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Victoria Saxton: Where are the women who write musical theatre?

The cast of Fun Home, written by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori. Photo: Joan Marcus The cast of Fun Home, written by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori. Photo: Joan Marcus
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In October 2014, critic Mark Shenton wrote an article for The Stage in which he asked why there was such a paucity of female writers in musical theatre.

For me, Shenton’s article was a call to arms. Gender inequality in theatre is a hot topic. Yet, in the many conversations, articles, conferences and statistics highlighting the gender imbalance facing women in theatre today, musical theatre is often ignored. More specifically, the issue of women writing musical theatre is often ignored. The moment I finished reading Shenton’s article, I sent it to every female composer, lyricist and librettist I knew.

One of these writers was Jenifer Toksvig. Toksvig set up a Facebook group as a place for us to connect and to see how many female musical theatre writers might be out there. As of May 2015, Women Who Write Musicals has more than 300 members from across the globe. The only criteria for membership are that you are female and you write musicals. In June 2015, we will be holding our first event, Tiny Shows, in association with the So and So Arts Club in London.

The speed at which Women Who Write Musicals has grown demonstrates that there are, in fact, many emerging female musical theatre writers. They simply lack a platform. Furthermore, it suggests that the question should not be ‘Where are the women who write musical theatre?’ but instead ‘Why haven’t you heard of those who do?’

I am a librettist and lyricist who trained at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts under an array of incredible female mentors and teachers such as Sybille Pearson (who wrote Baby), Polly Penn (Bed and Sofa), Mindi Dickstein (Little Women) and Rachel Sheinkin (Spelling Bee). The programme itself is run by Sarah Schlesinger, herself an award-winning librettist and lyricist.

The average person in the street would struggle to name a famous female musical theatre writer

Historically, aspiring female writers looking for role models and mentors have had a harder time. That’s not to forget or negate the pioneering work done by the likes of Betty Comden, who won numerous Tony Awards for shows such as Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town – currently playing to rave reviews on Broadway. Nor should Dorothy Fields (Annie Get your Gun, Sweet Charity) and Mary Rodgers (Once Upon a Mattress) be overlooked. But if you ask the average person in the street to name a famous female musical theatre writer, I wager they’ll struggle.

But the landscape is shifting. In 2013, Cyndi Lauper became the first female to win a Tony Award for best original score without a male writing partner. This year, both Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron are nominated for their groundbreaking musical Fun Home. If they win, they’ll be the first all-female team to win for best original score. The last time two women were even nominated was back in 1991, when Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman got the nod for The Secret Garden.

On Broadway, then, history is being made. As Shoshana Greenberg points out in her article Keeping Score, “For the first time in history, three female composers have written a musical score in a single Broadway season.”

Tesori is no stranger to Broadway. Her musicals Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline, or Change and Violet have been pioneering. Alongside writers such as Lynn Ahrens, Winnie Holzman, Marsha Norman and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (of Frozen fame), Tesori demonstrates it is possible for a woman to forge a successful career writing musical theatre.

In New York, there is a clear movement to champion the work of female writers, from new websites such as The Interval, which profiles female writers to the Lilly Awards Foundation (composer Georgia Stitt is on the board) and venues such as Prospect Theatre which recently held a gala to celebrate women making musical theatre.

In the UK, the statistics don’t paint a pretty picture

So, how and what are we doing in London? The statistics I could find don’t paint a pretty picture. Only a quarter of the nominees for the Olivier awards for best new musical and best musical revival over the past two years have had either female creative or writing teams. Since 1979, there have only been 20 new musicals nominated for the Olivier Awards that include a woman in the writing team, and only four of these have won. As Rachel Bellman of Pitch Perfect points out, “All four were co-authored by at least one man and all four originated in America.”

In February, I became executive director of Mercury Musical Developments, a membership organisation dedicated to developing new musical theatre writing. In partnership with Musical Theatre Network we are part of Arts Council England’s national portfolio. MTN is run by the dynamic Caroline Routh and chaired by Jodi Myers. MMD’s chairwoman is renowned musical theatre agent Caroline Underwood. Yes, we are all women.

It was, therefore, something of a shock to discover that only 29% of MMD’s 400 members are women. These numbers, however, do not match what I see happening around me. At our masterclasses, an equal – if not greater – number of women attend. Out of the three finalists for the 2014 S and S Award for best new musical, two were all-female writing teams and the 2013 winning show, Forest Boy, was composed by Claire McKenzie. Out of the 23 songs shortlisted for 2015, Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Award 11 were written by women.

In the UK alone, I know many talented female musical theatre writers: Sue Pearse, Rebecca Applin, Ella Grace, Christine Denniston, Jennifer Green, Caroline Wigmore, Pippa Cleary, Jenifer Toskvig, Claire McKenzie and Jennifer Lee for a start. So perhaps the relatively low number of female MMD members reflects the fact that emerging female writers in the UK don’t have the role models, as they do across the pond, to convince them that writing musicals is a viable career option?

When I wrote my first musical, aged 17, a friend said to me, “This is just a hobby, right?” I was too embarrassed to argue. Now, however, I would have no such qualms. MMD plans to lead the way in providing the support networks needed to nurture female musical theatre writers. I hope that in the next year we will be able to partner with venues to produce cabaret and gala events similar to those happening regularly in New York, to showcase both emerging and existing female musical theatre writers.

Indeed, I am optimistic about the future. The new musical theatre I see being created (albeit mostly fringe work) doesn’t reflect the depressing statistics frequently touted about the gender inequality facing women in theatre. In large part, this is due to an exciting emergence of female producers, directors and artistic directors with a passion for making musicals. From the hugely successful Sonia Friedman (who recently announced a commitment to commission 15 new musicals over the next five years) to Danielle Tarento and Katy Lipson, to Josie Rourke, Maria Friedman, to up-and-coming directors Lotte Wakeham and Kate Golledge. Writer Teressa Howard (who is an MMD board member) believes that “it’s no accident that the two shows I currently have in development have female producers.”

As lyricist Mindi Dickstein said to me, “My personal hope is that we can get to a place where it stops being a question. Where parity just is. Women, like all artists, must make good work and pursue every opportunity to be heard and seen.” Perhaps, then, the real question is not even “Why haven’t you heard of us?” but “When will this stop being a question at all?” Ladies, it’s time to be heard. My name is Victoria Saxton, and I am a woman who writes musicals.

Victoria Saxton is executive director of Mercury Musical Developments

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