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Why is there such a paucity of female writers in musical theatre?

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I’ve been seeing a slew of new musicals and revivals recently, including in the last week alone Here Lies Love, The Infidel and Gypsy, while the previous week brought Urinetown back to town. We’ve also recently had Evita return and on the fringe there’s currently Damn Yankees and Love Story.

Meanwhile, the next week brings Memphis and The Scottsboro Boys to the West End, plus a side trip for me to Broadway for the premiere of The Last Ship and a revival of On the Town there, then Sunny Afternoon and Made in Dagenham immediately after I get back. Before the year is out, there will also be major revivals in London of Cats, City of Angels and the British premiere of Broadway’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

[pullquote]With one exception, all these shows are written by men[/pullquote]

What do all of these shows have in common? With the single exception of Betty Comden, who co-wrote the book and lyrics to On the Town in 1944, every single one of these shows is written by an all-male team – even, in the case of the 1959 Gypsy, 2010’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or this year’s Made in Dagenham for stories that mainly revolve around women.

People often complain, rightly, of the under-representation of women amongst the plays that are being produced on our main stages, though this is partly being addressed at places like the National, where Nick Hytner writes in the 2013/14 annual report:

Over the last 10 years the number of women writing plays for the National has gradually risen, and both this year and last year there have been more new plays at the National by women than by men (19 out of 32), so it is a belated relief to know that the dominance of male playwrights is over.

But when it comes to musical theatre, it seems the position is very different. In fact, of all of the shows mentioned above, only The Scottsboro Boys, City of Angels and Love Story are being directed by women (respectively Susan Stroman, Josie Rourke and Sasha Regan), so men dominate in the directorial stakes, too.

Yet it is often remarked that women are more interested in, and certainly see, more theatre than men do: in the annual survey of the demographics of the Broadway Audience, published by the Broadway League, for the 2012/13 season it was found that a whopping 68% of the audiences were female.

And yet, it seems, the shows they are seeing are mainly being written and directed by men, even when they are stories about – and, given that those survey results, largely for – women. There’s something wrong this with picture.

No wonder director Phyllida Lloyd, whose all-female production of Henry IV opened at the Donmar Warehouse last week, recently told The Times (links to paid content):

Since Julius Caesar I’ve tried to think, ‘I’m not going to do anything unless at least 50 per cent of what’s happening on the stage or screen is a woman’s experience.’ Of course there’ll be Rubicons to be crossed having made that pledge, but that’s the audience: 50/50. If you’re repeatedly reinforcing presentation of stories in which women are at the margins it just doesn’t help.

The composer Georgia Stitt is coming to London’s Garrick Theatre next week to showcase some of her recent work – following in the footsteps of her fellow composer husband Jason Robert Brown who has also played one of his many London dates there – and she tells me she’s involved in the Lilly Awards Foundation (named in honour of Lillian Hellman), who next month will be presenting the Lilly Awards Broadway Cabaret at New York’s Birdland on November 10, to showcase the work of women composers and lyricists like Carol Hall, Grethen Cryer, Nancy Ford, Amanda Green and Lucy Simon, all of whom have had shows on Broadway.

Stitt says:

There’s a big group of us, but we’re still a minority and a novelty. One of the things we’re working with in the Lilly Foundation is to examine why that is – are women not creating work at the same level or frequency as men, or not submitting their work, or not being showcased in the same way? We are looking at theatres across the country to examine how many productions are being produced of work by women, and how far we are from gender parity. You wouldn’t dream of doing a show with entirely white playwrights, actors or directors nowadays. That would feel unbalanced and discriminatory. But people don’t think of gender in the same way.

She quickly adds, though, “The flip side of the coin is that you don’t want people to do work just because it’s by a woman. The work needs to able to hold its own.”

An Evening with Georgia Stitt and Friends is at the Garrick Theatre on October 26

Read more columns from Mark Shenton

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