When I first saw advertisements for Hamilton, I remember thinking to myself, “A musical about Alexander Hamilton. Lin Manuel, what are you doing?” Then the casting was revealed, and I discovered that the majority of the actors and actresses in the production are of color. Now, for some it’s not a big deal. But it was huge for me.
The way my high school history books were written, every single one of those historical figures was white. Manuel did something here. He could have maintained historical “accuracy.” However, this musical wasn’t about that. He threw out the typical format and hired people of color to fill these roles and guess what? It didn’t matter. Hamilton became an instant hit and no one is criticizing it for its colorblind casting because it’s just that good. The actors make these characters believable regardless of their skin color. What Manuel wanted to create was art, and art doesn’t have a race. It has an impact.
I remember going to see Keke Palmer in Cinderella back in 2014, looking around the theatre, and being brought to tears. I cried because I saw hundreds – and I’m not exaggerating — of young Black girls in tiaras and pretty dresses in the theatre. They were there to see Keke and to experience theatre, some for the very first time. And there was a Black girl playing the princess on the stage. I was so overcome with happiness and joy because it was so important for them, and me, to see. When I was leaving the theatre, a little girl said, “Mommy, I want to do that!” And she can!
What if this could happen all the time? I know we have shows like The Color Purple and Motown, which have no choice but to cast Black actors. However, those shows come and go (that’s another article, for another time). What I’m talking about is something a little different. Oftentimes when I’m catching a show on Broadway, I rarely see faces of color on the stage in lead or featured roles. Sure, I usually can spot them in the ensemble or they may be the understudy, but where’s our full-time Black Elphaba? Does Captain Hook have to be white? Aren’t there Black LGBTQ youth too? Black people go to Paris, right? I’m sure there are tons of Black girls and boys that never want to grow up, so where is their Finding Neverland?
There’s a term in theatre and film called “non-traditional” casting. That term is basically code for non-white actors. For the life of me, I’ve been trying to figure out why they call actors of color “non-traditional.” Are our stories and lives not “traditional?” Do we lack a certain trait to make us “traditional?” What does this even mean?
The answer is something I’ve been trying to discern but, at this point, I don’t think it matters. In the past three years I’ve seen more actors of color in roles that for so long have been cast with predominately white actors. Taye Diggs as Hedwig? Norm Lewis as The Phantom? Condola Rashad as Juliet? Even Trip To Bountiful, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof cast all Black actors during their Broadway runs. When I see that, it’s a great feeling. My question, then, is why doesn’t it happen more? Is it so far off to believe that as people of color we, too, can live these experiences?
I say these things with a spirit of hope, as I was once a young Black girl attending the theatre. I know the impact of seeing actors on stage that look like you. I also know what it feels like to be automatically ruled out of a role based on the color of your skin. Even now as a Performing Arts teacher, I want to be able to take my students to shows where they can look at that stage and turn to me and say “Ms. Harper-Davis, I’m gonna do that.”
Yes, scholar. Yes, you will.
UPDATE: ***In the featured photo: All black cast of “Oklahoma!” at Portland Center Stage from 2011. A fantastic cast and production, and one of their best selling shows ever. In the photo are Jarran Stepney-Muse as Will Parker and Joy Matthews as Aunt Eller
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Jazmine Sullivan: The Next Singer-Songwriter To Write A Broadway Musical?
We recently caught up with Jazmine Sullivan at The HeLa Project, a multimedia exhibition inspired by the HBO film, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Like the rest of us, Jazmine is in awe of the under-told story of Henrietta Lacks and her instrumental role in modern medicine. We further asked about why she got involved with the project and she said: “Anyway I can give light to an extraordinary woman like that, I’m there.”
Some of the integral women in bringing this story to light have their roots in Broadway: Tony Award-winning producer Oprah Winfrey, who not only stars in the film, but also credited as executive producer, and Tony Award winner Renée Elise Goldsberry, who portrays the title character.
We wouldn’t be Broadway Black if we didn’t keep it real.
Let’s be honest, we can’t get enough of 11-year-old Jazmine singing “Home” like she wrote the piece, so we got to asking, and it turns out Jazmine wouldn’t mind putting her pen to paper to create a musical for the Broadway stage.
She said performing on Broadway isn’t in the plans for the near future but, “You never know! I love writing and creating characters!”
God!? Oprah!?!? Stephen Byrd & Alia Jones-Harvey?!?! Who’s going to snatch this up?
Until then, it sounds like we have some new music to expect. What kind of musical would you like to see from Ms. Sullivan? Sound off below in the comments!
