Hillary Clinton famously turned to yoga, wine and long walks to help her get over the difficult aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. What you may not know is the theater and the arts helped her find peace of mind as well.
Referring to her loss against now-President Donald Trump, Clinton at the third annual Women’s Day on Broadway event on Tuesday said, “I confess that my long walks in the woods and my share of Chardonnay got most of the attention."
She continued, “But I also saw a lot of shows. And boy, did that help me, no matter what was happening. There was nothing like sinking into a seat, feeling the excitement and anticipation as the lights went down, and being transported out of our crazy world for at least a little while.”
The former first lady and secretary of state half-jokingly said that being an audience member is one of her “most cherished roles” because, or perhaps in spite, of the fact that her infant daughter once urged her not to sing.
She also addressed the gender equality gap in the theater world. Though she called 2016 a "high watermark when it came to celebrating voices that were once marginalized" with "Hamilton" and "The Color Purple" sweeping the Tony Awards, the following years haven't continued that trend. (Of the 41 shows on Broadway this season, 10 shows were directed by women, three had female makeup designers and only two had female sound designers.)
Clinton noted that younger, less distinguished men have their theatrical work produced more often than accomplished women because “women are judged for what we’ve done while men are praised for what they promise to do.”
Her remarks capped an afternoon event to promote gender equality on Broadway—both onstage and off. It was hosted by the group Women of Broadway, which invited the Broadway community to gather at the New Amsterdam Theater in midtown Manhattan. Tony Award-winning performers, producers, costume designers and more shared their stories of struggle and celebration.
Taking the stage
Anne Quart, senior vice president and co-producer of Disney Theatrical Group (which currently produces “Frozen,” “The Lion King,” and “Aladdin”), said that the idea for the gathering was born at the height of the #MeToo movement, just before the female-centric “Frozen” opened on Broadway in March 2018.
Quart and a colleague shared their stories about being working women in theater: “Most of the rooms we walk into are mostly, if not all, men, and a lot of collaborative creative teams are for the most part men, and there are a lot of struggles that come with that.” So she planned an event to give women the opportunity to share their stories on a bigger stage.
She didn’t how many people would show up. But when close to 1,000 women came to listen and learn, Quart and Disney Theatricals saw enough value in the process to repeat it annually.
Quart doesn’t want the event to be prescriptive; instead, she said that creating connection is “the overarching goal.” She hopes attendees will see their organizations through a different lens and ask questions like, “Am I being inclusive? Are we considering equality from a gender perspective? Or if we’re not, what are some things we can do?”
Sharing their stories
Diane Paulus, the award-winning director of Broadway’s female driven “Jagged Little Pill” musical rallied the crowd in her opening remarks yesterday by quoting a letter Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, in 1776: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Many of the panelists’ stories throughout the three-hour event were similar: women were told they couldn’t have the careers they dreamed of having. And they pursued their goals anyway.
Beth Williams, currently a Producer with Grove Entertainment (their “Diana” and “Company” open on Broadway this spring), said that when she started out as a young keyboard player who wanted to learn to conduct the orchestra, she was told, “No woman would ever conduct ‘Les Mis’ because it was too long and too difficult.” Bolstered by advice to buckle down and “do the work,” she didn’t give up on her dream. Eight months later, she became the first woman to conduct “Les Mis.”
Sonya Tayeh, the Emmy winning choreographer of Broadway’s “Moulin Rouge” and the upcoming “Sing Street,” told the audience that she expresses her equality in a physical way. “I have a different way of sitting in a room with a bunch of men,” she said. “I stand.”
Schele Williams, who originated the role of Nehebka in the Broadway production of “Aida,” is set to direct the North American tour of the same show. How did she make the transition from actor to director? By following the advice of musical director Stephen Oremus, who told her to simply start telling people that she was a director “because that’s what men do.” Williams said, “I had to claim and own exactly what I wanted to…fiercely.”
Renee Blinkwolt, Managing Director of Ars Nova (an artistic hub for emerging talent to make smart, surprising work), offered advice to women who may doubt themselves for speaking up in male-dominated spaces. She said, “If they think you’re too much, trust yourself…they’re too little.”
In their opening and closing speeches, Paulus and Clinton both referenced the words of Rachel Chavkin, who was the only female director of a Broadway musical last season…and she won a Tony Award for it. In her acceptance speech, Chavkin said, “This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job it is to imagine the way the world could be.” Clinton raised the stakes even further, saying, "Nothing is more important than imagining and then inventing the future that we want.”
While celebrating the changemakers for their effort, Clinton urged women in theater to keep using their voices because “we cannot afford to go backwards.”
She said, “It’s about changing minds and hearts. And it really matters when women’s stories are told on the most high-profile stages in America.”