MEET JEANNETTE (AND YOU SHOULD HAVE MET HER LONG AGO) By Peter Filichia
Even those who created a website in Jeannette Rankin’s honor wouldn’t be surprised if you’d never heard of her.
For the first thing you see when you call up www.jrpc.org is “Jeanette Who?”
Luckily for us musical theater fans, both playwright Lauren M. Gunderson and composer-lyricist Ari Afsar learned some years back about Jeannette Rankin. They’re in the process of finishing a musical called JEANNETTE on this activist politician’s ambitious, determined and extraordinary life.
Right now the collaborators have eight songs to offer in a concept album called WE WON’T SLEEP: SONGS FROM THE MUSICAL JEANNETTE.
Now through Masterworks Broadway, you can hear the songs that helped JEANNETTE become one of the few musicals selected by the judges at the 2019 Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theater Conference. (Over 400 musicals were submitted.)
Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) was born in Montana and became one of its representatives in Congress. While that is an achievement in any era, Rankin’s realization was even more extraordinary. When she entered that august body on Jan. 3, 1917, women didn’t even have the right to vote. That wouldn’t be granted until forty-four months more would pass.
Granted, Rankin’s brother Wellington, who was an influential Montana politician (and would eventually become a member of the state’s Supreme Court), sponsored his sister’s candidacy. But she didn’t solely rely on him; she tirelessly stumped across Montana and talked to enough citizens to convince them that she was the one for the job.
Rankin championed social welfare, which was appreciated, and prohibition, which ultimately wasn’t. But she gained immense notoriety when she voted against the country’s involvement in World War I.
That caused her to lose her seat. She didn’t run to regain it until 1940, when she was successful. However, eleven months after she joined Congress, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and yet Rankin still opposed America’s entry into World War II.
Although forty-nine congressmen agreed with her stance regarding World War I, Rankin was now the only member of Congress to vote no on the United States joining World War II. Her simple credo had always been that war was “a wrong method of settling a dispute.”
Even long after her retirement, Rankin railed against The Vietnam War. That made her a hero with the Baby Boomers who were actively against the conflict as well.
So we see that JEANNETTE fits the requirements of the best musicals: Big Characters involved in Big Events. (Just look at 1776, CAMELOT and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.) And how fitting that the story of a superachiever should be told by two contemporary superachievers.
Even before Gunderson was able to vote in her native Georgia, she’d finished a play that would be accepted into the 2002 Young Playwrights Festival.
Fast forward to the past five years. For most of them, she has been, as The New Yorker proclaimed, “the most produced playwright in the country.”
This might amaze those who limit their theatergoing attention to Broadway, for Gunderson has never had a play there. Thus her achievement is all the more remarkable when one considers how most artistic directors fill their seasons with the most recent Broadway hits that have become available to them.
But if you haven’t seen or been offered Gunderson’s BAUER, I AND YOU, NATURAL SHOCKS, THE HALF-LIFE OF MARIE CURIE as well as MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY (which she co-wrote), you undoubtedly will.
Afsar too was also making a mark at an early age. As a high schooler, she started Adopt-a-Grandfriend, which endeavored to match teens with lonely seniors in order to make their so-called golden age genuinely brighter.
Such devotion must have been a consideration when the judges of California’s 2005 Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Competition deemed Afsar the winner. She certainly didn’t flag when she entered adult competitions: Miss San Diego County in 2010 led to her becoming Miss California that year and a Top Ten finalist in the Miss America pageant.
Theater has been always a part of Afsar’s life. Her resume ranges from her appearance as Cindy Lou Who in a production of DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! when she was nine to portraying Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton in the original Chicago cast of HAMILTON in 2016.
Of the album’s eight cuts, five are solos (including the title song) sung by Afsar herself. On all, she displays a voice that manages to be sensual and powerful.
Although Candace Quarrels and Brittany Campbell – the R&B duo known as Mermaid – gets one song to themselves, Afsar appears on the remaining two. MA/SA (a/k/a Matthew Santos) and Afsar duet on “Losing Face” after Milck and Genesis Be join Afsar on “Who Are You?” – Rankin’s song of protest to those who just won’t see the light and make light of her views.
Not that that stopped her from making her message heard. Note too that Rankin was a staunch advocate of getting people to vote during the 1920 election, which wouldn’t be easy because a pandemic was raging. (Who says that history doesn’t repeat itself – and a solid century later right down to the actual year?)
Afsar is equally staunch. “I do know the first step is voting and it takes every single one of us.” It’s one of the reasons she was drawn to write the musical.
Another was to accelerate inclusiveness in the musical theater. Afsar is a proud BIPOC, and as a result, wants JEANNETTE’s performers, designers, staff and producers to consist of White, Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, gay, straight, and trans individuals. That choice may well have pleased Jeannette Rankin most of all.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.