By MICHAEL PAULSON / SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 2015
It has been a long journey from “Tradition” to “Tradición.”
A half-century ago, “Fiddler on the Roof” barreled onto Broadway with a now-famous opening song, “Tradition,” that helped theatergoing audiences relate to a story of particular significance to Jewish Americans.
This fall a new musical, “On Your Feet!,” arrives on Broadway with a parallel first act number, “Tradición,” that seeks to universalize the hardships and hopes of Latin American immigrants.
In the intervening years, America has become steadily more multiethnic, while Broadway, generally lagging behind both film and television, has followed suit in fits and starts. But the theatrical season now getting underway is noteworthy not just for the diversity of its casts — a dramatic change from the largely monochromatic season just ended — but also for the ambitious, and risky, effort by producers and writers to make big commercial musicals out of uncomfortable chapters of history.
There is a new musical, “Allegiance,” about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and a stripped-down revival, “The Color Purple,” about the difficulties of black women in rural Georgia of the 1930s. The season opened with “Amazing Grace,” which highlights the depravities of slavery as it tells the story of an early British abolitionist, and it will close with “Shuffle Along,” about an early jazz musical born of the black vaudeville circuit.
In between, of course, there is “Hamilton,” which uses black, Hispanic and Asian-American actors, and a hip-hop score, to prompt a contemporary rethinking of the founding fathers.
In more traditional shows, directors are making nontraditional casting choices. A revival of “The Gin Game” will feature two popular black film stars, James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson, in parts previously played by white actors, as will a revival of “Hughie,” which will star Forest Whitaker in a role earlier played by Jason Robards and Al Pacino.
Even “School of Rock,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of the Jack Black movie, is on board: As in the film, the show, set at an elite prep school, features students who are African-American, Asian-American and Latino, as well as white.
And the revival of “Spring Awakening” uses deaf actors as it draws parallels between the struggles of adolescents to communicate with adults and the struggles of those who can’t hear to communicate with the larger world.
“Whether it’s providential, coincidence, or meant to be, the fact is what’s happening on Broadway is so diverse it’s almost utopian,” said Lea Salonga, the first Asian woman to win a Tony, who this season is starring in “Allegiance” as an internee who has a falling out with her brother over whether to resist or support the American government. “It shows how many stories are out there that should be told, and can be told — so many experiences that make America what it is.”
This strikingly varied theatrical year follows a season — from spring 2014 to spring 2015 — that was conspicuous for its lack of diversity. Only two of 35 plays and musicals that opened last season focused on the experiences of nonwhite Americans — “Disgraced” and “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” neither of which succeeded financially — and of the eight winners of Tony Awards for acting, only one was nonwhite — Ruthie Ann Miles of “The King and I.”
“This is probably going to be the most diverse season of the last 10 years, by a long shot,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, which represents producers and theater owners. “I have a feeling the impact of this season going forward will be strong.”
Those who work on Broadway caution against extrapolating too much from one theatrical year, noting that there is no artistic director looking for balance in programming a season — just a collection of producers and theater owners, trying to figure out how to make money and art at the same time.
“It’s so random the way shows get to Broadway — sometimes it’s a theater opening up, and sometimes it’s a show finally being ready after years of workshops, but I’m very heartened that our stages are starting to look more like our city,” said Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of “Hamilton.”
Mr. Miranda said that even with more diverse casts and story lines, audience diversity remains a serious concern, which he attributed in part to the high cost of tickets.
“The pricing is above my pay grade to solve, because mounting shows is really expensive, and producers price aggressively to make money back for their investors — that’s their job, but at the same time it’s crazy how expensive they are,” he said. “And there are many people for whom it’s not even a thing on their radar, so hopefully these shows will become destinations for diverse audiences, and then that starts the next generation going.”
About 80 percent of Broadway ticket-buyers are white, according to the Broadway League, but the percentages of black, Hispanic and Asian theatergoers have all risen significantly over the last decade; the League’s program to increase the Hispanic audience size, called Viva Broadway, is chaired by Mr. Miranda’s father, the political consultant Luis A. Miranda Jr. On Monday, Gloria Estefan, the pop star whose life story is told in “On Your Feet!,” will headline a benefit concert for the program.
Several plays lately have drawn diverse audiences — a revival of “Fences” starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and “The _________ With the Hat,” with Chris Rock, for example — but because plays tend to have limited runs in smaller theaters, changing overall audience demographic data requires long-running hit musicals.
There have been some successes on that front: The original production of “The Color Purple,” based on the novel by Alice Walker and heavily promoted by Oprah Winfrey, proved so popular among black ticket-buyers that the overall black audience on Broadway nearly doubled during its run; “In the Heights,” a musical by Mr. Miranda about a street corner in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood of northern Manhattan, led to a dramatic increase in Hispanic theatergoing during its run.
