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Women's Historical Plight Documented in Musical Review

The Detroit Times
February 9, 2007
by Barbara Hoover

"Respect: A Musical Journey of Women" opens Thursday at the Gem Theatre in Detroit

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T," the Otis Redding male lament, was turned on its head when Aretha Franklin made it into a hymn of female assertiveness. Now it has new female credibility as the emblematic song in a musical revue covering a century of American women's history.

"Respect: A Musical Journey of Women," currently in previews, begins an open-ended run Thursday at the Gem Theatre in Detroit. The show is based on a book and seminar by Dorothy Marcic, a former professor at Owen School of Management at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. But it's no stuffy lecture.

Three singing actresses and a narrator, backed by an onstage band, bring to life Top 40 hits ranging from "I Will Follow Him" to "Someone to Watch Over Me" to "These Boots Are Made for Walking" to "What's Love Got to Do With It" that trace the status of women through the decades.

"Top 40 songs reflect mainstream thinking," says Marcic (pronounced Mar-sik), who was in town to help fine-tune the show. She found that early 20th-century songs--"My Man," "Someone to Watch Over Me"--mirrored the submissive, co-dependent lives of women at that time. With World War II came a more independent spirit, as in 1942's "Blues in the Night," but domesticity resurged in 1950's "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked a Cake."

The feminist movement brought such songs as 1964's "You Don't Own Me" and 1968's "These Boots Were Made for Walking." "I Am Woman" arrived in 1972, along with Ms. Magazine, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX.

How the show started
Marcic's research resulted in a seminar on male-female equality she gave at a convention for followers of the Baháí faith in 1999. Then she incorporated the songs into her leadership seminars, doing her own singing, first to karaoke tracks, then with the help of a keyboardist. The popularity of the seminars inspired Marcic to create a four-woman musical revue that played Nashville several times.

"Some therapists sent their patients to the show," Marcic says. "It seemed to be very healing. Women could revisit parts of their lives and gain greater understanding of themselves."

As a business professor, Marcic figured she knew how to take the show further. So in 2004, with the help of a $20,000 loan, she mounted a production in West Palm Beach, Fla., in hopes of attracting a producer. She found one and the show took off. It ran for two years in Florida, and now has a company in Boston, the new one in Detroit and two coming in March in Atlanta and Australia.

Not just for women
"Respect" is a logical successor to "Menopause the Musical," the long-running show that brought legions of women and a smattering of men to the Gem Theatre to laugh and cry about mid-life issues. While "Respect" aims at a similar demographic, it may bring in a wider audience, says Hinton Battle, the show's director. Battle, a three-time Tony Award winner as a performer (best actor in a musical in 1981 for "Sophisticated Ladies," in 1984 for "The Tap Dance Kid" and 1991 for "Miss Saigon"), is handling his first full directorship with this show.

"This is about the journey of women, but we all have these issues -- about what is love, what is a true relationship," Battle says. "Of course I never had to wear a corset. But I have learned a lot about how men are looked at."

Show has multi-talented cast
Battle chose the cast in New York auditions. The three singers are Shonka Dukureh, Sarah Madej and Marlyn Sanchez; the narrator is Kelly Shook.

"These are four extremely talented women," Battle says. "They are great actresses, and they can sing their butts off." They have to connect and deliver because these songs bring back sense memories. People are disappointed if you don't do a good job on their favorite song, so the bar is high."

These songs have a surprising power, he says.

"When you are going through an emotional time, songs help you get through," Battle says. "Songs can be your salvation."

Barbara Hoover is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.