By MARY C. CURTIS
When legendary Broadway producer David Merrick revived the flagging box-office and pizzazz for his long-running musical “Hello, Dolly!” by casting Pearl Bailey to play the lead character originated by Carol Channing and, with Cab Calloway, in an all-black cast, he was thinking bottom line. It is, after all, show business.
Being 1967 America, in the middle of civil rights change, there were arguments among those of every color on whether the production — with no mention of racism and prejudice – was a retrograde throwback to segregation or a breath of fresh air. Of course, since the default in America was “white,” the same discussions never happened with Channing’s all-white cast.
But what finally counted was the overwhelming response from audiences, who just wanted to be entertained. The show drew not only traditional (read white) theater-goers but also people of color, thrilled to pay the price of a Broadway ticket to see something at once different and familiar.
It worked for my mother, who dragged her young daughter (actually, we were co-conspirators) on a train from Baltimore to New York to see “Dolly!” and other shows, igniting a taste for Broadway and a desire to seek out theater that was more multi-colored than the nickname “Great White Way” would indicate.
In 2015, Broadway is taking renewed notice in how to present entertaining, sometimes challenging fare and keep a diverse, global audience interested. That might mean singer Brandy taking a turn in the long-running “Chicago” or NeNe Leakes of “Real Housewives” coming on board in the final month as the wicked stepmother in the multiracial cast of the now-closed “Cinderella,” one with KeKe Palmer, an African-American princess, in the starring role.
The recession is easing, people are spending, and everyone involved in the business – from producers to crew, musicians to actors – would like to see the numbers, after years of box-office ebb and flow, stay high. According to the Broadway League, a trade organization that represents producers, in the last year, Broadway ticket sales broke records with sales at $1.365 billion. Attendance topped 13 million people, a rise of 13.3 percent over the last two years, the League said in the New York Times.
Every year the nationally televised Tony Awards is the industry’s advertisement to those who might visit New York City or see a show on tour. Last year saw Audra McDonald, “Aladdin’s” Genie scene-stealer James Monroe Iglehart, director Kenny Leon and actress Sophie Okonedo of “Raisin in the Sun,” and costume designer Linda Cho among those picking up Broadway’s highest honor. This year, “Fun Home,” what New York Times critic Ben Brantley called a “coming out (on several levels) and a coming-of-age story” based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, won top musical honors.
The new season’s odds-on favorite for critical and commercial Broadway success is “Hamilton,” transferring this summer from a sold-out Off Broadway run. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer, lyricist and star has crafted a hip-hop musical journey of Founder Alexander Hamilton, with African-American actors stepping in as George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Miranda previously provided music and lyrics for Broadway’s 2008 “In the Heights,” set in New York’s Dominican-American, Washington Heights neighborhood.
An incomplete list for what to expect on Broadway includes Taye Diggs, this summer taking over as the lead in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the first African-American to play the role; a revival of “The Gin Game,” with Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones, and “On Your Feet!” the story of Emilio and Gloria and Emilio Estefan.
Since its beginnings, Broadway on occasion has featured diverse talent, a fact reflected in another new show, “Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” with Tony winners McDonald, director George C. Wolfe and dancer/choreographer Savion Glover connected with the project about black musical-theater history. Also announced for spring or summer 2016 are a show based on the television show “Soul Train” and a revival of “The Wiz.”
“Allegiance,” a new musical about Japanese-American internment during World War II was inspired by the experiences of George Takei (Mr. Sulu of “Star Trek”) who will star along with Lea Salonga, Tony winner for “Miss Saigon.” Takei told the New York Times, “The musical will find an audience because whether you are white, black, Latino, young or old, people can identify with the idea of family and the stresses put on a family, which in this case were enormous.”
Tom Gabbard, president and CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts, based in Charlotte, N.C., doesn’t have to be convinced that this is a welcome trend that is good for business and here to stay. “We want our audiences to look like America,” he told me. That applies to Broadway and it applies to Charlotte, he said.
In his role, Gabbard and the Blumenthal manage six theaters in Charlotte. “We’re a top 10 Broadway market.” It has been a producing partner for Broadway shows, including “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s imagining of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night in the Lorraine Motel; the bilingual revival of “West Side Story,” and “After Midnight,” a celebration of Harlem’s Golden Age.
Blumenthal said they plan to put money into the fall Broadway revival of “The Color Purple,” with Jennifer Hudson as Shug Avery. “It may seem that it’s awfully soon for a revival,” he said, “but this is a totally new vision for the show,” calling the stripped-down production “even better than ever.”
Gabbard also said he is “enthusiastic” about a new show, “Born for This,” planned for performances at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, which also nurtured “Color Purple.” It’s a musical BeBe Winans has been working on about his own life, particularly when he and sister CeCe, Detroit natives, joined Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Praise The Lord Network television show in North Carolina. Charles Randolph-Wright, the “Motown The Musical” director and a York, S.C., native, is set to direct and write the book.
Gabbard, a Tony voter since 1997, who serves on the executive committee for the Broadway League, said, “It comes down to having the shows that are high quality and that will resonate.”
Sometimes, it isn’t as simple as that, said Sheryl Lee Ralph. Ralph, well known for her role on television’s “Moesha,” has stage roots, and originated the starring role of Deena Jones in the Broadway musical “Dreamgirls” in 1981. That successful show proved, she told me, that “when you have a great script the audiences will come, as long as you just concentrate on the quality of the work and not the color of the cast’s skin. … It remains true if you can just break that barrier with people.”
In an example of color-blind casting, she was featured in the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” as singer Muzzy Van Hossmere in 2002. She said she is grateful for the people who have pushed the boundaries.
Now she has switched from star to producer on “Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical,” about the life and times of the singer Ralph called “the first disco queen.” It was nominated for an Off-Broadway Alliance award in the category “Hamilton” won.
Ralph said the show is doing “one offs” across the country, including a July performance in New York, to raise funds to bring it to Broadway. That task continues to be more of a challenge, she said, when a show features a cast of color. Will Ralph return onstage? For the right project, she said. “I always come back to Broadway.”
“If Broadway does not diversity,” Ralph said, “if Broadway producers do not start opening their eyes and start seeing the rainbow, the beautiful color of all us it will only become entertainment for a few.”
Fans used to strong regional theaters, breeding grounds for developing new works, have high expectations. Thomas Clark, a former New York state banking official and onetime president and CEO of Carver Federal Savings Bank, moved to Charlotte after retirement; he brought his love of theater – plus memories of Eartha Kitt in “Timbuktu!” and Frank Langella in “Dracula” — with him. He still travels to Broadway but also serves on the board of Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.
In 2012, Actor’s Theatre staged the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Clybourne Park,” whose characters share ties with those in Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun,” at the same time it was having its Broadway debut.
“I’ve always been very interested in black history and culture, being a history major in college,” Clark said, and he is committed to seeking out adventurous arts experiences wherever he can find them. To see thought-provoking pieces with multicultural casts and themes is “dynamic,” he said.
Clark agreed with Gabbard that quality is key, adding that with an increasing number of options, there is not so much pressure on one or two shows. “I think that Broadway has come around to the realization that some shows make it and some don’t — that’s the beauty of theater.”
Mary C. Curtis, a journalist based in Charlotte, N.C., covers politics, culture and race as a contributor to NPR, The Root, Washington Post, Women’s Media Center, MSNBC and WCCB-TV Charlotte. A senior facilitator with The OpEd Project, she has worked at the New York Times and the Charlotte Observer.