A Puzzlement – How America’s Brand of Toxic Masculinity Slithers Through Broadway

Schuyler Kresge

In the American empire, bigotry is serpentine in nature. It lies in wait in the tall grass, slithering closer to any unsuspecting individuals and eagerly strikes. While this representation is confined to metaphor, the truth is that the venom of bigotry has worked its way to the very core of America and the symptoms can be identified in the appendages of society, including musical theater. As a representation of the dominant identity of the United States at a given time, musicals can serve as a bellwether for the pervasiveness of sexism and racism in that particular era writ large. In the characters that emerge from Broadway, it is evident that America is the natural habitat of a specific subspecies of toxic masculinity. American toxic masculinity is packaged and branded as the quintessential white male socialite. Charming to a fault, American toxic masculinity prioritizes and emphasizes dominance over equality in a uniquely capitalistic way. Through examining the King of Siam and Anna from The King and I as well as Nick “Nicky” Arnstein from Funny Girl, it becomes clear that even in musicals with female leads, the venom of white American toxic masculinity still pervades the work. This issue taints the very core of The King and I and Funny Girl, making them incapable of non-problematic productions.

On the surface, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical The King and I appears as a sugar-sweet tale of the comedy and growth that occurs when white British schoolteacher and widowed mother Anna Leonowens becomes the official tutor of the children of the King of Siam, leading to a complex advisory relationship with the King. Unfortunately, both the original book and lyrics as well as Bartlett Sher’s 2018 production suffer from the unavoidable negative impacts of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s American male gaze. While Anna is British, the plot of a white woman coming to an Asian land and “educating” the backwards natives was intensely relatable to America’s collective culture during the The King and I’s first run in the immediate post-World War Two era. However, what truly stands out is that the King of Siam exists at the intersection of American exceptionalism, whiteness, and toxic masculinity even in today’s productions. In the 2018 production this analysis focuses on, the set design creates a powerful hierarchical effect from the very first scene. As Anna arrives in Siam on a stunning boat set piece, it is clear that she is “above” the subjects of Siam. Despite this initial moment of power, Anna is met by the King of Siam’s masculinity. It is in this moment where the interplay between race and gender becomes apparent. The only two characters with any significant power are Anna, representing whiteness, and the King, a beacon of masculinity. Throughout the remainder of The King and I, the audience becomes a spectator in the subtle dueling of the “class” that is codified in Whiteness and the “strength” of masculinity.

Although the harmful pervasiveness of bigotry in 20th century American theater is certainly nothing to write home about, it is the dialectical nature of Anna’s whiteness and the King’s masculinity that makes The King and I such a unique viewing into the harmful consequences of America’s obsession with white masculinity. Much like America’s role in disturbing peace in regions such as the Middle East, Anna’s whiteness is perhaps at its most harmful when it comes into contact with citizens of Siam, exemplified through Tuptim. Anna, allegorical of the West, sees herself as more civilized than the Siamese and attempts to help colonize Tuptim (incredibly brought to life by Na-Young Jeon). In turn, Rodgers and Hammerstein maroon Tuptim by killing off her love interest, permanently creating a rift between the “dream” of Western life and the Siamese “others”. Intersecting with Anna’s Whiteness, the King of Siam represents and embodies the toxic masculinity that captures America’s attention even in present day. The King rules with aggressive patriarchal norms that his subjects excuse as firmness. During one encounter, the King makes it clear that Tuptim was “gifted” to him, reinforcing his dominance over her on the basis of antiquated gender rules. The King’s overbearing masculinity can be seen in Ken Watanabe’s blocking, as he frequently prowls around or sits in a sprawled manner (also known as “manspreading”), best seen as he watches the presentation of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”. As O’Hara’s Whiteness clashes with Watanabe’s masculinity throughout the musical, they soften to each other but cause damage to fodder like Tuptim. Through this analysis, it is evident that the interactions between Anna and the King in both original book material as well as the 2018 production clearly demonstrate a unique and unintentional view of the dialectical nature of White masculinity in America. 

