In Broadway’s most recent years, theatrical masters have birthed global phenomena, debuted Broadway’s first a cappella musical, re-defined the Disney princess story, penned battle cries, revolutionized the audience experience (hello, drinks at your seats), moved emotional mountains, and pioneered design breakthroughs.
Producer Stacey Mindich, composer-lyricist Kristen-Anderson Lopez, choreographer Kelly Devine, actor Eva Noblezada, writer and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, lighting designer Natasha Katz, production stage manager Jennifer Rae Moore, costume designer Paloma Young, director Tina Landau, and scenic designer Christine Jones have innovated the art form.
Collectively, these storytellers are responsible for the tales we flock to, the messages that change our minds, and the characters who live within us, and (with the exception of Noblezada) they do it all without stepping onstage. They are the invisible army of Broadway—and they’re all women.
But it wasn’t always the case that women comprised so many of Broadway’s visionaries. Men have long been the most lauded (and loud) creative voices in the theatre—and to a certain degree they still are. Women are still vastly underrepresented in creative leadership positions on Broadway. Of the 30 plays and musicals that opened this season, seven—roughly 20 percent—boast a female director. Still, there has been noticeable progress.
Today, more and more women populate this upper echelon of Broadway storytellers. “It’s very rare now that I’m the only woman at the table,” says Jones, who this season re-built the Lyric Theatre for her design of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two. “I don’t think we’re quite at the point where we don’t need to talk about it, [but] I think we’ve made a lot of progress.”
“Christine is doing the biggest play that’s ever hit Broadway,” interjects Katz, whose lighting is featured this season in Springsteen on Broadway, Meteor Shower, and Frozen. “Honestly, I think ten years ago, that never would have happened.”
“I will say there is definitely a difference in the amount of rooms I walk into these days where I feel like: Who runs the world? Girls,” says this season’s SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical director Landau.
Step one towards becoming a leader at the proverbial table “is knowing you can be one,” Anderson-Lopez adds. Still, none of these women became industry game-changers overnight. What led them to the top of their field was the opportunity to work and the freedom in that work to find their artistic voice.
Landau discovered her creative sensibility once Steppenwolf Theater made her a member of the resident company. “Until that happened there was always some degree where you don’t know if you’re going to get hired again,” she says. The vote of confidence from a major theatrical force allowed Landau flexibility and a chance to take risks. “That very internalized voice that said, ‘You better not screw up’ went away because [the gesture] said to me, ‘You can screw up and that’s part of the process.’”
Devine embraced that experimental spirit as she gained résumé credits and years in the business. “I’m at an age, finally, where I’m not afraid to put something out, try it, if it doesn’t work I will scrap the whole thing and start over,” says the choreographer, whose Escape to Margaritaville hit Broadway this spring.
The freedom to make mistakes is crucial, especially if we expect artists to innovate. “I see young men be given large opportunities and screw up all the time—which I think is great,” adds Young, who designed costumes for this year’s Time and the Conways and Lobby Hero. “But women are not allowed to screw up.” Yet, historically, room for error and the chance to create daring work has led to genre-defining theatre—as it did with the likes of Elizabeth Swados’ Runaways, Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s The Secret Garden, Julie Taymor’s The Lion King, Diane Paulus’ re-imagining of Pippin, Paula Vogel’s Indecent, the list goes on.
But a careful cocktail of opportunity and freedom is not enough. As a culture, we often condition women to come from a place of self-doubt rather than self-confidence.
“I think there was a period of time when I would start every sentence with ‘I don’t know anything about music but…’ or ‘I don’t know anything about lighting but there’s a shadow…’” Once on This Island writer-lyricist Ahrens adds. “At a certain point somebody actually said to me, ‘Don’t say that anymore. You know a lot about a lot. Just don’t qualify everything.’ That was the only time I thought to myself that I was behaving differently than the men who were filled with confidence and filled with ideas.”
“It’s about owning your expertise, owning your voice and your perspective as one that should be heard in the room,” says Anderson-Lopez.
And once they own it, that point of view infuses the work for the better. As Broadway newcomer and award-winning writer Tina Fey said at the first-ever Women’s Day on Broadway: parity is about changing the chemistry of the room. The more varied the people around the table, the more perspectives contribute to crafting a narrative and its realm, which results in more layered, complexed, and nuanced theatre.
