icked, a big-budget musical adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s postmodern novelistic inversion of The Wizard of Oz, opened on Broadway 13 years ago. Its producers hoped it would do well, of course, but not even they could have suspected it would become one of the most successful musicals in theater history. It is now the 10th-longest-running show ever to have opened on Broadway, and it has been performed by dozens of companies around the world. According to Forbes, it has grossed an astounding $4 billion all told, and shows no signs of box-office fatigue.
Nor did anyone anticipate that the success of Wicked would lead, albeit indirectly, to the emergence of a new theatrical genre: the female-empowerment musical.
The prototypical heroine of the female-empowerment musical is an unhappy woman who finds personal fulfillment not through heterosexual romantic love and marriage—the near-compulsory denouement of the golden-age Broadway musicals of the ’40s and ’50s—but in some other way, generally involving either professional success or single motherhood and aided by selfless womanly comradeship. She is thereby freed from the need to rely on the support of a male partner and allowed to shape her own life.
Because this genre is so new, its characteristics and cultural significance have yet to be widely discussed. Even so, it is already distinctive enough to be identifiable—and marketable. A blurb on the marquee of Waitress, for instance, describes the show as “an empowering Broadway musical of the highest order!” One of the biggest hits of the 2015–16 season, Waitress is currently running alongside Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Chicago, The Color Purple, Matilda, On Your Feet! and Wicked, all of which are exemplary in varying degrees of the genre and all of which have been commercially successful.
The popularity of these musicals is easily understood. Two-thirds of the people who go to Broadway shows are women, and it stands to reason that at least some of them would be interested in seeing shows written from a specifically female perspective. The comfort that they and their daughters have taken from Wicked—and, more recently, from its Disney cousin, the 2013 blockbuster animated musical film Frozen, featuring vocals by Idina Menzel, Wicked’s Tony-winning star—has made them receptive to similar fare. So far, such shows appear to be broadening the theatergoing audience, as it must be broadened if Broadway and its offshoots are to survive through this century and beyond.
But there is more to it than that. Like all forms of pop culture, the classic Broadway musicals of the ’40s and ’50s appealed to a mass audience in large part because they told theatergoers things that they wanted to believe about themselves and their world. Presumably the female-empowerment musical does so as well. But if so, what is it telling us about the way we live now
omantic love is to traditional theatrical comedy what murder is to the mystery novel: a plot element whose galvanizing presence ensures that the dramatic stakes are high enough to seize and hold an audience’s attention. As such, it was long thought essential to musical comedy, in which the male and female stars, having fallen in love, overcome all obstacles and come together at show’s end in the expectation of marrying and living happily ever after.
To be sure, there were prominent exceptions to the rule of consummated romance. Foremost among them was The King and I (1951, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Richard Rodgers), in which the strong-willed Anna, attracted though she is to the imperious King of Siam, ultimately chooses duty over love, leaving the audience with the expectation that she will find satisfaction in her twin commitments to career and single parenthood. Theatergoers of the ’50s evidently found this denouement emotionally satisfying, since The King and I ran for three years and was turned into an equally successful movie. But it inspired few imitators, and the belief that romantic love is the defining experience of human life continued to be central to musical comedy.
It would take decades for more modern shows like Company (1970, book by George Furth, lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim) and A Chorus Line (1975, book by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante, lyrics by Edward Kleban, music by Marvin Hamlisch) to reflect changing cultural attitudes toward love and marriage. But these musicals, all of which were written by men, did not embrace a specifically anti-romantic perspective. Indeed, it is the animating premise of Company that “alone is alone, not alive.” It was necessary to look elsewhere in popular culture for clearer evidence of the spread of feminism, most notably in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–77), whose protagonist, an unmarried, childless urban working woman, looks to her job and co-workers for the quasi-familial emotional sustenance that she is unable to find in romantic companionship with men.
Similarly themed TV series and Hollywood films soon became staples of the entertainment industry. Broadway, however, was slower to respond, perhaps because musical comedy was, as it had always been, a genre overwhelmingly dominated by male writers. Only at the turn of the 21st century did musicals written in whole or part by women start making their way to Broadway in significant numbers. The first of these, Wicked, which features a libretto by the television writer Winnie Holzman, was not, like most musicals, a more or less realistic story of modern-day American life but a fantasy whose protagonists, a pair of witches, were “strong women” (to use the phrase beloved of feminists) whose fate was central to the plot of the show. Their relationship—a rivalry that turns into a deep secret friendship—is the central feature of the show, as opposed to the romantic subplot, which was just that. Since Wicked proved so appealing to young and “tweenage” girls as yet more interested in their peers than boys, its success at the box office persuaded producers that it was no longer necessary for musicals to conform rigidly to the classic model in order to go over with contemporary audiences.
