During the first act of “Once Upon a One More Time,” the Broadway jukebox musical that grooves to the Britney Spears oeuvre, a fairy godmother arrives with a present for Cinderella. A gown? No. Glass slippers? No. Cin has enough already. Instead, her godmother gifts her a copy of Betty Friedan’s 1963 best seller, “The Feminine Mystique.”
It’s a clumsy gesture in the show, which plans to close next month. (Feminist thought has advanced in 60 years!) And arguably emblematic of a recent spate of Broadway musicals that set feminism to a pop beat, including “Six,” a zippy modern retelling of the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives; “& Juliet,” whose protagonist, miraculously alive, embarks on a girls’ trip of self-discovery; and “Bad Cinderella” (now closed), a chaotic rejiggering of the classic fairy tale. Aimed at girls and women (historically the majority of Broadway ticket buyers), these shows may be sincere attempts to engage with women’s issues — or they’re hollow efforts to capitalize on calls for change. Empty political gestures on Broadway? To quote a song used in two of these shows: “Oops! … I did it again.”
On a recent morning, Laura Collins-Hughes, contributing theater critic and reporter; Salamishah Tillet, critic at large; and Lindsay Zoladz, pop music critic, gathered to debate facts and fairy tales. They discussed how narrowly these shows define empowerment, if they define it at all, and why Prince Charming gets the best song. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
The recent musicals “Six,” “& Juliet,” “Bad Cinderella” and “Once Upon a One More Time” take female empowerment as their central theme. Are these shows actually empowering or legibly feminist?
LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES I wouldn’t say any of them are feminist.
SALAMISHAH TILLET Some are empowering, others are not. “Six” is partly feminist, because it shows the impact of King Henry VIII’s misogyny. With the exception of Anne Boleyn, most of his wives have been relegated to the margins. My 11-year-old daughter really loved that these women finally reclaimed their stories and did it with style! But I felt like I was at a fun pop concert rather than at a big Broadway musical.
COLLINS-HUGHES “Six” drives me completely up the wall. It wants to have a good time in the neighborhood of spousal murder and abandonment, singing “I don’t need your love.” As if Henry’s love had anything to do with it. As if abuse is what a man’s love for a woman looks like.
LINDSAY ZOLADZ I like “Six,” but probably for the reason Salamishah doesn’t — it’s basically a pop concert. I do think the overarching problem with these musicals is the way they fail to define terms, presenting “empowerment” and “feminism” as given, unexamined virtues. Instead of the marriage proposal that supposedly leads to the happily ever after, it’s … empowerment ever after? “Once Upon a One More Time” provided the clearest distillation of the trend. Cinderella’s “feminist awakening” is spurred by her fairy godmother giving her “The Feminine Mystique.” Seriously. The book is treated like a magical talisman throughout the rest of the show, but its actual content is never engaged with. That seems beyond the show’s grasp. Though the book is on sale for $20 in the lobby gift shop.
TILLET I gasped when she discovered the book.
ZOLADZ Not in a good way, I’m guessing.
Doesn’t Cinderella know that women’s studies syllabuses have moved on?
TILLET Or that Friedan was heavily criticized for her bourgeois feminism back in the day? Is it weird that we are still locating the beginnings of feminism exclusively in the sexual liberation of straight, white, middle-class, stay-at-home 1950s wives? But that’s an ongoing problem, not just on Broadway.
Why do you think we’re seeing these shows now? Is it a cynical attempt to appeal to female ticket buyers or something more organic?
TILLET These shows, despite their best intentions, seem limited by their source material. There was a lot of Cinderella this year! The publicity appeal of anything Cinderella is obvious, so for Broadway theaters struggling to get audiences back into the theater, of course it is a ploy.
COLLINS-HUGHES “Bad Cinderella” could have been so much more than it was. It is a messy show, it’s always been a messy show, but in London it was actually fun. It had a bit of substance to it. And magic. The feminism, which was so clear and so dramatically propulsive in the London version, was wiped away for Broadway.
I took my daughter to “Bad Cinderella” and afterward we had a conversation about the show’s messaging, which was confused at best. Is it asking too much of a musical to also have great messages?
COLLINS-HUGHES This question makes me think we all live in fear of that riposte that often greets girls and women who won’t laugh along at a joke that’s not funny: “Where’s your sense of humor?” It’s perfectly legitimate to recoil from a show whose message bugs you, and all the more if it’s at odds with its girl-power, you-be-you marketing.
And yet if a show is successful enough in other ways, the messaging may not matter. That was my delighted experience of “& Juliet.”
TILLET This was definitely my favorite pop feminist musical of the year. I was genuinely intrigued by the conceit of what happens if Juliet doesn’t die. What life does she make for herself beyond the formula prescribed for her? The musical opens up possibilities for her as a protagonist. And with its thoughtful casting of Lorna Courtney as a Black Juliet and Justin David Sullivan as the nonbinary character, May, it enables us to see Shakespeare differently, too.
COLLINS-HUGHES When it has a top-notch cast, “& Juliet” is a blast. But I am baffled that people perceive it as feminist. It really is not.
ZOLADZ Say more!
COLLINS-HUGHES I don’t mean that it’s anti-feminist, but I don’t think it’s particularly female-centered — not on Juliet, nor on Anne Hathaway [Shakespeare’s wife], who gets one of the subplots.
