the one who made it out - a playlist highlighting the talents of women of color in musical theatre
aquarius - hair // america - west side story // waiting for life - once on this island // breathe - in the heights // i speak six languages - the 25th annual putnam county spelling bee // prologue / little shop of horrors - little shop of horrors // that’s rich - newsies // we ain’t no cheerleaders - bring it on // eleven days - here lies love // helpless - hamilton // satisfied - hamilton // 911! emergency - bare: a pop opera // we’re okay - rent // the dark i know well - spring awakening // learn your lessons well - godspell // simple joys - pippin // the witch - big fish // i wonder where our love has gone - lady day at emerson’s bare and grill // sal tlay ka siti - the book of mormon // something wonderful - the king and i // i loves you, porgy - porgy and bess // it won’t be long now - in the heights // out tonight - rent // letterbomb - american idiot // the party goes with you - 35mm: a musical exhibition // i got four kids - caroline or change // where you are - kiss of the spider woman // by my side - godspell // your daddy’s son - ragtime // colored woman - memphis //
Born in South Carolina, Viola Davis grew up in Rhode Island, where she began acting—first in high school, and then at Rhode Island College. After attending the Juilliard School of Performing Arts, Davis soon made her Broadway debut in 1996. She won her first Tony Award in 2001, and was nominated for an Oscar in 2008 for Doubt. In 2011, Davis starred in the hit dramatic film The Help. She has also appeared in Ender’s Game (2013) and Get on Up (2014). In 2014, Davis returned to television in the mystery series How to Get Away with Murder, and the following year became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her work on the show.
Broadway roles for women, stunning, full and ageless
By Linda Winer, for Newsday
This is not another Women’s History Month lament over the scarcity of work for women in the theater. I’m not going to report the latest statistics — improving ever-so-slightly but still dismaying — about the lack of opportunity for women playwrights, directors, dramatic actresses, even critics in this world we like to idealize as open-minded and free of predictable prejudice.
This is the opposite of that, a story about a chunk of theater where women are the story. I can’t believe I never realized this before now.
In musical theater, actresses rule. And they have at least since Ethel Merman and Mary Martin in the so-called golden-age of American musicals.
Throughout recent history, male playwrights — except for Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and a few others — have mostly presented the world through the eyes of male lead characters. But in musicals, women are elevated as dynamic central characters, swirling with theatricality and challenge. The artists who portray them are frequently adored, idolized, called by their first names (Patti, Bernadette, Kelli) and matched up against one another in theoretical diva-smackdowns by fans and Tony voters.
This oasis of richness may have been obvious to everyone except me. If so, I somehow missed it. I stumbled over the reality while marveling at the women I’ve been looking forward to seeing in many shows this spring.
Laura Benanti just knocked me out in the revival of “She Loves Me,” which opened last week. Jessie Mueller, relatively unknown here until her 2014 Tony-winning breakout in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” opens April 24 as the star of “Waitress,” based on the 2007 movie. As long as we’re keeping count, her show is staged by Diane Paulus, the only woman directing a musical this season.
Carolee Carmello, revered in theater circles for her singular voice and intelligence but not yet identified by the mainstream, plays the domineering mother in “Tuck Everlasting,” based on the 1975 novel and 2002 movie, opening April 26.
And then comes Audra McDonald, who tilts the scales with six Tonys and opens April 28 in “Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.” The much-anticipated premiere is a musical about the making and the impact of that historic black show.
It seems I’m not the only one who never noticed the robust reality for musical actresses. Mueller, on break during the tech rehearsal for “Waitress,” surprised me by being surprised by my observation.
“I never thought of that before,” she said in a phone call from her dressing room, then promptly agreed. “But that’s ridiculously correct!”
Unlike Hollywood, where young women are notoriously stamped with a sell-by date, musicals have characters that need women throughout their careers. I love this about theater. And the Hamlets for women are in musicals. Angela Lansbury was 84 when she played Madame Armfeldt in the 2009 revival of “A Little Night Music.” Elaine Stritch, also 84, succeeded her. Barbara Cook, last on Broadway in the 2010 “Sondheim on Sondheim,” will be 88 when she opens “Barbara Cook: Then and Now,” her new solo show, Off-Broadway May 4.
