Mama Rose, Julie Jordan and the Other Strong Female Roles of Musical Theatre
It is true that, for most of the history of the American Musical Theatre, Women have been given few opportunities to shine in the roles of book writer, composer, lyricist, director and choreographer. The restraining social mores of the times, married with a “boys club” mentality, kept women at bay and little was done to foster their creativity and involvement. That is not to say that there weren’t ground breakers over the years: Dorothy Fields was one of Broadway’s most enduring lyricists, her work often outshining many of her male counterparts in the field. Betty Comden maintained a very successful partnership with Adolph Green and together the two wrote the books and/or lyrics for many a Broadway hit. Agnes de Mille was an essential force in how dance evolved in musical theatre, especially in her groundbreaking ballets for musicals like Oklahoma!, Carousel, Bloomer Girl and Brigadoon. In general, however, it was the boys who were anointed the legacy of musical theatre, for decades and decades.
It was not until 1997 that these antiquated constructs began to crumble. Julie Taymor ushered in Disney’s The Lion King with a creative force of both director and puppeteer that resulted in one of the most artful, uniquely original Broadway musical pageants of all time. Lynn Ahrens may well-be one of theatre’s finest lyricists with her work on Once on this Island, Ragtime, A Man of No Importance, and several others. In recent years, we have seen Cyndi Lauper give us Tony-winning music and lyrics for Kinky Boots and, most-recently, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron were the first all-female musical theatre team behind the creation of the monumental Fun Home. Tesori has been doing riveting work for years with her contributions to Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline, or Change, Violet and Shrek. She has proven one of Broadway’s most valuable assets in recent decades, eclectic and uncompromising in her style and perspective.
Where women have never been given short-shrift of opportunity is in leading roles. Some of the greatest parts written for the Broadway musical canon have been strong, compelling roles for women. I would venture to say that there are many men working in the musical theatre who would give their eye-teeth to sink what’s left of their orthodontia into many of these characters. How these characters were written, with such charisma, great music, strength, wit and dignity, make it clear that the men who were “crowned” Broadway’s creators understood that women were often the more inspiring gender. From Julie LaVerne in Show Boat, Julie Jordan in Carousel, Mama Rose in Gypsy, Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! to Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Effie in Dreamgirls, and the title character in Caroline, or Change, not to mention Eva Peron in Evita, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, Bess in Porgy and Bess, Mame Dennis in Mame, Roxie and Velma in Chicago, Edies, Big and Little, in Grey Gardens, Anna in The King and I, Nellie in South Pacific, Maria in The Sound of Music, Celie in The Color Purple, Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, and just about any female role in Into the Woods, you get the general gist. This is only skimming the surface. I would be hard-pressed to name a dozen musical theatre roles as equally exciting for men. Harold Hill, Sweeney Todd, Georges Seurat, Jean Valjean, Pseudolus come to mind, and maybe a handful of others. But let’s be honest, it’s those women’s roles that we covet and revere.
It is exciting that opportunities are opening up for women to shape musical theatre’s future. The sky is the limit, really, as the world is starting to acknowledge the egregious omission of 50% of its voice. The talent and interest were always there, they just remained primarily untapped. Isn’t it exciting to think about the great roles to come, roles that will be given a new complexity and fresh perspective as they are shaped by the hands and minds of women? Their claiming of the art form for ALL people can only serve to inject musical theatre with a new life and a rich vitality as it continues dauntlessly into the future.