Is the Pipeline a Pipe Dream for Emerging Women Musical Theater Writers?

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Is the Pipeline a Pipe Dream for Emerging Women Musical Theater Writers?

by EllaRose Chary

The problem is not that women can’t excel at music – instead it seems as if the only way for women to succeed in musical theater is to leave the genre, gain success elsewhere, and then possibly come back.

We can’t change problems we don’t see.

To me, the great triumph of The Count (the ongoing study, undertaken by The Lillys in partnership with The Dramatists Guild, that asks the question, “Who is being produced in American theaters?”) is that it names and quantifies a reality that without data can be dismissed as speculation. Work by women writers is incredibly underrepresented in the American theater.

As an emerging musical theater writer, I notice a parallel problem to the one addressed in The Count that is happening much further down the “pipeline.” It’s generally acknowledged that musical theater writers who are starting their careers need financial support (musicals are more expensive to write than plays, they are more expensive to workshop and the path to production is longer). To this end, a number of awards with large financial prizes have been set up to fund early career writers and the development of their shows. Though we know that women, people of color, and queer/trans people are more likely to need this financial support (hello, gender pay gap!), the majority of this early career funding is going to white men.

Looking at the data regarding which writers get early career support in conjunction with the data regarding who’s getting produced, we can see a not so surprising correlation. The Count found that 22% of unique productions in the United States are by women. In the data I’ve broken down below, on average 24% of the winners of the major financial awards for emerging musical theater writers are women. While it’s not an exact comparison, those percentages are incredibly close. And, as I break down numerically later in this piece, this is not a correlation with a merit-based causation – in other words, there’s no evidence that white men are disproportionately winning these awards and getting produced because their work is 75-80% better than their non-white men peers. Instead, there is strong evidence that this is similar to the systemic disenfranchisement of women and people of color that is well documented in most fields in America.

Women are underrepresented in the American theater, particularly in musical theater (more on that below). This is in large part because we’re underfunded early in our careers compared to our male peers. Fortunately, this is something we can name and quantify, and once we do, it’s something we can fix.

Since this is in the context of The Count, let’s look at the numbers. What are the major awards and who’s winning them? Please note that when I say individual writer, I’m counting each member of the team as a winner, rather than counting the whole team as one winner. When I say unique writer, that means I’m only counting someone once, even if they’ve won the award multiple times.

  • Fred Ebb Award (for composers/lyricists) – $50,000 (in 2016 it will be $60,000). Given by the Fred Ebb Foundation, this award has been around annually since 2005. 20% of the winners have been women (3 out of 14 total winners); all of these women have been white. It’s also important to note that despite this award primarily going to men winning on their own as composer/lyricists (and therefore not having to split the money), there has never been a woman who has won this award on her own.

  • The Kleban Prize in Musical Theatre (for librettists and lyricists) – $100,000. Administered by New Dramatists on behalf of the Kleban Foundation. 29% of the winners have been women (19 out of 66).

  • Jonathan Larson Grants (for composers, lyricists, librettists) – the dollar amount varies-last year it was $10,000. These grants are supported by the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation and the Larson Family, and sustained by the American Theatre Wing. 24% of the winners have been women. Since 1998, the grants have been given to 104 individual, unique writers. 25 of those recipients have been women. Less than half of those 25 have been women of color. (A few times this award has gone to organizations on behalf of shows; I am not counting those writers in this data as they did not receive money directly from the award.)

  • The Richard Rodgers Award (for a show) – varying levels of production funding. This award is given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 18% of winners have been women over the course of 35 yearsThe Rodgers Awards website lists the history of winners dating back to 1980. In that time, there have been 128 unique writers who have won the award, and 24 of those have been women.

