Monday, September 4, 2023

40 Years of Broadway: 1983 vs 2023 - The Good Stuff II

 40 Years of Broadway:
1983 vs 2023 - The Good Stuff II

In the first part of "The Good Stuff," we talked about administrative/economic aspects of the Broadway experience (HERE). Today, in the final part, we'd like to discuss aspects that are, arguably, of more importance in a cultural/political sense. They are in many regards related: diversity and queer theater. These changes have really expanded my world view, challenged personal beliefs I didn't realize I even held, and deepened my love for theater.

From the outset, I'd like to acknowledge a couple of things. First, by no means am I saying that these issues are solved, only that they have improved over the years. And second, any of the examples below are just that. Examples. And not at all a complete list. Please, of course, feel free to reach out and let us know if we've egregiously overlooked anyone or anything.

1983: At this time on Broadway, it was definitely a white man's world. Sure there were notable women, too, but they were relatively few and far between unless they were onstage. And ethnic diversity was rarer still, save for what amounts to "special events." For every The Wiz there were dozens of lily-white musicals; for every Raisin In The Sun, there were even more lily-white plays. It feels like, in retrospect, that a person of color or a show about any non-white ethnic experience was occasionally awarded as a way to make those in charge feel like they could pat themselves on the back for being diversity champions. 

Over the years, though, that has slowly, steadily changed, with people of color, a wide range of capabilities, and a full array of gender identities gaining acceptance and thriving in the mainstream that is Broadway today. Perhaps, best of all, audiences are not only accepting it, but seeking it out and demanding it.

These days, ensembles are not automatically filled with thin white chorus girls and buff white chorus boys. It is no longer unusual to see a variety of ethnic representation and people of all shapes and sizes dancing their hearts out. And that is certainly true of leading and featured roles as well. While there is still a ways to go to level the playing field, I think (hope) the days of Jonathan Pryce cast as an Asian actor and made up in yellowface are behind us. Instead, Broadway is beginning to embrace other cultures, as with KPOP and Here Lies Love. And it is great to see someone's talent, not their skin color, earn them the role of a lifetime, such as Jared Grimes as Eddie Ryan in Funny Girl, Camelot's Jordan Donica as Lancelot to Phillipa Soo's Guenevere, or Joshua Henry as Billy Bigelow in Carousel

People with varying disabilities are beginning to be seen and embraced in roles they never would have gotten, even a few years ago. The remarkable work of Deaf West has been seen on the main stem twice, and they surely enhanced (I'd say improved, even) both Big River and Spring Awakening. Deaf actor Russell Harvard played principal roles in both Spring Awakening and in the female-led King Lear, and wheelchair bound Ali Stroker appeared in Spring Awakening and Oklahoma!, making history in both and earning a Tony Award for the latter.

Gender and queer identity have also largely improved in the past forty years in many aspects of mainstream theater. No longer is it shocking to have openly gay characters in a show, nor is it a news-making scandal when an award winner thanks her wife and says, "I love you," on a national telecast. Soon, one hopes, the moniker "history maker" will be gone when more non-binary actors and writers are represented in awards tallies, like Alex Newell (Shucked), J. Harrison Ghee (Some Like It Hot) and Toby Marlow (Six). It won't make headlines when a transgender person is cast, as happened when Alexandra Billings joined the cast of Wicked, or Peppermint got a lead role in Head Over Heels, or L. Morgan Lee was Tony-nominated for A Strange Loop. And even the simple casting of a female-presenting actor in a role traditionally played by a man won't bat an eye, as when Patina Miller was The Leading Player in Pippin, or Glenda Jackson played King Lear.

Queer Theater
It seems fortuitous that my Broadway theater-going career began just one day before La Cage aux Folles opened at the Palace Theatre. Sure, before then, there were the occasional gay side kick characters in shows (Lee Roy Reems in Applause, for example), and plenty of queer-coded roles and themes in plays. But at that point, LGBTQ+ theater was largely delegated to off-Broadway, and mainstream success was a rarity, like Torch Song Trilogy. As a young and deeply closeted gay man myself at the time, I can say first-hand how important representation is. Just seeing openly gay characters in A Chorus Line thrilled me and gave me hope. Then, even being cast in gay roles on Broadway carried a stigma. Read this interesting Playbill interview with original La Cage stars Gene Barry and George Hearn. It is very telling when Hearn describes having no reservations about playing serial killer Sweeney Todd, but thinking twice about playing drag queen Zsa Zsa. The AIDS crisis, in many ways emboldened queer writers who turned to the theater as a place to vent their political outrage and profound sorrow. Even then, these works were largely delegated to small, downtown venues, far from Times Square.

2023: Today, queer theater has been embraced by mainstream theater-goers and has received wide-spread acclaim. Plays like Take Me Out, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Indecent and Casa Valentina have brought queer characters to the Great Bright Way. One of the greatest works to ever grace the Broadway stage, Angels in America, was a commercial theater watershed moment; queers were not to be ignored any longer. Over the years, revivals of The Boys in the Band and The Normal Heart brought history to life for a new generation. Musicals have come a long way since La Cage as well, including its sister in drag Priscilla Queen of the Desert and the cult favorite Head Over Heels. Tony-winning ground breakers Fun Home and A Strange Loop opened up the possibilities for a wider spectrum of sexuality/gender stories.

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