Celebrating 8 of Broadway's Overlooked Female Creatives | Playbill

Special Features Celebrating 8 of Broadway's Overlooked Female Creatives

A wealth of women created for the stage in Broadway's midcentury, only to be forgotten by the general public.

Millions of artists have filtered through the Broadway ecosystem, creating works of art that have both existed in the ephemeral moment and stood the test of time. While Broadway history has a reputation for being a bit of a boys' club, women have been creating since the very beginning.

In celebration of Women's History Month, Playbill has been parsing through the records of female creatives on the Broadway stage. While some artists, like Lillian Hellman and Betty Comden, are still household names decades after their prime, other immensely influential artists have unfortunately fallen to the wayside as new generations have taken precedence.

Read on to learn about eight overlooked female creatives (Anita Loos, Mary Chase, Trude Rittman, Margaret Webster, Jean Kerr, June Carroll, Micki Grant, and Bella Spewack) whose Broadway output continues to influence us today.

Anita Loos

Anita Loos Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Some names are just meant to be written in lights.

A celebrated actress, novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, Anita Loos was the movie industry's first female staff screenwriter, working for D. W. Griffith at the Triangle Film Corporation, one of the first prestige film studios.

On Broadway, Loos wrote The Whole Town's Talking, The Fall of Eve, The Social Register, Happy Birthday, Gigi, and Chéri, but it is her immortal Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that remains vivid in the public imagination.

Initially written as a comic novel in 1925, Loos adapted the story into a comic strip, a silent film, a 1949 Broadway musical, a 1953 film adaptation of said musical, and even a second musical adaptation in 1974, titled Lorelai. While Loos' philandering husband John Emerson attempted to take credit for her work as his own, her materialistic showgirl Lorelai Lee has certainly outlasted anything that sprung from his pen!

Mary Chase

Mary Chase, Burgess Meredith, and Tallulah Bankhead in rehearsal for Midgie Purvis Friedman-Abeles

Born Mary Agnes McDonough Coyle, Mary Chase was a deeply respected Irish American journalist, playwright, and novelist. Pulling extensively from Irish folklore and comic traditions, she began her career at the Denver Times, serving as a society writer and sob sister not unlike the character Mary Sunshine, depicted in Kander and Ebb's musical Chicago.

Leaving the Times in 1931 as the Depression roared and the Roaring Twenties waned, Chase served as a correspondent for the United Press and the International News Service before making the formal transition to playwright, bringing Now You've Done It, The Next Half Hour, Mrs. McThing, Bernadine, and Midgie Purvis to the stage, as well as her classic comedy Harvey.

Running for more than four and a half years on Broadway, Harvey is one of the longest-running plays in Broadway history. Chase was also one of the first women to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (following the equally impressive Zona Gale, Susan Glaspell, and Zoe Akins).

Trude Rittman

Trude Rittman John Gruen

Trude Rittman was a genius. Profusely productive, the composer, arranger, and music coordinator was prolific, with 47 total Broadway credits including work that continues to be utilized nearly twenty years after her death.

Rittman was the compositional glue behind many of Broadway's most beloved musicals, providing dance and choral arrangements and incidental music for the original Broadway productions of Carousel, Finian's Rainbow, Brigadoon, South Pacific, Billion Dollar Baby, Allegro, Miss Liberty, Look, Ma, I'm Dancin'!, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Peter Pan, Out of This World, The King and I, Paint Your Wagon, Wish You Were Here, The Climate of Eden, The Girl in Pink Tights, Fanny, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Christine, Camelot, All American, Hot Spot, Jennie, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Darling of the Day, Maggie Flynn, Come Summer, Two by Two, Ambassador, Gigi, A Musical Jubilee, and The American Dance Machine.

As recently as last year, Rittman's original dance and choral arrangements for Camelot could be heard on Broadway. 

Margaret Webster

Tyrone Power, Margaret Webster, and Faye Emerson Friedman-Abeles

The daughter of respected classical actors Ben Webster and May Whitty, Margaret Webster was a theatrical jack of all trades. A performer, producer, and playwright, Webster's overwhelming legacy has been for her direction of both classical and contemporary plays.

Webster worked on nearly 50 Broadway productions, including numerous masterful interpretations of Shakespeare. Dubbed "the best director of the plays of Shakespeare that we have" by critic George Jean Nathan, Webster was one of the most prolific Broadway directors predating the Tony Awards, with her production of Othello, starring Paul Robeson, becoming the longest-running Shakespeare production in recorded Broadway history.

