The headline in Variety (can you resist an old-time Variety headline?) reads "Broadway Preps for a Diva Smackdown." And I wince a little at the idea of glorious musical artists as egomaniacal divas. And I flinch a bit at the cliche fantasy of a competitive hair-pulling spectacle at Tony time in June.
But really, look at the terrific women in the center of major musicals right now: the wonderful Kelli O'Hara in "The Bridges of Madison County" and gifted newcomer Jessie Mueller as Carole King in "Beautiful," soon to be joined by Idina Menzel in "If/Then," Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" and Sutton Foster in "Violet."
After so many years of male-dominated, drag-bedazzled and even all-male productions, we have five major musicals (three new ones, two reinventions from long-ago Off-Broadway) in which women are the protagonists. These are not the wives and not the girlfriends, but grown-ups telling stories that, for reasons the sociologists might know, musicals stopped caring about decades ago.
"It's an amazingly good moment," agreed Leigh Silverman, director of Jeanine Tesori's "Violet" and not, given the smartness of her work, a person given to exclamatory hype or gender-baiting. "It certainly feels as if the climate has started changing for real. There's an appetite for stories about women and girls coming into their own. I feel that it's starting a whole new world. We are due, and it is time."
I hesitate to write anything that could reduce such a rich moment into the Broadway equivalent of a chick-flick trend. Although women, according to the Broadway League, buy 68 percent of the tickets, shows about men continue to be the overwhelming choice.
When I went to see "Beautiful," I admit I expected to see a large proportion of women in the audience for a show that, despite mixed-to-positive reviews (mixed for the klutzy book, glowing for Mueller and the songs) has been a boxoffice winner. Unless husbands and boyfriends are indulging their women by going along, however, King's personal music has a far broader reach.
Perhaps Elsa the Snow Queen in the smash animated movie "Frozen" can even persuade Disney to give the girls a chance again on Broadway. Things didn't go so well for poor "Little Mermaid," for good reasons that had nothing to do with gender. It was awful. In 2012, both Disney musicals -- "Newsies" and "Peter and the Starcatcher" -- revolved around lots of boys and a plucky subsidiary heroine. Given those successes and the ongoing phenomenon of "The Lion King," little wonder the next big Disney show is "Aladdin."
Apropos of "Frozen," Broadway will see the first of Menzel (or, as John Travolta said in his introduction at the Oscars, Adele Dazeem) since she made a generation of girls dream of defying gravity as the green witch in "Wicked." That girl-power musical opened nearly 11 years ago. Even if you count the intentionally creepy "Matilda," this is a long time between empowerments.
In fact, the producers of "Wicked" are behind "If/Then," which stars Menzel as a woman, turning 40 and newly divorced, who returns to New York on a journey of if-then choices. In a recent interview, the actress, 42 and newly separated, said the personal resonance "feels profound, sort of. It's a gift."
For those of us who were bowled over by "Violet" Off-Broadway in 1997, the chance to see this haunting musical on Broadway is a gift, too. Foster did one thrilling performance of it at the new Encores! summer series, directed by Silverman.
"It is about a girl/ woman obsessed with being beautiful, but the appeal is universal," says Silverman, who is trying to "hold onto the heart, the simplicity and theatricality" of that semi-staged concert version. Tesori, whose score for "Fun Home" at the Public Theater was one of the best things I heard last year, has written a new song for "Violet." "We're calling this production a revisical," says the director, who, until now, has only been involved in creating new work.
O'Hara is the rare musical star who has had artists writing new shows with her in mind. In "The Bridges of Madison County," she brings a ravishing power and delicacy to a show that, despite the beautiful production and score, teeters on the edge of a bodice-ripping romance novel. "I keep wanting to take risks and reinvent myself in certain ways," she recently told The Associated Press. "It's really important to me ... this one is probably the most in-your-face as far as me trying to step out of my box, my comfort zone."
McDonald, also closely identified with new work, stars in the Broadway premiere of a 1986 Off-Broadway bio-musical. The show about Holiday is a late addition to the season, and McDonald joins the competition with five Tonys -- one for every two times she has been in a Broadway production. And these five are hardly the only extraordinary women in musical theater today. Although her role is more likely to be classified in the featured-actress category than a leading one for the Tonys, Marin Mazzie is a big part of the musical adaptation of Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway."
Michelle Williams, an unknown quantity in musical theater, makes her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles in "Cabaret." Laura Benanti will not be on Broadway this season, but she will be in "The Most Happy Fella" at Encores! next month.
Although Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters, Carolee Carmello and Victoria Clark are not in the spotlight right now, it may not be overstating the talent pool to call this a golden age for women in musical theater.
"Jeanine and I were joking that all we need is for Patti LuPone to show up," says Silverman, quickly adding her admiration for this "really exciting, healthy amount of competition. This is a close community, and it's glorious to have such a fierce group playing deeply complicated, intelligent and sensual women.
"And as far as I know, nobody is wearing a bikini."