“We’re coming right out of the gate saying we’re women, we’re here, we’re making musical theatre. We’re going to sing rock music right into your faces.” That’s how artistic director Harmony France describes the first show in Firebrand Theatre’s inaugural season. The first equity, feminist musical theatre company (which celebrates its launch March 27) founded by France and Danni Smith will stage the Chicago premiere of Lizzie, a rock-and-roll retelling of the myth of Lizzie Borden. They’re following it with 9 to 5, the warm and sweet adaptation of the movie about women in the workplace. “They actually complement each other really well,” she says. “Ultimately, they’re both about sisterhood.”
If you’re surprised that Firebrand Theatre is the first company of its kind, you’re not alone. It surprised France too: “I woke up one day and I realized, why was I fine with this being the status quo? Musical theatre moves you, it touches parts of you that can’t be touched by just words. Why shouldn’t women be the focus of that experience?” And she believes Chicago is the perfect birthplace for this endeavor. “We’re innovators, we’re rabble-rousers here. We’re absolutely fearless. We don’t let things fly, we shut it down,” says France. The movement towards activist art has become a hot topic in Chicago. Recent controversies over abuses against women at various theatre companies in the city have given way to real conversations about how to make theatre feel like a welcoming place for women and their stories. It’s created fertile ground for a company like Firebrand.
But what makes a musical feminist? That’s where the Firebrand Test comes in. It’s a new take on the Bechdel Test and the three tenets lay out the framework for the kind of shows you can expect to see at their theatre. First, there must be at least as many women as men in the cast. Second, the show must lend itself to inclusive, diverse casting. Finally, the show must empower women. There’s no one way to define what empowers women, but France affirms her company will provide real, complex roles for women to play. “We’re still stuck in a man’s idea of escapism, with too few exceptions,” she says. “Women end up playing the virgin, the whore, or the hag. Those are the options.”
France is excited about presenting Firebrand’s take on Lizzie and 9 to 5, but she knows that expanding their focus will eventually be necessary. While shows by composers Michael John LaChiusa and Jeanine Tesori “pass the Firebrand test with flying colors”—in addition to modern musicals like Waitress, Wicked, and Beautiful—France plans to eventually present classic shows with genderbent casts and push writers to fill the void. “There’s a good reason no one has done this with musical theatre before: The canon doesn’t exist. We’re going to have to foster new work. We don’t have a choice, we’re going to run out of shows,” She says. “That lights my fire even more. If it’s this hard and it doesn’t exist, we have to do it.”
At the end of the day when people commit to a night at the theatre, they expect a great show. Balancing entertainment and message is a tightrope France walks consciously. “If they come for a great show, they’ll leave with a little piece of activism. And if they come for the activism, they’ll leave having seen a great show. Whatever they come for, we are going to do both.”
Firebrand Theatre Company’s inaugural season kicks off with Lizzie in November 2017. For tickets and information, or to become a member visit FirebrandTheatre.org.