Filichia Features: These "Seven Brides" Fight Back

Filichia Features: These "Seven Brides" Fight Back

By Peter Filichia on April 04, 2018

It seems that more and more theatres and audiences these days are looking for shows that help inform and reflect upon current events and the social issues unfolding across our country. Some of the most prominent recent headlines are about gender equality, illustrated by the #timesup and #metoo movements.

As the cultural conversation about these issues develop, people turn to art to make sense of it all. Female empowerment and how society treats women is finally receiving the attention it deserves, but musical theatre has been advancing this dialogue for years.

There are a number of musicals with strong women who fight back against society and the men who deem them "less than".

There's The Baker's Wife in Into the Woods, whose wisdom and guile is needed to accomplish his onerous challenge given her husband. Elle Woods in Legally Blonde turns out to have more intelligence and perseverance that she ever would have guessed. Jo in Little Women keeps the family together when matters get tough and manages to make a living as a 19th century writer when few women were taken seriously by publishers. Katherine in Newsies dares to defy her powerful father by taking the side of the boys whom he's exploiting.

Before all these women, however, in 1850's rural Oregon there was Milly Bradon, the heroine in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

The 1954 film became a 1982 Broadway musical that received a Best Score Tony nomination for songs that composer Gene de Paul and lyricist Johnny Mercer had originally written and new ones penned by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn.

In a BBC survey, Londoners voted Seven Brides as their third most popular musical, edged out only by Les Miserables and Phantom.

Milly's a reason why. Her ability to "fight back" and rally her sisters to her side makes Seven Brides for Seven Brothers a more progressive and subversive musical than one would assume upon first glance.

Moments after we meet this cook-waitress, she's sexually harassed by two coarse customers. The first gets a ladle to his lip and the second gets his foot crushed.

"That isn't the way to treat a lady," says tall, dark and handsome Adam Pontipee. Milly won't learn for a while that he doesn't know how to treat one, either.

We'd already learned from his song "Bless Your Beautiful Hide" - meaning a woman's - that he wants "a wife that'll raise my brood." They're not his future children but his current ones -- in a manner of speaking. Terribly childish is his six-pack of grown brothers.

But Adam ultimately shows himself to be the most childish.

A townswoman warns Milly that going with Adam means living in the woods full of wolves. She rebuts "How bad can the wolves be after the wolves that pinch me?" in a sharp Kasha-Hirschhorn lyric.

Only when Milly gets to Adam's home does she discover "I married seven brothers, became seven wives, seven mothers." Milly vows to "force 'em to shave. Somehow I'll make 'em behave, show them I won't be their slave. Just because I'm a woman, I'm not some weak-willed woman."

Those are interior thoughts in song, so we admire Milly for plainly telling Adam: "You don't want a wife. You want a cook, a washwoman, a hired girl."

The upshot? "I'll work alongside you, Adam, but I won't sleep alongside you."

Give credit to the screenwriters as well as librettists Lawrence Kasha and David Landay for not having Adam force himself on her. At least we can respect him for that. The man has potential - but a strong woman will be required to make him realize it.

Milly teaches the brothers how to win a woman in a way superior to their eldest brother's in "Goin' Courtin'" set in music's most romantic tempo: ¾ waltz time.

Of course, if the brothers immediately followed all that Milly had taught them, Seven Brides would conclude by Scene Seven. One lesson can't change the habits of a lifetime. So the brothers get into a fight with the townies. Milly isn't hurt in the melee but is by Adam's telling youngest brother Gideon "One girl's pretty much like another."

We think Adam may well be improving when he tells his brothers "I've been readin' one of Milly's books." Art often inspires better behavior, but Seven Brides smartly observes that art is subject to interpretation; what Adam takes from The Sabine Women is that men should simply kidnap the women they want. His brothers take his advice, but when Milly discovers what happens, she will be her sisters' keeper.

"You're going to roost in the barn with the rest of the animals," she tells the brothers before roaring at Adam "How could you have done this without talking to me first?"

Alas, Adam's head is still as hard as Mount Hood: "I won't grovel to you, Milly" he says before leaving for parts unknown.

At this point, it appears that the musical should be called Six Brides for Six Brothers. Luckily, they realize their mistake long before Adam does and apologize to Milly. That's enough to make her forgive them.

There is, however, another complication: Milly's pregnant. She tells one of the abducted women "I'm thinking of going back east back home." Wow! In 1850?! As a townswoman says, "By yourself? With a baby?!"

In the last few decades, we've seen many single mothers do well by their children, but back then, it wasn't an option - except for the courageous Milly.

Months later, Gideon finds Adam. We see that that the eldest brother isn't necessarily the wisest and the youngest may be the smartest. Gideon tells Adam to appreciate his "proud and spunky lady" and informs him that he has a daughter.

That Adam mutters "I might have known she'd have a girl" is enough for us to feel he's utterly hopeless. Ah, but just one look at his daughter Hannah gives him his first real dose of Love at First Sight. Who could ask for anything more?

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