10 Musicals By Women You Don't Know — And Should

News   10 Musicals By Women You Don't Know — And Should
 
In the spirit of last season's historic female-written Tony Award winner, Fun Home, and upcoming musicals with female teams such as Waitress, theatre lovers are thirsting for more works by women. From Broadway to Off-Broadway, from hits to lesser-known shows, Playbill.com dug into its archives to find musicals that gave women of all races and ages and backgrounds a seat at the table.

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1. A My Name Is Alice (1983)

A My Name Is Alice was a musical revue with Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd at the helm, which featured work from over two dozen writers, many whom participated while early in distinguished careers, and many of whom were women, from Lucy Simon to Anne Meara. Even future "Friends" writers Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Michael Skloff joined in the fun.

The show sought to celebrate contemporary women through sketches and songs, juxtaposing the humorous with the pointed, revealing and political. Sample moments found women going to a strip club, dealing with widowhood, experiencing 1980s yuppie Kindergarten mania and imagining their workplace transforming into a trashy romance novel.

The variety of topics was as diverse as the group of women who brought them to life, with half of the original cast comprised of women of color. The show opened at the Village Gate in 1983 and also played the American Place Theatre, running for over 300 performances and becoming the first huge hit of the Women's Project. Anne Meara's sketch turned the tables on cat-calling construction workers, making audiences laugh and also inspiring anger about this problem women were encountering. The progressive show inspired a sequel, and a compilation of both shows made an excellent cast recording.

 

2. Shelter (1973)

Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford were a musical theatre writing team to reckon with, with shows including Now Is The Time For All Good Men, I'm Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road, The Last Sweet Days of Isaac and Shelter. All of these musicals played Off-Broadway, except the last, which was Cryer and Ford's singular foray onto the Great White Way as writers. Shelter opened in 1973, and while it only ran at the Golden for a month, its kooky story and unmistakably 1970s score left an impression.

To begin with, as Ken Mandelbaum notes, Shelter was the first musical in post-war history to be fully written by women. It was also about a decidedly contemporary topic: a television ad writer who has chosen to control his life by living on a studio set under the oversight of a computer named Arthur. The show was labeled as a bit too weird, and a bit too intimate, for a Broadway which was focused at the time on Grease and Pippin, both less than a year old.

A cast album of the 1997 York Theatre revival is available, and an original cast album was recorded but never released. "Woman On The Run" is like nothing heard on Broadway before or since — a driving folk-rock anthem infused with the sound of primitive computer technology.

Sadly, there's nothing from Shelter on YouTube, so please accept this Cryer-Ford song in the meantime:

 

3. Runaways (1978)

Elizabeth Swados wrote music, lyrics, and book, directed and choreographed Runaways, which was a triumph at the Public Theater, when she was just 27 years old. The show moved uptown to the Plymouth, knocking out 274 performances on Broadway. This soulful woman with a guitar, who considered herself a runaway, came to Joe Papp with the idea of interviewing runaway children and creating a theatre piece. Runaways was developed through interviews, and then workshops, the same way that A Chorus Line had been at the Public Theater only three years earlier.

Runaways took an uncompromising look at urban youth. Three of the children in the show were actual Runaways. Notable for its dedication to inclusion on all levels, from race to background, Runaways included a deaf child actor named Bruce Hilbok who used ASL to sign his songs.

In the New York Times review of the show's Public Theater bow, Mel Gussow wrote: "Runaways is an inspired musical collage about the hopes, dreams, fears, frustrations, loneliness, humor, and perhaps most of all, anger, of young people who are estranged from their families and are searching for themselves. There are moments of joyfulness and youthful exuberance, but basically this is a serious contemplative musical with something important to say about society today." He went on to say: "This is the first musical since Hair to unite, successfully, the contemporary popular music and the legitimate theater." (Does that sound familiar to anyone paying attention to Hamilton this season — i.e. everyone not living under a rock?)

Such a glowing review and weeks of sold-out houses meant that Runaways moved to Broadway. There, it was received well, but not as well as it had been at the Public. Many noted that Runaways felt less organic in the larger theatre — that what felt natural at the Martinson downtown suddenly felt like a stiff performance at the Plymouth. Yet on the other hand, they also thought that the lack of polish on the "real kids" didn't befit the professionalism of Broadway. The Times thought that the eight extra actors meant to pad the vocals and visuals muddled the message of the original, 18 distinctive Runaways. Critics uptown bristled at the show's lack of a narrative thread.