Wicked was soon followed by The Color Purple (2005, book by Marsha Norman, lyrics and music by Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell and Allee Willis), Legally Blonde (2007, book by Heather Hach, lyrics and music by Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe) and 9 to 5 (2009, book by Patricia Resnick, lyrics and music by Dolly Parton). In all of these shows, heterosexual romance, while sometimes in evidence, took a back seat to the struggles of the female protagonists to prevail in a man’s world. What in Wicked had been nothing more than a disposition to place women at the heart of the dramatic action was evolving into a clearly defined theatrical genre whose subject matter was not romance but female empowerment.
A decade later, feminist-themed musicals, many of them written or co-written by women, now seem well on the way to becoming the norm on Broadway, if not the dominant contemporary expression of the form. Waitress (2015, book by Jessie Nelson, music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles), the most representative of these shows, tells the story of Jenna, a small-town waitress who is married to an abusive husband. After being accidentally impregnated by him, she falls in love with her married obstetrician and embarks on an affair that inspires her to change her life. It does not, however, lead to a permanent relationship with the obstetrician. Instead, Jenna chooses of her own accord to leave her husband, become a single mother, and start her own business—to become, in other words, a fully independent woman: “I can heal and I can breathe / ’Cause I can feel myself believe.”
“Female empowerment is fine for daytime television, but it’s flesh-crawling in a musical,” wrote Michael Riedel, the waspish theater columnist of the New York Post, apropos of the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple, whose protagonist, like Jenna, leaves her abusive husband and becomes a businesswoman. Yet such musicals are drawing paying crowds. No man, as Dr. Johnson said, is a hypocrite in his pleasures, and few people, however progressive they may be, will pay $150 to see a show merely because it is politically correct.
But Riedel is right in this sense: Many female-empowerment musicals are also exemplary of the grim truth that politics, whether implicit or explicit, usually makes for bad art. Waitress, like The Color Purple before it, is a dismally banal show whose dialogue consists exclusively of clichés and whose songs are as undramatic as they are unmemorable: “But he could be criminal / Some sort of psychopath who escaped from an institution / Somewhere where they don’t have girls.” Yet it is striking how many women—critics included—are drawn to these shows in a way that sometimes seems unrelated to their artistic merits. Witness, for instance, what Nicole Serratore wrote about Waitress earlier this year: “This musical offers grown-up women in complicated lives, singing about their hopes, dreams and struggles. That’s something worth celebrating.”
Indeed, certain female critics are now calling for musicals that are even more openly politicized. A case in point is a recent New York Times feature called “Broadway May Not Be So White, But Is It Woman Enough?” in which Laura Collins-Hughes and Alexis Soloski, two of the paper’s drama critics, discuss Waitress. “That the show is popular with female audiences mystifies me,” says Soloski. “I don’t read it as empowering.” Collins-Hughes goes further:
One of the few interesting aspects of the central character…is that she is an unhappily married woman who gets pregnant and adamantly does not want the child. Yet the moment she gives birth, she is utterly transformed as a human being, which I found creepy and reactionary.
What is it, then, that makes such “creepy and reactionary” shows so appealing? In the case of Waitress, my guess is that younger women in particular appreciate being told that they can, like Jenna, lead wholly satisfying lives without ever finding long-term romantic partners. We live, after all, in a world in which men are less disposed to marry and women as a group seem to be growing increasingly skeptical about their marital prospects. Hence it stands to reason that unmarried women should be drawn to musicals which assure them that the single life can be fulfilling.
Needless to say, wish fulfillment is not the stuff of great art. On the other hand, it is also true that romantic love need not be the sole subject matter of music drama. The musicals of Stephen Sondheim, like the operas of Benjamin Britten before them, prove that musical theater can successfully draw on a much wider range of subject matter than had previously been thought possible. But Sondheim’s musicals have never been broadly popular, and their iconoclastic subject matter is one of the main reasons for their lack of popularity. Even Company, which speaks eloquently of the transforming power of romantic love, is anything but reassuring in its coolly detached view of marriage and its discontents.
What, then, are the long-term prospects for the female-empowerment musical, which presupposes a world in which love is at best optional and at worst a snare and a delusion? If, as some believe, we now live in a permanently post-romantic world, then we will surely see many more shows like Waitress and The Color Purple in the future. Moreover, it is possible that the genre will someday spawn a Sondheim of its own, a creative genius who is capable of making first-rate popular art out of the quest for female empowerment.
But is female empowerment a subject naturally suited to the unique needs of musical theater? It is, after all, a theatrical truism that the characters in a musical should sing only when they cannot help themselves—when they are in the grip of emotions so strong that they cannot be fully expressed save through the intensifying medium of song. This is why it is hard to imagine enduringly popular musicals that are denuded of the life-changing idealism inherent in the search for (in Sondheim’s words) “someone to make you come through, / Who’ll always be there, / As frightened as you / Of being alive.” Judged by that exalted standard, loyal friends and a well-paying job, while undeniably desirable, are not necessarily something to sing about.