The Diversity Problem: Alive and Well on Broadway
Remember when we solved racism on Broadway back in 2016? That’s when a little musical called Hamilton swept the Tony Awards. Alongside Cynthia Erivo’s stunning portrayal as Celie in The Color Purple, all four musical theatre performance Tonys were given to actors of color that year. Collectively, the theatre industry gave ourselves a pat on the back hoping we had entered a new era of color-conscious casting.
Well, that era was pretty short lived.
There has been no seismic shift in the number of actors of color performing on Broadway. Yes, systematic change often comes with incremental progress. However, the recent crop of Broadway musicals seem to provide few examples of such change. Broadway feels as Caucasian as it did four years ago, only becoming more diverse when “ethnic shows” such as The King and I or On Your Feet! are running.
Both theatre professionals and theatre lovers get hype when we see Broadway characters that were originated by White actors performed by actors of color. For example, look to the excitement about Brittney Johnson’s portrayal of Glinda in Wicked or Aisha Jackson as Anna in Frozen. However, these opportunities for actors of color continue to be exceptions to the rule – nowhere close to becoming the norm.
This lack of change seems the case looking forward to the musicals opening in the next season or two. Between the announced casts of Company and The Music Man, one thing seems to be true: Broadway is still going to be the Great White Way.
For shows that are set in modern-day New York City, this kind of whitewashing gives productions a twinge of inauthenticity. What does it say about Katrina Lenk’s Bobbie in Company that her three boyfriends are all Caucasian? Maybe that’s an issue that the production will explore. But from an outside perspective, one looks at the cast announcement and thinks “Wow, Bobbie has a lot of white friends.”
Counter to that authentic setting of Company to those with more fantastical settings like The Music Man. While the show famously takes place in River City, Iowa, its energy and story are deliberately more heightened than Company. One could argue that musicals like The Music Man and Hello, Dolly! were never meant to realistically reflect their actual settings. That fantasy gives production even greater opportunity to hire actors of color. However, the entire principal cast of Hello, Dolly! and the six announced leading actors in The Music Man are made up of entirely Caucasian actors.
Of course, this has nothing to do with the talented actors who have been cast in these roles. We can assume that they’ve earned their parts and will bring pathos, talent and nuance to their characters. But looking at the larger picture, Broadway’s trajectory toward more diverse storytelling seems to have stalled.
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Published in collaboration with The Ensemblist