The company for Colleen Somerville Productions’ Not Fair, My Lady!
One of the original musicals in the 2018 Minnesota Fringe Festival lineup is the catchingly named Not Fair, My Lady! Its marketing copy reads “It’s 2018 and misogyny is alive and well on Broadway. And in the world. Everywhere. Let’s…sing about it! F—.”
The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine chatted with show writers Shanan Custer, Anita Ruth, and Colleen Somerville about the background and genesis of this all-woman, company-created musical theatre parody revue.
How did this show come to be (or, alternately, what spurred you to write and produce this show now)?
Colleen Somerville: It was shortly after the 2017 Fringe Festival, after a rehearsal at Anita Ruth’s place for another project. Anita and I were discussing how much we loved Keith Hovis’ piece Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant (now in Park Square’s next season!).
We had a moment of, “Why couldn’t we do something like that?” From there, we met up – just the two of us – to throw around dream-team names and subject ideas, all of which centered around feminist themes and collaborators.
Once you had the idea, what process led to assembling this team of writers and performers?
CS: Anita and I met and decided that it could be fun/painful to comment on the current Broadway season, which includes many questionable choices for musicals when you consider the #metoo movement and the aftermath of all that the Weinstein scandal means for women in every profession. Once this theme was decided upon, Shanan Custer’s name was the first one we wanted to secure, as we’d both worked with her on previous projects. It had never been in this capacity, but we thought she’d fit our vision perfectly as a writer.
Shanan said “yes” at the same time that Anita and I decided that the entire creative staff and cast should be female-identifying, and we were off! I then started reaching out to women I’d always wanted to work with, and this final cast/crew is a literal dream come true.
Shanan Custer: When Colleen and Anita reached out to me they had this clear vision of why they were frustrated with the current Broadway season and the status of women in theater — more particularly, musical theater. I was so excited to be a a part of this project, but I definitely had some catching up to do when it came to musical theater, especially the history of musical theater. [As a result,] early sessions were mostly me taking notes and asking questions. I read a lot of reviews and texts and scripts. I’ll never forget Anita lending me a copy of her book for the Carousel and being so blown away by the language about and towards women.
Early on, Colleen gathered a group of women to talk about their own experiences with auditioning and attending shows, trying to get jobs, and settling over and over again for mediocre roles. I’ll never forget it: I had this assembly of the most incredible women in my living room, and I sat in the adjoining kitchen and just listened and typed and typed and typed. That night the show really found it’s shape for me–it was about capturing these stories and the frustration and anger and humor of maneuvering ourselves through the world of theater as women.
A new, all-woman musical revue that throws Broadway’s tired misogyny in the trash where it belongs.
Who is the target audience for this show?
Anyone who loves to laugh, loves powerful singers and performers, and who are feminists (or maybe will be afterward)! I think musical theatre enthusiasts will love it for the familiar songs and inside jokes, and everyone else will love it for the killer voices and hilarious script.
In your video trailer, you quote several iconic musicals of yesteryear. Are there any more recent musicals that you feel are not just doing things “better”, but are shining examples of what you’d like portrayals of women to be in musical theatre?
CS: Frankly, so much of what we focused on in this process is where musical theatre, old and new, fails in portraying women. Yes, we are huge fans of Jeanine Tesori and Sara Bareilles and so many modern day lady-pioneers in the heavily male-dominated “Land of Musical Theatre”. But in so many cases, as we started to peel away the layers of great music and storytelling, we found, still, lots of women who were less than empowered.
Waitress is so, so close to being feminist, but falls short because ultimately it is a 90’s serio-rom-com. “Why this story, Sara?” You are so badass. You can do better.” (But also thanks for, like, 6 of those songs on the soundtrack. I scrob (scream sob) every time. I want to write something super, for real feminist with you. Kthxbai.
SC: We need more women and women of color making the decisions about theater, but we especially need more women writing stories and interpreting them.
The show is described in some of your PR materials as a musical parody revue. What are some of the shows that you will be parodying? Will we be seeing original songs, parody lyrics to classic songs, or…?
CS: For comedy’s sake, we think that parody is best left a surprise, but here’s what I will say: a quick scan of the script/libretto tells me that we reference somewhere around 40 shows in some way. If you’ve ever seen a musical, you’re hear something you know. There’s some original music too!
Here’s a fringe challenge: if you are bored, count the number of shows referenced instead of writing a review. I’ll buy a beer for anyone with the exact number a beer on the two nights I go to Fringe Central (because I have a 3-year-old).
Broadway’s obsession with revivals sometimes involves small tweaks and sometimes wholesale rewrites of the libretto/book, or playing around with the staging. Some argue that this allows classic works to be reclaimed or redeemed, while others argue that it would be better to leave the past in the past and create more new shows that reflect contemporary mores and sensibilities – and demands for, say, the agency of female characters. Any thoughts on this?
CS: Collectively, we have very many thoughts on this! Interestingly, it ranges from “burn-it-all-down” to “we do really think there is a lot to be learned from these classics, but they need to be TOTALLY redone” to “I can’t shake how much I love (insert sexist musical here) no matter how awfully it treats women!”
Some revivals are intriguing, but more often than not we are seeing male directors and writers saying, “Ho ho! Look at me directing ladies! Squint until your eyes are almost entirely closed and you’ll see how this production is feminist!” We’re not buying it, Jack O’Brien.
SC: Theatre is absolutely dependent on new stories and new music and new characters. If you have to “fix” a show that much, then maybe rethink what it is you are trying to accomplish with that play.
I think it’s particularly difficult with musicals because the music and the songs are so beloved. That was a joke we made a lot in rehearsal (and also in the play): “I know it’s awful, but the music is so pretty”, which has really given some of these highly problematic and downright damaging plays a longer shelf life then they perhaps deserve.
What’s a favorite moment in this show and why?
CS: We’ve only just started rehearsals so I’m just going to say that my favorite part of the whole process so far is how much Shanan, Anita, and I have been able to incorporate the many incredible viewpoints of our cast in the writing of the piece, and also that I can’t recommend all-female teams enough!
SC: I love this question because it makes me realize that I am so close to sitting in the audience and watching this all unfold! I have to echo Colleen and say that the stories and thoughts from the cast are the most compelling to me.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.