Scott Sanders, who produced both the original staging of “The Color Purple” and this year’s revival, recalled that when the show first ran “it became a destination, a rite of passage for large groups of African-American families — we were getting buses from North Carolina and Boston and Dallas coming to see the show.”
Among those who saw the show was the Oscar-winning actress and singer Jennifer Hudson, who went four times, twice in Chicago and twice in New York. “It’s an American classic — I loved it, and I wanted to see the different takes on it,” said Ms. Hudson, who will now make her Broadway debut as Shug Avery in this year’s revival.
The unusual diversity of this season’s offerings poses a risk: What if the shows fail (as most on Broadway do)? “The Color Purple” has a publicity effort targeting publications with high black readership, while “On Your Feet!” is reaching out to Hispanic and Latin American media. Thus far, “Hamilton” is a big hit, while “Amazing Grace” is failing at the box office.
But whatever happens in New York, a trickle-down effect is inevitable, because shows that are produced on Broadway are often later presented at regional and community theaters. “These shows are going to be done all over the world, and people are going to have to look for actors of color,” said the producer Ken Davenport, who is overseeing this season’s “Spring Awakening” revival.
“Broadway tends to lag behind other industries, and this is an example of us catching up,” Mr. Davenport added. “We’re so excited about the infusion of hip-hop on Broadway, but hip-hop and rap have been winning Grammys for how many years?”
For the actors and creators, the diverse season has meant opportunities to tell stories that cut close to home. Many of those working on “On Your Feet!” are immigrants or the children of immigrants from Latin America; many of those on “Allegiance” have relatives of Japanese ancestry who were imprisoned in internment camps.
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“I’ve been involved in Asian-American theater since the beginning of my career, and I have to say that I never thought there would be a musical about Japanese-American incarceration on Broadway,” said Greg Watanabe, who plays Mike Masaoka, the polarizing national secretary of the Japanese-American Citizens League, in “Allegiance.”
Mr. Watanabe’s own grandparents were held at Heart Mountain, the internment camp in Wyoming where much of the musical is set. “I feel protective, like I want to be a part of telling that story,” he said.
The show is inspired by the childhood experience of George Takei, the actor made famous by his role on “Star Trek,” who was interned along with his family during World War II; Mr. Takei was thinking about his own father while watching “In the Heights” and began weeping; he was spotted by the writers Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, who asked him about the roots of his reaction and then wound up writing the musical.
“I love the theater — it’s my first passion — but to tell the story of my parents’ experiences, fictionally, on the Broadway stage, is a thrilling, absolutely undreamed-of experience for me,” said Mr. Takei, who will appear in the musical.
Stafford Arima, the show’s director, also had a personal reason to be involved: His father, a Canadian of Japanese ancestry, was interned with his family in Canada during World War II. Mr. Arima said the process of casting the show reminded him of how limited the opportunities have been for Asian-American actors in musical theater. “You would look at the résumés and just see 12 productions of the ‘King and I’ and nine productions of ‘Miss Saigon,’ ” he said. “There really hasn’t been a lot for them to sink their teeth into.”
For the performers in “On Your Feet!,” there have been different challenges — starting with getting to the United States.
The show is based on the life and career of Ms. Estefan and Emilio Estefan, her husband and longtime collaborator; both immigrated from Cuba and faced skepticism about the crossover marketability of Latin music on their way to global success. “On Your Feet!” is a jukebox musical using the Estefans’ songs, including “Tradición,” which, Ms. Estefan said, “talks about maintaining your traditions, which is what our parents did.”
The Estefans said that, two decades ago, they had rejected a proposal from the Nederlander Organization, which owns theaters and produces shows, to create a Latin-inflected show for Broadway, feeling that, “it was not the right moment,” according to Ms. Estefan.
This year, they told the Nederlanders, they were ready. “We saw the demographics and the amount of people coming to Broadway from all over the world,” Mr. Estefan said. “It’s perfect timing.”
Ms. Estefan added, “Broadway is amazing, but it needs to find a new audience, as the United States becomes more diverse.”
Several actors in the show said they see the Estefans as exemplars of the American dream. The show’s choreographer, Sergio Trujillo, said he immigrated illegally from Colombia to Canada years ago before forging a successful Broadway career; an ensemble member, Marielys Molina, moved here recently from Venezuela, with no money and unable to speak English, just hoping to find a way to dance.
Carlos Gonzalez, another dancer, arrived from Cuba as a boy; his parents hoped he would have a better life here. But, because of his accent and his lack of musical theater training, he was apprehensive until he tried out for “On Your Feet!,” a show dominated by Cuban dance forms, including salsa and chancleta.
“For the first audition, I bought Lululemon pants, and my first real character shoes, and I walked into the room,” he said. “Then I remember seeing the drums. I took my shoes off, put white linen pants on, and they made us take our shirts off, and I was dancing Afro-Caribbean stuff. That’s when I knew: O.K., this is my show. We’re home.”
See it in The New York Times: www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/theater/this-broadway-season-diversity-is-front-and-center.html