Last November, composer Georgia Stitt tweeted out the following:
With respect to the creatives who will be employed by these projects, I will say I’m concerned about a Broadway season that includes PRETTY WOMAN, CAROUSEL and MY FAIR LADY all at the same time. In 2017 is the correct message really “women are there to be rescued”?
— Georgia Stitt (@georgiastitt) November 22, 2017
That tweet got 180 retweets and 755 likes. It seems many were in agreement about the optics: In a #MeToo world, where women are still severely underrepresented on the creative teams of Broadway shows—and really, on teams all across the American theatre—is now really the time to put up these socially regressive works, written by men, in 2018? (A revival of Kiss Me, Kate is slated for 2019.)
Indeed, it’s a trend so problematic that it merited a New York Times piece about how directors, producers, and actors are hoping to overcome or mitigate the misogyny and retrograde gender relations in those works. Stitt, quoted in the piece, elaborated further on her objections: “It’s frustrating that the material people seem to want to throw their energy into is old properties where women have no agency, and then there is the real scarcity of women on the creative teams.” She added pointedly, “And are these the shows I’m going to take my 12-year-old daughter to?”
One element of Stitt’s objections stood out to me, and it was something I wish Michael Paulson’s Times article had interrogated: the scarcity of women on the creative teams. All of the musicals in question were created exclusively by white men (save for Bella Spewack, who co-wrote the Kiss Me, Kate book), and this time around they are also all directed by white men. The design teams announced so far are also all white and male (with the predictable exception of a rogue female costume designer). And the speaking roles in all of these shows greatly favor men over women.
Whether or not these reinventions will be successful is up in the air. Pretty Woman book writer J.F. Lawton told the Chicago Tribune he wanted to turn the musical, about a prostitute who is saved from poverty by a rich businessman, into “an allegory of self-empowerment for women.”
But there is one question that has been lingering both for me and many other women in and around the theatre: If we’re going to stage these retrograde works and “reinvent” them for the 21st century, why are men the only ones being given the opportunity to do the rethinking—to give these old properties a “feminist twist”? Are male artists the only ones who get to define feminism in theatre in 2018?
Those questions bother director Leigh Silverman as well. She’s no stranger to reinventions of problematic musicals: Her 2016 Off-Broadway production of Sweet Charity, starring Sutton Foster, gave some shades of gray to a formerly bubbly character.
“We’ve made great strides in theatre in Off-Broadway and in the regions in terms of putting the women in charge, either in charge of big shows or in charge of whole theatres,” Silverman says. By contrast, on Broadway, producers still hold the purse strings and make the hiring decisions. “If you have white male producers, they’re more than likely to hire white male directors, who are more than likely to hire white male creative teams. There’s a much less kind of interest in taking a chance on a woman, and believing that a woman can helm a giant show,” lamented Silverman, who adds that she’s always wanted to take a stab at Kiss Me, Kate; the 2019 Broadway revival will be directed by Scott Ellis.
The numbers bear Silverman out: This season, out of the 34 shows that will have opened on Broadway, only 8 credit female directors (one of those is a double—Marianne Elliott’s two-part Angels in America—and another is a half credit, Susan Stroman’s co-credit with Harold Prince on Prince of Broadway).* Five musicals feature women on their creative teams, and two female playwrights are represented. (Broadway’s unofficial resident directors seem to be Joe Mantello and Casey Nicholaw, who in May will both have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway.)
Many would say that talent comes in all genders, and that includes directors. “Of course men can direct women,” exclaims Silverman. “And of course they can have a feminist point of view, and they can want full, whole women with plenty of integrity and flaws and humanity. It’s not that men can’t do that. It’s just when only men are being hired for the job—that’s when it gets problematic.”
After all, it wasn’t a female playwright who was asked by a Broadway producer to write about the #MeToo Movement; it was David Mamet.
To me, it’s even worse when those men coopt feminist language to sell their shows. Recently Playbill ran an article with the unfortunate headline: “Bartlett Sher directs My Fair Lady for the #MeToo era.” Sher explains that his version of the musical “leans toward Eliza and what Eliza goes through. She chooses to go and learn. She chooses to take her life in her hands and get out of her situation and challenge the conventions around her.”
That’s all loverly, but that’s not what #MeToo is about. As director Liesl Tommy tells me, “#MeToo means women who are willing to talk about their sexual harassment, about them being raped—that’s what what means. It’s not a fucking theme for a play.”
And it’s not marketing copy to sell a show.
I’ve noticed this phenomenon a lot lately: When it comes to marketing their productions, creative teams will sometimes cite contemporary social movements to give relevance to their shows.
About Kiss Me, Kate, the Times wrote:
The #MeToo movement will clearly affect the production. [Director Scott Ellis] led a benefit reading in 2016, and said he and the cast had already decided that they did not see the ultimate reconciliation between Fred and Lilli as him subduing her.
“These are two extremely strong people, who are jockeying throughout the show,” Mr. Ellis said. “How do we keep strength on both sides?”
#MeToo isn’t just about outing men as abusers. It’s also about dismantling a system that has forced women to be silent—about giving women space and resources, and protection, to do our work and tell our stories.
It shouldn’t be used to give problematic musicals contemporary relevance, or to sell tickets to a show, or to effectively keep women out of positions of power. This is performative wokeness: producers and directors giving lip service to the idea of diversity and equality, but doing very little to actually further the cause by, you know, hiring more women on their creative teams for shows about sexism and women, or people of color for shows about race. Of course, women and POCs should have many more chances to work on all kinds of shows—but if they’re not even given the chance to work on shows ostensibly about them, what message does that send?
“Diversity is not necessarily warm and cuddly,” Pulitzer-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes tells me. “It means getting in a room with people who may challenge your assumptions.” She also adds: “We have the directors ready for Broadway. Women and POCs.”
In 2015, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron made history as the first all-female musical writing team to win a Tony Award, for Fun Home. In 2016, Liesl Tommy made history as the first woman of color to be nominated for a Tony Award for play direction. Those sound like empowering milestones until you reflect that Tony Awards have been around since 1947; it took 69 years for them to give it to an all-female musical team. Diving deeper in Broadway history, I discovered that it took 52 years for a female director to win best director for a play or musical (Julie Taymor and Garry Hynes, both in 1998). And it took until 2016 for a work to appear on Broadway with an all-female creative team (Waitress**). It is shameful that it took so long for these milestones to appear, and that the status quo continues to be shifting so slowly, if at all.
In the history of the American theatre, for the most part, men have dictated the terms of womanhood, of how women should live and act. They’ve done it to various degrees of success, but they were still given the opportunities and the resources to do so. And the canon that they gave us, with their vision of womanhood—in all of its rescue-needing, abuse-taking glory—still reigns supreme.
What kinds of stories are women telling when given the resources? They’re telling the story of a lesbian discovering her identity (Fun Home), an abused waitress leaving her husband (Waitress), a mother and her daughter reconciling (Miss You Like Hell, currently at the Public Theater). They’re new, they’re complex, they speak to womanhood now, and—producers should love this—they sell tickets.
There’s a wealth of stories to tell about women. If we’re going to have all these problematic revivals, let’s at least make room for women to reinvent them—and tell other stories too. Of course men can have opinions on women and our lives. But considering that these vintage works were written and created by men, that gender has already done all the talking. It’s time to let women talk back.
*A previous version of the story had these numbers as 19 shows and 2 female directors.
**A previous version of the story erroneously stated that Eclipsed was the first show on Broadway to have an all-female creative team. That was the musical Waitress, also in 2016. But Eclipsed did make history because it was the first show to be written and directed by a woman which also starred an entirely female cast.