In this era of #OscarsSoWhite, the Tonys are looking pretty good. On Tuesday morning, this year’s Tony Award nominees are to be announced, and it seems clear, based on the diversity of the Broadway season and the acclaim for its performers, that the slate will be far more diverse than the list of Oscar nominees put forward this year by the movie industry.
But what does that mean? Is Broadway fundamentally more diverse, in casting, employment and programming, than Hollywood? Or did the theater industry just get lucky that Broadway was having its most diverse season ever while Hollywood was having a meltdown?
The answers are up for debate, but two things are obvious: The season now ending reflects a series of coinciding bets, by multiple producers unaffiliated with one another, that a diverse array of stories and performers can succeed artistically or commercially, and the system of choosing Tony nominees is far different from the Oscars’.
The 2015-16 Broadway season, which ends this month and features 36 new plays and musicals, has been dominated by a single smash hit, “Hamilton,” in which diversity is a central theme, intended to suggest connections between today’s America, politically and demographically, with that of the revolutionary era.
The show, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, uses Hispanic and black actors to portray the founding fathers and a white actor to portray the oppressive King George III.
The season has also featured a much-praised revival of “The Color Purple,” adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about black women in early-20th-century Georgia; “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” a new exploration of a long-forgotten all-black jazz musical; “Eclipsed,” about captive women in Liberia; “On Your Feet!,” about the rise of Cuban-American pop stars Gloria and Emilio Estefan; “Spring Awakening,” a revival using deaf actors as well as an actress in a wheelchair; “Allegiance,” about the internment of Japanese-Americans in the United States during World War II; and “Amazing Grace,” about a British slave trader-turned-abolitionist.
Black actors won major roles previously played by white performers in revivals of three classic American plays: “The Gin Game” (James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson), “Hughie” (Forest Whitaker) and “The Crucible” (Sophie Okonedo).
“A lot of Broadway producers are realizing that the more diverse your show is, the more diverse your audience is going to be, at least that’s the hope,” said Pun Bandhu, a spokesman for the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. “And ‘Hamilton’ has proven that audiences are willing to pay top dollar for a show driven by minorities, and that’s fantastic.”
Theater leaders have been watching the controversy in the film industry with a mix of relief and trepidation: proud the theater season now ending but also aware that next season is not shaping up to be anywhere near as diverse, and while diverse casting has become increasingly common, the business has changed much less offstage.
“There was an understandable moment of ‘Good on us,’ and certainly this is the kind of season that we want to continue to support and learn from, but I don’t think we can pat ourselves on the back and say our work here is done,” said Jordan Roth, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns five of the 40 Broadway houses. “We still have a lot of work to do in terms of the diversity of our creative teams, and I’d like to see more diversity among our producing community.”