After this year’s Tony Awards celebration, during which all four musical acting awards went to black actors (the first time in Tony Awards history), I published an item that questioned what the historic wins might mean, not just for Broadway actors of color, but for Hollywood actors of color as well (given how much both are starting to overlap), making comparisons between this historic win and Hollywood’s own “rare moment” when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington both won top honors in the acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress) in 2002, for “Training Day” and “Monster’s Ball” respectively – historic wins themselves as well (Berry’s especially) that were supposed to usher in a *new* and much more inclusive Hollywood that, 14 years later, still hasn’t quite fully materialized.
I also recalled the words of Leslie Odom Jr. of “Hamilton” (one of this year’s black Tony Award winners), in which he succinctly broke down a dilemma that many actors of color have faced over the years and continue to struggle with, not only in theater, but also in film and TV, as he put the state of the business into proper perspective. Essentially, while Broadway is seemingly having a “diversity moment” (given the success that a few high profile shows created by and starring actors of African descent have had, and continue to enjoy – “The Color Purple,” “Eclipsed,” “Hamilton” and “Shuffle Along” notably, and last night’s historic wins), it is just that… a moment; and it might be too soon to make any celebratory claims about doors being suddenly opened, or ceilings being smashed in terms of the availability and complexity of roles for actors of color (in this case, actors of African descent).
One of the key players instrumental in bringing some much needed *color* to Broadway and the Tonys this year, Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”), has now also chimed in with his thoughts, being much more direct with his reply to the question about the significance of this year’s diversity on Broadway. Last week Thursday, during a sit-down interview with Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Miranda was asked about the inclusion at this year’s Tony Awards, stating: “I think our incredibly, amazingly diverse Tonys season that just ended was a fluke!”
The Tony winner and man of the hour, whose previous Broadway hit, “In the Heights,” is being adapted to film by The Weinstein Company, expanded on his “fluke” comment: “The way Broadway works, there are three theater owners [Jujamcyn, The Shubert Organization, and the Nederlander Organization]. And what’s ready to come in, what theater owners think will be profitable to come in, is all based on what those theater owners bring into their theaters. There are shows that have been around for years waiting for a place to land, and there are shows that get great buzz and get a theater right away [he counts his ‘Hamilton’ as one of the lucky few]. But not all shows, especially those featuring diverse voices, make it to Broadway. That was a very nice contrast that happened this year… [But] next year could be a very different year, depending on what comes in.”
Again, he echoes Odom Jr.’s thoughts on the matter, when he was also previously asked about the significance of this year in theatre, and whether Hollywood can learn anything from Broadway, during a roundtable discussion with other actors who were up for Tony Awards (all of them white). Odom said the following: “I think what we’re having is a rare moment… What we really need to pay attention to is the next two seasons. I imagine if a white actor were having a similar situation to what I’m having, with the kind of success of the show, there might be three or four offers a week for the next shows you’re going to do. There are no shows for me to do. There’s just no roles.”
But Miranda is hopeful, making connections to Hollywood: “The exciting lesson that I hope people are taking away from ‘Hamilton’ is that you don’t need a white guy at the center of things to make it relatable. ‘Hamilton’ is a story very deliberately told to reflect what America looks like right now. We have every color represented… And it’s making a killing. And that’s what makes sense to Hollywood… I’ve actually heard from studio executives and people in charge in very high places saying ‘Hamilton’ has changed their view of what they put on the schedule, and that makes me very happy.”
Certainly encouraging that his success on Broadway is having some effect on decisions being made by studio executives in Hollywood. It’s now a question of time – watching to see what successive years on both Broadway and Hollywood look like. Will we be having these same discussions again, a few years from now, wondering what happened to all the excitement and momentum of 2016, or is this indeed the beginning (or some would say continuation) of a change in trends?
Time will tell.
Maybe the most important thing Miranda said in his sit-down last week is this: “I couldn’t see a way for me [a Latino man] to have a career in musical theater based on the musicals that already existed. I don’t dance well enough to play Bernardo [of ‘West Side Story’], or Paul in ‘The Chorus Line.’ And I don’t have an operatic voice enough to play the ‘Man of La Mancha.’ And if you’re a Latino man, that’s all you get… I realized that the only way for me to have a career in this world that I loved, was to write it, and that’s what ‘In the Heights’ was.”
You’ve heard this before a million times – tell your own stories; write what you don’t already see, but want to see. Even if you’re not a writer (maybe you’re an actor, a director, a producer, etc), find a way to create work for yourself.