Audra McDonald Starstuck By Beyonce At Beauty and The Beast Premiere
What happens when two queens meet? Can the world truly handle all of their queendoms once together? Does the world suddenly explode? The answers to these questions–TBD. But when Audra McDonald met Beyoncé at the Beauty and The Beast premiere last weekend, the Broadway star proved she’s no different from us– minus the whole six Tony Awards thing.
In a sit-down interview with People magazine, the Shuffle Along star recalls meeting Queen Bey at the LA premiere.
“I was headed [sic] out a certain exit and she was coming in, and I saw Blue Ivy, and I was like, ‘That’s Blue Ivy, maybe she’s here with, I thought it was her nanny,” she explains. “And I looked up and I went, ‘Queen!’ And then she said, ‘Nice to see you.’ And I went ‘Queen!’ I have never been goofier because I was just so starstruck.”
Surely THE Queen of Broadway Audra McDonald can handle meeting Queen Bey– obviously not– admitting she could only manage to say “Queen” to her about “three times” and not much else.
“I’m a grownup, I’m 46. I’m a grownup, I should have been able to handle it,” she says. “But it’s Beyoncé and I couldn’t handle it. I’ve met presidents but I was much more freaked out about Beyoncé.”
Us too Audra, us too.
Catch Beauty and the Beast in theaters now.
Selma, The Musical: An Unheard Song
In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council set their sights on Selma, AL as the stomping ground for voter registration reform. Twenty-four years later, Selma The Musical took the stage at New Federal Theater to tell the story of the civil rights leaders that inspired its very existence. Tommy Butler, the show’s creator, wrote the book, music and lyrics and then turned to his community to help tell the story.
This 1978 musical not only put black history in the spotlight, the creative team itself featured makers of history. Cornelius A. Tate, Selma’s musical director, has a long list of Broadway credits. This list includes the infamous Hair, a show that gave him the title of being the first Black musical director on Broadway. The accomplishment is well deserved considering Tate led the cast of Selma through a demanding score that cast a light on the pain and injustice throughout Black history.
Selma is unapologetic in its critique of race relations during the Cvil Rights Movement. It uses the same painful language that ran ramped alongside hoses and hounds in Alabama streets. This musical served as a wake-up call. It shook the critics of its day and introduced new performers to voice the frustrations of inequality. Tommy Butler, the shows creator, starred in the musical alongside a collective of newcomers. Denise Erwin, Susan Beaubian, Carton Williams and Ernie Banks led the cast in songs calling for justice, equity and peace. A cry we can still hear from our community.
Selma The Musical was a show that asked the obvious in the most honest way it knew how. The voices who deny the existence of injustice will call Selma “unfinished” and “archetypal.” I invite you to reflect on the events that brought this musical to fruition, the limitations we are still overcoming, and the necessity of telling the difficult stories in our history. The show’s original cast recording can be found on Apple Music. New Federal Theater, where the show saw its debut, continues to release productions that question the justice and equity that is denied to Black people in America. You can view their upcoming projects.
Who Should Play Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard Musical on Broadway?
Known around the world as “The Voice,” soul-pop icon Whitney Houston’s birthday was on Tuesday, August 9, and the legendary singer would have been 53 years old. Multiple music journalists and social media luminaries celebrated by compiling lists of her most memorable songs or iconographic promotional music videos. In 2009, Guinness World Records cited her as the most awarded female act of all time. So, it’s no surprise that seven years later—four years after her tragic death—the public still grieve her death and showbiz insiders are trying to make bank. That may include a Broadway musical revue of, arguably, the singer’s masterpiece. It may also include a Hunger Games style casting battle royale between divas.
The day prior of what would’ve been Whitney Houston’s 53rd birthday, various mainstream news outlets announced the musical adaptation of the vocal titan’s first major film project, The Bodyguard, gearing up for its first U.S. national tour, with Deborah Cox cast in the revamped role of Rachel Marron. Cox, 42, the chart-topping Canadian R&B singer-songwriter and actress who recently ended her celebrated stint as international dance legend Josephine Baker in a Broadway bound musical at Florida’s Asolo Repertory Theatre in May, isn’t estranged to Houston or her body of work. In 2000, Cox recorded the 2000 single “Same Script, Different Cast” with Houston. In 2014, Cox re-created several tracks of Houston’s commended discography for a controversial and commercially panned 2015 Lifetime biopic, Whitney, though the new vocals received raves by top critics. Now set to perform the musical theatre adaptation of Lawrence Kasdan’s 1992 Oscar-nominated film when it premieres at Paper Mill Playhouse, not only does Cox have big shoes to fill in playing the role that Houston made emblematic, but Cox is also having to compete with the popularity of other singers who have played the role across the pond. One in particular being Tony winner Heather Headley.
