Monday, March 23, 2015

'Aida' and Why We Need More Diverse Musicals Like This


Okay. This morning we really were going to talk about Insurgent because I really was going to have seen it over the weekend, but then I didn't. Partly because the theater near me had only a handful of 2D showings and partly because I was busy. But since not having seen the movie makes talking about it a little hard, we're going to do a hard left turn and talk about something else that is completely unrelated, but about which I've been thinking for the last few months.

Let's talk about the Tim Rice and Elton John rock-musical Aida. Bet you didn't see that one coming.

The thing is, this is actually one of my all time favorite musicals. I know I don't mention theater all that much on here, because it's not as naturally conducive to blogging as film or television or comics, but it is something I care a lot about. My parents are both theater people, my sister and I are theater people (or at least we were for a while), and theater has played a big role in my life. I think I was in middle school when I first saw a production of Aida, and while it didn't change my life, it certainly did get stuck in my head.

For those of you who aren't up on your American musical theater or on the Italian operas that theater is sometimes ripping off, Aida is based on a very very old legend. The same one that Verdi based his opera on. This legend is about two fated lovers whose devotion to each other nearly destroys two whole nations. Romeo and Juliet can go suck an egg, because Aida and Radames have got them beat, hands down.

The story takes place during Egypt's Old Kingdom period (probably, I think). Radames is a captain of the Egyptian guard and betrothed to the Pharaoh's daughter. Egypt is, at the this time, at war with neighboring Nubia (what we would now consider Sudan), and he has been sent on a scouting mission. It's while he's on this mission that he and his men capture some Nubian prisoners, including the young and beautiful Aida.

Aida, though she absolutely doesn't let anyone know this, isn't just some random girl. She's actually the crown princess of Nubia, and with her father old and nearing the end of his life, she's expected to rise to power very soon. Only she gets captured and sold into slavery in Egypt.

Radames and Aida have an instantaneous spark, one that seems to mostly consist of bickering and pecking at each other on the boat ride back to Egypt, and it's obvious they're going to fall in love. But there are other factors to consider. Aida is given as a slave to none other than Amneris, Radames' betrothed. Radames' father is currently plotting to kill the Pharaoh, force the marriage, and then install Radames on the throne. Aida ends up accidentally leading a slave rebellion. It's a very exciting musical.

And at the end, the lovers, who are absolutely definitely in love at this point, are sentenced to death for their crimes. They die buried alive in a tomb while Amneris ascends to the throne of Egypt, makes peace with Nubia, and reigns for years in a new golden age.

Seriously. You should watch this musical. It's fantastic.

But what I want to talk about today isn't just how wonderful and clever this musical is, though it is both, but how quietly subversive it is. Aida is, in the background, doing some stuff that is way more radical than I think anyone really appreciates. 

We all talk about wanting more diverse characters and more interesting plots, but sometimes we as a culture miss the places where those plots are already happening. And one of those missed plots is this one, a story about feminine strength, female political savvy, romantic love, female friendship, and the cost of power. Also race. It's the whole package.

While the plot of the musical is superficially about a romance between two people who feel "trapped", the actual events of the show are very much about women in power and what it means to be a woman who is "destined for greatness". On the two sides of this issue you have the two female leads, Aida and Amneris. Though they start as rivals and as master-slave, they quickly form a strong friendship based on mutual respect. Both women know what it is to have high expectations placed on you, but the expectations take very different forms.

In Aida's case, the expectation is always that she will be a good and strong military leader, a true ruler to her people. One of the songs even has her people sing to her, "All we ask is a lifetime of courage, wisdom, service - to want more would be selfish, but nothing less will do." Aida has a hell of a time figuring out how to live up to those expectations and be the ruler her people deserve, especially in captivity and slavery. She wants to rule well, but she also wants the freedom to be a person, and that's a freedom she does not have. In fact, her romance with Radames actually makes more sense when you realize that this is her chance to have something not prescribed by duty and obligation. Hence the tragedy of it all.

Amneris, on the other hand, isn't expected to be a great leader or political strategist. She's not expected to do much at all, except marry Radames (or another handsome, clever, well-connected man) and be the perfect trophy wife. I mean, she is the ultimate trophy wife - she comes with the ultimate trophy. Amneris even sees herself this way. She focuses all of her energy on perfecting her outward appearance because she doesn't want anyone to look closely and see how miserable and frustrated she is. And at the end, she decides to screw the expectations everyone has, the destiny she's been called to, and to rule on her own.

