Women have always had an integral role in modern Broadway, but for much of history it wasn’t this way. Consider what professional theater was like in the 1600s in England. Shakespeare was all the rage at this time, and if you’ve ever read any of his work, you might wonder why there are so many cross-gender jokes within his plays. Well, at that time, it was illegal for women to be actors, and Shakespeare took advantage of this fact to make his comedies all the funnier. So, when a female role is pretending to be a man in one of his plays, it’s actually a man, playing a woman, pretending to be a man. The audiences of the time found this hilarious, and Shakespeare’s plays skyrocketed him to stardom. Well, that and the fact that they are some of the most timeless stories ever told—but that’s a topic for another day.
The fact is, women have had a lot of ground to make up when it comes to the stage. Now, this is not a problem that’s unique to the theater. We see it with fewer women CEOs of companies, less attention paid to women’s professional sports, and more. But the fact that this is often not readily apparent can make it a more secretive problem. When you’re watching a show, you’re not thinking about how actresses tend to get paid less than actors, right? You’re focused on the quality of the production. If there’s a great female lead on stage with a bunch of men in supporting roles, you’re thinking about how entertaining the show is. And that’s how it should be. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a gap when it comes to professional treatment.
Yes, much room has been gained, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to bridging the gender gap between men and women on Broadway. As recent as 2012, of the 40 new shows scheduled to launch in New York at the beginning of the year, only four of them credited a women writer. Men tend to still hold the roles of writer and director. And while there are many very talented men that are in the field, there are many women with the potential to be great in this respect, but that have not yet either seized this opportunity, or been given a chance to prove themselves. It’s like this in Hollywood too, unfortunately. As people become more aware of things like the pay gap between men and women and other social hot topics, eventually the focus will shift to Broadway and women will be given more of a chance to highlight their skills when it comes to leadership roles for the theater.
Many in Hollywood and Broadway are aware of this double standard, and efforts are underway to fix it. Gender has become a hot topic, especially in light of things like harassment and mistreatment. But, the next time you are going to see a Broadway show, it’s important that you keep things like this in the back of your mind. By supporting women-run shows a little more consciously, we can take strides toward equalizing that playing field. That doesn’t mean you need to go see a second-rate show instead of going to see Hamilton. Hamilton is an amazing show, and if you have the chance to see it, do so. No, it just means that we should be paying more attention to the social ramifications of the decisions that we make—and that goes beyond Broadway and spills over into everything that we do.