By Ollie Kaiper-Leach
On a recent episode of The 98% (S2E8) about sexuality and masculinity Alexa and Katie and their guest Tom kept coming back to this strange idea in our industry that male performers should be ‘strong’ as though that somehow equates to ‘manliness’. In musical theatre, the trope of a ‘convincing leading man’ is so prevalent that the level of our ‘manliness’ directly influences our employability as young men. The effect this has on our mental health is not only huge, but mostly unspoken, which is worrying in an industry which is supposed provide a ‘safe space’ for flexible definitions of gender.
Towards the end of last summer, I managed to bag myself a ticket to one of the most hotly anticipated West End transfers of a musical that year. For lots of reasons, it was a fantastic show, not least owing to a cast so lacking in a weak link that Anne Robinson would surely have had a nervous breakdown. But as the curtain went down and I mulled over the details of what I had just seen, I realised something: the two biggest supporting male roles spent the majority of the time in just their underwear – and what’s more, they were both JACKED. Now to be clear, these two actors were both very talented, with cracking singing voices, immaculate dancing and convincing, funny character choices. But the distinct lack of time they spent clothed made me wonder how important the physical condition of the actors was in the casting process. Even if it was a happy accident, surely now any future casting would be influenced, and the roles defined in part by their bodies.
This show has been a key player in an ongoing discussion regarding body image for women, challenging the physical stereotypes associated with leading ladies in musical theatre, and rightly so. It is refreshing to know that a West-End leading lady can be cast according to her talent alone, and even more so to know that different body-types are beginning to be represented on stage. The good this will do for countless young girls who idolise West End stars is infinite. Which is why it strikes me as so odd that in the same show there can be such disregard for the same issues surrounding men. Not only do these two male roles, now defined by a stratospheric bar of physical appearance, perpetuate an unrealistic ideal to other male performers in the industry, but the two actors themselves must surely have felt an incredible amount of pressure to maintain their physical condition for fear of losing their jobs. One of these actors is also known for another role whose physique was his only attribute. If he is being typecast, surely then the importance of his physical upkeep has even greater implications for his career.
As musical theatre performers, we do have a professional responsibility to keep fit, perhaps more so than actors outside of musical theatre. Because of that, ‘strong’ has become synonymous with ‘employable’, and the sense of competition associated with fitness and physique results in an overwhelming fear of judgement regarding our diets and gym routines. But I think there’s an important distinction to draw between ‘physique’ and ‘fitness’: most people seem to forget that, to quote Ross and Chandler from Friends, having ‘a washboard stomach and rock-hard pecs’ is not necessarily a signifier of peak physical fitness, nor does ‘a flabby gut and saggy man-breasts’ prove the reverse.
When I was training at drama school, there was a huge emphasis put on celebrating the individual and knowing yourself well-enough to see your personal progress as a greater achievement than competitive success – and this is a hugely important mentality to hold onto when stepping out into the world and finding where you fit within the industry. But within musical theatre there is the issue that the majority of leading male roles fit a very similar template, one which adheres to a dated and narrow definition of masculinity. Tom Ramsay spoke about emotionality and gender roles, and how this allows greater diversity in female characters than in male characters. Is it any wonder then that male performers are so prone to identity issues surrounding what it means to be ‘manly’, and therefore how we fit into the industry?
This topic of ‘masculinity’ is one which is, thankfully, being talked about more now than ever before. Celebrities across the board have come forward, talking about their own struggles and vulnerabilities, and encouraging men to be open with each other, embracing a sensitivity which is human nature, instead of feeling obliged to suppress it. This applies to the physical too, encouraging a shift in fashion and style, in self-care and in body-image.
In this way, actors, as people who are trained to be sensitive and emotionally available, have been leading the way in the shifting definitions of masculinity for years. But it’s no secret that hypersensitivity also leaves us open to vulnerability, especially where social standards are concerned. When these vulnerabilities are in turn exacerbated by the templates of our industry, which is already so inherently public, the judgement coming at us from every angle can be difficult to ignore. We as theatre-makers, both on-stage and off-, have a responsibility to lead the change we want to see in society, but as a wider industry we must lead by example. Sadly, the power to do so often lies much higher up than us mere 98%. But for the meantime, to every male performer out there: it’s okay to be sensitive, and it’s okay to show it; it’s okay not to be the next Khal Drogo or James Bond, and it’s okay to cry at the end of Titanic. There’s a reason that the word for the best kind of man is a ‘gentleman’.
Ollie Kaiper-Leach is an actor, musical director and composer from Yorkshire. When not playing piano to his wall pretending he is Tim Minchin or laughing far too enthusiastically at his own jokes, he can be found drowning in tea or wishing he could grow a better beard. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @Ollie_KLMusic.