Where Are The Women? Representation in Musical Theatre

This past theatre season was a very important one for women. This idea has been talked about since before the Tony Awards back in June, with articles and open letters written (like this great one by The Interval) and infographics made depicting why the 2014-2015 season was so important in terms of female representation. A brief overview on why this season was so spectacular:

***Fun Home, a story featuring a great cast of strong women, wins Best Musical, and the female writers Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron win the Tony for Best Score (something that has never happened before).

***Four generations of female actors are represented in best actress/featured actress categories: Sydney Lucas, eleven years old, Emily Skeggs, twenty-five years old, Beth Malone, forty-one years old, and Chita Rivera, eighty-two years old.

***Five female Tony winners for direction/design: Marianne Elliot (Best Direction of a Play), Natasha Katz (Best Lighting Design of a Musical), Bunny Christie (Best Scenic Design of a Play), Paule Constable (Best Lighting Design of a Play), and Catherine Zuber (Best Costume Design of a Musical).

***The King and I, a show featuring a strong female lead who actually speaks of the strength of women throughout the show, is a part of the theatre season and wins Best Revival of a Musical.

These are only a few examples of how this theatre season was wonderful for women. You can find an amazing infographic depicting these results here.

But is this season indicative of the future of musical theatre? I’m not so sure.

Yes, this year was fantastic in terms of female representation – at least what was seen. The fact that the Tony Awards chose not to broadcast the winning speech for Best Score – even though it was making history – speaks volumes about how big the gender gap in the theatre world still is. The upcoming theatre season only features a few shows that have women directly involved in their production: shows with directors Pam MacKinnon, Lynne Meadow, and Diane Paulus, musicals with lyricists Sara Bareilles, Brenda Russel and Allee Willis, and plays or musical books by Jessie Nelson, Marsha Norman, Helen Edmundson, and Claudia Shear. Playbill recently did an interesting article about how this gender gap is reflected geographically as well – of the forty Broadway theatres, only four are named after women, although it is clear that there are many more influential theatre women that could have been honoured.

Even the regional companies that are attempting to feature more women playwrights in their seasons fill me with doubt. It is easy to jump on the bandwagon of female representation, but in an industry dominated by men, it’s only a matter of time before these well-meaning theatre companies will turn back to what is already known and respected by their audiences.

Why is it that this gender gap exists? This infographic gives a very interesting look at statistics: even though high school theatre programs are full of girls, and there are decidedly more females than males enrolled in post-secondary theatre education, only 44% of actors are female. Despite the fact that more than 67% of the theatre audience is women, only 42% of all directors are female and only 27% of playwrights. How is it that the art form that is so well loved by women does so little to represent them? The percentage of female playwrights in particular scares me – how can the words of women become so lost in the theatre world?




What’s worse is there doesn’t seem to be a concrete reason, other than the fact that women’s voices simply aren’t being heard. In a society that still shuns feminism and is struggling to lose their traditional view of women, this isn’t exactly surprising, but it is incredibly sad. There are so many amazing stories waiting to be told by women, but we aren’t being given the same recognition or opportunities to show off our work as men are. Perhaps this can be traced back to theatre’s origins: after all, in Greek and Roman times, women were not even allowed to attend the theatre, let alone be part of a theatre company. It wasn’t until the late 1600s that this rule was discarded and women were allowed to be active participants in the art form. While this can explain the struggle to give women artists the proper platform for their work, it certainly doesn’t excuse it. We are living in the 21st century – isn’t it about time we gave female artists the recognition they deserve?

This past year was incredible for women in theatre. There is no disputing that. But we still have a long way to go to close the gender gap completely. We need to continuously work towards giving female artists the proper platform to make their work heard, the recognition they deserve, and the respect that is offered to their male counterparts. After all, as Jeanine and Lisa said in their (not broadcast) Tony Award speech, “For girls, you need to see it to be it.” The need for girls to “see it” in the theatre world has never been greater, and it’s time we break that glass curtain – once and for all.

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