BWW Interview: Jennifer Schwed And Doug Bradshaw of 19: THE MUSICAL at The Hill Center
19: The Musical is the brainchild of Through the 4th Wall co-founders, Jennifer Schwed and Doug Bradshaw. Both DC natives, Schwed and Bradshaw conceived the idea of a musical about the passage of the 19th Amendment back in 2016, and have been overseeing workshops and concert performances for a little over a year, with an eye toward a full production in time for the Amendment's centennial in 2020.
(Author's Note: This interview was held on January 3rd, the day the 116th Congress, which has the largest number of women members in US History, was sworn in, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi was re-elected. Some of the political discussion about the event has been edited down, but some has been left in for context.)
Rachael Goldberg (RG): First of all, because it seems timely, Happy 116th Congress Swearing-in Day!
Jennifer Schwed (JS): Right - it's the perfect day to do this!
RG: I'm very excited, and it seems particularly timely for talking about this show, because there is, thankfully, a world of difference from women not having a vote to essentially controlling things. It's a nice change from Alice Paul screaming "Mr. President, how long must women wait to get their liberty?" to - we just voted in how many women? (Author's Note: There are 127 women in the 116th Congress - 25 in the Senate and 102 in the House.)
JS: It's a lot!
Doug Bradshaw (DB): I saw those numbers - it's great!
RG: I guess the obvious question is: when did you start working on this show?
JB: So, we started this idea, conceptually, when we were working on a show about Edgar Allan Poe, A Dream Within A Dream, in 2016, at the Torpedo Factory. It ran there for about two months in the fall of 2016, and this was right during the run-up to the election. So, as the show is winding up and we're starting think what we were going to do next, I was listening to Hamilton, like many Americans at the time, and getting super-psyched about our first female president. So, as these things were happening, I was thinking, "This could be really cool." And there was there's one line in the Hamilton soundtrack, when Angelica says, "And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I'm 'a compel him to include women in the sequel!" And that line just kept going through my head, and I thought, "Where are the women, where is that sequel? Where is their history?" We just don't have stories that tell their history. So I decided, "Here's what we're going to do."
Doug and I don't have a background in musicals - we're theater people -
DB: - and film people -
JS: - and film - we're multimedia theater people. I was thinking, "This is going to be great, we'll celebrate Hillary and honor these women by doing this show."
JS: And then that election happened. And I thought, "Okay, no one wants to hear about women, no one is interested." But then, the Women's March happened. And just seeing these millions of women pour out across the country, I was like, "It's absolutely the time to tell this story. We need to tell it."
So I tell Doug, who I've been feeding the Hamilton soundtrack over the course of a few months, "I have this idea - I want to do a musical about the women who got us the right to vote. What do you think?" and he sits there quietly.
DB: Well, you have to say it was about the 19th Amendment.
JS: Right, so I said, "What do you think of doing a show for that?" and he says, "We'll call it 19." And that was the genesis of it. That was January 2017, and about March or April, we had to find a composer (Charlie Barnett). We had the support of the city - Alexandria was supporting us after we did the Poe show. So then we really got it together, held auditions, got our cast, and we've been going for - how long?
DB: Our first show, we did a three-night at the Lyceum in Old Town that fall, which is a museum in the City of Alexandria. The show's changed a lot since then.
DB: I mean, the show's still the same show, it's just a lot more music now.
JS: And they still get the vote at the end!
DB: Yeah, spoiler.
JS: So we started rehearsing the summer of 2017 for this three-night run in November, and after that run, we said, "Let's go back to the drawing board and see what we want to change." And, ultimately, it was one of Doug's friends who gave us the idea to continue to workshop it publicly by doing these performances. We started getting invitations to come and put on the show, so we've just continued to show the workshop all over the city for now a little over a year.
DB: The first version was Act I. We just finished our revision of Act II - don't talk to our cast about how many revisions we've done. We've changed things literally an hour before a performance, saying, "Okay, this is what you need to change, this is what we're going to do." But they're awesome, and they roll with the punches. They knew what they were getting into, though, and it's not like anything they've ever done.
