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Celebrating International Women's Day on Broadway

A Look Back at the Pioneers of American Theatre

Today is International Women’s Day, just one of the many celebrations during Women’s History Month, which for more than three decades has landed in March. Broadway has a rich history of influential women both on stage and behind the curtain, some of whom have been forgotten over time.

These women have done it all. While they all made it onto this list for different reasons, there is one thing that unifies them all: They are women whose work has made a lasting impact on Broadway and beyond. Let’s take a look back at the lives and legacies of seven of theater’s pioneers.


Vinette Carroll
Vinette Carroll

Vinnette Carroll

The first African American woman to direct a Broadway production, Vinnette Carroll is best known in the New York theater community for her celebration of black culture on, off, and off-off-Broadway. She broke new ground for minority artists from the 1950s to 1970s.

She began her professional theatrical career as an actress, performing in London and Off-Broadway in Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, for which she won an Obie award in 1962. At 33 years old, she made her Broadway debut in A Streetcar Named Desire, and she continued on to act in three other Broadway productions: Small War on Murray Hill, Jolly’s Progress, and The Octoroon.

In 1967, she started the groundbreaking Urban Arts Corps in New York City, which was an Off-Off-Broadway organization devoted to training minority theater artists and producing work by African American writers and composers. Urban Arts Corps’ first huge hit was Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, which transferred to Broadway in 1972. Carroll made history with this production, becoming the first African American woman to direct a show on Broadway, and she earned a Tony nomination for her work.

 

Cheryl Crawford and friends
Cheryl Crawford (far left) and friends. Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.

Cheryl Crawford

Cofounder of the Group Theater, the Actors Studio, and the American Repertory Theater, Cheryl Crawford was determined from a young age to make a career in the theater. After graduating from Smith College in 1925, Crawford made her way to New York City, where she quickly became involved with the Theater Guild.

The Group Theater was a new ensemble that was known for producing socially relevant plays. While at the Group Theater, Crawford worked separately as a coproducer on many of its productions, including Awake and Sing and Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White, which was the winner of the 1934 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

After six years at the Group Theater, Crawford left her position with the intention of becoming an independent producer, a career that was then unheard-of for women. It was her 1942 revival of Porgy and Bess that established Crawford as a powerful Broadway producer. The revival played for 286 performances at the Majestic Theatre and subsequently toured the country before returning to New York for a return engagement in 1943.

“… if you want something very badly, you can achieve it. It may take patience, very hard work, a real struggle and a long time; but it can be done. That much faith is a prerequisite of any undertaking, artistic or otherwise.” – Margo Jones

Margo Jones

“The Texas Tornado,” Margo Jones revolutionized American theater, fighting for new voices and regional productions at a time when few professional theater companies existed outside of New York City.

Though few women were directing for commercial theatres, Jones made her Broadway debut by codirecting the original production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie in 1945. The success of this production allowed Jones to take the next steps to pursue her dreams of starting a professional repertory company back in her home state of Texas.

In 1947, Jones opened Theater ‘47 in Dallas, the nation’s first modern resident theatre. Theater ‘47 launched America’s regional theatre movement. For eight years, until her death in 1955, Jones balanced her career between New York and Dallas. On Broadway, she produced and directed productions such as On Whitman Avenue, Summer and Smoke, and Joan of Lorraine.

In Dallas, she continued to produce new plays, launching the careers of many playwrights, including Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Her 1955 world premiere of Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind, a show that was previously rejected by eight Broadway producers, became a commercial hit, winning three Tony Awards.

Zelda & Thomas Fichandler during the construction of the Kreeger Theatre in 1970.

Zelda Fichandler

Zelda Fichandler is considered the “matriarch of the American regional theater movement,” serving as one of the three founding members and the cofounding artistic director of Washington, D.C’s Arena Stage.

Created out of Fichandler’s desire to “bring life to life,” Arena Stage was the first theatre in Washington to perform to integrated audiences, one of the nation’s first theatres to switch from a commercial model to a nonprofit institution, and was the first American theatre to have an integrated company of actors.

