picking the perfect song for an audition is stressful. It is, in fact, way more stressful than the situation merits. After all, in the end, you’re still the same singer/actor/face whatever you pick. Still, the song choice does make a difference — you want it to show off  your range and vocal ability, you want lyrics that work outside of the show’s context, you want a character/story with which you can connect… And maybe that’s why some songs, songs that seem to have these magic qualities, get used over and over and over and over again. Thus completely negating any audition-worthy traits they had in the first place.

So here it is — my list of the top 5 songs to avoid taking to an audition: Teenage/20something Belting Girl edition!
1. On My Own (Les Miserables)
This song is like a cockroach. Every time you think its popularity may have waned, they go and have an anniversary tour, or a concert recording, or a damn (surprisingly good) (but let’s talk about the camerawork later) movie. And back it comes, with its easy range and plaintive “omg I TOTALLY get Eponine” unrequited love/awkward girl connections. I was using this song for my auditions 10 years ago, so I guess I can’t pretend not to understand its appeal. But still. Still? After all these years? Always. (Snape out.)

2. Astonishing (Little Women)
A slightly newer favorite, and maybe less obvious than “On My Own” — “Astonishing” is the “On My Own” of those who have actually been in a few shows. Don’t get me wrong, I totally get the appeal. If you have the voice for it, it’s a great show piece. It requires absolutely no context for the faintly generic lyrics. It’s easily and tidily cut. And the “I’ve just got to get out of the suburbs and be superduper awesome!” message couldn’t resonate more with a particular type of wide-eyed girl dying to belt her way onto Broadway. But roughly 80% of the people who choose it, can’t sing it, probably because if you’ve been around enough, had lessons and been in shows enough, to be able to sing it… you have other options and know that “Astonishing” isn’t astonishing anymore.

3. I’m Not That Girl (Wicked)
Do I even need to explain? Like “On My Own”, this song’s unspecific lament of unrequited love strikes a chord with many of the “she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers” set, and there’s something to be said for acting what you know. But it doesn’t show off your voice (not even as much as “On My Own” does) and really, no one’s interested in how much you totally ARE Elphaba. It’s possible that in many, many more years, it’ll be useable, but it’ll never be a strong audition piece even when it’s less popular. Remember, just because a song resonates with you, doesn’t mean it’ll do you any favors in the audition room.

4. The Story Goes On (Baby)
Choosing this song for an audition, you get a little more leeway from me. At least it’s a lesser known show, and props for picking Maltby and Shire. But you know, there are other songs in Baby. There really are. (“Patterns” is my favorite.) (“Patterns” is my favorite in every category.) I get it — it’s youthful, it’s vocally showy (if you got it, flaunt it), and to its credit, at least it’s an optimistic song, unlike certain other loser-girl ballads on this list. If no one else in the world had ever conceived of using this song for an audition, I’d say go for it (unlike “I’m Not That Girl”). Unfortunately, everyone else had the same bright idea as you. And considering the consistency and longevity “The Story Goes On” has had in the 30 years since Baby opened on Broadway, there probably will never be a chance for you to take it out. Sorry ’bout that.

5. Anything by Frank Wildhorn
Look. I get it. Those dramatic mezzoland ballads make you feel powerful and significant. The lyrics are so generic, you can imagine any story you feel like acting onto them. The key changes generate a false sense of excitement. I GET IT.

But seriously, if you’re dragging a Wildhorn song to an audition, you need to reconsider your life choices.

Story time: Ten years ago, I sang “Memory” (yes, THAT “Memory”) at an audition for the school edition Les Miserables. Somehow, I was cast anyway. (To be fair, the girl who ended up playing Cosette also sang “Memory”…right before me…and better.) Despite my own inability to pick a less ridiculous audition piece, I still took note of how many people came in with Wildhorn songs (mostly Jekyll and Hyde — the boys prefer The Scarlet Pimpernel). I estimated roughly 60-70% of the girls sang Jekyll and Hyde – 90% of that was “Someone Like You.”

Let’s all agree to end the madness now.

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Remember! Just because you shouldn’t bring it into the audition room, doesn’t mean you can’t sing it in your shower. I thoroughly encourage singing these songs in the shower. There is no better venue for a Wildhorn ballad, in fact, and the water streaming down your face totally hides your tears of unrequited love.

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What other songs would you recommend avoiding at auditions? Or do you disagree with my list – do you think the virtues of “Astonishing” outweigh its unfortunate overuse? Do you really, really, REALLY connect with Eponine and Elphaba and just need to share that with the casting director? Comment below!

The very first thing I posted here and on the Upstaged Facebook page yesterday was an announcement that Anne Hathaway would be making her Broadway debut this September as Sally Bowles in a revival of Cabaret. This morning, Twitter informed me that this announcement was a sad, sad hoax, and Broadway.com took it all back. So I deleted the posts.

I really feel like that’s an inauspicious beginning for Upstaged, but let’s call it a rehearsal.

Still, I really liked the idea of Hathaway as Sally. After her award-winning turn in the Les Miserables movie, it seemed completely plausible as well as completely awesome. I’d totally buy tickets to see that. (Especially as Alan Cumming would also be/is in fact in the production.) (Until they tell me that one was a false rumor, too. Lies and deception everywhere I turn!)

Sally may not be played by Anne Hathaway any time soon, but the role has been performed previously by her Les Mis co-star Samantha Barks, as well as movie stars Molly Ringwald, Lea Thompson (who will never, ever be anything other than Marty McFly’s mom to me), Brooke Shields, and the eternally wonderful Dame Judi Dench. And yes, in case you couldn’t tell from my superlatives, that last is the one I most wish I could have seen.

Who would you most love to see play this iconic Broadway role? Leave your dream casting in the comments. (Bonus points for dream cast Emcees to go with your Sallys!)

Happy birthday, Billy Shakespeare

Happy birthday…and death day…to a certain Mr. Shakespeare. He may be 449 years old, but he doesn’t look a day over 400.

Can't find the word he's looking for : Invents It

Shakespeare invented swag.