When it comes to representation, theater is kicking Hollywood’s ass
The new musical about America’s “ten dollar founding father” has struck a chord with audiences who are taken with the way it reimagines America’s founding, retelling the story with a hip-hop score and diverse casting. The show has been lauded for choosing nonwhite actors for its lead roles, giving us a black George Washington and an America that looks less like 1776 (or 1776) and more like today.
But while Hamilton may be the talk of the town, it’s also far from the only show this season that emphasizes the diversity of contemporary America.
Of the 15 new musicals that premiered between the fall of 2015 and the spring of 2016, 11 feature cast members of color. Four of those shows include only actors of color in their lead roles. And of the 16 returning shows running this season, eight feature diverse casts and stories — ones that don’t just focus on white people and their problems — while six more boast non-white cast members.
And racial diversity isn’t the only sort on display: Michael Arden’s revival of the musical Spring Awakening, which included several deaf cast members, was bilingual, performed in both English and American Sign Language.
It doesn’t end with musicals, either. This year’s crop of straight plays includes Eclipsed, the first play to feature a cast and creative team made up entirely of women — in this case, black women.
Many insiders and Broadway enthusiasts, including newly debuted Broadway actor George Takei, have lauded this season for tackling diverse stories — an achievement that’s especially noteworthy when you compare it to what’s happening in Hollywood, where #OscarsSoWhite was the dominant theme of awards season. (As Academy Awards host Chris Rock said in his opening monologue: “You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. [It’s] sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.'”)
All of which prompts a simple question: What does New York theater have that Hollywood is missing?
The Great White Way has never been exclusively white. Plenty of shows with diverse casts and stories have popped up on Broadway before — many of which have had a profound effect on the industry, like Rent and A Chorus Line.
But this year’s diversity boom is something else. “It’s very unprecedented,” says producer and historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper, perched in her office above the famed Broadway cabaret spot 54 Below.
That’s largely a function of sheer volume. Look at 2015’s Tony awards: Only one actor of color won an award that year, Ruthie Ann Miles from The King and I.
Miles was also the first actress of Asian descent to win the Featured Actress Tony Award — and while her show won Best Revival and Best Musical went to the LGBTQ family drama Fun Home, the majority of the competition for those productions were shows that focused on a mainstream white experience.
In 2016, though, coincidental synergy became a moment of real change.
What does it even mean for a show to be diverse?
Let’s start with racial variety. Much like this season’s poster child, Hamilton, the casts of new productions including On Your Feet!, Allegiance, and Shuffle Along are almost entirely comprised of actors of color, giving voice to underrepresented stories.
Allegiance, which closed on Broadway in February, told the fictional tale of a Japanese-American family placed in an internment camp during World War II. It was based on the experiences of over 100,000 real life Americans, including star George Takei and the family of the show’s director, Stafford Arima.
It feels very empowering to be telling a different kind of story.
On Your Feet! and Shuffle Along, meanwhile, both tell the true stories of American musicians. On Your Feet! is about Cuban Americans and pop culture icons Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Shuffle Along is both a revival and a reimagining of the first musical with an entirely black creative team, which was originally staged in 1921.
Even more importantly, these shows avoid many of the stereotypes often found in minority-focused stories.
“It’s amazing to now be playing a woman who created her own success and who never compromised herself,” On Your Feet! star Ana Villafañe tells Mashable. While musicals such as West Side Story or In The Heights show Latino characters who face typical struggles — violence, poverty — On Your Feet goes in a different direction.
“Yeah, there’s a struggle,” she explains. “But we’re [also] in boardrooms, we’re having negotiations with record executives, we’re actually finding commercial success. It’s a very powerful image for Latinos.
“It feels very empowering to be telling a different kind of story, a story that doesn’t involve any of those stereotypical images.”
These shows are just the tip of the iceberg. Broadway’s current revival of The Color Purple brings a powerful story of sisterhood and life for poor black families back to the stage. School of Rock, based on the hit Jack Black film, showcases not just talented young white musicians, but Asian, black and Latino children as well. Waitress, based on the 2007 movie, is the first ever musical with an all-female creative team.
