This weekend and next, Casa Mañana’s stage will resound with the strains of “Evita,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s noisy rock-musical that’s spiked with Latin rhythms and features one of the most vivid female roles in all of musical theater.
It’s making us reflect on all the other glorious women created for the stage. Last summer, the film “Wonder Woman” made a big splash at the box office and generated lots of excitement about female empowerment. (How many pint-sized Wonder Women did you see this Halloween season?) Everyone seems to agree that not enough films center on women’s stories.
On the live-theater stage, things seem to be different. In part, it’s probably the popularity and allure of a well-trained female voice — the diva. Give a great singer a bit of a plot and a few glorious songs to belt out, and you might have a hit on your hands.
But plays often give women more to do than you typically see in movies, too. On stage, female characters frequently display more interiority and more agency, whether they’re bantering in flawless iambic pentameter or perching on a cabaret chair in fishnet tights.
Let’s celebrate a few.
Eva Peron, “Evita”
The musical traces the story of Eva Duarte, who rose from a provincial childhood of poverty to become an actress and eventually the first lady of Argentina. Everyone knows the balcony anthem “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” a showstopper that calls for a formidable performer (Patti Lupone, Madonna) and encapsulates all that this powerful woman had become to the people of her country. (And yes, Juan Peron was a bad guy.)
Ann Richards, “Ann”
The star of Ann holds the stage all on her own, with no musical score and no other actors. Holland Taylor’s one-woman show about the late Ann Richards — premiered locally by Stage West in 2016 — captures the intelligence, fierceness and wit of the great character who was the real-life governor of Texas.
Angelica Schuyler, “Hamilton”
A singer friend nominates this character from the hit hip-hop musical, which doesn’t make its Dallas debut until the 2018-2019 season (no word yet on a Fort Worth premiere). One of the show’s formidable Schuyler sisters (Eliza marries Hamilton), Angelica holds her own intellectually with the Founding Fathers, but she never holds her tongue. “She could rap Jefferson under the table if she got the chance: all that holds her back is a woman’s place in the world.,” said The New Yorker.
Witches are a whole cultural deal unto themselves, but on the stage none is bigger than the green-skinned Elphaba of “Wicked,” who gives pathos and dimension to a stock bad character. Brilliant, brooding, opinionated and confident, she’s given show-stopping, diva-worthy songs that add to her awesome power.
Beatrice, “Much Ado About Nothing”
Forget the objectified, afterthought girlfriends of all those action films or the miserable, scheming or simpering wives of so many other classics (“Lady Macbeth,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). Beatrice is independent, thoughtful, a wonder at wordplay and highly skeptical, let’s say, of men. When she marries, it’s as an equal — quite a few centuries before her time.
Song and dance women
Carole King, “Beautiful”
In the jukebox musical Beautiful, the immensely likable central character both writes and (eventually) performs the songs. As a teenager, Carole Klein fights her way into the cutthroat recording industry and begins writing hit songs for others to perform. Things turn really inspiring when, as Carole King, she finally steps in front of the lights and becomes the one of the biggest acts in music history.
Sally Bowles, “Cabaret”
In this Kander and Ebbs classic, based on a Christopher Isherwood novel, Bowles is obviously no goody-goody — a wonder woman doesn’t have to be. She’s a decadent nightclub performer in decadent Weimar Germany. But she’s a complex human who does what it takes to survive, even when she’s feeling fragile inside. And in the famous songs and the Bob Fosse choreography, she’s unforgettably fierce.
Celie, “The Color Purple”
“The Color Purple,” about a Jim Crow-era woman discovering her inner warrior over the course of a harrowing life, was an Alice Walker novel and a Steven Spielberg movie first (not a bad pedigree). But it really hit its stride as a stage show, especially the recent revival, with an exuberant score of jazz, gospel and blues accenting Celie’s heartbreaking but uplifting story. Again, a woman shows her strength through scorching vocal performances.
Elle Woods, “Legally Blonde”
“Legally Blonde” had its first big success as a Reese Witherspoon movie, but the musical may be better. A California sorority sister chases her boyfriend to Harvard Law School, and surprises even herself with her intelligence and grit. The best girl-power moment is when she dumps him on her way to well-deserved greater glory.
The female empowerment is on display onstage and off in the musical “Waitress,” based on a 2007 film. The creative team was all women: Sara Bareilles wrote the songs, Jessie Nelson the book and the director was Diane Paulus. Jenna, a waitress and a talented pie maker, summons the courage to use her baking genius to escape her loveless marriage in a delicious dreams-come-true story. It comes to Broadway at the Bass, June 19-24, 2018; basshall.com.
- Saturday through Nov. 11
- Casa Mañana Theatre
- 3101 W. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth