“THE WOMEN is Here”: Reflections on The Directory’s 54 Below Debut

This blog is a part of The Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, found online at www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com

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(Gretchen Cryer (right) and Nancy Ford at our dress rehearsal at Michiko Studios - July 26, 2013)
(Gretchen Cryer (right) and Nancy Ford at our dress rehearsal at Michiko Studios – July 26, 2013)

This past weekend, I sat in wide-eyed wonder as Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford took the stage to open our 54 Below debut concert entitled “Binders Full of Women’s Songs: A Celebration of Women Musical Theatre Writers.” Since Ms. Cryer and Ms. Ford’s seminal musical I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER AND TAKING IT ON THE ROAD received a thrilling production at City Center last week, we thought it would be a great time to honor women writers who were inspired by their amazing work and followed in their trail-blazing foot steps.

Putting together a concert like this is always a challenge. We knew we wanted to highlight women writers from The Directory, but we had to make some tough decisions about what writers and songs to showcase. With director Laura Josepher (who also shepherded us through our launch concert last January), we settled on fifteen songs written solely by women composer/lyricists or women composers and lyricists who had collaborated. There were very few men involved, save me (as emcee) and our little Liberated Man’s Band (bassist Alden Terry and drummer Jay Mack). Composer/lyricist and musical director Katya Stanislavskaya kept the evening moving along in perfect pitch and time.

One of the things I found myself reveling in during the concert was the vast range of musical styles: everything from what I would consider a neo-Golden Age song to folk-soul (yes, that’s a thing… look up Shaina Taub if you want your mind blown). It was an exciting, eclectic evening of songs and performances.

Below is a link to the program so you can get a better sense of the concert. We were incredibly grateful for a wonderful turnout and look forward to highlighting some of the evening’s performances on our website.

BINDERS Program

The afternoon following the concert, I had the pleasure of seeing director Kathleen Marshall’s production of I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER… at City Center.

Early on I decided this blog should never be used for reviews – that is beyond my jurisdiction, especially since I often see them as myopic dribble. Perhaps that is why I was not surprised to read Charles Isherwood’s New York Times review of this production (which was part of the Encores: Off-Center series, spearheaded by Broadway composer and Artistic Director Jeanine Tesori). Mr. Isherwood suggested that, while the songs are still very effective (I whole-heartedly agree on this point), the book felt outdated because the issues facing the protagonist, Heather, in the time the show was written (1978, around the rise of the women’s liberation movement) are now “mostly resolved” in our contemporary society.

Really???

I will be the first to admit I do not have my finger on the pulse of women’s issues, but I do have enough sense to realize saying that the ones discussed in I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER… are “mostly resolved” is – what’s the word again? – myopic. In my humble opinion, Ms. Cryer & Ms. Ford have written a show less about women’s liberation and more about the complex relationships between men and women, as fueled by culturally-bred inequality (see my interview with Gretchen Cryer here). And might I add the writers don’t let the women off the hook – it’s clear they’re just as confused as the men. I believe that, as long as a bias exists in our society based on gender, race or sexual identity, I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER AND TAKING IT ON THE ROAD is securely relevant.

I can only imagine what hot water I’m getting myself into by writing this…

So, let me end by pointing out that in I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER… Heather is combatting the attempted commercialization of her experience as a woman while trying to redefine her relationship with her manager and former lover, Joe. The musical, clearly a comedy, is completely on the mark when it comes to at least two things:

Male-female relationships are complex: this is just as true today as it was in 1978. At a time when women are “leaning in” at work and some men are staying home with children, gender roles are constantly in a state if flux and, therefore, create conflict in relationships. It’s not a bad thing – in fact, it’s necessary.

Secondly, people (not just men or former lovers) will do their best to discourage you when you decide to step out of your figurative box with the shiny wrapping. And they’ll usually do it with a smile and a “honey.” Starting a new business? You sure about that? You’re writing a show about what? That doesn’t sound very produceable.

While Cryer & Ford paved the way for many of the women on the 54 Below concert, it’s just as challenging for our women writers to get their voices heard. I am encouraged, however, that this past Broadway season saw more women writers than any other in recent memory. We hope that trend continues, along with featuring the voices of other diverse backgrounds (that’s a subject for another day… stay tuned). Thankfully there are producers out there that aren’t simply looking for the bright, shiny plastic package.

In the end, Heather decides to trust her own voice and fires her manager. We don’t know what will happen to her career at the end of the musical, much as we don’t know what will happen for our Directory women as we continue supporting them. But we know this: their voices will be heard, whether by throngs of adoring fans or an intimate cabaret crowd at 54 Below.

In either event, they will change the world.

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Visit www.contemporarymusicaltheatre.com for more information on over 180 contemporary musical theatre writers and 550+ songs, all searchable by voice and song type.

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