While Anna and the King of Siam complete the American white-male dialectic in The King and I, the dialectic is synthesized into one character in Isobel Lennart, Jule Styne, and Bob Merrill’s 1964 work Funny Girl—namely Fanny Brice’s on-again, off-again husband Nick “Nicky” Arnstein. Set in World War I-era New York, Funny Girl is a biographical musical telling the story of famed the Ziegfeld Follie Fanny Brice. In addition to her comedic abilities, Brice also possessed an an incredible ability to connect to audiences, perhaps stirred from her own troubles with Arnstein, a notorious con and compulsive gambler. While the role of Brice in Funny Girl has traditionally been synonymous with Barbra Streisand’s original performance, Michael Mayer’s 2018 West End revival starring an excellent Sheridan Smith will be the focus for the purposes of this analysis. From the first time the audience sees Nicky, everything about him is absolutely drenched in the prototypical “alpha male” machismo found in boardrooms and ball courts across America. Especially within the first act, Arnstein is constantly impeccably dressed, dazzling Brice with suits and connections. This is one of the most distinctive identifiers of the American brand of toxic masculinity, as it pairs the physical domination common of all toxic masculinity with a capitalistic interdependence on money and power. While Arnstein’s gambling issue is introduced early into Act I as a possibility, both Brice and the audience shrug the creeping apprehension. This willful ignorance is on full display in numbers like “People” and “You Are Woman”. These songs, which are two of the most well-known songs from Funny Girl in popular culture, are deeply and inherently problematic due to Nicky’s presence. Turning first to “People”, the song begins as Brice and Arnstein flirt at a party celebrating Fanny’s opening night as a Follie. What is most striking about the impact of masculinity in “People” is how much Darius Campbell’s Arnstein drives the song’s plot, despite his blocking being pushed to the corner of the stage. For the first half of the song, Arnstein sits and observes as Brice rationalizes away his many flaws. While Lennart ostensibly wrote this scene as a ode to full-hearted romance (indeed, steadfast belief in love is arguably one of the biggest themes of Funny Girl), when stripped of the gendered language “People” is exposed as a validation and confirmation of the superiority and dominance of a White male with connections.

If “People” is as subtle as Funny Girl’s misogyny gets, “You Are Woman” is the blaring car horn of American White masculinity. The scene and song consist of Fanny Brice falling for Arnstein again during a run-in in Baltimore despite his prior history of ghosting Brice. The blocking of the scene is predatory and problematic, with Arnstein following Brice around the stage and attempting to woo her with food. Brice falls for this, saying “Well, at least he thinks I’m special/He ordered à la carte” (“You Are Woman”). It is in “You Are Woman” that the uniqueness of American bigotry is exposed— toxic American white masculinity, embodied by Nick Arnstein, is a beast found at the intersection of patriarchy, racial oppression, and unchecked capitalism. In this way, Arnstein and toxic white masculinity represent a repugnant and insatiable hunger. This hunger is all-encompassing and results in the financial ruin of Brice and the destruction of both Arnstein, Brice, and their relationship. By promoting this kind of relationship implicitly through Brice’s never-say-die attitude, it is evident that Funny Girl is an inherently problematic musical.

Understanding the addictive dangers of the venomous American White masculinity that courses through Funny Girl and The King and I not only partially explains why these musicals have such tremendous sticking power, but also helps identify similarly problematic characters in both entertainment and real life. As society incrementally inches towards progress on racial and gender equity, the snake of American bigotry will retreat deeper within the tall grass, creating a false sense of safety. It is here that we find characters such as Anna Leonowens, the King of Siam, and their “synthesis”, Nicky Arnstein. Despite both Leonowens and the King of Siam not being American, they are distinctively and pivotally Americanized characters. Put together, these characters are dominating and connected, suave and manipulative. More crucially, through intentional and unintentional blocking, casting, and writing choices, these Broadway characters are NOT properly vilified and are instead either partially or completely lionized as proud examples of whiteness and masculinity. In doing so, all involved in earlier productions laid the foundation for modern-era villains like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan the “Wolf of Wall Street” Belfort to become the standard-bearing heroes for harmful American White masculinity. As such, it is evident that after retracing the toxicity found in Arnstein, Leonowens, and the King, it is impossible to ethically support productions of shows like Funny Girl and The King and I.

Musical characters

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Schuyler! Okay… one sentence in and I’m hooked! The metaphor comparing bigotry to a serpent was 1) extremely creative and 2) great at grabbing the attention of the reader. In terms of your overall argument, I thought it was extremely well thought out and clearly stated and the idea that even female leads are often drowned within a context of toxic masculinity was something that I was noticing but had not yet put into words. In discussing The King and I, I like how you address both the problem with Anna’s condescending white behavior and how that is met with and then challenged by the King’s masculinity. I also love how you not only compared the interactions between the King and Anna but also included the effects their traits had on Tuptim. Specifically, I loved the quote “As O’Hara’s Whiteness clashes with Watanabe’s masculinity throughout the musical, they soften to each other but cause damage to fodder like Tuptim”. Not only was there a seamless transition to talking about Funny Girl but the quote “drenched in the prototypical “alpha male” machismo found in boardrooms and ball courts across America” was so well said and really highlights your voice within the piece. Overall, I thought your piece was extremely thoughtful in content accompanied by rich vocabulary and a voice that makes the piece unique and personal. Really well done! -Alyssa

    Liked by 1 person

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