“There are so many wonderful, meaty roles for women into any age range,” said Mueller with appropriate gratitude. “Musical theater taps into something very powerful — women gaining self-understanding, overcoming things in spite of their circumstances … Maybe it’s even better when we sing about it.”
Compared to the insecurity inherent in almost all other young theater careers, it must be almost reassuring to be a girl who, if gifted and lucky enough, can see a path into musical theater, one with living, working role models and vibrant roles already beckoning. Mueller says she has always thought about playing Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” or Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.” Now that she has worked on new musicals, however, she doesn’t think so much about dream roles in revivals.
“I learn more and more that I don’t know how I will feel when I get ready to play them,” she said. “Maybe they won’t be my dream roles by then.”
This is not false confidence about the options for actresses in new and existing repertory. Let’s look back a year or two at the women nominated for the best-actress in a musical Tony. Last year, Kelli O’Hara, who won for the revival of “The King and I,” was up against such powerhouses as Kristin Chenoweth for the revival of “On the Twentieth Century” and Chita Rivera, then 82, for the Broadway premiere of “The Visit.” The previous year, when Mueller won for “Beautiful,” she competed with the likes of Sutton Foster in “Violet,” Idina Menzel in “If/Then” and O’Hara again, this time in “The Bridges of Madison County” — all major performances in new (or newish) shows.
O’Hara, who ends her splendid run as Anna in “King and I” on April 17, agrees that women have been in the forefront of many musicals. “Yet as a woman in musical theater,” she said, adding a note of reality to the picture in a recent phone interview, “it’s a funny question. What kind of woman we’re playing also depends on what light you want women to be seen in … Our job is to make these women as full and as realistic women as we can.” She admits that the picture is “not always on the page,” then hurries to make sure we know she doesn’t mean that about her character in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. “Anna is a great woman, very strong, very smart,” she says, then adds ruefully, “But girls see Mary Martin and Julie Andrews and say, ‘I want to be just like them.’ Then you read about these people’s lives and think, ‘Oh, my, what were they really going through to keep this up?’ Yes, women do get to be in a leadership role, but sometimes what we have to play is not always easy.”
“Fun Home,” last year’s marvelous Tony winner for best musical, made history by having a woman composer (Jeanine Tesori) and a woman book writer (Lisa Kron) who based the show on material by a woman graphic novelist (Alison Bechdel).
And yet, in this one area, women actually have not had to wait for other women to create grand — or at least oversized — parts for them. Jerry Herman has given them “Mame” and “Hello Dolly” — to be starring Bette Midler next spring. Sondheim may put the guys at the center in “Company” and “Sweeney Todd,” but look at the surrounding characters and the possibilities in “Follies,” “Night Music,” Dot in “Sunday in the Park With George.” When Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote about young — and older — lovers, they wrote with equal power about both of them.
I don’t mean to slight wonderful men as stars of musical theater. Historically, we had Yul Brynner, Robert Preston, Zero Mostel, Jerry Orbach. Now we celebrate Michael Cerveris, Marc Kudisch, Brian Stokes Mitchell. But Mandy Patinkin hasn’t done a major musical in years, Alan Cumming only does “Cabaret” and Hugh Jackman isn’t around enough to count.
But I don’t hear fans squabbling over Cerveris’ low notes versus those of Kudisch. The men just don’t seem to bring out the passion that way.
This season, only two new musicals are dominated by men — a little show called “Hamilton” (don’t write mean emails, I know the women are terrific, too) and “American Psycho.” Compare that to the women-driven “Color Purple,” introducing Broadway to Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks, and “On Your Feet!,” with newcomer Ana Villafañe as Gloria Estefan and Andrea Burns as her mother.
If declaring golden ages weren’t such a cliché, it would seem right to crown one for musical-theater actresses. Let’s do it anyway.