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Mark Shenton: Where are the women writing musicals?

Kinky Boots. Photo: Matt Crockett
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Changes don’t happen overnight, but some things are slower to change than others. It wasn’t until 2008 that the first new play by a living female writer was staged at the National’s Olivier Theatre, when Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin was premiered there. The theatre’s then-artistic director Nick Hytner was quoted in the Observer at the time remarking that of the 1,000-plus unsolicited plays he receives every year, only 20% are by women.

Last year, Hytner’s successor Rufus Norris announced the hope that “by 2021, we get to a stage with directors and living writers where we have a 50:50 gender balance. There are a lot of women playwrights and women directors coming through, so it’s our responsibility to encourage that and reap the benefits.”

In other words, if there is a will to change, it can happen. And the National Theatre has a special responsibility, as the most subsidised theatre in the country, to lead from the front. But the more commercially driven world of musical theatre still lags far behind.

Though Broadway has in recent years seen some major musicals arrive that have included a couple with all-female writing teams (Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s Fun Home and Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson’s Waitress) as well as the Cyndi Lauper-scored Kinky Boots, this year’s bumper crop of 14 new musicals on Broadway have only had writing contributions from women on two of them: Come from Away, with book, music and lyrics co-written by Irene Sankoff with her husband David Hein; and Anastasia, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens to music by Stephen Flaherty, her long-time writing partner.

In London, where there are far fewer new musicals being produced in the first place, the opportunities are even further between: a grand total of two new musicals reached the West End last year, and neither had a woman writer – even, surprisingly, with a show such as The Girls, which tells a specifically female story, the composer who joined original writer Tim Firth was his childhood buddy (and pop name) Gary Barlow. This title might have seemed a natural for female involvement at a major creative level, yet the sole woman on the billing was Lizzi Gee for musical staging.

The Stage has analysed West End musicals produced over the past decade, and found a startling underrepresentation of women. Compared with 88 musicals with an all-male writing team, only three musicals had an all-female team (and all three of them were flops: Bad Girls the Musical; Gone with the Wind; and Viva Forever!). Five musicals out of 118 had a female composer who wrote the entire score; more than eight out of 10 musicals had a book written entirely by men; only one musical has the entire score created by a British female composer.

I’ve previously spoken about the issue to women who write musicals, such as Lucy Simon (The Secret Garden, premiered on Broadway in 1991), who told me last year: “When The Secret Garden first opened, I was the third woman who had ever had a Broadway musical produced. It was very rare for a female team to be allowed in – and even now, though female directors, book writers and lyricists are allowed in, there are still very few female composers. Part of that, I think, is that women are still perceived as soft and not really commercial.”

In 2014, Georgia Stitt – a composer who is always defined, it seems, by reference to her marriage to the more prolific Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown, yet is an important voice in her own right – told me of her work with the Lilly Awards Foundation, which aims to showcase the work of women composers and lyricists.

As she stated: “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.”

Yet she also concluded: “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.”

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