Seven Morally Ambiguous Authority Figures in Musicals

The internet is not, in fact, for porn. (Or at least my internet isn’t, thanks to my medium-strength safe search function which is designed to stop me encountering anything that might give me nightmares.)

No, it’s for lists. Everywhere you turn, or at least everywhere I turn, there is another article judging the best, worst or most medium things, people or vaguely defined concepts in any given pop culture phenomenon. This feels like a bandwagon that I can jump on. (Partly because it’s a very large and slow-moving one.)

So here I present, direct from the inside of my head, seven morally ambiguous authority figures who feature in musicals. Not the best, not the worst, just a collection of seven of them. At the very least, this should ensure that if anyone urgently needs to know some details about a handful of characters who feature in musicals and contain moral ambiguity within their personalities, I should be their number one google hit. If there’s any justice.

My Personal List of Seven Morally Ambiguous Authority Figures in Musicals

 

Professor Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady

Played on stage and screen by Rex Harrison. A beloved and major character from an incredibly popular musical – but really, he has very few redeeming features. About all Henry Higgins has going for him is that most of the show’s mostly-good characters seem to like him, or at least respect him, and the heroine comes to like/love him, and he comes to respect (maybe) and like/love her. On the debit side, he’s rude, pompous, self-obsessed and treats people like objects. Not all people, despite his own protestations: women in general and working-class women specifically. Eliza comes off worst, but I don’t feel that great about his attitude towards his female staff or any of the upper-class women he encounters. His misogyny is comical, but it’s also genuine and appalling and never really confronted.

On top of that, his teaching style appears to consist of shouting at Eliza and making her repeat the same phrase over and over again without explaining what he’s doing or why. The fact that she happens to get it right eventually is not an indication that his methods work; it’s more akin to the way that if you torture someone for long enough they’ll tell you anything.

Morality Rating: 1/5.

Aha, a flower girl I can patronise. Excellent!


mama morton

Mama Morton from Chicago

Played on screen by Queen Latifah and on stage by all kinds of people including Alison Moyet, Anita Dobson and Kelly Osborne. She’s unscrupulous and mercenary, but on the other hand, she may actually be the least amoral major character in the show, given that it’s otherwise populated by murderers, idiot judges, and lawyers with the moral depth of a teaspoon. Mama Morton shows some signs of caring about her charges – she takes it seriously when one of them is executed – and treats them perfectly well provided they keep paying her. Plus, Queen Latifah exudes a basic goodness. It’s something in the eyes.

Morality Rating: 3/5. Not ideal, but hasn’t actually killed anyone.

 

Albus Dumbledore (who sort of counts as being from a musical)

I quite like the Harry Potter stories in some ways, but one thing that always annoys me is how bad a head teacher Dumbledore is. I’ve had this discussion with a number of people and nobody agrees with me, so I’m going to say it here instead: he is utterly unprofessional, and yes, it does matter. He appears to run the school mainly through indirect messages and gifts to favourite pupils. He allows Snape to hand out arbitrary and unfair punishments to pupils he dislikes (and I could do another rant about how bad a teacher Snape is but I just can’t be bothered). His ability to appoint new teachers who aren’t either evil or incompetent is… flawed, to say the least. And does he pay any attention at all to the actual content of his teachers’ lessons, and specifically to the degree of life-threatening danger his pupils routinely encounter? Most irritatingly, nobody ever comments on any of this and everyone thinks he’s a genius. OK, I’m done. Don’t hurt me.

Morality Rating: 3/5. I guess he means well. Maybe he’s just incompetent.


Nick Murder in Romance and Cigarettes

kate winslet

This should be a picture of James Gandolfini, I know. But ooh.

If humanity was properly constructed, Romance and Cigarettes would have been the top grossing film of 2005. As it is, hardly anybody saw it and many of those who did disliked it (although everyone I showed it to has loved it). This is a shame, because it’s wonderful – poetic and coarse and racy and beautiful and full of gorgeous musical numbers. The protaganist is a husband and father played by The Sopranos‘ James Gandolfini, who cheats on his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) with fiery harlot Tula (Kate Winslet). The film shows brilliantly how much damage he causes to Kitty and his daughters in the process, while also making you realise just how hard it would be to say no to Kate Winslet. About anything. I’d probably jump off a tall building if she told me to. Or just asked me to. Or just didn’t ask me not to. Anyway.

Morality Rating: 2.5/5


Chester Kent in Footlight Parade

Footlight Parade (which I’m assuming people won’t necessarily be that familiar with) is a 1933 black and white musical starring the fabulous James Cagney as a man who puts together brief live musical shows for movie houses (which is a thing they used to have, apparently). The moral ambiguity here is based on two things neither of which are really the character’s fault: firstly, he’s played by James Cagney, who is mostly known for playing gangsters and never quite loses that sense of slight menace; and secondly, his character is from a 1930s film and therefore gets to do things like keep a group of showgirls prisoner for several days (which they are perfectly ok with, but still).

