This Year’s Hottest Musicals Tell the Empowering Stories of Women Artists

Illustration: Craig & Karl

The songs from this season’s most anticipated musicals may be a blast from the (not-so-distant) past, but the message of female empowerment couldn’t be timelier.

Last July, Gwyneth Paltrow hosted a garden party in Amagansett, New York. This wasn’t a goop pop-up shop or a clambake for her Hollywood friends, but rather a chance to introduce potential investors to the Broadway musical she is producing, Head over Heels, an Elizabethan comedy set to the music of the iconic 1980s band, the Go-Go’s (opening on Broadway July 26). “It was billed as a tea party,” Paltrow’s coproducer Donovan Leitch said at the time, “but it was rosé all day.”

The director of Head over Heels, Michael Mayer (who won a Tony for directing Spring Awakening), recalled Paltrow’s very personal sales pitch: “She basically talked about the show and why she loved it and what a fan she is of the Go-Go’s. She said, ‘They’re my favorite band. Don’t tell my baby daddy I said that.’ ” When asked what Head over Heels was about, Mayer said something about the 16th-century poem “Arcadia” and iambic pentameter before pronouncing, “It’s about sort of the demise of the patriarchy.”


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Ten years ago, a politically charged Go-Go’s musical would have been the last thing you’d expect to see onstage. Jukebox musicals had yet to take off, and even when they did, they didn’t exactly court controversy. Plus, boys seemed to have all the fun: We’ve seen Jersey Boys; the Green Day musical, American Idiot; the 1980s-hair-metal spoof, Rock of Ages; even High Fidelity, a musical about “the last real record store on earth.”

But 2018 promises to be a timely celebration of sisters doing it for themselves. There is a musical based on Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, which opened at American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in May, as well as ones on the lives of Donna Summer (which opened in New York in April) and Cher (The Cher Show, with costumes by Bob Mackie, is currently in previews in Chicago). While romance plays a part in these shows, it’s far from the whole story. These are complex, layered narratives about women on harrowing journeys of empowerment and self-love—set to the adolescent anthems you shouted in your car, or danced to on Saturday night, or quoted back to your parents. Songs like “You Oughta Know” and “Our Lips Are Sealed” are cultural sign-posts that said something about a young woman finding her way in the world. “She Works Hard for the Money”? And for 80 cents on the dollar.

These songs were about women who didn’t care what men thought. Critics might dismiss a Go-Go’s musical as a nostalgia play. But what was Jersey Boys? For parents who dragged their daughters to see the Four Seasons doo-wop for 11 years on Broadway, it’s payback time. “There is a female-forward new wave of culture happening,” Paltrow says. “We are living in a fantastic moment where space is being created for female expression in all forms.” She’s also making history: Head over Heels will star Peppermint, a former contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, who will become the first transgender actor to originate a principal role in a Broadway musical.


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This wave isn’t merely overdue; it’s also just plain smart producing. According to the Broadway League, which tracks attendance data, two-thirds of all Broadway attendees in 2016–2017 were women, and more than half of ticket-buying decisions were made by women. (Which bodes well for Elton John’s adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, currently in the works.)

While musicals take years (sometimes decades) to develop, these shows are right on time; we’re seeing a cultural moment live onstage, writ large—and sung bigly. Morissette calls the pileup of musicals a case of “divine timing.” She adds: “Anger is such a natural, gorgeous force of nature that courses through us when we want to make a change.” The women in these shows may belt their faces off, but tread lightly before calling them divas, she cautions. For Morissette it’s a dangerous word. “It depends who is saying it and what they’re using it for,” she says. The term can serve as a weapon or praise. “If you’re using it as a compliment—as a divine goddess— then hallelujah.”


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In Summer: The Donna Summer Story three actresses portray the Queen of Disco at different stages of her life. Her most famous hits are all in the show—“MacArthur Park,” “Dim All the Lights,” “Bad Girls”—but the story resonates on a surprisingly visceral level. She suffered sexual abuse, clashed with a record company executive over money, and battled addiction and, later, cancer. She sold millions of records but still fought for respect during the fervent disco backlash. As her character laments in the show: “For the longest time people had me convinced there was something wrong with this music.” Winner of five Grammy Awards, Summer was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—but only after her death in 2012.

For these shows to succeed, producers would be wise to see Sara Bareilles’s Waitress as a case study. In 2016, Waitress was nominated for four Tony Awards, including best musical, and while the reviews were kind, no one could have predicted the show would still be packing the house in its third year on Broadway. (Katharine McPhee, who competed on American Idol, just stepped into the lead role, which should keep ticket sales robust.) The musical, adapted from Adrienne Shelley’s 2007 movie, is about Jenna, a pie baker at a small-town diner who gets pregnant by her abusive husband and has an affair with her (also married) doctor. Says director Diane Paulus: “This is a story that ends with a woman taking agency, and not finding her answer in a guy and also, frankly, a woman running her own business. It’s not lost on me that the last three bows in Waitress are women.”


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Paulus is currently staging Jagged Little Pill, inspired by the 1995 album, which sold more than 33 million copies and won five Grammy Awards. Diablo Cody, whose screenplay for Juno won an Oscar, makes her playwriting debut here, boosting the show’s girl-power bona fides. Plot details remain under wraps—the songs are being worked into an original narrative about gender identity and race—but the inspirations are productions like Hair and Rent, Cody says, calling them “shows that felt like they were of-the-moment but have still endured.”

Jagged Little Pill will include Morissette’s most famous rallying cries—anthems like “You Oughta Know,” “Ironic,” and “Hand in My Pocket.” But the night will be just as much about catharsis and healing. “This could be a spoiler alert,” Cody says, but the audience will walk out of the theater humming a song from a different Morissette album. “There’s a line in ‘Thank U’ that’s so simple but it kind of complicates it: ‘How ’bout grieving it all one at a time.’ She’s saying, ‘We can feel hurt about all the things in our lives, but let’s deal with them step-by-step.’ Alanis is so good at setting up a paradox.”

The show was still in rehearsals when we spoke, but Cody was cautiously optimistic. “I’m certainly not planning the South American tour,” she says. “But I hope tour buses full of women pull up. It would be awesome if this became a bonding experience.”