RG: So is it the same cast from the beginning?
JS: Some of them have left, but not that many though. It's by and large the same group of people. And we've added people.
DB: We've added more people than we've lost, which is kind of crazy. Most of the cast has been with us for over a year. The core has been with us for over a year and a half.
RG: How long have you two partnered? Is this a new partnership or have you worked on other projects (besides Poe) together?
DB: It's an old, decrepit partnership.
JS: Yeah, it is pretty much. We've worked together for a long time, but we officially became Through the Fourth Wall when we did the first iteration of our Edgar Allan Poe show when we did it for Fringe - that was four years ago, in 2014.
DB: Summer 2014.
JS: Then we formed Through the 4th Wall, and we've done a bunch of productions. We've done short films, digital books, a fiction podcast (Jules and James). So yeah, we've done a bunch of stuff.
RG: Most people, especially if they have any interest in figuring out the missing women in history, have at least a passing familiarity with the story - how do you make this feel fresh without moving into a history lecture people tuned out growing up?
DB: Well, you'll have to see it.
JS: One of the things that was very important to us right out of the gate was bringing the issues of race right into the story, so it has that. What's both sad and fascinating is that the story does not feel historical. So much of what we're talking about is happening today, yesterday, a month ago, and we'll hear it again tomorrow. So we knew, right from the very start, this wasn't going to be a story of "Rah, rah, these women won the vote, isn't it great?" It's a story of real human beings with real flaws, issues, blind spots dealing with race, class, and lots of issues that came up. That's feedback we get from the audience frequently - the story feels very contemporary because it unfortunately is contemporary.
DB: That's exactly what I was going to say. It's been 100 years, but everything is the same. Women have the vote, but there are definitely the same levels of misogyny.
JS: And disenfranchisement of the voter is such a massive issue, so, we made progress, but we're talking about something that's happening now.
Musically, a lot of it is jazz, there's spoken word in it. Some of the music sounds more modern, it's not all old.
DB: It's a combination of everything from 1920s ragtime all the way up through late 60s modern beatnik. It's just a range of jazz feels, as well as some more standardy jazz. And a lot of spoken word.
JS: I hope we avoided it being boring - but you can tell us when you see it.
RG: We are seeing a dearth of interest in these topics - not just Hamilton, but Mosaic had The Agitators about Susan B Anthony and Frederick Douglas earlier this season, and the NBC show Timeless had an episode specifically on Alice Paul and the suffrage movement.
JS: We saw - they killed her off immediately! That was a little frustrating.
RG: I know!
DB: Good thing we didn't have a watch party.
RG: How do you differentiate your piece from other pieces addressing similar interests, and find the space for your particular show?
DB: We didn't really asses the market. We really just wanted to tell this story. It's a lost history. We think it'll appeal to people because it's a lost history that directly speaks to 51% of the population, and any guy who's worth his bones should be interested in this too. Because the vast majority of the stories out there are about guys who look like me. And so if they don't have enough bandwidth to look to other stories, then that's a problem for them. Because everyone else has had to look to their stories. I think we're just creating something we think is missing, and we're doing it, we think, in a different way because we come from outside the musical theater world. It's funny, because we spoke to Charlie (composer) and he said, "That's why this works - you guys are just breaking all these rules, and you're totally not aware of them." We're just running with scissors.
JS: Oh, yeah, we're totally running with scissors in musical theater.
DB: And we give him lyrics, and he's like, "What do you want me to do with these? I can't work with them," and we're just like, "We have to make this work." And it's this crazy thing because it doesn't follow the standard formula that everyone who has been doing this for years follows.
JS: I also want to address the question of this surfacing - women have just been buried, historically, so even if there were 20 stories out there right now about women and getting the vote, as Doug keeps saying -
DB: There should be enough oxygen.
