Women have been taking the lead in Broadway ticket-buying decisions for years, and this season on Broadway, at long last, they're also taking charge of their destinies. The theater's top ladies have taken the Great White Way by storm, depicting female characters with agency to make hard, life-altering decisions. Throughout this season, characters played by Tony nominees Idina Menzel, Kelli O'Hara, Jessie Mueller, and Sutton Foster, are choosing to prioritize their careers, kids, art, and appearance, respectively.
Apart from their gender, the women at the center of these shows (If/Then, The Bridges of Madison County, Beautiful , and Violet) could hardly be more different. And while a few of the ladies are classic role-model material, many of their specific decisions (marrying that broodingly artsy boyfriend, for example) are probably not. But Anika Larsen, Tony nominee for the role of Cynthia Weil in Beautiful — The Carole King Musical, makes the point that these depictions of women are important for just that reason. "We need a diversity of images for children, and for grown-ups, quite frankly, to be influenced by. There's always been a great diversity of types of male characters in the media, and now [we] have strong women, weak women, interesting women, boring women, all kinds of women in theater." We need the spectrum, Larsen says, so that "not any single kind of image has too much weight."
This generation of theater makers, says Bridges of Madison County star Kelli O'Hara, "were raised by the women who were raised by the women with no choices." The females born in the early decades of the last century saw damsel-in-distress characters in popular media, and that's what they were influenced by. "Now we have women who are trying to have it all…and seeing whether it works or not and how people deal with it. So now we're giving young women a different model."
"They're not just doing a tap-number thing about how to get the guy, which is usually what I think happens," adds Violet director Leigh Silverman. "That feels so exciting to me."
Jeanine Tesori has a unique perspective on this sudden blast of Broadway feminism. It was nearly two decades ago that she penned the now-Tony-nominated Violet, which follows a young woman who flouts social mores in pursuit of her desires. At that time, it received only a short-lived off-Broadway production before being largely forgotten. According to Tesori, everything comes down to timing and alchemy. "When Violet exploded back onto the stage...it was like, 'Where did this piece come from!?' But I was like, 'Well it was always there.' People just weren't meeting it emotionally in the same way for a lot of reasons."
The change in Violet's reception (and the prevalence of this season's plays about realistic women) is, at least partially, a function of societal changes in the Lean In generation. "Maybe people's creative psyches are catching up with what's happening in the world," suggests O'Hara. "It's the kind of thing that's unconscious," agrees Larsen. "It's the way the world is trending now. I feel like I've been reading a lot of articles lately about women in the workplace and the struggles that we're, as a society, having with that...So I'm not at all surprised that we're also working out those issues onstage, because that's reflecting the collective unconscious."
"Working out" issues is one of the most important purposes of theater, which, rather than just reflecting the world, can also serve to inspire conversation and enable catharsis. "Every world is complicated, but this world is particularly complicated because of the options that are available," observes Tesori, further highlighting the need for these complex characters and their tough choices.
In order to determine whether this trend toward fully realized women will become a lasting addition to the medium, it's important to consider the motives of the artists creating the shift. "I'd like to think that they're doing it because that's what's in their heart," says O'Hara, whose thoughtful point of view is colored by her show's recent closing. "It's coming from an artistic creativity as opposed to what producers want to sell, what we think people want to see, but [The Bridges of Madison County closed] and If/Then hasn't been embraced hugely...It's just going to have to be the way you tell it. I don't think [these stories] are going to stop, though, because artists want to write about what they care about." As a theater creator herself, Tesori confirms what the actress suspects, explaining that she can't see herself ever writing any other kind of character because she "wouldn't find myself in her." The Tony-nominated writer also added that she feels a sense of responsibility. "It's the contribution that I can make — to be authentic. There are not a lot of women writing musical-theater music." As Tesori looks back on the breadth of her characters, she considers Violet's unhappy but rich inner life.
"There is a monologue going on inside her head of what she desires. And yet we watch how the world is dissonant to what she wants," Tesori says of the character. In fact, Violet's harrowing journey of self-discovery is an apt metaphor for the evolution of female characters with agency on the Broadway stage — there's no obstacle too big when it comes to making the choices that show us for who we really are.