…About Diversity and Theatre

Welcome to the first edition of the UB Post: “UB Should Know…”
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“Theatre is for old white ladies.” An acquaintance of mine told me after I expressed my love of musicals and plays. I thought this statement was ridiculous; as I have been fascinated by the theatrical arts for many years, I have grown up and seen it change. By change I mostly mean diversify.

Every few years a Broadway gem appears and everyone loves it for its storyline or songs. The show is usually incredibly different from the average Broadway show, often consisting of a subject matter that isn’t easy to discuss, a celebrity, a surprising music style, or a cast of very few white actors and actresses. These shows gain popularity and, in many cases, spark the attention of younger theatre goers; unfortunately, theatre is an expensive spectacle that not many can afford to experience.

I have been incredibly fortunate to experience many theatre productions all over; after having sat in a Broadway audience, I can confirm that the audiences are mostly older white people, presumably because they are able to afford $100 and up tickets with ease. Because of this, many large-scale Broadway productions will cater to their audiences by providing them with familiar and relatable white
lead faces.

Everyone wants to watch characters that they can relate to in one way or another, the easiest and most obvious way consists of skin color. Specific people can relate to the cast of Phantom of the Opera and Dear Evan Hanson but so many more can relate to the likes of Hamilton and Aladdin. A mostly white cast versus a group of racially diverse ensemble and lead roles is now a topic that is often argued, sometimes to the point of entire shows closing down due to casting struggles.

After being nominated for twelve Tonys and only winning two, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, is to close on September 3. Not specifically due to the Tonys, as the production is greatly adored by many who are sad to see it go, but because of the incompetence of producers. The lead role of Pierre had always been played by a white male, the originator and writer of the show, Dave Malloy, Scott Stangland as the understudy, and Josh Groban. After Groban’s departure, former Hamilton star Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan took over, ticket sales began to drop. Because of depleting funds, Homeland star Mandy Patinkin was set to take
over with the full support of the show’s producers.

I do not believe that Patinkin, a white actor, was made to replace Onaodowan, a black actor, based on race. The show had been running for so long with celebrity Josh Groban that ticket sales dropped due to his departure only. Unfortunately, Broadway Black, a community that highlights the success of black actors and actresses on Broadway, focused on racism in the upper Broadway community, the story was maimed until Patinkin himself dropped out of the show. With all of this controversy, The Great Comet has been
left without a celebrity Pierre, decreasing ticket sales, and a ‘For Sale’ sign ready to be placed on the Imperial Theatre doors.

Quite often, celebrities are brought in to plays and musicals in order to boost ticket sales. The Great Comet portrays one of those times. But when lead roles go from black to white, people become angered at the lack of representation and feel cheated. Good shows with amazing stories lose their spirits when potential audience members are against the casting calls; when shows are originally cast with white actors, there is less frustration when they are replaced by more and more white actors in a certain role. It seems easy enough to believe that the reason there fewer diverse casts on Broadway is because casting directors and producers cannot be bothered to deal with unhappy audience members who feel they aren’t being represented. There are so many stories that need to be told on a stage, and not all of those stories are all white. Someone just needs to start telling them properly.

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