A lesbian, Webster's long term relationship with the profoundly accomplished actor, director, and translator Eva Le Gallienne led to the founding an influential classical theatre company. And, as if that wasn't enough, Webster was also the first woman to direct a production at the Metropolitan Opera. Her memoirs, The Same, Only Different: Five Generations of a Great Theatre Family; A Life in the Theater; and Don't Put Your Daughter on The Stage are considered invaluable insights into the struggles and successes of female creatives in the early years of Broadway. 

Jean Kerr

Jean Kerr and Barbara Bel Geddes in rehearsal for Mary, Mary (1961) Friedman-Abeles

Born Bridget Jean Collins, Jean Kerr was one of several Broadway writers whose lasting legacy was permanently tied to their spouse. Wife of critic and writer Walter Kerr, Jean was a remarkable writer in her own right, authoring the 1957 best-selling essay collection Please Don't Eat the Daisies, as well as 10 Broadway shows.

With Walter serving as either her co-writer or her director, Jean wrote The Song of Bernadette, Touch and Go, King of Hearts, and Goldilocks. Operating outside of her artistic marriage, she also contributed to John Murray Anderson's Almanac, and wrote Jenny Kissed Me, Poor Richard, Finishing Touches, Lunch Hour, and Mary, Mary, which was the longest-running Broadway play of the 1960s. 

June Carroll

June Carroll in the New Faces of 1952 Portrait

Lyricist June Carroll was a part of the immensely influential female contingent of lyric writers who, throughout the 1950s, pushed back against the expectations of what women could write, as well as sing. A common face in the New Faces Of Broadway series, Carroll's wit was immediately recognizable amongst the work of other writers.

A frequent collaborator of Arthur Siegel, Kurt Weill, Baldwin Bergeson and Sanford Green, Carroll's musical output included the songs "White Witch," "Boy Most Likely," "Tell Her," "A Doll's House" and "Don't Wait," as well as "Love Is a Simple Thing," "Penny Candy," and "Monotonous," which became a career making hit for Eartha Kitt.

In addition to her standalone songs, Carroll's Broadway output (including her work as a librettist and performer) included Fools Rush In, Who's Who, All in Fun, If the Shoe Fits, and Mask and Gown.

Micki Grant

Micki Grant Friedman-Abeles/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Micki Grant was a typhoon of talent. A ground-breaking composer, lyricist, and actor, Grant made her Broadway debut as an actor in Langston Hughes' Tambourines to Glory before standing by in Lanford Wilson's The Gingham Dog, all of which served as a preamble to her history-making work throughout the 1970s.

Grant made history as the first woman to write, compose, and star in an original Broadway musical, with her show Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope. Playing over 1,000 performances on Broadway, the show was a celebration of African-American culture. Netting a Tony nomination for Best Musical, Grant was the first woman to be individually Tony nominated for Best Book of a Musical, and the first to be individually nominated for Best Original Score. Vinnette Carroll, the first African-American artist to direct on Broadway, was also nominated for her direction.

Grant and Carroll again joined forces in 1976 for Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, receiving four Tony nominations. In 1978, Grant picked up her third Tony nomination—along with Craig Carnelia, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, and James Taylor—for Best Original Score for Working, the musical inspired by Studs Terkel's best-selling collection of oral histories about vocations. Grant's songs for the production included "Lovin' Al," "If I Could've Been," and "Cleanin' Women." Grant also penned the book, music, and lyrics for It's So Nice to Be Civilized.

Upon her passing in 2021, she was considered one of the largest legends in the history of Black theatre on Broadway.

Bella Spewack

Sam Spewack and Bella Spewack Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Like Jean Kerr, Bella Spewack's legacy is indelibly tied to that of her husband, Samuel Spewack. Unlike Kerr, however, Bella and Samuel almost exclusively wrote together, starting as Moscow news correspondents before transitioning to writing for the stage and the screen.

On Broadway, Bella and Samuel cowrote The War Song, Poppa, Clear All Wires, Spring Song, Boy Meets Girl, Leave It To Me!, Miss Swan Expects, Woman Bites Dog, My 3 Angels, and Festival, but it is their 1948 musical collaboration for which they are best remembered.

Co-written with Cole Porter, Kiss Me Kate was initially a venture between Porter and Bella before she opted to bring Samuel on. The duo were in the midst of their own marital woes while writing the piece, which heavily informed the shows once-married couple of thespians who use the stage on which they're performing as a battling ground. The duo were honored as the Best Authors of a Musical for their efforts, all the while bringing in the first ever Tony Award for Best Musical.

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