Justice: A New Musical
Lauren M. Gunderson (Book); Bree Lowdermilk (Music); Kait Kerrigan (Lyrics)
Marin Theatre Company
“Equal Justice for All.”
For 191 years, half of the U.S. population could justifiably question if that welcoming sign above the U.S. Supreme Court entrance really applied to them because from its founding in 1789 until September 21, 1981, no woman sat on the bench among the all-male justices. Over the next twenty-eight years, the number of one grew to three women, still a minority among the six males but now a force to be reckoned with. Their oft one-step-forward, two-step-back journeys to the bench, their struggles and triumphs once there along with their personal quirks, personalities, humor, and health/family challenges are all the rich histories mined in Lauren M. Gunderson’s latest in a long line of Marin Theatre Company world premieres, Justice: A New Musical (this one a continued world premiere with Arizona Theatre Company).
Teamed with Bree Lowdermilk (music) and Kait Kerrigan (lyrics), Lauren Gunderson’s exploration of Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor is a fascinating, educating, and exhilarating exposé of the unlikely yet strong sisterhood that developed among three women very different in so many dimensions but who shared one extremely important quality: the courage to seek fairness for all – especially for those that often had for too long been disenfranchised in a male-dominated legal system.
The youngest and last to be confirmed among these three trailblazers, Sonia, steps forward to serve as an occasional narrator, providing background tidbits about the other two who so inspired her during her developing years while also illuminating us about her own ground-breaking accomplishments (e.g., the first Puerto Rican judge in the entire federal court system). We learn how she was also inspired at the age of seven by a female doctor who told her that despite her potentially debilitating diabetes that others were already telling her would be life-limiting, she could become whomever and whatever she wanted to be.
Likened details of the earlier years of each justice provides an appreciation of their individual grit and determination. As an Arizona State Senator, Sandra lost her fight to get her colleagues to approve the Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.); but she then went on successfully to outlaw many sexist, state laws that the E.R.A. would have nullified. First in her class at Columbia Law School but as a woman in an all-male world of law, Ruth could only find a first job in a legal firm’s typist pool. And though Sandra and Ruth were opposite in so many ways – Western ranch versus Brooklyn upbringing, Episcopalian versus Jew, life-long Republican versus die-hard Democrat – we begin to understand how and why both on the bench become such stalwart advocates for the equal rights of women, gays, and others that the male-dominated legislatures and courts had long denied.
Once Ruth arrives to provide Sandra both company in the women’s washroom as they apply their make-up and to provide support in arguments where sex discrimination is at the heart of the issue, Gunderson’s book opens to provide much more than just the legal ins and outs of their lives. We see these icons also as two friends that with each other can tease, empathize, sympathize, and even quarrel (but always with respect). When Sandra invites Ruth to her daily 6 a.m. aerobics class, Ruth politely but with a telling smirk replies, “I tend to prioritize pastries at that time of day.” As Ruth notes that Sandra is applying a lot of dark eyeliner, Sandra shoots back, “[I do it so] they have to look me in the eye.” The increasingly deep respect and even love that develops between these first two female justices is one of the most affecting elements of the story the playwright pens. The bond of two only becomes stronger when Sonya makes its a formidable triangle.
As strong as the overall narrative and storyline is, as a musical Justice is often quite uneven. The lyrics of Kait Kerrigan range from bland that do little to advance the development of story or character to some that are indeed powerful, telling, and even inspiring. The same can be said of the music by Bree Lowdermilk. For many of the musical interludes, the music itself is not very memorable; but just as one begins to wonder why Lauren Gunderson decided to take an otherwise incredibly impressive book and add music, suddenly a set lyrics and the accompanying score come along to add an element of insight, emotion, and expressiveness that spoken words alone probably would not have conveyed.
But whatever is lacking at times in the songs themselves, the vocal delivery by each of the three principles is just one more aspect of their individual and collective, stellar performances. It is difficult to imagine any more perfect casting than director Ashley Rodbro has assembled.
As Sandra Day O’Connor, Karen Murphy projects an aura of perpetual dignity, confidence, strength, and firm conviction through her tall, unbending posture and a voice that rarely wavers outside a realm of surety. When she unabashedly sings the lines of “always get it first, get it right, and for heaven’s sake, get it done,” her ranch upbringing and the life lesson received from her father shines forth as a prime guiding principle of the woman whose deciding vote in an otherwise divided court would make a mountain of difference in a number of women’s and gay rights cases (including the right for gay marriage).
At first glance, Lynda DiVito appears almost as a reincarnation of the justice who would eventually become a superstar to so many, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her diminutive size, that twinkle in her eyes that smacks of just a bit of devilishness, and the voice that can ring forth with persuasive powers that seem impossible coming from someone so overall tiny – all are part of the many reasons Lynda DiVito reigns as Ruth. When she sings, the power in her personality is matched by a set of lungs that convey her unwavering strength of conviction yet also with a slight, sustaining vibrato that affirms the deep-felt passion she feels for those slighted by the law. One of the night’s songs that definitely has legs for the future is when Ruth sums up her career by singing, “You can play it nice, or you can be notorious.” The way she enunciates over and again the word “notorious” so well summarizes the memories many of us have of the giant whose passing left such a hole in the Supreme Court.
But not to be outdone, Stephanie Prentice’s portrayal of Sonya Sotomayor is exciting, enlightening, and enthusiastic in espousing the younger Justice’s deeply held beliefs. For Sonya, “Everything is fair, or it is wrong.” That sense of there are no ‘ifs, buts or ands’ when it comes to right and wrong permeates the one we meet as the nation’s first, Latina, Supreme Court Justice. As the conservative majority grows and Justice Sotomayor becomes ever lonelier without likened opinion-makers, she sings with a voice that carries with perfect clarity and sit-back-in-your-seat volume, “Dissent is not enough.” At the same time, she concludes, “Dissent is how we leave a note of hope for the future to read.” The playwright, through Sonya, does her best to provide us some silver lining on where we find the make-up of the Court today – post O’Connor and post Ginsburg (and without saying it, post-Kennedy).
Less impressive than the superb trio of actors is the scenic setting where they dwell. Neither the rather plain set construction nor the occasional, little-added-value projections designed by Carlos Aceves do much to accentuate the storyline. And at one point when two small turntables that reveal offices are spun round and round as the divisive Bush v. Gore 2000 decision is the focus, the directorial choice of the set’s use is quite distracting and confusing.
As a play, Justice is a monumental achievement both for Lauren Gunderson and for this cast/director. When the rest of the new work’s title is added – A New Musical – all is not lost but all is not on solid footing either. Little will likely be recalled a week later about the evening’s music or songs by most audiences; but I venture to say that most people will long remember both the overall portrayals of Justices O’Connor, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor as well as many of the fascinating anecdotes and little-known hard facts that are conveyed in the ninety minutes of Marin Theatre Company’s Justice: A New Musical.
Rating: 4 E
Justice: A New Musical continues through March 12, 2023, in a continued world premiere by Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA. Tickets are available online at www.marintheatre.org and by phone at 415-388-5200.
Please note that masks are required to be worn by all patrons within the theatre.
Photo Credits: Kevin Berne