Fourth-grader Naomi is a little woman with colossal dreams. While the 10-year-old frets over her school essays, her overarching anxiety is about her future. She gets a boost from the past when, on a school field trip to the International Women’s Museum, she jumps back in time to meet historic female pioneers in the arts, sciences, athletics, and activism as they grow up into some of America’s most esteemed trailblazers.
So goes the action of She Persisted, the Musical, Feb. 2-Apr. 14 at Bay Area Children’s Theatre. If the title sounds familiar, it may be because it’s based on Chelsea Clinton’s 2017 children’s book, She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World (which was in turn inspired by a disparaging comment Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made about Sen. Elizabeth Warren, which she and others have embraced as a rallying cry). The 60-minute adaptation, with book and lyrics by Adam Tobin and music by Deborah Wicks La Puma, was generated by BACT’s artistic director, Nina Meehan, and the former First Daughter herself.
When Clinton was first approached with the idea of a kid-focused musical adaptation of her New York Times #1 Bestseller, she was ecstatic. “I was thrilled, grateful, and humbled!” said Clinton in an email. “It was most important to me that the stories be accurate while also being accessible and inspiring for a young audience.”
Meehan described the project’s conception as completely organic. When Tobin saw that his own six-year-old daughter was reading the female-friendly book in class, he thought the story would be ideal onstage. She Persisted has flown from the world’s bookshelves into classrooms, nightstands, and hearts. Meehan, Wicks La Puma, and Tobin decided it was time to put it on its feet.
“I was excited to create a piece of theatre that tells a critical and important part of our history, but that is often left to the sidebar of American history books, if it is even included at all,” said Meehan in an interview. “And with the wave of important movements happening in our country—the Women’s March, the activism of the Parkland kids, #MeToo—this seemed like the right moment to bring a piece of theatre to life that speaks to the impressive achievements of women in our history, and also the critical role the next generation will play in improving our world for the better.”
After receiving the backing of Clinton and her team, the project sprang into production. Meehan, working in tandem with Clinton to translate the all-female roster of characters to the stage, took great care to ensure factual accuracy, even with the fanciful time-travel premise. They enlisted dramaturg Karina Guttierez to work alongside the writers. Costume designer Brooke Jennings was tasked with costuming actors, each of whom played multiple historical characters. Clinton and her team were on hand to weigh in on the various moving parts.
“It was very impressive to see how committed Chelsea was to ensuring that the show met the quality and educational standards of the book, and we did our best to make sure that we achieved great storytelling at every moment,” Meehan said. The book’s illustrator, Alexandra Boiger, was also on hand to give “feedback on our projections, set and costume design.”
Clinton said that while she did deliberate with the production staff on the concept and script, she was happy to leave the music in the capable hands of Wicks La Puma.
While families across the country have enjoyed the book as a pre-bedtime staple, many others will get their first glimpse of it from this musical. Meehan estimates that they will have reached about 20,000 people by the end of the run at three Bay Area venues (Feb. 2-March 3 at BACT’s Berkeley Theatre Center, March 9-31 at Children’s Creativity Museum Theater, and April 6 – 14 Sunnyvale Community Center). At least half of that number will be children, thanks to BACT’s student matinee program. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, elementary schools are welcome to take field trips to the show, not unlike Naomi herself, and at a third of the regular price.
Clinton said she hopes her story’s new shape will remind young girls that they can achieve anything they put their minds to, and that their divine feminine is truly a force to be reckoned with.
“I want them to feel emboldened by the stories of women who persisted before them,” said Clinton. “I believe the stories we share with our children are critically important—to spark their imaginations and fuel their dreams. We also have to recognize that the stories we share and those we don’t, who is in them and who isn’t, shapes the way children see the world, including their place and others’ place in it.”
Girls aren’t her only audience, though. The mother of a young son herself, she added, “I want the boys to look at their sisters, friends and classmates, and think, ‘Wow, they can and should do whatever they want to do.’”