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theatre-musical

The Women Who Made The Musical

by Sarah Whitfield 16th April 2019

Figures like Rodgers and Hammerstein dominate the history of the musical. But, as Sarah Whitfield explains, women played an important and uncelebrated role in the art form's development

It’s often assumed that, during the so-called Golden Age of musical theatre, women had little to do with Broadway musicals apart from starring in them and maybe choreographing them. The work of figures like composer and lyricist team Rodgers and Hammerstein dominates the conversation, albeit with very well-known exceptions like choreographer Agnes De Mille. De Mille shaped the dream ballet that crucially weaves together plot, drama and music in Oklahoma! (1943); as both choreographer and director, she played a key role in developing the form.
agnes-de-mille
Image credit: Agnes de Mille (1905-1993) playing 'The Priggish Virgin' in the ballet Three Virgins and a Devil, photographed by Carl Van Vechten. Available on Wikimedia Commons with under no known license, according to United States' Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division.
Some stars are very well known to us. Mary Martin’s performance has been preserved on films and multiple cast recordings, as has Gertrude Lawrence. Stacy Wolf’s exploration of Martin’s career, and bruce mcclung’s unpicking of Lawrence’s collaborations in Lady in the Dark reveals the ways in which both these extraordinary women shaped the work they appeared in.

Yet the work of De Mille’s contemporary, choreographer Albertina Rasch has been almost totally overlooked. Rasch choreographed an extraordinary number of Broadway shows but also ran a ballet troupe, whose work, along with her own dancing, has been preserved in numerous early Hollywood musicals. Katherine Dunham’s important output as a dancer and choreographer is known, her work on Broadway much less so, she choreographed both Carib Song (1945) and Blue Holiday (1945).

Unpicking the broader contribution of women during this period is crucial to telling an accurate history, and to understanding the truly collaborative nature of the musical.

Look outside the traditional limits of Broadway

Often, far more intriguing things are going on outside of the limits of the bright lights of Broadway. In Paris in the 1920s, the activities of extraordinary women such as Mabel Mercer (herself a singer and dancer, best known for her close working relationship with Cole Porter) are one such example. Mercer nurtured the careers of key figures such as Josephine Baker. Mercer was a Black British performer, whose career began in British vaudeville and took her to New York via Paris. While her voice in later years lost its higher registers, recordings in her striking soprano do exist - her recording of Summertime is particularly startling.

Draw on earlier influences

The work of lyricists and playwrights Dorothy Donnelly, Rida Johnson Young and Anne Caldwell has been explored by academic Ellen Marie Peck; all three of these women worked in establishing the sound and feel of the operetta that was so important to Show Boat (1927). Donnelly wrote the lyrics and book for the phenomenally successful The Student Prince with composer Sigmund Romberg, among many other shows; Johnson Young the words for ‘Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life’ (which was given a new lease of life in Thoroughly Modern Millie); and Caldwell wrote ‘I wanted someone to read my lines, and I wanted people to hear them’. Later figures include Bella Spewack who co-wrote the book and lyrics for Kiss Me Kate (1948). There are fewer women composers but they do exist, Liza Lehman and Kay Swift are two early examples.
All of this is just scratching the surface: what new stories are waiting to be told about women and the musical?

Explore other kinds of roles

Trude Rittman, an exiled German modernist composer, worked on Broadway primarily as dance arranger and orchestrator: her work challenges what we understand as the differences between composition and arranging. She wrote much of the music for dream ballets in South Pacific (1949) and The King and I (1951). Rittman also arranged the dance music for My Fair Lady (1956), choreographed by another woman, dance educator Tanya Holm. Producer Cheryl Crawford took an active role in developing numerous Broadway musicals, the extent of her contribution is yet to be fully unpicked.

And all of this is just scratching the surface: what new stories are waiting to be told about women and the musical?
Featured image credit: Photo of Theatre Royal Stratford East, taken by Jamie Lumley. Available on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0.