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Celebrating Women Musicals

Could a female-driven musical ever be a Hamilton-level hit? Has one ever? I won’t even require that women write it, though I’d prefer. This question came to me when thinking about Fun Home and Hamilton. Fun Home off- and on Broadway made me so happy. It was the first musical ever that reflected my life. I had my Ring of Keys and Changing My Major moments. I had my own complex relationship with my parents over my sexuality. I was thrilled to have a lesbian life on the stage; yet, from the start, I recognized that the show was successful for one reason: There was a man at the center. Feel free to tell me I am wrong.

This brings me to Hamilton. Confession—I haven’t seen it yet because I had to sell my tickets to go to a gig. I am, however, word perfect on the cast album. Why? Because I identify with Hamilton, Washington, Layfette, Mulligan, Jefferson, and even Burr. My heart swells. I’m knocked off my feet. I cheer for our founding fathers and America. My identification is so strong that I literally forget I am female. I feel I can do everything those men do: fight, duel, lead, argue, and invent a nation. In contrast, I do not identify with the women, though I like them. When we are introduced to them, they are independent and espouse feminist ideas. Quickly, they are in service to the men. I would argue that most people don’t even think of that. I think the show succeeds in getting us all to identify with Hamilton. It becomes a celebration of being male.

I’d like to see a musical where women are doing something as big as the men in Hamilton.

I’m talking about identification because I believe the strongest shows are ones in which people identify with the characters. Even if we go with Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect) argument, I still want to see strong complex women and men pursuing something. It can be love. I’ll be a bit more interested if it is more than love. For example, I’d love to see Hidden Figures, the musical. I’d love to write that musical. The characters are wives and mothers, but their primary purpose is doing excellent math for the space program. They could easily have been husbands and fathers. I’d like to see a musical where women are doing something as big as the men in Hamilton.

Allow me to note, I love musical theatre. From childhood, I have cherished every experience. I felt special because I lived in Boston, the try-out town. My grandparents went to every show and purchased the sheet music every time. I have their collection including sheet music from when Oklahoma was called Away We Go!—though I never cared much which man she picked to take her to the dance. I saw The Sound of Music, something with Angela Lansbury that was bad, but she was good; Godspell, A Chorus Line, The Wiz, Purlie, and more as a child. I think I took them all in without any feminist analysis. Particularly when I was younger, I didn’t know I wasn’t a boy in terms of what I could do in life.

I will admit that the first musical that came to mind in answer to my question could a female-driven musical ever be a Hamilton-level hit is Gypsy. I read Gypsy at least once a year because it is so well written—yes, by men. This certainly is a female-driven story, but Rose has to ask men for what she wants. She loses Herbie when she decides to allow Louise to strip. She is a strong woman who ends up feeling she did everything for her kids asking: “Don't I get a dream for myself?” I’m not sure whom I identify with in Gypsy; it might be Tulsa because all I ever need is the girl. I love it because of Rose’s crazy ambition, the milieu, and Sondheim’s lyrics, but its inherent sexism keeps it from elevating to a full celebration of being female. I think Sound of Music, Cabaret, My Fair Lady, Chicago, South Pacific, and other musicals with female protagonists are similar. The female characters must function in a sexist world.

I’ve been away this year and missed a lot of theatre. As I understand it, Waitress has an all-woman creative team and is a woman’s story. As with too many women’s stories, there is a bad guy. Are women always victims? Does he help us understand her story? I’m not criticizing; I loved the movie and can’t wait to see the show. I’m just asking questions. Beautiful celebrates the work of Carole King, but her story includes a husband/writing partner whom she had to move away from to fully become herself. Is there always a man? Yes, there are women in Hamilton, but the men’s actions are free of their concerns.

two actors in a lift on stage
Sydney Lucas as Alison and Michael Cerveris as Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home. Photo by Joan Marcus and Jenny Anderson.

For female empowerment, Wicked is the obvious current hit. Do men relate to Elphaba and Glinda forgetting they are male? I suppose I might ask do non-gay men relate to Elphaba and Glinda? And I wondered about Frozen, which I watched for this essay. Both have two female leads and are beautifully about being sisters or friends. Hamilton offers good examples of sisters as well. Both stories are driven by female desires, fears, and hopes. But there are men, lots of men, hurting and helping them along the way. Frozen is coming to Broadway. Will the stage version be more or less feminist?

I say fairly often that I have waited my whole life to be treated as human. The fact is that on a daily basis I have to be reminded that I am female. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a woman, it is just that it is not front and center. What I want and what I am going to do to get it is what I think about. It is the world that reminds me on a regular basis “I’m a girl.” And it is exhausting. Women have to do all kinds of extra work to get noticed, to get opportunities, and to get paid. I would have so much more time available to do what I am trying to do if I didn’t have the added burden of being female. Can we ever have a female- driven show where the problems don’t come from being female? Can we have a female-driven show that celebrates being female, being human?

When Googling feminist theatre, you get a couple of recent articles, a link to feminist songs, “musicals with strong female characters,” and “female heavy musicals”—the latter to help with selecting shows for high schools. If you Google feminist theatre, you get a strong HowlRound piece “Feminist Theatre: What does It do and How Does It Do It?” and a scattering of articles over the years, none in 2017 and one in 2016. There is a fair amount of coverage of gender parity, but where is the bigger thinking and wondering?

Can we create musicals that allow women to be all that they are: good, bad, ugly, and beautiful? Can we celebrate being female? Can we celebrate being human?

