Critic's Notebook: Are We Heading Into a Year of #BroadwaySoWhite?
Following last season's unprecedented diversity representation, led by 'Hamilton,' the 2016-17 lineup is looking decidedly pallid.
History was made at this year's Tony Awards when all four awards for performances in a musical went to actors of color, crowning a Broadway season notable for its unprecedented diversity representation across musicals and plays.
That charge was led, of course, by Hamilton, the hip-hop phenomenon that employs a predominantly nonwhite cast to explore America's revolutionary roots, re-examining our national history through a vibrantly contemporary, multicultural lens.
But the story last season wasn't just about Hamilton. Black lives mattered in the soaring revival of The Color Purple, the slave-history musical Amazing Grace, and the audacious cultural exhumation of Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, which restored the forgotten legacy of the first show by an all-African-American creative team to make it to Broadway.
Vibrant stories of Latin immigrant experience were told in the Gloria and Emilio Estefan bio-musical On Your Feet! and an ignominious chapter in the U.S. government’s treatment of Asian-Americans was revisited in Allegiance.
The latter show was commercially short-lived, but together with the previous season's holdover revival of The King and I, it provided employment for a large number of Asian performers, traditionally one of Broadway's most under-represented ethnicities.
Another minority, deaf actors, made up half the ensemble in the revival of Spring Awakening that came to Broadway from Los Angeles' Deaf West Theater. That production used American Sign Language to underscore the story's depiction of rebellious youth in a repressive society that refuses to hear their needs. The cast also included an actor in a wheelchair, a Broadway first.
On the nonmusical front, Danai Gurira's drama Eclipsed marked the first time a play written, performed and directed by women of African descent had been presented on Broadway, with a cast that included Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o. Nontraditional casting also yielded roles for African-American performers in revivals of the plays The Gin Game (James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson) and Hughie (Forest Whitaker).
Coming off a season that seemed like an unplanned rebuke to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy — which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is now attempting to address in its latest outreach to new members — it would be encouraging to report that the diversity momentum is continuing on Broadway. But as the new season lineup comes together, the dominant shade is white.
Sure, there will be performers of color in the casts of a number of big musical productions, such as the upcoming Cats revival, Amelie and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.
In fact, all three of those shows feature minority leads, which may at least partly be due to the positive impact of last season: Cats marks the Broadway debut of British pop/R&B star Leona Lewis, who is black, as is newcomer Denee Benton, starring as Natasha opposite Josh Groban's Pierre in the Tolstoy-inspired electro-pop musical. And Phillipa Soo, who is Asian-American, segues from her star-making turn in Hamilton to the title role of the whimsical waif in Amelie.
But those musicals — set in a feline-infested junkyard, an alternate-reality version of modern-day Paris and early 19th century Moscow — cannot be considered stories about people of color, no matter how they're cast.
Only two shows in the new-season Broadway pipeline announced so far really fit the diversity bill: Jitney and Miss Saigon.
Written in 1979, and focusing on a group of black gypsy-cab drivers trying to scratch out a living in Pittsburgh, Jitney is the only one of the 10 plays in the late August Wilson's decade-by-decade 20th Century Cycle depicting African-American experience never to have been produced on Broadway. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who staged an enormously acclaimed off-Broadway revival of Wilson's The Piano Lesson in 2012, will direct the play, casting for which has not yet been announced.
One of the mega-musicals that signaled the British invasion of Broadway in the 1980s, Miss Saigon sparked controversy in its original 1989 production over the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the French-Vietnamese character known as the Engineer. Transferring from London, the incoming revival stars Asian-American Eva Noblezada and Jon Jon Briones, who hails from the Philippines, in the Madam Butterfly-inspired story of a tragic romance that unfolds during the Vietnam War.
Elsewhere on the Broadway calendar, the stories being told this season appear overwhelmingly focused on white experience — from musicals like Dear Evan Hansen, Falsettos, A Bronx Tale, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Anastasia, The Bandstand and Hello, Dolly to plays like The Glass Menagerie, The Present, The Little Foxes, The Price, Significant Other, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Front Page, Heisenberg and The Cherry Orchard.
OK, so you can put High School Musical recruit Corbin Bleu in Holiday Inn, but it's still a show based on a Bing Crosby movie, and source material doesn't get much whiter than that. Writer-performers Nick Kroll and John Mulaney even milk knowing laughs out of the white insularity of their septuagenarian New Yorker alter egos — two old geezers from the Upper West Side — in their comic stage memoir, Oh, Hello.
The absence of performers of color is conspicuous on the list of major names headed to Broadway this season — among them Bette Midler, Sally Field, Cate Blanchett, Liev Schreiber, Diane Lane, Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon, Nathan Lane, John Slattery and John Goodman.
Many of their incoming shows no doubt will turn out to be terrific. But it seems a regressive step after last season's gratifying multicultural breakthrough that it's being left primarily to holdovers like Hamilton, On Your Feet! and The Color Purple to keep the diversity flag flying.
It's true that not all of last season's diverse offerings connected with audiences, and even truer that not all of them were masterworks. For every thrilling landmark like Hamilton, there was an earnest dud like Amazing Grace. For every bracing immersion into another cultural reality like Eclipsed, there was a commercial blunder like Hughie, which asked audiences to shell out Broadway prices for a dour drama running just 55 minutes. Even the electrifying Shuffle Along has had to pull the plug early at the prospect of plummeting ticket sales after the departure of Audra McDonald, one of Broadway's biggest stars.
However, just as the Academy is discovering in its push to broaden the color spectrum of its voting membership — and by extension, the films it honors each year — the onus to represent all of America starts at the very foundations of the industry.
Not every show is going to be a Hamilton-level success. Indeed, those come along once every decade or two, if we're lucky. But unless we want the remarkably diverse 2015-16 season to go down in the history books as a fluke, producers need to continue taking risks and looking beyond a white canvas.