And even less obviously groundbreaking shows like American Psycho, Disaster!, and Tuck Everlasting have diverse cast members within their vastly differing settings — a surreal ‘80s murder fest, a cruise ship jukebox farce, and a beautiful, book-based coming-of-age parable.
Brandon Victor Dixon, who starred in the original Broadway production of The Color Purple 10 years ago and is now a lead in Shuffle Along, talked to Mashable about working in engaging shows that focus on black protagonists.
“Not enough of those stories are told,” he says. But the more they’re seen, the more audiences will realize that “these characters and stories are just as definitive and dynamic an exploration of who we are” as more traditional shows — the kind that present white experiences as universal.
Actors and stories from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds aren’t the only ones getting new opportunities. Performers with disabilities and different physical abilities are finally getting their shot too.
This season’s revival of Spring Awakening was first produced in LA by Deaf West, a Hollywood-based theater company that puts on shows for and made by the deaf community. But beyond its deaf cast members, this take on Spring Awakening also featured the first performer on Broadway who uses a wheelchair: actress Ali Stroker.
This industry has so much power to change things.
The show’s limited run ended in January — but time has only increased Stroker’s appreciation for that show and the opportunity it represented.
“People are so excited about the concept of people with disabilities on Broadway. I think that also for young performers that have disabilities, it’s reassuring that there is a place for them,” she says. “I really believe that this industry has so much power to change things and to represent people who haven’t been represented in the past, and to tell the truth.”
Though the show extended its initial limited run and received both positive reviews and awards, the accessibility onstage didn’t always translate to the physical Broadway theaters.
On one hand, Stroker’s casting meant that for the first time, the backstage of a theater had to be made 100% accessible. “It was unbelievable how they made the accommodations without any hesitation,” Stroker remembers. “That was such a green light for me and my community.
“However, we still have a lot of work to do.”
While things are getting better, Broadway theaters are very old, which means they’re also small — with limited accessible seats, many stairs, and few 100% accessible bathrooms.
“All theaters are ADA compliant, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the accommodations are there, especially for deaf audience members and blind audience members,” Stroker explains. “And as far as physical access, yes, there might be a [single] wheelchair seat — but what if I wanted to go with three of my friends who are in wheelchairs?”
The important thing to note, of course, is that progress is being made. Theaters are making themselves more accessible, and The Broadway League and the Theatre Development Fund even started an initiative to increase the speed of progress. Similarly, shows that showcase diverse stories and casts are being recognized and lauded, with things like the Stage Directors Union’s recent “Diversity and Inclusion Statement of Commitment” — their statement and plan to dedicate themselves to diversity and inclusion moving forward.
Before the subjects of On Your Feet! become musical superstars, Emilio and Gloria Estefan — or their characters, anyway — meet with a music executive who tells them that their music is too “Latin” for a mainstream American audience.
Emilio, who was born in Cuba and still speaks with a thick Cuban accent, angrily tells the man about the racism — like “No Dogs or Cubans” signs — he faced when he came to Miami as a child. Then he describes the life and home he built for himself there. Emilio tells the executive to look at his face: “This is what an American looks like.”
That’s a major theme not only of On Your Feet!, but of this Broadway season as a whole.
On Your Feet! star Ana Villafañe grew up in Miami; like the woman she portrays, she comes from a Cuban background. She also recognizes the beauty of the show’s true-to-life version of America. “[Miami] is so saturated with culture, with all these different vibrant cultures who have ended up in this one place,” she says.
Increasingly, she adds, that’s how the rest of the country looks as well. “Little by little, I’m glad that it’s being reflected in the arts — onstage in our case.”
Allegiance had a similar motif. Star Telly Leung describes his character, Sammy Kimura, as “uber American, uber patriotic. He volunteers to serve; he’s a decorated war hero.”
As Leung explains, “The point that we were trying to make with Allegiance is that America also looks like us. You may see a stage of Asian faces celebrating a Japanese festival, but by the end of the show, all you see is a family, just like your family.”
Leung’s director, Stafford Arima, agrees.
“We wanted to create a universal theme in this piece,” he says. “In order to enjoy the musical, you don’t have to be Japanese. You don’t even have to be a minority. All you have to have experience with is family.”