Originally a playwright, I was drawn to writing musicals by a rocker’s concept album. I love working with musician/lyricists, collectively finding the voice of characters and dramatic drive. I gravitate toward projects initiated by musicians with a story to tell. I will confess I have been guilty of writing musicals that don’t pass the Bechtel Test, that asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women or girls who talk to each other about something other than a man or boy. Even in male protagonist shows, I look to make women well-rounded and give them opportunities to be concerned with things other than men, but in a musical with small space for book, that isn’t always easy. I ask my collaborators to consider songs that will round out female characters, but in a tight musical frame, there isn’t always time. My dilemma as a writer is similar to my dilemma as an audience member. I identify with men and forget that I’m not one. Going forward, I am looking for and developing more of the kinds of women musical projects I dream of.

Can we create musicals that allow women to be all that they are: good, bad, ugly, and beautiful? Can we create musicals that allow women to be what men are allowed to be? Can we celebrate being female? Can we celebrate being human?

Musicals I’d love to see:

  • A woman seeks revenge
  • A woman seeks redemption
  • A woman cons a town
  • A woman teaches a man to be a gentleman
  • A woman haunts an opera house
  • Two women producers scheme to get rich
  • Women solve the math of the space program
  • Women create a community, a town, a city, a nation
  • Women colonize Mars
  • Women fight a revolution

The key attributes for me are that women are front and center, they do things without the approval of men, they show all human colors, and they succeed or fail on their own terms. I want to be treated as a human in life; I want female characters to be treated as human on stage.

Even in 2017, the world still doesn’t fully comprehend what women can do. I do believe we need theatre to open minds. A key genius of Hamilton is casting. It allows audiences to see familiar characters in a way that opens up the possibilities of who can do what in such a thrilling way. I dream of a female show that will open eyes to what women can do.

The female Hamilton is coming, I know it. So is the female President. There are so many talented artists writing today, I know their voices will rise up. I trust their imaginations will deliver. I stand ready to cheer and memorize every lyric and lick.

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"Who could ever get kicks
In the back of the sticks?"

Um... am I missing something? Or does everyone else live in an alternate dimension in which one of my all-time favorite musicals, the hugely successful woman-centric musical "Evita" does not exist?

It was the first musical I ever saw, the grand (Broadway-replicating) production in 1981 at (IIRC) Chicago's then-Shubert theater (I think the same place "Hamilton" is playing now, under a different name) with John Herrera and Valerie Perri. II immediately fell in love with music and (despite being a man) related to Eva (with her poor background and dreaming of the big city and fame/fortune) as much as with Che (the highly intelligent person who sees through the BS of the politicians and mainstream media [often to his detriment]). In fact, as soon as possible I took the train up from the southern "sticks" to see it a second time, got the Broadway cast album (Patinkin and LuPone) on vinyl (I still have it!), and soon knew every word.

While some might argue that Che is the main character (he has the opening number, after all), upon further examination it is Evita that goes through the profound character changes; Che is little more than a narrator and illustrative foil for her.

Given the current cultural obsession with how much more wonderful it is to spend your day doing (for instance) repetative arithmatic and other math than more organic things (did people really like their math homework in school that much?), I can't help wondering if the reason that "Evita" has been forgotten is because of her tremendous regret as her brief life is ending, which if I recall correctly goes:

"The choice was mine and mine completely
I could have any prize that I desired
I could burn with the brightness of a billion stars
Or else, or else I could choose time

Remember, I was very young then
And a year was forever and day
So what use, could fifty, sixty, seventy be?
I saw the lights and I was on my way

And how I lived!
And how they shown!
But how soon the lights were gone

Oh my daughter!
Oh my son!
Understand what I have done"

Of course "Evita" was written by men, and I too long for a world in which more musicals are written by women. I just hope that when they do that they focus on the intrinsic realities of the human condition, and not give into political correctness.

Well, since you have away this year and have missed a lot of theatre, I suggest you see COME FROM AWAY and INDECENT. At the sake of 'mansplaining" both those stories are rooted in female perspectives. I would hate to think that Irene Sankoff doesn't count because her writing partner is her husband. And although an ensemble piece, the women's stories are maybe a bit more central without being outcries of oppression. And I don't mean that in a snarky way . . . it's just unfortunate that for some when feminism is mentioned, it only brings to mind shrill fighting against a perception of female inadequacy, and we all know that is not what feminism is about. Also, while INDECENT may not be a musical per se, music plays an integral part in this thought-provoking, and beautiful production by a female creative team. I will agree with your assessment of WAITRESS . . . it is a little too "men are pigs" in its exploration of the relationships, but I value the women's voice in this story. And, you will be happy to know that HIDDEN FIGURES is already being developed into a musical. I only hope the creative team includes female and more so, female of color perspectives, and it doesn't collapse a "magic negro" story. But now I'm just "white man splaining". Excuse me for that. Lynn Nottage comes to mind as someone that could help tell the HIDDEN FIGURES message and bring a universal understand to the place that women have, not only in theatre, but the world at large.

"Could a female-driven musical ever be a Hamilton-level hit?"

Yes. Hamilton's success has much more to do with the brilliance and perfection of the lyrics, music, and book than the gender of the central characters. It could be argued, of course, that there has never been another musical in history that is a Hamilton level hit. The closest would probably be A Chorus Line, which doesn't have a particular central character.

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