As an eighth grade girl, I was cast as Fagin, a 19th century old man leader of a gang of pickpocketing British boys, in my grade school’s production of Oliver! To this day, it remains one of my favorite roles of all time.
This weekend I went to see Becoming Nancy, a new musical at The Alliance about a fictional high school boy in a London suburb in 1979 who is cast as Nancy in his school’s production of Oliver Twist even though the role he wants is Fagin.
The premise of the musical captured my attention because on the surface my situation seemed to neatly transpose that of the protagonist. But while my casting as a man caused nary a stir in my Catholic community in Cincinnati in the mid-1990s, the musical’s protagonist being cast as a woman–and the love interest of Bill Sikes, a character played by a boy–results in far more controversy.
There was the fear of homosexuality in the musical’s plot that wasn’t an issue in my school’s production. Things might have been different if I’d been cast as Bill Sikes opposite my friend Kelly’s spectacular Nancy. (Despite being only fourteen at the time, she’d been preparing the role for years.)
There was the fact that I’d already broken the gender barrier the year before in the Wizard of Oz by playing the Tin Man, a role so blatantly for a man that it’s in the character’s name.
Whatever the reason, I was able to play these roles without encountering any criticism or pushback. And I had fun portraying men. Sure, I thought maybe it would make the many, many boys I had a crush on less likely to like me. But it meant I got to play these tough, protective, and funny characters, which was the kind of kid I was.
What interests me looking back now is how normal it seemed for me to play a male character while it seems impossible that a boy in my grade school would have played a female character (and not just because the pool of girl talent was STACKED). A girl playing a boy was to be expected while a boy playing a girl would have undercut his masculinity.
When I think of the patriarchy and all it denies women, it makes me upset. But I’m also upset by what it denies men. As a girl, I was given free reign to explore what it meant to be a man, right up on stage in front of everyone–finding my heart as the Tin Man and steering little boys toward crime as Fagin. The boys in my class never would have had the chance to experience the compassion of Nancy, who takes Oliver under her wing, or Dorothy’s sense of longing for home and her courage in the face of the Wicked Witch.
You could say boys could find these traits in other male characters–they don’t need to play women–but there’s something to the freedom of being allowed to play the opposite gender. I’m grateful for all the things becoming Fagin taught me. Like how to tie a tie (which I’ve since forgotten, but thankfully now we have the Internet).
I feel it should be noted that my friend Kelly also rocked the role of Dorothy, and I was proud to be her Tin Man. Also, I’m pretty sure Nancy was not murdered by Bill Sikes in our production of Oliver!