Judas, Che and Aaron Burr, Sir! 9 Antiheroes and Narrators of Musical Theatre

News   Judas, Che and Aaron Burr, Sir! 9 Antiheroes and Narrators of Musical Theatre In musical theatre, clear-cut heroes and villains are few and far-between. Instead, audiences are often drawn into the narrative by complex and complicated antiheroes, many of whom also narrate the story. Playbill correspondent Mark Robinson looks at the complex antiheroes of some classic musicals.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda and cast
Lin-Manuel Miranda and cast Photo by Joan Marcus

Narrator/Antiheroes Broadway musicals aren't always simple stories of "Happy Ever After," sometimes involving more complex shading of plot and characters that take dark turns toward cynical commentary. Oftentimes, when a musical goes down this path, a narrator is employed to make frank observation and to serve as a conscience for the audience, helping guide them through these darker moments as personified stand-ins for skepticism and stark honesty. A recent example of this is the character of Aaron Burr in Hamilton, who is our tour guide on this journey that exposes the humanity and fallibility of one of our most-regarded forefathers. The real-life Burr was not a champion of Alexander Hamilton, making him the perfect narrator-antihero to tell the story in this fashion. The convention of the musical theatre narrator-antihero has been used in other musicals just as effectively as a means to keep the story and characters from becoming too one-sidedly altruistic and to help shape our point of view or opinion about the show.

Leading Player – Pippin (1972)
One of the best examples of the narrator-antihero in a musical is The Leading Player in Pippin. There is something sinister and uncomfortably welcoming about this character from the very start as he/she hypnotizes the audience to join his band of revelers ("Magic to Do") for what will turn out to be an evening of entertainment that is all about accepting life's disappointments. The Leading Player coaxes and cajoles the idealistic title character, preying on his self-doubts and failures, prodding him toward the possibility that his dreams and aspirations are not grounded in reality. The Leading Player talks to the audience like they are his confidants, and yet he or she is not to be trusted. In reality, he is just inviting them to step in for Pippin and participate in an ultimate grand finale that seems suspiciously akin to suicide. Composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz and book writer Roger O. Hirson utilize him or her as both Pippin's conscience and as his anti-conscience, giving him words and lyrics that keep Pippin in a balance between determination and despair. The Leading Player is both the angel and the devil and on Pippin's shoulder.

  The Narrator - Into the Woods (1987)
Typically, the narrator in a fairy tale is meant to create a safety wall between the reader and the darker moral implications of the story being told. This narrator is a third-person buffer that allows a fairy tale to go into dark places without entirely horrifying the intended target of the story: children. They are the hero who will always take us to the happy ending where good is rewarded and evil is punished. Composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist James Lapine, however, were not afraid to tamper with our fairy tales when they wrote Into the Woods and used the character of the Narrator as an antihero who is ineffective at safely navigating the dark woods on our behalf to the show's completion. Pompous and often condescending, the Narrator in Into the Woods dispenses moral platitudes and levies judgments on the characters, justifying his pronouncements as part of his job as an "outside observer who must pass the story along." He is so disliked that the characters in the musical turn on him and murder him by feeding him to a giant. This character, who takes the audience by the hand and invites them into the story with the implied promise of getting them to the end, abandons them at a critical time of violence and chaos that comes in the second half of Act Two.

 

Emcee – Cabaret (1966)
"Willkommen" and "Bienvenue" The Emcee coyly beckons as he seduces the audience into the salacious Kit Kat Klub, a seedy cabaret in 1930s Berlin. The musical itself is a show-within-a-show, with The Emcee serving as the entertainment's omniscient overseer. Through bawdy musical numbers of the cabaret act as a framework, he both narrates and comments on the stories happening to those who inhabit the club and its surroundings. Cabaret is a dark musical about troubled people on the verge of one of the darkest times in world history (World War II). The Emcee's over-the-top, flamboyant ways are in stark contrast to poverty and despair surrounding him. There is something wicked in the way he revels in the debauchery and worldliness of such songs as "Two Ladies," "The Money Song" and "If You Could See Her," all of which represent the composing team of Kander and Ebb at their most audacious and satirical.

