Anyone out there seen the classic and hilarious film, “Waiting for Guffman?” It is the perfect spoof of the unique world of community theatre. Travel agents, a Dairy Queen cashier, and a dentist all come together to create a piece of performance art for the delight of local citizens. In community theatre, a bunch of oddballs can become minor celebrities, recognized at the Piggly Wiggly like local versions of Patti Lupone or Hugh Jackman.: “Didn’t I see you in…?” “Why, yes! yes, I did play Rosie in Bye, Bye, Birdie! It was so much fun, thank you for coming to support us!”
I love community theatre. It’s chock-a-block full of regular folks who love theatre, but for whatever reason, don’t make it a profession. For some (like me), marriage and stability were a better option than the gamble of New York, Chicago, or L.A. For others, they discover their creative side later in life and volunteering at their local community theatre is the most accessible route to artistic expression. For others, the community theatre becomes a surrogate family, a place to let your quirky imagination out to play without the judgement of straitlaced cubicle mates.
I have spent most of my adult life in rehearsal at the community theatre house for one musical or another. In my 30’s, I had the chance to play dream roles like Marian the Librarian, Sarah Brown, Julie Jordan, Nellie Forbush, and Annie Oakley. I have sung the great ballads, from “Moonshine Lullaby” (Annie Get Your Gun) to “How Could I Know” (Secret Garden). I’ve performed Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin, and Sondheim.
Moving into my 40’s, the roles began to be harder to come by, though I have had the utter joy of playing The Chaperone (Drowsy Chaperone) and Joanne (Company). Community theatres like to play it safe. They have aging audiences, and they are afraid of alienating them. Chestnuts by Rodgers/Hammerstein or Lerner/Loewe are proven ticket sellers. I get that, I really do. But younger audiences (and by younger, I mean 55 on down- not exactly spring chickens) like to see shows written sometime after 1980. I know- it’s radical to imagine doing a show that’s got thirty years on it, instead of sixty!
Interesting roles for women in their 40’s and 50’s are being written. Roles full of interesting character, gripping dilemmas, heartache and humor, and problems that don’t always find resolution in a wedding march. Dammit, there are great roles in musical theatre for women who are somewhere between Laurie and Aunt Eller: no longer the ingenue, but not ready for the granny wig.
Of course, all musical theatre aficionados recognize Mama Rose, Miss Mona, Adelaide, and Miss Hannigan. Gypsy, Best Little Whorehouse, Guys and Dolls, and Annie are community theatre staples. Wonderful shows. Tried and true. Worn and exhausted, some might say. Cliche, even.
Hollywood has long had a problem with this, constantly forcing women in their 40’s to play the discarded wives, or heaven help us, the mothers to their forty-something male counterparts. But the stage has always been willing to take risks on women in their middle age, when their talent is ripe, their life experience rich, and their voice in its prime.
So as a forty-something actress/singer who longs to play great roles, maybe even alongside actresses in her own age bracket, I present the following list of musicals for the local community theatres to take a look at. They are great shows, they will sell tickets, they will capture new audiences, and they will excite your theatre ensembles. As an added bonus, they feature major roles for women in the middle:
Light in the Piazza: Margaret Johnson is a mother visiting Italy with her developmentally delayed daughter. Her marriage is dying as her daughter falls in love with a young Italian dreamer. The vocal score is exquisite, the emotional journey heart wrenching.
Kiss Me, Kate: Lilli Vanessi is an aging star. She gets to sing “I Hate Men” as Kate, and “So In Love” as Lilli. It’s Cole Porter and Shakespeare combined. The 1999 revival ran for two years and received numerous Tony nominations and several awards. It’s a crowd pleaser!
Mamma Mia has three (!!!) fantastic roles for women in their 40’s. They don’t have to be movie star gorgeous with size 2 figures! They still get to be fun and sexy! With a score built upon the songbook of Abba, it’s got a guaranteed fanbase.
Ragtime is just the most beautiful musical. And it’s got fantastic roles for all sorts: age, color, body type, vocal range; it’s all there. Including a plum role, Mother, a woman who discovers that her sheltered life is not fulfilling and takes the plunge into uncharted territory.
Nine to Five is not necessarily a masterpiece of the Broadway cannon, but with the popularity of the movie and name recognition among those over forty, its catchy numbers and physical comedy are sure to be popular.
Next to Normal’s Diana Goodman is bipolar. Not exactly the feel-good premise that community theatres often go for. But this story is contemporary, relevant, and resonant. The music, a rock score, reverberates long after the notes have faded. For a theatre that takes risks, this one is a powerful choice.
I did a little reading on roles for women over 40, here are a couple of articles/blogs I found that had good stuff to say: