In the face of having the first women in the history of the United States running for the highest political office our country, we have got to start thinking about the equal rights movement and how important women are in our performing arts world. Besides taking on the roles of writers, producers, directors, choreographers, performers and so many more, women characters are just as important to us. While some of these woman are wall flowers and others are in your face from the second they hit the stage, we would like to focus on one particular type of woman character: the strong female.
Since it takes a strong female to run for any political office here is our tribute to the strong female characters that sing and dance through our favorite musicals.
PS: this month of March is Women’s History Month! Join us as we honor women’s accomplishments in the performing arts with 3 select shows to stream – and for only $1 each! Learn more here.
1. Mary Poppins
This musical has a strong female lead as the title character but it also has quite the scrapper in Mrs. Banks as well. First we will look at Mary. Mary Poppins not only gets rid of her competition to be Jane and Michael’s newest nanny with an astounding wind, she makes no apologies to Mr. Banks when he is interviewing her that this job and whether or not she takes it will be decided by her and her alone.
Of course, once she is in place as the children’s new nanny Mary has no problem taking over the household. She is the first nanny that the children listen to, and before Mr. and Mrs. Banks can blink an eye, their once unruly children are flying in tip top shape. Also, Burt, played by the ever debonair Dick Van Dyke, is nothing but respectful to his friend Mary because, even though a woman is strong, that does not mean she doesn’t like to be treated like a lady.
Of course, you can’t talk about strong women in Mary Poppins without talking about Mrs. Banks as well. In the movie she is a suffragette. This is a group of pioneering feminists from the turn of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, Mrs. Banks is so obsessed with her cause and advocating for women’s rights she begins to fail as a mother. However, it isn’t long before she realizes that her best bet chance of changing the world is through her children and the family unit, which was once scattered, is now whole again.
This feat though was constructed and orchestrated by the one and only Mary Poppins, who independently flies away from the Banks’ home in search of the next soul to save.
2. The Wizard of Oz
Strong females run rampant in this musical, so we might as well start at the beginning. First there is Dorothy, the lead character who is hell bent on saving her dog from her mean neighbors clutches she takes off from her home and tries to join a circus. Luckily for Dorothy, Professor Marvel tricks her into going back home but not soon enough.
Dorothy gets sucked up into the tornado and lands in a strange foreign land crushing one of the wicked witches in the process. She is immediately heralded as the savior of the dejected citizens of Oz and is tasked with defeating the witches even more evil sister, the Wicked Witch of the West.
The Wicked Witch of the West, is an extremely strong female character in the story. Not only does she want to avenge her sister’s death, she needs to take back the ruby slippers that are rightfully hers. And she vows to do this by getting her “little pretty” and her “little dog too.”
Then there is Glinda, who opposed the Wicked Witch and helps Dorothy escape her clutches by putting the ruby slippers on her feet. Also there is Miss Gulch who is mean, sure, but she is angry that the dog continues to come in her yard. She has told them time and time again to keep him out but they just ignore her. Face it, you would be irritated too.
It suffices to say that The Wizard of Oz is a musical that has so many strong female characters that there just isn’t enough room to delve deep into the psyche of them all.
3. Guys and Dolls
This musical only has two strong female characters but their individual strengths out-power all the male characters they play alongside. First we have Miss Adelaide. On the surface she may not seem like a feminist or focused on women’s rights. Adelaide earns her living as a showgirl and has been seeing the same man, Nathan Detroit, for so many years her hopes and dreams of marriage seems to be something that will never happen.
Adelaide’s tactics are also not very feminist in nature but there is no denying the woman’s strength in her relationship. When she has finally had enough she tells Nathan he better marry her or else and, when faced with losing her, he does. As strong as this is, for her to fight until she gets what she wants, we have to admit that the prize, a man who is forced into marrying her when he really doesn’t want to, does not scream feminist in the slightest.
Then there is the simple missionary Sister Sarah Brown who has one goal, to fill her mission with sinners and save their souls. She is none the wiser though when she is made the object of a bet between Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson. Nathan needs money, so he bets Sky who has a reputation of taking any and all bets no matter how ridiculous, that he cannot take her to Havana for dinner that night. Sky, never one to refuse a bet, sets out to reach that goal.
Yet Sarah isn’t as easily wooed as the women Sky has known in the past and he soon realizes that the only way he can get her to go, so he can win the bet, is to make a deal with her. Sky tells her if she goes he will fill her mission with sinners, and Sarah desperately needs to fill seats otherwise the mission will close.
Still, when Sarah and Sky find themselves in Cuba she does succumb to his romantic advances and she believes that she loves him. That is until she realizes that her mission was used for a traveling craps game while they were gone. Even though Sky didn’t know anything about it, Sarah blames him and is heartbroken but tells him to go away. Of course, Sky redeems himself by telling Nathan that he hadn’t succeeded in taking Sister Sarah to Cuba, even though he had. The two make up and everyone lives happily ever after.
Of course, on the surface, this musical would never rank in any “feminist” lists but these two women are strong characters none the less.
A strong female musical list would not be complete without Tracy Turnblad and her mother Edna. This entire musical is based on equal rights, although the center theme is integration of the popular dance show on the local television station in the early sixties. Still, there is a strength within the musical that is found predominantly in the female characters.
First we have Tracy, the star of our show, and she is determined to become a dancer on the Corny Collins and succeeds with her goals despite the opposition of Amber Von Tussle and her mother Velma. Tracy not only becomes a dancer on the show she succeeds at becoming one of the most popular to have ever appeared. She also starts dating Link, the most handsome and popular boy on the show.
Mostly though, Tracy believes in integration of not only the Corny Collins show, she believes all people of all races deserve the same chances and she fights for it to the point of losing her own freedom. Still, she is a woman who stands by her convictions and Tracy does not stop until the goal is reached and the Corny Collins show is finally integrated.
Some strong women aren’t strong from the get go but evolve into the powerful femmes we love. This is the case with Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother. Edna hasn’t left the house in years and her growing weight makes her afraid of what people will think. Tracy convinces her to leave their home and stop outside into the 60s and when she does her transformation is instantaneous.
Edna goes from a shrinking violet into a fierce lioness who challenges Velma Von Tussle at every turn and gets her daughter a better contract when Tracy becomes the spokeswoman for the Hefty Hideaway. She dances in a miniskirt and exemplifies power in the end.
Of course, there is still Velma Von Tussle, albeit with motives that are less than moral, who will stop at nothing to get her way, even cheat. And we cannot forget Motormouth Maybelle who is working her fingers to the bone fighting for her race to be treated fairly.
Now seeing strong female characters in musicals is much more common. Still the world needs more representations of strong women on the stage and screen. Besides, they are always our favorite characters.
Here’s a perfect opera after this quick read: Die Rote Zora – the courageous young woman named Red Zora leads a gang of orphans against the corruption and injustice of Croatia in the 1930s.