This story is featured in CityBeat's June 14 print edition.
The people most often identified as the creators of musical theater are men — Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, Jerry Herman, Stephen Sondheim — even Lin-Manuel Miranda. But that’s not the whole story. Although they’ve often been overlooked in favor of more well-known male composers, women have been writing musicals since the 19th century. They’re finally getting their due in a studio production presented by Cincinnati Music Theatre (CMT) in late June: Musicals She Wrote.
Creator and academic Joe Stollenwerk has assembled an eclectic, cabaret-style revue that traces the history of women writing music or lyrics for more than a century, spanning Tin Pan Alley, musical theater’s “Golden Age” and continuing to the present. In a recent phone interview with CityBeat, he explained that his production will include familiar tunes and hidden gems, from emotional power ballads to comic numbers.
Stollenwerk was a theater professional in Cincinnati 20 years ago, one of the founders of the Ovation Theatre Company that ceased operations in 2007. His academic ambitions led him to Indiana University where he earned a Ph.D. in musical theater in 2016, culminating with a dissertation titled, “A Musical of One’s Own: American Women Writing Musicals 1970-1985.” Since completing that degree he’s been teaching in the theater department at the University of South Dakota (USD).
As a musical theater scholar, it was a natural path for Stollenwerk to combine scholarship with performance. “They can go hand-in-hand. At USD, for their ‘Women’s Studies and Gender Conference,’ I did a lecture/cabaret, which was about 40 minutes of me talking and about 20 minutes of me singing.” Showcasing and uplifting the voices of women writers has been Stollenwerk’s long-time passion. In late 2021, he pitched Musicals She Wrote to CMT, a venerable local community theater, for its studio series. “This will sort of be the flip of my event in South Dakota, about 97 percent singing and about 3 percent connective dialogue.” Stollenwerk compiled the show, which he’s directing but not performing.
The cast of Musicals She Wrote includes Anna Snyder, Carter Bechral, Emily Burns, Julie Wartner, Jolle Reid, Kennedy Florence, Lisa Breithaupt, Lori Valentine, Mollie Bryson, Monica Weber, Peyton Hahn and Susan Brabnec. Music director J. E. Kurzynski will be part of a four-piece band — piano, string bass, drums and saxophone — accompanying the performance.
“People don’t realize how many musicals were written by women, particularly how many older musicals. A lot of early musical theater and late operetta had lyrics and scripts written by women. Probably the most enduringly famous operetta song, ‘Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life,’ had words written by Rida Johnson Young.” That song was part of Naughty Marietta, a 1910 operetta composed by Victor Herbert. “Young has been completely erased by history,” Stollenwerk suggests, “by the practice of identifying a song by its male composer and ignoring the female lyricist.”
He structured Musicals She Wrote to begin with a medley of disparate songs by men that “put women into very limited boxes and various tropes that we see over and over in musical comedies.” But his show quickly moves on to two of the most significant lyric writers of the 20th century: Dorothy Fields (“On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Big Spender”) and Betty Comden (“The Party’s Over,” “Just in Time”). “They wrote songs that many people know, even if they don’t know the women behind them,” says Stollenwerk. He’ll also include material by Mary Rodgers (composer Richard Rodgers’ daughter), the composer of Once Upon a Mattress, in which comedian Carol Burnett made her Broadway debut as Princess Winifred the Woebegone.
In the second half of the revue, Stollenwerk’s cast will explore the generation after Broadway’s Golden Age, starting in the 1970s. “There was an explosion of musical theater scores written completely by women.” He points to I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road (1978) by Nancy Ford and Gretchen Cryer, A… My Name is Alice (1983) by approximately two dozen women, Quilters (1984) with music and lyrics by Barbara Damashek, and The Secret Garden (1991) by Lucy Simon and playwright Marsha Norman.
The latter part of the 20th century, according to Stollenwerk, saw a significant contraction of women writing musicals, but the 21st century has featured a big rebound. “Particularly in the last decade,” he says, “there’s been quite a bit more women writing: The revue’s last six songs are from Fun Home, Waitress and Come From Away,” all shows with females as central characters and songs by female composers and lyricists, including Jeanine Tesori, Lisa Kron, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and Irene Sankoff. “A lot of the songs in the show’s second half deal with issues that women face in our patriarchal society. A lot of them are funny, and many are really inspiring.”
Asked to single out a favorite number, Stollenwerk points to a number suggested by his music director, “Change Shall Come,” from The Beautiful Lady, a 1984 show by Elizabeth Swados. “I heard a recording of this song and became obsessed with it,” he says. “It’s the closing to Act 1, a very powerful song lyrically and musically, the perfect set-up for the second half of the show where we see many more women writing over the last 50 years.”
It's about time that women creators of musicals get some recognition. Joe Stollenwerk leads the way with this show.
Cincinnati Music Theatre presents Musicals She Wrote from June 23 through July 1 at the Aronoff Center’s Fifth Third Bank Theater. Info: cincinnatimusictheatre.org.
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