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Grab ‘em by the Playbill

Broadway’s most powerful leading ladies react to the nation’s political tragicomedy

In the bright, unseasonably mild Saturday that was January 21, the Women’s March on NYC—a protest against the arguably misogynistic temperament of the new administration—saw an estimated 400,000 frustrated New Yorkers slowly but determinedly snake up Fifth Avenue. A few blocks away, on West 45th Street, Laura Dreyfuss, who plays one of the young leads in the hit musical Dear Evan Hansen (which has drawn sold-out crowds since opening last November) was not going to miss this historic day, 2:00 pm matinee curtain be damned. Dreyfuss made it in time to march—granted, it was just a few blocks east—and documented her participation with a photo of her posing triumphantly on a street lamp with a “Pussy Galore” poster. 

Condola Rashad, who will star as Nora Helmer’s daughter in A Doll’s House, Part 2—a hotly anticipated redux of the Ibsen classic that begins previews April 1braved a 5:00 am flight from Atlanta with a severely ill fiancé to walk with those who feel that the last few months (and let’s face it, the last few centuries) have given fresh reason for women to stand up and demand more. “There wasn’t going to be any excuse to miss it,” Rashad says emphatically. 

And though the march itself may be over, it would seem that the determined community spirit realized that day on Fifth Avenue is far from extinguished: One need only look a few blocks west, where a surfeit of powerful, complicated, honest, and downright delicious women’s stories are being told eight times a week on Broadway by some of the most fearless and dazzling stage actresses today—and not a moment too soon. From known powerhouses like Rashad, Bette Midler (who portrays Hello, Dolly’s titular heroine in a reprisal opening in April), and Patti LuPone (who stars as Helena Rubinstein in War Paint, a new musical debuting in March) to rising stars like Dreyfuss and Jenn Colella (who embodies the trailblazing female pilot, Beverley Bass, in Come From Away, a musical opening in March), the boards this spring could not be more on message.

“You’re not just seeing sad women look beautiful on stage,” Dreyfuss says about the current season’s slate. Her role as Zoe in Evan Hansen offers a glimpse into the moral ambiguity of teenage life in the era of viral fame. It’s complex, challenging, and totally real—sadly all too rare for a teenage female on the Broadway stage. “I think it’s important to show we don’t have to be likable all of the time. Or any of the time, actually,” says Dreyfuss.

From left: Phillipa Soo in the Center Theatre Group production of Amélie, 2017, Condola Rashad in The Trip To Bountiful, 2013, Christine Ebersole in War Paint, 2016, Laura Dreyfuss in Dear Evan Hansen, 2016, Patti LuPone in War Paint, 2016.

One can be sure that boilerplate “likeability” is not something that stage legend LuPone concerns herself with. When asked how she is processing the last few months of crassness and calamity, she writes: “I am stymied, confused, disgusted, horrified, and feel helpless.  I don’t know where to start or what to do.” And what about her War Paint character, a cosmetics legend and all around boss? “Helena [Rubinstein], on the other hand, would probably create a new cream.” LuPone, for her part, is channeling her frustration constructively: “I’m donating to the A.C.L.U. I wish I could protest but I’m in rehearsal. To be honest, I feel silly prancing around the stage because so much of the American way of life that I grew up with is in peril.” 

But perhaps some creative channeling is just what the present moment demands. What better time than now to tell the story of Rubinstein, a Jewish immigrant who built a thriving business and defied every male—and a few female—naysayers in the process? At its core, War Paint, which also stars Christine Ebersole as Rubinstein’s rival, Elizabeth Arden, is a tribute to the grit and glamour of the American dream—especially for those who’ve arrived from other shores.

Blocks away, a slightly more subdued but no less compelling story is being told by Phillipa Soo, who is originating the role of Amélie in the titular musical, based on the classic 2001 film, that begins previews in March. “Amélie does her small part to better the world around her. We forget that simply being nice to others can make such a huge impact,” Soo says of her character, offering that parity—political or otherwise—starts at home, as it were—with a gesture, a smile, and an open heart. But Soo is hardly retiring on the subject of politics in the arts: “I find it interesting when people say things to artists like, ‘Why don’t you just go sing or act and stay out of politics.’ I’m baffled because art is political. It can change the way people think about the world. Sometimes it leaves an impression on its audience without them knowing it.” And Soo would know—last year, she earned a Tony nomination for her performance as Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton in Hamilton, a musical that is arguably one of the most cogent and powerful illustrations of our national identity. 

A lesser known, but just as inspiring, American tale is that of Beverley Bass: American Airlines’ first female captain and one of the steadfast pilots who re-routed passengers north to Canada on September 11. The very real Bass (played by Colella) is a main character in Come From Away, which tells the story of a small Newfoundland hamlet that experiences an influx of displaced passengers in the days after the Twin Towers fell. On the importance of shedding light on the low-key hero, Colella says, “The sad truth is that women are still not viewed as equal human partners on this planet. Beverley’s story is a necessary reminder that our fight for equality is still on. Beverley is a badass who climbed the ranks in a male-dominated industry with passion and grace, so her beautiful brand of bravery and fortitude serves as a beacon for us all.”

In a season of flying aces and business tycoon-esses, it might seem that a princess story would feel out of place. Not so with the April Broadway premiere of the inexhaustible legend of Anastasia, the Romanov princess, that’s based on the 1997 animated film. Anya’s heartrending plight is brought to life by Christy Altomare (Spring Awakening and Mamma Mia!), who sees the story less as a Cinderella romance and more as a powerful celebration of the arduous journey her character takes to escape  violent Bolshevik Russia and connect with her past. To the young women in her audience, Altomare offers: “Anything is possible. If you have a dream, go for it. Don’t forget to keep an open heart and to listen to your gut. The journey will transform you if you choose to walk the path.”

On that historic Saturday last January, Rashad was struck by a particular group of women in hijabs who had come to march with their babies. “What we are fighting for has to go beyond our convenience. These women were in the middle of the street with their newborns. What was so wonderful to see was the way that people immediately made way for them, the way that we were responding to each other.” It was a powerful day to be sure and, given the march’s proximity to Broadway’s theaters and its echoing chants and choruses, it wasn’t a stretch for those in attendance to imagine the event as a definitive Act II barnstormer for democracy, with Fifth Avenue as the stage. 

Still, as much as it was an invigorating moment of action, the day also served as a stark reminder that, despite outward appearances, we haven’t come nearly as far as we’d like in the last hundred years—a truism not lost on LuPone. “Helena Rubin-stein’s journey in the 19th and 20th centuries is equivalent to our journey in the 21st century,” she offers. “Just as in her time, we still have inequality, misogyny, sexism, and we are still forced to fend off undesired advances from bewigged pussy-grabbing assholes. There was a time when goddesses ruled the earth. What happened?” As our noble artists and activists continue to search for an answer, one thing’s for sure: Even if goddesses are not ruling the earth, or even the country (yet), they are definitely reigning over Broadway—at least for the next few months. 

Main image: Christy Altomare and the company of Anastasia, Hartford Stage, 2016.

Image credits: Pillipa Soo/Photo by Joan Marcus. Condala Rashad/Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images. Christine Ebersole/Photo by Joan Marcus. Laura Dreyfuss/Photo by Matthew Murphy. Patti Lupone/Photo by Joan Marcus. Christy Altomare/Photo by Joan Marcus.

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