Musicals are one of the most joyfully camp creative outlets in the world, so why aren’t women allowed to write them? Cassandra Tse discusses the disheartening inspiration behind her one-woman show, That’s All She Wrote.

We often think of musical theatre as a uniquely inclusive kind of art. Since the era of Noel Coward and Cole Porter, the form was built on the foundations laid by gay and queer men, and continues to be a safe haven for LGBTQI+ performers to this day. However, behind the curtain, musical theatre is curiously male-dominated – male musical theatre writers outnumber women nine to one in the UK, and only 13% of Broadway shows are written by women, with non-binary writers and composers so underrepresented that they are statistically insignificant. Why is that? And who are those brave 13%?

This was the starting place for my show That’s All She Wrote, a musical cabaret that showcases musical theatre songs written by women and non-binary artists. I don’t remember what first prompted me to Google those statistics, but discovering just how male-dominated the industry is was like pulling at a loose thread and watching a whole jumper unravel. I wound back through my history as a lifelong musical theatre obsessive and was startled to discover how threadbare my knowledge of women musical theatre writers was. When I realised that in almost a decade as a musical theatre performer, I had only performed in one musical without a male playwright or composer (more on that one later), I knew I had to turn this into a show.


As That’s All She Wrote began to take form, I spent a lot of time tracking down obscure cast recordings and scouring the internet for references to lesser-known composers and writers. A major decision that reshaped the show was when I decided to exclude any song co-written by a man; musicals often have three or four writers collaborating on a single project, and for the sake of whittling the canon down to a manageable setlist, I chose to feature songs without any male involvement at all. That left writers like Betty Comden, Lynn Ahrens and Nell Benjamin on the cutting room floor… and it also meant that I couldn’t include any of my own musicals in the show. The fact that I’d previously written five musicals without ever considering the gender of my collaborators was a pretty big wake-up call and has definitely shifted my thinking in terms of my own creative practice.

Instead, we have songs by creative geniuses like Sara Bareilles, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Anaïs Mitchell, Bree Lowdermilk and Micki Grant – whose song from her show, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, dates back to 1971 and is the oldest piece in the programme. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home, the musical adaptation of the lesbian lit classic, is always a big crowd-pleaser, as well as being the first musical with an all-women writing team to win Best Musical at the Tony Awards. The show also features two songs from Aotearoa New Zealand – one written by me, and one from Flatline with Two Sugars, the aforementioned musical from my previous performance history not written by a guy! Flatline was composed by Katie Morton, who is also the music director, arranger, pianist and accordionist in That’s All She Wrote; at this point, the show is theirs as much as it is mine.

As a woman writing musical theatre in Aotearoa, I can’t say that I have faced additional barriers or missed out on opportunities due to my gender, but that’s because we have little-to-no supportive infrastructure for the development of new musical theatre in the first place. I’d love to see Playmarket team up with SOUNZ and start offering development opportunities specifically geared towards musical theatre, opera and song cycle. An inspiring side effect of performing this show is meeting audience members in the lobby afterwards who tell me about the musical theatre projects that they are working on in their spare time; the demand is definitely there.

That’s All She Wrote was mostly written in 2019, and first presented in 2020. A large component of the music featured in the show was written in the 2010s, and even more relevant musicals have been written since the show first premiered – I’m thinking of writers like Heather Christian, Grace McLean, Shaina Taub, Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow, whose work I’d love to include if we were to ever expand into a two act version. The fact that there has been such an outpouring of new musical theatre written by women and non-binary people in the last few years alone shows that the industry is changing, and changing fast. I can’t wait to see what the next decade of musical theatre has in store.

Cassandra Tse performs That’s All She Wrote on Saturday 17th of September at The Wintergarden, The Civic. Part of the Auckland Cabaret Season.