The first day of rehearsal for any Broadway show is an exciting time. Everybody involved in the production gathers for a “meet and greet,” the director and the producer outline their vision for the show, photographers snap pictures, reporters get quotes from the stars, there’s a break for snacks, and then work begins as everyone gathers around a table to read the script out loud for the first time.
These days it takes a while to get to that table read. After the meet and greet, there’s coronavirus-protocol training and testing. Then there’s sexual-harassment training, as mandated by New York State. And then there’s equity-diversity-and-inclusion training, which can run from four to eight hours.
Faced with all this instruction, a writer of Broadway musicals says: “This may sound out of touch, but shouldn’t there be some training on how to rehearse and fix the show?”
As Broadway struggles to emerge from the pandemic, with the Omicron strain forcing shows to cancel performances or, in some cases, shut down permanently, it’s also grappling with demands to confront its racist past, reform its exclusionary practices, employ more nonwhite and gender-fluid minorities, and monitor its scripts for anything that might be considered “insensitive.”
Some of the demands, laid out by an organization called We See You, White American Theater (WSYWAT), are warranted. But the scope and belligerent tone of the manifesto are beginning to alienate much of the theater community.
One demand that irks producers: Theaters should cease all contractual security arrangements with police departments.
WSYWAT stipulates that productions must invest in security agencies that are not affiliated with or founded by police or ex–police officers. But Broadway has had excellent relations with the New York City Police Department going back to the 70s and 80s, when the Shubert Organization worked closely with Midtown law enforcement to begin the cleanup of Times Square. Broadway achieved that goal in the 90s when Disney planted its flag on 42nd Street. But crime has been on the rise lately, and producers fear the perception is taking root that Times Square is no longer as safe as it was.
Of the demand that Broadway stop working with the police, a top producer, his voice dripping with sarcasm, says: “That’ll sell tickets.”
“This may sound out of touch, but shouldn’t there be some training on how to rehearse and fix the show?”
With revolution comes excess. A playwright says four theaters have canceled her plays because, as a white female, she doesn’t check the diversity box. Another writer, helping to put together a panel on diversity in the theater, put forth the name of a young Black male writer whose work she admires. She was told that the panel already had two people of color, so what it needed were writers whose genders were fluid. “And then they ticked off genders, poly this and poly that, that I’d never heard of,” she says.
If you’re a Tony voter, you won’t receive a ballot until you take diversity training. And at one nonprofit theater, the staff is agitating to do away with meetings because they “represent patriarchy.”
No one will discuss, on record, the building resentment to some of these demands, fearing execution by social media. And much of the grumbling comes from white theater people, though not all of it. One producer of color says, “I’ve got to sell tickets right now. I don’t have a lot of time to change the world.”
Broadway, Then and Now
Older theater people, many liberals who’d rather have Pol Pot at their openings than Donald Trump, have difficulty accepting the charge that theirs is a racist, insensitive, and exclusionary profession.
Exhibit A: Broadway has long been a place where gay people have flourished. Before Hollywood was forced, thanks in part to Rock Hudson’s death, in 1985, to acknowledge AIDS, the theater world created Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to look after people who, whatever their ethnicity, were dying of the disease. Many, estranged from their families because of their sexuality, were dying alone.
Broadway, theater people say, also championed diversity long before any other branch of the entertainment business did. Joseph Papp created the Public Theater to reflect the diversity of New York’s working-class population. He produced A Chorus Line, which featured a fairly diverse cast of characters, including a cross-dressing gay Puerto Rican teenager, in 1975. It went on to become one of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history.
Papp also fought for non-traditional casting at a time when many theater critics thought the only Shakespeare character a Black actor could play was Othello. Papp produced a controversial production of The Winter’s Tale starring Mandy Patinkin and Alfre Woodard in 1989, as well as a jaunty production of Twelfth Night featuring Michelle Pfeiffer, John Amos, Jeff Goldblum, and Charlayne Woodard. Papp’s position, once considered radical, is now standard. Nearly every Broadway show has a multi-ethnic cast. And nobody bats an eye if Lady Macbeth is Black.
In 1991, Actors’ Equity, led by the actress Colleen Dewhurst, waged a ferocious battle against Miss Saigon because Jonathan Pryce was cast as a Eurasian character. Equity lost (and Pryce won a Tony Award), but since then, every production of Miss Saigon has had an Asian actor in the role. (Miss Saigon has employed hundreds of Asian actors in productions around the world.)
