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'Compose yourself': The female composer in musical theatre

As James Brown and Betty Jean Newsome once wrote, this is a man’s world. Forms of expression, narrative and even language have arguably been dictated and dominated from a masculine viewpoint, and this is certainly true of musical theatre. If I were to ask you to name some famous musical theatre composers, then it’s basically guaranteed that a few specific names will pop up. Sondheim? Lloyd-Webber? Lin-Manuel Miranda? Maybe you might also mention Bill Finn, Maury Yeston or Lionel Bart. Then we also consider the famous composer-lyricist duos, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein or Kander and Ebb. There is no denial that the music, narratives and characters created by these men have been incredibly influential, touching the hearts and minds of many people who have come into contact with them. But maybe you might have a harder time naming famous female musical theatre composers.

This is not an easy task, and for good reason. Looking back at the history of Broadway composers, we see that women have played a tiny role in musical theatre composition. Similarly to the lack of racial diversity within this creative process, which would seem to suggest a monumental struggle for representation on the part of BAME female composers, you have to properly search for any female representation within this field. This is reflected within the Tony Award for Best Score. The only female present in the line-up of winners from the ‘Golden Era’ is Betty Comden, a lyricist who worked with her partner Paul Green, or Lynn Ahrens, lyricist of ‘Ragtime’ and ‘Once on This Island’. Only two female composers have ever been featured in this line up of winners, Cyndi Lauper for ‘Kinky Boots’ in 2013, and finally Jeanine Tesori. In 2014 Tesori and lyricist Lisa Kron made history as the first female composer-lyricist team to win this award with their musical ‘Fun Home’. However, unlike most other awards at the Tony’s, this historical moment was not televised live as this award was given during an advertisement break, instead being televised in a ‘recap’ reel.

This sidelining of the female presence can be easily spotted within many musical theatre pieces, from the use of female characters as romantic plot points or simply just a lack of female representation amongst protagonists. Undoubtedly this is changing, and with modern musicals such as ‘Legally Blonde’, ‘Heathers’ and perhaps most obviously ‘Wicked’ we see female-focused narratives beginning to play a larger part in musical theatre culture.

Within Tesori’s work however, female-driven narratives are constantly present. She has written or composed for a total of five musicals, namely ‘Fun Home’, ‘Caroline, or Change’, ‘Shrek’, ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ and ‘Violet’. All of these stories either feature an obvious female protagonist, or a lead female who will not let herself be sidelined by her male counterpart. Though it would not be wise to hold up all these shows as paragons of virtue, due to dubious discussion of, and sometimes downright offensive interactions with racial themes within the texts, they still have merit in the context of female characterisation within musical theatre. Tesori’s female characters and musical scores are constantly surprising. We see in her body of work a wide variety of musical styles, and a willingness to experiment with narrative voice, musical motif and patterns of rhythm and rhyme. ‘Violet’, for example, is about a young woman travelling across the 1960’s Deep South on a quest to get her facial disfigurement healed by a televangelist preacher is told through the music of the time and place; Blues, Country and Gospel, with a distinct modern musical theatre tone throughout. It would seem that Tesori follows Sondheim’s assertion that ‘Content dictates Form’, as she writes for the environment of her stories from the perspective of a 21st century composer. This process is fascinating to interact with, as Tesori tries to write from her character’s viewpoints. Seriously, there are some cracking videos of Tesori and Kron discussing the musicality of Fun Home online - a must watch for any fan!

Similarly to the female characters that she gives a voice and sound to, Tesori refuses to box herself in with one musical style, and is constantly experimenting. This is situated within the context of a male-dominated field, which translated into her work, for example, through a younger Violet singing a folk song which posits ‘Mama why’s a man have eyes? […] So he can try you on for size’.

There is a constant struggle for representation within this medium, but with every new and diverse narrative, voice, character and song, we see the canon being widened, a promising prospect for many young potential composers, just waiting to tell their stories.


VIOLET is running at the Brickhouse Theatre from 28th February to 2nd March! Tickets and further information here:

Set in the segregated Southern states in the mid-20th century, VIOLET tackles many heavy, difficult themes. The titular character's journey is expressly linked to her struggles with ableism, her own self-image and a society which dictates that a woman's ability to attract men is her greatest asset. On her journey to be 'healed' by a televangelist preacher, she must face the prejudice of others, whilst experiencing flashbacks of her childhood self, and the father who accidentally caused her facial scar. This unique musical is equally heartwarming, thought-provoking and empowering, and will stay in your mind long after you've left the theatre.

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