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Happy Women’s History Month, theatre-makers! This month and every month, make sure to celebrate the many women who make up the beautiful tapestry of the arts – from Broadway and movie stars to writers, producers, directors, makeup artists, poets, costume designers, tech wizards, and everything in between. To show our appreciation, we’ll take a quick look at the history of female representation in theatre, and offer a few women-centric Broadway shows to watch in your downtime.
Although it feels like women dominate present-day theatre, they were excluded for the greater part of history. Any surprises there?
Most believe theatre began in ancient Greece – with a bevy of comedies and tragedies surrounding heroines and goddesses. Of course, despite female characters being the driving force behind many stories, women were prohibited from being on the stage or helping behind it. For centuries, these heroines – and all female parts – were played by men.
In the sixteenth century, opera opened many doors for female performers – although they still faced discrimination and disdain for taking the stage. Many female soprano parts were even sung by men.
Enter William Shakespeare, who created some of the most dynamic and nuanced female characters. (Lady Macbeth, Rosalind, Juliet, anyone?) Although good old Bill Shakespeare made strides in elevating the concept of female characters, these roles were still played by men.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, during and after the Restoration, women were slowly but surely accepted into the world of performing arts. In Europe around this time, female playwrights finally received some recognition as well.
The 18th and 19th centuries made great strides in female representation in the theatre. The United States and Europe, in particular, became cultural meccas for the performing arts, with women at the helm of many showcases. Although gender discrimination is still prevalent today, it’s clear women are absolutely necessary to the success of the performing arts.
If you’re looking for a few musicals to celebrate girl power, or just to be amazed by the talent of dynamic women, we offer five musicals to stream or go see live:
Book: Winnie Holzman
Music and lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
With a book written by Winnie Wolzman, Wicked takes place before the wild happenings of the classic Wizard of Oz. Take a step back to see the origins of this world, where rivals (and friends) Elphaba and Galinda meet at school and change each other’s lives … for good. A story of owning your power, standing up for your beliefs, and learning to embrace those who are different from you, Wicked is a tale for the ages.
Book and music: Lucy Moss and Tony Marlow
You’ll hear the opener and be hooked: “Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived.” Six, a modern retelling of the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives, sees this sextet come together to perform a pop concert. Within the concert, audience members learn the harrowing stories of all six women – asking you to determine who among them suffered the most. Realizing that history shouldn’t be written by the abusive men in power, the women band together, take back their agency, and showcase true female camaraderie.
Book: Marsha Norman
Music and lyrics: Allee Willis, Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray
Based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel of the same name, The Color Purple follows Celie, a Black woman living in Georgia. Although her day-to-day life is bleak, Celie remains hopeful that she’ll one day see her sister, Nettie, and her children again. The musical spans 35 years, in which Celie meets new friends, encounters a potential lover, and even works to start a booming business. Resilience, hope, and love – that’s the story of The Color Purple.
Book: Dennis Kelly
Music and lyrics: Tim Minchin
Matilda – a precocious child with abusive parents – learns she has a variety of special powers alongside her impressive intellect. Often losing herself in books, Matilda has a tough time at school, spurred by the cruel headmaster, Miss Trunchbull. After finding companionship with her teacher, Miss Honey, Matilda learns how to harness her powers and, more importantly, stand up for herself and what she believes.
Book and lyrics: Tom Eyen
Music: Henry Krieger
Inspired by Motown and R&B legends of the 1960s-70s, Dreamgirls tracks the trajectory of all-girl vocal trio the Dreamettes. The three talented singers – Effie White, Deena Jones, and Lorrell Robinson – link up with manager Curtis Taylor, who helps them on their rise to fame. With so many demands – and changes to their creative timelines – the women wrestle with their friendships, egos, and hearts.
If you’re an avid theatre-goer or performer, you may already be familiar with some of these shows, and the many women who have left their mark on the industry. From groundbreaking playwrights like Lorraine Hansberry and Lynn Nottage to legendary performers like Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone, women have made an indelible impact on history and continue to inspire generations of young girls and women today.
Whether you’re looking for tips on how to improve your performances, guidance on putting together a showcase, or want to learn more about the rich history and influences of theatre, the On The Stage blog and resource library has a wealth of resources at your fingertips. By learning more about the diverse and powerful trailblazers who have helped shape our industry, we can all gain a deeper appreciation for their contributions and perhaps even find inspiration for our own creative endeavors.