With the exception of “Six,” these shows are largely created by men. Does that explain anything?
COLLINS-HUGHES Of course. It’s not that men can’t and don’t write women well or can’t imagine women’s lives. And it’s certainly not that artists should stick to writing only about people just like them. But they are writing from the outside. That can come with a lot of blind spots and a lot of misapprehensions.
All of these musicals use a pop vernacular, “Bad Cinderella” somewhat less so. Is pop, particularly pop written and produced by men, a useful form for feminist discourse?
ZOLADZ Something I’ve been thinking about regarding “Once Upon a One More Time” and especially “& Juliet,” which uses the songs of the massive millennial hitmaker Max Martin, is the lyrical limitation of a lot of modern pop music. Martin and the generation of pop architects who followed him treat lyrics almost as an afterthought. Martin has referred to his method of songwriting as “melodic math.” “& Juliet” was fun and more cleverly written than “Once Upon a One More Time,” but a lot of that had to do with the ironic distance between the lyrics themselves and the winking, metatextual way the characters employed them — like when “I Want It That Way,” by the Backstreet Boys, becomes not so much a love song as a narration of an argument between Shakespeare and his wife, who have conflicting opinions about how his latest play should end.
TILLET I hated a lot of those pop songs and found them anti-feminist when they originally came out, but when I sang along with the “& Juliet” audience and my tween daughter, I found that they aged better than I had expected. Or maybe, because I’m now middle-age, I’m mistaking nostalgia for progress.
COLLINS-HUGHES Inattention to lyrics is a limitation of jukebox musicals, but it doesn’t hold for original pop songs, which can be whatever the writer makes them. It would help, though, if more of the songwriters getting musicals produced were women.
ZOLADZ I generally pay more attention to pop music than Broadway musicals, so I found the sound of these shows to be quite striking. Modern pop’s influence is everywhere, especially in a show like “Six,” which is full of electronic beats, hip-hop cadences and direct nods to artists like Beyoncé and Ariana Grande. Is that a trend you have observed over time? And given that this is such a golden age for female pop stars, do you think that crossover appeal has something to do with the rise of these empowerment musicals?
COLLINS-HUGHES Musically, “Hamilton” changed Broadway, but it is very much a guy story. Having proved the hunger for modern pop musicals, it left a lot of room for female artists to fill.
Do these shows do that filling?
COLLINS-HUGHES Musically? Sometimes. But in terms of storytelling, generally no. There are such blinders on imagination, and there’s such an aversion to nuance. It’s a question of whom you’re trying to please. The perception of risk is about displeasing men, not the women and girls who might want to see smart, muscular new musicals.
Does the success of the Barbie movie, directed and co-written by a woman, with its several song and dance numbers, point a way forward?
COLLINS-HUGHES Absolutely, if the idea is to give the best numbers to the guys.
ZOLADZ And the charisma! That’s what ultimately sank “Once Upon a One More Time” for me: Cinderella was often the least compelling character onstage. Juliet didn’t fare much better. I don’t know if blandly “empowered” female characters are the answer. Too often it just feels like a shortcut. Writing flawed, idiosyncratic and more interesting female characters seems like a worthier goal, but most of these shows don’t want to take the risk.
TILLET If song choice in a musical is any indication of narrative priorities, “Once Upon a One More Time” had difficulty sustaining its attention on Cinderella and her awakening. Prince Charming got “Oops! … I Did It Again” and her stepmother had “Toxic.” When I watched “Barbie,” I realized how seductive patriarchy is onscreen or onstage, even when we say we are trying to smash it. Why do the Kens get that massive and amazing dance scene?
COLLINS-HUGHES A story about or aimed at women is so seldom deemed interesting enough on its own. But Hollywood, like commercial theater, is often in the business of blandification. And who’s blander than Ken? I’d like to think audiences want more than that.
These recent shows define empowerment narrowly, restricting it to questions of romantic and sexual relationships with men rather than any broader political awakenings. Why can’t these stories dream bigger or attempt something more intersectional?
TILLET I do think a lot of these producers feel that they are being intersectional, simply through casting. But while I appreciate so much more diversity onstage, it is still not enough. The musicals would really have to try to dismantle various forms of oppression at once. That takes nuance, patience and a really radical imagination. An older musical, “The Color Purple,” was successful at this, which brings us back to the strength of the source material, Alice Walker’s novel, and then a sizable female team behind its Broadway staging. It is an understatement to say that the evolution of Celie, who endured such abuse and trauma, is far more compelling than Cinderella’s!
ZOLADZ What I find missing from a lot of contemporary art about female empowerment is the way it focuses on the attainment of power and then stops there. What about stories about how easily power can corrupt those who have it? Yes, even women!
COLLINS-HUGHES This is a thing that “Wicked” imagines. And two decades on, it’s still packing houses and making loads of money. That show is partly about a girl learning to harness the power of her outrage to fight against injustice in the world.
TILLET I’ve seen “Wicked” twice recently. The depth of the storytelling — when the villain and heroine aren’t what they seem — it is just so good. Is it feminist? Maybe. Does it reveal the power and heartbreak of female friendship as the ultimate love story? Very much so. For that alone, it provides a wonderful model for how to really revel in the inner worlds of women onstage.