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Keeping Score: A Record Number of Female Composers on Broadway

Keeping Score: A Record Number of Female Composers on Broadway

How many female composers on Broadway can you name? Probably
not more than you have fingers on a hand, but while gender equality in the
theater has not yet been reached, there is reason to rejoice. For the first
time in history, three female composers have written a musical score in a
single Broadway season: Lucy Simon (“Doctor
Zhivago”), who is returning to Broadway after almost 25 years; Jeanine
Tesori (“Fun Home”), a Broadway
regular; and Barbara Anselmi (“It Shoulda
Been You”), making her Broadway debut.

Women write musicals. Broadway currently premieres about 10
new musicals per season. Why has Broadway only now reached this unprecedented
number of female composers?

When “The Secret Garden” premiered on
Broadway in 1991, Simon was only the seventh female composer on Broadway (after
Kay Swift, Mary Rodgers, Micki Grant, Carol Hall, Elizabeth Swados, and Nancy
Ford), and she notices a difference now in how female composers are viewed. “The
whole social-political world is evolving, so there is not as great an emphasis
on the gender of the composer,” she said in a recent phone interview. “There is
a very jealous community of the old men’s club, and it’s breaking down because
those old men are going away.” 

As the older generation dissipates, Broadway welcomes Anselmi,
who, though a newcomer, has been working as a musical director and on “It Shoulda Been You” for the past 10
years. In 2002 she started at the BMI Workshop, where there were few female
composers, and began “It Shoulda Been You,” a comedy about a family wedding gone awry, as her second-year project. 

The musical gained interest and momentum, which Anselmi
thinks was due more to the musical’s subject matter than the identity of the
writers, as most producers and audiences can relate to a wedding. “It’s not
just about being good at what you do,” she said in a phone interview. “It also
has to do with what stories you are telling and if there are people out there
who are interested in telling these stories.” “It Shoulda Been You” made its way to the George Street Playhouse in
New Jersey in 2011, and after a successful run, began securing the financing for
Broadway.

Like Anselmi, Tesori also began behind the scenes. She
conducted many musicals before deciding to compose, even serving as the
associate conductor and dance arranger on Simon’s “The Secret Garden.” Since her first
Broadway musical, “Thoroughly Modern
Millie,” in 2002, Tesori has composed four scores for Broadway, the most for
any female composer, and this season’s “Fun
Home,” an intimate story of a woman’s relationship with her closeted father
amidst her own coming out, will be her fifth. The musical was a 2014 Pulitzer
finalist after a successful extended run at The Public Theater last season. “Jeanine is a brilliant musician,” Simon said
of her former conductor. “It is a
challenge to break out of those disciplines to create original material. Not
many can make the leap. I am thrilled with [her] artistic and critical success.” 

Tesori now pays it forward by helping up-and-coming
composers through teaching at Yale and at a summer camp founded by Broadway
star Idina Menzel called A Broader Way. “I don’t see that leaders are just
born, they have to be trained,” Tesori said by phone. “Whether it’s running a
meeting, an orchestra, or company, you have to be on a track to understand what
it’s like to be at the top of the triangle.” Composers, Tesori explained,
should be secure in their skills, being able to fix the mix, talk to the
orchestrator, to say something is out of tune, and to be able to look at an
arrangement.

With the aptitude required, composers need confidence, both in their skills and
in their ideas. “I’m a strong personality,” said Anselmi.” I fight a good
fight. The one thing I can say is that I really believed in the project.”

Even with the importance of self-reliance, all three composers
agreed on the value of mentorship in the theater, which can help create paths
for more female composers. “I love to share my experience and to tell people to
really believe in their work,” Anselmi said, “It’s easy to get lost in other
people’s dreams. It’s so important to say, ‘No this is really what I want.’ If
I had had a mentor earlier on, there are projects that I wouldn’t have worked
on.”

While women mentoring women in the theater is important,
all three admitted to not having a female mentor, or one at all. “It’s not
because I’m a girl, it’s because I’m me that I don’t have a mentor,” Anselmi
said, referring to her independent personality.

