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Posts Tagged ‘Madam C.J. Walker’

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending the Songwriters’ Showcase at Theatreworks, a theater company in Mountain View. One of the reasons I adore Theatreworks is because of their dedicated commitment to supporting new works in both straight plays and musical theater. They put on a New Works Festival every spring and often stage world and regional premieres for theater in development. And every winter they host a writers’ retreat (for those working on musicals) that concludes with a performance showcasing what the writers have been working on – the Songwriters’ Showcase I previously mentioned.

I noticed certain trends in the material presented at the showcase that I’d like to discuss. Now, the retreat program is fairly small at this time and only four works-in-progress were showcased; the limited sample makes it dangerous to extrapolate out beyond this program with much confidence. Indeed, these trends may not even be indicative of an overall pattern in the retreat program. But nonetheless, they provide food for thought.

First off, of the four works presented, all four were being worked on by teams of two, and each team consisted of one man and one woman. Every team was made up of a composer/lyricist and the playwright or book writer (the one who writes the script and develops the story). This mirrors the trend in the wider world of combining the work of composer and lyricist into one crucial role, instead of dividing it into two integral jobs as was done earlier in musical theater’s history (think Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb, Lerner & Loewe, Schonberg & Boublil, to name just a few). Examples of more recent composers who are also lyricists (sometimes very excellent ones) include: Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel, etc.

Another interesting fact about these teams was that in three out of four cases, the man was the composer/lyricist and the woman was the playwright. See all those names above? Also all men. So this might be reflecting a wider trend as well. (An interesting side note: when I took my required 20th century music history course, we studied pretty much no women composers. When the prof was asked about it, he said that no women had produced work that stood out enough to be included in a survey course. Ouch.)

One of the works was a fairy tale-like story directed at a children’s theater audience. Fairy tales are a perennial hit, not just for Disney but also for children’s musical theater, so this is a smart financial choice (although the piece needed some work to have the correct children’s theater “feel”, which in its present state is a bit uneven). The songs were for the most part derivative, easily recognizable as being a certain “style” and indeed sounded Disney-esque, which in a show like this is not necessarily a bad thing at all.

The other three musicals, all of which were directed primarily at an adult audience, were concerned with issues of race. One show revolved around  the Weathermen of the 60s and 70s, one was about the life of Madam C.J. Walker, a black entrepreneur and philanthropist who was also the first woman to become a self-made millionaire (she specialized in hair products for black women). The last one was partly based on the Scheherazade framing story in the Arabian Nights, but with a modern component featuring a romance between a Jew and a Palestinian. While race was a main issue addressed in the shows, only one person in the eight on the creative teams was a person of color (I can’t speak to religious affiliations, of course).

Which musical do I most want to see in its completed form? Without a doubt I’m most excited to watch the one about Madam C.J. Walker. Both the script writing and the music crackled with vitality, and it has the potential to be a fascinating show exploring both Madam C.J. Walker’s life and accomplishments, and her troubled relationship with her daughter.

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