Audience response showed Leung that Allegiance had achieved that goal.
“After the show, so many African American audience members would come up to me and say ‘that’s our story too. That’s our story from the Civil Rights movement,’” he remembers.
This is what an American looks like.
Emilio Estefan, in On Your Feet!
“And of course, Jewish audiences would come up to us and say it resonates so much with them because ‘we were put in camps in Europe, solely for our religion.’ Muslim Americans and Middle Eastern Americans, especially with the political climate the way it is now, they expressed kind of an empathy to the whole thing. They said, ‘you’re basically telling our story. It’s happening again, but now it’s to us. We’re being profiled and we’re dealing with the prejudice.’”
While other shows aren’t telling stories about family, they are telling equally important stories about our shared history. Shuffle Along, about the making of the 1921 musical of the same name, teaches audiences about a show that originally featured an all-black cast and creative team.
That’s not the only reason it’s important. The original Shuffle Along also had an enormous impact on theater more generally, says star Brandon Victor Dixon. It was the first show with a book, or spoken script. It was the first to introduce jazz music and have a jazz score. And it was the first to introduce rhythmic syncopation, a musical technique in which different rhythms are combined in an unexpected way to make a more unique sound.
“There’s a diversity of stories” on Broadway now, as producer and historian Tepper puts it. “There’s something for everyone.
“The nightmare would be for everyone to see Hamilton and go, ‘I should write Hamilton.’ And then we got a hundred rap musicals about historical figures. That’s not what this should do. This should tell everyone to write your authentic story. More diversity of cast, more authenticity of music.”
The biggest question a producer must answer before bringing a show to Broadway? That’s simple: “Will people pay to see this?”
Many shows that debuted this season were financially risky. But greater than that risk was the potential reward.
While the demographics for this season’s audiences won’t be available until early 2017, there’s been a small but steady increase in the diversity of Broadway audiences over the past five years. As the number of tickets sold rose from 11.9 million to 13.1 million, the number of white ticket holders fell from 83% to 80%, according to The Broadway League.
Estimating conservatively for 2016, that means close to 3 million nonwhite viewers have seen themselves represented onstage in the last year — people who may have never seen faces like theirs on the Great White Way before.
“It’s incredible to see the diverse audiences because of the story that we’re telling,” Villafañe said of On Your Feet! “There are some jokes that are completely in Spanish, and there are some days that the entire audience is laughing at the Spanish jokes… That’s the power of the new stories and diverse stories. It’ll bring in the people who want to see themselves up there.”
Next year’s audience numbers are bound to reflect this.
The nightmare would be for everyone to see Hamilton and go, ‘I should write Hamilton.”
Jennifer Ashley Tepper
Several of the artists currently taking Broadway by storm can attest to the importance of representation. Telly Leung, who grew resigned to hardly ever seeing Asian faces onstage as a teenager, traces his own Broadway dreams to Rent: “I was like, ‘ohmygosh, there is a place for me here somewhere. Because this cast has everything under the sun.’
“Thank God for diversity and colorblind casting on Broadway. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have actors of color as kids who would sit in a theater and dream to do this one day.”
It’s 2016. We’ve had a black president for nearly eight years. TV’s been starring strong women of every background (and their equally hot and diverse boyfriends) since Shonda Rhimes officially took over Thursday nights in the early 20-teens. Comic books have even given us a black Captain America.
So why did it take so long for there to be this level of diversity onstage?
Broadway, like any industry, is a commercial business, which means financial viability is key. That can mean every new show faces an uphill battle. It takes a lot of money to stage a show on Broadway — and producers will do whatever they think is necessary to make a hit.
When it comes to casting, bringing in a big name is one of the best (and only) ways to secure funding.
From a producer’s perspective, “there are infinite talented people out there,” Tepper explains. “But when you’re doing a Broadway show, you need someone at [a certain] stage of their career, and you need someone with a certain number of Broadway credits.”
Beloved stars can guarantee a certain number of tickets will be sold; so can other strategies, like basing a show on a recognizable property such as a movie. Because older stories and headlining stars are often white, that makes for an even more limited number of parts for non-white performers.
I’ve had many producers say to my face — and somehow think that it’s not offensive — ‘you know, Asian shows don’t sell.
