Lesley Anne Knight
October 27 2021
Equality in the early 1900s
In 2018, whilst researching female musical theatre writers on Broadway from the early twentieth century, I stumbled across what I felt was something much more significant: contracts, correspondence and interviews relating to three lyricist/librettists who worked on shows by leading Broadway production houses in the early 1900s. These revealed that they not only negotiated financial agreements on a par with their male peers but also collaborated as respected members of creative teams, free to exercise their opinion and unafraid to independently manage their professional expectations at a time when women were widely demonstrating for the right to vote.
The writers in question are Anne Caldwell (1867-1936), Rida Johnson Young (1875-1926) and Dorothy Donnelly (1880-1928), who collectively wrote a total of more than forty musical productions, of which twenty were outstanding successes in the twenty-two year period from 1906-28, for which (during their lifetimes) they received both critical acclaim and ample financial reward – although this was subsequently largely disregarded by historians until the late twentieth century.
Anne Caldwell (1867-1936), Rida Johnson Young (1875-1926) and Dorothy Donnelly (1880-1928)
The documents which initially piqued my interest can be found in The Shubert Archive in New York, home to more than 6,900 linear feet of business, financial and legal records and correspondence, documenting every aspect of the Shubert company history dating back to the early 1890s and located on the upper floors of the stunningly preserved Lyceum Theatre in New York.
My attention was first drawn to correspondence between Rida Johnson Young in 1910 to both Lee and J.J. Shubert in which she would not only negotiate her own business terms but chase up on unpaid royalty payments, omissions of her name on sheet music and make suggestions for casting. Young also demonstrated that she was more than happy to discuss her business in an interview for American Magazine in 1920, candidly offering an estimation of her average earnings in the following terms:
Very few plays pay the playwright less than $300 dollars a week, for every company that is producing them. In the larger cities they may pay double that amount. Production on the stage is not the end of a successful play. Then come the movie rights, which vary from $25,000 to over $100,000 for a play; the book rights, when plays are used for books; the song rights, and the stock-company royalties, which may go on for years. […] A single successful play may net a playwright anywhere from fifty thousand to several hundred thousand dollars.
Further searches then brought forth more gems related to Dorothy Donnelly’s contractual negotiations. In 1922, when she was working with composer Sigmund Romberg on Blossom Time, the Shuberts chose to approach Romberg over Donnelly to take a substantial cut in royalty payments following a contract error as they considered dealing with Romberg far easier than facing Donnelly or her legal advisor. Donnelly’s adept negotiation skills are also evident later in the paperwork for the hit Broadway production The Student Prince where the royalty statements appear to reveal better terms for the writer yet again. Anne Caldwell’s success is reflected in interviews with magazines of the day such as The Theatre which, in June 1915, featured a headline image of a substantial house captioned ‘Anne Caldwell’s Beautiful Home at Rockville Centre, Long Island. Built with Her Royalties.’ Working at the heart of Broadway musical comedy shows produced by Charles Dillingham, she collaborated with leading composers of the day such as Jerome Kern and Ivan Caryll, her interview illustrates her love of teamwork and the thrill of being at the heart of the action.
Equality in collaboration
The burgeoning industry in which all three writers were operating was also a fledgling environment with regards to contractual rights for writers, seeing the collective support of Guilds and Unions gaining steady ground through the early years of the twentieth century, with their goals often resisted by powerful producers who viewed regulation as a threat to profits. The correspondence reveals each woman’s involvement in all the issues close to the heart of a professional writer in terms of fees, casting, development of storylines and presence in the rehearsal room and – while their individual letters demonstrate confidence in their position – closer inspection of their professional lives reveals they didn’t act entirely alone. Union membership offered the power of a collective voice and the records show that Dorothy Donnelly served on the Executive Committee of Actor’s Equity and is listed as a member of no less than twelve professional trade organisations (including the New York Woman’s Suffrage Association and the Women’s Democratic Union); Rida Johnson Young was an early Council member of The Dramatist’s Guild; and Anne Caldwell was a founder member of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and listed alongside their own names are the men with whom they collaborated on leading Broadway shows.
Lessons for today
Noted organizational sociologist and social psychologist Jean Lipman-Blumen described a model of ‘connective leadership’ developing in the late twentieth century ‘connecting individuals not only to their own tasks and ego drives, but also to those of the group and community, targeting mutual goals rather than navigating mutual enemies’. Each of these writers not only developed her own connective leadership through personal networking but also participated in the move to be a part of the emerging professional Guilds and Associations such as The Dramatists’ Guild and ASCAP, effectively creating a positive nexus of power with their peers to instigate change with their producers and successfully navigate mutual goals through collaboration.
It was Confucius who declared we should ‘study the past if we would define our future’. My hope is that by highlighting the inspirational achievements exemplified in these three careers can in some way serve to enhance the ongoing debate of gender imbalance in the workplace in the twenty-first century.
Bennett, H. C. (1920) ‘The Woman Who Wrote Mother Machree’, American Magazine, December, p. Vol. 90, 178.
Lipman-Blumen, J. (1992) ‘Connective Leadership: Female Leadership Styles in the 21st-Century Workplace’, Sociological Perspectives. doi: 10.2307/1389374.
McLean, L. A. (1999) Dorothy Donnelly. A Life in the Theatre. first. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc.
Middleton, G. (1947) These Things Are Mine. New York: The Macmillan Company.
Patterson, A. (1915) ‘Only Woman Librettist in America’, Theatre Magazine, June, p. 305.
Taft, P. (1976) ‘Expansion of unionization in the early 20th century’, Monthly Labor Review, 99(September), pp. 32–35.
Teichmann, H. (1972) George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait. First. New York: Atheneum.
Walsh, T. J. (2001) ‘Playwrights and Power: The Dramatists Guild’s Struggle for the 1926 Minimum Basic Agreement’, New England Theatre Journal, 12, pp. 51–78.
Walsh, T. J. (2016) Playwrights and Power: The Making of the Dramatists Guild. Hanover, NH: Smith and Kraus.
Lesley Anne Knight (@lesley_knight) is a doctoral student at London College of Music with a research interest in gender and the workplace from the perspective of early 20th century female lyricist/librettists working in early musical theatre on Broadway. A graduate of Trinity College of Music with voice as principal subject and a Masters in Music from Oxford Brookes University, Lesley is a vocal coach on the Musical Theatre Programme at London College of Music and voice coach/Associate Lecturer for Music Performance at Oxford Brookes University. Currently writer and presenter for the YouTube channel ‘Just Talking Musicals‘, in 2013 she researched, wrote and presented Broadway Bonanza, a 10-part documentary series for Vintage TV/Sky and The Magic of the Musicals (8-part series) for Global City Radio and has been a full member of the Writers Guild of Great Britain since 2013.