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An appreciation of the pushy little girls in musical theatre
To anyone who knows me, it comes as no surprise that I was a bossy, overachieving, full-of-myself little girl. And now I'm blessed to be the mother of a bossy, overachieving little girl (with, thankfully, much better interpersonal skills). So it's no wonder that my favorite character in School of Rock, both the movie and Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit Broadway show, is Summer: a bossy, overachieving little girl after my own heart, played with complete conviction by newcomer Isabella Russo.
Like several of the other kid characters from the film, Summer's role has been expanded for the musical. We get to watch her run roughshod over her beleaguered mother and sing praises to her alma mater, where everyone gets into the Ivy League (or "at least Cornell.") But my favorite change from the movie is that Summer, not fake substitute teacher Dewey Finn, is the one who convinces the Battle of the Bands organizer to give the student rock group a shot by saying the kids are all dying from the rare disease "Stick-it-to-the-man-eosis."
That's Summer's first win after being mercilessly mocked throughout Act I for being a high-achieving scholar. While her peers acquiesce when Finn tells them to put their heads down on their desks and be quiet so they don't worsen his hangover, Summer insists on learning something. She doesn't care for having her valuable time (or her parents' $50,000 tuition) wasted. She even attempts to explain to Finn how their classroom works, down to the gold stars chart, which he tears off the wall and stuffs into the trash.
Summer isn't the first self-possessed, mouthy tween girl in musical theatre -- see the title characters in Annie and Matilda. But while they are the heroines of their respective stories, Summer is the butt of many jokes before she's accepted as an ally. And interestingly, Summer is the only female character in School of Rock who is completely happy with who she is from start to finish.
Just look at all the others: Rosalie, the principal, sings the plaintive "Where Did the Rock Go?" about not turning out to be the person she expected. Finn's roommate's girlfriend, Patty, is a control freak who is stifling her boyfriend. All of the ritzy private school teachers hate their jobs (not to mention their boss). Summer's classmate, Tomika, is so scared to tell her dads about the tough time she's having at her new school that she opts not to speak at all. And Katie the bass player has that instrument as her sole personality trait. Odds are these ladies were told to be "good little girls" from an early age, to not make waves, to go with the flow, and to always please others. That kind of muzzling can certainly turn bright, spirited girls into repressed workaholics/ball-busting shrews/introverted loners.
If a substitute teacher had disparaged my hard-won gold stars in the way Finn does to Summer, my ten-year-old self would have burst into tears. But Summer just goes on making her points, demanding to be heard, correcting what she perceives as unfairness while also amending her opinions about other things based on new data. Regardless of the discouragement and scorn tossed her way, Summer always fights for her rights -- and what she believes is right for all. What's not to admire?
Hopefully, Summer will manage to grow up unscathed by society's unrelenting criticism and become, as Finn predicts, "The first female president of the United States." (Or perhaps the second.) But maybe, in an attempt to keep Summer from turning into her mother or her principal or someone's intolerable girlfriend, the world can start to see bossy, overachieving little girls for what they really are: smart, ambitious, future leaders. Today, musical theatre. Tomorrow, the world!
In addition to being an avid theatregoer, Alina Adams is a New York Times best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, romance novels, and figure-skating mysteries.
Top image: The cast of School of Rock, with Isabella Russo on the far right. Photo by Matthew Murphy.