POST: 'Hell's Belles' - gender bias in damnation

What's it about?

Hell’s Belles is a musical about the death of a pop star, who is then doomed to perform in a hellish nightclub for the rest of eternity alongside many other infamous women (who can all sing, apparently).

What'd I experience?

Reading the Playbill before the show, I was a little confused. The characters were: Actress 1, Actress 2, Actress 3, and Lester. Okay, so who is Lester and why is he so much more important than the other characters that he gets a name and they don't? Isn't the show called Hell’s Belles because it was about, well, the belles? 

The first scene was your standard cabaret scene, with your host for the night and an opening musical number. It reminded me of Cabaret a little because of how Lester would incorporate the audience into the show, and the audience members were as much of a character as Actresses 1, 2, and 3. After the number, one of the actresses came back as the unnamed pop star, and the other two became Eleanor Roosevelt and Lady Godiva. I came to love the elements of having so many damned women, because each character and her story was unique. The actress for the unnamed pop star was also Princess Diana (who came to visit from Heaven, to tell us how boring it was up there), Eleanor Roosevelt was also the woman who saved Hitler’s brain (I forgot her name though), and Lady Godiva was also Janis Joplin.

Lester is sort of like the emcee of the club, and he writes the songs for each woman that ends up in Hell to perform. Some of these women were real and others were fictional, or figures from old legends. I didn't know each woman’s story, but the songs they sang have me a clue as to who they were and what they did to end up in Hell. I didn't know all of the figures that performed at the nightclub, and I didn't know why some of the women were in Hell. I can't recall Eleanor Roosevelt doing anything that meant she deserved to be in Hell, unless she was a part of some scandal that I'm blissfully unaware of. I wonder if each actress playing multiple roles is some sort of commentary on how any woman can end up being shunned by society in some way... or maybe they just didn't have the resources to have 20 actresses running on stage. Regardless, the fact that there were so many women in Hell made me think, okay, so pretty much anyone that's a woman ends up in Hell, except for Princess Diana and Judy Garland (who we meet at the end).

I sat there for a while unsure if there was an actual plot -- was it just a show about famous damned women singing? But then, it took a turn and began to focus on the fact that not all the women in hell really belonged there, they just did something unconventional during their lifetime so they were automatically labeled as sinners. The unnamed pop star led a “revolution” of sorts, where she, Lady Godiva and Eleanor Roosevelt protested against the gender bias in damnation. I feel like it mirrored aspects of society because women are shamed for numerous things: wearing makeup, not wearing makeup, nudity, prudity… the list goes on and on. Basically, if you're a girl and did something society thought "wasn't for you," you'd end up in Hell. I'd probably end up right alongside Eleanor and the girls singing about the unconventional wrongdoings I committed while I was alive.

In the end, the unnamed pop star comes back to life (which was a little weird to me) and Judy Garland comes from Heaven to take her back. It took me a while to figure out that she was supposed to be Judy Garland, but I figured it out because her voice sounded just like her and she made references to the yellow brick road. Judy also takes Eleanor and the rest of Hell’s deserving belles to Heaven. I'm definitely not at a point in my life where I think I should look back and think about atoning for my sins (we've all committed them for sure, but I don't think every sin is worth being sent to Hell over), but at this scene I wondered if I would get to tag along with Judy. What really determines what makes a person good enough for Heaven, or bad enough for Hell? According to the rules of damnation in Hell's Belles I'd probably get sent to Hell for speaking in an "unladylike manner" or wearing "inappropriate" clothing. I don't think any of these things should really cause my damnation or anyone else's for that matter. But someone, somewhere, probably thinks it does. It's also much harder for me to think of good things I've done that would make me worthy of going to Heaven.

For the record, I personally don't believe in Heaven or Hell, but the concept of which one a person ends up in is kind of immortal. Realistically, when someone dies, the people that knew them have their own assumptions of where that person may have ended up, and that thought pretty much marks that person's legacy. It's kind of morbid to consider my own death, but would people remember me as being worthy of Heaven, or would they think I should rot in Hell? I think it would really depend on what they think of me from their own perspective. Like in Hell's Belles, there's some unwritten rules about what unconventional activities are worthy of putting a woman in Hell, so whoever wrote those rules had their own perspective on who should be damned and who should be saved. I don't really think anyone can fit perfectly in either category.


Want to see it?

$29 Tickets
(thru BroadwayBox)

Hell's Belles
Elektra Theatre
thru Dec. 14