JS: - there should be enough oxygen to tell all these stories because they don't exist. So we'll get people who come to these performances who are more astute and historically aware, but the majority of the audiences aren't aware of this history. And that is - that's downright depressing that most women are not aware of what came before them. Part of our goal is to hopefully inspire people with the action that these women took - this is repeatable. This is not a superhero story. This is a story about people who relentlessly went for what they wanted, and they were so young - they were in their 20s. This is something that when people say, "Well what can I do?" or "I'm powerless," or "I can't do anything" - these women got you the vote. There are no excuses. And I hope that we communicate that: "No excuses, get it done."
DB: If it motivates you to follow politics more and to vote, that's great. Because women died for this. Women died, so people should vote.
RG: I think that's something that actually gets overlooked a lot. People think it was just women marching in the street, or the mother from Mary Poppins doing her one song, and everything was fine and wonderful, but people actually did die for this.
JS: They were tortured, they were imprisoned, right here in DC - they were force fed. It's a brutal history, and I wonder how much would we put forward today to fight for what we wanted the way these women did.
RG: And how lucky we are that we don't necessarily need to.
JS: Yeah, we don't right now.
RG: We have other means - we can vote, we can run for office, we can get elected Speaker of the House - and change things from that perspective.
RG: What time frame did you decide to cover in this? Because it's actually a very long movement - I think people forget how long this movement actually was. You can go back to the American Revolution to find Abigail Adams saying, "Remember the ladies." You can trace the question of whether women should be involved in government to the early stages of this country.
JS: We specifically, for this story, follow Alice Paul. So it's about 1913 to 1920, and we do have Susan B Anthony in the story as well, even though she didn't live to see this happen. But we put her in there as this guiding spirit to them, and she's often referred to as the mother of the movement, so we thought we needed to have her there, representatively.
RG: Who are your other major figures in the show?
JS and DB: Lucy Burns, Alice Paul, Ida B Wells, Inez Milholland, Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst, Alva Vanderbilt (Belmont), and Carrie Chapman Catt.
DB: Those are the major ones we included.
RG: You mentioned the Pankhursts - so you bring in the British movement as well?
JS: Yes, we do. That's where Alice was inspired, in England. So we started out very much telling the story of Alice Paul, and we sort of shifted it a bit, but it definitely follows her trajectory.
Also, it was initially, inspired by Hamilton and the idea of having a cast that reflects America regardless of race, so we thought that having a multicultural cast was important. Our idea was that we wanted to center the story around the women of color - their story is the least-represented, and the hardest.
DB: We purposely made a nontraditional diversity casting a focus for this.
JS: Which a lot of productions are doing around DC now. Which I love to see.
We talked about our cast a little while ago, and how they've been with us a long time. We were just talking about them the other day, and I don't know why or where or how this came up, but when we look at them, and we have a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, a retiree, one of your (Doug's) former acting teachers, teachers, a musical theater student -
DB: Someone who works at Treasury - it's very DC.
JS: They're very DC, but it's so wild when you think about how many productions have performers and that's just what they do, but our cast is so committed to us, and they also have these 40-50 hour workweeks as lawyers and doctors, and there they are with us at night working on this little musical that can, hopefully.
RG: That's really cool that it has this appeal that people are not only interested, but also actively making the time to be a part of it. It's really nice.
It's interesting hearing your perspective of not being from the traditional musical background. As much as I love traditional musicals, I know that when I go to theater now, as someone who's ingested all of the traditional shows, I'm more interested in seeing something that doesn't follow or twists that structure - like Hamilton, Avenue Q, Rent - they tend to stand out more and be a bit more interesting because they defy those expectations. So what your composer said about breaking all the rules can be good.
JS: We stick to a couple of rules, but apparently. . .
RG: You're just sticking with the theme. Women didn't follow the rules.
JS: There you go!
RG: I think your point that it's a historical story, but it's not only in history is a really important point to emphasize. We've come very far - especially today - but we still have a long way to go.
JS: So you watch Hamilton, and you think, "Well, that's history, that's so cool. I understand my history better via musical." And we're working on 19 and I'm like, "It's still happening. I saw that on the news a couple of days ago." And that's crazy. And not okay.
RG: Having immersed yourself in this history, and seeing that a lot of these issues are still present - how does that make you feel? Do you feel better, does it make you worried?
