Broadway’s Big Return!

What the NYC theater industry needs to do to prepare for performances in September

By: Jessie Dromsky-Reed

Broadway’s back!

Or it will be on September 14, 2021.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned gatherings of more than 500 people at indoor venues, and any smaller venue had to cut its attendance in half, effectively closing New York City’s performing arts industry.

A theater can only receive the designation of “on-Broadway” if it has 500 seats or more.  Any smaller theater is considered “off-Broadway” (100-499 seats) and even “off-off-Broadway” (less than 100 seats).  Governor Cuomo’s executive order forced on-Broadway theaters closed, and for the off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theaters, it was not economically feasible to run shows at half-capacity.

Many of New York City’s performing artists took advantage of 2020’s coronavirus hiatus to protest systemic racism, homophobia, and ableism on Broadway.

The Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s (AAPAC) annual visibility report for the 2018-2019 season (the last full Broadway season) found that almost 94 percent of all directors at onBroadway theaters were white, 89 percent of writers at on-Broadway theaters were white, and almost 60 percent of all performing roles on Broadway went to white actors.

Popular musicals like Hamilton: An American Musical (2015), The Lion King (1997), Aladdin (2011), Hadestown (2016), and Ain’t Too Proud (2017)—all of which are returning to Broadway in September—create much needed opportunities for black, indigenous, and actors of color (BIPOC actors).  However, these musicals’ BIPOC casts mask predominantly white creatives teams and pit orchestras.

In the 2017-2018 Broadway season, Young Jean Lee’s play, Straight White Men (the first play written by an Asian American woman produced on Broadway), and Itamar Moses’s Tony-Awardwinning musical, The Band’s Visit (the first on-Broadway musical set entirely in the Middle East) provided hope for more diverse creative teams on Broadway.  And while the AACAP praises these productions, it’s report from that season writes that “such examples often serve as the poster child of diversity for a particular season, encouraging a false sense of progress.”

All of the 18 major on-Broadway theaters surveyed in the AACAP’s 2018-2019 report had white creative directors.  Continually, almost 60 percent of all productions with at least one BIPOC writer, composer, librettist, or lyricist were directed by a white direct.  And of the plays and musicals that had a white writer, only 9 percent of those productions had a BIPOC director, and that was usually when the white writer was already dead.

As Broadway not only re-auditions and re-casts shows for September 2021, but also re-costumes, re-lights, and re-stages them, it has an opportunity hire new artists and combat the systemic racism, homophobia, and ableism rampant backstage.  But will it take advantage of the opportunity?

Michael Maher, a non-binary performing artist and recent graduate of a theater conservatory in New York City, explained, very simply, “going back to normal is so exciting to so many people that just the fact that they can buy a ticket to see a show is more enticing and more exciting than having these difficult conversations” about equity and inclusivity in the performing arts industry.  If audience members do not force the performing arts industry to have these conversations, they will never happen.

As of right now, the Actor’s Equity Association (AEA), which is the union protecting theater performers and crew members in the United States, supports diversity within the theater industry.  It believes that “One day, every American theatre will be a safe, equitable, and inclusive workplace filled with arts practitioners who represent and reflect the wonderful diversity of the human tapestry.”

In order to hire AEA union members for a production, a theater must adhere to certain guidelines as set forth by the union.  For example, in preparation for Broadway’s September re-opening, the AEA has issued guidelines for cast, crew, and audience safety in the post-coronavirus world.  These include mandatory vaccinations for all cast and crew, as well as mandatory COVID testing prior to the beginning of rehearsals, and quarantine guidelines for any performer or crew member who tests positive.  If a theater does not agree to, or cannot, adhere to these guidelines, the AEA will not grant the theater any contracts and it cannot hire any union actor or crew member.

AEA guidelines combating systemic racism, homophobia, and ableism within Broadway are just as important and need to be just as comprehensive as those combating coronavirus.  However, they do not exist.  This leaves each production to combat these social diseases on its own.

The Hadestown pit orchestra, a majority white male ensemble, has taken the first step towards combating systemic racism and gender inequality in its production, with an announcement on Instagram.  It pledges “to appoint a minimum of two people of color out of five subs, at least one of whom will be Black (African-American). Each of us [principle chairs] will also choose a minimum of two self-identifying women.”  The orchestra acknowledges that “Hiring just one Black person, one person of color, or just one woman is tokenism. We want to create an inclusive, equitable community and to achieve that, there cannot be any minority to speak of.”  We will have to wait until September to see if the orchestra can practice what it’s preaching.   

Just as New York City needs Broadway, Broadway needs New York.

Broadway needs to listen to the calls for more diversity and inclusivity in the theater industry that occurred during the pandemic.  These conversations cannot disappear into the commotion and celebrations surrounding the industry’s reopening.  Rather, these difficult conversations about race and gender equality should be at the forefront in September.  Theater artists are already trying to hold the industry accountable.  The audience needs to, as well.  If you buy tickets to see a Broadway show this September, celebrate and challenge the inclusion or lack of inclusion both on stage and off stage because standing against systemic racism, homophobia, and ableism needs to take center stage.

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