The scene is set. The first few bars of Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent start playing. I’m enthralled. After about ten or so minutes, we hear Tom Collins, a big brooding African-American man with a luscious baritone voice introduce “A new member of the Alphabet City avant-garde. Angel Dumott Schunard” (Larson). What I didn’t know at the time was that Angel Dumott Schunard was a transsexual performer and was in a relationship with Collins and that the two of them had AIDS. For 1996, the year that Rent first went up on Broadway, the whole idea of AIDS was baffling to people; they didn’t know how it would translate on a stage, but let alone set to music. What Larson had created was something that changed the way musical theatre looked at for the rest of time. It was also the advent of writing characters that are a sexual minority, and that character was Angel. What musical theatre does well is that it makes the audience question their own ideals, but it also introduces them to characters that most people didn’t understand. But, musical theatre also does one thing terribly wrong: it’s full of perpetuated stereotypes about divas, sexuality and passion for their art. As a musical theatre actor, I am here to debunk the stereotypes that seem apparent about musical theatre actors in television, film and other media.
On September 9, 2009, a show about show choir took the world by storm. Glee came on the air that day and it revolutionized how the world saw show choirs and how they saw musical theatre. Throughout the series, we see the trials and tribulations of Rachel Berry, played by Broadway dynamo Lea Michele. Rachel is the spitting image of the phrase “champagne wishes and caviar dreams”. All Rachel wants to do is go to New York, star in a Broadway musical and become like her hero: Barbra Streisand. The thing that made Rachel so appealing to me was her never-ending pursuit of perfection and how to achieve her goal. Yes, she was a “diva”, but “diva” has two very different connotations, and that’s the first musical theatre stereotype that is perpetuated throughout pop culture: all musical theatre actors are “divas”. The Oxford English Dictionary cites that the word diva means “a distinguished female singer; prima donna” (Oxford English Dictionary). The word diva can be traced back to the most famous opera singers of our time: Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas and Martina Arroyo. The word that is most associated with diva is the word prima donna. The prima donna in an opera company is the leading female singer, it’s the one that gets all of the leading roles. Nowadays, if someone is called a diva it means, according to popular website urbandictionary.com, it means “a bitchy woman that must have her way exactly, or no way at all. often rude and belittles people, believes that everyone is beneath her and thinks that she is so much more loved than what she really is: selfish, spoiled, and overly dramatic.” (urbandictionary.com).
All theatre actors are “divas”, yes, but not in the latter definition. Theatre actors do everything they can to perfect their art form and they are relentless in their pursuit of perfection. Sometimes, the perfection and being that diva has a price. Idina Menzel, Broadway darling and star of Rent said that after Rent, “I had to go back to my voice teacher and relearn how to sing” (Green). She also says that “I feel responsibility, I want to sell tickets, I want the ensemble to have their jobs for a long time, I want people to like me, I want to get good reviews. It’s bullshit to say you don’t care about that” (Green). Does that sound like a bitchy woman who must have her way exactly? Absolutely not. But, Menzel had a career-making performance in Rent as Maureen, the lesbian epitome of the diva. She always made demands, but when people called her out on it, the only rebuttal she had was “take me for what I am…and if you give a damn, take me, baby, or leave me” (Larson). Menzel in real life is not a diva in any stretch of the imagination. But, because of one role that she played where she was a “diva”, people instantly stereotype her as the role of her character in Rent.
Featuring one of the most predominant Broadway actors of this generation, the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a 2001 movie turned new musical about a transsexual rocker who had her songs stolen by her ex-boyfriend and the journey she takes to find her songs. The new Broadway musical version of this iconic film is being headlined by Broadway legend Neil Patrick Harris. Neil Patrick Harris is an openly gay man, but he plays a straight man on the television show How I Met Your Mother. Many prominent Broadway actors like Harris, Jim Parsons and Jonathan Groff do this incredible thing of playing straight characters really well. The most prominent stereotype for a male in the musical theatre business is that all musical theatre actors are gay. I can tell you for an absolute fact that that specific stereotype is garbage. Take, for instance, Hugh Jackman of X-Men franchise fame. Jackman has a big career in musical theatre, winning a Tony Award in 2005 for his portrayal of Australian performer Peter Allen in the musical biopic The Boy from Oz. He was also nominated for an Academy Award in 2013 for his portrayal of hardened French criminal Jean Valjean in the highly-anticipated movie version of the musical Les Miserables. The stereotype is perpetuated mainly by the fact that most roles in musical theatre are characters that are a sexual minority. Some of the most iconic characters in musical theatre, like Angel, Collins, Maureen and Joanne from Rent, the emcee from Cabaret and Rod from Avenue Q are played by straight men and women. That’s the beauty of theatre: one can be whoever they want to be on stage, but offstage, they can be who they actually are. All of the actors who played the sexual minority characters in Rent are straight in real life. Joel Grey, Broadway veteran and leading role in the movie version of Cabaret is straight and the actor who donned the Rod puppet in Avenue Q is in fact, straight. That’s the great thing about stereotypes: the fact that there are exceptions to the stereotypes that make them untrue.
The last big stereotype that I am going to discuss has to do with another television show about musical theatre. After the success of Glee, another show aired on primetime television that had to do solely with musical theatre and the drama behind casting a show. Smash was a short-lived show about an unknown ingénue who lands the title role in the Marilyn Monroe musical. She has some fierce competition between Broadway star Ivy Lynn and the two butt heads frequently. This show was short lived due to terrible writing and a dwindling plot. But, what Smash did was bring to the forefront many Broadway stereotypes. The most common trope you see in the show is the idea that people who are on Broadway have to sleep around in order to get the parts in shows. In Smash, that’s very apparent when director Derek (Jack Davenport of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) unsuccessfully tries to seduce innocent ingénue Karen (Katherine McPhee, runner-up on American Idol). The stereotype has been around for years, with Marilyn Monroe being infamous for sleeping with casting directors in order to get parts. But, I know that as a musical theatre actor, I have never had to sleep around with anyone in order to get a part and that I get my parts because of hard work, talent and determination. In the case of Smash, there’s love, cheating, seduction and everything that isn’t a part of musical theatre at all.
Also, musical theatre actors are not just backstabbing assholes. That’s a stereotype present in Glee, Smash, and all around the musical theatre world. Because of shows like Smash, the idea that we will do anything, including backstab the entire production team, to get roles is utter balderdash. Smash is known for a dwindling plot having to do with basically everyone backstabbing everyone. Yes, there is some tension between cast and crew, but if you’re professional enough, you work around it and find a way to make a show work, because it is a happy union between professionals who are doing what they love to do.
In any industry you are a part of, there will be stereotypes. The only way to overcome said stereotypes and for pop culture to not put stereotypes on your type of people is to constantly and unequivocally be yourself at all times. That’s the way that stereotypes become destroyed. In pop culture, we have a hard time wracking our brains around the fact that we sometimes don’t know a lot about a specific art field, so we jump to the stereotype, and that is our fundamental flaw.
Rent. Dir. Chris Columbus. Perf. Anthony Rapp, Rosario Dawson, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal. Columbia Pictures, 2005. DVD
Murphy, Ryan. Glee. Fox. KPTV, Portland, OR, Jan. 2014. Television.
Rebeck, Theresa. Smash. NBC. KGW, Portland, OR, Jan. 2014. Television.
“Idina Menzel: Back on Broadway.” ELLE. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.
“Broadway’s Gay Stereotypes Are an Insult to Theater Kids Everywhere.” PolicyMic. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014