In 2012, Headley made her London stage debut in the West End production of The Bodyguard, for which she was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Written by Alexander Dinelaris, when the show began previews at the London’s Adelphi Theatre, Headley was one of the best things about it. Sound familiar? Headley replaced award-winning actress-singer Jennifer Hudson as Shug Avery in the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple to critical acclaim and a prolonged standing ovation, with many noting the diva’s stage presence and theatrical complexity. Headley, 41, who earned a Tony Award in 2000 for her performance in Aida, was presented with a Sardi’s portrait on the day before Houston’s birthday. Prior to that, Headley originated the role of Nala in Broadway’s The Lion King — her Broadway debut in 1997. Headley also appeared with Il Divo on Broadway for a limited concert run in 2014, where she sang various numbers from The Bodyguard soundtrack to audience applause.
When Headley left the West End production of The Bodyguard, British soul diva Beverley Knight replaced her and was nominated for Best Takeover in a Role at the Whatsonstage.com Awards as a result. In July, Knight, 43, returned in a limited six-month run of The Bodyguard on the West End. Alexandra Burke, who won the fifth season of “The X Factor” in the U.K., would replace Knight in the original production before it shuttered and she embarked on a nationwide tour; Burke, 27, became the longest leading cast member to play the part. Which means, the Grammy Award-nominated Cox may have to finesse her acting prowess if producers intend for a Broadway run.
The tour for the jukebox musical kicks offs at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse this November before making stops in more than 20 U.S. cities. This is apropos considering Houston is a native of New Jersey. But what does it mean of the multigenerational, cross-cultural sisters eager to play the role on Broadway?
While Cox may transfer to Broadway after a few workshops of the Broadway bound Josephine musical in the future, it is unknown when that could be. Of all of the actresses who have played the role of Rachel, her opulent mezzo soprano ringers truer to Houston’s velvety and plush vocals. Headley, however, is a Broadway diva, one who has finally returned to Broadway and is giving a performance of a lifetime in a what many assumed to be a thankless part. Knight, outside of music fans, is largely unknown in the states, but has the grit and the experience that coincides with the level of stardom that Rachel has. And Burke, who is seen in many ways as a “Beyoncé of Britainia” by the press, has the youth and the fiery energy needed to play the part.
Who do you think should play the role? Let us know in the comments.
Get You a Fave That Can Do Both: Broadway Stars Get Political
Photo by Christopher Boudewyns for Broadway Black
These past weeks have been a phenomenal expression of talent and tenacity. From Audra McDonald and Cynthia Erivo snatching souls on Twitter, to Broadway for Black Lives Matter taking us to church, to the best DNC that has graced our country, we’ve been blessed.
Now, we all love a strong belt and a clean 8-count, but when an artist flexes their mental chops for the movement, that’s when they strike gold.
Ben Vereen and Broadway’s finest took the stage at the Democratic National Convention to pay homage to the lives taken in Orlando’s Pulse shooting. Their rendition of “What the World Needs Now is Love,” brought the crowd to their feet and put compassion at the forefront of politics if only for a moment. But ,Vereen was not there to simply lend his voice in song.
In partnership with ARTSPEAKS, Vereen advocated for arts education funding at both the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. Vereen sat down with Huffington Post to expound on his stance, “I’m not saying everybody’s got to be a song and dance man or an artist, or whatever aspect that we separate ourselves from,” he said. “We need our creative thinking people in politics, in corporations to think on the up, rather than the down.”
Vereen’s outspokenness sparks a discussion on the ability of artists to be political thinkers as well. We know this to be true! We stanned as six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald took Bill O’Rielly on the dragging of his life and educated him on the historic tumultuousness of slavery. Tracie Thoms, of Rent and the upcoming Falsettos revival, is known for her outspokenness on issues regarding social justice. She is one of many that contributes to the education and expansion of the black community, simply by being aware and ensuring those around her are as well.
This past Monday, marked the first ever Broadway for Black Lives Matter. This event, for and by Broadway, invited the biggest names in the business to have an honest and productive conversation on bringing change to the social and political climate in America.
The Broadway for Black Lives Matter Collective conceived an event that changed the lives of everyone in attendance. With the help of Amber Iman, Adrienne Warren, Britton Smith, and dozens of top Broadway talent, we found strength in numbers and power in politics. Norm Lewis, a panelist and longtime Broadway veteran, called for the investment of black money in black banks, the annual revaluation of police, and noted the loss of respect in the justice system. He spoke with the eloquence and passion of a young Cornel West. His tenacity does not stand alone.
The voices of Broadway are talented, to say the least; they have healed us, inspired us, and now they are encouraging us to be our best and brightest selves. The mind of artists is poignant, we are capable of rond de jambes and revolutions. Don’t count out the kid in the back with a paintbrush or song; the first thing to wow you may be their art, but it won’t be the last.
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