 

Judas Iscariot – Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)
Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice made an interesting choice to tell the story of the final days of Jesus Christ from the point of view of the man who would ultimately lead to the savior's demise. Skepticism and criticism are personified in the character of Judas Iscariot from the minute her opens his mouth in "Heaven on Their Minds." Although Judas is an ardent follower of Christ, what he shares with the audience is a disdain for the choices the title character is making, equating them with naiveté and foolishness. His frustration with Jesus (he thinks his motives are egocentric and impetuous) leads to him ultimately betraying his leader and facilitating his capture by Roman soldiers. Judas continues to paint doubt for the audience right through the crucifixion as he questions Christ about the divine purpose behind his martyrdom in the song "Superstar."

Che – Evita (1979)
Audiences are never quite sure who Che is exactly or where he stands in the musical Evita. He is equal parts narrator, revolutionary, cynic, and guide. He is most certainly the titular character's conscience personified and simultaneously the voice of the Argentine people. This juxtaposition makes him a compelling narrator-antihero. He slides in and out of the story, offering wry commentary on the action, as Eva Duarte employs every trick in the book to rise from the peasant class to become Eva Peron, the sainted first lady of the nation. The interesting thing about Che is that he vacillates in his relationship with Eva, sometimes embracing her schemes with curious amusement one moment and then scorning her for them the next. His first big number, "Oh What a Circus," starts out as a loving tribute to Eva, but transitions into a bitter diatribe of her failings. Lyricist Tim Rice infuses Che with a complexity and ambiguity that embodies the fickleness of a nation and its people.

 

Officer Lockstock – Urinetown (2001)
Perhaps one of the creepiest of the narrator-antiheroes on the list is Officer Lockstock of Urinetown. Officer Lockstock is the melodramatic and slightly sinister constable who oversees law and order in the dystopian world of Urinetown where people must pay to use government-regulated toilets. He schmoozes the audience into this world with an uncomfortable humor and frankness that becomes all the more menacing when he turns it toward Little Sally, a slightly detached and intellectually dark urchin who hangs around outside the public amenities. He gives the audiences updates throughout the story, earning a reticent trust that is obliterated when we learn he is henchman in the establishment that is oppressing the people and their "Privilege to Pee."

 

Narrator - Blood Brothers (1983-London/1993-Broadway)
The narrator in the Willy Russell musical Blood Brothers is a constant force of both bleak foreshadowing ("Shoes upon the Table") and a resonant cry of heartbreak with his poetic narration of this tale about twin brothers who are separated at birth and will ultimately die within moments of each other. The Narrator taunts Mrs. Johnston, the twin's biological mother, who must make the impossible choice of giving one of her children away, pushing the audience into believing her heartless and cold when, in reality, the woman is tortured by it. The Narrator in Blood Brothers is a constant reminder of her difficult decision and he vocalizes Mrs. Johnston's internal conflict about the tough decision she made for the welfare of her family. He is her guilt personified.

 

El Gallo - The Fantasticks (1960)
The long-running musical The Fantasticks features a narrator-antihero in the guise of the poetic El Gallo who both guides the piece and acts as a optimism-crushing force of the outside world that permeates the bubble of idealism that the story's romantic couple live obliviously inside. El Gallo is a puppet master of sorts, especially in the musical's second half when the musical transitions from a magical world lit by the moon to a reality that is "burned a bit by the sun." The Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones song "I Can See It" and the subsequent "Round and Round" features El Gallo leading the young man known as Matt through a series of life's harsh realities and disappointments. He is the embodiment of both the wonders the world has to offer and the stark reality that keeps that illusion in check.

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