Love triangles are by no means something that’s unique to the stage—they’ve been part of popular storytelling tradition for centuries. And if you’re anything like me, you’re starting to get sick of being asked which “Team” you’re on every time you consume some new media about a group of three people of differing genders. There are some very famous musical love triangles, though, and I’d like to look at a few of them and discuss why they’re problematic and why they almost always end up being unfair to the women involved.
Love triangles in musicals often feature two men pursuing one woman, although there are some famous ones involving the opposite. In the former situation, the woman tends to be treated as a prize to be won; she is portrayed as owing her affections to someone. See, for example, My Fair Lady, where we’re supposed to believe Henry Higgins deserves Eliza’s favor because he put so much work into “civilizing” her, and, hey, he’s grown accustomed to her face.
It also plays into the always-disgusting “nice guy” idea, which perpetuates the notion that one character is more ‘right’ for a woman than another, and removes the woman’s agency in deciding that for herself. In Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour is totally friendly to Audrey and helpful to her all the time—because he’s crushing on her. He is owed her affections—why would she ever consider dating that awful dentist when Seymour’s around? At least that show points out that the “nice guy” can also be totally rotten inside.
The two-guy one-girl setup is unfair to men as well—it usually features an unusually nice guy and a cartoonishly evil one competing for the girl’s attentions. Consider Phantom of the Opera, where the Phantom and Raoul compete for Christine. Raoul is a unrealistically perfect Prince Charming, and the Phantom is a hideous inside-and-out, tortured genius who lives in a catacomb. In Sweeney Todd, Anthony is a bright young—what’s the male equivalent of an ingenue? That’s what he is. And the Judge is a creepy, pseudo-incestuous, ickily pedophiliac manipulator. These men are caricatures, essentially; in the real world, when romantic interests collide, there isn’t necessarily a “bad guy”, or at least it isn’t readily obvious who that bad guy is.
The opposite setup—where two women pursue one man—can also bring out viewers’ misogyny full force. In this sort of plot, both women are often equally attractive potential partners both in personality and looks. There are almost never cartoonishly evil or ‘tragically ugly’ women in musical love triangles. In-show, the two women are often friends, which just adds to the so-called tragedy that only one of them can get the guy. However, despite neither woman being that bad of a person, the audience tends to demonize one over the other as if supporting one pairing means you have to totally shit on the third party. This is evident in a lot of fandoms, but none so much as Les Misérables. There are a lot of people out there who absolutely detest Cosette, for no reason other than ‘we wanted Éponine to get Marius instead’.
There’s also a weirdly specific recurring trope of “underdog with revolutionary tendencies competes against fashion-obsessed femme who undergoes tragic character reversal for the love of self-obsessed guy who also undergoes dramatic character reversal”. In both cases I can think of, Wicked with Elphaba, Glinda and Fiyero, and Aida with Aida, Amneris, and Radames respectively, the revolutionary gets the boy in a bittersweet twist, and the femme must proceed into a position of power without revealing her true emotions about the match.
On a general level, love triangles in musicals and elsewhere are problematic for three reasons: they make potential relationships into a competition, they exclude the possibility of polyamory (like, seriously, instead of fighting about it, why don’t you all just get together?), and they almost never feature queer characters. In fact, I can’t think of a single musical that portrays a love triangle with an LGBTQ+ person as part of the triad. Until these issues are addressed, I’d be glad to see the end of this trope for a long time.