Not too long ago I said that The Devil’s Carnival was the worst, most sexist musical I have ever seen. I was surprised by this because I actually really like Repo! The Genetic Opera, which I see as a much more feminist tale.
The premise of Repo! The Genetic Opera is that in the future, organ failures become a major problem, eventually causing the rise of a company known as GeneCo. GeneCo provides organ transplants and cosmetic surgeries, but if someone defaults on a payment a Repoman will come and remove the organ from you.
The musical centers on Repoman Nathan, played by Anthony Stewart Head, and his daughter Shilo, who I see as our main feminist heroine in this musical. However, there are several other female characters that support these feminist themes. There is Blind Mag, a formerly blond opera singer and now the voice of GeneCo, who is played by Sarah Brightman (best known for playing Christine in Phantom of the Opera), Amber Sweet, the wealthy heiress of GeneCo, played by Paris Hilton, and finally Marni, Nathan’s dead wife.
In my mind, feminism at its core is about choice—to choose what type of person you want to be without fear of judgement or prejudice. In Repo! The Genetic Opera each woman struggles to have a choice over how they live their lives.
Shilo, we learn, is sick because of genetic disease she inherited from her mother who died when she was giving birth. Because of her disease, Nathan keeps Shilo locked away and refuses to let her outside. Nathan himself is hiding several complicated secrets. He is secretly a Repoman working for Rotti Largo, who owns GeneCo. He’s a Repoman because he was convinced that he accidentally killed his wife and Rotti covered for him. In fact, Rotti poisoned Marni, because she married Nathan instead of him. Nathan’s final and most terrible secret is that he is actually poisoning Shilo keeping her sick, because he doesn’t want her to leave him.
Though we never really meet Marni, she is definitely one of the first female characters to emphasize feminist themes. Marni simply wanted to be able to control her own life. She wanted to be able to choose who she dated and married. Marni’s tragedy is that choice was taken from her. Rotti felt he was being shafted into the “friendzone” by Marni after all he did for her. If he had truly loved her, he would have allowed her to make her own decisions, but he instead robs her not only of her choices but her family as well. With Marni’s death, he is able to then control Nathan and by extension Shilo. He even actively tries to control Shilo throughout the musical.
Rotti, discovering that he has a disease that cannot be cured, is burdened with the task of trying to figure out who will inherit GeneCo. Disappointed in his own children Luigi, Pavi, and Amber, he decides that he will groom Shilo, who is so like her mother, into his heir. His main focus however, seems to be trying to get her to turn against her father.
Shilo struggles with not only trying to take back control over her life, but also trying to distinguish herself from her mother. Nathan and Rotti try to control Shilo because she reminds them so much of Marni. Though Shilo doesn’t realize that this is one of the reasons people are manipulating her, this theme is heavily implied in her first song “Infected.” Shilo laments inheriting her mother’s blood condition that keeps her locked away and expresses her desire to go outside into the real world. Although Shilo doesn’t yet realize that her blood disease is fake, it is still true that her mother’s genetics have damned her to this life of imprisonment. Her whole life is being controlled by the men who loved Marni because she looks so much like her mother, and her desire to go outside can then be seen as a desire for freedom and a chance to discover her own identity.
Shilo is contacted by Rotti who says he just wants to speak with her, but then basically abducts her. Shilo calms down when Rotti promises to introduce her to Blind Mag, who is something of a celebrity and someone Shilo admires. When Shilo meets Blind Mag, she discovers that Blind Mag is leaving GeneCo. She does a press conference with Rotti explaining how she is leaving while Rotti cryptically mentions that Mag belongs to GeneCo and then claims to be only joking. Shilo later discovers through Amber Sweet that if Mag quits she will break her contract and a Repoman will come to take her eyes.
Shilo hurries home, worried that her father will discover that she snuck out of the house. Blind Mag meets her there and Shilo learns that she is actually her godmother. Marni and Mag where best friends. When Marni was dating Rotti, she convinced him to help her friend Mag see. Blind Mag was also named as Shilo’s godmother, but she was lied to by Nathan who told her that Shilo died when her mother did.
Blind Mag encourages Shilo to break away from her father and live her own life in arguably the best song in the musical, “Chase the Morning.” Mag further describes how it’s too late for herself to do the same. Because of the nature of her contract with Rotti, Mag knows she is going to die, but chooses death over being controlled. In her final performance for GeneCo, Mag sings “Chromaggia“, where she then tears out her GeneCo eyes declaring that she would rather be blind. She is then murdered by Rotti.
Earlier, after Mag leaves Shilo, Shilo finally confronts her father in the song “Seventeen“, where she exclaims her rage at her father putting down all her “girlish dreams” and claiming that a seventeen-year-old girl wouldn’t cope with the world’s horrors. Shilo berates her father for living in the past and treating her as if she is her dead mother and further shouts that she is joining with the living and that he can’t stop her.
(Fun side note: Joan Jett has a solo in “Seventeen” which is awesome!)
Nathan eventually discovers that Rotti is after his daughter and heads to the opera to kill Rotti. Rotti meanwhile has sent guards after Nathan, because he refused to kill Mag and repossess her eyes. Shilo also sneaks off to the opera, because Rotti claimed that he had a cure for her blood disease, which would free her from her father’s grasp.
It’s at the opera that Mag dies and that Shilo, Nathan, and Rotti all finally confront each other. Shilo discovers that her father has been poisoning her, but soon figures out that Rotti has been the one controlling her father and her all along. Rotti shoots Nathan and then dies from his own terminal illness. Shilo holds her father as he dies, Nathan apologizes for what he did, and the two make amends in the song “I Didn’t Know I Loved You So Much.” As Nathan dies he tells Shilo that she saved him and instructs her to go change the world for him. Shilo ends the scene by singing “Genetic Emancipation”, where she sings that her genes don’t determine who she is even though they are a part of her. She finally declares that she is free at last and leaves the opera and her old life behind.
Blind Mag and Marni’s stories focus on the men in their lives controlling and manipulating them. For them, their only escape was death, but Shilo’s story shows change and progress. Shilo is able to overcome the forces controlling her life and even manages to change her father’s ideas. After Shilo leaves the opera everything changes.
But everything doesn’t change just through Shilo, but also through Amber Sweet. It’s easy to dismiss Amber as the spoiled heiress, but she is so much more than that. Amber seems to constantly struggle with wanting her father’s approval and attention, and wanting to distance herself from her crazy family and live her own life. Amber becomes addicted to drugs and plastic surgery, but she is also the only one really given any responsibility by her father, who seems to hate her two insane brothers. Amber’s poor behavior and addiction seems largely to have to do with wanting to literally change her genetics from the inside so that she is no longer like her family. But her often risky surgery also ends up going horribly wrong, allowing her to get her father’s attention. At the opera when her father is dying, Amber is the only one of her siblings that tries to help him, but he scorns her and calls her trash.
Just as Shilo is liberated after the opera, so is Amber. She takes control of her father’s company, her brothers, and seems to have her life together. She states that her reign on GeneCo will bring about change in not only the company, but society. If Marni and Mag show the inescapable oppress of women, then Shilo and Amber represent strength over adversity and progress in society. Furthermore, since both Amber and Shilo are so young Repo! The Genetic Opera is actually one of the few coming of age stories about girls.
I always find it interesting that Repo! The Genetic Opera is such a feminist tale, while The Devil’s Carnival is so terribly sexist, but hey, I guess things are hit and miss. I further don’t think that Repo! The Genetic Opera is written with feminism in mind, but the plot and female characters seem to support feminist ideals in spite of the author’s intentions.