Women on Stage: The First Wives Club in Musical Form

logo-introThis spring, the widely popular 1996 movie The First Wives Club will make its stage debut at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. Based on Olivia Goldsmith’s bestselling novel, the musical follows a trajectory similar to the film: Three college friends reconnect years after graduation, realizing they have more in common than just their alma mater. All three women have recently been left by their romantic partners—for perkier, bubblier, younger women. In lieu of their mutual misery, they band together and make a pact to enact revenge (read: justice) on their former lovers.

Naturally, the possibility of women’s empowerment songs, mockable sartorial decisions and overall ‘90s buffoonery has us giddy for the spring. But the show is also exciting for other—more feminist—reasons.

Since the 1950s, Broadway has been chock-full of the conventional love arc: the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” narrative. Rather than succumb to this tired trope (think Oklahoma, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera), The First Wives Club prioritizes women’s friendships over heterosexual romance.

In Princeton professor Stacy Wolf’s book, Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, the author tracks women’s relationships in Broadway shows from the 1950s to the present, analyzing the ways in which women characters function both within plots and in relation to one another. She writes,

Conventional musical theatre form—the telling of a story through speech, song and dance—is linked to content: a love story and developing romance. This heteronormative narrative is so deeply embedded in musical theatre’s historical trajectory that few commentators even note it as a convention rather than a fact or requirement.

Wolf tracks the genre decade by decade, discussing how musicals in the late 1960s and 1970s “experimented with new formats, most notably forgoing a dominant heterosexual romance for a story of a group or community”—think Hair (1967), Company (1970), Godspell (1976), The Wiz (1975) and A Chorus Line (1975). Near the turn of the century, musicals like Rent (1994), The Color Purple (2005) and In the Heights (2008) shifted to present a broader spectrum of social identities, introducing us to more complex characters of color and of varying sexual orientations and gender identifications. Yet regardless of this progress, the plots continued to prioritize romance over friendships (specifically women’s friendships).

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Fortunately, today’s musicals buck this trend. Currently on Broadway, Mamma Mia (1999), Matilda (2013) and Wicked (2003) all focus on friendships among women (or, girls—as is the case for Matilda). This fall’s Sideshow revival fares similarly.

Women’s onstage friendships have been gifted new value. “Musicals [have] moved from a female duet that interrupts the romance narrative to female duets that construct the romantic narrative,” writes Wolf.

In her research, she focuses specifically on Wicked. “[The show’s] blockbuster success … is all the more remarkable because the musical is about two women and their relationship,” writes Wolf. The show’s success at the box office proves that audiences will flock to see stories that diverge from heterosexual romantic convention. If they’ll see a show about two women, hopefully three sometimes-spunky, always-hilarious women will appeal as well.

When asked about the highest priority in making The First Wives Club, director Simon Phillips (the man behind Priscilla: Queen of the Desert) confirms this recent trend, saying:

I thought the absolute backbone of this story is that these women make a kind of vow in the beginning when they are very young to be there and be ready to help each other through difficult times. The show starts in quite a dark place in this way, but it’s really about … bringing the women together and reuniting them as a force. That friendship sees them through into a stronger, better, more self-confident place.

The musical team agrees. Known for Motown staples such as “Stop in the Name of Love,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team is combining familiar favorites with new tunes produced specifically for the show. Regarding the plot’s focus, Lamont Dozier echoes Phillips’ sentiment:

This play is about the women coming into their own. I like the idea of women winning at the end of a story and having the strength to continue regardless of what they have gone through. They are getting themselves together and getting the knowledge and the strength to continue.

We certainly hope that The First Wives Club finds success in the Windy City and ultimately treks to Broadway for the fall 2015 season.

The First Wives Club starts previews on Feb. 17, with an expected opening night scheduled for March 11.

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Photo courtesy of The First Wives Club

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Brianna Kovan graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English. She is currently an editorial intern at Ms. 

Comments

  1. While the general points here are strong, as a theater professional, I am a little concerned over the author’s assessment of many of these musicals. Mamma Mia is about weddings, heterosexual relationships, and a woman trying to find her father – there’s little substance to it in general (it’s a lot of fun, and has some great dance numbers but is far from a meaty book), and to categorize it as a musical that is bucking patriarchal plot trends is a weak argument. And while Wicked is notable for its female friendship, there is also a central male figure over whom the women compete for attention from (initially). On the other hand, while arguably male-dominated, Rent shows a variety of sexual and romantic relationships, and friendships. Act Two of Rent moves quickly, but its ending indicates that Maureen is willing to drop everything to save her friends life, and ultimately it is friendship that is the bonding glue of the community. The Wiz’s protagonist is a WOC working to get back to her family, a goal that can only be met through friendships with various beings (arguably gendered both male and female). The Wiz showcased strong, female singers as they belted and danced their way through challenges from wizards and witches.

    I am extremely disheartened to read a piece about theater that quotes a theater history book but is unable to substantiate its arguments with examples from texts. The plays mentioned in this article are very, very different from each other. My sense is that they have not been read/seen and analyzed by the author, which undermines the article.

    Moreover, while The First Wives Club may be a promising musical for the reasons stated, it should be noted that its source material depicts white, privileged, heterosexual women’s lives. There is nothing wrong with this, but it feels disingenuous at best to contrive this as a radical act on the stage. Why not also mention work such as Fun Home, the musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel that depicts a lesbian as a protagonist? Or Here Lies Love, about the life of Imelda Marcos? Legally Blonde, which ditches the romance plot as its protagonist develops into a fuller person through her education?

    It is true that commercial musical theater has suffered from two dimensional female characters who serve a male-dominated plot. It is also true that there has been a lot of great work that has been done that will challenge The First Wives Club to rise to the higher standards of character development and narrative richness that are being set by work that does put women’s stories first.

  2. Thank you, but neither the blog nor the book distinguishes between representation and endorsement: the goings-on portrayed in a narrative do not necessarily determine their signification. Wolf does not really address music, which can certainly have many effects on how the plot is received and understood. Moreover, it is problematic (one might say naive) to idealize the music theater idiom and to overlook its commercialization and commodification. One must take with a grain of salt any statement that Broadway musicals are somehow forging new, progressive paths. Wolf’s work is readily quotable but not so probing, unfortunately.

  3. Though she is not mentioned, I believe Linda Bloodworth Thomason is writing the script.
    There is no one that we should rather see doing this. She is always a friend of all segments of society that need help and is probably more trusted to have the right take on social issues than any writer in
    America.

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