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When Will Broadway’s Onstage Diversity Carry Over Behind the Curtain?

These days, Broadway looks so diverse, it’s like an episode of “Orange Is the New Black.”

Just last week, “Allegiance,” a musical set during the Japanese-American internments of WWII, and starring a mostly Asian-American cast (including George Takei), opened hot on the heels of “On Your Feet!,” the biomusical of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, with a predominant-ly Latino cast. Already open is a production of chestnut “The Gin Game” starring Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones; and a new staging of “Spring Awakening” featuring deaf actors and, for the first time in Broadway history, an actor who uses a wheelchair.

There’s more on the way: “The Color Purple” with Jennifer Hudson; O’Neill’s “Hughie,” headlined by Forest Whitaker; a starry revival of jazz-era musical “Shuffle Along”; and “Eclipsed,” starring Lupita Nyong’o.

Add to the mix 2015 Tony champ “Fun Home” — surely the first musical ever written with a butch lesbian protagonist — and this year’s presumptive heir to the trophy, “Hamilton,” the pop-culture explosion that casts diverse actors as the U.S. founding fathers. Factor all that in, and it looks like Broadway’s achieved a near-utopian state of inclusion.

But that’s strictly on stage.

Mirroring the current moment in Hollywood, Broadway’s surge of diversity comes at the tipping point of the industry’s awareness that behind the scenes, there’s a lack of diversity and gender parity across all sectors: in the playwrights whose work gets staged, in the producers who sign the checks and in the rank and file of the staffs at theaters and Broadway-centric companies all over New York.

“I can sit around the table at an ad agency and there’s not one person of color besides me,” notes Stephen Byrd, the producer of “Eclipsed.” He and business partner Alia Jones-Harvey are the only two African-American lead producers working on Broadway at the moment.

As the 2015-16 season currently stands, “Eclipsed,” written by Danai Gurira, will be one of only two plays by a female playwright. Recently released data from an ongoing study called the Count, conceived by playwrights Marsha Norman and Julia Jordan and executed by the Dramatists Guild and the Lilly Awards, found that over the course of three years at America’s nonprofit theaters, only 22% of productions were written by women. Last week, a report from the League of Professional Theater Women found far fewer women working in set design, lighting and sound than there were in stage management and costume design. A number of female directors have won Tonys, but the win for “Fun Home” marked the first time an all-female writing team has won the award for best score.

“We need to diversify the people who are backstage and producing and marketing these shows. It’s the limitations of these people that are holding Broadway back.”
lynn nottage, playwright

While some progress has been made, Broadway, like the television and film industries, finds itself contemplating all the work that still needs to be done and — at a pop-culture moment when “Empire” can become the buzziest show on television — rethinking its views on the broad commercial appeal of diverse stories.

Or trying to rethink those views, anyway. “I’d like to imagine a hit like ‘Hamilton’ would give people permission to be more adventurous,” says Scott Sanders, producer of “The Color Purple.” “I’m not sure that’s true. There’s still great hesitation with, ‘Is this going to be niche?’ ”

Playwright Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer winner whose new play “Sweat” is poised for New York, believes there’s a way to shift the perspective.

“We need to diversify the people who are backstage and producing and marketing these shows,” she says. “It’s the limitations of these people that are holding Broadway back.” Nottage’s “Ruined” is often mentioned as a show that should have made it to Broadway — but was deemed commercially risky because it focused on the war-ravaged lives of women in the Congo.

Many in the industry consider education and job training as the best ways to diversify the workforce. Organizations ranging from labor unions to the Broadway League have launched diversity initiatives in recent years that  are just now beginning to pay dividends.

At the same time, programmers have begun to come together to shift the gender and racial balance of the plays that get produced. This fall, a concerted effort by 50 theaters in Washington, D.C., resulted in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, showcasing 54 world premieres of productions written by women.

In the past, momentum on diversity and gender equality was often slowed by the debate over quality vs. quota. “I think that’s always been a false argument,” says Oskar Eustis, artistic director at Off Broadway’s longtime proponent of diversity, the Public Theater. “If we can’t get a diverse group of people on our stages, it’s us failing the quality test. We are being bad, phony theater. You can’t tell the truth about this world if you’ve got stages full of white people.”

That the Public was the Off Broadway launch pad for “Fun Home,” “Hamilton” and “Eclipsed” underscores the fact that as much as the current Broadway season is a product of serendipity — thanks to the timing vagaries of creative development and theater availability — it’s also the result of work that has been seeded throughout the industry over the course of several years, oftentimes by not-for-profit companies.

For instance, Play On!, the latest ambitious commissioning program at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, aims to generate works from a pool of writers that, taken together, will be made up of 51% women and 51% writers of color. A handful of those new titles will presumably filter out into the commercial arena, just as OSF’s American Revolutions Project provided the genesis for “Sweat” and for Broadway hit “All the Way.”

At the same time, commercial producers see a clear need for greater risk-taking. The awards season and box office triumphs of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Fun Home,” as well as the megabucks raked in each week by “Hamilton,” drive home the point. “It does seem like it’s a clear drumbeat,” says “Hedwig” producer David Binder.

“On Your Feet!,” which has posted robust weekly grosses since beginning previews, hopes to join that roster of inclusive hits. Gloria Estefan sees parallels between the musical’s arrival on Broadway and her music career, during which she and her producer-husband Emilio won crossover fame despite the doubters in the music industry. “We spent our whole lives knowing our music could break barriers, because our audiences were multicultural in Miami,” she says. “The hard part was convincing everybody else.”

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