If “Hairspray” and “Take Me Out” take home the night’s major prizes, the coveted Tonys for the season’s best new musical and play, respectively, “Hairspray’s” Margo Lion and “Take Me Out’s” Carole Shorenstein Hays will be stepping up to the podium.
In fact, this year’s Tony nominations illustrate the continuing importance of Broadway female talent on- and offstage. The year’s only double nominees were two women: Twyla Tharp has been nominated for directing and choreographing “Movin’ Out,” and Catherine Martin was cited for her set and costume designs for “La Boheme.”
There are scattered femme nominees in other categories, of course, from director Deborah Warner (“Medea”) in the play lineup to Catherine Zuber (“Dinner at Eight”) in the costume design category. And the acting categories are so overstuffed with terrific femme performances that major candidates got left out entirely: Edie Falco didn’t make the cut for her acclaimed perf in “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” and none of the bubbly distaff supporting cast from “Hairspray” made it into the tough featured actress in a musical category, which was chock-a-block with the leggy ladies from “Nine.”
As a funny further illustration of just how juicy the roles were for women on Broadway this season, ask Harvey Fierstein, up for a leading man Tony for taking one of the season’s richest, Pucci-clad Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray.”
Lead producer Lion says she certainly didn’t consciously choose “Hairspray” for its gently comic story of female empowerment. But as a producer with 25 years in the theater, and a decade on Broadway, she notes, “The average musical theatergoer on Broadway is a 42-year-old Caucasian woman,” so there may be a reason why stages this season have been rich with portraits of complicated women, from Edna to Medea to Mary Tyrone.
Past experience also has taught Lion that, in musical theater, “it is easier to cast leading female roles these days. I don’t know whether it’s because talented male actors are finding more work in Hollywood, but it’s true that it’s hard to find exciting male musical performers who can sing, dance and act.”
Behind the scenes, women are increasingly swelling the ranks of producers. For the newcomers, the environment is distinctly different than it was when Lion started out. “It was certainly more of a boys club back then,” she says. “But even now, when I go to meetings, I sometimes feel like I’m saying the same things the guys are saying, but it’s not taken as seriously. This is a tough business, in which each individual needs to earn the respect of his peers. I think it’s easier to earn that respect if you’re a guy.”
But Lion says the landscape is shifting as more younger producers enter the ranks. “Younger people don’t feel that way. And I like to work with new young artists, so I don’t run into it. In any case it’s not a horrible problem — it’s probably just a generational issue.”
Shorenstein Hays began producing on her own 16 years ago, and won a Tony for her first effort, “Fences.” “My role model has always been Elizabeth Ireland McCann,” she says. “She has great dignity, acumen and aplomb. I do think seriously that being a female sometimes makes it easier to cut through all the machinations of the numbers and the angst and have a sort of maternal understanding of what it takes to create. I’m very understanding of that creative process. I don’t have that business school, alpha-male stuff.
“My father once said to me, ‘Don’t overthink,'” she continues. “Maybe it’s a female thing that when I feel at peace reading a script or talking to a director, my solar plexus tells me that it’s OK to jump off that diving board.”
Tharp speaks in somewhat similar terms of the importance of maternity in her creative life, but with a twist. “Having a son and relating to men is a reason why I am drawn to content dealing with men’s lives,” she says. “Movin’ Out” focuses on the traumatic return to civilian life of Vietnam War vets. “And if anything I’m intrigued by boys clubs: Billy (Joel) and the band are something of a boys club, a pretty tight one. And I relate to that kind of camaraderie.”
For Tharp, being female means finding men to be “strange creatures worthy of investigation.” But it hasn’t meant professional obstacles. “I don’t feel I’m handicapped by the gender issue,” Tharp says. “I’m in the dance world among many male choreographers who create strong roles for many women dancers. Since I have been making dances I have been making roles for great male dancers. It works both ways.”