My Top 10 Inspirational Female Characters in Musical Theatre
1. Elphaba and Glinda from Wicked
Wicked is a musical based off of Gregory Maguire’s novel of the same name and is a prequel to L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Elphaba, a social outcast due to her green skin, is paired to room with blonde society girl, Galinda. The two women go from disgruntled roommates to unlikely best friends. The story follows the two women as they reach adulthood while navigating Oz’s political climate; and eventually they grow into the iconic characters we recognize: The Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda the Good.
So often in musical theatre, the plot is central between two male friends or male and female love interests. Wicked takes two powerful, individual women and makes their friendship the central part of the show. What I love about Elphaba and Glinda is that their differences are celebrated. Both women are strong, while being polar opposites.
Elphaba marches to the beat of her own drum. She fiercely believes in herself and holds her ground. Despite being an outcast at university, she stays true to who she is; unapologetically. As her journey progresses, she is offered multiple opportunities for acceptance, but she denies every one that would require her to go against what she believes. Elphaba’s loyalty to her ideals and relentless fight for change may have led to her becoming the “Wicked Witch of the West”; but it results in her finding true love and receiving the acceptance she searched for from people who truly matter. Her legacy is left with her best friend, and it will result in change for the better.
Glinda is often written off as flighty, a comedic supportive character. However, through the piece she takes a lovely character journey where she morphs into a strong woman who can hold her own. Those familiar with Maguire’s original work will know that Glinda is the first girl from her town to go to university. Underneath the ditzy society girl image, there is a clever mind and a heart of gold. As she enters the real world, she begins to realize that what’s on the surface isn’t all that it seems, and what’s inside is what truly matters. Wicked celebrates how two women can learn from each other. In this case, the changes they make from knowing each other, are for good.
2. Cinderella from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s adaptation of this classic fairytale retains the same plot as the original story. When Ella’s father passes away, she is left in the care of her wicked stepfamily. Her stepmother and stepsisters treat her as a servant; even banishing her to sleep in the ashes of the fireplace which leads to the cruel nickname “Cinderella”. The kind and quiet young woman wishes for nothing more than one night off, an escape from the hardships around her. Thanks to her fairy godmother, she attends the royal ball in a beautiful gown, but must return by midnight when the magic ends. As she flees, she leaves behind one glass slipper as the only clue to her identity. The Prince, who has fallen madly in love with her, then searches the kingdom to find his true love.
Cinderella was revived on Broadway in 2013 with major changes to the script. While the revival still maintains the ‘Cinderella Story’, Douglas Carter Beane gives Ella back her power and makes celebrating kindness a focus of the piece. The revival also makes Cinderella a hero. The kingdom is struggling as the royal advisors use the naiveté of their Prince to their advantage. Ella’s journey to the ball becomes more than just a night off, but she uses her trips to the palace to inform Prince Topher of the injustice in the kingdom. Her kindness and passion lead the Prince to fall in love with her; his journey to find the mysterious woman becomes less about her beauty, and more about her kind heart.
Kindness in the face of adversity is a huge strength, and Cinderella is a beautiful example of that. Despite the hardships around her, Cinderella remains kind. She doesn’t need a Prince to save her, just a Fairy Godmother; who reveals to her that the power was hers all along. Cinderella’s story reminds us that genuine kindness is the furthest thing from weakness.
3. Carole King and Cynthia Weil from Beautiful
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a musical documenting Carole King’s life and career. The story follows her growth from a young girl in Brooklyn, to the international sensation she became. It focuses on her breakthrough into the music industry, her professional and personal relationship with Gerry Goffin, and her evolution into a singer-songwriter. The story is told in flashback, and we are introduced to Carole Klein from Brooklyn; a high school student with big dreams of writing music. As she works hard at making her mark in the industry, Carole marries Gerry Goffin and starts a family. She is a young working mom, balancing her daughter and song-writing career with Gerry. Gerry becomes restless, having affairs with other women; but Carole stands by him, even as he becomes increasingly difficult to live with. It’s a powerful and moving journey, and the audience goes wild when Carole decides to leave Gerry, realizing that, “The girls deserve better, and you know what? So do I.”
