“There’s a lot to worry about right now in our country and the world,” Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, told a packed room of about 500 people gathered at the grand ballroom at the Manhattan Center on Friday afternoon. “And I think we need theater and the arts more than ever.”
Clinton was speaking at the seventh BroadwayCon — an annual haven for the most passionate theater fans — where she was moderating a panel celebrating women on Broadway. It was the first in-person edition of the three-day event, which continues through Sunday, since 2020. (The 2021 edition was virtual.)
The event allows musical theater aficionados — many of them costumed as favorite characters like Elphaba from “Wicked” and Anne Boleyn from “Six” — to meet and take photographs with the stars of their favorite shows.
Clinton led an hourlong panel titled “Here’s to the Ladies,” a riff on a Stephen Sondheim lyric from the song “The Ladies Who Lunch” from the musical “Company.” Participants included the actresses Vanessa Williams (who stars as the first lady in “POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive”), Julie White (who plays the White House chief of staff in “POTUS”), Donna Murphy (the veteran stage actress who has recently appeared in the television series “The Gilded Age” and “Inventing Anna”) and LaChanze (“Trouble in Mind”).
There was a burst of applause and a 20-second standing ovation after Clinton entered the room, taking a seat in a plush white chair backed by a glowing, Hollywood-style BroadwayCon sign. Clinton, a noted theater fan, said she had attended performances of “Plaza Suite” and “POTUS” in the past week, and that she was “looking forward to seeing a lot more shows in the weeks to come.” (She received a round of applause at “POTUS” on Wednesday night after the scene in which Lilli Cooper, who plays a White House reporter, reviews the accomplishments of the first lady, played by Williams, and asks, “Why aren’t you president?”)
Then Clinton had LaChanze and Williams discuss their work with the nonprofit Black Theater United; the group, formed over six months of Zoom meetings during the pandemic, aims to combat racism in the theater community.
“There’s so much you can be proud of,” Clinton told them, “with the changes and awareness and consciousness and most effectively in actually hiring and retaining and recruiting more diversity.”
The discussion then turned to the women’s experiences of motherhood, including balancing life and work. White extended the conversation beyond the stage, noting that women who have careers have to sort out child care, relying on family when none is available. “It’s an ongoing problem,” she said, joking that she thought one of the two nursing mothers in “POTUS” — one of whom appears onstage — “actually pumped during her audition.”
White and Williams also discussed what it was like to work with a mostly female creative team for “POTUS,” which was written by Selina Fillinger and directed by Susan Stroman.
“It’s a sense of ease — you walk into a room and there’s all females,” Williams said. “You can relax, and be funny, and ask questions, and probe, and know that there is no judgment because you’re a woman.”
White added: “There was no right or wrong. There was none of that subtle patriarchy that’s always kind of there, like, ‘Get it right, lady’ — in other words, what my vision is” of what’s right.
Clinton spoke to her own experience as an up-and-coming lawyer navigating the workaholic environment of Washington, sharing a story of an older male lawyer telling her to leave her door closed when she went out to dinner so everyone would think she was still working.
“I said, ‘But don’t they eat?’” she said. “He said, ‘No, no, you don’t understand, it’s all perception. When you get back from dinner, walk around the office and loudly announce to people, “What are you all doing? Anything I can do to help?” Even if you’ve been at dinner for two hours, they’ll think you’re back. They think you never left.’”
“My God,” Clinton said to applause. “That is exhausting — just get your work done, and then go home!”
White noted that she had become more comfortable advocating for herself as she’d progressed in her career. When she was young, she said, “You’re always looking at the director like, ‘I hope he likes me,’” she said. “Then you grow up and evolve and you become more interested in what you want to tell.”
She said she had become notorious for not taking notes from directors “because the power is in me, the creation is in me,” adding, “I’ve become really irritating now!”
Clinton concluded the event by asking each of the women what they hadn’t yet done that they wanted to do.
“Besides the show where you and I solve crimes?” White asked. “I want to play the president of the United States.”
“Well, I can give you lots of notes on that,” Clinton said.
“You know I won’t take them!” White responded to applause.
Elexa Bancroft, a 35-year-old artist from Atlanta, attended the panel on a break from selling her mixed-media art at the marketplace downstairs. “I needed that female empowerment in my life so badly,” she said. “Being a young female entrepreneur myself and trying to get my art out into the world and seeing how far those women have come in their jobs, it’s really inspiring.”
Other events set for the weekend include “When Broadway Was Black: Celebrating the Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way”; a presentation by the author and cultural historian Caseen Gaines on Saturday afternoon that celebrates the centennial of the 1921 musical comedy “Shuffle Along,” one of the first successful all-Black Broadway musicals; and “Dreaming the Queer Future: TGNC Representation and Playwrights in the American Theater,” a discussion on Sunday morning that includes the Tony-nominated actress L Morgan Lee of “A Strange Loop” and the playwright Roger Q. Mason and focuses on trans and gender nonconforming representation in theater.
“It definitely feels more inclusive this year,” Bancroft said.