JS: It truly depends on what week it is. And it's wild, because, especially when we were performing it this past fall - and I will say, we do try to stay out of specific politics, like party politics - but I will say when we were performing during the week of the Kavanaugh hearings, and that changes everything. As a woman watching the show, it truly changes, depending on what's happening. So, we're doing a show on the 11th, and all these women are being sworn in today, and it will feel a little different. It'll have this feeling of power, of hope. So, truly, day of the week determines how it feels.
DB: So, Jen said something way back - she said this started off as a passion piece. But, somewhere, it became a mission to get the story out there. It's not our story, but this story, Alice Paul, and what these women went through to get this vote, it became like a mission. It's a lot bigger than us, and it's their story.
RG: You said, depending on the week, it changes how you view the show. Does the show change how you look at these stories as they break?
JS: I don't know. It's a good question, but I'm not sure. Does it change things for you?
DB: I think I definitely pay more attention than I did before, just because I didn't know this history - and I went to some good schools. But the history we learned was Susan B Anthony fought long and hard for the vote, and they got it. Next page. You know? And we read a lot of books, and studied a lot of stuff, and it was an eye-opener for me, being around this. It definitely changed me.
RG: Not to knock at our education system, but how much did you really know about this before you started?
JS: Almost nothing. I mean, these names were - I'd heard them, but I didn't really know anything about them. I would say Susan B Anthony and Ida Wells were the most well-known to me. But Alice Paul was a name I'd heard but didn't really know, which is horrible. And I don't even want to say that's a comment on our education system so much as it's a comment on our culture that we just don't celebrate women's accomplishments, period. And that just - that's just a miss in the sciences and the arts, everywhere. They just don't show up. My comment on it is women are missing, and we want to take one step just to fix that.
RG: I really appreciate people who not only inform themselves, but also work to inform other people.
DB: We often joke that we would love to do - an aspirational goal of ours - is that we would want to do for Alice Paul and the Suffragists what Hamilton did for Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers. Educate people, make it cool, inspire them to read more about this. That's. . . low bar.
RG: Even just knowing these names would be a tremendous step forward.
JS: Even that.
RG: Well, the names from Hamilton are already known - how many places are named for Washington or Lafayette? So it was easy to elevate them. I feel like you're starting from a much lower point, so getting anywhere is already proportionally ahead. But what are your actual expectations or aspirations? You've been workshopping for a while, and these are now concert performances. Are you looking to continue having these shows run, are you looking to do a more staged version at some point?
JS: Yes, absolutely - the reason we've been doing this workshop mode is a lot of it has to do with getting that audience feedback and seeing how it plays. We don't have a lot of experience in the world of musicals, and this way we get this real-time feedback on "is this working, is this not working?" and we're constantly changing in response to the audience while also hopefully building this connection with people interested in the topic. We've had people come back and see it because every iteration is slightly different. But our goal has always been to get it to the stage. And to get it to the stage before the centennial, which is 2020. So we're looking for theaters.
DB: We're looking for theaters to get interested and pick us up, and we're looking for investors.
JS: And we've had some early interest, which is really cool since it's still in this workshop phase. I think audiences get a sense of the show when they see it, even though it's concert-style and it's not full dialogue, they really are getting a vibe or it. So it's cool to start getting these responses, and "Can we license this?" is really nice to hear.
DB: Slow your roll - we should finish it first!
RG: Is there much dialogue? Or is it mostly music?
JS: There is. It's more songs than dialogue.
DB: So, Act I, originally, we played it out on a small stage at the Lyceum. And it was Act I, and it was very minimalist costumes, no set, very minimalist. But that was an hour and a half, Act I, six songs. So it started off as a play with music. And now it is probably -
JS: It's twenty-four songs.
DB: It's twenty-four songs in Act I. And it's maybe a little bit shorter than an hour. We've been able to cut some stuff, and we've been able to musicalize a lot more of it.
JS: So yeah, it's definitely a lot of music.
DB: A lot of music.
JS: Well, music's good.
