I remember writing a piece last year sharing my excitement for the upcoming 2015-2016 Broadway season. I was so optimistic, hopeful and amped because there were going to be so many shows starring some of my favorite Broadway Black actors. So many shows where there wasn’t going to just be one black actor in a cast of 30.
We had The Color Purple, Eclipsed, Hughie, Shuffle Along, Hamilton, The Gin Game, Amazing Grace, Motown (technically a 2016-2017 production) to join The Lion King and Kinky Boots.
I would walk down 45th street with the hugest grin on my face. Despite living deep in Bed-Stuy, I made the trek to 45th street as often as I could, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Literally, I remember tearing up seeing all those marquees down 45th street. What a time to be alive, I thought.
Everything was great! Tony Awards came around most of my favorites were nominated, nothing could go wrong! Fast forward to now, and well it’s no secret that 45th or Broadway, in particular, isn’t looking as colorful as it was in, let’s say, March. Of the new Broadway shows to open the 2015-2016 season only, The Color Purple and Hamilton remain. As for the others, we’ve had to say tearful goodbyes to them. Some that are gratefully moving on to productions in other cities, some that had to have limited runs, some that closed for financial reasons and some that didn’t deserve to close at all.
Now, I will say this, I am fully aware that Broadway is a for-profit business I really, and truly am aware of this harsh, often sad reality and I get it – s*** happens. That does not, however, stop me from feeling a type of way about particular shows closing especially shows that involve actors of color because HELLO WE ARE BROADWAY BLACK. This is literally our platform, to highlight shows in ways they may not otherwise get the attention. We are here to help avoid getting actors of colors names wrong, or mixing up names with pictures, or finding the worst possible picture to put up of an actor, or highlight the upcoming playwrights, directors, actors, designers that otherwise may not get the platform. That’s literally why we exist. So one can’t help but to feel a type of way when it seems the rug has been pulled from under this magical carpet ride we’ve been experiencing.
Each show has a different circumstance for leaving and I know you are probably tired of talking about it and I said I wouldn’t, but I can’t help myself. Shuffle Along shouldn’t have closed. It should still be around. Shuffle Along should have played longer. Could it have sustained financially? Maybe. So its numbers were no Hamilton, but have you seen the grosses for some of the other shows around (sips teas)? Check those out, then get back to me. I can’t begin to express the importance of a show like Shuffle.
I don’t know if George C. Wolfe could have predicted that America would be in the state it is in right now, but Shuffle Along came at such a convenient time. However as convenient as it was, the problem was Shuffle wasn’t popular enough. That and the producer that shall not be named, but we know who I’m talking about, is terrible.
Sure it had big names attached but I didn’t think that mattered for this show (no matter how much people want to blame it on certain people), it’s what it stood for that mattered most. I will be frank here, Broadway audiences weren’t ready for Shuffle Along. Just like they weren’t ready 6 years ago with Scottsboro Boys. Sure people were outraged when news of the show closing went viral on social media. So many people were outraged and upset because they felt the story was important and needed to be told. However, I don’t think there were as many of those people we’d like to think. When you have tons of people returning tickets because one person isn’t in the show, it’s kinda safe to say they weren’t there for the story, which is a complete and utter shame.
It’s also expected. I’m generalizing a bit here, but for the majority of Broadway audiences, I still think Broadway is an escape. Audiences like their Broadway light hearted with a touch of sadness to make us cry at the theater and then go home and feel good. To go and have a drink and talk about what a lovely show we saw. Shuffle wasn’t one of those shows. Shuffle made you think, it was a legitimate history lesson.
Something I’ve noticed Broadway doesn’t do well is have these difficult discussions about these plaguing issues like racial politics for example. It gets people talking for sure, but people are really uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. And that goes beyond Broadway, look at what’s happening in America now? If we’re afraid to have these tough conversations in real time, what happens when we put it into our art?
Audiences came to Shuffle with the expectation to see some of the biggest stars on Broadway singing beautifully and to see the best tap dancing around, what they didn’t expect was for it to be laced with themes of appropriation, colorism, defiance and a “joyous rage.” They don’t want to hear about Gershwin stealing a riff from black composer William Grant Still, they don’t want to watch black actors don blackface, they don’t want to talk about how even after what seemed to be success the history of Shuffle Along would fall into obscurity because it’s uncomfortable. It hits a nerve we don’t want to yet talk about.
Shuffle Along was extremely ambitious and everyone involved knew this which is why night after night they poured their hearts and souls into it. Sadly, that just wasn’t enough. After all I’m still convinced black shows do well when exploiting our pain or plight, ironically which Shuffle Along points out “they love to see our love of dixie and watermelon but not our love of each other.” Shuffle Along dared to challenge the status quo and I saw it as the most liberating show I’ve ever seen on Broadway. As I watched Shuffle play its final show on Sunday, I couldn’t help but connect what these characters were saying to the context of today (Let’s talk about that Baton Rouge/gun line huh?) and how pretty much it’s happening all over again.
Call me upset or bitter, all which I very much am, but I would be foolish to not acknowledge that I’m grateful this show was able to come to life at all. I think I’ve said it a million times this story was needed, it was important. I thank God that he brought Shuffle Along into my life when he did because this was the show I didn’t know I needed. It forced me to research more to become a better researcher, artist, teacher, future theater owner and producer. This show filled me with so much hope that I needed and I couldn’t be more grateful. It just sucks that those who weren’t fortunate enough to make it to NYC these last five months, aren’t able to see all that it was. However, unlike the song “They Won’t’ Remember You” this time with Shuffle, there are hundreds of thousands that will never forget this work, and I can’t wait to see it resurface again in the future. (This time maybe with more producers of color and maybe a black theater owner !!)
Even in the midst of our tearful goodbyes, we still have hope in what we do have such as Hamilton which is still crushing it night after night and we can’t wait till Brandon takes over as Burr! The Color Purple is still solid which I’m grateful for because that show is a revelation. We have a few shows opening next season such as Jitney (FINALLY!) , Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 starring Denee Benton, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory ( looking to cast an African-American as Violet), and who knows what else (Fingers crossed they can go ahead and bring the LA production of Ma Rainey this way). I just hope 2015-2016 wasn’t a fluke, but looking at this next season it sure is looking like one.
I say this because I grew up loving Broadway and everything about it. Therefore like James Baldwin says about America ” I love Broadway more than anything and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
This is my critique, do better Broadway. I know you can, you’ve proven you can, just do better.
Sound off below! What were your favorites from the season? What were you sad to see go?
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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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