NOTES: The New York Pops celebrate “Women of Notes”
On Friday night at Carnegie Hall, the New York Pops presented “Women of Notes: In Dedication to Female Composers and Lyricists”, a concert featuring vocalists Betsy Wolfe (“Waitress”) and Adam Kantor (“The Band’s Visit”), who took the night off from their current Broadway gigs.
“Honoring women feels the most important thing to do tonight”, said Mr. Kantor from the stage of the storied Isaac Stern Auditorium. And he was right. This concert in celebration of female composers and lyricists of stage, screen, and the recording studio capped off another week in which revelations of sexual assault by prominent, powerful men filled the headlines. Although planning for the concert began in 2015, its performance could not have come at a better moment.
Music Director and Conductor Steven Reineke faced the unenviable task of distilling decades of contributions by women in popular music into one evening of celebration. The final program was, as always with the Pops, quite enjoyable, but also quite telling.
The sad truth is that while female singer/songwriters have found space for their voices to thrive in the recording studio, the American Songbook is highly dominated by men, as has been the world of musical theatre.
To wit, “Women of Notes” began with two pieces by Mary Rodgers (daughter of Richard Rodgers, mother of Adam Guettel) who is best known for composing the score to “Once Upon a Mattress” in 1959, her first full-length musical and, as it turned out, the apex of her composing career. Another female composer for the musical theatre did not appear until Act II, with two pieces from Jeanine Tesori’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie”. Nestled among songs by Carole King and Dolly Parton were compositions featuring female lyricists Betty Comden (“On the Town”, “Bells are Ringing”, “On the Twentieth Century”), Carolyn Leigh (“Peter Pan”, “Little Me”), and Lynn Ahrens (“Once on this Island”, “Ragtime”), all working with male composers.
The chasm between Rodgers and Tesori—1959 and 2003—is a disappointing fact of female representation in musical theatre. In 1973, Micki Grant became the first woman to be nominated for a Tony Award for Best Score for “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope”; Elizabeth Swados followed in 1978 for “Runaways”, and Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman in 1991 for “The Secret Garden”. Cyndi Lauper was the first woman to win solo for “Kinky Boots” in 2013; Tesori and lyricist Lisa Kron became the first all-female writing team to win in 2015 for “Fun Home”.
In 53 years of Tony Awards for best original score, 5 women have won a total of 7 awards (2 for music, 5 for lyrics). The good news is that this is changing.
While the chasm between Rodgers and Tesori is large, the crevices among Tesori and Georgia Stitt, Shaina Taub, and Sara Bareilles—each of whom made special appearances at the concert—are increasingly small. Newer works by these younger women were invigorating highlights of the program. Indeed, alongside songs from “Once” and “In Transit”, the songs from these female artists portend great change in representation on the creative teams of musicals. Next time the Pops tackle a program celebrating women artists, it would be good to see more women of color represented, and perhaps fewer men.
I was delighted to learn that Ms. Stitt (who is married to composer Jason Robert Brown), heads up Maestra, a community of female theater composers in New York. Few are household names today, but I expect to see and hear more in the years to come—at the theatre and also at Carnegie Hall.