LAUREN GUNDERSON MEETS JEANNETTE RANKIN By Peter Filichia
Lauren M. Gunderson went through life like the rest of us, never knowing about Jeannette Rankin.
But she’s become the bookwriter of the musical JEANNETTE, whose concept album is available through Masterworks Broadway.
Gunderson first heard of Rankin through Ari Afsar – “an incredible singer-songwriter-performer,” she says. (In fact, Afsar played Eliza in the Chicago company of HAMILTON.)
“I’ve thought of myself pretty savvy feminist politically-engaged art activist person,” says Gunderson. “And yet I had no idea who this Jeannette was. Ari said ‘Well, read about her. I think there’s a TV show here.’”
Gunderson did. “She was the very first female-identifying Congressperson ever to be elected in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century. So it’s this wild story of this kind of improbable woman from Montana.
“What’s really remarkable,” says Gunderson, “is that Jeannette was elected to Congress before the women had the vote. Isn’t that the most wonderful fact? I mean terrible,” she hastily adds, “but wonderful because how did she get into Congress? It just baffles. And the suffrage bill was put forth, Rankin was alone in voting for it.
“What’s even more interesting, unique and powerful,” says Gunderson, “is that Jeannette was the first queer woman elected. So there was a lot going on with her.”
Afsar had written songs for her planned made-for-TV movie, but Gunderson saw it as a musical. “And,” she told Afsar, “we need to write it right now.”
They did, and those at The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Connecticut chose it for its 2019 National Music Theater Conference. (The director is Erin Ortman who, coincidentally, is a Montanan.)
Some of the story involves Rankin’s desire to keep the country from entering World War I. Says Gunderson, “Her pacifism was deep-rooted. It was very much connected to worker’s rights, women’s rights and the rights of children who so often served on the front lines. They, not the senator’s kids, were the ones in the coffins. So she really had that as her focus for almost her whole career.”
Rankin was vilified for her solitary stance. “She was called unpatriotic, but she couldn’t make herself vote for violence,” says Gunderson. “In some ways, this was used against the feminist movement for a while.”
That, however, is not the sole focus of JEANNETTE. “This is also about her legacy and people who’ve been excluded from power. It’s this really cool dance of then-and-now, her-and-us.”
As a result of the post-play discussions that JEANNETTE received at the O’Neill, Gunderson says that she’s looking forward to more of these when the musical is produced. “We talked about how those protests and calls for justice back then are the same things we’re going through now – but with a different protagonist.”
Needless to say, JEANNETTE didn’t have much of a chance to be produced in 2020. Says Gunderson, “Through Ari’s album, we’re putting the musical into the world in the way that we can right now before we can get back to that blissful place of the rehearsal room.”
Thus far, the musical’s breakout song is “We Won’t Sleep,” which inspired a “Get out the Vote” video. Dancers performed to it on the streets of St. Louis, Chicago and other cities.
No one will ever know how influential the song was in spurring voting, but some in Washington politics must have at least appreciated the effort. Afsar was asked to do a virtual performance of “We Won’t Sleep” for the Asian American and Pacific Islander Inaugural Ball. The following day, she and Gunderson did the same (and other excerpts) for the New Democrat Coalition’s Inaugural Brunch. A few days later, the musical received a virtual airing at The Warren Miller Performing Arts Center in Big Sky, Montana.
If theater to you solely means Broadway, you may be saying “Never mind ‘Who’s Jeannette? – who’s Lauren Gunderson?” Yes, she’s had four plays mounted off-Broadway, but nothing between 41st Street to Lincoln Center. However, the playwright who’s not yet forty is known around the country thanks to regional theater. She has for the last five years been one of the most produced playwrights in America; in fact, during the last two pre-pandemic seasons, no living playwright was produced more.
“Every manner of play that I have dreamed up has found a home,” she says. “It’s a big country, and I’m happy to play in a very, very big sandbox.”
The childlike image is apt, for Gunderson was already reading The Dramatists Guild Source Book when she was fourteen. “That organization does so much to connect folks who aren’t in New York, so in my Atlanta living room I was able to see opportunities.”
That led to The Young Playwrights Festival, of which she was one of the 2002 winners. Since then, wins have arrived on a startlingly regular basis: The Lanford Wilson Award, The Otis Guernsey Award and The Steinberg/ATCA Award – twice. True, for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and The John Gassner Award she was a finalist, but you can’t win them all.
During her formative years, Gunderson was first taken with Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. “Then,” she says, “I kind of realized like, wow, I’ve been given a lot of guys. Why don’t we read any women? Then of course I had to find them. The only one that you were really given twenty or thirty years ago was Lorraine Hansberry. I used her as a jumping-off point and quickly found Lynn Nottage, Paula Vogel, and Sarah Ruhl. Combined with Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare, that was quite a concoction: a cocktail of theater options that made me happily drunk for most of my childhood.”
Another woman playwright who became vitally important was another Atlantan: Margaret Edson, the Pulitzer Prize-winner for WIT. “I wrote her an old-fashioned letter,” recalls Gunderson, “and said ‘I think I want to write plays.’ She invited me to her home where she basically took me seriously. She could tell that what I needed was somebody to say ‘You are a playwright! Welcome to the club!’ She asked me to tell her about the characters I was then writing about, so I told her about Émilie du Châtelet.”
Never heard of her, either? Physicists in France certainly have, because this woman in the mid-eighteenth century translated Isaac Newton’s PRINCIPIA. (It’s still the go-to translation today.)
She was also Voltaire’s longtime companion. “So,” says Gunderson, “when I mentioned that Voltaire was going to be a character, Margaret said ‘You’re going to write lines for Voltaire? What audacity!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, wow. Okay. Didn’t think about it like that. All right. Got it. But anyway.”
Anyway, indeed, for EMILIE LA MARQUISE DU CHATELET DEFENDS HER LIFE TONIGHT has been produced from sea (Arlington, Virginia) to shining sea (Los Angeles). Her biggest success, however, is I AND YOU, about a teenage girl and boy doing a class assignment.
“We find out pretty quickly that she’s ill with a terminal diagnosis, which sounds incredibly boring and tedious,” Gunderson admits. “So it was my job to make sure it was the opposite of that – that it would be riveting and suspenseful. And it certainly has the biggest Flannery O’Connor twist,” she adds, citing one of the South’s most illustrious writers. “It’s been produced hundreds of times all over the world at this point, which is incredibly gratifying.”
Because Gunderson knows the importance of having an established dramatist’s endorsement, she now plays the Margaret Edson role to budding playwrights. “When the pandemic hit,” she says, “it was a chance to just throw out conversation. Starting free online playwriting classes was very gratifying for me as a way to connect with a lot of people around the world who want to talk about theater and who were missing it as much as I did.” Visit www.laurengunderson.com for more information.
Broadway does offer a dozen or so new plays a season, but there’s no question that it mostly welcomes musicals. Here’s hoping that Gunderson’s absence from The Street will come to an end in the not-so-distant future with JEANETTE.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.