Cynthia Weil barges onstage unapologetically. She and her song-writing partner, Barry Mann, are Goffin and King’s biggest competition, but the two women become fast friends. While Carole is determined to have it all at home and at work, Cynthia is the opposite, casting love and societal expectations aside. She is ambitious, allowing nothing to stand in the way of her career, including a passionate relationship with her writing partner. With a little guidance from Carole, she realizes that falling in love doesn’t make her weak, or take away from who she is. Beautiful showcases two women who are trailblazing in a male-dominated profession. The two friends compete often at work, but push each other to do their best work and it is always friendly. Carole and Cynthia forge a lifelong friendship based on mutual support. The women in Beautiful are complex, strong, and full of love. They show us that dreams of all kinds can come true, so long as you’ve got a friend.
4. Elle Woods from Legally Blonde
When her boyfriend breaks up with her, sorority girl Elle Woods follows him to Harvard Law School. In her attempt to win him back, she makes new friends, finds a passion for law, and learns that “being true to yourself never goes out of style.” This show is all about breaking stereotypes; a blonde girl who loves fashion and makeup can still be serious. Loving pink doesn’t make you less of a feminist, and Elle’s journey to prove to her ex that she is more than meets the eye, she also proves to herself that she can do anything. Throughout the show, Elle struggles with being underestimated and judged by her looks and bubbly exterior. Despite the taunting from her teachers and classmates, Elle remains kind and works hard to excel at school. She supports the other women around her, and keeps her ability to see the good in others. Eventually, she realizes that a relationship with someone who doesn’t see and love every part of you isn’t a relationship at all. Elle’s story teaches us that the truest expression of love is being true to yourself, and that there’s nothing that love can’t achieve.
5. Anya from Anastasia
The Broadway adaptation of Anastasia follows the 1997 film of the same name, which is a retelling of the story of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia. The entire Romanov family was murdered, but the execution of one of the daughters, Anastasia was never confirmed.
In this adaptation, Anastasia escapes the attack on her family. Years later, two men use the rumours surrounding the missing Grand Duchess to hatch a plan to train a young woman to ‘pass’ as Anastasia, return her to her grandmother, and collect the reward money. Along the way, they meet Anya; a woman the same supposed age of the missing Grand Duchess, who has no memory of her life before the orphanage. As Anya agrees to the plan for passage to Paris, she starts off on a journey to rediscover her past and find herself. While most girls dream of one day finding out that they’re royalty, this story is far from a fairytale, and Anya is not your usual princess. She is a warrior. Her journey to the past is full of hardships, but she makes friends, finds her family, falls in love, and realizes that “home” is more than just a physical place. In this woman’s case, it was within her all along.
6. The Queens of Six
Six is a new musical sensation that has swept the West End. Presented in concert-style, the story stars the six wives of Henry XVIII reimagined as a pop girl group. On their “Divorced, Beheaded, Live” World Tour, these women are here to rewrite their stories. Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anna of Cleaves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr met through their awful ex, and have joined forces as a girl group to retell their stories. These six women are known for the infamous ways their relationships with King Henry ended, but they refuse to be defined by this. The plot follows a competition amongst the queens – Which one of the wives had it the worst? They all tell their stories in song, sharing the ordeals their husband put them through. The queens ask the audience to be the judge of it all; the winner of the competition will become the leader of the girl group. The competition gives these women a chance to take the spotlight and share who they were before Henry. As the competition progresses, the women begin to argue amongst themselves. Eventually, they realize that while they are remembered for their unhappy endings, that those endings are what brought their stories into the light. These women realize that there is no reason for them to compete, but it’s time for them to celebrate their differences and embrace each other. They may be bound by the same horrible man, but that doesn’t change the individuals they are, and the fact that they are stronger together.
7. Babe Williams from The Pajama Game
The Pajama Game follows workers at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, who are fighting for a 7 and ½ cent raise. Sparks fly when new superintendent Sid Sorokin tries to get head of the grievance committee, Babe Williams, to go out with him. Their budding relationship is put as stake when they find themselves at opposite sides of the labour dispute. When the union members stage a slow down, Sid is forced to order the employees back to work. With their jobs at stake, the factory workers assume a normal pace. Babe is determined to continue the strike action and quickly causes a jam in the line, which results in the factory shutting down momentarily. This forces Sid to fire Babe, and ends their relationship. Babe is tough, and dedicated to her cause. She tentatively begins her relationship with Sid, worried about getting involved with someone she works with. While Sid keeps pushing the strike to the side, Babe is upfront with him from the beginning that the strike will come before their relationship. The two lovers eventually come back to each other when the strike finishes, but Babe never compromises who she is for the man that she loves.