When the Tony nominations arrived that season, Swados was nominated in four categories, and the show was nominated for Best Musical as well. It lost its prizes to Dancin', On The Twentieth Century and Ain't Misbehavin'.

 

4. Anna Russell's Little Show (1953)

Anna Russell was an English-Canadian singer and comedian, extremely popular for her parodist skills set to music. She sold out stages all over the world, appeared in opera houses, created best-selling albums and published books. Russell was a feminist ahead of her time: When asked once how to be a successful singer, she acknowledged that vocal skill was important but then noted, "It helps to be an independently wealthy, politically motivated, back-stabbing bitch." Anna Russell's Little Show was this firecracker female's singular foray onto Broadway, and in 1953, she hit the Vanderbilt Theatre for a short run.

Anna Russell's comedic style offended everyone from her parents to the patrons who protested her sold-out performances at Town Hall. Her humor was bawdy and she never pulled punches. She pounded beers during interviews. She wrote both music and lyrics and starred in this Little Show, which also featured dancers and pianists to back her up. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson admitted the show was professional but that he was exhausted by Anna's exuberance. As she skewered everyone from Cole Porter to Gilbert and Sullivan, Anna was wild and wicked and not everyone's taste — but for those who loved her, she occupied a place that no other comedian did, unique and unapologetic and altogether musical.

The Vanderbilt Theatre lasted for less than a year more after Anna Russell's Little Show closed. If you park your car in the parking garage next to the Cort Theatre on 48th Street, you are where Anna Russell once played.

 

5. Quilters (1984)

Quilters was the biggest hit in the history of Denver Center Theater Company, and it was also a huge hit at the Edinburgh Festival. When the show got to Broadway, in 1984 at the Jack Lawrence Theatre, it had the distinction of being the only Broadway musical in recent memory with book, music, and lyrics by women, based on a book by women, and with only females on stage.

The show, by Barbara Damashek and Molly Newman, told the tales of pioneer women of 19th century America. The true stories of the American frontier, from hoedowns to illnesses to traditions, were sewn into a musical patchwork of women's lives at the time. Quilters had the decidedly pro-female-empowerment tag line: The West wasn't won at the point of a gun. It was won at the point of a needle.

The Daily News review was so good that the production reprinted it as an advertisement, with the opening line: "Quilters is a gem of a mini-musical, an utterly disarming sewing circle of a musical. It is like a living lithograph of spirited 19th century American pioneer women from all over the country, joined by their common mastery of quilting."

But Frank Rich didn't feel that the show's patchwork style lent itself to the in-depth exploration that was needed of such a topic. "Though the evening's synthetic, candied brand of Americana may not carry anyone back to the lone prarie, it does arouse memories of the more aggressive gift shops in Colonial Williamsburg." And that was it. After 24 performances, Quilters was out. Much like Anna Russell's Little Show, three decades earlier, Quilters became one of the last few shows to play a Broadway theater on 48th Street that is no longer. The Jack Lawrence was unceremoniously demolished to make way for a large office building two shows later.

With its stories of sisterhood and celebration of the strength of women, all based on an important time in American history, Quilters is a popular choice for regional theatres and schools.

 

6. Birds of Paradise (1987)

Since this season Off-Broadway is bringing us Songbird, Chekhov's The Seagull transplanted to modern-day Nashville, with a score by Lauren Pritchard, it feels like an apropos time to remember Birds of Paradise — another Seagull-inspired Off-Broadway musical with a female writer. This show played Off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre in 1987 and featured lyrics by Winnie Holzman, who co-wrote the libretto with David Evans. He also wrote the music.

Birds of Paradise told the tale of a group of actors presenting a musical version of The Seagull, as their lives began to mirror parts of the story as well. Holzman wrote the show while a student at NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing department, and Arthur Laurents signed on to direct it while teaching there.

Birds of Paradise's cast included Todd Graff as the angsty would-be writer, Crista Moore as his unrequited love, Mary Beth Peil as his mother, John Cunningham as the star who blows into town, J.K. Simmons as his brother and Barbara Walsh, Donny Murphy and Andrew Hill Newman in supporting roles. What a cast!

The score is filled with the kind of yearning diffused with joy that Holzman would bring to later projects like Wicked and "My So-Called Life." "Coming True" is particularly worth listening to.

