Broadway actresses celebrate Women's History Month

Performers from six of this spring's Broadway shows share what being a woman in the arts means to them and how their shows uplift women past and present.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Countries around the world have recognized International Women's Day on March 8 since the 1910s. In the '80s, the event blossomed into Women's History Month, an extended celebration of women and their contributions to all types of fields. Broadway, of course, is no exception.

Live theatre is a particularly special place to experience the work of women. It's impossible not to appreciate the abilities of great actresses, writers, and directors to make you feel deeply when they're doing so right before your eyes. These experiences unite people of various generations and backgrounds as any given audience experiences that work at the same time.

Take it from Emmy nominee Jessica Hecht, who's starring in a women-led play this spring: Summer, 1976, in which she and Laura Linney play vastly different women who form a deep and unexpected bond.

"I find stories about women’s friendship and the journey to self-fulfillment makes me reflect on my mother and daughter in a deeply inspiring and cathartic way," Hecht said. "I hope our complex and heartfelt story can do the same for others."

But Summer, 1976 is far from the only show celebrating women right now. Below, hear more actresses from five other women-led shows reflect on the past, present, and future of women on Broadway, including the trailblazers that preceded them and the contributions they're now making to women's theatre history.

On honoring the history of women in theatre

Dozens of famous women have played Roxie Hart in Chicago's premiere production in the '70s and the current revival, which opened in 1996. But no woman has played the celebrity criminal longer than Charlotte D’Amboise, who has clocked more than 200 total weeks in the role since 1999. Playing Roxie made her reflect on the many stars who have taken the spotlight before her, not just in Chicago, but in various musicals with now-unforgettable female characters.

"Musical theatre thrives on women and the iconic roles they have created," d'Amboise said. "Bernadette Peters, Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand, Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Julie Andrews, Patti LuPone, Angela Lansbury, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Audra McDonald, Betty Buckley, Donna Murphy, just to name a few. They are the true stars of Broadway!

"One of the reasons Chicago the Musical is such a huge success is because it’s about women. It celebrates their power, their survivability, their sexuality, and their feminine wit and charm. Who doesn’t want to witness that?"

Julie Benko, who alternates with Lea Michele as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, also has history on her mind. She isn't just playing an iconic character — she's playing an iconic person. The real-life Brice, who wasn't considered conventionally attractive in her time, bucked expectations to become a comedy star in the Ziegfeld Follies.

"Through her intelligence, charisma, talent, and sheer force of will, she forged a unique path for herself and proved that female performers could be celebrated for something more than their looks," Benko said. "Whenever I tell her story at Funny Girl, I think about inviting her spirit on stage with me. I know there’s nowhere else she’d rather be.

"She paved the way for so many incredible talents to follow, from Lucille Ball to Carol Burnett to Tina Fey to Jane Lynch and beyond," Benko continued, "all while working as a single mother!"

Funny Girl ensemble member Leslie Blake Walker can attest to that, too. "Funny Girl exhibits so many of the challenges that women have had to face in the arts, from pay discrepancies, to having to conform to a certain physical appearance in order to succeed," she said.

"My mother was a Follies-style showgirl in Vegas, so the historical impact of Fanny and the Ziegfeld Follies runs deep for me and my family. It is a privilege to bevel onstage every night in honor of those women."

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On showcasing contemporary women's voices on stage

The historical work of women in theatre paved the way for today's female voices to shine. Cast members of multiple Broadway shows also praised the fellow women currently working alongside them.

One example is Kimberly Akimbo, two of whose lead creatives are women: composer/lyricist Jeanine Tesori and director Jessica Stone. "Their point of view is real, uncompromising, heartbreaking, hilarious — in short, complex as life itself," said Victoria Clark, who plays the musical's title character. "It means everything to be a part of this community, to be learning every day about what it means to be a storyteller, and in some small way to have the opportunity to open hearts and minds."

"Being in a show like Kimberly Akimbo, with so many different women represented, both on stage and off, from varying experiences, is an utter joy, and the show itself gives a beautiful complexity to us all," echoed Bonnie Milligan, who plays Kimberly's Aunt Deb. "At times when it feels like many things are against us, we can be in a space with a true voice. We can show that we have strength, vulnerability, humor, deep pain, longings, and dreams; we are everyone and everything."

The pop-punk fairytale rewrite Bad Cinderella also has multiple women on board, including book writer Emerald Fennell and choreographer JoAnn Hunter. Ensemble member Paige Smallwood recalled something Hunter said that has stuck with her: “When things get kooky, [because the world can be a kooky place], you have to just trust who you are.”

"JoAnn has taught me what it means to step into my power," Smallwood continued. "To push the boundaries of what I thought possible. As a woman, specifically a woman of color, in this industry, I have been taught to make myself small. But the second I walked into JoAnn’s room, I was gifted the freedom to be as big as I want/truly am.

"Working with and learning from a legend like her, and a fellow woman of color, my scope of attainable goals has only widened and I know I will never go back to being 'small' ever again."

On expanding representation for women on Broadway

Women in theatre, of course, are no monolith. Celebrating Women's History Month on Broadway means celebrating the varied talents and perspectives each woman brings to the stories they tell on stage, and continually advocating for such diversity.

Broadway veteran Carolee Carmello, for one, has had a decades-long career that's still going strong. She's been particularly busy this season with two fan-favorite performances: as John Dickinson in 1776 and now as the Stepmother in Bad Cinderella.

"At this point in my life and career, I feel like it’s more important than ever for me to represent women of a different generation," Carmello said. "There is such an emphasis on youthful beauty in the entertainment world and as a woman of 60, I feel that I still have vitality. So many wonderful, talented older women still have so much to offer!"

Leandra Ellis-Gaston, who recently took over the role of Anne Boleyn in Six, reflected on her part in Black female representation on Broadway.

"Being a woman in the performing arts is a constant reminder that I'm my ancestors' wildest dreams; my heart is part of a fabric that is Black and women's history," Ellis-Gaston said. "It moves my spirit because I'm a constant example as a Black woman of what is possible, and I've only just begun."

Her show is a prime example of that possibility, as Six not only gives fresh voice to overlooked historical figures (Henry VIII's six wives), but to the contemporary women that play them.

"Six represents the celebrating, uplifting, and empowerment of all women," Ellis-Gaston continued. "Six reminds young girls that the power to change the world is within you — one man was a part of a story when six women changed history."

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Photo credit: Julie Benko, Leandra Ellis-Gaston, and Victoria Clark. (Photos by Evan Zimmerman and Joan Marcus)

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