Empowered women and unenlightened men

I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road is an unusual musical in several respects: the main female character is 39, there is no firm romantic plot, though romance is mentioned, and it’s set on the tiny stage of the Jermyn Street Theatre, when most audiences are used to seeing musicals in more bombastic environments. It was also written and composed by two women, Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford.

It is the musical’s second production in London; the previous one played in the West End 35 years ago. The show successfully premiered Off‐Broadway in 1978 and, years later, spawned a less well‐known sequel I’m Still Getting My Act Together, shown at the Laguna Playhouse in California in 2015.

The authors initially demurred when the show was described as feminist (note: no subtitles for the linked video), but second wave feminism was a sizeable part of its original success. The producer noticed that audiences lingered after half‐sold performances, and introduced post‐show discussions (a new departure in the late 1970s); within weeks they were playing to sold-out houses, as well as having heated conversations afterwards. The show was originally scorned by critics but came to enjoy great success alongside controversy: some audience members came again and again, bringing a different friend every time, others ostensibly left mid‐performance.

Two women writers are still an exception rather than the rule; it was only last year that that an all-women team, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, won a Tony Award for Best Original Score for the first time in history. Although hard data on musicals is not easily accessible, it’s clear that men still dominate writing and composing for popular shows, not to mention the persistent issue of equal pay in the music and entertainment industry as a whole. It’s worth noting that the cast of I’m Getting My Act Together… features a 50:50 gender split, with three women (two singers and bass) and three men (percussion, piano, guitar).

An exploration of the music industry’s reliance on a stereotype of female youth and gendered power relationships

The basic plot suggests a play that is examining its own genre. Heather (Landi Oshinowo), a singer‐songwriter and band leader, is about to perform the first show of a tour with completely new material; her manager, Joe (Nicolas Colicos), who didn’t oversee its production due to his marital problems, comes to the band’s last rehearsal. What follows is an exploration of the music industry’s reliance on a stereotype of female youth and gendered power relationships.

Heather’s new material is raw and honest. She restyles her act from the ground up, from her own looks to the show’s format (which includes sketches), with personal songs about her failed marriage and conservative upbringing. She muses on how being a strong, self‐made woman makes men all too likely to leave her, because they prefer women who depend on them.

It is very obvious that Joe, who clearly walks in expecting a particular kind of singer, and promptly questions all her changes, feels threatened by her new confident attitude, as well as the content of the songs. At one point he asks her, “why did you change your hair?”, a sentence that has additional meaning since the lead role is being played by Oshinowo, a Black woman with natural untreated hair.

Cryer and Ford use the conflict between commercial success and artistic integrity to illustrate a more insidious and gendered problem. Joe is Heather’s manager, former lover and friend, however he is unable to support her new incarnation. Even though he couches it into language about marketing, suggesting that her new self will not appeal to audiences, his objection is more personal. The boundaries between Joe’s private sexist views and ‘good manager’ persona blur: as Heather challenges the music industry itself, proclaiming her ‘advanced’ age of 39 and willingness to be powerful not pretty, Joe tells her that he misses her previous commercial hit, ‘In A Simple Way I Love You’, a song where she sang about supporting a man in realising his dreams.

I'm Getting My Act Together, Jermyn Street Theatre, Kristen Gaetz, Rosanna Hyland and Landi Oshinowo, © Richard Lakos

The show is enjoyable and touching, as well as surprisingly dark at times: there is a mock minstrel show that simultaneously plays on Oshinowo’s Blackness and comments on the ‘smiling duty’ that is placed on women. It also contains a portrayal of ‘soft’ sexism and borderline gaslighting behaviours: it’s easy to scorn men who voice their contempt towards women, but what about friends who couch their sexist advice in sentences like “I care about you” and “I want what’s best for you”? We also witness Heather in a moment when, despite their mutual history and affection, Joe’s paternalism stops being acceptable.

I’m Getting My Act Together… rests mostly on the relationship between Heather and Joe, and both characters are portrayed as interesting, complex people. Joe, in his own view, supports and loves women; he casts himself as a “sucker”, a softie who gives his wife everything she wants and receives bad treatment in return. He sees his wife as a stereotypical weak, capricious woman, and feels she will not survive without him, which prolongs the life of their relationship, as well as reaffirming his masculinity.

Conversely, Heather takes responsibility for her own failed relationship. Even though she sings with clarity about society’s determination to turn women into pleasing, smiling objects, she says that her marriage ended because her husband never knew her. She suggests that passive femininity comes with a healthy dollop of emotional manipulation. Her song lyrics also describe the confusion of changing gender roles. It is a stark dilemma, when the choice appears to be between enjoying independence, and having a romantic relationship.

Both lead performances are very good: Colicos’ Joe gives us a relatable, albeit clueless, teddy bear of a man, whose sexism is firmly embedded, though not visibly ill‐intentioned. Oshinowo’s Heather, in her all determined glory, newly filled with power, all but crackles with all the long‐suppressed things that she needs to voice. The ensemble also play and sing beautifully, as well as managing to convey characters within the few spoken lines they have. Of particular mention is David Gibbons as Jake, the guitarist in love with Heather, who sings ‘In A Simple Way I Love You’ to her, twisting the gender relationship and Alice Offley, playing the perpetually stoned Scottie, who aptly conveys her ‘too cool for school’ character.

The further into the show I go, the more I am charmed by Heather. With her imperfect enthusiasm, emotional strength and bravery, I find myself rooting for her personal and commercial success. Working as an artist brings a risk of needing to package yourself as a ‘product’ that needs to ‘appeal’, and that can easily outweigh artistic integrity, or mental wellbeing.

I enjoy watching a woman discover her voice

The most important question, perhaps, is whether the show has aged well, and it is one I find difficult to answer. The musical arrangements are true to their times: you can hear echoes of Hair, the original marriage of musical theatre and rock and roll. Sometimes the arrangements feel too sweet for me, however; the harmonies of the 70s are now slightly passé and could do with more of a vamp up. Though ‘Put in a Package and Sold’ and ‘Happy Birthday’ are worth waiting for and deliver a lot of emotional intensity.

I enjoy the show as a history lesson, but find it rather dated. Heather’s zeal is a bit too earnest at times (there is a recurring line about “society being messed up”) and some aspects of Joe’s relationship with his passive, cheating wife seem overblown. Having said that, my perspective as a person in her late 20s, in a relationship with a feminist man, may differ from the viewpoint of a 40-year‐old divorcee. Age and relationship status aside, social progress is not linear, and what is old news to me could be transformational to someone else.

As I watch the show, it touches me as a feminist: I enjoy watching a woman discover her voice. Oshinowo mentioned in an interview that her favourite line is “If you can’t give me room to grow, you’ve gotta get out of my life”, and perhaps that is the best summary of the show. Whether as a history lesson, a demonstration of the song-writing skills of women or a beautiful journey through songs, relationships and self‐discovery, I’m Getting My Act Together… has something to offer to us all.

I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 23 July.

Both photographs are courtesy of Richard Lakos and are of Kristen Gaetz, Rosanna Hyland and Landi Oshinowo.

In the first picture, Oshinowo as Heather stands in the middle singing into a microphone. Gaetz and Hyland are slightly out of focus behind her. All three are wearing 1970s style clothes – paisley, long waistcoats and headscarves.

In the second picture Oshinowo is wearing a hardhat and a high vis vest and all three are posing with one arm held out at different angles. They are standing on a 1970s carpet and are holding microphones.