The Sexist Reality That the Tony Nominations Just Highlighted

Today's most acclaimed playwrights are women. Almost none write for Broadway. Why?
Denzel Washington and LaTanya Richardson Jackson in A Raisin in the Sun, one of the two female-penned dramas playing in Broadway's 2013-14 season. (AP)

The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for theater went this month to Annie Baker for her play The Flick. The runners-up were Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori for Fun Home, and Madeleine George for The Curious Case of the Watson Intelligence.

All those works have two things in common: They were written by women, and they didn’t play on Broadway.

Meanwhile, all five dramas nominated today for the Tonys' top prize were penned by men.

What accounts for the gender disparity between the two big live-theater awards? In large part, blame the glass curtain that separates talented female playwrights and Broadway stages.

“Most women writers are extremely perturbed by it,” playwright Theresa Rebeck says of the theater world's gender gap. “The discrimination has persisted longer than in other fields, and it’s skewing and hurting the health of the culture.” That sentiment is echoed by Marsha Norman, who says, “At the very least, it’s a bad habit. And it needs to be broken.” For all their anger, Norman and Rebeck are actually the lucky ones, having actually had shows done on Broadway.

Let’s take a look at the 2013-14 season. Only two dramas on Broadway were penned by women: Machinal, written by Sophie Treadwell, and A Raisin In the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry. The first was written in 1928, the second in 1959. Of the unusually long list of original and revived musicals, only Marsha Norman’s adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County had a woman's touch. Yes, Wicked was written by Winnie Holtzman, but that is 10 years old by now. Women were proportionally better represented in Broadway in 1909 than they are today.

“It’s distressing,” says Nell Benjamin, whose comedy, The Explorers Club, was as funny as any show on Broadway last season and yet played at off-Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club. “Especially because most of the ticket buyers are women.” (She’s right—it’s roughly 70 percent.)

Of course, there are gender-related gaps at the top echelons of nearly every field of art—indeed, almost every field of life. But there are lots of reasons to think theater might be different. First, this season proved audiences love seeing women on stage. Audra Mcdonald, Kelli O’Hara, Sutton Foster, Idina Menzel, Michelle Williams, Estelle Parsons, Tyne Daly, and Rebecca Hall were most responsible for luring ticket buyers to their productions. As a result, the Tonys are already being talked about as the Battle of the Divas.

Secondly, every list of the most exciting American playwrights is top-heavy with women, including Annie Baker, Sarah Ruhl, Suzan-Lori Parks, Amy Herzog, Lisa Kron, Lisa D’Amour, and Lynn Nottage. Yet their work remains almost exclusively off-Broadway while at least one male member on the list, Will Eno, is enjoying his first Broadway run with The Realistic Joneses.

Thirdly, women are being warmly welcomed as directors of Broadway shows: Both Tony-winning directors last year were women, and among the 2014 tony nominees is Leigh Silverman for VioletMany shows are also being “powered underneath” by women, as they fill slightly more than half of the stage manager positions.

Finally, many of the producers behind the Broadway shows are female. Theatrical producers play all sorts of roles: Some are in the actual development of a piece, and many others come in later to raise funds. That’s where Lorraine Ackerman Boyle finds herself, as one of the names attached to Mothers and Sons and Beautiful, The Carole King Musical. (The latter written by a man whose sketchy words, reviewers noted, contrast sharply with King’s moody and meaningful lyrics.)

When asked if it concerns her that those shows have strong female characters but were authored by men, Boyle says, “I truly never thought about that. Maybe I should. But basically, I’m looking for something that won’t lose my investors’ money.” Harriet Leve, who has been behind numerous shows, says, “I ask myself, first, do I respond viscerally, with enough passion to go out and raise money. And second, can it perform commercially?” Leve does have a strong feminist bent and points out that she has been involved with Ann (the Ann Richards play) and The Mountaintop, both penned by women.

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Michele Willens is a journalist, playwright, and the editor of Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change.

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