Were This Year’s Tony Awards Only a Superficial Nod to Diversity?
As predicted, the star of the 2016 Tony Awards was “Hamilton,” which took home 11 trophies.
Compared with the 2016 Academy Awards, the 2016 Tony Awards were far more reflective of our multiracial society. Out of 40 acting nominees in plays and musicals, 14 – 35 percent – were people of color. And that didn’t include several nonwhite nominees for many behind-the-scenes awards.
Indeed, Broadway appears to be much more progressive than Hollywood. But is it?
Broadway and Hollywood are linked: The adaptation of plays and films on stage and screen connects them just as much as the actors, writers, directors, designers and producers who work in both areas. And despite attention being brought to the issue in recent years, they continue to be guided by color-coded economics – the race-based business practices that I discuss in my book “Shaping the Future of African American Film: Color-Coded Economics and the Story Behind the Numbers.”
Unfortunately, trending hashtags and one set of Tony Award nominations are meaningless unless they inspire structural changes in the industry.
When diversity is superficial
It’s not clear whether the diversity represented in this season’s Tony Awards is a flash in the pan or a positive sign of things to come.
It isn’t the first season to feature a number of diverse actors and casts. The 1996 Tony Award season included August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” the musical “Rent” and George C. Wolfe’s black history musical “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk.”
The next season, however, featured predominantly white shows: “A Doll’s House,” “Chicago,” “Titanic” and a Broadway revival of “The Gin Game.”
Thus, without structural changes, this unusually diverse Broadway season is unlikely to continue. In fact, much of the diversity being touted is simply tied to one group, African-Americans. A closer look at the data shows that the diversity needle has actually regressed.
Since the awards began – 1929 for the Oscars, 1947 for the Tonys – over 95 percent of all nominees have been white, with the Tonys recognizing more people of color by 1 percent. The big difference is in the ratios: The Tonys recognize twice as many black artists, but the Oscars recognize three times as many Asians and Latinos.
Since the Asian American Performers Action Coalition started collecting data on Broadway’s diversity nine years ago, the group has made some notable discoveries.
In the past nine years, actors of color have yet to represent more than 26 percent of all Broadway roles. In fact, the numbers for last season’s nonwhite roles dropped, to 22 percent from 25 percent.
Even membership of the Actors’ Equity Association – the labor union for stagehands and stage actors – remains predominantly white, with 68 percent of its 50,823 active members identifying as Caucasian. And in the 2013-2014 Actors Equity theatrical season report, Latino and Hispanic actors accounted for only 2.9 percent of active membership.
Inclusion and equity behind the scenes
Behind the scenes, things aren’t much better.
In 2014, American Theatre magazine reported that only four playwrights of color appeared on the publication’s annual lists of the top-10 most-produced playwrights over a six-year period.
Designers and technicians can also contribute to the diversity of the industry. According to a 2016 American Theatre magazine article, a recent study from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs found that 81 percent of the 346 theater designers polled were Caucasian. They arrived at the same percentage after polling 1,676 technical/production employees. They also reported that women remain underrepresented in all categories of United Scenic Artists membership, and men in the smaller, off-Broadway venues outnumber women in all backstage specialties except costuming and stage management.
While the people who make up creative teams are less visible than the actors on stage, they still play an important role in shaping the overall vision, message and audience experience of a show.
Is the ‘Hamilton’ hoopla deserved?
For months, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” has garnered glowing reviews and accolades. Aside from its history-making 16 Tony nominations and 11 wins, Miranda was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius Grant. The original soundtrack has topped the popular music charts, and, as of April 2016, the show had sold tens of millions of dollars in advance sales, with tickets going for more than US$1,000 on the resale market.
Nonetheless, the show still used some traditional on-stage Broadway formulas. Warren Hoffman’s “The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical” explains how American musical formulas and themes either exclude people of color or includes them in ways that privilege white identity. Miranda and the cast appear to remix those formulas in the tradition of hip-hop.
For example, the opening song is a classic establishing number; Hamilton and his comrades captivate the audience with a charm song; several major characters sing an “I want” song, which has traditionally been used to develop characters and reveal their motivations; and romances and their love ballads intertwine with a “big-canvas plot,” or a broad historical storyline that traces Hamilton’s rise and fall. All are simply infused with black music and dance styles. And in the end, the story is still about a white man, even though the majority of the cast employs people of color.
