Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Little Women?: The 2009-2010 Season Debate

Let me say upfront that if any of what I am about to write comes across as sexist or misogynistic, that is not my intent at all.

Lately, I’ve read several articles, blogs and other various postings that lament the “dearth of roles for women” during the 2009 – 2010 Broadway season. After reading Patrick Healy’s recent New York Times article which attempts to explain why this is the case, I have to respond.

Alice Ripley, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole

Why does the first season in many years that does not feature a woman in a tour de force role (i.e. super bitch, wild eccentric, mentally imbalanced) suddenly signal a depression in roles for women? The Times article itself even cites the overall trend – Ebersole in Grey Gardens, LuPone in Gypsy, Ripley in next to normal. And we could go much further back in musicals in just this century: Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Chenoweth and Menzel in Wicked, Winokur in Hairspray, LuPone in Sweeney Todd, Bundy in Legally Blonde, all three of the women in 9 to 5. And that’s just leading roles… none of the female characters in Avenue Q’s ensemble are weak; neither are Madame Morrible, Velma van Tussel, Amber van Tussel, Mrs. Meers.

Tanya, Donna and Rosie of Mamma Mia!

And what about other long-running shows? There are 6 strong women in Mamma Mia (can you say that their 6 male counterparts are strong?). Then there’s Roxie and Velma over at Chicago, Nellie and Bloody Mary in South Pacific, Anita and Maria in West Side Story, Mrs. Wilkinson in Billy Elliot, Mary in Mary Poppins, and any of the females in In the Heights.

Montego Glover, Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones

And just because no one plays a bombastic, over the top role this season doesn’t mean these women are weak: Montego Glover’s Felicia is a strong, brave woman. There is nothing weak about either Catherine Zeta-Jones or Angela Lansbury, (or any female role for that matter) either as actresses or their roles, in A Little Night Music. And even though I didn’t care for it, I never thought Everyday Rapture made Sherie Rene Scott look like less than the independent, strong woman she is. And the last thing you could say about any of the 3 primary females in American Idiot is that they are weak, male dependent, or that the ladies playing them are anything short of totally giving it their all. Just because a woman has a man in her life doesn’t make her totally dependent on him or in any way weak, in real life or on stage.

(In keeping with the party line at the Times, Healy’s article has: The Addams Family getting another dig, claiming Morticia is a second fiddle to Gomez, the women of Come Fly Away – all strong – aren’t even mentioned, and neither are Zeta-Jones or Lansbury, because Brantley didn’t like Night Music.)

So, while article after article talks about the race for Best Actor in a Play, and everyone praises the depth and breadth of roles for men in both plays and musicals, let’s not get carried away. The main reason it sticks out so much this season is because each nominee for Lead Actor in a Play is also a movie/TV star. Pointing that out, also, by the way, diminishes the fact that they are excellent actors. Why? Because inevitably, the minute their “star status” is mentioned, so too is the whole “stars sell tickets” argument. Couldn’t it be that this year they are superb actors on stage that also happen to have successful film careers? And why are there fewer female film stars willing to take the plunge on Broadway? Because for every Scarlett Johanson, there is a Sienna Miller, Julia Roberts (Oscar winner), Susan Sarandan (Oscar winner) and Katie Holmes. Why risk it when you stand a better chance of being summarily dismissed?

The Scottsboro Boys and Yank!

You’d have to go back to 2001 to find a season where the most lauded musicals – The Producers, A Class Act and The Full Monty - featured tour de force male performances, not female ones. Of course, the upcoming season will likely add more fuel to this fire. Because so far, exactly two announced musicals – Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and the already critically dismissed Sister Act (if it even comes in) feature strong women in leading roles. On the other hand, there are Catch Me if You Can (2 juicy male roles), Leap of Faith (1), Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (3), Zorba (1), Unchain My Heart (1), The Scottsboro Boys (no females in the cast), Spider-Man (2), Love Never Dies (2), The Book of Mormon, How to Succeed… (2), and Yank! (only one woman in the cast).

"Mr. Cellophane" and "Three Possible Dads"

Of course, I could also counter that this season, there are a surprisingly high number of weak male characters, and that the leftovers from other seasons are even worse. Where is the article lamenting the enormous number of weak men in shows? Huey is a mama’s boy in Memphis; it takes a woman and a stronger son to turn around Dad in Billy Elliot; it takes a crisis of conscience and three very aggressive women to set the men of Mamma Mia straight. Then there’s Amos in Chicago, and both Dan and Herbie get drowned by the estrogen waves in next to normal and Gypsy. Let’s face it. There aren’t any particularly strong men on the musical stage, either.

And don’t get me started on the argument in the Times article that says that women might be shying away from these huge roles because they are mothers. If I were a mother I’d be very insulted by that. And I would be equally furious if I were a father on Broadway – the implication being that these fathers work regardless of any child raising responsibilities. Hmmm let’s ask Gregory Jbara, Terrence Mann, J. Robert Spencer, Anthony LaPaglia and any number of dads currently trodding the boards how many times they’ve given up jobs or rearranged schedules because they have father responsibilities.  It is called parenting, a burden shared by both parties, ideally.

Nathan Lane in The Addams Family, with diva-to-be Krysta Rodriguez

The first decade of the 21st century has truly been the age of the diva on Broadway. You are telling me women have a complaint, at least in musical theatre terms, when the last show that featured a breakout male role was The Producers? That was 10 seasons ago. Can you name a huge male Broadway star from the last 10 years? I can name one. Nathan Lane. Can you name a huge female Broadway star from the last 10 years? Sutton Foster, Alice Ripley, Christine Ebersole, the resurgence of Patti LuPone and Angela Lansbury, Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, up and comers like Lea Michele, Laura Bell Bundy, Marissa Winokur, Kerry Butler…

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