My Self-Care Lady: Why Broadway Burns Women Out

My Fair Lady – Lauren Ambrose – Lincoln Center Theater – Image via YouTube

This week, an article about Lauren Ambrose, who is currently playing Eliza Doolittle in a musical revival of My Fair Lady, has been making the rounds in the Broadway community, regarding her choice to take the Sunday matinee off. She might be taking it off because her role is extremely difficult musically and she needs to take a vocal rest day. She might be taking it off because she has children and she’d like to spend more time with them. Whatever the reason, the decision had been made and it’s nobody’s business except for Ambrose and the show management. That should have been the beginning and end of the story.

Except, it wasn’t the end of the story. No, what happened next played into our worst instincts and harmful “ideals” of the Broadway community that pit women against one another, generation against generation. And devalue women’s bodies and well-being.

How did this happen? Ambrose’s co-star Diana Rigg decided to send an email, expressing her disdain that Ambrose would be taking off Sunday matinees. She said it was not “fair to audiences” who have paid a lot of hard-earned money to see a show with the cast they were promised, and she pulls out that old battle cry that “the show must go on,” for all her show’s principal cast. Unfortunately, this email was obtained by the New York Post and Michael Riedel, and predictably, this is what happened.There are several problems to unpack here. First, Broadway loves a good lady feud, both on-stage and off. We love our divas, aka strong women who can belt a high-C, shuffle-time-step with seasoned hoofers, and talk smack like a drag queen. The trouble is, we love it more when we see these divas tear their peers down because, like Highlander, many Broadway shows only have named roles for one, maybe two women. The shortage of female roles encourages animosity and destroys the well-being of the people it is disenfranchising. Other women aren’t potential friends or a support system in a tough industry. They’re rivals you risk losing a job to or being upstaged by. There can be only one.

Second, traditional news media loves blaming millennials for everything. They destroyed Applebee’s, squander their money on avocado toast, and can’t live outside sheltered safe spaces. In the Broadway world, millennials don’t buy tickets, and when they do, have no etiquette. They show up in jeans and can’t stay off their phones. Millennial performers get the bonus stigma that they lack the work ethic of the older generations.

On the other side of this stigma, young theatergoers love accusing older generations of holding Broadway back. They don’t buy tickets for original shows (or anything written by or starring people of color) and prefer to play it safe with the umpteenth Rodgers and Hammerstein or Cole Porter revival.

By making this private email public, people on either side of the divide might get a little self-righteous satisfaction. An industry veteran shames a younger leading actress for her lack of work ethic, and everyone indulges in some unfiltered shade. Never mind that these actresses still put on a show together, and this public airing of grievances will probably make their working relationship much harder.

Finally, there is the devaluing of women’s bodies and well-being in the pursuit of art. This isn’t a problem exclusive to theatre, like Uma Thurman’s car crash on the set of Kill Bill, but it’s deeply embedded in our art form. Anecdotes about legendary divas performing through fevers, broken bones, and pregnancies (without a microphone, you delicate snowflakes!) are passed around as an ideal to pursue. No matter what happens, the show must go on.

Diana Rigg, Lauren Ambrose, and the company of My Fair Lady – Lincoln Center Theater – Image via YouTube

Here’s the problem, the saying is that the show must go on…As we can see, it is and will as we speak. We need to stop seeing this adage as justification for ignoring self-care. It is meant to encourage each other, to help fellow artists through the bad times. Anything can happen in live theatre. Sets break, actors forget their lines or miss their entrances, and performers injure themselves. Lesli Margherita got a piece of wood in her leg doing the splits in Matilda, and Ethan Slater cut his hand open in SpongeBob SquarePants. With help from their cast and crew, the show went on. In this situation, a leading actress decided to take off the Sunday matinee and worked with show management to make that happen. As a bonus, her understudy Kerstin Anderson gets a chance to shine once a week.

We should be encouraging women to speak up for themselves and communicating what they need to thrive because when they do, they perform better and avoid burnout. Diana Rigg tearing a vocal cord during Medea rehearsals should be a cautionary tale, not inspiration for aspiring actors. Only a few months ago, Frozen star Patti Murin called out of a performance because she had an anxiety attack. People praised her for speaking out on mental health and making self-care a priority. Why is this situation any different? How is it any different than when Lin-Manuel Miranda took a day off and Javier Muñoz played Hamilton‘s Sunday matinees? This might be a revolutionary idea, but every woman in our industry should feel comfortable advocating for themselves without fearing being labeled “difficult” or unprofessional. Otherwise, we have learned nothing from the Me Too movement.

I hope this is the first and last time I feel the need to write about this issue. It’s optimistic thought to be sure, but the Broadway community can fix this. There will be sacrifice, perhaps fewer shows and more employment of understudies. And we’ll have to let go of these outdated ideals and start valuing people more than our art. Maybe we should love our women a little more and love our divas a little less.

Note: I wrote this piece before Jeff Loeffelholz’s death and the allegations of bullying by Chicago‘s musical director Leslie Stifelman and original director Walter Bobbie came out. Whatever the investigation finds, we need to do better looking out for each other and supporting each other’s mental and emotional well-being. People’s lives are at stake. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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