Today, I bring you our very first reader requested story, with the help of Theatre Correspondant, Gigi Gervaris. Ariella Kahan-Harth on twitter asked us to take a look at gender in modern high school musicals, such as Dear Evan Hansen and Be More Chill. In addition to those two, we'll also look at Mean Girls. Gigi will write the section on Be More Chill, as I haven't seen it.
Dear Evan Hansen
Now, this is an editoral board, which means that it's basically our opinions. And I have plenty of opinions, but I thought for once in my life, I would back those up with facts, even though as a John Mulaney fan, I'm aware that being right doesn't make me interesting. So let's take a look at the numbers!
In Dear Evan Hansen, the cast is split 50/50 on gender, and yet on the Dear Evan Hansen cast album, there is a total of 5485 words spoken/sung, and of that, 61% are said/spoken by men, 26% are said/spoken by women, and 13% are sung together, based on the lyrics as on genius.com, and my own painstaking research. This is a huge disparity, though not surprising if you actually engage with the show.
The show at no point passes the Bechdel test, as when female characters talk to each other it's all either about Evan or Connor or Evan and Connor, and there's really only two scenes where there's an overlap with female characters interacting with each other at all, both of which are also supervised. They never get time together alone, and the one female solo is sung to a man and while it's about her, it's about her as framed through the men in her life.
Is there really any moment in the show where women get to have emotions in which Connor or Evan is not a sieve for them to pour it through first? Anybody Have A Map is out, since it's about the struggles of motherhood, particularly with their sons since Zoe has no bad behavior in this scene, Requiem is out because it's about not grieving for Connor, Only Us is out because it's about Evan, and Good For You is out because it's also about Evan.
In a way, it's fitting that Rachel Bay Jones won the Tony for best supporting actress because that is the only thing that any of the female characters in Dear Evan Hansen are- supporting characters. Instead of getting their own subplots with their own growth and relationships, they're just pawns to get Evan from point a to point b, and while the actresses have always put everything they had into it... the fact is, there's just very little they were given to work with.
I shouldn't have to dive deep down and really pry characters open and scour the internet for fandom headcanons to find a woman who is written is a women, and not someone who in most scenes could simply be replaced a sexy lamp and no one would notice. The mothers are background characters, Zoe is put and kept on a pedestal by Evan, and if you straight up removed the character of Alana, Jared would have more lines but that's about all that would change, and again, men get over double the amount of score as women do.
Be More Chill
One of the most popular shows featuring high schoolers as of late is the Joe Iconis sci-fi musical Be More Chill. The story, based on the Ned Vizzini book of the same name, is about Jeremy Heere, a video game nerd just trying to get the girl he has a crush on to notice him. As common as that premise seems, the twist is Jeremy finds himself with a SQUIP (a quantum computer from Japan that flows through your bloodstream until it lands in your brain) to help achieve his goal of popularity and a date with Christine. The show as a whole is actually pretty solid, but once its dissected, there tends to be a few cracks, especially when it comes to the female characters.
Christine, Brooke, Chloe, and Jenna are the young women in this show. Christine loves play rehearsal (she even has an entire number dedicated to how much she loves it). Brooke and Chloe are best friends, but it is obvious that Chloe thinks she is superior to Brooke. Jenna is the school gossip queen. Aside from what I’ve just told you, there isn’t much else there to dig into, and that is the main issue I have with the show. It’s apparent that more and more shows are being geared towards a younger audience. It is important that the majority of the demographic they are trying to appeal to (tween-young adult females) can see themselves in the characters they are watching onstage.
Be More Chill’s Original Cast Album has 7,224 words (give or take a few “na na na”s, “yeah”s and “oh oh oh oh oh”s). Of those words, 65% of them are sung or spoken by male characters, 10% were made up of the ensemble, and 25% were performed by female characters. I’m not stating this to knock the show, I actually think it’s pretty great and features its female characters well in the production. I just hope that in the future, that’ll be better represented on the cast recording.
Mean Girls' numbers-
7005 words sung or spoken overall, 22% men, 66% female, and 11% mixed.
So it's actually even more divisive than Dear Evan Hansen, just in the other direction. And I'll be honest, it's refreshing to have a show that basks in women. There are five different females we actually really get to dig deep into, and they are all so vastly different from each other, it's hard to name another show that celebrates how womanhood looks different on each of us, and they're all valid!
But on the flip side, while the men of the cast may not get to say much, I'd say that they still are bursting with character. Damian, Aaron, Mr. DuVall, and Kevin Gnappor all show up across multiple scenes and are shown to have feelings and emotions that aren't always directly tied to the women in the show and a void would be left in their absence though it makes my little heart so proud to watch strong female leads carrying a show. The show passes the Bechdel test in the second song.
It's hard to think of a more female-friendly show, and with the box office records it keeps breaking, it seems to answer the age old question: do people really want to see stories about girls? Yes! And so to all the straight, white, male playwrights writing your shows about straight, white, male characters and their struggles- I get that it's the story you want to tell.
But have you considered it's not the story we want to see?
(Photo credit Joan Marcus, Margot Schulman, and Maria Baranova.)