 

7. A Hero Is Born (1937)

A Hero Is Born was billed as "An Extravaganza," a genre of Broadway show that fell into disuse, at least in name, a few years after its premiere in 1937. The show had a book by Theresa Helburn and lyrics (and direction) by Agnes Morgan, which meant that all of the words heard on the Adelphi stage were written by women.

Today, Theresa Helburn is best known for her contributions to the Theatre Guild, where she produced dozens of shows, gave life to dozens of careers, and proved that theatre could be both commercial and artistic in the early half of the 20th century. But back in 1937, she was collaborating on the score for A Hero Is Born with a 27-year-old, pre-BMI workshop Lehman Engel.

The show was produced by the Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration, and it employed over 70 actors, not to mention all of the other theatre professionals behind the scenes needed to make this circus-like fairytale musical happen. Ticket prices ranged from 25 cents to $1.10.

No YouTube from 1937 unfortunately, but we can look at this and wonder what the show sounded like.

 

8. Oh, What A Lovely War (1964)

After experiencing all kinds of censorship throughout the 1940s in Britain, Joan Littlewood and her collaborators formed their own theatre collective: the Theatre Workshop. In Stratford, the Theatre Workshop premiered many productions which received acclaim and were toured all over the world. Joan's work had a social and political conscience, and her biggest hit was Oh, What A Lovely War, a musical statement about World War I. The show made her the first woman to ever be nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction of A Musical. (The next time a woman was nominated in this category wasn't until eight years later, in 1973 — for the next show we'll be talking about.)

Oh, What A Lovely War utilized facts and statistics about World War I alongside songs from the era, juxtaposed to satirize war and make audience laugh at its vulgarity and senselessness. The ensemble did research on different aspects of the conflict and also used improv to create the script. The show was very much an ensemble effort, although Joan's guidance and direction crafted the material into a powerful, cohesive anti-war statement.

 

9. Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope (1972)

Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope is one of the most significant hits in Broadway musical history that is disproportionately underappreciated today. The musical, with music and lyrics by Micki Grant, directed by Vinnette Carroll, ran for 1,065 performances from 1972-74. One of the reasons it is not as remembered as it should be today is that the cast recording was never issued on CD! This is long overdue.

Micki Grant and Vinnette Carroll are inarguably two of the most important black female artists in Broadway history. Micki Grant wrote forcefully and honestly about her experiences as a member of her race and gender in musicals including this one, Working, and Your Arms Too Short To Box With God. Vinnette Carroll became the first black woman to direct on Broadway with Don't Bother Me, and she founded the Urban Arts Corp to support black and Hispanic theaters, shows and artists.

Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope set the black experience to song, in a revue featuring eclectic musical styles. The musical explored religion, education, prejudice, life in the tenements, student protests, the intersectionality of the struggles for feminism and black power… and so much more. Cope gave a powerful voice to the black experience, and its message, focused on the absolute need for political change but altogether optimistic that it would happen, was the inspiring work of Grant and Carroll. Grant also appeared in the show, and a telling line she sang was: "There's so little time for hatred."

One particularly moving number found the cast chanting insistently: "They keep comin'!" over a series of black heroes and heroic acts being named.

"You think we can tote a barge? Well, we can
And perform open heart surgery
And sit on the Supreme Court
And invent shoe-lasting machines
And write books and plays
And sing Verdi and Puccini…
The Nat Turners
Sojourner Truths
The John Browns
The Dunbars
And the Wheatleys
And the Hansberrys
And the Hughes
The Harriet Tubmans
The Medgar Evers
They keep comin'!
You can stop a train from running
You can turn a stream aside
You can stop an army coming
But no man can stop the tide
They keep comin'."

 

10. Goblin Market (1985)

Goblin Market was written by Peggy Harmon and Polly Pen, based on the 1862 poem by Christina Rossetti. The story found two sisters, Laura (Terri Klausner) and Lizzie (Ann Morrison) in the swirling madness of a fantastical, terrifying world of goblins. The meanings of the poem have been long debated, with historians unsure whether Rossetti meant for an allegory of good and evil or a statement on Victorian sexuality and repression. Both were touched upon in the production at Circle in the Square and the Vineyard Theatre in 1985 and 1986. One thing was certain: since the show was written by women, with only women on stage, based on an original work by a woman, it represented the voices and ideas of females.

Fascinatingly, both Harmon and Pen were also working performers — as were Cryer and Ford — as was Micki Grant. A common thread in these female projects was an initial career as an actor. One might posit that this granted the artists a seat at the table, and once they had it, they used it to amplify their voice via other talents.

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