Guys, Dolls, and Directing
Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the director and choreographer of the Kennedy Center's hit revival of "Ragtime," is the hook for Peter Marks' feature in today's Washington Post, but the story's true subject is the paucity of female directors in big-budget musical theater. Dodge -- who, at 54, had been flying beneath the radar for decades before her D.C. breakthrough this spring -- is an excellent case in point. As Marks notes, "She happens to be the first woman to direct a major musical produced by the Kennedy Center." (It opened for business in 1971.)
It might be surprising that in 2009, women are still having to grope their way to the power seat in an artistic field such as theater. And the helm of a musical, with its complex and expensive working parts, is perhaps the most difficult and challenging position the theater has to offer. Yet for all the successes of a Julie Taymor ("The Lion King") or a Susan Stroman ("The Producers"), women even today only occasionally receive the assignment to direct a big-budget, big-showcase musical.
The irony is stark: In the rest of the culture, almost nothing is perceived as being girlier than musicals. But, again, that women seldom get the high-profile musical directing jobs is only surprising to those who haven't been paying attention. It was just 1998 when Julie Taymor became the first woman to win a best-director Tony Award for a musical ("The Lion King") -- minutes after Garry Hynes became the first woman to win a best-director Tony of any kind, triumphing in the play category, for "The Beauty Queen of Leenane." As The New York Times put it in its next-day coverage, "It took more than half a century for the Tonys to present its first directing award to a woman. It took five minutes to present the second one." (Bizarrely, this news was mentioned in the tenth paragraph.)
The floodgates have not exactly burst open since then. Producer Rocco Landesman, President Obama's surprising nominee to head the National Endowment for the Arts, explained in the Times in 2005, "On Broadway, progress is slow." He added:
But change is coming, however slowly. We'll get used to their styles (Watching Susan Stroman direct ''The Producers'' was a revelation; talk about velvet glove, iron fist!) and certainly, their successes. Nothing changes perceptions like a hit. The women directors I know have proved that they can get everything they want while still being decent to people. The famously bullying Jerome Robbins is just not the role model for them and the Broadway theater is better for it.
Change will come faster if more women are allowed into the directing pipeline, making their presence at the helm of a production less of an aberration, thus nudging producers and artists to envision them there when the list of collaborators is being drawn up. The more work they do, the more work they'll get. And with any luck, the most talented among them won't have to spend decades, like Dodge, building their résumés in relative obscurity.