But here’s the funny thing: Often, a show’s longevity depends less on star power and more on the power of the show’s story — which opens the door for diversity.
“I think there’s something about the way shows become long-running and the ability to cast diversely that kind of go hand in hand,” Tepper says, her historian hat back on. Many long-running shows, like Cats, go so long precisely because they don’t rely on a known star to drive their popularity. There are a limited number of named stars that will work for any given role, and not being tied to that specific casting can benefit a show.
As Tepper puts it, “I think that just lends itself to being able to cast the best person. [And] hopefully if you’re casting the best person, you’re casting diverse people.”
All that said, some producers believe nonwhite stories are nonstarters.
As Telly Leung notes, “I’ve had many producers say to my face — and somehow think that it’s not offensive– ‘you know, Asian shows don’t sell. People don’t connect and they won’t be able to relate to this because it’s a stage full of Asian people.’ And well, that’s not necessarily true because if you look at shows like The King and I or Miss Saigon, they’ve done very well.”
Leung is right: Shows like The King and I have extremely successful histories, and have been revived over and over across the country. But it’s the financial failures like Leung’s Broadway debut, the 2002 revival of Flower Drum Song, that stick in producers’ minds.
Sadly, as is the way in any business, not every show can be a runaway Hamilton-esque success. Allegiance ran for just four months on Broadway this season. While Arima, Leung, and their Allegiance team always believed in their show, they had no illusions that the industry would.
“There was always cynicism,” Arima remembers. “‘Will people come? Will people want to see a show about an internment camp?’
“But I think that healthy energy and cynicism or skepticism or whatever you want to call it, I think it fueled everybody [on the creative team] to say that is has to be done.”
What does this all mean for the Broadway community, once the 2015-2016 Tonys are awarded and the season ends?
The key, Leung and others have noted, is for creators and fans to each keep this discussion going.
“I think there’s more conversation,” Leung suggests. “This was a landmark year for diversity on Broadway; if you look at next season, it isn’t so much.” Next season is still in the works, but its announced shows — like Anastasia, The Front Page and Falsettos — tend to have predominantly white casts.
To underscore the importance of continued work, Leung quoted Viola Davis’ recent SAG acceptance speech: “‘Diversity is not just a trending topic’ because it’s [been] such a big year for it.” Instead, it’s an ongoing concern — though “there’s definitely hope” for the future.
“I think the advocates for diversity, the people who’ve had to fight so long for more representation are finally getting a voice,” he added.
Fans can do their part, too.
Leung puts it succinctly: “It is your job to vote with your dollars.
”If you want art like this to exist and stories like this to exist, it is also the audience’s job to critique it, to talk about it, to have a conversation about it. Every audience member can be a critic. I just hope people don’t say ‘OK, we did diversity in 2015. We no longer have to do diversity anymore.’ I think for artists of color, that’s been the major concern moving forward.”
It is these “people,” the creative powers behind Broadway, that director Arima thinks are best positioned to further diversity. “There are ways to incorporate diversity in shows without the show being about the diversity of the characters or the person’s race,” he says.
For their part, the artists Mashable spoke with are optimistic — if cautiously so.
“I really do believe that with every job, it’s one step in the right direction, not just for me but for my community,” Ali Stroker says. “For a long time it was very very difficult for people with disabilities to get any work or to even be seen for auditions.I’m just so grateful for the people who came before me and for all the movement and change that we’ve made. It feels like people are maybe a little more comfortable and a little more onboard with casting someone with a disability.”
Dixon, whose show recently opened on Broadway, agrees.
“In any and every scenario in our society, diversity increases the value of things in both a superficial and monetary level — but more importantly, on a deeper level in respect to our growth and connectivity as human beings. We are a diverse collection of people; as human beings, we are a microcosm of the world. And the more we allow our entertainment to reflect the world around us, the greater level of entertainment we will discover.”
While the road may seem daunting, both Leung and Villafañe poin out the power that minority voices can have today. “Look at our president. You can’t tell us anymore that people of color aren’t in the power positions,” Villafañe notes.
Or, as Hamilton would put in: Diversity isn’t a moment. It’s a movement.