Earlier this week, the producer of “Shuffle Along”, a Broadway musical nominated for ten Tony awards, announced that the curtain would be closing on the show next month. The musical is headlined by six time Tony award winner and former “Private Practice” actress Audra McDonald and features an all African American cast. “Shuffle Along” tells the story of the first ever Broadway musical written and produced entirely by African Americans and is set in 1921. Broadway legend Josephine Baker even played the lead role while the show ran during the Depression era and Ms. McDonald has been lighting up the stage with her electrifying performances for almost a year. The reason lead producer Scott Rudin gave for prematurely dimming the lights on the well received, critically acclaimed show? Because Audra McDonald went off and did the unthinkable: She got pregnant.
That’s right: Mr. Rudin released a statement that said, in part, …”the need for Audra to take a prolonged and unexpected hiatus from the show has determined the unfortunate inevitability of our running at a loss for significantly longer than the show can responsibly absorb and we have decided to close the show when she leaves on July 24″.
What the hell, Mr. Rudin? Is this for real?
In a business where women face cutthroat competition, body shaming from male directors, fewer roles for talented older actresses and no paid maternity leave, now actresses and their unexpectedly fertile uteruses are expected to carry the full weight of multimillion dollar Broadway shows?
Ms. McDonald exercised her right to have a child and a Broadway producer not only essentially fired her from her job but also the cast and crew, all of whom undoubtedly expected their paychecks and medical benefits to run well beyond July. In a statement, Ms. McDonald said she “was overjoyed to be expecting a new addition to my family yet completely heartbroken that our talented cast and company-my “Shuffle Along” family-won’t be able to continue telling this incredible story”.
We’re sorry, Audra, but we are calling bullshit on this one for you.
What makes Mr. Rudin’s statement so repugnant is that Broadway producers are in the business of maintaining consistency and energy levels show after show, regardless of who is on stage. All leading roles have understudies who are at the ready to step in if a lead is unable to perform. Per strict rules and guidelines set forth by the Actor’s Equity Union, no actor can be forced to work without sick time and personal days. Mr. Rudin’s assertion that “Shuffle Along” cannot survive McDonald’s absence is ridiculous. A Broadway show is the sum total of hundreds of moving parts and while Ms. McDonald may be the face of the show night after night, audiences delight in far more than just the celebrity singing and dancing on stage. The weight of a show’s success should not fall on an actress and her decision to have a child in the middle of a successful Broadway run.
Women have fought long and hard for equal pay and fair maternity leave practices from their employers. What Mr. Rudin did by throwing Ms. McDonald and her right to extend her family without fear of retribution under the bus is egregious and disgusting. When are women going to be finally seen as equals in the workplace? When will men stop using 1950s logic when it comes to a pregnant employee? Mr. Rudin is a male chauvinist who just lost the support and respect of half of the Broadway workforce.
Broadway actress Kirsten Wyatt reacted Thursday night to Rudin’s statement about closing “Shuffle Along” and McDonald’s pregnancy. In a post on her personal Facebook wall and Twitter, she challenged Rudin and other producers like him to wake the hell up and face the issues women performers have been dealing with for years while employed on Broadway.
Minimal maternity leave, double standards for their post baby bodies when they return to their roles and grueling rehearsal schedules make child care a nightmare for mothers employed by Broadway musicals. When I spoke with her on the phone, she lamented, “Women in our industry are made to feel shitty all the time for having uteruses. How many Tony awards do we have to earn to finally get the men in this industry to take us seriously?”
Well, Kirsten, apparently six Tonys isn’t enough, it seems.
So, we are sorry, Audra, that we still live in a world where a woman is blamed for the demise of her company or job simply for bringing a new life into the world. Ms. McDonald is incredibly talented and we have no doubt that she will continue to be one of Broadway’s biggest stars and a badass mother. While the show will go on for Ms. McDonald, “Shuffle Along” died under the weight of a misogynist who put the bottom line ahead of women’s rights. I’m guessing there are a bunch of Broadway actresses out there who are hoping Mr. Rudin actually falls and breaks a leg. Or two.