in the A strange loopwhich won Best Musical at the Tony Awards in June belts out the main character, which could just as easily explain the transformation taking place on Broadway.
“Blackness, queerness, fighting back to fill this cis-het, all-white space, with a portrait of a portrait of a portrait of a Black queer face and a chorus full of Black queer voices,” sings the character Usher, a gay man , Black Man in a Show, focused on his doubts about writing a musical about himself.
This year’s Tonys marked a milestone: Broadway’s first season since the pandemic forced a historic closure that lasted a year and a half. It was far from a full season, as some shows opened at halftime, others closed early, and were routinely canceled due to COVID-19. By May, ticket sales were down 54 percent from pre-pandemic record highs.
But while the recovery hasn’t been smooth sailing, there was something to celebrate: a diverse lineup of new productions.
It’s part of a transformation being driven by stakeholders, producers and industry leaders who are demanding greater representation in a traditionally predominantly white industry.
CLOCK | The Broadway comeback is all about new voices:
One of Broadway’s few black producers, Tony Award-winner Ron Simons, calls the pandemic a catalyst for long-overdue change.
“That shifted in a year,” he said, “like no heads-up, no lead time. We had a diverse audience. We had different stories in one season. Overwhelming.”
“Stunning” Simons also describes how it felt to have three shows open after the pandemic – thoughts of a colored person, For colored girls and Is not too proud.
“It occurred to me that it might be possible for all three of my shows that are about black and brown people to run on Broadway at the same time,” he said. “Nothing like this has ever remotely happened. So that speaks a lot to what’s going on on Broadway now.”
A lack of diversity
The Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) has been producing viewability reports for more than a decade.
According to their latest study covering the 2018-2019 season, nearly 60 percent of roles on New York stages were played by white actors. Broadway producers are predominantly white, as are theater owners. These results are consistent with previous studies.
Actress and playwright Christine Toy Johnson, co-founder of AAPAC, said she’s pleased with the diversity strides the industry has made with its comeback, but that change for her community has been slow to come.
“There’s new thinking about whose stories are being told by whom and how,” she said, but added, “We’d really like to see more Asian-American representation on Broadway, which hasn’t increased that much yet.”
CLOCK | Broadway producer Ron Simons hopes diversity isn’t a one-time thing:
Last summer, Black Theater United – founded by Broadway’s leading black artists – unveiled a blueprint for more equity and diversity in the industry. Entitled “A New Deal For Broadway” and signed by industry leaders, it outlines reforms that include naming theaters for black performers, commitments to hire underrepresented groups, and a promise to producers, “never an all-white one.” Bringing the creative team back together on a production, regardless of the theme of the show.”
One of Black Theater United’s founding members, Broadway veteran Allyson Tucker, said the New Deal has had an impact but the work is just beginning.
“I think everyone who has signed the deal understands it’s a long game, this is a journey and not immediate results.”
A new chapter in the history of Broadway
There’s a new show coming this fall – the legendary Arthur Miller play Death a seller, but reimagined to examine the American Dream through the lens of a black Loman family living in a white world.
Broadway legend and Tony Award winner Andre De Shields plays the main character Ben Loman.
“We know audiences will react because what’s missing from the American Dream right now is the idea of accessibility,” De Shields said. “By putting the idea of the American Dream at the heart of an African-American family, it means everyone can claim it.”
He said he sees this new chapter in Broadway history as an opportunity to deliver powerful messages through the voices of artists who have not had access to the limelight.
“We’re all in this together. If one of us is chained, none of us will be seen,” he said.
Also opening in the fall KPOP, which is all about the phenomenon of Korean pop music. The cast is almost entirely Asian, with an original story and score.
“I’m more excited than ever to share this story with the world,” said the show’s composer Helen Park.
Park says a big part of her excitement is expanding on the very limited roles Asians have had on Broadway. The AAPAC study showed that Asian actors make up less than 10 percent of the roles on the New York stage.
“I think it was hard to find stories that weren’t about trauma or war or something depressing or old. I think it’s really special that we have original material,” she said.
Attract a diverse audience
The Broadway League, which compiles audience statistics, has noted that theater audiences have traditionally been middle-aged white women. Simons said he believes there is an untapped audience hungry for diverse stories that can expand this demographic.
“If we’re really going to make sure that we’re here in 10, 20, 30 years, that diversity has to happen because there’s money on the table if we don’t get that demographic into that theatre,” he said.
Outside the Lyceum Theater where A strange loop plays, fan Elizabeth Adams said she’s motivated to attend shows that reflect her story. Until now, she said, that had been rare.
“It’s a big deal,” she said of more diversity on stage, “I’m a woman of color and I’m also Asian. So it’s very important to see so much diversity.”
Robert Bennett, another theater fan, said he was looking forward to watching kite runnera play based on the book by Afghan-American writer Khaled Hoseini.
“You can see who you are,” he said, “it’s really important to see yourself on stage and kids see there’s a chance they can do that too.”
“Give us a chance to speak our hearts out”
Simons said he was hopeful about the changes on stage but added that more needs to be done across the industry to create diversity at all levels, from theater owners to show promoters.
From Black Theater United’s New Deal to this year’s Tony Award for Excellence presented to AAPAC, there are signs a leadership change is taking place on Broadway. But leaders of the prosecution warn against complacency when celebrating a season’s victories.
“I think a lot of the conversation about diversity is about black and white, and there are so many other groups that also yearn and yearn to be represented as well,” said Nandiata Shenoy, a member of AAPAC’s steering committee.
CLOCK | “We are the ones who hunger for the dream,” says Andre De Shields:
Black Theater United’s Tucker said she’s hoping for the same type of expansion. She adds that one of the most valuable conversations that has emerged from the pandemic has been taking the industry beyond Broadway and allowing emerging actors to expand into other parts of New York City.
“We look at it with the grace of yes, we’ve taken a step forward, and we’ve linked arms, and we’re going to continue to expand those connections,” she said.
De Shields said he believes Broadway’s resurgence depends on diverse voices expanding the stage.
“If those of us who are already in charge, who are already at the helm, cannot prevent this moratorium on Broadway, then who can? Well, obviously the people who’ve been denied it because we’re the ones hungry for the dream,” he said.
“Give us the opportunity to speak our hearts. Give us the opportunity to share what is important to our souls.”