When the New York Post's Michael Riedel reported on Jennifer Hudson’s upcoming Broadway debut in a revival of The Color Purple, it wasn't only the news he broke that inspired a reaction from the theatregoing community. Commenting on the 2004 production of The Color Purple, Riedel stated, "Female empowerment is fine for daytime television, but it’s flesh-crawling in a musical."
Musical theatre has never provided a shortage of leading ladies, but the stories they tell have not always been those of independence or empowerment. For decades, the main plot driving a musical was a love story, typically concluding with a wedding at curtain down. But as society changes, so does the art that reflects it, as we've seen in new musicals. And those changes are also apparent in revivals of older works, as modern-day actors and actresses approach old-fashioned characters in new and innovative ways.
In recent years, a new kind of Broadway baby has been gracing the Great White Way, and she is most certainly empowered. Click through to get to know some of these women.
"No one's gonna bring me down!" From her fierce sense of justice to her high-powered (and flying) belting, Elphaba is a young woman who is not afraid to forge her own path, whether it's fighting for animals' rights, dancing in the center of a ballroom all by herself or embarking on her own journey, unafraid to be flying solo. And let's not forget Glinda (otherwise known as Galinda with a "guh"), who evolves from a superficial and self-absorbed teenager to a powerful politician. Watching the friendship between these two unfold is a beautiful experience.
Rent gave theatre lovers many gifts, not the least of which is the passionate lovers Maureen and Joanne. Maureen is an artist and activist ready to take the stage and fight against corporate gentrification. And, Joanne uses her legal skills to help her friends reclaim their home. Both women are strong and confident, unafraid to say what they want and are unapologetically passionate about each other. Both are belters of the highest power in the ever-popular duet "Take Me Or Leave Me."
Caroline's journey is a painful one as she comes to accept her lot in life. But the stoic single mother working the dehumanizing job of a maid to a wealthy family while suffering from economic hardship and racial inequality continues to cling to the fact that a better future lies in store for her son and daughter, a burgeoning political activist.
4. Little Women
Jo, the irrepressible tomboy of the March family, goes on an incredible journey in the story of the four March sisters. Determined to make her own way in life, she refuses a marriage proposal from her best friend and dares to leave her childhood home in search of her own way in the world, never doubting that the life she is meant to lead is bigger than the one she has. To quote her show-stopping song, Jo's character is "astonishing."
Mrs. Anna never compromises what she wants and thinks she deserves — even if she risks angering royalty by doing it. The widowed mother is brave enough to travel across the world with her son for a job and, despite the King's denial of the private house he promised her in their agreement, she continues to demand it until he fulfills his promise. Anna is not intimidated by the King's power, as she demonstrates in the song "Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?," and she never pretends to be someone she is not, even if that means she cannot have a relationship with with the man she loves.
At the age of five, Matilda is more empowered than many people who are five times her age. Despite having unappreciative parents at home and a despicable headmistress at school, Matilda never loses her spirit and spunk. Realizing she has to look out for herself, she does just that — and even has a bit of fun along the way by pulling pranks on people who treat her badly. Matilda doesn't keep her special powers to herself; she also puts them to use to help out her friends. What's more empowering than that? As she says, "Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty."
It takes confidence to seduce her lover with the line, "I'd be surprisingly good for you." In Evita, Eva Peron unapologetically pursues power and fame, refusing to let gender, society or politics stand in her way. Watching her climb the social ladder from her humble beginnings to the balcony of the Casa Rosada, one can't help but admire Eva's incredible sense of empowerment.
The growth and change that the Mother in Ragtime goes through is absolutely remarkable. She is awakened from her sheltered, upper-class life and chooses to broaden her world and open her heart and her home to people with different lives than their own. Her solo, "Back to Before," a moving look at her past and what she now sees as her future, acknowledging that "it never occurred to want more," is, simply, one of the most empowering songs.
Tracy Turnblad is a fantastic female protagonist who not only wants to get to know her crush, teen pop star Link Larkin, but also is on a mission of social justice as she strives to racially integrate her favorite TV dance show. Tracy refuses to accept that societal norms or backlash or conventional standards of beauty could keep her from accomplishing her dream of dancing on TV and achieving racial integration — or kissing her dream boy. With her indomitable spirit, Tracy is impossible to defeat — no matter how hard Velma von Tusssle might try.
10. Fun Home
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel comes to terms with her father's sexuality and death — an experience filled with painful memories. As she looks back at his life, as well as her own, she realizes she doesn't have to hide the way he did. Her own life, and her sexuality, are hers to take pride in.
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)