What happens when you gender-swap musical theatre characters?

Musical theatre is a form of entertainment that can be enjoyed by many people, and in more ways than one. Fans love to discuss casting in musicals, new shows coming to the West End, favourite performers, and so on, but they also like to have a little fun with the business called show from time to time. I’ve seen businesses named using musical puns for example, including a laundry service advertised under Crease Lightning. Another favourite with fans is to replace words in musical titles in keeping with a particular theme, such as dogs, which provides such chucklesome opportunities as The Leonberger King, The Whippet of Oz, Priscilla: Queen of the Dachshund, and, my personal favourite, Westie Side Story. Another one which would present a fun challenge would be to incorporate girls names into the titles of musicals, so you could have Tilly Elliot perhaps, or Leslie Miserables?

It was while thinking of this last version of the game that I was hit by another idea. Re-working musical titles with girls names could result in some shows being drastically changed from the familiar stories we know and love, creating whole new plot lines and characters. So I decided to look at a few musicals and see what would happen if you changed the gender of the main character/s.

The Phantom of the Opera is my favourite musical, hands-down. The story of love, passion and madness drew me in from the first moment, and like many others, the intricate character of The Phantom captured my imagination. If you flip the story on its head though, would I, and the millions of Phantom fans around the world, still have developed such a love for it? A handsome young man becomes the object of obsession for a disfigured woman, whose passion for him sends her spiralling into madness and murder, and results in her kidnapping him and trying to blackmail him into staying with her. When looked at from that angle, it becomes less romantic and more like a Fatal Attraction-type horror with The Phantom (ess) now looking like a ‘bunny-boiler’ that comes across as a far less-sympathetic figure.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers would also be less favourable to its male characters if they became female. A bunch of single sisters looking for husbands and kidnapping the men they’ve taken a fancy to…it screams desperation. And what about The Sound of Music? First off, when Captain von Trapp instead becomes a single mother of seven children, it looks more like an episode of Jeremy Kyle, especially when this closed-off mother, who shows them no love, is leaving their upbringing to someone else. She also becomes something of a cougarish sugar mama, when she marries the younger, poorer and less-worldly ‘manny’.

Gender-swapping characters in musicals doesn’t always favour the male species though. If Roxie Hart became Robbie Hart in Chicago, cheating on his wife to further his career, killing his lover in a fit of rage and then letting his wife take the blame for the murder suddenly doesn’t seem so forgiveable. Neither does Velma Kelly’s crime when it’s the famous Victor Kelly who kills his adulterous wife and brother, or for that matter, any one of the other male inmates who killed their women for such reasons as popping gum or accusations of being unfaithful, showing no remorse and saying ‘they had it coming.’ Similarly, Moulin Rouge isn’t quite so romantic when bohemian writer Christine falls in love with a male prostitute…

Imagine Matilda The Musical if the terrifying Miss Trunchbull was a rather small and effeminate man. Imagine Billy Elliot with a young girl wanting to be a boxer instead of a ballet dancer. Imagine Mary Poppins as the perfect male childminder who – no, that wouldn’t work. There’s no such thing as a man who’s practically perfect in every way!

Some musicals, such as Once, West Side Story, Wicked, etc.,wouldn’t really be much changed through re-arranging the genders of the lead characters. Grease meanwhile, offers the perfect example of how gender-swapping can work, as its sequel was basically the same story, except this time the girl was the popular one and the boy was the ‘goody-two-shoes’ who changed for her.

There are many more musicals out there which could have their stories dramatically altered in this fashion. Why not have a go and see what happens?

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Thursday 5th March 2015

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