More folks are flocking to New York’s theaters nowadays, and they aren’t just buying top-dollar tickets for “Hamilton.” The stats prove it: Nearly 15 million people attended a Broadway show during the 2018-2019 season, up by a million theatergoers from the year before. And according to figures tracked by the Broadway League, two-thirds of audience members from 2017 to 2018 were women.
Yet the artists behind these shows — the writers, directors, choreographers and designers — are predominantly men.
North America will celebrate the new productions that brought in those record crowds on Sunday, at the 73rd annual Tony Awards. The nominees in most creative (non-acting) categories reflect the long-standing tradition of men cranking out commercial theater productions. But there are a few encouraging signs for women. 2019 is the fifth year in a row that at least one female playwright received a nomination and the third in a row that a woman has been recognized for directing a musical. In the eight design categories, five have at least one woman in the running. Perhaps more crucially, the women who are nominated are more inclined to speak up, and more inclined to push for change.
Meanwhile, in the acting categories, there’s a much brighter picture of inclusion and diversity. Few women received nominations for playing traditional Broadway ingénues. Instead the nominees are women of all ages, including an actress also nominated for writing her own play and the first nominee who relies on a wheelchair.
In advance of Sunday’s ceremony, hosted by James Corden of “Late Late Show”/“Carpool Karaoke” fame, The Lily profiled five women nominated for Tonys.
The show: “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” playwright Theresa Rebeck’s riff on the life of 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt (played by Janet McTeer) who dared to play Shakespeare’s most famous protagonist. Although set in the 1890s, the play-within-a-play concept required James to design both belle époque loungewear and ostentatious Elizabethan English costumes.
Her story: James’s initial years in New York were spent temping in offices and working in the wardrobe department of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Her first solo design gig came courtesy of George C. Wolfe, when James impressed him by showing up on the director’s doorstep wearing a striking silk hat. By the time production meetings got underway, however, James had a 4-month-old baby. It was 1988, and Wolfe took the remarkable step of allowing James to bring her daughter to work and even nurse during meetings. Without his flexibility, she said she never could have launched her career while raising children.
“There’s a movement now to accommodate new mothers in theater, but that hasn’t always been the case,” James said. “Many people are less welcoming.”
“Bernhardt/Hamlet” is her 20th Broadway show. She’s been nominated for a Tony twice before, with additional design credits that include “Angels in America,” “The Wild Party” and several dramas by the late African American playwright August Wilson. After teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University for 12 years, she’ll become a professor at the Yale School of Drama in September.
The significance: If she wins Sunday, James would become the first black woman to receive a Tony Award for costume design. In the design categories this year, 38 nominations went to men and nine to women. James has a theory about why so few women end up designing on Broadway: “Males are more inclined to reach out and to contact directors, and to contact producers. There’s still this thing with us as women that we don’t want to seem pushy. We don’t want to be rejected,” James said.
Even though she was 59 and had been designing for decades, she used her first nomination in 25 years as a chance to network. “I still felt trepidation writing people who I hadn’t met,” she said, but the tactic worked: “That’s how this happened,” she said, of her Tony-nominated gig designing costumes for “Bernhardt/Hamlet.”
The show: “Hadestown,” a new musical based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, featuring music and lyrics by folk rocker Anais Mitchell and starring Patrick Page as Hades.
Her story: Chavkin specializes in new plays and musicals that reimagine old worlds. She received her first Tony nomination two years ago for directing the Tolstoy-inspired musical, “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.” Her upcoming projects include a new musical of the novel “Moby-Dick,” scheduled to open next fall at Boston’s American Repertory Theater. She and composer Dave Malloy will preview the show in July at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where cast members will sing selections from the musical underneath the museum’s 94-foot-long model of a blue whale.
The significance: Chavkin is the only female director up for a Tony. Nine of this year’s 10 Tony-nominated directors are men, and only three women have ever taken home the award for directing a musical. (The first was Julie Taymor, who won for “The Lion King” in 1998.) In every interview, Chavkin is asked what it’s like to be the only woman nominated. She doesn’t hold back, and has strong opinions about the prejudices that may be limiting women’s roles on Broadway.
“I think it’s horrendous that the representation in our field is so bad,” Chavkin said, speaking by phone before a Tony Awards rehearsal.
Chavkin pointed out that women, trans and nonbinary directors have less trouble finding work off-Broadway and at regional theaters, while on Broadway, veterans rule.
Of the nine men nominated for directing plays and musicals, only “Oklahoma!” director Daniel Fish is making his Broadway debut; the other eight men have racked up more than 30 previous nominations. “The most damaging aspect,” Chavkin said, is “the idea that directing on Broadway is a prerequisite for directing on Broadway, which is a recipe only for disaster and exclusivity.”
The show(s): Mazzie, who died in September at age 57, three years after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, appeared in 11 Broadway productions over a career that stretched more than 30 years, beginning with the Tom Sawyer musical “Big River” and ending with “The King and I.” She was nominated for three awards, and will receive a special posthumous Tony Award Sunday night.