  • The National Musical Theater Conference (for a show) – 2-week writing residency with public performances at The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. This conference goes back to 1978. They’ve broken down past winners on their website in 10 year blocks. In the early years, the numbers resemble the other awards, with unique women writers being 18% of the winnersIn some decades women were almost 30% of winners, but that was rare. Overall, the numbers are nowhere near 50/50. More strikingly, in recent years, things have not gotten better. In 2015, 6 writers were selected, 1 was a woman. In 2014, there was parity, 2 men and 2 women selected. In 2013, all 7 of the winners were men. In 2012, there were 7 writers selected, 5 men and 2 women. When you look at women of color in these numbers, the statistics are abysmal, with fewer than 10 women of color writers winning in the nearly 40 year history of this award.

  • The Yale Institute for Musical Theatre (for a show) – 2-week summer development lab at the Yale School of Drama. 34% of unique writers selected have been women. This program has only been around since 2009, and to their credit women have been selected every year, which is not the case for any of the previously mentioned awards.

  • National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals (for a show) – one week workshop culminating in a 45-minute presentation for artistic directors and literary staff from regional theaters around the country. Writers also get a stipend. Of the 497 unique writers served by NAMT in the 27 years of the festival, 97 have been women, which is 20%. This is especially important as NAMT is a place where regional producers of musicals go to find new shows to do. How can we look at the percentage of women produced in The Count and not consider the almost identical percentage of women being offered this opportunity to let producers know about their work?

  • On an exciting note, in 2015, a new award just for emerging musical theater women writers was created, the Billy Burke Ziegfeld award ($10,000) given by the Ziegfeld Club, Inc. In its inaugural year, this award went to a woman of color. However, this award prioritizes women composers, as it is only open to solo women composer/lyricists, composer/lyricist teams of women, and composer/lyricist teams with male lyricists. There is no comparable award just for women lyricists or bookwriters.

It can be helpful to have a visual representation of this data, these pie charts show the proportion of men and women winning the awards:

A few additional notes on this data:

  • In the 2014-15 season, all of the big money awards that go personally to writers (not their shows), a total of almost $300,000, went to white men.

  • I didn’t attempt to look at how many of the women represented were queer or trans. That’s beyond the scope of this piece, but I do want to note that queer women and trans people are incredibly underrepresented in musical theater, as we are in most spaces, both as writers and in terms of what characters are being written. I find this of particular note because of how much better represented queer men are in musical theater compared to non-musical theater and the culture at large.

  • When you look across these awards, it’s typically the same women who have won each award. Because more men have won, a broader swath of men are benefitting from these financial opportunities, whereas for women, these awards as a group are just supporting a handful of writers. g. in 2015, two major awards went to the same woman, whereas the men she shared those awards with were different.

  • I have not included the Dramatists Guild of America Dramatists Guild Fellows Program in the above list because it does not come with a large financial prize or a full workshop/showcase. However, I feel I would be remiss not to mention it here. I am a Fellow this year, that’s how I came to be asked to write this piece. The Lilly Awards and The Count are closely tied to the Guild. We cannot ask other organizations to look at their numbers without looking at our own. This year the Musical Theater Fellowship does not have parity – there are 7 Fellows, 5 men, 2 women. 5 of us are white. Contrast this to the playwrights in the Fellowship Program – 5 writers, 3 women, 2 men, all people of color. In 2014-15 there was gender parity among MT Fellows, but they were all white. In 2013-14, there were 7 MT Fellows, again 5 men, 2 women. In 2012-13, 8 MT Fellows, 6 men, 2 women. I find this incredibly important to note, because it’s not just some organizations that need to do better; the entirety of the professional musical theater is implicated in this trend.

  • For this piece, I focused only on opportunities that come with a large financial component for the writers or the shows; however, there are many other opportunities for emerging musical theater writers that help us get noticed or develop material to submit for these awards. It’s worth noting that none of those opportunities have gender parity if you look at their entire histories, either.

Are there just not enough women writing musicals? One way to account for the disparity in these numbers is that there are fewer women writing musicals and applying for these awards. This may be true. There are greater barriers of entry for women into the musical theater world – particularly women composers. Financial concerns are a huge part of this. Not only does it cost a significant amount of money to train as a musician throughout one’s life, the likelihood that women will earn money in musical theater is reduced because the opportunities for women to have their work done is reduced. It’s a self selection negative feedback loop. The financial opportunities represented in these awards are crucial in breaking this negative feedback loop.

