Men & Power: Funny Girl and Miss Saigon

By: Cassidy Johnson

Power. Both a concept and a goal that has been around along as there was life on this planet. Yet, the way we as people view power is changing in terms of accessibility and who should have it. The default picture of a person in power largely remains a man. Because art often reflects the ideals of the society that created it, this same view of power is seen in characters on Broadway: men retaining power over women in the stories that are told. In Funny Girl and Miss Saigon, one or a few men hold the power. In Funny Girl it is the charmer Nick Arnstein, and in Miss Saigon, the Engineer. The journey of these two men in their attempts to attain or maintain a modicum of power drives their stories. The difference between them is that Mr. Arnestein is a charming, well-to-do white man in America, while the Engineer is a conniving, man, prone to violence in Vietnam. Though the motivations behind their actions may be similar, their different identities impact the way they are represented in the musicals.

Funny Girl is a 1960s musical from Jule Styne (music), Bob Merrill (lyrics), and Isobel Lennart (book). Each of these individuals is white. Given the racial identity of the and time period of the authors, it is no surprise that Mr. Arnstein is a white man. Nick Arnstein is the epitome of status and power at the beginning of the twentieth century. We’re given a man who will do anything to maintain his comfortable life in America. Miss Saigon was also written by white men (Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg). While they create a musical that gives a glimpse of what life might have been like for those left behind in the Vietnam War, there are no positive depictions of Asian men in the entire musical, the Engineer included. He only has power over those who are worse off than him: women. We’re given a man who will do anything to get to America. In fact, the Engineer’s dream life is not too far off from the life Nick Arnstein lives before meeting Fanny.

The audience is first introduced to Mr. Nick Arnstein as an admirer of Fanny Price, who uses his reputation and status to increase her salary. And though his last name is traditionally Hebrew, the character includes no obvious Jewish depictions or features. Fanny even questions his heritage at one point when he doesn’t know the meaning of a Yiddish word. Arnstein is for all intents and purposes a white man. He uses charm and seduction to gain (romantic) power over Fanny. In fact, he seems to have a similar effect on every woman he meets admitting that he has been with “merely dozens, nothing serious.” He is a perfectly suave man who goes after what he wants. He is established enough to carry casual conversational with Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. As an entrepreneur and gambler, Nick Arnstein moves through the world with ease, playing games and making connections across the country and even internationally in places such as Monte Carlo. For Arnstein, his sense of power is directly tied to money. Everything is alright in his world until he finds himself in need of serious cashflow to avoid going bankrupt.

Initially, Fanny’s fame and power do not matter to him; as long as he has his own why should he care? As soon as that hurricane wipes out his casino development in Florida, we see a different man. This Arnstein is not simply acting on wants, he is acting on needs. And when he is in need of cash, who does he go to? Other white men. Does he go to his rich wife? No. Even when Fanny offers him a check he puts up a resistance. To him, these men, these white men are the only acceptable sources he can to for help. They might currently have more money, but they are still comparable to him, on the same level. While he loves Fanny, he cannot fathom actually asking her for help. What man needs help from his wife, let alone financial help? When Arnstein yet again finds himself in need of more money, instead of asking Fanny who he knows would not refuse him, he seeks funding from illegal sources. Criminality is more appealing that comprising his perception of himself as a man. Fanny’s mother later puts things plainly for her daughter, telling her that her husband “needed his own money.” That was so integral to maintaining his sense of self, to him feeling that he still had power, that he compromised his freedom and family. His wife made him feel small constantly offering help and support. Nick Arnstein didn’t love Fanny as much as he loved feeling powerful.

Darius Campbell, the actor who plays Nick Arnstein has no trouble portraying a good looking suave man but adds depth to performance with his obvious trepidation during Arnstein’s most trying moments. His voice is softer and his hands are tightly balled up as he pleads “Please Fanny don’t hold so tight, give me some air, give me some light” as she’s about to hand him a check. In the same pensive moment, he tells himself, “Nicky you’ve got to just set her straight” because he cannot reconcile that the source of money is his wife. However, as soon as the check is in his hand, his expression lightens. Campbell immediately enters the musical number “Temporary Arrangement.” With cold hard cash in his hands and signing contracts, this is the most expressive the audience has seen Mr. Arnstein so far. He sports a full-face smile and largely performs the same choreography as the dancers on the stage. Of course, the other men he’s interacting with on stage are white men too. The audience can see his confidence build back up again as he uses his fresh power to cement his plans. That is, right before he gets the devastating phone call.

The Engineer has immediate power over Kim and the other women in the club from the start. The power comes from making the women fear him, as shown by his threatening interactions with Kim and Gigi. The Engineer, like Mr. Arnstein, is a man who goes after what he wants. The entire musical, he is doing everything he can to get a visa to the United States., where he believes he can possess the ultimate power. There is no mystery or surprise regarding this character; the Engineer has no depth. His entire journey is simply trying to gain more power in every situation he finds himself in. Kim (and Tam) are special only for what they can do for him. He did not like needed them, but he made it work for him.

