Broadway's Carmel Dean on Writing Songs for Harriet Tubman, Malala & More Women Throughout History

Carmel Dean
Max Sterling

Carmel Dean

"Well-Behaved Women," a collection of story-songs, is set for two shows at New York's Joe's Pub this weekend.

It may be only January, but already, Carmel Dean has had a busy 2020 many of us would dream of. The in-demand composer and music director rang in the New Year with Phish at Madison Square Garden (she conducted and did the vocal arrangements for the band’s show) and she’s currently working on a Broadway musical adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook with singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson.

Next up for Dean: Well-Behaved Women, a collection of story-songs (up for two shows at New York City's Joe's Pub on Saturday) sung from the imagined perspectives of some of history’s most impactful female trailblazers -- think Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Harriet Tubman, Malala Yousafzai and more. To tell these stories, Dean enlisted some of Broadway’s most powerful voices, including LaChanze, Sasha Allen, Andréa Burns, Liz Callaway and Bonnie Milligan. "I want to see more diverse stories [onstage]," says Dean. "And that was part of my inspiration for this show: finding characters who hadn’t been theatricalized before."

She spoke to Billboard about making the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Magdalene sing -- and what the idea of "well-behaved women" means to her.

Where did the idea for Well-Behaved Women come from?

About two summers ago, I was going through a bit of a life transition. I’ve had this very blessed career as a music director, but I was feeling this urge to create my own work and to put my own voice out into the world. At the same time, I was seeing this wonderful and ripe movement of all of these women’s stories come to the fore, so I decided to start writing just standalone songs for women that inspired me. I was using it as a safe space -- an exercise to write my own lyrics -- because I’ve never really thought of myself as a lyricist. But I thought, "If I just do one song at a time and find a woman that really speaks to me, how can I turn an element of her life into one song?" And whenever I came across a woman’s story that I loved, I thought, "OK, what’s the moment in her life that I could musicalize?" So it’s just been this project that I keep adding to. And I now have songs that I’m ready to put into the world.

How did you decide which women to feature? 

I just followed my instincts. There are women that I’ve always loved and been inspired by, and I thought, ‘I’d love to see how they sing.’ I ended up writing a song for Mary Magdalene. The lyric popped into my head one day: "When you’re the only girl at the table." And it just had to be written as a hoe-down. That one is sort of based on the Da Vinci Code premise that Mary Magdalene was at the Last Supper, but everyone assumes she’s a man. As a female music director who’s often been the only girl at the table, that song just came out of me, because I thought, "This is how I relate to it, and I‘m sure how many, many women relate to this." The biggest challenge was that I didn’t want to write the same story from every woman’s perspective. I didn’t want it to be, "Hey, I’m the underdog, I’ve had to fight to have my voice heard." I wanted to make it very specific. As soon as I realized that, I looked for women who had an experience that I thought would make a really interesting theatrical journey in a three- to four-minute song. 

What was your research like?

I would zoom in. For example, I’ve always loved Frida Kahlo. I didn’t initially know much about her besides having seen the movie [Frida] and loving a lot of her work. So I did a deep dive, and came across a painting called My Birth. On one level you could say it’s gory, but on another level you could say it’s beautiful and profound and natural. As I was reading about the reception of that piece, the critics really tore it apart. And I thought, "How would Frida sing to those critics?"

How did you think about structuring the show -- fitting 19 women and their stories into a relatively short amount of time?

I don’t want this to be just a big "Rah-rah, women are the best," kind of evening. I want it to also have a theatrical arc, and for the journeys of these characters to really resonate. There are varied styles throughout the show. There are some power ballads. There is, like I said, a hoe-down. A jazz-inspired number. So I’m really looking at musical styles and seeing what the balance is from song to song.

You mentioned Frida Kahlo -- any other women you'd call out as particularly notable parts of the show?

The Eleanor Roosevelt song is the first one where I dove into it thinking, "There’s something here." It’s called “Ladies of the Press,” and it’s Eleanor speaking to all of the women reporters who were banned from the White House press conferences. [Eleanor Roosevelt held women-only press conferences for the 12 years her husband was in office after women were banned from being with the rest of the reporters.] So it’s her welcoming all the women and apologizing that they couldn’t be included.

Did you have specific performers in mind immediately for each character?

There are a few songs that I wrote for specific friends and colleagues. The Harriet Tubman song I wrote for my friend LaChanze, who luckily is available and excited to sing this. The Frida Kahlo song I’ve asked Natascia Diaz to sing; I’ve been a fan of hers for years and years and years. The Malala song I wrote specifically for my friend Kuhoo Verma, who has the most glorious voice. And for the Janet Armstrong song, I reached out to Liz Callaway, who’s been an idol for 25 years but never sung any of my material.

Do you have ambitions for Well-Behaved Women beyond these Joe's Pub shows?

Ultimately, I’d love to have some kind of residency somewhere. Maybe this is done once a month, and I have a rotating cast of incredible Broadway performers who come and sing their one character and then the next month, someone else comes. But I’d also love to license this. I think this would have a great life out in theater communities -- not just around America, but around the world. Because these women are not just American; they’re international.

What do you want audiences to take away from it?

I want people to come away knowing something about these women that they didn’t know before, but also being inspired by what women can do and what we have done throughout time. Hearing 15 songs, back to back, about these strong, incredible women, will hopefully leave people energized and moved.

The popular quote is “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” and the title of this show is a nod to that. If you had to fill in the blank, what would you say? 

Well-behaved women are not what they seem.


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