Tesori was fortunate to work for musician Dick Hyman, a
mentor whose greatest lesson was how he structured his day. “For a lot of
musicians and composers, when you have 24 hours, how do you fill your day? It sounds
so remedial, but it’s important,” Tesori said. She also credits her mentors with
making sure she didn’t have a fallback career. “A lot of young girls are taught
to have a buffer,” she said. “They’re taught to rely on that. My mentor would
not tolerate it and encouraged me to change that thinking.” Tesori also
advocates for apprenticeships—people working side by side with their mentor,
not just getting advice. 

Even with mentorship, female composers still have to
fight for their opportunities because, ultimately, they are the ones
representing their work. “I think you have to own your ambition,” Tesori said. “Lean
toward the thing that scares you. Be prepared to be in a room filled with men.”

All three shows have female producers, and some,
including Daryl Roth (“It Shoulda Been You”)
and Anita Waxman (“Doctor Zhivago”),
were influential in shepherding their shows to Broadway. 

What can hold female composers back? One of the barriers
to gender equality is that it is hard to identify sexism in hiring practices,
especially when artists are hired as freelancers. “People don’t go screaming
out their salaries,” Anselmi said. And it’s hard to look back and point to
instances in which gender discrimination may have been a factor. “I’m sure if I
were to go back and analyze things,” she continued, “I would say, ‘That didn’t
happen to that person but it did happen to me. Is it because I’m a girl?’” 

Composers must also vie for projects originating from
commercial producers, which often result in Broadway shows. However, with some exceptions,
such as Tesori’s “Shrek” (2008), male
composers are more frequently attached to these projects. Even with a Tony
nomination, Simon still had to create her own opportunities. “Women are less frequently asked to be the
composer for an important job,” said Simon, who chose to work on “Doctor Zhivago,” a sweeping Russian epic,
after reading the book several times. “We more often have to find the right
property to adapt and then approach producers and directors.” “Doctor Zhivago” had a production at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego followed by a
successful tour in Australia. 

But even when the project is their own, women can face reservations
about their ability to write certain stories and characters. “No one questioned
whether Rodgers and Hammerstein should write a female role,” Simon said. “But
I’ve gotten, ‘Why would Lucy Simon take on “Doctor
Zhivago”?’ When I write for a male character, I channel that person. I have
a wide vocal range so I sing in a baritone range, so I know what it feels like
in my body.”

Tesori also noted the fear of failure that plagues women
across disciplines, but can hold women back even more so in theater in which
opportunities are few and far between. “In musical theater you can’t write that
many shows,” she said. “It takes so long. You can’t have two shows come up
every year. You have to get other opportunities that test your mettle.”

How can Broadway build on this record number of female
composers? Seeing success can help propel women into the Broadway spotlight.
Even as a private person, Tesori recognizes the importance of visibility. “You
would never have known that a woman could conduct if you hadn’t seen Linda
Twine in the Lena Horne show [“Lena Horne:
The Lady and Her Music,” 1981] on stage,” she said. “Sometimes you have to
be public so people can see it.”

Seeing women win awards can also help improve visibility
for female composers. In 2012, Cyndi Lauper became the first woman to win a
Tony for composing a Broadway score for “Kinky
Boots.” “I was so happy when Cyndi Lauper won her Tony,” Simon said. “I
think it would be great to win a Tony. I can’t say I wouldn’t love it.”

Simon was nominated in 1991 for her music for “The Secret Garden” but lost to Cy
Colman’s score for “The Will Rogers
Follies.” She believes women now have more of a chance not only to be
nominated but to win. “I was extremely proud of the nomination and the work on
that show, but it felt like it was Cy Coleman’s year,” she said. “Certainly the
category used to be much more of a boys’ club. Now women are entering into the
arena where we are considered in the same category of talent as men.”

Tesori has been nominated for four Tony awards, but the
Tonys aren’t helping female composers or any composers with visibility, as they
often don’t broadcast the Best Original Score award.

Visibility and awards aside, female composers want to
work and have opportunities at theater’s highest level: Broadway. From a season
that is 30% female composers, Broadway still has work to do to achieve a season
with at least 50%, a season that could feature Anselmi, Simon, Tesori, and
more.

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