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The Editor’s View: There’s no excuse for the dire lack of musicals written by women

The cast of Mamma Mia! Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg The cast of Mamma Mia! Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
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In 2012, Elizabeth Freestone (then artistic director of Pentabus) and the Guardian produced a fascinating piece of research that revealed that men outnumbered women by around 2:1 in England’s subsidised theatres.

Looking at the 10 best-funded theatres in England, they discovered that from boards to artistic directors to creative teams to performers there were, on average, two men for every woman in senior roles.

When it came to writers, women had written 35% of the new plays being produced and that figure appeared to be increasing, with 41% of the plays commissioned but not yet produced by those same 10 theatres by women playwrights. At the time, the imbalance was partly explained by the historic dominance of Shakespeare in British theatre.

But this excellent piece of research did not look into commercial musical theatre – the single most popular genre of theatre in the UK. It has the biggest audience reach, the highest box office and offers the best pay for creatives. It is bigger, even, than Shakespeare.

Here, according to The Stage’s survey, the representation of women is far worse than in Freestone’s research. Instead of 2:1, the ratio in West End musicals appears to be 9:1 in the past 10 years – a situation Mamma Mia! writer Catherine Johnson calls “gobsmacking”.

To make matters worse, there seems to be little sign of improvement. In 2014, not a single new musical credited a woman on the writing team. No book writer, lyricist or composer.

When accusations of under-representation have been levelled against the paucity of female directors of big-budget Hollywood films, the common excuse has been that Hollywood is targeting these films at young men.

That is categorically not the case for West End musicals. The last demographic data published by the Society of London Theatre revealed that in 2008 about 68% of theatregoers were women.

But even when new musicals appear to target a female audience, a male-heavy writing team is used: for example on The Girls, the recent musical adaptation of Calendar Girls.

While our research focused on gender, a brief glance through the writers reveals that West End musical theatre is, as Kath Gotts observes, “an almost exclusively white, male, closed shop”.

And as we’re talking musicals, we don’t even have Shakespeare to shoulder the blame.

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk

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