To anyone, but mostly, the “me”s,
I am a white, cisgender, gay man, writing musical theatre in New York City, and I am not uncommon. The amount of “me”s I see writing and performing and garnering awards and taking new jobs and making names for themselves is staggering. The inherent male/white/and yes, even in this case, gay privilege is there. So when I decided to write a piece about the role of women in musical theatre as a whole, I stopped and asked myself, “Why the hell do I get to write this?” Well, I don’t, really. But in the attempt to explore the world of the incredible women in my life and in the theatre, I decided to just ask some questions, and I learned.
I asked women. Straight women, queer women, women of color, young women, mature women, Broadway writers and actresses, and high school drama teachers. At first, I asked how they thought characters were portrayed.
In musical theatre (historically or present):
Which female characters do you most enjoy and/or identify with in the way the writers have portrayed them?
Are there any you feel are portrayed through a misogynistic lens?
They seemed simple enough questions in my white male well-meaning mind. I have my own opinions of how some women are portrayed in film and theatre, how they behave as characters and their functionality within a story, which is why I approached this topic in the first place. Alison Bechdel, the author of the graphic novel “Fun Home,” which is now a groundbreaking new musical at the Public Theatre, wrote three rules for testing gender bias in stories, most prominently in film.
The rules ask:
- Are there at least two women in it?
- Do those women speak to each other?
- Do they speak to each other about anything other than a man?
I also presented these rules to interviewees, as a way to clarify the issue I was concerned with.
And then I started receiving responses.
Here are some of my favorite themes and ideas, paraphrased, mixed and matched, and in no particular order:
The thing that hurts the most is the woman not “being there.” The characters are on the stage, have lines, or even a song, but what they have to say doesn’t really drive the engine of the show, because what they want doesn’t really matter.
There is nothing wrong with a story of a woman wanting a man, so long as she wants him bad enough that she’ll make terrible mistakes in order to get him. So long as her story is worth telling.
Women should be allowed to make mistakes, suffer for them, and work and explore their own flaws.
The issue isn’t necessarily women in musicals, but production of musicals by women. Women account for well over fifty percent of writers in theatre, and yet only five percent of the musicals and plays produced are by women.
Musical theatre is informed by the culture, but it is still a thing which is predominantly white and male. Perspective is primarily from the white guy, even if the show features a central character who is a woman of color.
Many portrayals of women are a product of their times and are simply dated for that reason.
On one hand, you like seeing characters who are women and people of color, and you’re glad for the actors of color who get to play the role, but you are also aware of who is authoring the work, and who is profiting.
A lot of times, well meaning male writers who attempt to make female characters good, sweet, honorable, nice, or pretty, end up making them bland and underwritten.
Should there be more women writing musicals? Yes!
A writer can write any character they want. If there is a cliched portrayal of a woman in their piece, they should know that, and be aware of it, and have a reason for it. It’s not enough just to say, “My piece isn’t about that, so I don’t have to worry about it.” Awareness is everything.
Women shouldn’t be added simply as a nod to the fact that women exist.
Favorite Shows and Characters Mentioned (For Portrayals of Women)
Caroline, or Change (Caroline, Emmy, Dotty)
The Light in the Piazza
Queen of the Mist
Sweeney Todd (Ms. Lovett)
(Okay, a lot of Sondheim)
Least Favorite (For Portrayals of Women)
Guys and Dolls
Very few responses took to answering the last question specifically. In fact, some responses made mention that there seemed to be a huge amount of hope for the future of musical theatre for women, especially as writers, and seemed to encourage writers to write shows like those mentioned under favorites, rather than using their least favorite as “bad examples.”
So, what do I take from this? What are the “me”s of the world to do with it? I approached this topic with such timidness, knowing that I come from a place of privilege, wanting so badly not to step on anyone’s toes or assert that I somehow have the right to write a piece on this topic, so what am I to do with what I’ve got here? How do I help make this issue less of an issue? Who am I, even to think that anyone needs MY help in the first place?
All I can say is, be aware. Be aware of what is being written, what is being played, and what is being produced. Be aware of the white male presence, not just in theatre, but in everyday life. People, too often, dismiss this privilege in their own learned phallocentric blindness, but as all the incredible women have said to me over the last few weeks, there is no reason there shouldn’t be musicals, plays, operas or whatever by, for, and about women being produced all over. Open your eyes. The talent is there. The power is there. The ideas and the beauty and brilliance are all there. The simple solution, it would seem, is for the “me”s in the world to take a step to the side and let someone else give this crazy business a go. Theatre is for everyone.