But the show doesn't place either woman's choice as better than the other's. They're just different. Aida wants freedom, Amneris wants consequence. They're different women with different goals, and so they have very different ends to their story. What makes this a great show is that it doesn't ask you to choose, nor does it ask them to choose. By the end, it feels less like Amneris is furious with Aida for stealing away Radames than that she's pissed with Radames for stealing away Aida. He took her best friend! The jerk!

All of this is interesting, but it gets even better when we factor in the way that race is portrayed in the musical. Now, bear in mind, this is an American musical based on an Italian opera based on a legend from like seven thousand years ago. So the racial representations are really off.* In the musical, the Nubians are traditionally cast with African-American actors, while the Egyptians are shown as white. Like I said, this isn't accurate, because Egypt seven thousand years ago was just as black as its neighbors**, but the interpretation does hold some interesting meaning for us now.

See, Egypt in the story is a colonizing force. Nubia isn't at war with them because they want something Egypt has, they just want to be left alone. Egypt is invading Nubia and stealing its natural resources while capturing the people to take as slaves. So, yeah, that sounds like white people.

This means that the main romance in the story is interracial, which is super cool. But it also means that the story now has the latitude to talk about race in terms of female relationships, and the way that privilege and power can influence that. When everyone finds out that Radames has left Amneris for her Nubian slave, there's talk about how he's "slumming it" and how they're confused about why he would go for someone so "ugly". Obviously this is dumb because Aida is gorgeous and I think in this case she's the one slumming it, but it's also rather intentionally racist, which is very interesting.

I mean, just the decision in the first place to make this a play where the main character is an African princess with complicated feelings and motivations and perspectives on her life and role in the world - that's huge. Really huge. It adds a level of complexity to the show and its emotional underpinnings that the opera sadly lacks.

Seriously, guys, I can't stress enough how much you should definitely go see this show. It's wonderful and amazing and well worth seeing. But I also have another motivation in bringing this up.

Now that both Les Miserables and Into the Woods have been made into big budget Hollywood movies, producers are starting to scour through their old Broadway Playbills to see what other shows they can turn into cash cows. Next on the chopping block is, I think, Wicked, which is interesting and will probably make for a great movie, but I want to urge those producers looking out there to think more outside the box. Can you make a great Wicked movie? Almost definitely. But do we actually need one? I'm less convinced.

What we do need, desperately, is more diverse media, especially media that deals with intersectional relationships between power and gender and race. Aida has all of that, as well as a soundtrack you can really tap your toes to. Wicked is great, and so are a lot of the other shows they've been considering, but they're all very historically white shows. Why not actually do something different? Why not tell a new story?

We need more stories like this. Stories that expand our ideas of what it means to be human, to be a woman, to be a man, to be Nubian or Egyptian or in power or out of power or in love or in friendship - we need stories that actually represent the whole breadth and width of the human experience. And then we need those stories to be made in to movies so that the most people possible will see them and understand the world just that tiny bit better.

Why not make Aida into the gigantic, sprawling, gorgeous adaptation that we keep trying to make Cleopatra into? Lupita N'yongo can play the title role. Stick Rami Malek as Radames. I have no idea if either of them can sing, but I figure they can learn. Dust off Rosario Dawson and plunk her down as Amneris. Or whoever. But let there be a giant wonderful movie musical about people who aren't white, women who have great power, and about two idiots falling in love and ruining everything. I want that show. I want it more than I want Wicked. I want it because it will make me cry and sing along and spend all my money at the box office.

And, if you can't manage that, what's the point of making movie musicals at all?


*Actually, all of the historical stuff is off. Old Kingdom Egypt didn't have Pharaohs and Queens, it had male Pharaohs and female Pharaohs who ruled concurrently and kept separate households. And while we have no records of a male Pharaoh ruling alone, we have a fair number of records of female Pharaohs doing so. Take that, modern day sexist reinterpretations of history!

**Fight me on this, I dare you. I minored in Africana Studies in college, with a specialty in Egyptology. I will win.

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