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12/19/08
Oh Those Broadway Dames!

I have a suggestion for the producers of Shrek the Musical: Give Sutton Foster four—or six—more songs and rename the show Fiona the Musical. It’s clear who the real star is here, so why not give her more room to roam? Not to detract from Brian d’Arcy James, who as Shrek does the best he can under a cumbersome costume and heavy latex, but Foster owns the show. When she’s on stage, she’s magnetic; when she’s not, her presence is still felt, like a phantom limb.Like Cameron Diaz, who voiced Fiona in the movies, Foster has a knack for appealing to both men and women. She’s sexily rambunctious—or is that rambunctiously sexy?—and her self-confidence comes across as winning and goofy, not aggressive. She plays well with others, too: Shrek himself is at his best in his second-act duet with Fiona, “I Think I Got You Beat.” In other words, Sutton Foster is a natural-born star, as her performance from Thoroughly Modern Millie‘s “Forget About The Boy” from the 2002 Tony Awards.

But that the show would be a million times better if she headlined it shouldn’t be a surprise as this is musical theater we’re talking about, and unlike film, politics or the teamsters, it is largely ruled by women. (Well, at least on stage—Shrek’s own composer, Jeanine Tesori, is one of the few gals behind the scenes.) Short of freak accidents like Jersey Boys, most of the musicals on the Great White Way feature women in the spotlight, or at least in juicy supporting turns. (This applies, to a slightly lesser extent, to plays as well.) If you need a star to open a show, there’s ten leading women to every man.

Does it have something to do with the fact that women drive theater-ticket sales, whereas the common wisdom is that boys and young men drive movie-ticket sales? I don’t know, but the fact is that women don’t stop to exist on the New York stage when they age. Okay, it’s not all rosy, to be sure, but the situation is a lot less bad than it is in film or TV. Some of it has to do with the special connection between women and musical theater, and some of it has to do with the stage itself.

Every time I read about an actress bemoaning the lack of worthy roles in Hollywood, I just want to tell her: Come to the stage! Not only will it have you, but it’ll give you the plummy parts you deserve! Look at Stockard Channing in Pal Joey: She’s 64 and beds the titular cad, played by 27-year-old Matthew Risch. When Marian Seldes and Angela Lansbury (joint years of stage experience in the triple digits) teamed up in Deuce a few years ago, local theater lovers were excited. (Or at least they were until they saw the show, but that’s not the point, is it?) And one of the events of the spring season is the return of Jane Fonda to Broadway at age 71.

This embrace of, shall we say, mature dames feels counterintuitive. You’d think live performance would be less kind to age, as the audience is close enough to see wrinkles and chicken necks and may prefer feasting its eyes on unlined flesh, while the magic of cinema (vaseline on the lenses! special FX! CGI!) could conceivably extend the screen life of just about anybody dependent on their looks to remain employable. And yet the opposite is true: We see every nook and cranny, and we love it. Now if only the theater could extend the same opportunities to female writers and directors…

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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