Women and Gender in Musicals Week: "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar…ish"

“Why should a woman who is healthy and strong/blubber like a baby if her man goes away/weepin’ and a-wailin’ how he’s done her wrong/that’s one thing you’ll never hear me say.”
These are strong words from Laurey Williams in Oklahoma!, a young woman who’s just overheard that her romantic sparring partner, Curly McLain, is attending the box social dance with someone else. She declares, “What do I care about that?” and then launches into “Many a New Day,” leading all of the other women in an ode to independence from those heartbreakers who aren’t worth their time. 
The song is catchy, spirited, inspiring – and total bullshit. For it’s not long until Laurey is right back to crying over Curly, flirting with Curly, and eventually marrying him. 

Hey, Laurey, how’s that “new day” working out for you?

“Many a New Day” falls under the category of songs I like to call “Hear Me Roar…Sort Of” numbers. These songs are obligatory feminist-ish productions where female characters pay lip service to the idea of being independent and strong, but it’s not long before they’re running back into the arms of the men they previously decided weren’t good enough for them.

Nellie Forbush has one of these numbers in South Pacific, the irrepressibly catchy “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” (Skip to the 2:40 mark in this video): 

Nellie is declaring her intention not to have anything more to do with Emile de Becque. Her willpower lasts right until Emile comes back and woos her some more. Then she launches into “A Wonderful Guy” with twice as much enthusiasm and fervor as she did the previous song.

Eliza Doolittle also has a “Hear Me Roar…ish” song in My Fair Lady, tearing down Professor Higgins with some bitingly witty put-downs in “Without You.”

Of course, the ending has her returning to Professor Higgins and seeming to want to reconnect with him. The ending is more ambiguous than the conclusions of Oklahoma! and South Pacific, but one gets the sense that those two crazy kids are going to make it work.

Now, not all of these “Hear Me Roar…ish” songs are presented in the same context. No one is disappointed when Nellie Forbush decides not to want to wash that man right out of her hair, because Emile de Becque is a catch and a half. Besides, all throughout “I’m Gonna Wash That Man,” she sounds like she’s trying to conform to her friends’ opinions and convince herself of something she doesn’t really want to do in the first place, and it’s not until “A Wonderful Guy” that she follows what’s true to her heart. In that case, Nellie going back on her big independence number doesn’t feel like a betrayal of character at all.

Laurey Williams, on the other hand, makes me shake my head in dismay. I’m so proud of her when she decides to forget about Curly, and so disappointed when she runs crying into his arms half an hour later. I’m mostly disappointed because Curly is one of the worst human beings in all of musical theater, who tries to convince his romantic “rival” through song to kill himself, who has a duet with a would-be rapist and still comes off as the creepier of the two characters.

Mostly, though, I’m curious about the reasons behind writing these “Hear Me Roar…ish” songs, especially the two numbers from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. If the women are just going to end up with the men they’re declaring independence from, what’s the point of these songs at all? Did Rodgers and Hammerstein realize in both cases that they didn’t have a big musical number for all of the women in the show, and write these songs to give their female chorus members something to do? Did they decide that three solo songs and two duets for Mary Martin were not enough, and want to give her yet another number? (If that’s the case, I really can’t blame them for that, because Mary Martin is made of magic.) 

Or is there something else at work here? Is it possible that these songwriters felt an internal struggle between some feminist instincts and typical musical theater conventions? The “Hear Me Roar-ish” numbers are so catchy and irresistible, it’s almost like the composers and lyricists knew that women of the future would belt them in the shower after a bad breakup. 

I wonder if we hear the “I am independent woman!” songs, followed immediately by the “Just kidding, let’s get married!”, because of internal conflicts on the part of the songwriters. Maybe they like feisty, independent women who voice their opinions, but they like conventional happy endings just as much, and that’s why Laurey and Nellie change their minds so quickly.