The great white way: can the diversity Hamilton brought to Broadway last?

Leslie Odom Jr said last week that despite Hamiltons success, hes still not being offered the roles a white performer would be. Will things ever change? We speak to actors and casting agents about race on Broadway

This year, Broadway boasted perhaps the most ethnically diverse season of the past decades. There were several musicals and one play play both created and being carried out by artists of colouring and other runs that featured nonwhite actors in prominent roles. This season also included Broadways first performer in a wheelchair in a dance-heavy musical , no less. When the Tony nominations were announced, 14 of the 40 nominations in the acting categories went to actors of color, a welcome corrective to the #OscarsSoWhite trend.

But how diverse is Broadway actually? And how welcoming is it to artists of colouring? Last week, the Hollywood Reporter met seven nominated performers Leslie Odom Jr, Jeff Daniels, Gabriel Byrne, Zachary Levi, Reed Birney, Danny Burstein and Alex Brightman for a roundtable that often focused on the diversity of the season. That a panel expressed their concern about diversity featured only one performer of colour seemed telling enough. But more distressing were Odoms comments on his career prospects after Hamilton.

Odom has earned career-making reviews as Aaron Burr, the scoundrel of Hamilton. But he was moved to comment: If a white performer was having a similar situation as Im having right now in this prove, the kind of success of this depict, there might be three or four offers a week for the next shows youre going to do. There are no shows for me to do. Theres merely no roles.

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Leona Lewis: due to play Grizabella in the Broadway revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats. Photograph: Richard Shotwell/ Invision/ AP

This does not seem to be an exaggeration. The prospects for the next season dont appear especially bright from the perspective of diversity. Of course, announcements of new projects will continue to roll in throughout the summer and autumn, but as it stands, the season is once again focused on resurgences and film adaptations Les Liaisons dangereuses, Falsettos, The Price, Groundhog Day, Hello, Dolly !, The Glass Menagerie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. With the exception of Cats, which recently announced Leona Lewis as Grizabella, and Miss Saigon, shows with actors of color in the primary roles seem unlikely( though Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, one of the few original pieces announced, does have an African-American female result and musicians of colouring casting in other parts ).

Plays and musicals take years to come together, so it may be several seasons before we experience the knock-on effects of this one. But what will be the effects, exactly, and how successful was this season in terms of diversity? Leaving aside the Hamilton juggernaut, in which performers of varied ethnicities play founding fathers, devotees and rivals, box office receipts have been mixed. Allegiance and Amazing Grace both shut rapidly. Eclipsed is hanging on. Shuffle Along, On Your Feet ! and The Color Purple continue to do well. In sum, this should still be encouraging enough for producers to take a chance on more daring material necessitating more diverse castings and it should encourage writers and composers, too. But if significant change comes at all, it may come slowly.

Why is this? Broadway is, for the most proportion, a for-profit business. Superstars plucked from cinema and TV, industries that also have mixed records in terms of diversity, are often seen as necessary to sell presents, and a majority of those stars are white. So while this season considered James Earl Jones, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Lupita Nyongo on the boards, the committee is also assured Jeff Daniels, Michelle Williams, Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Parsons, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Matthew Broderick, Clive Owen, Linda Lavin, Judith Light, Keira Knightley, Bruce Willis and Al Pacino.

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Lea Salonga and George Takei in Allegiance. Photo: Matthew Murphy/ AP

Its also important to note that while musicals, both new and resurrected, have recently demonstrated a greater willingness to diversify their casting, straight plays have proven more resistant, whether out of a lack of imagination or a fear of alienating audiences, who expect a greater degree of realism in drama, or so producers may presume.( Perhaps that presumption also holds true of musicals. During the roundtable, Zachary Levi defended the all-white cast of She Loves Me with the somewhat tone-deaf assertion that the musical has a fully Caucasian cast because it takes place in Budapest in the 1930 s, and thats what was written .)

With the notable exception of Eclipsed, define during the course of its Liberian civil war and exclusively starring women of coloring, of the other new plays on offer, only The Human managed to cast relevant actors of color in a major role, and Misery placed an African American actor in a minor one. In words of revivals, The Gin Gameand Hughie boasted famous performers of color in the lead roles, but of the rest, only Ivo van Hoves revival of The Crucible had an integrated cast.

