Women in theatre have been getting a lot of attention on Broadway recently, and with extremely good cause. Often under-produced and overlooked, we suddenly have a major hit in the history-making Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron musical Fun Home, based on a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, no less.
However, Tesori and Kron do not stand alone as the only powerful female voices in the theatre — far from it. Broadway has a rich history of female artists, both onstage and off, and as we bring new visibility to the incredible women working in the industry today, revisiting into our history can often prove worthwhile as well. Playbill.com looks into some of the best historical examples of influential female artists in the theatre that are available for viewing at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library's Theatre on Tape and Film (TOFT) archive.
Located on the third floor of the library, the collection is restricted to "qualified researchers," but don't let that deter you. Preparing for an audition, writing a school paper and even writing a blog article all count as qualified research. The productions within the archive are professionally shot with high-quality video and audio, thankfully preserving an art form that is usually, by its nature, ephemeral. It's best to call ahead and make an appointment if you'd like to go watch any of these, but walk-in availability exists if you ever happen to find yourself in the neighborhood with a few hours to spare.
Here are my selections for the top five Women in Theatre TOFT archival tapings to check out. 1. Maureen McGovern, Anita Morris, Liliane Montevecchi in Nine
The original production of Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's Nine was a veritable smorgasbord of legendary women in theatre. Adapted from Fellini's "8 1/2," Nine tells the story of womanizing Italian film director Guido Contini and the many powerful women that surround him. TOFT's archival taping preserved the Tony-winning performance of Liliane Montevecchi, playing a role that was initially written for a male performer. Her initial audition wowed the creative team so much that they not only hired her for the role, but also made the decision to cast all of the formerly-male supporting roles with women as well. Also in the cast is Anita Morris, who gives a sensational and acrobatic "Call From the Vatican," and Maureen McGovern, who had replaced Karen Akers in the heartbreaking role of Luisa Contini. Raul Julia in the leading role of Guido may look like he's in charge of the evening, but after seeing him surrounded by a cast full of startlingly powerful and captivating women, it becomes clear why he is ultimately powerless in their presence.
2. Zoe Caldwell in Master Class
What could be better than a legendary woman in theatre playing another legendary woman in theatre? Terrence McNally's thrilling (and Tony-winning) 1996 play Master Class dramatizes a Julliard master class being led by opera diva Maria Callas. As she works with students, she reminisces on her childhood and the life of an artist. Caldwell's brilliant performance won her a 1996 Tony Award for Best Actress, and Audra McDonald won her second Supporting Actress Tony Award for her performance as one of Callas' students. Unfortunately, McDonald's performance was not captured the evening that the TOFT archive was taped, but Caldwell's performance was indeed immortalized forever.
3. Tyne Daly in the 1989 revival of Gypsy
Broadway has given us a plethora of Gypsy revivals over the years, so everyone gets to have their favorite. One of the best may have been the one that doesn't seem to get talked about quite as much as the more recent Bernadette and Patti-led productions — the 1989 revival that starred Tyne Daly. One need look no further than this season's It Shoulda Been You to see that Daly is well-acquainted with the role of an overbearing mother. The second of three Broadway productions to be directed by book-writer Arthur Laurents, you'll find this production sticks closer to the original text than his 2008 production, but that's not a bad thing; the text is wonderful, and so is his leading lady. She won a Tony Award for her performance!
4. Patti LuPone in the 1987 revival of Anything Goes
Speaking of Mama Roses, no Women in Theatre TOFT viewing list would be complete with an entry featuring Patti LuPone. The archive holds several of her performances, but I think the best use of the resource is going back to a production that isn't nearly as fresh in our memories. The 1987 revival of Anything Goes was the first Broadway production of the Cole Porter musical since the 1934 original production. It featured a new book and a slightly different score, being one of the many "revisals" that were so popular on Broadway in this era. LuPone is ideally suited to the role of Reno Sweeney, possessing a voice and sense of humor that harkens back to original leading lady Ethel Merman. The association proved to be a strong one; LuPone again tackled a Merman role when she won a Tony Award for her Mama Rose.
5. Rebecca Luker, Daisy Eagan and many more in The Secret Garden
It's hard to choose which women to highlight when talking about 1991's The Secret Garden. Rebecca Luker gave a star-making performance as the haunting Lily. Alison Fraser is delightful as Martha, and you'll get chills watching her perform "Hold On." Daisy Eagan, then only 12 years old, became one of the youngest people ever to win a Tony Award for her spectacular performance as Mary Lennox.
But the women in theatre connection with this particular production goes far beyond the performers, as well. The musical is based on a book by female author Frances Hodgson Burnett, and was adapted by bookwriter/lyricist Marsha Norman and composer Lucy Simon. Susan H. Schulman directed the production, leading a creative team that included predominantly female designers as well — Heidi Ettinger (scenic design), Theoni V. Aldredge (costume design) and Tharon Musser (lighting design). The production also featured dance arrangements by a young Jeanine Tesori; the production marked her Broadway debut.
The show is beautiful, both in terms of its physical production and storytelling. That it is also such an excellent showcase of some of Broadway's most influential and powerful female artistic voices makes it even better.
With this list only containing five entries, there are obviously countless examples of legendary women in theatre to be seen in the archive that aren't included here. If you'd like to take your own survey of the collection, head on over to NYPL's digital catalogue. If you do an advanced search, you can even restrict your results to the "Performing Arts Research Collections - TOFT" collection, making things a little easier to sort through. There's also an TOFT homepage with more about the archive itself, including its hours of operation and contact information for making appointments.
(Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.)
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