The friendzone and the entitlement it represents are a constant topic of discussion in the feminist community. This mentality presumes that men are entitled to women’s attention, and it also paints the rejected men as the victims instead of sympathizing with the put-upon women. They were Nice Guys, after all, why didn’t women reward their kindness with sex?
I recently had the tremendous pleasure to see Norm Lewis as the titular Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, and well, the performance was spectacular. But it also got me thinking about the way that the tragedy of the Nice Guy is often an implicit part of theatrical romances. And while at first I thought that these narratives vindicated the Nice Guy struggle, I actually realized that theatre is a great place to go to see Nice Guys laid low.
The Phantom of the Opera is pretty much the quintessential Nice Guy™: he feels entitled to Christine’s attention, constantly does her favors she doesn’t want, and deeply resents that she still falls in love with Raoul instead of him. He goes so far as to murder members of the opera’s cast and crew in a long game whose end goal is to force her to stay in his catacomb with him forever. He even—and I can’t emphasize enough how creepy this is—he even has a life-sized mechanical Christine doll that leans forward to offer a kiss when prompted. When Christine outplays and humiliates him, he abducts her and attacks Raoul, threatening to murder him too unless she promises to stay with him forever. In the end, he does realize what a tool he’s been, but only after he’s managed to alienate anyone who had any reason to be kind to him.
It didn’t hit me until several years after I first saw Wicked that Boq is totally a Nice Guy™. He idolizes Galinda without actually knowing much about her, and prioritizes winning her attention over actually forming connections with people who, you know, reciprocate his interest. “I’ll be right here, waiting, all night,” he tells her. In an attempt to divert his attention elsewhere, Galinda suggests a way he could really impress her: by asking Nessa, the nice young lady in the wheelchair to the dance instead. But later, when Nessa calls him out, suggesting that he was only nice to her because he pitied her, he’s forced to lie and say he really does love her. This lie traps him in a years-long relationship and eventually results in his being turned into the Tin Man. Even then, he blames this on Elphaba, Nessa, and Glinda, rather than realizing that, had he just not been a creep, he would have never ended up in this situation.
And then there’s Seymour Krelborn, from Little Shop of Horrors. Seymour is just a Nice Guy™ with a big ol’ crush on his coworker Audrey. Audrey is a spacey gal with an abusive and sadistic boyfriend, and Seymour just knows that he’d be better for Audrey than the other guy. He tends her injuries, listens when she talks, and even names his new plant after her. The song “Suddenly Seymour” is basically a Nice Guy’s wet dream: the girl he wants realizes how wonderful he’s always been to her and returns his affections.
The thing is, though, Seymour’s a total sociopath, and he’s not any better for Audrey than the other guy was. His plant is a flesh-eating alien that brings its keeper his deepest wishes in exchange for meat, and Seymour is too addicted to the good life it brings to feel any real remorse over murdering several people to feed said plant. Sadly, the movie version of the show plays Seymour as the hero: in the end, he defeats Audrey II, rescues Audrey I, and the two of them live happily ever after. However, in the stage version, his hubris (and the giant talking alien plant) get the better of him, and he loses both Audrey and his own life to the plant he’s given so much to.
The problem is, not many people realize that these shows all eventually show that men who feel entitled to women are (often murderous) assholes. In the same way that many viewers and readers of Romeo and Juliet dismiss it as a romance about stupid teens rather than a tragedy about inter-familial strife, many theatre-goers see the relationships between these men and the women they stalk as tragic rather than creepy.
Yes, the Phantom is a tragic figure because of his disability, and because he was treated as a freak his entire life. But, say it with me, kids: traumatic backstories explain bad behavior—they don’t excuse it. The Phantom doesn’t deserve Christine because his life was sad, or because he taught her to sing, or because he got her great roles—Christine chose to be with Raoul, and that’s what matters.
Boq on the surface appeals to any kid with a crush on a much more popular kid. But as with all crushes of that nature, he didn’t really know Galinda at all; he was just in love with the idea of her. He attempted to guilt Galinda into giving him a chance to prove how much better he was than the date she had chosen, and was manipulated in turn. Galinda wasn’t being bitchy—she was every woman who’s ever gone to a club and felt uncomfortable rejecting a handsy stranger outright.
Seymour is a sad kid; he’s a nerdy little orphan living on Skid Row who’s given the chance to become rich and famous. But he’s given a choice: respect the value of human life, or feed the plant, and he chooses the latter. Murdering someone in cold blood for power? Not so romantic. Thankfully, though, the storylines of these shows do vilify their characters’ icky actions. You just have to pay attention to realize it.