Theatre Thursdays: Villains in Musical Theatre

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to play piano for the annual student-run musical revue at my alma mater. Each year a number of songs are chosen from a variety of musicals, generally with some sort of overarching theme. This year, the theme was “Villains”. While primarily just a showcase of song and dance numbers, there was some element of discussion of the motivations of the characters, and what led them to their villainous ways. The question of why people do bad things felt especially pressing in light of the stabbing attacks at Franklin Regional High School, located a mere forty-some minutes away from my alma mater. As I prepared for rehearsal the night after the attacks, just two nights before opening night, I thought to myself: our show has either become very timely, or completely disrespectful.

It all hinges on just how the villain is portrayed in the musical. Is the villain demonized, humanized, or glorified? Too often, though not always, it is that last option. Sure, lots of other media forms can glorify the villain, but I think musical theatre can more easily take it to another level. Many novels, TV shows, or movies can make being a villain seem understandable or sympathetic or intriguing; others can go a step further and make being evil seem cool, glamorous, and sexy. But few things have the power of musical theatre to make being bad seem downright fun. Take a bad guy that would be glamorous in another context, then add impressive choreography and a catchy song? You’ve just made a rock star. I’m going to look at just a few examples from some musical theatre baddies after the jump.

Being bad never looked so good.

Being bad never looked so good.

Norm Lewis Javert Les MisInspector Javert, from the smash-hit musical Les Misérables, is probably one of the best portrayals of a villain in musical theatre. His views and motivations are flawed, but are pretty clearly spelled out and consistent. We probably (hopefully) don’t agree with his rigid legalism, but we can at least understand where he’s coming from. His inability to deviate even a little from this mentality is ultimately what leads him to take his own life, as he cannot bear the psychological dissonance created when Valjean demolishes what he unwaveringly believed about law-breakers. When bent, he breaks. Some may feel a sense of justice at his death at the end, but I’d wager that more of us feel a sense of tragedy about a man so tied to an unyielding worldview. Javert is made human, understandable if not sympathetic, but certainly not glorified.

Carrie the MusicalIf there’s anything we miss in Javert’s portrayal, it’s that we don’t get to see him become bad; he appears on the scene set in his ways. Like I said, he’s more understandable than sympathetic. The dramatic tension of getting to actually watch the struggle and pain that drive someone towards evil is one significant way of making a villain more sympathetic. The titular character from Carrie: The Musical is a good example of this. (Yes, they re-made Carrie for film this past year, but I bet ya didn’t know there was a musical based on this Stephen King work! Don’t worry, here at LGG&F, we have certainly been tuned in: check out these articles about the original show and the revival.) Carrie’s plight is not only understandable, but also terribly relatable. Abuse by parents and peers is all too real. In the song “Carrie”, she sings about her torment at school with heartbreaking lyrics like these:

“Doesn’t anybody ever get it right? Carrie! Why don’t they remember I am Carrie White? Carrie! Is it any harder so say than goddamn toad, and spastic and weirdo and dumb bitch? Doesn’t anybody think that I can hear? I hear!” —(Listen to the full song here.)

Haven’t there been times for all of us where we felt pushed too far, felt that we might exact some vengeance on those who have wronged us if only we had the power and opportunity? Portrayals like this are powerful because they force us to examine ourselves and our own potential to act in harmful and destructive ways when pushed past our breaking points.

Cell Block Tango ChicagoNow I come to what I believe is the absolute wrong way to portray an evil-doer: glorification and celebration. “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago unfortunately exemplifies this quite well. (More LGG&F thoughts on Chicago here.) The number is undeniably a total and utter crowd-pleaser. The choreography is generally extremely elaborate and complex, making for an impressive show of skill on the part of the cast. The main tune of the chorus is energetic and just so darn catchy. But if examined more closely, the song’s disturbing nature becomes clear. The merry murderesses proclaim justification for their actions due to being pushed too far, but it’s in a tongue-in-cheek style, not an honest plea of innocence. They end their monologues with zingy one-liners, including: “I fired two warning shots—into his head”; “I fixed him his drink like usual—you know some guys just can’t hold their arsenic”; “then he ran into my knife—he ran into my knife ten times”. They aren’t truly asking for justification and certainly not forgiveness, they are turning their murders into punchlines in one big, sick joke.

The power of music can lend extra emotional force to character portrayals when in the context of a piece of musical theatre, so extra care must be taken when writing for villains in musicals. By all means, the writing should be good and compelling enough for us to understand and even sympathize with the villain, appreciating where they come from and seeing just how easily any one of us could go down the same path. But violent behavior should never be glorified or celebrated through writing that makes light of something so grave. To do so is ultimately disrespecting victims of violence everywhere.