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Josh Segarra as Emilio Estefan and Ana Villafae as Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet! Photo: Bruce Glikas/ FilmMagic

Yet Ana Villafae, who stars as Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet !, has felt the excitement of this season. On her route to work, she passes the marquees for Hamilton, Eclipsed, and Shuffle Along. Its very powerful, she says. As a Hispanic woman, she spent years playing stereotypical roles. Her mothers were so tired of ensure me killed by a gang, she says, experiences which have constructed her especially proud to play Estefan, who redefined what a Latina could look like and be. She is proud to stand up among a casting of more than 30 Hispanic performers, particularly during a cultural moment where Donald Trump is an actual thing, and to look out into the crowd at an audience comprised of all shapes and colourings and sizes.

She trusts that On Your Feet! will continue to run, and said that he hoped by the time she leaves it, there will be more opportunities for performers of color. We want to see ourselves represented in the arts, she says. And it would be a huge mistake not to keep stimulating these opportunities for actors of color. Because theres a clear thirst for it. She also hopes that producers and casting directors will realize that she and women like her can play more than simply the Latina with curly hair and the red dress. As she says: These are not the only stories we can tell.

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Isaiah Johnson in The Color Purple. Photograph: Matthew Murphy

Bernard Telsey, the head of Telsey+ Company and a human who helped to pioneer color-conscious casting with the diverse ensemble of the original Rent, wonders why it is taking Broadway writers, directors and producers so long to open themselves to musicians of all ethnicities. Theres a lot of years between Rent and Hamilton, he notes. Telsey says that he and his fellow casting directors always welcome character descriptions that dont restrict ethnicity. This is what we live for, he says. He wants more productions to guess more imaginatively. Colorblind casting, he says, needs to happen much more, even in tales that are not written by people of color. We need to induce more strides. He suggested that encouraging people to think this route is not as much of an uphill battle as it used to be.

But colorblind casting still isnt the norm. Jennifer Lim, relevant actors originally from Hong Kong who received excellent notices as the female result in Chinglish just a few years ago, has seen very few Broadway roles to audition for in subsequent seasons. In straight plays, she has discovered few roles open to all ethnicities. The opportunities arent there, she says, and she tries to not get bitter about it. She does hope that depicts like Hamilton will prove a game-changer, contesting the idea that white audiences want to see mirrors of themselves or that color-conscious casting will confuse them. As someone who did not grow up in this country and is not very well known that era of American history, I had no problem next following the story or get emotionally invested, she says.

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The casting of Shuffle Along, featuring Savion Glover, performs Pennsylvania Graveyard Shuffle. Photo: NBC/ Getty Images

When opportunities for musicians of coloring do arise, the exhilaration is palpable. Craig Burns, a casting director at Telsey+ Company, held open calls for the Asian American musical Allegiance last season and recollects a feeling of celebration during auditions. Burns describes this season as one for the history books in terms of its diversity and he believes its effects will last. The industry has appeared to be juiced by this season and all of its range, he wrote in an email. Live theatre should reflect the world in which we live.

So what can producers and audiences do to bring that about? Isaiah Johnson, who stars as Mister in The Color Purple and is pleased to be a part of this significant season, believes that producers should find new writers and encourage those novelists to tell a variety of narratives. The reason we dont have more diverse programming is because we dont have enough producers trying new runs, he says. The demographics of playwrights being produced, they arent playwrights of coloring. Producers and directors can also construct themselves more open to nontraditional casting and audiences can show is supportive of productions that do assemble diverse casts.

This is essential if we want to keep talented artists of all ethnicities working on Broadway and in the theater more broadly. As Odom said in the roundtable: Ill take care of myself. Ill be fine. Ill go do music. Ill run do TV. Ill run do what I have to do. He, too, clearly said that he hoped the success of Hamilton and depicts like it will influence writers and producers further down the line, but perhaps it wont happen soon enough. Id be interested to see what the next 2 or three seasons was like, he said, because I dont hear a whole lot of stuff.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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