New York City Center, in partnership with The Jerome L. Green Performance Space at WNYC, presented the first of its Encores! Unscripted live-streamed talkback series with Tony Award winners Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Sheldon Harnick and Jeanine Tesori. Hosted by Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel and with musical accompaniment by Greg Jarrett, the artist panel had a conversation about Broadway musical theatre to answer this question: How can we make sense of an art form that has produced so many beautiful songs and perpetuated so many ugly stereotypes?
While titled “Sexism, Racism, Show Tunes, Discuss,” the Dec. 14 event easily could have been called “Going To School With Ruben Santiago-Hudson.” Santiago-Hudson – who served as artistic director for The Green Space’s productions of August Wilson’s 10 Century Cycle plays and is set to direct Encores! Cabin In The Sky in February – shared poignant words about the responsibility to “Broadway Black” and the need to think about how diversity is reflected on stage, behind stage and in the seats.
Viertel, believing that “the world changes, we change with it,” began the event with this disclaimer:
“We take this very seriously. We love this form, and we love these shows. And we love what they say about America in all of their different eras. That means we have to confront what they actually say word by word as well as the spirit that informs them. I think that’s what makes a panel like this and what makes a program like Encores! so much fun to work on and such a responsibility to work on.”
The panel explored sexism after hearing performances sung by Margo Seibert of “The Very Next Man” (Fiorello!) and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “I Enjoy Being A Girl” (Flower Drum Song). The 91-year-old lyricist Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, The Body Beautiful) discussed changes he made to each song’s lyrics, which place domestic abuse in a different light when revived for the contemporary stage.
Composer and musical arranger Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline or Change), who is the artistic director of Encores! Off Center, assertively maintains a woman’s perspective in her work. “There is always this universality about musicals that I go to and then there is the specificity.”
Viertel especially wanted the acclaimed Santiago-Hudson – who made his Broadway debut in George C. Wolfe’s Jelly’s Last Jam and most recently appeared in the Kenny Leon-directed Stick Fly – to bring his wealth of theatrical knowledge to the City Center stage, despite it being his first time directing a musical. “Cabin In The Sky” was sung by J.D. Webster and Santiago-Hudson shared his concerns on racism in the Golden Age of Broadway as well as the changes he would make to the script – a script developed by a creative team with Russian roots. While Santiago-Hudson said he omitted references to picaninny and erased “a lot of other things,” he wanted to keep the lyric that goes: “We will be oh so gay / eat fried chicken every day / as the angels go sailing by.”
“I don’t want to cleanse the script to the point where there’s no conversation,” he said. He took care to ensure “where the conversation would bend so deeply that we don’t hear the play anymore” as the determining factor. Or, in other words: No buffoonery.
During the discussion, the self-described storyteller said he was appreciative of Viertel having the courage and insight to give him a shot. “What I’ve always felt is if an opportunity is given to me to represent my people and make them whole again that I would do the greatest job that I possibly could do; the best would be called from me to represent. Because it’s a rarity.”
Admitting that White directors are acceptable to lead Black plays, he noted: “But I don’t get chosen to do White work. No one calls me to do Fiddler or Carousel. My name is not in that conversation. But when a Black play comes up, white guys’ names are in that consideration and white women’s names are in that consideration. Now we can… collectively put our heads together and can’t name five Black Broadway directors who’ve directed musicals in the last decade.”
“Directors get chosen,” he clarified, “and those that are doing the choosing don’t look like me,” he also noted. “There are not many Black producers, and the ones that we do have say the same things to me that the white producers say: You can’t do a play without Denzel Washington.”
The New York native of Puerto Rican and African-American heritage continued to enlighten the audience. “If you look on Broadway right now, Hamilton is bringing about 1.6, 1.7 million a week… but then you look at On Your Feet that’s like 1.3, 1.4 (million) a week. That means there is an audience for us. And that audience is not the normal 95 percent white audience…
“With Black plays, with Black directors, with (Black) subject matter brings that audience that is hungry, that spends hundreds and hundreds of billion, close to a trillion dollars… is the Black market in entertainment per year. If you invite them in they will come… I’ll leave it at that.”
Or, it can be left with what Tesori exclaimed toward the conclusion of the event: “I love Ruben Santiago!” The most touching words of the evening were when Santiago-Hudson expressed: “I’m fighting for my people because we have been denied so much. In the time I have on this earth, I’ve gotta fight for them. I have to make a difference. If I’m not fighting for them, who is? Who’s writing for them, if it’s not us?”
City Center will present two more conversations. Watch the entire first conversation here. Santiago-Hudson speaks in length from 29:30 to 49:05, including interesting history about Cabin in the Sky. Harnick attributes the impact of Stephen Sondheim, while Tesori demands challenging norms.