The Engineer is a Vietnamese man who is entirely one-dimensional. He is a scoundrel. He is a predator. The actions he willing to take better his circumstances are criminal and abhorrent. He begins by pimping women to GI’s in Saigon, controlling them with violence all while hoping to attain a visa. He escapes the grasp of Thuy and the military by murdering and donning the uniform of a soldier. In Bangkok, he is still pimping out women, now using Kim and Tam to get his beloved visa. Yet, despite having power over women and Kim in the entire production there are those who have power over him — other men. The GIs who the Engineer is hoping to get a visa from in Saigon, then Thuy, then his boss in Bangkok, and even Chris making a decision about Tam. No matter how much he tries, he is still constantly subject to someone else’s whim. That someone either a white/American man (the GIs) or another Asian man who is no better than he. He will never get what he is desperate for without the help of an American. His boss in Bangkok is also a pimp, and Thuy is arguably worse than the Engineer, wanting to murder a child.

The actor who plays the Engineer, Jon Jon Briones, does bring flavor to this foul and scrappy man. A man of Asian descent, Briones adds humor to his character. There are instances throughout the production where the audience laughs after Briones directs sarcastic quips or exaggerated facial expressions towards them. As a result, the audience is able to enjoy Briones’ portrayal of the Engineer without actually enjoying the character himself. Without adding any intrapersonal depth, Briones is able to vary the way in which he interactions with different characters on the stage. He often grabs women roughly, but tentatively places his hand on shoulders on GIs hoping they will help him out. His energy is drastically different when he is trying to get customers in Bangkok compared to when his boss accosts him and Kim backstage. But Briones truly shines in the number “My American Dream.” For the first time, we see the Engineer free with glee living his dream. Briones is enjoyable to watch as he cavorts with the dancers on stage and humps an American-made vehicle. It is such a strong performance that it’s own of the musical highlights.

Both men break the law in the pursuit of power, the consequences and resolution differ as much as their race does. Nick Arnstein gambles and commits embezzlement in order to maintain his status as a successful businessman, and really a successful man. His downfall is at his own hands and the only victims of his actions are his family. The Engineer’s crimes are on a whole other level. He facilitates prostitution throughout and even murders a soldier. His downfall is at the hands of white men: the United States when they abandon Vietnam, and Chris and his wife when they chose what is “best” for Tam and Kim. The consequences he faces are partly the result of other’s decisions. Mr. Arnstein gets out after 18 months. He is remorseful and does not want to hurt Fanny any longer. There is no resolution of the musical for the Engineer; the audience has no idea what happens to after Kim dies (but we can assume he never gets that visa).

On the one hand, we have a well-to-do white man who is given depth, likable from his first line, and is at least given a shot and redemption in the end. On the other, we have a Vietnamese man in a war-stricken country who is deplorable from the start and receives no resolution. Both are criminals. Both are primarily concerned with having a sense of power and willing to compromise those around to get it. But the white man is given the sympathetic edge. Arnstein can garner sympathy from the audience during those inner monologue moments because he is raw and real. The Engineer is not given those same latitudes. Even when he addresses the audience it’s in moments of humor and self-grandeur. During the glimpse into his disturbing childhood, Briones’ sings in such a detached tone that sympathy is not easy to feel. The audience is provided the chance to like one and can’t feel anything but disdain for the other. This is the tragedy of Broadway. It would not be such a problem if the Engineer was a white or even just an American man. But he is an Asian man in a country destroyed by the West. He makes horrible decisions because of his horrible circumstances. I want to feel bad for him, but I cannot because of the way he is written by white men.

Musical characters

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Cassidy,
    This piece did a great job highlighting the racialized nature of power that we see in both musicals. I particularly enjoyed the captivating opening– “Power. Both a concept and a goal that has been around along as there was life on this planet.” It was a bold start to the piece and it caught my attention. I would have loved to see a title that mirrored this boldness! I think the title is a great place to grab the attention of a reader scrolling through pages of blog posts. Your introduction of the musicals– including the composers, lyricists, etc– and the two characters you analyze gives the reader solid context to begin with as they invest in your argument. Your description of specific moments in the shows also helps your reader to engage with the piece. One of the most interesting points you make, in my opinion, is when you argue that the Engineer’s downfall is that the hands of white men. You reach some very strong points toward the end– including the aforementioned– as well as the analysis of the depth of each man. When you make those points, your language begins to get stronger. I would suggest incorporating some of that stronger language in the opening paragraphs because it is really captivating!
    Well done!

    Like

  2. Hi Cassidy,
    First of all, you were able to make a very strong case for your comparison between the Engineer and Nick Arnstein. I had not made the connection in my head before reading your article that the Engineer and Arnstein share similar ambitions and motives. You demonstrate this connection by describing the movement choices by both actors, and this does a great job of reading between the lines. The movement choices by these actors take the libretto and infuse emotion into it in a way that their intent and view of woman can been seen without words or song. By establishing the similar nature of the characters, you use that analysis to further expose the way their race plays into their characterization by the white creators of these shows. Really enjoyed the read 🙂

    Like

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