Evening the Playing Field: How Female Composers are still Playing Catch-up
Stop and think for a moment. Off the top of your head, are you able to name ten female musical theatre composers? Five? Three? Chances are, you only know enough to count the names on one hand. In a world of vast diverse musical theater, should it really be difficult to name at least a few female composers?
A couple months ago, Fun Home’s writing team, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, made theatre history by being the first all-female writing team to take home the Tony Award for Best Musical Score. It truly was a win for women in theatre. Two years prior, Cyndi Lauper also made history by becoming the first female composer to win Best Score without a male collaborator. However, before that, the last time an all-female composing team was even nominated for the Best Score Tony was 1991, when Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman were recognized for their score to The Secret Garden. As wonderful as these accolades are, the reality that it has taken so long for women to receive recognition in this field is upsetting.
Female musical theatre composers should not be a foreign concept for people. Looking at the past, talented women such as Kay Swift and Mary Rodgers paved the way for future female composers. It has been a long road for women to be recognized in the creative arts. However, many talented female musical theatre composers are still overlooked. With the number of new musicals that get workshopped and produced annually, the percentage of those musicals that are composed by women is alarmingly low. In an interview with Playbill.com, librettist and playwright Marsha Norman commented that we need to “make it clear and obvious and happily accepted that the work of women is breathtaking and needs to be done.” It is time to begin to stack theatre seasons with more works created by women.
So how do we do solve the problem? There is no clear formula to get more women’s work produced. It is impossible to snap one’s fingers and make producers start taking women’s work more seriously. So it falls on us – as artists, performers and theatre patrons – to advocate for these new shows that get overlooked. In the age where social media is extremely prominent, it is so simple to share and endorse new work. The power we hold as theatre supporters is more than we realize. We have the ability to buy the sheet music and concept albums, attend concerts, share the music and promote the show to our friends. All of those things, though small, can help create the support that is needed.
What is so wonderful about new musical theatre is that it is a platform for all different types of people to express and tell stories that need to be heard. We are so fortunate to be living in a period of time where change can be achieved through the creative arts. But as we know, change does not happen overnight. It will take time and work for the composing playing field in musical theatre to be completely evened. The problem is evident and it is clear that it is exceedingly vital for us as a musical theatre community to continuously promote the amazing new work that female writers and composers are creating. Do your part by listening, sharing and supporting. Together, let’s make female composers as popular and recognized as their male counterparts so that in the future, there will be far too many to count on just one pair of hands.
These are a few of my favorite insanely talented female composers:
Lindsay Mendez performs “Stop” from The Danger Year (music and lyrics by Georgia Stitt).
Julia Murney performs “Elegy” from A Girl Called Vincent (by Carmel Dean, based on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay).
Barbara Anselmi (who made her Broadway composing debut this season with It Shoulda Been You)
Lisa Howard performs “Jenny’s Blues” (music by music by Barbara Anselmi, lyrics by Brian Hargrove) from It Shoulda Been You.
Lauren Samuels performs “Someone You’d Be Proud Of” from The In-Between (music and lyrics by Laura Tisdall).
Who are your favorite female composers?
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