Morality Rating: 4/5

(See also, the way Fred Astaire’s various characters blatantly stalk Ginger Rogers’ various characters through the series of films they did together, culminating in the film Carefree which features a use of hypnosis that would get you locked up these days. And probably would have then, to be honest.)

Incidentally, Footlight Parade is well worth watching if you have any interest in old musicals at all. It features fast talking, secretaries secretly crushing on their bosses, and Busby Berkeley routines that will make you go “… what just happened?”

busby berkeley routine

I mean, look.

Nathan/Repo Man  in Repo! The Genetic Opera

Nathan, aka Repo Man, takes the Jekyll and Hyde trope to fascinatingly demented new extremes: by day he’s a mild-mannered doctor who cares for his severely ill daughter, by night he’s a hitman repossessing debtors’ organs with leather-clad bloodlust – and then it turns out even the above-stairs version has his dark secrets. Anthony Stewart Head hams this up in a style you will find either wildly enjoyable (as I did) or appalling (as lots of reviewers did). Nathan is actually one of the more moral characters in the film, disturbingly.

Morality Rating: 2/5, in the context of how awful almost everyone else is

repo!

You can't get this kind of service on the NHS

Mary Poppins, from Mary Poppins (I’m not even going to bother to link)

Oh ok, I’m being unfair. Mary Poppins, though a somewhat morally complex character in the original PL Travers book, is in the musical version a perfectly lovely super-governess who uses her magical powers only to help children and entertain chimney sweeps. The reason she’s in here is purely because of the Childcare Action Project.

If you haven’t heard of it, CAP is a US fundamentalist Christian website that reviews films based on their adherence to the Bible, as interpreted by the reviewers. It’s quite fascinating, at least if you’re me. And one of the most interesting things about it is that 99% of its reviews condemn the use of magic in films. They have a scoring section called Offense to God where they list all the examples of a film showing anyone doing anything supernatural and take points away from the film’s final score. For example, this is their list for the 1986 film Labyrinth:

Offense to God:
• calling for help from the unholy, repeatedly
• goblins, repeatedly
• incantation to take a baby away, repeatedly
• unholy abduction of a baby
• shape-shifting, repeatedly
• materialization/dematerialization, repeatedly
• magic to, e.g., close doors, repeatedly
• magic to make changes to impede, confuse, entice, manipulate or harm, repeatedly
• two uses God’s name in vain without the four letter word vocabulary, once by an adolescent
• crystal ball gazing, repeatedly
• rocks doing the will of a living creature
• “Look what I’m offering you – everything you want”
• the use of evil (magic) to do good [Isa. 5:20]

Isa. 5.20 is quoted again in their review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

…now comes Harry Potter presenting evil as something to admire and emulate; something to use against evil. Using evil for good? Do you hear what that is saying? As God said in Isa. 5:20, you cannot make something light with darkness and something sweet with bitterness. I guess Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a logical extension of I Dream of Genie, Bewitched and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, all benevolent on the surface and all since we kicked God out of our schools.

This all seems quite unambiguous to me: magic=evil and anything resulting from magic can’t be good.

But wait. This is the review of Mary Poppins:

Mary Poppins was a delightful romp for children and the young at heart through a make-believe world of frolic and fantasy. There were no instances of offensive material throughout the movie. While there were several occurrences of “magic,” there was nothing evil or sinister about any of the “magic.” Mary could have been angelic.

The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Mary Poppins is in fact an enchantress of great powers who has managed to reach into our reality and tweak the minds of these God-fearing folk so that they became convinced that she is the only character in films whose magic comes from Jesus and is therefore a good thing, whereas Gandalf and Dumbledore are emissaries of Satan himself. And frankly, this scares me.

Morality Rating: either 0/5 or 5/5


Other characters in this list could include The Host from Cabaret, The Phantom from Phantom of the Opera, Fagin from Oliver!, Miss Hannigan from Annie, and Javert from Les Miserables, but anyone who recognises those names surely isn’t going to need a rundown from me on why they’re morally ambiguous. I could also go on about Will Shuester, the show choir coach from Glee (of which I am a huge and slightly defensive fan) but I have other things I want to write about Glee, of which more later.

Bonus: A Character Who You Might Think Is A Bit Dodgy, But I Don’t Think He Is (And Obviously I’m The One Whose Opinion Counts Here As This Is My Blog)

Honoré Lachaille from Gigi.

