Sunday, June 15, 2008
NEW YORK These days, the Great White Way is looking a lot more off-white.
Onstage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, "In the Heights" provides an explosion of salsa, merengue and hip-hop -- an homage to life lived north of the theater district, where brown and black folks take the A train and get off at 181st Street. There are break dancers breaking, rappers rapping and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the star/creator/2008 Tony nominee, serving it up in Spanglish: Here I go! So dope! ¡Y tú lo sabes! No pare! ¡Sigue sigue! Freaky! Freak it!
Two blocks away at the Belasco Theatre, guitars grind as an all-black cast of wild-haired talent leaps into the audience, obliterating the "fourth wall" in the musical "Passing Strange." See the performers morph from punk-rocking, bourgie black teens to free-loving, white Dutch bohemians declaring, "I believe people should be naked all the time! . . . Welcome to Amsterdam!"
At the nearby Booth Theatre, you see scatterings of yarmulkes and dreadlocks in the crowd; onstage, it's Tony-nominated Laurence Fishburne channeling "Thurgood." And over at the Broadhurst, there's a different vibe, as fans squeal at the sight of a bare-chested Terrence Howard in the Debbie Allen-directed "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
As the 62nd annual Tony Awards unfurl the red carpet tonight (Channel 9 at 8) at Radio City Music Hall, one thing is clear: Broadway is taking on a distinctly multiculti hue. Nowhere is this more evident than with some of this season's dominant shows: "In the Heights" and "Passing Strange," which have 13 and seven nominations, respectively; both are up for best musical.
This season, eight major Broadway shows prominently feature blacks, Latinos or Asians. There's "South Pacific," which -- for the first time in this musical's history on Broadway -- stars Asian Americans in Asian roles. (Loretta Ables Sayre, who plays Bloody Mary, is nominated for a Tony.) That's a far cry from 1991, when there was an uproar over casting English actor Jonathan Pryce as a Eurasian in "Miss Saigon."
Ten performers of color have been nominated for Tonys tonight, including Stew, the creator and star of "Passing Strange." (Whoopi Goldberg, a Tony-winning producer in her own right, will be tonight's host -- marking the first time the Tonys ceremony has had a lone emcee of color.)
Some insiders describe it as the "Baracking" of Broadway, but that's too simple an analogy. Still, there are differing views on the forces behind Broadway's browning. This season's three hottest "diverse" shows -- "Passing Strange," "Heights," "Cat" -- traveled very different routes, emerging through both confluence and coincidence.
Creators of color have always played a role on Broadway, of course: Eubie Blake's "Shuffle Along" in 1921. Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" in 1959. August Wilson's award-winning cycle of 10 plays. Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 play, "Top Dog/Underdog." But more often than not, shows featuring minorities were an every-now-and-then happening.
"It's absolutely true that there was a quota system, unexpressed," says veteran Broadway producer Liz McCann, who is white. But the 2007-08 season, she notes, reflects a critical mass in casting, and in the sheer number of productions predominantly featuring nonwhite actors.
"Maybe now, just like things are in politics, things are beginning to change," says Cherine Anderson of Push Creative, a Broadway executive who worked on marketing for "The Color Purple."
Why things are changing, and why now, is open to speculation, controversy and debate: Is this a one-season fluke? A trend that was years in the making? Is this the result of a shift in audience demographics? And are we witnessing the Tyler Perry effect, an echoing of the blockbuster numbers from the African American playwright/filmmaker's "chitlin' circuit" plays and movies?