Broadway has an inclusivity problem

Before the New York staple returns, the needs of marginalized performers must be addressed

Disparities in appropriate representation and casting are prominent issues in the Broadway community. PHOTO: Hamilton national tour / Joan Marcus

By: Kyla Dowling, Humour Editor

Broadway’s reckoning has finally come. 

Over a year after all shows shut down to curb COVID-19’s spread, Broadway aims to return in September 2021. However, individuals within and around the industry aren’t happy about this return — primarily because of the lack of inclusivity and accountability within New York’s theatre industry. 

Broadway has a problematic history. From the classic musical The King and I to the more recent Tootsie, the industry is laden with problematic representations. The former portrays Thailand in a negative light and, before its 2018 revival, cast white actors as Thai characters. Meanwhile, Tootsie, based on the 1982 film of the same name, relies on a slew of transphobic jokes. 

The controversial casting of Amar Ramasar in 2019’s rendition of West Side Story sparked the growing discontent in Broadway. Ramasar, during his time in the New York City Ballet, was involved in sharing explicit photos of a female dancer taken without her consent. The scandal resulted in a lawsuit and numerous protests outside of the theatre that hosted West Side Story; however, it was to no avail. 

Meanwhile, in April 2021, The Hollywood Reporter published a piece exposing producer Scott Rudin. Rudin, a fixture in both Broadway and Hollywood, is notorious for his abusive behaviour towards his staff. But this was the first time his actions were publicly announced. 

This article was the second of three major publications that rattled the Broadway community. The first was written by former Hamilton cast member Daniel James Belnavis who discussed his experience being in a show that was performed by actors of colour but was primarily produced and run by white men. He played the ensemble role of Man 6 — almost always played by a Black queer actor —  and was consistently told that his role was unimportant, cuttable, and was overlooked for various promotions. His recollection of this experience has not been addressed by any of the producers he named. 

Hamilton is a show that centres people of colour in a historical period where they were severely oppressed, but the show has come under fire before — for glorifying capitalism, for glamorizing slave owners, and for suffering from an inexplicable inability to cast dark-skinned women, especially as the love interest. No matter how progressive the show may appear, rich white men are just getting richer by exploiting and demeaning racialized actors. 

The call for Broadway to be inclusive, though, did not just come from Belvanis’ article. Instead, it stemmed from Scott Rudin’s exposé and Broadway fixture Karen Olivo’s subsequent boycott of the industry, as well as the transphobic mess that is Jagged Little Pill. 

The Alanis Morissette jukebox musical named after her album, Jagged Little Pill centres around high schooler Jo. Jo, in the pre-Broadway production, was referred to with they/them pronouns. The problem? Originally, Jo had a plot surrounding their gender crisis, and was understudied by a non-binary actor, but was rewritten to be a cis character for the Broadway run. When asked to speak out about this, the social media team behind the musical as well as the cisgender actress who played Jo both denied the character was ever non-binary, despite since-deleted Tweets saying otherwise. 

Despite this, both Jagged Little Pill and Hamilton have brought a fair amount of representation to the theatre industry. Jagged Little Pill centres on a queer relationship while also handling topics such as addiction, racism, and sexual assault. Hamilton allows people of colour to portray a historical narrative from which they were excluded. It would be easy to call that enough — to put up with the sheltering of abusive men and the bigotry hidden by Broadway’s queer reputation in exchange for meagre amounts of representation. 

But like Karen Olivo, Eden Espinosa, and many other individuals involved in the industry, I want more. As a queer woman, I’ve only been represented a handful of times onstage. Other marginalized people have not yet been represented.

Nonetheless, Broadway has certainly made strides towards inclusivity. Ali Stroker, the first Broadway actress who uses a wheelchair, won a Tony for her performance in a revival of Oklahoma!. She was also in Deaf West Theatre’s revival of Spring Awakening, a stunning performance that centred Deaf actors and was the first Broadway show to provide interpretation for Deaf and Blind audience members. The industry is also notable not only for having many queer performers but for centring queer stories. 

But before Broadway reopens, both theatregoers and those within the industry must consider the ramifications of carrying on as normal. I, for one, know that I cannot continue to be complicit in an industry that supports abusers and invalidates people of colour and the queer community. Can you?