In 1968, Arena Stage became the first regional theatre to transfer a production to Broadway. The play, The Great White Hope, ran for 546 performances, won three Tonys (Best Play, Best Actor in a Play, and Best Featured Actress in a Play), and was awarded the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Nine productions total under Fichandler transferred from Arena Stage to Broadway.

Arena Stage was also the first theatre to win the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre in 1976. When presenting the award, the American Theatre Wing cited its “balanced program of distinguished revivals and a broad spectrum of new works and American premieres of important foreign plays” as reason for the honor.

In 1996, Fichandler was awarded a National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton, and in 1999 she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.

Natalie Portman in the 1997 Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank
Natalie Portman in the 1997 Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Frances Goodrich

Though famous for being the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize–winning writer behind The Diary of Anne Frank, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and It’s a Wonderful Life, Frances Goodrich began her career as an actress.

Making her Broadway debut in 1918 in Perkins, Goodrich went on to act in six other Broadway productions, including Daddy Long Legs, Skin Deep, and Excess Baggage, before switching gears to focus on writing. Within two years, she and her husband, Albert Hackett, had written three plays that premiered on Broadway: Up Pops the Devil, Everybody’s Welcome, and Bridal Wise.

Her talents as a playwright caught Hollywood’s attention and she moved to California to begin her career as a screenwriter. After arriving in Hollywood in 1931, Goodrich and Hackett consistently authored screenplays. They were nominated for four Academy Awards and won five Writers Guild of America Awards. Among their most popular films are Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Father of the Bride, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Easter Parade.

After becoming a screenwriter, Goodrich only made an appearance on Broadway as a playwright two other times, most notably for 1955’s The Diary of Anne Frank. The original drama won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for five Tony Awards, winning for Best Play.

 

 

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Carolyn Leigh

Carolyn Leigh, favored lyricist of Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Mabel Mercer and longtime Broadway staple of her generation, did not begin her career in the theater.

Leigh made her Broadway debut as the lyricist of Peter Pan, working with already established Broadway writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Leigh went on to contribute the lyrics to the Tony-nominated shows Little Me and How Now, Dow Jones, and wrote the now classic Broadway standards “Hey Look Me Over” and “The Best is Yet to Come.”

To create her catalog of songs, Leigh worked alongside some of the most prolific composers of her generation, with frequent collaborators such as Jule Styne, Cy Coleman, and Marvin Hamlisch. At the time of her death in 1983, Leigh had been working with Hamlisch on another musical project, an adaption of 1975’s Smile.

How Diahann Carroll's Broadway Sound Set Her Apart | Oprah’s Master Class | Oprah Winfrey Network

Diahann Carroll

At 27 years old, Diahann Carroll was the first African American woman in a leading role to win a Tony Award.

After a successful career as a copywriter for radio stations and ad agencies, Carroll made her Broadway and feature film debuts the same year. On the silver screen, she starred as Myrt opposite Dorothy Dandridge as the title character in Carmen Jones, at the same time acting alongside Pearl Bailey and Alvin Ailey in Broadway’s House of Flowers. Following her first Broadway bow, Carroll returned to Hollywood to once again act alongside Dandridge as Clara in Porgy and Bess in 1959, a role that launched her into stardom.

Throughout the 1960s, Carroll regularly made history, collecting many “firsts” in both Hollywood and at awards shows. She was the first African American women to win a Tony Award in a Best Actress category for her role in Richard Rodgers’ No Strings, and became the first African American woman to star in the title role of a television series in which her character was not a domestic worker. The program, Julia, ran for three seasons and earned Carroll a Golden Globe in 1969 for Best Actress in a Television Series.

Last seen on Broadway in 1982’s Agnes of God, Carroll has become a television regular, having had recurring roles on Grey’s Anatomy, Diary of a Single Mom, and White Collar.