6 Great Musical Theatre Songs By and For Women
Lately I have been thinking a lot about the ladies of musical theatre – not just the belters and the sopranos, but the composers, the lyricists, the librettists. Well I’ve been trying to, but doing so always ends up being incredibly upsetting. Representation of female writers in theatre is woefully inadequate (as documented and combatted brilliantly by the ladies over at The Interval), despite the remarkable work women are producing every single day. I won’t rehash the statistics, but in short we want more female creators, characters and stories to be represented on our biggest stages, and for women to be recognised as the force in the industry that they are and fully deserve to be.
In that vein, I want to celebrate songs written entirely (music and lyrics) by women for women (female characters) and talk about why they’re so great.
1. “Days and Days” (from Fun Home) – music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by Lisa Kron
The savvy among you will have known that Fun Home would be my number one priority on this list, and to be honest I could have chosen almost any song from the show to talk about. This number (wonderfully discussed by Rob Weinert-Kendt for the New York Times) is the devastated outpourings of Helen Bechdel (mother of Alison) as she finally confesses to her daughter the pain of life unlived. The song speaks to women shunted aside by men and forced into a life of domesticity and mundanity:
Days and days and days
Made of lunches
And car rides
And shirts and socks
And no one clocks the day you disappear.
The song, with Kuhn’s savage delivery and which culminates in an entreaty to her daughter to escape, speaks to something we can all recognise. No musical theatre composition has ever better captured what Rupert Brooke poignantly termed “the long littleness of life.”
2. “Hold On” (from The Secret Garden) – music by Lucy Simon, lyrics by Marsha Norman
This 11 o’clock number from Simon and Norman’s The Secret Garden is sung by Martha the maid to young Mary Lennox. One of several rousing anthems to appear on this list, Norman’s lyrics speak of endurance and inner strength:
When you see the storm is coming,
See the lightning part the skies,
It’s too late to run-
There’s terror in your eyes!
What you do then is remember
This old thing you heard me say:
‘It’s the storm, not you,
That’s bound to blow away.’
Lucy Simon’s music was featured on Broadway this season in the short-lived Doctor Zhivago, while Marsha Norman wrote the book for last season’s beautiful The Bridges of Madison County, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.
3. “Fifteen Pounds” – music by Zina Goldrich, lyrics by Marcy Heisler
This standalone comedy number from writing team Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich recounts the ‘true’ story of a lady pressured to lose some weight by her gentleman companion. I won’t ruin the ending but suffice to say it does not turn out so well for that fellow. It’s a great story song well worth a listen, particularly as sung by the writer or as recorded on Stephanie J. Block’s wonderful solo album.
4. “Charlie” (from Peggy) – music by Jennifer Lucy Cook, lyrics by Stephanie Smith
I will admit some possible bias: I was involved with the show for which this song was originally written. Peggy is a one-woman musical suggested by a true story, and it follows Peggy, a young woman from Blackpool, England, who dreams of becoming a dancer in Las Vegas, but whose plans are put on hold when she meets a man and becomes pregnant. This song, “Charlie,” charts Peggy’s girlish infatuation turning into real sentiment, as she must weigh up her beckoning future with this new force in her life. It is here performed beautifully by Betsy Wolfe at a concert produced by Sparkification Productions to celebrate emerging female musical theatre writers. How wonderful.
5. “Get Out and Stay Out” (from 9 to 5) – music and lyrics by Dolly Parton
A song that has quickly become audition and cabaret fodder, “Get Out and Stay Out” is hard to beat when it comes to empowering female anthems. Stephanie J. Block’s character, Judy, has had enough of her husband’s errant ways and gives him what for. It has all you could want – high belting, a sassy lyric and a showstopping performance. Parton’s Broadway debut was (perhaps predictably) stuffed with great roles and material for women, and this song is no exception.
Well, I am proud to tell you I’m really feeling good.
I’m doing so much better than you ever thought I would.
Got my own place, my own space, where I can dream and plan
It took me this long to realize I do not need a man.
6. “Ring of Keys” (from Fun Home) – music by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by Lisa Kron
OK, I couldn’t do it – I couldn’t just pick one song from Fun Home. Sorry, I know I’ve talked about “Ring of Keys” before, but I could go on and on. What is so remarkable about Tesori and Kron’s work here is the specificity of the feeling that they have managed to capture: the hesitant, intangible flickers of recognition felt by a child when they see someone like them. In the song, Young Alison spots a butch lesbian deliverywoman and is immediately captivated by her. Kron translates perfectly how Alison attempts to analyse this feeling by examining the woman’s short hair, her boots and the ring of keys at her belt. Her pauses, her hesitations and the Tony Award-nominated performance from Lucas are astonishingly astute.
More than this, if we stop to think about what is actually being presented (and on a Broadway stage, no less), the achievement of everyone involved in Fun Home is staggering. To give lesbian women a voice in musical theatre is nigh on miraculous. This moment in particular encapsulates something experienced by so many queer and LGBT young people, and to articulate that so perfectly means so much. To quote Alan Bennett in The History Boys (on the subject of reading, but equally apt here):
The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
If the achievements of these women inspire young girls to pursue writing, directing or technical stage work, we can never be grateful enough.