Gender equality behind the Broadway curtain

Broadway: with its flashing lights, decked-out theatres and five-star studded reviews, it’s heralded as a place where dreams flourish and anything is possible. It’s smack bang in the middle of New York, the ‘greatest city in the world’, as sung from the rooftops by Alicia Keys and Frank Sinatra. It celebrates the underdog and welcomes people of all ages, sexualities and vocal ranges. But when it comes to telling stories about women, is Broadway actually any different from its west-coast cousin, the silver screen? We marvel at Idina Menzel in Wicked and Kelli O’Hara in The King and I, but it seems as though Broadway still isn’t 100 per cent feminist friendly.

On the surface, Broadway has always been a home for those shunned by the rest of society to find their voice and share their story. While film and TV is concerned with its budgets and profits and million-dollar stars, theatre is for real artists who won’t be stopped by any of those barriers. This may be true, as musical theatre has started to break out of a lot of problems that Hollywood still seems to have. While stereotypes may exist in older musicals, such as goody two-shoes Sandy in Grease and love interest Christine in The Phantom of the Opera, recently Broadway seems to be doing a pretty good job of telling a diverse range of female stories. A breakthrough example of this was Wicked, a prequel of sorts to The Wizard of Oz which tells the story of witches Glinda and Elphaba and how their friendship fares as they face dangers within Oz. Instead of sidelining the female characters behind their male counterparts or limiting them to the romantic subplot, everything in Wicked for Glinda and Elphaba is driven by their own motivations and goals. While there is still a love interest in the show, he doesn’t overpower them in any way or take away from their story. For once, he’s the tagalong to the female story at play.

Broadway also doesn’t seem to limit women’s success based on their age, another infamous Hollywood problem. As long as they can still sing, Broadway welcomes them back, as proven by two of Broadway’s biggest stars – Idina Menzel (45) and Audra McDonald (46). In fact, Menzel’s latest performance in If/Then centred around a middle-aged woman trying to figure out her life post-divorce. It was a story purely about identity and finding oneself that meant even a teenager like myself could empathise with the characters and the story. It treated a middle-aged woman as the driver of her own narrative, rather than putting her on the receiving end of a Botox joke.

However, there are still a few hurdles left on Broadway that female characters need to jump over. While they are moving in the right direction, a lot of Broadway stories suffer from the problem of telling stories about men that only feature women peripherally. Instead of treating women as also important to the story, they exist only in relation to the male character. Smash-hit musical Hamilton has received a lot of acclaim for being revolutionary, and rightfully so in a lot of ways, but it suffers from this peripheral treatment of female characters. The story focuses on underrated male genius Alexander Hamilton, and brushes over the lives of Schuyler sisters Angelica, Eliza and Peggy. While the musical is praised for bringing the efforts of the Schuyler sisters to attention, particularly the charitable work of Eliza, almost no stage time is devoted to this. All the women exist in relation to Hamilton and their conversations and problems relate to him. Eliza’s life and later work is the focus of the final song, but that is only after Alexander’s death. Once it is inevitable that Eliza exists separately of him, then the spotlight can be shifted onto her.

The content of women’s stories should also be challenged, according to Laura Collins-Hughes and Alexis Soloski. They make the valid point that stories with female protagonists are often about overcoming powerful men, whereas stories with male protagonists grapple with greater things like politics and art. Even if women can make it to the spotlight, their stories still exist on a lesser plane. For instance, Jenna’s struggle in Waitress is against domestic violence from her husband and the resolution is her escape from that. Collins-Hughes and Soloski also criticise the fact that Jenna’s turning point in the story is caused by the birth of her daughter, despite Jenna’s earlier reluctance to have children. Femininity isn’t necessarily incompatible with feminism, but Jenna develops very conventional mother-like feelings instantaneously upon the birth of her child and this change of heart is seen as significant character development. While the female characters of Waitress are well developed and three-dimensional, they all exist within a very domestic sphere.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all doesn’t concern women onstage, but behind the curtain. Broadway dazzles us with its diversity onstage but reverts back to the same old story once you take a look at who’s in charge of the story that’s being told. 2016 marks the first year that a Broadway production brought by an all-female creative team has graced the stage, with both the musical Waitress and the play Eclipsed. And in 2015, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron became the first ever female duo to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score. Surely this should be the focus of those keen to improve female storytelling – if women become more involved in the behind the scenes, then they can drive forward more authentic stories that highlight all different types of women.

Broadway is known as a home for everyone, whatever their gender, sexuality, age or race. If it wants to keep that reputation, it needs to polish up its skills in female storytelling. From my perspective, the answer is simple: to get better women’s stories, let women tell them.

Image: Lloyd Dirks

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20151109-IMG_9823Julia Faragher is a current university student with a passion for writing across all mediums, from novels and short stories to films, plays and poetry. Her adventure with writing began in November 2011, when she competed in National Novel Writing Month for the first time. Three years later, she had written three novels of more than 50,000 words each and fallen in love with writing. Since then, she has also had success writing in other areas, such as co-writing a play that won her high school competition and placing in the top 4 of last year’s ANU Interhall Poetry Slam. She also has a love for film, and served as the director, producer and writer for Dear Jasmine, winner of ‘Best Student Film’ at the Lights! Canberra! Action! Film Festival 2015. Other festival credits include Tropfest Jr, the All-American High School Film Festival and the Screen It Festival. She currently studies English, Gender Studies and Law at ANU and runs her own short film company, Skybound Productions.

This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.

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