This month, the highly anticipated film version of Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim musical, will debut on screens nationwide. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a theater group is performing their own production of the classic work. This musical, however, will feature an all-female cast and admit only women to the audience.
The Jewish Women’s Repertory Company is made up of women from mostly conservative and Orthodox backgrounds. In an effort to make the company inclusive to everyone, the company adheres strictly to the law of Kol Isha, which stipulates that a man cannot hear a woman sing. At the group’s Dec. 13 and 14 performances of Into the Woods at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, only women are going to be allowed in the door.
Margy Horowitz, a professional piano player and teacher with a background in theater, founded the JWRC in 2005. As a member of the Orthodox Jewish community, she realized that observant women don’t often get the chance to perform on stage, if at all.
“So much of our lives as Orthodox women is spent taking care of our husbands and children, working, cooking, keeping a home,” Horowitz said. “The JWRC gives us a chance to express ourselves artistically and shine onstage.”
In the past, the JWRC has presented shows famous Broadway standards like Guys and Dolls and Les Miserables as well as newer pieces like The Drowsy Chaperone, and Once Upon a Mattress. Horowitz said it’s important to her that the musicals they put on appeal to a general audience, and, unlike the all-women Jewish theater groups that exist in Israel, don’t only focus on Jewish themes. (The company did, however, put on a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.)
However, even if a musical is popular, that doesn’t mean it will be produced. Horowitz tries to select plays where there is no overt sexuality or themes that would be inappropriate for children. “I wanted the entire community to be able to enjoy our shows and to have everyone feel comfortable,” she said. That goes for the actresses as well: “We never ask a woman to wear a costume that they don’t feel comfortable wearing. If someone feels that a neckline is too low or sleeves are too short, we encourage them to wear a shell underneath their costume.”
When choosing a play, Horowitz doesn’t focus on the number of male or female roles. Women will dress in men’s clothes and draw fake hair on their faces to fit their parts if necessary. “I rarely change lines unless I have to, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to change a line because a woman was playing a male role,” she said. “Once or twice we’ve had a woman request not to play a man, but only once was it for modesty reasons, like that she didn’t want to wear pants. Usually it’s that a woman doesn’t feel comfortable acting masculine. But the majority of women actually prefer to play men because it’s more fun to act like something that you’re not!”
Women who have participated in JWRC productions said the camaraderie and chance to get on stage are what compelled them to join. Reyna Zack, an observant Jew who is performing as Cinderella in Into the Woods, said, the company “serves as an artistic, musical, and theatrical outlet for women, many of whom might not otherwise have this opportunity.” Zack says her family is supportive of her choice to act and sing with JWRC. “They encourage me to reach my goals and follow my dreams, even if it means Mommy is constantly at rehearsals. My daughters, ages six and four, were particularly excited about this production, as their eyes lit up when they found out Mommy was playing Cinderella.”
Veteran JWRC actress Dahlia Carr said that because of this group, “I feel like I’m more affiliated. It has brought me closer to the Jewish community in general.”
Batsheva Frankel, another member of the JWRC who performed in Guys and Dolls and Annie Get Your Gun, echoed these sentiments. She said, “ This is a rare opportunity for women of from all backgrounds of Judaism to do something wonderful and become friends with people we would have never met before. It’s a way to come together.”
Kylie Ora Lobell is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who’s been published in The Jewish Journal, Time Out New York & L.A., xoJane, Dell’s Tech Page One blog, and NewsCred.