By Katie Devin Orenstein
If you had a blast with Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, and the rest of the Barbie movie crew, here are some Broadway musicals of yesteryear that might suit your fancy! Some even served as inspiration for director Greta Gerwig’s take on the classic doll brand.
What could be more Barbie than a musical all about how you can be smart and independent and wear bright pink at the same time? Legally Blonde, based on the movie of the same name, takes aim at dumb blonde stereotypes, and puts female empowerment and solidarity front-and-center. It’s so much better than getting the guy.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
If you’re looking for a whip-smart, funny show that pushes back against the objectification of women, look no further than The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which ran on Broadway for four years starting in 1978, and was also made into a movie starring Dolly Parton. Its songs are by the late Carol Hall, one of Broadway’s very few female composer-lyricists.
Singin’ in the Rain
Director and co-screenwriter Greta Gerwig cites the vividly Technicolored, dance-heavy Singin’ in the Rain as one of her main inspirations for the tone and visuals of Barbie. The 1954 film was written by Broadway stalwarts Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who turned it into a stage musical in 1985. You can clearly see the influence on the set design, lighting, and even the tailoring of Ryan Gosling and the Kens’ costumes from the classic Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse dream ballet:
Avenue Q uses puppets and upbeat songs to teach the lessons Sesame Street forgot to include, like how to pay your bills, or how to handle romantic rejection, or what people really use the Internet for. Like Barbie, it uses the aesthetics of childhood to explore how scary adulthood can be sometimes.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
This show is a frothy, comedic romp about two female cabaret performers going after what they want, whether that’s men or money – this is the musical that gave us “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Notably, the show’s book is co-written by Anita Loos, who also wrote the bestselling novel on which the show is based, and who was the very first female screenwriter in Hollywood.
Megan Hilty performs “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”
My Fair Lady
Who are you, if you’re someone else’s creation? George Bernard Shaw first explored this idea in his 1913 play Pygmalion. In 1957, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe turned Pygmalion into the musical My Fair Lady. If you enjoyed watching the human and doll men in Barbie flail and flounce and postulate, you’ll like My Fair Lady’s take on gender relations, when upper-class Henry Higgins bets his friend he can turn poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a fine lady by teaching her a refined accent, without any regard for her own agency. A musical about patriarchal men wrecking their own lives by hewing too close to patriarchy…delicious.
Rex Harrison blusters his way through “A Hymn to Him”
Dames At Sea/Grease
Dames At Sea and Grease both take satirical aim at the gender norms of the 1940s and 1950s, respectively, very similar to how Barbie tackles today’s cognitive dissonance about how feminism apparently won, while the patriarchy remains in subtler ways. John Travolta as Danny in Grease gets a shoutout in Barbie, and these two shows share the movie’s blunt, on-the-nose sense of humor.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
As the title suggests, this musical is one big existential crisis. With bright costuming reflecting Pedro Almodovar’s original film, this 2011 musical has an energetic score by Tony winner David Yazbek. If you loved Barbie’s ability to take cracks at depression and ennui without minimizing the issue, this might be your new favorite cast album.
Laura Benanti performs one of musical theater’s best panic attack arias, “Model Behavior”
If you loved a movie about dolls, how about a musical about mannequins? In all seriousness, this rare gem, a one act musical by Stephen Sondheim written for television in the 1960s, shares many of the same themes as Greta Gerwig’s vision for Barbie – the desire of an object, or an objectified person, to be real. Gerwig is a known Sondheim fan (see: the Merrily sequence in Ladybird) and there’s a chance she was inspired by this show, about department store mannequins who come alive at night, and the human who discovers them, and tells them about the outside world.
Kelli O’Hara sings “Take Me to the World” from Evening Primrose:
Into the Woods
America Ferrera and Margot Robbie’s conversations in Barbie are so reminiscent of the Baker’s Wife-Cinderella dynamic in Into the Woods, each one jealous of the other’s dilemma. This musical is famous for its childhood stories turned to adulthood seriousness.