But, additionally, this is where it’s helpful to separate composers and bookwriter/lyricists. Because this logic behind the lack of supply breaks down if you look at the numbers of the women who are training to write words for musicals. The two major training programs in New York for emerging musical theater writers are the NYU Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program (GMTWP) and the BMI Musical Theater Workshop. These programs tend to be entry points for emerging writers.

Between 2012 and 2014, the percentage of women in both programs was nearly 10 points higher than the percentage of awards winners (38% at BMI, 39.5% at GMTWP). And when we separate out “wordspeople” at GMTWP, the numbers become more striking. GMTWP graduated 23 women “wordspeople” compared to 19 men “wordspeople.” As a 2010 graduate of this program, I can say these numbers are consistent with the number of women who were “wordspeople” going back even 6 or 7 years. Furthermore, an award like the Kleban, only goes to “wordspeople.” Women writing words are eligible for all of the awards mentioned. Even if you assume it takes time between graduating and being qualified to win, the number of winners is not proportionate with the number of people training at the highest level to go into the field:


When it comes to book and lyrics, the percentage of women training to write musicals is disproportionate to the percentage of women being supported early in their careers through these awards. There is not a supply problem.

However, there are fewer women composers in musical theater. In part because of the barriers to entry financial and otherwise, that I have already mentioned. Additionally, bias against women in music extends beyond just our field, and the analysis in other genres can be used to gain information about the underrepresentation of women composers. Claudia Goldin and Cecelia Rouse released a study in 2000 called “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians.” Their study documents the historic discrimination against and exclusion of women in classical music, and demonstrates that when orchestras and symphonies adopted blind hiring processes in the 1970s and 1980s, the number of women hired went up – a trend demonstrably not caused by a flood of new women musicians in the field. In other words, there were the same number of women auditioning, but when they were being judged blindly on their skills, they were more likely to be hired.

This lesson is well-heeded in musical theater. The problem is not that women can’t excel at music. We see this in the data and by looking around at other musical forms. There are successful, talented women composers in the pop world who come to musical theater once they have the clout to succeed here – and their music anchors big name, highly anticipated and/or successful Broadway shows (KINKY BOOTS, WAITRESS, BEAUTIFUL, to name a few). However, this path does not encourage emerging women composers to stay in musical theater – instead it seems as if the only way for women to succeed in musical theater is to leave the genre, gain success elsewhere, and then possibly come back. That’s not the most direct route for fostering new talent.

What strikes me so harshly about this trend of disproportionately giving men these awards is that it feels contradictory to the nature of the awards themselves. In the name of some of the great innovators of our form, writers who changed our ideas of what a musical could possibly be and be about, with the money that they left behind to specifically advance that vision, we are doing just the opposite by only lifting up a certain set of voices.

The Count recognizes that the stories we tell are the stories we notice, and the voices telling those stories are directly related to whose stories get told. I hope that by adding these numbers to the data, musical theater can benefit from the same naming and quantifying that makes The Count at large so successful. Musicals have a far cultural reach. Fixing our own parity problem gives us the opportunity to have an impact on the parity problem in the culture at large. So, let’s see this reality and change it.

EllaRose Chary is a bookwriter/lyricist whose work focuses on issues of social justice. She is a 2015-16 Dramatists Guild Fellow, 2014-15 Ars Nova Uncharted Resident, and 2013 NYFA Fellowship Finalist. Graduate of Brown University (BA) and NYU Tisch (MFA).

[Special thanks to: Laura Brandel, Maggie-Kate Coleman, Dyan Flores, Rick Freyer, Brandon James Gwinn, Maggie Keenan-Bolger, Rachel Kunstadt, Teresa Lotz, Kristen SaBerre, Charly Simpson, Angie Thurston, Sara Wordsworth, and Julia Jordan, Chelsea Marcantel, Marsha Norman and the Lillys Board for their assistance with this article.]