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Road to the Tonys: Women Make Their Mark on Broadway With ‘Waitress’

It was mostly by accident that “Waitress” became the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team. But in the middle of a season that was all about diversity, the show, nominated for four Tony Awards including new musical, marked an unexpected milestone for women in a theater industry that’s become increasingly aware of issues of gender parity — just like Hollywood.

The “Waitress” team already included director Diane Paulus, songwriter Sara Bareilles and book writer Jessie Nelson when a switchup on the way to Broadway led choreographer Lorin Latarro to sign on to the project. “We didn’t assemble ourselves as women, but it was interesting that it had never happened before,” Paulus said. “Actors would walk into the room and say, ‘Oh my God, look at all these women. You just don’t see this.’ ”

You don’t, or at least not very often. Earlier in the 2015-16 season, “Eclipsed” became the first play created and performed entirely by black women, while last season marked the first time an all-female songwriting team, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, won the Tony Award for score.

All that has happened as gender parity becomes a growing concern in the industry. A recent report from the playwright-led group The Count found that female writers accounted for only 22% of work produced by American nonprofits over the last three years, while the playwrights and producers who are members of The Kilroys have created an annual list highlighting deserving titles penned by women. Paulus (“Finding Neverland,” “Pippin,” “Hair”) noted that in three of the last five seasons on Broadway, she’s been the only female director of a musical on the year’s roster.

For “Waitress,” the creative lead taken by women seemed particularly appropriate for a show based on a 2007 indie success written and directed by a woman (Adrienne Shelly). The story also centers on a woman, played onstage by prior Tony winner and current nominee Jessie Mueller, and touches on unrealized dreams, domestic abuse and potential motherhood — not exactly the typical stuff of musical theater.

“I think it gave us a kind of shorthand for working on this particular piece,” said Mueller. “There are elements of [the story] that are so ingrained in the female experience, and so much of that we just ‘got,’ collectively, in the room. I think it allowed us to bring a really raw level of honesty to it.”

As Hollywood has begun to come around to the idea that female-led films can become box office hits (see: Sony’s hopes for the upcoming remake of “Ghostbusters”), the rising presence of women on Broadway would seem to make sense from a business angle. Women make up the bulk of Broadway ticketbuyers, so a female perspective seems like a solid foundation for work that might chime with that target demographic.

“Waitress” certainly seems to be clicking. The show’s weekly sales suggest the production has the makings of a hit, with box office steadily gaining steam and last week topping the $1 million mark for the first time.

Behind the scenes, those involved in the production say working in a female-led rehearsal room felt just like working on any other Broadway show — while at the same time they acknowledge that the gender balance must have influenced the final product.

“It didn’t feel any different to work on it,” said cast member Christopher Fitzgerald, nominated for featured actor. “But it’s a story about women, and to have it be built by women, and be the voice of it, was really valuable.”

“Women are going to write from their hearts and minds like any other artist,” said producer Barry Weissler, the only male member of the production team. (The other lead producer is his wife, Fran.) “Will their work take on a certain texture? Of course. Just like Hillary will run a different campaign than Donald Trump.”

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