Better known as Maurice Chevalier singing Thank Heaven For Little Girls, a moment which many have carelessly interpreted as some kind of admission of paedophilia or hymn to its practice. In fact, although Gigi‘s plot is admittedly morally ambiguous in its own right – revolving as it does around high-class prostitution – both the song and the film are very specifically concerned with adult women. The song is about how great it is that little girls grow up to be women, at which point – but not before – they become sexually interesting. The film is about broadly the same thing. Or, ok, it’s sort of about how little girls sometimes grow up to be kept by rich men in exchange for sex; but again, they have grown up before this occurs, so the discussion to be had here is about paying for sexual companionship rather than potential child abuse.

gigi

Honestly, the scariest thing about him is his shiny teeth.

9 comments

  1. MrBrown says:

    Hah! Great stuff. We watched My Fair Lady recently and I was left enraged by Henry Higgins. Proper fuming. Paralleled in the performance by the fact that Rex Harrison couldn’t (by his own omission) sing and talked all his lines, while Audrey had to get dubbed.

    Also notable for the amount of scenes that take place at 3 in the morning. It seems like about half the film is set then, which is weird for a film about Edwardian elocution.

    So I guess George Bernard Shaw got the last laugh, seeing as (although I haven’t seen Pig In A Million) his Higgins was meant to be an exemplar of unfeeling male mastery who gets unceremoniously dumped. By not changing his character but changing what happens, it’s a 100% unhappy ending as far as I’m concerned.

    • admin says:

      Thank you! I enjoyed your Borough Market rant.

      I do have some admiration for the fact that Rex Harrison insisted on performing his numbers live on the basis that he couldn’t dub them because he’d never sung them the same way twice.

      Re Snape, I can buy that he’s unprofessionally unpleasant to pupils he dislikes, and I can buy that he’s a curmudgeon who’s really on the side of light; I just can’t buy both at the same time.

  2. As Mr Brown says you are quite right about that scumbag ‘iggins in the utterly crap ‘My Fair Lady’. But Honoré Lachaille and Gigi? Wrong! All of the adult characters in it are at best creepy, and at worst pimps and ‘madams’. Let’s train ‘little girls’ to become high class prostitutes, UGH!

    [But everyone should watch 'Footlight Parade' and 'Romance and Cigarettes' - NOW.]

  3. Paul Crowley says:

    Not everyone has passed over Dumbledore’s failings as a headmaster – see Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

  4. Liz W says:

    I agree with you about Dumbledore! I think what’s happening there is a clash between the story’s setting and the plot archetype it draws on. The HP books are only superficially boarding school stories. Contrast it with e.g. the Mallory Towers or Chalet School books: they don’t have anything like the overarching plot arcs that the HP books do and stay fairly light, whereas HP gets progressively darker. They also couldn’t really be set anywhere other than a school, whereas it wouldn’t be too hard to tell the basic story of HP in any setting where children can plausibly operate with a fair degree of independence from grown-ups (compare e.g. The Dark is Rising or the Narnia books).

    Rather, Hogwarts is merely the setting for an archetypal quest plot. While that setting clearly requires Dumbledore to be a headmaster, the archetype requires him to be a mysterious, oracular sort of figure that hovers somewhere in the background, mostly letting the characters get on with their quest undisturbed, but intervening occasionally to rescue the characters or give them direction (cf. Aslan in the Narnia books, again). Dumbledore is very bad at being a headmaster, but he is very good at being an oracle – and HP gets more of its power from the plot archetype than from the school setting, so when people ask themselves if Dumbledore is a good headmaster, the literal answer gets crowded out by their enjoyment of the story.

    • admin says:

      I think you’re quite right – the school setting is fun in some ways but I would have enjoyed the books much more if they’d been set somewhere else, because half of me was judging them by boarding-school story standards and finding them wanting. Whereas if Harry had found a mysterious doorway to the wizarding world, say, that would have been fine.

  5. MrBrown says:

    I agree with Liz W. And I’d also add a couple of things:

    D’s failure as an adequate headmaster is also (if we’re going to be generous about it) all part and parcel of the ethics of the wizarding world, which seems to view health and safety as something that happens to other people. It’s fun to see an adult figure let kids run loose, and it adds to the charm of a non-normal, non-banal, non-repressive alternative society.

    and

    I actually found the existence of a nasty teacher like Snape to be one of the most realistic school elements in the books – everyone knows teachers like that, snappy and power-hungry with favourites and enemies among the kids, and it’s not really a reflection of the system, just the way things are when you get diverse people together to teach. After all, we’re made aware that Snape isn’t actually as malicious as he seems right from book one, so it’s always implied D knows what he’s doing.

  6. Ika says:

    Dumbledore is an abusive fuckhead. There are quite a few people in fandom who’ll agree with you about this.

  7. [...] And Kate Harrad has some good (read: scathing) things to say about Dumbledore and Mary Poppins. [...]

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