8. Raven and Sloane Falco from Bat Out of Hell
Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell is a futuristic tale of star crossed love. Though it is set in the future, the struggles of the three leading ladies are timeless. Strat, the forever-young leader of The Lost; a group of genetically mutated teenagers, falls in love with Raven, daughter of Falco, the tyrannical ruler of Obsidian and everything changes. Raven is the ingénue of the piece. Locked in a tower by her overprotective father, she yearns for a better life. It’s love at first sight when she meets the young rebel, and he gives her the opportunity to run away on the eve of her eighteenth birthday. Raven is a dreamer, and while Strat offers her a way out, she is the one who decides to take it. She is a young woman who comes into her own, and it all starts when she takes the first steps to seize her freedom. Raven’s coming of age story is accompanied by her mother, Sloane. Both women have had their freedom taken away by the same man. Sloane often serves as a buffer between father and daughter, trying to keep the peace. She wishes for Raven to have more freedom and a chance at a future, one that she does not have herself. Sloane is a fighter, and she fights for her daughter first, and eventually herself. She leaves her husband, but she returns to fight for a relationship with the man she loves.
This mother and daughter clash like any other, but they have a close bond forged from their shared struggle. Sloane and Raven support each other and fight for each other. Due to their circumstances, each woman has worked hard to keep a wall built around them for protection. Over the course of the story, they both learn that vulnerability is their greatest strength as they open up to each other and the men who love them.
9. Katherine Plumber from Newsies
In 1989, the New York City newspaper tycoons decided to raise the price they charged the newsboys for their papers. The young kids, who had very few rights as workers to begin with, take a stand and go on strike, demanding a place at the table. Covering the strike, is young reporter Katherine Plumber. Her story parallels those of the newsboys; as children and women were both fighting for rights in the workplace around the turn of the century. Katherine is a young journalist who is ready to change the world. She is woman, trailblazing her way through a male dominated profession. She is smart, tough, and working hard to break her way out of the fluff pieces assigned to her. Later in the show, it is revealed that Katherine’s father is publishing Titan, Joseph Pulitzer. So not only is Katherine fighting her way to write on the front page, she uses a pen name and refuses any help from her father. She works her way through on merit, and her pluck earns the striking newboys the front page. Even after a blackout on strike news, Katherine’s quick thinking not only helps the newsboys win their strike, but unites them with young workers all over the city who have found themselves in similar situations. Katherine’s greatest strength is her passion, and she can often come off as a little intense. Her journey shows us that when you do the right thing, you can create the better tomorrow you’ve been searching for.
10. Anna Leonowens, Lady Thiang, and Tuptim from The King and I
In this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, British schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens sails to Siam to teach the royal children. The King of Siam has sent for her as one of his attempts to modernize his country. Over Anna’s stay at the palace, the two have many arguments, but they both learn from each other and form a tentative friendship.
Anna experiences a bit of a culture shock when she arrives in Siam. She’s quick to judge the customs around her; the gifting of slaves, having multiple wives, and kneeling to bow are things she finds disgraceful. Anna has to work hard to accept the customs held dear to those around her, while convincing the King to change the ones he can. She admires the King’s intelligence and desire for change, and quickly comes to love the royal children. While she is unshakeable in her principles, she is still both teacher and student. Anna never hesitates to speak her mind, despite the stakes of what that means in 1800s Siam.
Lady Thiang works hard to help Anna adjust to life in Siam. She is aware of how things are different and serves as a guide through the customs of Siam, while learning from Anna. Lady Thiang is the King’s first wife, and she holds her position as a leader amongst the other women with grace. She keeps the peace in the palace, both between Anna and the King, and protects the other women, including Tuptim. Lady Thiang genuinely loves the King, and sees the good in him despite how difficult he can be. She stands by her man, and when she realizes that Anna is the only one who can help him achieve his dreams, she steps aside.
Tuptim is the ingénue of The King and I. She is gifted to the King of Siam by the King of Burma to become one of his wives. This is considered a great honour, but she is in love with another man. Lun Tha, a messenger who has brought Tuptim to Siam loves her back. He stays in Siam longer than necessary, and the two risk everything to continue meeting in secret. Eventually, Tuptim, inspired by the books she has read, flees with Lun Tha. Unfortunately, the two lovers are unsuccessful in their escape, but Tuptim has no regrets. These three women show great courage in protecting their ideals, and are an incredible example of how a time period cannot define a woman’s strength.