Making Diversity Sing on Broadway

Making Diversity Sing on Broadway

Jordan Nickels

This morning, fans of the new musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 were shocked to see that Mandy Patinkin will replace Hamilton’s Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan in the lead role of Pierre on August 15th. Oak had just recently joined the production on July 11th, and many of us were wondering why he is leaving so soon?

Oak’s time with Great Comet has been complicated to say the least. Originally set to take over the role from Josh Groban on July 3rd, Oak announced via Twitter that his arrival had been delayed by one week to July 11th, with no explanation from the production. While some are left to wonder why Oak is departing after less than a month in the role of Pierre, I think the answer is somewhat clear. Oak came from the Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton, and Hamilton is a popular name to theatre and non-theatre fans alike. Putting a Hamilton star in the title role in Great Comet would boost ticket sales, and when it wasn’t to the producers liking, they looked to cast a bigger name.

Yes, I understand that Mandy Patinkin is a legend and is in theory a bigger name than Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, but I also know of many fans going to see Great Comet because of his performance in Hamilton as Hercules Mulligan. This recasting upset many fans, because Oak’s casting gave us something rare, a hit Broadway musical led by two African American actors, Oak alongside Tony nominee Denée Benton as Natasha.

In the previous 2016-2017 season on Broadway, we only saw two musicals boasting a cast that was a majority people of color, Miss Saigon and Motown the Musical, both revivals with Motown closing early after only two-three weeks of its planned 18-week engagement. While we saw many musicals with diversity in their ensemble (Cats, In Transit, Come From Away) or supporting roles (Dear Evan Hansen and Falsettos), we only saw four musicals with African-American actors in lead roles (Holiday Inn, Great Comet, A Bronx Tale, Groundhog Day.) However, both Holiday Inn and Groundhog Day’s lead roles cast a person of color for a character originally from a film that was created for a white actor, and not written to be a role for someone of color. So we are reminded after a year of Hamilton and The Color Purple winning big at the Tony’s, that we still face an underlying problem of a lack of diversity in the new musicals that are being created.

Now while there have been musicals with diversity in the last three years, many of them haven’t fared well when it comes to box office longevity. The 2013 musical After Midnight, based on the 2011 Encores’ revival of Cotton Club Parade, featured a wide array of black talent from singers to dancers. However, After Midnight struggled at the box office and closed after 272 performances. This production saw a rotating talent of special guest stars like Toni Braxton, Vanessa Williams, and Patti LaBelle; their star power seemingly drawing a majority of the crowd coming to see the show.

Shuffle Along in 2016 was another show based of a musical of the same name from the 1920s. This production had an all-star cast of Broadway greats like Brian Stokes Mitchell, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Billy Porter, to new Broadway talent like Adrienne Warren and Joshua Henry. However, it was when star Audra McDonald left the production due to her pregnancy, that producer’s soon after decided to close Shuffle Along on her departure. Despite an already recognizable cast and a replacement already chosen, producers feared that ticket sales would suffer without McDonald in the show and decided to close prematurely.

Both musicals were nominated in their respective seasons for Tony Awards and performed on the broadcast. However, Shuffle Along walked away empty handed, and After Midnight only won one award for Best Choreography for Warren Carlyle. Now there have been Best Musical winners in the past with diverse stories starring people of color (Memphis, Kinky Boots, In the Heights, Hamilton), but are far from consistent enough to spark evidence that Broadway is changing enough.

Now I am a huge fan of Audra McDonald, but Broadway stars of color like her are uncommon. There are few stars of color like Norm Lewis, Jennifer Holiday, and Ben Vereen that get crowds beyond the Broadway community to rush out to the next big musical. Luckily, Broadway is producing a new generation of talent, African-American men and women like Joshua Henry, Adrienne Warren, Patina Miller, Adriane Lenox, Leslie Odom Jr., Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Daveed Diggs that have taken the theatre world by storm. While The Color Purple last year was supported by stars like Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks, it was newcomer Cynthia Erivo’s incredible voice that drew attention to the show. The production went on to win Tony’s for Best Revival and Best Actress in a Musical for Erivo.

So, what does it take to get a hit like Hamilton? How do we produce a musical with African-American talent that champions diversity, while still bringing in box office success? It takes more artists like George C. Wolfe, Kenny Leon, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Lynn Nottage to create opportunities for brilliant actors of color and new talent to been seen on Broadway, in pivotal roles and complex stories that appeal to Broadway audiences. Next season, Lynn Nottage is working on a musical adaptation of the movie The Secret Life of Bees that examines faith, sisterhood, and discrimination in the South. It also takes producers to support these productions and bring them to Broadway, while at the same time pushing for diverse billing when they encounter efforts in boosting ticket sales. Finally, it’s up to audiences to continue to support existing and upcoming Broadway talent like Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan in the Great Comet.

Replacing Oak with Mandy Patinkin, quickly creates a negative precedent that musicals starring people of color do not equal box office success. It’s up to the everyone, from the individuals producing these shows to the people viewing them, to break these negative stereotypes and allow progress for more diversity on Broadway.

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Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8

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