Furthermore, much of the attention “Hamilton” has received reinforces expectations about the roles for people of color (especially black people) on Broadway. Due to a longstanding pattern of casting people of color in stereotypical or minor roles, a show like “Hamilton” featuring people of color singing, rapping and dancing – even as the Founding Fathers – can feed into popular stereotypes. In comparison to a range of predominantly white cast musicals and plays, there are fewer Broadway productions starring people of color who do not sing and dance to tell their stories. This is the challenge of remixing old formulas on stage in the 21st century.
But it’s off-stage – in the development process and finances – that could offer a new model for producing plays.
Miranda developed the creative concept as an album or mixtape rather than a musical, which freed him from certain expectations associated with the form.
According to Deadline, commercial partners had no artistic or financial control and could not benefit financially from the trial run at the off-Broadway Public Theater. The arrangement helped the Public Theater preserve its nonprofit status and allowed Miranda and the cast to retain creative control even after its move to Broadway.
As of April 3, “Hamilton” had grossed $61.7 million and could pass the $1 billion mark in a decade. (“The Lion King” ($6 billion) and “Wicked” ($4 billion) are notable musicals that have achieved similar success.) In addition, “Hamilton’s” original cast will share some of the profits thanks to a new deal that has reinvigorated debates about actor compensation.
Back in March 2016, in preparation for the show expanding beyond New York City, a “Hamilton” casting notice called for nonwhite actors in principal roles. While it brought attention to the advantage white actors tend to have when the vast majority of Broadway productions feature white casts and white characters, it also led Actor’s Equity to intervene after a lawyer charged that the notice violated New York City Human Rights law. Although all actors are being encouraged to audition and will be considered, the incident exposed the critical role “Hamilton’s” creators are attempting to play in demonstrating the possibilities of color-conscious casting.
But it’s Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed” – which was nominated for six awards – that may be more groundbreaking in upending traditional Broadway practices.
In an industry that is otherwise dominated by white males, it’s the first show in Broadway history to be written, directed and performed by black women, while also being financed by black women. Besides nominations for Best Play, Best Direction (Liesl Tommy), Best Actress (Lupita N’Yongo), Best Featured Actress (Pascale Armand) and Best Costume Design (Clint Ramos), “Eclipsed” was the only nominated play featuring a diverse cast that wasn’t a musical.
Do Tony Awards make a difference?
In theory, Tony Awards should make a real difference in the careers of nominees and winners. But that’s not always the case.
According to a 2015 Huffington Post article, awards help market any product and bring in more revenue. Awards also offer additional benefits including, but not limited to, validation, credibility and branding.
Although the study talks specifically about the benefits of winning an Academy Award in the film industry, the Tony Awards, which honor excellence in U.S. theater, are considered the equivalent on Broadway. Winning an Oscar typically translates into a huge payoff for everyone involved, but even nominations are expected to enhance future options and earnings.
For example, Tony Award-nominated productions tend to see increased ticket sales. This year, “Eclipsed,” “Shuffle Along,” “The Color Purple” and “Hamilton” all experienced boosts in gross revenue after the Tony Award nominations were announced on May 3. (Hamilton was already playing at capacity, so it only experienced minimal gains.)
Winning a Tony in the acting category can also lead to long-term employment on other projects. For example, actor Tracy Letts landed a role as a series regular on Showtime’s “Homeland” after winning a Tony for his performance in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
But actors of color have reported not seeing the same sort of return in the wake of a nomination. This could be due to the continued dearth of roles for people of color on Broadway.
For instance, Leslie Odom, Jr., the “Hamilton” star who was nominated for the “Best Actor in a Musical” award, hasn’t experienced any additional interest:
I think what we’re having is a rare moment. I think what we really need to pay attention to is the next two seasons… Imagine if a white actor were having a similar situation to what I’m having, with the kind of success of the show, there might be three or four offers a week for the next shows you’re going to do. There are no shows for me to do. There’s just no roles.
For the momentum and attention generated by this year’s awards to continue, structural changes have to be made on and off stage. It’s important to expand notions of diversity and inclusion beyond the black and white binary. All ethnicities and marginalized groups, which includes LGBTQ people, different body types and varying disabilities, should be looped in.
It’s not just a moral imperative; it’s also a creative and economic one.