When “Fun Home” won its five much-deserved Tony Awards last June, including the big one for best musical, there were delightful bushels of attention showered on the women who created it. Not only was the show adapted from Alison Bechdel’s seminal coming-of-age-gay graphic memoir, but the prize score was by women — lyricist-author Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori.
I love this show and was thrilled by the recognition. But I remember being caught off guard by all the hoopla about the artists’ gender, as if Broadway had never before imagined such a collaboration. It had, of course. In 1991, two women — lyricist-author Marsha Norman and composer Lucy Simon — opened the “The Secret Garden,” also based on a novel by a woman. Granted, the show did not win best musical, but it did run a healthy 18 months. Norman won the Tony for her book and, at least as unusual for a woman, the set designer, Heidi Landesman, also won.
So I’m afraid I’ve been having a return of that out-of-synch feeling again this season. Two lauded Broadway works — the drama “Eclipsed” and the musical “Waitress” — are being promoted for their all-women creative teams.
“Eclipsed,” by Danai Gurira and featuring the radiant movie star Lupita Nyong’o, tells a story about sexual prisoners in the second Liberian civil war. The entire team, including the female cast, has ties to Africa. And “Waitress,” based on the 2007 indie film by the late Adrienne Shelly, has music by Sara Bareilles, direction by Diane Paulus and, to my mind, a supposed female-empowerment message less radical and enlightened than the 1974 movie, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
And I can’t help but wonder, really, this is news? Twenty-seven years after “The Heidi Chronicles” made Wendy Wasserstein the first woman to win a best-play Tony (except for the half of a couple behind “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1956), we are congratulating the theater for its daring and admirable openhearted acceptance of a few women playwrights, directors and composers?
What has happened to theater life that producers have decided — pardon the potential offense — to play the woman card as a marketing idea this season? Understand, please, both my fascination and my unease with Broadway’s sudden belief that it can get people into the seats by branding productions by gender.
Barry Weissler, producer of “Waitress,” said, “It all happened organically and made sense for this particular show. It became apparent that it was a big asset when the media pointed it out early on. It was clear that this was something that made “Waitress” distinct and might appeal to the largest ticket-buying audience — women.”
“The heart of Eclipsed, in the play’s storytelling and in the selling of the show, is women,” said Rick Miramontez, a publicist for the play. “There was never any hesitation by the producers in highlighting that fact, and to champion the historic all-female ensemble, playwright and director — something they will be doing a lot of, leading to Tony Sunday.”
But Tesori, who also composed such significant shows as “Violet” and “Caroline, or Change,” and created Encores! dazzling Off-Broadway summer series, says she is “conflicted” about the spotlight on the handful of women in high-profile positions.
“I want to talk about the work,” she told me in a recent phone interview. “I don’t want to talk about who we are.”
And yet, on the other hand, she is increasingly convinced that “we have to have gender parity. We won’t get there by accident. We have to hold each other accountable.”
She mentions the important statistics being amassed by the Women’s Initiative of the Dramatists Guild of America. She looks gratefully to Kron and others behind the Guild’s recent publication, The Count, which amasses the alarming disparity in numbers of playwrights and their productions from three seasons — 2011 to 2014 — in terms of gender and race. To the question “who gets produced in the U.S.?,” the answers are sobering: 62.7 percent American white men versus 14 percent American white women; also 10.6 foreign white men versus 2.5 foreign white women; 6 American men of color against 3.4 American women of color.
Julia Jordan, award-winning playwright and activist for gender parity, is also a co-founder of the Lilly Awards. The Lillys, which holds its seventh annual awards presentation May 23, began after a season when there were lots of fine women playwrights Off-Broadway and not one was nominated for any award. “Nominations and awards do matter,” she says, adding “We writers make our living when plays are produced over and over and over. We get $4,000 from the first production. We need producers from regional theaters to look and see what won prizes.”
Of course, this is hardly just about prizes. Jordan bristles a bit when I question the rise of the woman card in Broadway promotion. “Women are the ticket buyers. For a very, very long time, they have been supporting men. In the last 10 years, there has been a hunger in this primarily-female audience” to see stories about themselves by other women.
She sees an “uptick” in the productions by women, partly, she half-jokes, because of the “shaming” of producers by women. “The time is right now,” she says with appealing conviction. “Feminism isn’t even a bad word these days, but something to celebrate.”
She mentions, without really boasting, how many of the major Off-Broadway writers are women — Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage, Annie Baker, but I could add a dozen more. In the next month or so, there will be major Off-Broadway productions by Pulitzer-winners Paula Vogel and Quiara Alegría Hudes, as well as high-profile new work by Dominique Morisseau and Halley Feiffer. All-women Shakespeare has become far more than a gimmick. There’s a female “Tempest” (with nudity) at Summit Rock in Central Park Thursday and Friday, and, at Free Shakespeare in the Park starting May 24, a starry all-woman production of “The Taming of the Shrew” directed by Phyllida Lloyd, with Cush Jumbo (“Josephine and I,” “The Good Wife”) and Janet McTeer.
But, still, does this equate to a reason to play that woman card? Perhaps. Daryl Roth, who has produced a head-turning seven Pulitzer-winning plays in a profession dominated by men, says she understands my wariness about the manipulation of a fragile optimistic reality by trend-happy promoters.
“On the other hand,” she tells me, “When it comes to celebrating women, I am totally there.” In the cases of “Eclipse” and “Waitress,” she says the branding “feels appropriate. These are important stories about women.”
She, like Tesori, is also dedicated to opening doors for young women as a mentor in the theater. “Anytime we can say to anyone who will listen, ‘a woman wrote this score,’ we might as well celebrate it and get in a plug for women.”
Tesori well knows, “We haven’t traveled very far,” but she is convinced that things are much better for women in theater lately. A blip or a real sea change? “I think it’s a sea change.”
Roth says “I wish it weren’t necessary to say ‘this is a gay play,’ or ‘this is a play by a woman.’ I wish it weren’t necessary but it seems we have to.” Then she pauses and adds, “Until we don’t have to anymore.” Or, to paraphrase someone in politics, if this is the woman card, guess we should keep dealing us in.