Strong Women Coming To Broadway!

New York Times
Women With Something to Say
Feb 21, 2013


A brigade of outspoken women is poised to take over Broadway this season, turning big New York stages into personal podiums and, quite possibly, pedestals. For these are women (and one little girl) who have inspired veneration and emulation throughout the years – in one case through millenniums.

From left, Milly Shapiro, Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence and Bailey Ryon of “Matilda the Musical.”

Hailing from the worlds of American politics, Hollywood deal making, children’s literature, urban fable and the Bible, they are figures prone to saying what other people will or can not. This means that even when these characters whisper, their voices have the volume of bullhorns.

It also means that actresses bold enough to play them have the opportunity to make 10-course meals of their roles and to grab the Tony nominating committee by the lapels. So clear your throats and start talking, Ann Richards, Sue Mengers and Holly Golightly. You too, blessed Virgin Mary and little Matilda. We’re all ears.

First up is Richards, the former governor of Texas, who died in 2006 and has been reincarnated by Holland Taylor. You remember Ann Richards. She’s the one who stole the 1988 Democratic convention with one of the most quotable political speeches in recent memory, which described George H. W. Bush as being “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

Those words are not cited in “Ann,” the one-person show written by and starring Ms. Taylor and directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein, which opens at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on March 7. But there are plenty more where they came from, because Richards was a master of salty phrases that stung when the occasion required. As a gal amid good old boys and a Democrat in a red state, she had to be.

Like Richards, Mengers stormed and set up camp in a traditionally male bastion. Mengers, whose name became a byword for chutzpah, was an über-agent in Hollywood, where the corridors of power are even more slippery and treacherous than those of Austin and Washington.

She will be played by an actress who knows from Hollywood – and from chutzpah: Bette Midler, who opens on April 24 at the Booth Theater in John Logan’s “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.” Ms. Midler, whose scenery-chomping bravado seems made for Broadway but hasn’t been there in decades, will be directed by Joe Mantello.

Since one of the show’s producers is the Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, a friend and mythologizer of Mengers (who died in 2011), it seems safe to assume that this portrait of an agent will be friendlier than the savage cartoons inspired by her in the film satires “The Last of Sheila” and “S.O.B.” (Of the creator and star of “S.O.B.,” the director Blake Edwards and his wife, Julie Andrews, Mengers said, “An Alp should fall on their house.”)

Though Ms. Taylor and Ms. Midler had the chance to meet the women they are portraying, I am presuming that the same cannot be said of Fiona Shaw, who appears in yet another one-woman show, “The Testament of Mary,” which opens on April 22 at the Walter Kerr Theater. Ms. Shaw, last seen on Broadway in 2003 as the child-killing title character of Euripides’ “Medea,” is taking on a very different and even more famous mother, perhaps the most famous mother of them all.

Written by Colm Toibin and first staged in Dublin in 2011, “The Testament of Mary” (which is also the title of the short novel by Mr. Toibin, published last year) is an intense monologue centered on the Crucifixion of Jesus and its aftermath from the unflinching perspective of his mother. Unlike Richards and Mengers, Mr. Toibin’s Mary does not quip wise. But like them she has plenty to say about a world ruled and ruined by men.

“I tell the truth not because it will turn night into day,” Mary says in Mr. Toibin’s novel. “I speak simply because I can.” The lyrical but austere prose in which she delivers her truth is, to put it mildly, a challenge for any performer. But you might recall that Ms. Shaw managed to turn a solo performance of T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land” into gripping visceral theater in 1996. That production was staged by her frequent collaborator Deborah Warner, who has auspiciously reunited with Ms. Shaw for “Testament.”

Holly Golightly is not, strictly speaking, a truth teller. This glamorous gamin, created by Truman Capote in the 1958 novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” is a masterpiece of self-invention, a country girl transformed into the ultimate big-city party girl and, to use Capote’s words, “American geisha.” But if she depends on the kindness of men with money, she is also a defiantly independent figure and, for all her pretensions, an expert in deflating the hypocrisies of others.

Immortalized on celluloid by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 movie, Miss Golightly will assume flesh at the Cort Theater, where Richard Greenberg’s stage adaptation, directed by Sean Mathias, opens on March 20. Emilia Clarke, who has been occupying the tumultuous Middle Ages for several seasons on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” time travels to mid-20th-century Manhattan to embody the willowy and wily Holly.

And then there is Matilda Wormwood, the youngest but by no means weakest of this season’s female powerhouses. True, the title character of “Matilda the Musical,” a British import that opens on April 11 at the Shubert Theater, is a mere schoolgirl. But she possesses the gift of telekinesis and, just as important, a gift for language, both of which come in handy when she leads a revolution against a tyrannical headmistress.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s book by Dennis Kelly (script) and Tim Minchin (songs) and directed by Matthew Warchus, “Matilda” is about both speaking up and taking control of the narrative of your life. (She will be played in rotation by four young actresses: Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro.) As Matilda sings at one point, “Nobody but me is going to change my story.” You can imagine Holly, Sue and Ann (Mary might perhaps demur) agreeing with the wisdom of these words.

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