Her story: The same day in May 2015 that Mazzie was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she opened a show at New York’s City Center Encores and sang an anthem called, “Life Is What You Do While You’re Waiting To Die.” She would have less than four years to live, and she spent them not only enduring painful surgery and grueling chemotherapy — or “healing therapy,” as she preferred to call it — but performing as often as she could, and advocating for her fellow cancer patients.
Jason Danieley, Mazzie’s actor husband of more than 20 years, is determined to carry on his wife’s legacy, and has continued working with both Cancer Support Community and Tina’s Wish, a fund for ovarian cancer research. Because ovarian cancer symptoms are often misdiagnosed or discovered too late, only 47 percent of women survive five years beyond the diagnosis.
“The reason that breast cancer has more advocates is that there are more survivors,” Danieley said, speaking on a break between performances of the musical “Pretty Woman.” To help the ranks of ovarian cancer advocates grow, “Men need to stand up for their wives and their daughters and sisters,” he said.
The significance: It’s unprecedented for The Broadway League (the organization that runs the Tony Awards) to present a posthumous Tony. The League has sought to clarify Mazzie is not being honored for a lifetime of work onstage, but “for her advocacy and leadership within the theater community, and as a brave and dedicated voice for women’s health issues and organizations.”
The show: “What the Constitution Means to Me” is Schreck’s play recalling the teen years she spent entering American Legion speaking contests and winning enough money to pay her college tuition. A 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist, “Constitution” is an unexpected Broadway hit after running at the much smaller New York Theatre Workshop last year, where Hillary Clinton was among the celebrities who came out to see it. A 22-city American tour of the play — without Schreck in the leading role — launches in Los Angeles early next year. Schreck is nominated both as a playwright and leading actress in a play, a category that also includes Annette Benning and Laurie Metcalf.
Her story: Schreck, 47, grew up in small-town central Washington, in a family with long-standing ties to the logging industry. She’s been a writer for hit television shows like “Billions” and “Nurse Jackie,” and won an Obie Award for her off-Broadway acting in 2010.
Although ostensibly a comedy about her own experience with oratory contests, “Constitution” traces Schreck’s family history back to her great-great-grandmother, who immigrated from Germany after she was ordered from a catalogue called “Matrimonial Times.” She was likely the first of several generations of women who endured domestic abuse, and died in an asylum at 36. The pattern finally ended when Schreck’s own mother, at age 14, testified in court against the stepfather who had repeatedly raped Schreck’s aunt. He was convicted, but spent just two years in prison.
Schreck did not know all those details when she was a high school student marveling at the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Onstage, prompted by an actor portraying an American Legion debate monitor, she recreates her teenage defense of the 14th Amendment, including the “equal protection clause,” which should have protected her own grandmother and has repeatedly failed in court rulings to protect the rights of minority women.
“My play is a very personal story about a teenage girl having her illusions about this country shattered. I am grappling with the most fundamental questions about my own identity and the identity of this country. I have no answers and I don’t pretend to,” Schreck wrote in an email to The Lily. She’s been angered by allegations that because she reveals details of her abortion, the show is liberal propaganda.
The significance: Only two other women, Wendy Wasserstein and Yasmina Reza, have ever won the playwriting Tony. Schreck could be the third, and the first to do it while also nominated for starring in her own show.
“I am grateful that the Tony committee acknowledged that the work I am doing onstage is in fact the work of an actor,” Schreck wrote. “I am playing a ‘version’ of myself, yes, but in order to do that, I have to use every single tool I have developed working as an actor in other people’s plays for the past 30 years.”
The show: Stroker plays Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 classic musical about rural strife and falling in love on the American frontier. This production enjoyed an off-Broadway run last year at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. On Twitter, fans call the show #SexyOklahoma. Onstage, actors slurp from (fake) cans of Bud Light, kiss till the cows come home and occasionally belt into microphones. There are dark moments on the prairie as well, since the farmhand Jud is presented as an incel. This updated “Oklahoma” retains its hoedown spirit, however, with an onstage bluegrass band and vegan chili for everyone at intermission.
Her story: Stroker was 2 when a car crash left her paralyzed from the waist down. She grew up in New Jersey, where her parents encouraged her love of show tunes and musical theater. Soon after graduating from New York University’s elite theater program, Stroker booked a role on “Glee.” As she tells her story, she knew she was destined for musical theater from age 7, when she starred in a community theater production of “Annie.”
“When I began to sing, I just felt so free. There was like no limitation,” she told Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press. “I was used to people staring at me, being a little girl in a wheelchair. But being onstage and the way people were looking at me, it was so different. And I knew that was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
The significance: Stroker made her Broadway debut four years ago in the Deaf West production of “Spring Awakening,” which featured non-hearing actors and other performers facing varying disabilities. She was the first known disabled performer to use a wheelchair onstage, and she’s now the first to be nominated for a Tony. She’s honored, but wants to be remembered for her entire no-holds-barred performance, not only for popping wheelies during Ado Annie’s anthem, “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No.”
“Our job is not just to represent. Our job [is] to be the best actor in the room,” Stroker told the AP, referring to disabled performers. “Because the truth is I don’t want a job because I’m in a wheelchair. I want a job because I’m the best actor for the role.”