DB: Oh, yeah, that's the goal, right?
RG: Are you looking to expand out of the DC area, or are you trying to solidify it in DC and Virginia first and then move out?
JB: We're open, but we've talked about this a lot too, because we've gotten the request to license and to bring it to other places; we get it from other states and other cities, and we get a lot of invitations around here to perform it. But one of the things that we think would be nice about doing it here is that it's such a DC story. It all happened here, right? Like, where we're sitting is right down the street from where women were marching. And that would be so wild to really kick it off here in DC. It would be so cool.
DB: Yeah. If we somehow made it up I-95, you know, about 250 miles, that would be okay too.
JS: Our goal is for this to be non-partisan, that everyone can appreciate it because it's everybody's history. What's cool about our cast is that we do have a few politically conservative people; most of the cast is not, but there's no political argument or debate. Everybody here is just focused on this as a story that needs to be told. We're very intentional, and I think some of that sensitivity does come from having this cast.
DB: That's the thing. We always want a safe place for our actors, and we have to take care of our people, but that's something that if anything was to come up, we would cut off that discussion because it doesn't really help. We don't want people to feel excluded or anything like that.
RG: When you're getting feedback from the audience, is it just an open forum discussion after the show?
DB: We have a Q&A. It works best when we have a moderator.
JS: Sometimes we have a moderator, sometimes we don't.
DB: Sometimes it can be a challenge. But it's always interesting.
JS: The craziest questions and topics come up at these things. Which is kind of fun and entertaining. Sometimes it's a little weird, but sometimes audiences surprise us. They bring up topics we weren't aware of, point out things about our show that we wouldn't have noticed, necessarily.
DB: One person may say something, and it's like, "Okay, thanks, that's great." But if it's something that keeps popping up, it's something we need to really start paying attention to. They've been great for us.
JS: Ultimately, having that has been so helpful.
RG: Were there any one or two ideas that came up that were really monumental and required you to really adjust things?
JS: There was a big one.
DB: A senator, who knows what she's talking about, took exception to the way we represented somebody. There was this one character, and we'd originally made her a bit lighter and a little bit more fun. She was a bit of comic relief. Parts of the story are pretty tough. Torture, and all that.
RG: Right, light-hearted topics.
JS: Yeah, fun afternoon stuff.
DB: So we decided that we'd inject a little humor with this one character. But, in doing so, well, this particular senator came over to us afterwards and said she didn't think this was appropriate and gave us her reasons. We were taken aback but -
JS: She was right.
DB: She was right. So we changed it.
JS: The note hit. I think when a note lands, when you say to yourself, "they're right" - and she was 100% right. So we changed the entire character.
DB: And we really appreciated that - the honesty, and the tough love. It was tough love. It was good.
JS: We needed it.
RG: On the other hand was there a note you felt very comfortable ignoring? Like "There aren't enough men in the show?"
JS: We did hear that. We've had odd suggestions.
DB: There was a guy who really did want more men.
JS: He wanted the whole progressive movement to be reflected. I mean, people have their own agenda, and they want to see it reflected in the show.
DB: But this is about Alice Paul, and how she drove this, and how she's been lost in history. It's about what she learned in England and how she formed this movement, and how race plays into it.
In general, we have roughly thirteen performers - women, and one man. So it does come up.
JS: It's intentional. Women are always sidelined in shows, and are always the sidekick - that's what we're doing to the man. He's one-dimensional and shows up, does something silly, and leaves. It's fun, but it's a statement. These women have always been sidelined, so here's your token guy, sidelined sometimes. And I think that's part of the narrative. That happens to be fun.
RG: Is there anything you want people to keep in mind when seeing the show?
JS: We want them to remember that it's a workshop - it's not a perfectly-polished, Broadway-ready production right now. It is an ever-evolving, dedicated, committed to the cause, musical in development.
19: The Musical has upcoming concert performances at 1st Stage in McLean, VA, on January 11th and 12th, and at The Hill Center in Washington, DC, on January 18th. More information on the show and upcoming performances can be found at https://www.19themusical.com/.