Miss Saigon, admittedly, is one show, and a recent study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, found that, of the theaters surveyed, only seven percent of roles went to Asian actors. Fair enough, theater people say, but give us credit for starting the fight.
“I’ve got to sell tickets right now. I don’t have a lot of time to change the world.”
“We have focused, for a long time, on diversity onstage,” says a powerful white producer. “And we’re moving in the right direction. Where we’ve failed is backstage. There is no question we need more inclusion backstage—stagehands, managers, box office, and, yes, directors, writers, producers.”
That behind-the-scenes Broadway has been too white for too long is indisputable. A veteran producer recalls a showdown years ago between the stagehands, long a redoubt of Irish- and Italian-Americans, and the late Bernard Jacobs, who ran the Shubert Organization—and Broadway—with an iron grip.
“Show me somebody backstage who isn’t your cousin or your nephew,” Jacobs said to the leader of the stagehands. The leader shot back: “Show me a Black person at your company who doesn’t run your elevator.” (The Shuberts today have a much more diverse workforce, and the company has taken the lead in addressing some of the We See You, White American Theater demands.)
But even the push for diversity backstage is causing some headaches, theater people say. Producers with shows in the pipeline have already hired much of their creative team and their backstage crew. They’re diversifying by hiring even more people, which adds to the cost of a business that operates on a razor-thin profit margin.
“I’m in favor of much of what we’re trying to do,” says a producer. “But it’s costly. The challenge is to figure out a new financial model. If shows can’t afford to run, everybody’s out of a job.”
The cost of diversity coaches, intimacy coaches (you can’t have an onstage kiss without an intimacy coach monitoring every quiver of a lip), and diversity-training modules adds up as well. Hit shows such as Hamilton, Wicked, and The Lion King can afford it. But smaller shows—and struggling nonprofit theaters—are feeling the pinch.
“All of these things cost thousands of dollars,” says the head of a small nonprofit. “I had to spend $1,000 to create a ‘healing space.’ We don’t have any money as it is. I’m trying to get shows on, but I’m spending 40 percent of my time on human resources.”
Theaters are paying “diversity dramaturges” to vet scripts to make sure they don’t contain insensitive language or offensive stereotypes, a development that rattles some writers. “You can’t write with the idea that someone is looking over your shoulder,” says a writer who is not white but who is writing about cultures other than his own. “This is impinging on the creative process.”
“You can’t write with the idea that someone is looking over your shoulder.”
A white, gay Tony Award–winning playwright says, “I balk at the claim that I should write only what I know. If we all did that, our writing would be insular. Should Edward Albee, because he was gay, only write about gay people? So George and Martha should be George and Arthur? It’s preposterous. If I want to write about the Boston Strangler, do I have to go out and strangle someone?”
A danger from the backlash against the diversity movement is cynicism. Some theater executives admit that they log on to diversity training and then let their assistants run through it. Another insider calls diversity training “insurance; we’re just buying protection.” When Broadway opened its theaters last fall, there were seven plays by Black writers. Theater people publicly applauded the diversity, but privately questioned whether the audience was deep enough to support them all. And indeed some, such as Pass Over and Chicken and Biscuits, shuttered quickly.
Everybody is waiting—and you hear this again and again—“for the pendulum to swing back to the middle ground.”
They do believe, however, that the middle ground is there. While many theater people bristle at what they feel is We See You, White American Theater’s combative tone, they are working with Black Theater United and the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, a nonprofit working to diversify theater at every level.
One of its founders, Britton Smith, has two Broadway shows under his belt, After Midnight and Shuffle Along, as well as a number of Off Broadway and regional-theater credits. As a “Black gay man from the South,” he appreciates what Broadway has done for gay people. It now has to do that for other people. “I can bring my full gayness to the theater,” he says. “And now I want to bring my full Blackness. That’s what’s changing.”
Jae W. B., a transgender performer, writer, and director, has little use for manifestos, calling them “arrogant and monolithic.” Jae prefers “conversations,” and sums up the direction many believe the theater should be going in: “We’re a menagerie of misfits. Diversity brings creativity and excitement. What we’re asking for are more misfits.”
Michael Riedel is co-host of Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning, a weekday radio show on 710 WOR, and the author of Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway, the story of Broadway in the 1990s