Although yesterday’s news headlines were dominated by tragedy, I’m happy to inject a little bit of light, beauty and art into the ether and share my respect and appreciation for the darn-near flawless awards ceremony that was the 70th Annual Tony Awards that took place on Sunday evening at the Beacon Theatre. (Hmmm, where have I heard that name before?)
The hashtag in the headline of this post sounds more clickbait-y than I intended, but its purpose is to shine a light on the very real circumstance where the 2015-2016 Broadway theater season was marked with a Tony Awards ceremony that actually reflected the diversity of this nation… and it was a beautiful sight to see. But I have to make one very important distinction. The hashtag is #TonysSoDiverse. It’s not #BroadwaySoDiverse.
In the weeks leading up to the ceremony, there’s been a lot of pontificating and mad Tweeting over the comparison between the 2016 Tony Award nominees as compared to the 2016 Academy Award nominees. But are the Tony Awards ever a proper reflection of the Broadway theater community atmosphere? Many would argue “No.”
Not to pour cold water on that wonderful night of inclusivity hosted by the lovely and frighteningly energetic James Corden (How awesome was that opening number!?), but despite a truly diverse representation of the New York theater scene, it was not an accurate representation of the current New York theater scene’s reflection of roles, opportunities and attitudes regarding inclusivity. And I mean inclusivity in all respects.
Yes, we are right to celebrate the wins of Daveed Diggs, Cynthia Erivo and Lin Manuel-Miranda. But we should also celebrate the wins of Jayne Houdyshell, Frank Langella, Ivo van Hove, and Reed Birney. We can rejoice in the performances of the brilliant Deaf West‘s Spring Awakening, the absurdly talented young cast of the School of Rock, and always dynamic-beyond-all-reason Gloria Estefan and the cast of On Your Feet! Last night, on that stage, we saw true diversity represented across races, ages, physical abilities, economic classes (Waitress, Bright Star), and cultures (Fiddler on the Roof, Eclipsed). Not to mention, we heard an enthusiastic embrace of immigrants and their experiences in America (Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge, Hamilton). For one night, we were allowed to forget that Broadway is primarily a bastion dominated by elderly, wealthy white producers, creatives and audiences.
But now that the back-patting is behind us, we have to ask the question: How can we turn #TonysSoDiverse into #BroadwaySoDiverse?
If you look at the comments on The Hollywood Reporter video titled “Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. Talks Diversity on Broadway: 2016 Tony Award Roundtables,” you will find an indication of why we haven’t reached that milestone yet. The 2016 male nominees for acting in a play or musical gathered around to discuss a variety of topics, and of course, one of the topics broached was the issue of diversity in the New York theater scene.
Leslie Odom Jr.‘s point about where Broadway goes from here is the major takeaway from this specific Roundtable topic on diversity. For every great leap forward in terms of inclusivity, there always seems to be six steps back, and like Odom, I’ve not heard much in the way of productions scheduled for the 2016-2017 season taking advantage of this momentum created by the smash success of shows like On Your Feet!, Allegiance, Hamilton or Eclipsed.
Odom makes the quite astute observation that it takes time for any real change to be seen on a sustainable level when it comes to diversity. We would be wise to temper our expectations for the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 Broadway seasons, and perhaps keep our eyes on the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 seasons if we really hope to praise Broadway on turning a corner when it comes to increasing diversity. Although Alex Brightman is more hopeful than Odom and myself, I think he also brings up a fair point that there are plenty of diverse voices out there and they’ve always been there — but they’re rarely given the push to be amplified because the “gatekeepers” or financiers insist that the audiences who frequent the theaters won’t buy a ticket to hear a voice that doesn’t resemble their own.
Which brings me to Gabriel Byrne’s incredibly comment that resonated with me more than anything uttered by Odom or Danny Burstein or Reed Birney: What about the audiences?
We keep talking about how the playing field has been leveled this season in ways that it hasn’t in the past — both on stage and behind the scenes. See the lovely breakdown of the 2016 Musical nominees created by Playbill.com to the right to get an idea of that reality. But as Byrne points out, when you look around the audience, you still see a profound lack of diversity in the people buying tickets.
Can you have sustainable diversity without a diverse audience that consistently demands for it?
It’s not enough for the Roundabout to go out to the schools and invite students into the Broadway theaters. It’s not enough for people of different economic backgrounds to take a free tour of the prop or costume departments. Yes, that’s happening more throughout the country, but it will always be received the same way by the young, working class, and ethnically diverse: “This is something only available to me because I’m a student or it’s free today. Any other day of the year, as an adult, this will be beyond my reach.”
I think Byrne’s comments and experiences speak to that truth, and I’ve personally seen it play out in my life as well. In the summer of 2014, I took my then-12-year-old cousin to see two plays that were a part of the IndyFringe Theater Festival. Even though she only liked one of the plays, I thought it was important for her to see that access to this type of entertainment is not simply for the rich or only available through a class field trip.
Now to be fair, I was working full-time at a company that paid me remarkably well, and without that, I’m not sure if I would’ve been able to afford what is considered a relatively inexpensive style of theater. Not for two people anyway. And I’ve heard this lament from friends in NYC who would love to expose their kids to more theater, but even with “cheap seats” of $59 each, that’s financially circumspect for a working class or even a lower middle class family in NY.
TodayTix and theater lotteries are a wonderful idea, but they’re primarily utilized by those who already have a love of theater. What Byrne is addressing is how to move beyond the exceptions that prove the rule in commercial theater financing, and build a real diversity across classes so that theater is accessible to as many people who want to enjoy it regardless of their race, orientation, faith or physical ability. Sadly, I think his statements were lost in the shuffle of everyone in the comments section focusing on how many white men were at the table compared to POC. A noticeable dearth, but it shouldn’t negate that great points regarding diversity were being made by more than just one man.
What I would be interested in seeing going forward so that next year’s #TonysSoDiverse hashtag is a reality is a serious and actionable conversation between the minds of young and old, white and POC, queer and straight, able-bodied and disabled, cis and trans, and people of all genders about what everyone can do — actors, writers, designers, producers, theatergoers, songwriters and angels alike — to make diversity sustainable. I’m fine with everyone patting themselves on the back this year. But let’s not make this year a fluke.
Perhaps this a discussion that can take place at the next BroadwayCon. I know it’s a conversation I’d be eager to listen to with an open mind and heart for all who love theater and want it to reach as many audiences as possible so they can love it too.