Boston Globe’s Glowing Review of “All Things Equal”

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Boston Globe Reviews "All Things Equal"

The aim of ‘All Things Equal’ is to do Ruth Bader Ginsburg justice

By James Sullivan, Globe Correspondent
The Boston Globe (Winter Arts Guide)

By all accounts, the actor Michelle Azar doesn’t just portray the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “All Things Equal,” the one-person show that arrives at the Emerson Colonial Theatre for two performances on Feb. 3. She becomes her.

So she’s a lifelong feminist, right?

“Quite the opposite, actually,” Azar admitted recently, on the phone from her home in Los Angeles. She came to the play, she said, from a man’s world. Her father was born in Iraq. His mother had been sold into marriage at age 12.

“He told me I was going to be married by 16,” Azar said.

The show is the latest from Tony winner Rupert Holmes, the one-time pop star who made a splash on Broadway with his theatrical debut, the musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (1985). The creator of nearly 20 plays in all, he scored another hit with 2003′s “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” a one-man show starring Frank Gorshin as George Burns.

“All Things Equal” premiered in late 2022 in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Boston dates come in the early days of the show’s second national tour.

Given Azar’s family background, she wasn’t convinced she could inhabit Ginsburg’s words. The Supreme Court justice’s death in 2020 at age 87 only boosted what was already an ardent following among admirers of undaunted women.

“My husband” — a Reform rabbi — “is much more the feminist of the two of us,” Azar said. “I’ve caught up.”

At one point in the show, Ginsburg hears a case in which a man argues that women “don’t have as good a head for business as men,” Azar explained. When the show premiered in late 2022 in Florida, she found herself wondering if there was some truth to that.

“I definitely bought into the patriarchy — that women deserved this much, but not the full enchilada.”

Of course, the legacy of “the Notorious RBG,” as the justice came to be known, demands the full enchilada. As a lawyer, she successfully argued several cases involving gender equality before the Supreme Court. In 1993 she became the second woman to serve on the court.

More so than Azar, Holmes identified with Ginsburg’s life story long before he thought about adapting it for the theater. As a soft-rock singer and composer in the 1970s, his second-biggest hit was called “Him.” (The biggest, you may recall, was “Escape [The Pina Colada Song],” in 1979.)

In the age of preferred pronouns, he joked, “I’ve resisted the urge to sign my letters ‘Rupert Holmes, Him/Him/Him.’”

But Holmes said he was drawn to Ginsburg’s story years ago, in part because it parallels that of another strong woman, his wife, Liza.

“My wife was orphaned in her early teens, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg lost her mother before she was able to graduate from high school,” he said. Both women earned their law degrees while caring for children at home. (Ginsburg was also caring for her husband, Marty, who had cancer.)

Liza, who studied as an undergrad at Boston University, eventually earned a law degree at Rutgers. That’s where Ginsburg, unable to get a job with a law firm, took an early job as a professor.

Holmes also appreciated Ginsburg’s famous love of opera. His brother, Richard, is a baritone who has made a life in the field.

“I always felt this person was someone I could empathize with,” Holmes said of Ginsburg.

Though Azar is the sole actor onstage, she’s not the only voice that audiences hear. Constructed as a conversation with an unseen young friend of Ginsburg’s granddaughter, the play leaves plenty of room for biographical flashbacks. Dialing back and forth between the feisty young Ginsburg and the measured, gracious older woman nearing the end of her life, Azar sometimes chats with disembodied voices. At other times, she breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly.

In those instances, “that’s my scene partner,” she said. “Rupert in his wisdom did that, so the play stays active and I’m not just in a reverie for an hour and a half.”

Azar has done plenty of stage and TV work and starred in her own autobiographical play, “From Baghdad to Brooklyn,” which was also a one-person show.

“Learning your lines in a vacuum is enormously difficult,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll be waiting for the next line, and I’ll have to remind myself that I have the next line.”

But her experience with her own one-woman show may have helped her land the part in “All Things Equal.”

“Michelle is a wonder,” Holmes said, speaking in a separate conversation. “From the moment I saw her, I was completely sold. Within 90 seconds of the show starting, the audience just thinks they’re with Ruth.”

As he began to toy with the idea of creating a show around Ginsburg’s life, he took note of how she was being idolized.

“This ‘Notorious RBG’ thing was very cute, but to some degree it started to turn her into Granny of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’” he said with a laugh. “The trouble is, when you turn someone into a meme, you start to take away from the amazing things they accomplished.

“I’m so aware that we rely in movies so much on superheroes now. Theater is a chance where we can still have heroes who are flesh and blood. We can reasonably aspire to be like them or emulate them.”

For Azar, the key to Ginsburg’s legacy is her lifelong commitment to uphold the dignity of every individual.

“She spoke to women and all marginalized communities, and then that became the heroic factor,” she said.

Azar and her husband, Jonathan Aaron, have family who live in the Boston area, and the younger of their two daughters is attending Lesley University.

With her daughters heading off to college, “they were really needing more information from me about what it means to be a woman,” she said. “And I was learning about this woman who was so much more than ‘just’ a dissenter.

“It was the perfect timing for me to come into my own.”

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