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Spring 2016 Women on Broadway Preview: Milestones and Misses

Spring 2016 Women on Broadway Preview: Milestones and Misses

Broadway will hit two important milestones this spring. The
musical “Waitress” is the first Broadway musical to have an all-female creative
team, which includes the composer-lyricist, bookwriter, director and
choreographer. “Eclipsed,” which transferred from off-Broadway’s The Public
Theater, is the first play to have an all-female cast, playwright and
director.

But Broadway is far from achieving parity. Eight musicals
will open this spring and, compared to the spring of 2015, the number of female
creatives on Broadway has only increased in the category of choreographer. There
have also been some dips. Five female lyricists of both new musicals and
revivals had shows open last spring; this spring, there are two. The number of
female composers drops from three to two, and the number of bookwriters remains
at two.

Playwrights don’t fare much better. Out of the eight
plays starting performances on Broadway this spring, two are written by women — one new play and one revival. The number of female directors of both plays and
musicals falls from four to three.

Broadway had a record-breaking 2014-2015 season, with
three female composers of new musicals. “Fun Home” was the first female-written
musical to take home the Tony Award for Best Musical. Jeanine Tesori, the
composer of “Fun Home” and four other Broadway musicals, finally won for Best
Score, only the second female composer to do so.

This spring’s female composers come from the popular
music world, and that crossover can bring exciting styles and new perspectives
to Broadway scores. For the new musical “Bright Star,” singer-songwriter Edie
Brickell teamed up with the actor and banjo player Steve Martin to bring their
bluegrass music to Broadway. The musical is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of
North Carolina between 1923 and 1945 and stars Carmen Cusack, making her
Broadway debut as the editor of a southern literary journal who falls in love
with a young soldier.

Brickell joins another singer-songwriter making her
Broadway debut this spring, Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles, who is part of the
all-female “Waitress” team. “Waitress” is based on the 2007 Adrienne Shelley
film that starred Keri Russell. Tony winner Jessie Mueller will play the pie-baking
waitress Jenna, who seeks a way out of her loveless marriage. Bookwriter Jessie
Morgan, Tony-winning director Diane Paulus and choreographer Lorin Latarro all
make a strong case for history repeating itself: “Waitress” could be the second
female-written show to win the Tony Award for Best Musical.                                          

The other female bookwriter is playwright and actor
Claudia Shear, who was last seen on Broadway in 2002 in the play “The Smell of
the Kill.” She previously wrote and starred in “Dirty Blonde,” a 2000 play
exploring the phenomenon of Mae West. Turning her pen to a more family-friendly
subject, Shear co-wrote the book to the beloved, award-winning children’s book “Tuck
Everlasting,” written in 1975 by Natalie Babbitt. The story follows 10-year-old
Winnie Foster, played by newcomer Sarah Charles Lewis, who finds a family in
the woods that can live forever.

Danai Gurira’s new play “Eclipsed” helps make Spring 2016 one of Broadway’s
most diverse seasons in recent history. But Gurira, who is from both America
and Zimbabwe, is the only female writer of color with a new show. Best known to
audiences as Michonne on the hit television series “The Walking Dead,” Gurira
makes her Broadway debut just as her play “Familiar” opens off-Broadway. With
an all-female black cast and directed by Liesl Tommy, who is from South Africa,
“Eclipsed” follows the captive wives of a rebel officer in the Liberian Civil
War. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o makes her Broadway debut and may add a Tony to
her award collection. 

Writer and TV producer Becky Mode is the other female
playwright on Broadway with “Fully Committed,” her one-man comedy about foodie
culture that played off-Broadway in 1999. With the addition of Helen
Edmundson’s adaptation of “Therese Raquin” in the fall, the number of female
playwrights has increased from last season — to a tiny total of three.

Some women are directing men’s stories this season. The
recently announced musical “Nerds” may tell the story of two nerdy guys — Steve
Jobs and Bill Gates — but it’s being directed by Casey Hushion in her Broadway
directing debut. Hushion, the artistic director of North Carolina Theatre, is
one of three female directors this spring, joining Paulus and Tommy. Lynne Meadow, who directed the recently opened
“Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” starring Linda Lavin, and Pam McKinnon, who
directed the fall’s otherwise male-dominated “China Doll,” bring the season
total to only five female directors. Last season, there were eight.

While female writers and directors are struggling for
parity this season, the one job bursting with women is that of choreographer.
Lynne Page, who did the recent “La Cage aux Folles” and “A Little Night Music”
revivals, choreographs the new musical “American Psycho.” The tale of an ’80s
investment banker who moonlights as a serial killer, “American Psycho” is based
on the 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis, which was turned into a film starring
Christian Bale.

Choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter does double duty this
season. She did the fall’s new musical “School of Rock” and now choreographs
the jukebox musical “Disaster!,” a spoof on ’70s disaster movies. Even the new
Cirque du Soleil show “Paramour” has Daphné Mauger, who choreographs the first
Cirque du Soleil show created specifically for Broadway. Latarro from
“Waitress” brings the total number of choreographers this spring to four, a
significant jump from last spring’s one. With Ann Ye’s choreography of “The
Color Purple” in the fall, five female choreographers will have worked on six
musicals in the 2015-2016 season. 

On the stage, great leading roles for women abound. Jessica Lange leads “Long Day’s
Journey into Night,” Eugene O’Neill’s classic play about the Tyrone family, and
Michelle Williams stars in the revival of “Blackbird,” a play about an encounter between a male business
executive and a woman he seduced when she was 12 years old. “The
Crucible,” an Arthur Miller classic about the Salem witch trials, stars Saoirse
Ronan (recently of the film “Brooklyn”) and Tony winner Sophie Okonedo, who
joins Nyong’o as one of two leading women of color in a play this spring.

Women of color in musicals were fully present in the fall
with “The Color Purple, “Allegiance” and “On Your Feet.” Add to those women
six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, back on Broadway in “Shuffle Along Or The
Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” The musical is
a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the 1921 jazz musical “Shuffle
Along.”

The revival of the 1964 musical “She Loves Me” adds two
more big roles: Tony winner Laura Benanti as Amalia, a woman who falls in
love with a man through letters yet doesn’t know she hates him at work, and Tony
winner and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” star Jane Krakowski as Amalia’s
friend and coworker. The musical is based on “The Shop around the Corner,”
which was also the basis for the Nora Ephron film “You’ve Got Mail.”

There
is much to celebrate both on and off stage this spring, but Broadway can do
better in bringing female writers, directors, choreographers and leading roles
for women to its stages. The numbers should increase, not fall or flatline. A
milestone means nothing if it’s not part of the overall story of achieving
gender parity. 

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