“Creative teams are realizing, not only do they need to have women on their teams, they really need to seek out the input of those women,” says Young. “When I see theatre that I don’t feel like a woman has had input, I feel it.”
Fortunately, a new active unity among women in the industry—“an invigorated sisterhood” as Mindich put it—signified by the mere advent of Women’s Day on Broadway, has become a distinguisher of this moment.
“The army of women, it’s powerful, it’s sexy, it’s graceful. It’s just full of confidence—and just for each other,” says Miss Saigon Tony nominee Noblezada. “A group of shared empathy.”
Noblezada hopes that the community embraces this change, rather than resists it. “I hope and pray that people will realize that when people are uncomfortable with the shift in balance, it’s because there’s a shift in balance,” she says. But these growing pains are a necessity, not a trend.
“We’re getting a chance to say all the things we’ve always been saying but no one was really listening,” says Young. “It feels like a lot of people are listening and paying attention. By people, I mean men. So the more we can put out for them to see and learn, the better.”
The necessity for allies in this situation cannot be understated, and perhaps the public presence of those allies also differentiates this moment from previous almost-revolutions. “It felt like the whole world was changing in the ’70s, we were never going to have this dialogue again,” says Katz. “But here it is happening all over again.” Now, “it’s an ongoing conversation with all of the men I work with,” says Devine. “They are very aware there has been a shift and there is a movement happening and they are working very hard to let go of preconceived attitudes or thought processes or ways of behavior that might not be appropriate now.”
In addition to allies, reformation on Broadway requires leaders, and these ten women embrace their status as emblems of the movement.
“I used to be really annoyed when people referred to me as a woman writer,” Ahrens admits. “I would say, ‘Why do they call me a woman writer? I’m a writer. I don’t understand it.’ Now I take it as a badge of honor in the current climate where women are really stepping up and speaking out and taking their rightful place in every industry, in every way.”
“This is the chapter that will get us to—hopefully—the day when we will no longer need to put that adjective before the noun,” Landau.
For now, the invigorated sisterhood accepts their distinctive female label, subverting its use as an exclusionary qualifier and using it as a weapon for progress. And these leaders already notice the effect.
“I feel the change not so much for myself but for younger writers who I mentor,” says Ahrens. “I call them my trailing robe of young women.”
Such mentorship is a crucial piece of sustaining the line of succession for women in theatre. “I’ve always believed that this community needs more mentors and that it is actually the job of the producer to be a mentor for the whole family that she builds,” says Mindich. “We need to be starting with young people, making sure they have the opportunities at a very early age.”
Mindich and her comrades emphasize the need to consciously consider equality not just in mentorship, but in hiring practices across capacities in the theatre. Though her Dear Evan Hansen credits an all-male core creative team (writer, director, composer-lyricists) the people running her show on a daily basis—her general manager, her production stage manager, her associate director, her press team, her digital marketing team—are all female. Moore, the production stage manager of this spring’s My Fair Lady, leads a team of women backstage at Lincoln Center Theater. A director in a position to hire collaborators, Landau also works hard to cast wider net, inspired by her home theatre.
“We are aiming to have this percentage of women, this percentage people of color, etc.,” Landau explains of Steppenwolf’s establishment of quotas. “At first I thought, ‘But what if I can’t find a ‘blank’? But with a little scratching at the surface, I found so many phenomenal designers I never knew existed. It’s just a little extra effort and consciousness.”
Designers like Jones are ready to provide names to directors like Landau. The scenic designer, also an adjunct graduate professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, relishes the opportunity to provide associate opportunities—that lead to design work for her students—or the chance to directly recommend someone for a job she can’t take. Practices like interviewing at least one female for every position on a team, regardless of hiring, could help unearth new talent for the future.
Conscious efforts like these will move the needle, and so will keeping the conversation alive.
“The power of [shared empathy] is what’s created this discussion, and now the question is: How do we keep that door open?” Noblezada posits. “I think we definitely will make huge progress with people like this in the room.”
The Invisible Army: 10 Powerhouse Women on Broadway
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.