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5 Shows That Spotlight Great Women in History

By: Carey Purcell
Date: Feb 18, 2020

Harriet Tubman, Nellie Bly and Molly Brown are just a handful of the sheroes being celebrated on New York stages


When I was asked to write a book about the history of feminist theatre, my first thought was, just one? I had been studying, writing and talking about the subject for years—I didn't know how I would manage to fit everything I wanted to share into one tome. I'm glad my editor gave me a word limit, otherwise I would still be working on From Aphra Behn to Fun Home!

Many of the women I wrote about made history as theatre artists. But the theatre is also full of shows about women who made history in other areas. These five new productions put important women from the past center stage. All the runs coincide with Women's History Month in March, but these powerful stories of undersung sheroes provide inspiration year-round.



Nellie and the Women of Blackwell
Wildrence, 59 Canal Street between Allen and Orchard Streets

Through March 7.

In 1885 at age 21, Nellie Bly famously declared she would "do something no girl has done before," and went on to become a pioneering investigative journalist. One of her most famous stories required her to feign insanity so she could go undercover at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island to report on its deplorable practices. Her shocking exposé Ten Days in a Mad-House is the basis for this immersive show by Infinite Variety Productions, a theatre company that spotlights important women who've almost been lost to history. Just 16 audience members follow Bly (Kate Szekely) into the institution to explore and ask questions of the inmates. What emerges is a real-life tale of heartbreaking brutality and corruption which, thanks to Bly's courageous and groundbreaking work, ultimately prompted major reforms at the asylum.



Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue

In previews. Opens March 12. Open run.

King Henry VIII's six wives are usually reduced to their respective fates: "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived." But Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss' pop opera reimagines the sextet as a girl group, as each lady sings her own story in full. Á la modern-day divas like Beyoncé and Adele, these women are loud and proud as they reject the patriarchal society that wronged them. It's a refreshing change from the many musicals in which women sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Bonus: Cowriter-codirector Lucy Moss is also making history as the youngest woman to ever helm a Broadway production!


The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street at Pitt Street
Runs through March 22. At press time, discount tickets were available for The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

When it comes to the rags-to-riches story of Margaret Tobin—aka Molly Brown, who survived the sinking of the Titanic—fact is far more interesting than fiction. That's why the Transport Group decided to revise Meredith Willson and Richard Morris' 1960 musical to incorporate more about her incredible life. The original focused mainly on her relationship with her husband J.J. Brown, who made a mint in mining, but there was much more to Molly than her marriage. Tony-nominated writer Dick Scanlan's new book includes her political activism as a champion of workers' and women's rights and a friend to the poor, as well as her run for Congress years before women were granted the right to vote. Tony winner Kathleen Marshall directs.


Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues
Runs through March 22.

Lady Augusta Gregory was a prominent figure in Irish theatre throughout her life. With William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn, she cofounded the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; the latter was the first state-subsidized theatre in the English-speaking world and is still around today. She hosted gatherings for luminaries in the Irish Literary Revival at her home, and at age 50 started penning her own plays. This Irish Rep production weaves together her personal writings and parts of her plays as Lady G (Úna Clancy) tells her story with a little help from her famous friends.


She Persisted: The Musical
Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues

Runs through March 22.

Mitch McConnell's "she persisted" dig at Senator Elizabeth Warren became a feminist battle cry as well as the title of Chelsea Clinton's picture book celebrating 13 inspirational women who changed the world. Writer Adam Tobin and composer Deborah Wicks La Puma have adapted it into a musical for young audiences, running on weekends at Atlantic for Kids, the family theatre arm of the venerable Atlantic Theater Company. In the hour-long show, a young student named Naomi goes on a class trip to a Women's History Museum where she's magically transported on a time-traveling adventure during which she meets abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, astronaut Sally Ride and other real-life figures. With so many kids' shows based on fairy tales, it's a treat to have one inspired by feminist tales.


Carey Purcell writes about pop culture and politics for Vanity Fair, Politico and other publications, and blogs at She recently published her first book: From Aphra Behn to Fun Home: A Cultural History of Feminist Theater.

Top image: Úna Clancy in Irish Rep's Lady G. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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Carey Purcell writes about pop culture and politics for Vanity Fair, Politico and other publications. She recently published her first book: From Aphra Behn to Fun Home: A Cultural History of Feminist Theater.