In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, Broadway was quick to boast its diversity. Rightly so. It was a landmark year on that account. But there is another less-touted way in which the 2015-2016 season took a step forward: Women-driven stories finally began to take center stage. Of the 16 musicals that debuted this past season, eight focused on a woman’s story. Of the 20 plays that opened, ten featured a female narrative. It’s not all Tevyes and J.M. Barries and Eddie Carbones. It’s Celies and Jennas and Unas and Mary Tyrones.
These stories, and the future stories like them, “annihilate the concept that women’s narratives are weak, rare or unprofitable,” in the words of Tony-nominated playwright Danai Gurira. In fact, her Eclipsed played to strong crowds and garnered much media buzz during its limited run at the Golden Theatre, and Waitress, starring Jessie Mueller, broke its own box-office record at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for its consecutive third week with sales grossing over $1.1 million for the week ending June 26.
Broadway seems to be catching on to the fact that women can play the leads of compelling theatre. “I think women are feeling more confident,” said longtime theatre producer Daryl Roth. “I think that women are feeling that their voices can be heard, and I think that the confluence of the gender lines being blurred has helped women in a way, because it’s about people. It’s about talent. It’s about creativity.”
“Women are 51 percent of the population,” said Kathy Najimy at the seventh annual Lilly Awards honoring women in theatre in May, “so we need to make sure that they are represented as 51 percent of the art.” Part of the journey to that benchmark is talking about it. “Just saying it out loud,” Najimy continued. “’Wait, everybody. Stop. Take a breath, and look around. This isn’t equal.’”
This season hasn’t just said it out loud—it’s belted it. Cynthia Erivo’s Celie healed audiences with the triumph of a woman to believe in her own beauty; Jessie Mueller’s Jenna taught audiences with the fight of a woman to be treated the way she deserves; Carmen Cusack’s Alice communicated the pain and the determination of a woman driven by love; Michelle Williams’ Una startled audiences with the rawness of damage done to a young girl; Annaleigh Ashford’s Sylvia touched audiences with the comfort of companionship. Intricate, multi-faceted women seized the stage. “I just have been drawn to these very wonderfully powerful and messy women, and I’ve been entrusted to portray people like that,” said Mueller. The Tony winner exemplifies that if you write it, they will come. The talent is here.
These complex characters can be written by anyone. “You don’t really know you’re writing a strong female character, you’re just writing a character who turns out to be very strong,” says comedian and now Tony-nominated Bright Star book writer/lyricist Steve Martin. “Strength is often the result of the challenge,” says his co-writer Edie Brickell. “[Alice Murphy] wasn’t really intentionally written, she just came to be from her challenges.”
Still, while women and men found an equal playing field on the stage, behind the scenes told a different story. Of those 16 musicals this season, only one was directed by a women, two had women book writers, three had scores by women, and only four featured choreography by a woman. (Waitress alone accounts for one of the credits in each of those categories.)
In the world of straight plays (remember, 20 this season), three were directed by women and three written by women. If you look at the awards, it doesn’t get better: Of the ten nominees for direction (play or musical), one lone woman, Liesl Tommy, carried the banner; of the nine nominees for book writers and playwrights, one nominee, Gurira, led the charge.
“It’s not that there’s no talent,” said Najimy. “It’s being shut down. When we open the lid to the box of women and their talent, their creativity, it’s never-ending. So really, it’s just the hiring.”
This past Broadway season did have two history-making productions in terms of female leadership. Eclipsed was the first Broadway production in history to be directed, written and acted by black women. Waitress marks the first Broadway production directed, written, scored and choreographed by an all-female team (although the late Elizabeth Swados did take on all four duties for her 1978 Runaways).
A special alchemy bubbles when women work together, a brew of shorthand communication and depth in collaboration. “It was empowering to deal with so many women,” said Pascale Armand, who played Eclipsed’s Wife #3. “It was easier to communicate. … I felt that we did more than we had to talk about stuff, and it’s kind of like this language that women have.”
At the end of the day, the priority must be to find the right team and talent to fit a specific project—gender aside. But, industry leaders must ensure equal consideration of the talents of all genders. “This is my fourth production of Eclipsed—[Liesl] has always been at the helm, and it gets better and deeper, more detailed and more nuanced with her at the helm of this project,” said Armand. “She’s the director for it. That’s it.”
There is a Catch-22 at play. We want to reach a day when we don’t have to glance at the gender of the director or playwright or creative team members to confirm equality. We want talent and vision to reign. We want to reach a day when we don’t have to talk about the lead female character that was written with the same complexity as a leading male role. How do we get there? We talk about it. “I don’t think there’s ever a time when you’re going to stop talking about it,” said actress Miriam Shor. The conversation must be continuous, and one success (like Waitress for musicals and Eclipsed for plays) is not enough. “Having one woman or one female voice is never enough, because that’s not what inspires me [as an actress],” Shor continued. “What inspires me is all the women that I see.” And we are certainly getting closer.
At the Lilly Awards, the voice of the feminist movement, Gloria Steinem, beamed at the recognition of so many women in theatre. “It feels as if this is the ultimate campfire,” she said. “That’s what we’re really doing, right? Telling stories. Sitting around a campfire for the last ten thousand years. Unfortunately, some folks have been excluded from the campfire, [but] you are making it complete.”