musical theatre

The Color Purple by Biddy Healey

Last night Cynthia Erivo blew my mind. In her incredible performance as Celie in The Color Purple on Broadway she switches easily between rich and deep belting to gentle and melismatic from one second to the next. Erivo brought light and shade and force to a story I first read as a teenager, before I really understood the enduring relevance of the themes.

The show reads Alice Walker's book as a feminist tour de force. It finishes triumphal - women literally wearing the pants (sounds trite but it works) and deciding how the story goes.

To echo the Feminist Reviewer, "there is nothing on Broadway (or, arguably, that's ever been on Broadway) that stands up to this in terms of women's empowerment....None of this is dependent on the male characters. And that, in and of itself, is as feminist as it gets: women are capable of making a story all their own."

So how did the producers (of whom Oprah Winfrey is one) and directors fail to notice that there was NOT ONE WOMAN IN THE BAND. Before you say, "maybe it was all-male for historical accuracy", the band was in the pit, out of site. It wasn't a commentary on sexism in 1909. It was a product of 2016. In a show about women rising up, refusing to be invisible, taking control of their story, the band reflected the enduring, all-male status quo of instrumental music. It was probably an oversight.

And it broke my heart, because since 1909 we've come a long way, but we have so far to go.

There are hundreds of brilliant, qualified women musicians in New York who could have filled that pit many times over. But how do you get a gig in music theatre? First, be excellent and easy to work with, obviously. No argument there. Then someone needs to recommend you to fill in when they can't make it. Once you've got your foot in the door, you hope to get a call when a job opens up. People recommend those they've played with before, people who are like them, and so pit musicians continue to look the same. These practices aren't scrutinized to see who might be missing out. Pit musicians on Broadway are unionized, but it's difficult for unions to protect those who systematically aren't getting hired, who aren't getting the calls, who are invisible.

The Color Purple has a strong message: "I am here. We are here. We take up space. Just as much space as you. We exist on this planet; we need it, we contribute to it, and we are worthy of not just inhabiting it but thriving in it" (Feminist Reviewer). Erivo sent this message loud and clear from the stage in her rendition of "I'm Here", to a roaring audience. I wonder whether the musical director and the musicians in the pit were listening. I wonder if they looked around at each other down there in the dark and felt just a little bit uncomfortable.