Broadway - The Top Ten Unsung Heroes of Musicals
We all have a deep affection for the underdogs of Broadway musicals, the characters who are truly the good people who make sacrifices for others, often in spite of their own interests or personal sanity. How many of us have cheered for Eponine in Les Miserables, torn by her choices to help Marius, in spite of her own love for the clueless boy? How about Kim in Miss Saigon who takes her own life to ensure that her son must return to the United States with his American father, in order to give the child a better life? We gravitate to these characters and their acts of utter selflessness. Over the years, however, I have noticed that there are certain characters who are the unsung heroes of musicals who do not get their due. This week's top-ten list is dedicated to those who haven't had their moment in the spotlight.
Dr. Mendel - Falsettos
I was listening to Falsettos the other day and it occured to me that Dr. Mendel (expertly performed by Chip Zien) never gets the thanks he deserves for what he does for Marvin's family, particularly for his confused, pubescent son Jason. In the story, Mendel is the only person who regularly seems to take any genuine interest in raising this confused boy, working to strip him of neurosis, helping the kid find some humor in life. Marvin's lover Whizzer may be the person Jason easily opens up to, but it is Mendel, first as Jason's psychiatrist and then as his stepfather who legitimately and selflessly seems interest in the job of being a parent.
Nettie Fowler - Carousel
Carousel is a tough-as-nails story with the most heartfet score Rodgers and Hammerstein ever produced. Withihng this story, the unsung hero is Nettie Fowler. This lady takes in her abused cousin Julie, along with her bully of a husband Billy, despite the fact that they have both become social pariahs in their small, New England town. She encourages Julie, helps her through the hard times, and isn't afraid to get tough when she needs to be. When she finds out Julie is pregnant, she chooses to be supportive, and positive, the opposite of what others are doing. When Billy dies, she infuses Julie with strength through the hymn-like "You'll Never Walk Alone," perhaps one of the greatest songs to inspire a stiff upper lip. When people credit Julie Jordan for being a strong character of musical theatre, enduring so many trials, I always think that, without Nettie Fowler, Julie may not have made it.
The Baker - Into the Woods
Back in Chip Zien-land (Am I seeing a recurring theme?) another character I feel that is overlooked is the Baker in Into the Woods. Primariy, I think this has to do with the fact that the show has far flashier roles such as the Witch, the Baker's Wife, and Little Red Riding Hood. I think the Baker gets lost in the shuffle. He is in many way ways, the heart of Into the Woods. He is genuinely concerned for his wife's safety about going Into the Woods. He has a sense of family, and even after a short episode of desertion and the achingly beautifu duet with his father "No More", he returns to his child with a new understanding of his obligations. It is through this decision he chooses to put an end to his family legacy of running away. It is here that we learn we can decide to face our past and not let it destroy our future. This makes the Baker the true torch carrier of the message of Into the Woods.
Colonel Pickering - My Fair Lady
Poor Eliza Doolittle. She is in an impossible situation trying to learn to speak proper English under the tutelage of the fussy, impossible Professor Henry Higgins. Higgins treats Eliza like and object, something without feelings. It's his co-sponsor of this language experiement, the more refined and infinitely kinder Colonel Pickering who is the hero of My Fair Lady (outside of Eliza herself, of course). In a house where the servants treat her like garbage, and the host keeps her up until impossible hours, throwing barrages of insults at her, it is Pickering who offers her a gentle touch and also sets an example for Higgins on how he may get further with the experiment. I've always beleived it was the small kindnesses he extended the woman along the way that helped boost her confidence and led to her achieving her ultimate goal.
King Sextimus - Once Upon a Mattress
Much like Colonel Pickering, King Sextimus in Once Upon a Mattress offers support to a young woman trying to overcome insurmountable odds. In this case, Princess Winifred is trying to win the hand of Prince Dauntless the Drab, but the manipulating and clutching Queen Aggravaine won't cut the apron strings. The queen devises a series of impossible "tests" for Winifred to pass to prove her worthiness. With the aide of the Jester and the Minstrel, she ultimately passes all of them, but it is the mute King who finally regains his speech and lets Aggraviane have it. He sticks up for Dauntless and Winifred and sees to it that they will be married.
Jerry - Grey Gardens
In the great scheme of crazy that is Grey Gardens, which happens to be one of the most depressing worlds ever recreated for musical theatre, the only person who regularly enters within the walls of Little Edie and Big Edie's denial is Jerry. Despite having no reason to particularly enjoy spending time with these two recluses, this young man comes into their home, helps them out, eats their corn, and is their only real connection to the outside world. He symbolizes their last real connection to reality. Eventually, he is driven away, but the fact that he sticks by these two eccentrics for so long makes him the hero of Grey Gardens.
Younger Brother - Ragtime
I include Younger Brother from Ragtime in the list because, with the multitude of stories going on in this kaleidoscope of storytelling, he sometimes gets lost. After Mother, I find Younger Brother to be the most compelling of all of the characters in Ragtime. He's a true catalyst for change, using his knowledge for (and finding his purpose in) helping Coalhouse Walker take on racial injustice. He is inspired by the words of Emma Goldman and actually puts what he learns from her to use. At the end of the show, we kind of forget about him and are more caught up in Mother and Tateh's new life together. Without Younger Brother, there is no Ragtime.
The Baron - Grand Hotel
Baron Felix Von Gaigern of Grand Hotel may be a thief, but he has a big heart and he simultaneously reignites life in two people during his visit to the title establishment. First, the bookeeper Otto Kringelien, who is dying, is given hope and friendship from the Baron, who helps him to live the "high life" before he passes. The second: the ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya, making her farewell tour and who has lost all self-steem due to her fading beauty, is romanced by the Baron. Granted, his motives start out as ulerior ones. Bankrupt. he tries to take Otto's wallet and Elizaveta's jewels. He is, however, too kind to follow through, unable to take advantage of these tragic people. In his desperation, he finally steals from the businessman Herman Preysing, who doesn't think twice about shooting the Baron.
Ms. Jones - How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying
For a old battleaxe, Ms. Jones of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying is one of my favorite musical theatre heriones. Crusty and staunch to all who approach her, she is quickly melted by the flattery and charms of J. Pierrepont Finch, the window washer who is climbing up the corporate ladder by following a "how to"manual. It is Ms. Jones who takes a shine to Finch an does what she can help him to get an "in" with executives, including the big boss J. B. Biggley. Without her help, he would never have gotten so far so fast!
Inspector Javert - Les Miserables
Say what you want about this obsessed, misguided character of Les Miserables, but Inspector Javert is in many ways what we look for in our heroes. He is also what many of us would hope for in a competent policeman. He is interested in justice, he stops at nothing to get it, and he maintains a very devout relationship with his ideals. We may not agree with him, but he has an integrity and code of ethics he must follow. Maybe he is a little preoccupied with Jean Valjean, but he believes he is hunting down a criminal and feels he is doing his duty. Truthyfully, don't we all just respect him a little bit? Would we not be so devastated by his suicide if we didn't see a little of him in ourselves?