Rise in diversity in Musical Theatre

Taylor Lody and Taylor Lody

In the twenty first century, the theater world has been a scene for LGBT acceptance and support, on and off the stage. Broadway in particular being outspoken through Broadway Sings for Pride Charity Concert, Broadway Cares, and show-specific fundraisers and events. While the industry is considered forward-thinking for the most part, it is a testament to our country’s ingrained racism and ableism that the theater remains socially problematic.

The current Broadway cast of “Spring Awakening” is comprised of eight hearing actors and eight deaf and hard-of-hearing actors working together to perform the ground breaking musical. Although many shows have assisted-listening devices and sign language interpreters, this energetic, emotional, and critically successful revival marks only the second time that a Broadway musical cast has featured a deaf or hard-of-hearing performer in a lead role, let alone several roles.

“Spring Awakening” is making headlines not only for this reason, but also for actress Ali Stroker, the first wheelchair-bound actress to perform in a

musical on Broadway.

While this may seem like a thrilling new development, it’s long overdue.

Race in theater is a double-edged sword. “Color-blind” or “Non-traditional” casting, while theoretically a solid solution, is a fallacy; in an effort to seem more politically correct, shows cast one or a few “token” actors of color, often times not in a leading role.

Tokenism in and of itself is problematic both within the theater and in other social and business circles where it is present.

Many roles today for people of color appear in shows about race itself; “In The Heights,” “Allegiance,” “The Color Purple” and “Motown the Musical” are all musical examples of this.

While it’s important to celebrate different races through art, we can’t allow the only places that actors of color appear to be the shows about and made for actors of color. Non-traditional casting is only successful if casting directors don’t make the conscious effort to cast a person of color or disability, and fall prey to tokenism.

Success examples include Lin Manuel-Miranda celebrating true non-traditional casting in his new musical Hamilton, a biographical musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton told entirely through rap and R&B music by a cast comprised of entirely people of color. The show is considered one of the most popular musicals currently on Broadway.

Setting aside race, the idea of disabled or otherwise handicapped people appearing on stage – even in roles about people facing these difficulties – is almost unheard of. Able-bodied people have always filled these roles. We don’t need to limit disabled actors and actors of color to racially and disability coded roles.

While the theater community is still discovering the talent of disabled people, there is evidence that color-blind casting does not limit success. Keke Palmer starred as the first African American Cinderella in Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical of the same name to great reviews.

“Les Miserables” casting the first African American Jean Valjean, Kyle Jean-Baptiste, also garnered positive reviews before his tragic death.

The fact that these individuals received special attention for playing these traditionally white characters is in itself telling that diversity is still a major issue in the theater.

These instances of non-traditional casting for both race and disability pave the way for further improvements in the future, a possibility I hope the theater world embraces with open arms.

And if the success and fan reaction of the aforementioned shows is any indication audiences are very open and excited to witness these kinds of stories and portrayals.