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On Broadway, curtain rises on most diverse season in years

From the smash hit 'Hamilton' to next month's 'Allegiance,' Broadway is launching its most diverse and innovative season in years – one that taps into a zeitgeist dominated by debate over immigration and the Black Lives Matter movement.

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    Leslie Odom Jr., (from left), Phillipa Soo, show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Christopher Jackson appear at the curtain call following the opening night performance of 'Hamilton' at the Richard Rodgers Theatre Aug. 6 in New York.
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Under the marquee of Broadway’s runaway sensation “Hamilton,” the rap and hip-hop musical that retells the story of the American Revolution and the life of the nation’s first Treasury secretary, Janice Reese was beaming.

It was her fourth time standing in line to enter the lottery for the handful of $10 tickets offered before each showing of the smash hit musical. Using a cast of mostly black and Latino actors to portray the country’s Founding Fathers, “Hamilton” has sold out nearly every single performance well into 2016. Since she was waiting with more than 500 people at the Richard Rogers Theater, Ms. Reese, a black postal worker from Queens, was especially excited when she snagged two of the coveted 21 day-of tickets offered Friday night.

“I see a lot of plays, but this is the new show that everybody is talking about – a brand new take on American history!” she said, reflecting on the many shows she goes to see on Broadway every year. “Each year goes by, it seems to get more diverse. That’s why I’m here!” she says, laughing. “Diversity!”

Though diversity is not normally a word that many would associate with the glitz of Broadway, this season, something new is simmering, observers and critics have noted. In addition to “Hamilton,” New York’s famous theater district is featuring a number of brand new takes on American history, exploring the experiences of non-white Americans, as well as a wider array of casting choices for traditional roles.

Next month, George Takei’s musical “Allegiance,” based on the famous “Star Trek” actor’s experiences as a child in the Japanese internment camps during World War II, will begin its run on Broadway. “On Your Feet!” a musical about the immigrant journeys of pop music power couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan, is also set for a Broadway run. These will join “Amazing Grace,” a faith-based musical about the penitent former slave trader who penned the famous hymn, which is nearing its final performance.

“This Broadway season is definitely unique – it is unusual,” says James Lovensheimer, professor of musicology at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music in Nashville, Tenn., and an expert on postwar American musical theater. “And the fact that all of this is coming to a head in one season right now is very, very interesting, and I don’t think anybody in New York theater sat down and said, all right we need a diverse season. I think it just sort of happened.”

But with the cultural backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and with immigration once again becoming a front-line political issue, the current Broadway season is significant, Professor Lovensheimer says, “reflecting a sort of zeitgeist, if you will, in the country right now. And if people can see that there are new representations in what has been a traditionally monochromatic genre, I think that reflects well on a lot of things.”

Broadway’s diverse season, too, corresponds with moves by other famous New York arts institutions. In June, Misty Copeland became the first black woman to be named a principal ballerina in the 75-year history of American Ballet Theater. And the Metropolitan Opera  ended its use of “black-face” for singers playing roles of black characters in operas such as “Otello.”

It also comes amid a broader discussion of diversity in pop culture on both the big and small screens. On Sunday night, Viola Davis addressed the topic head-on with her acceptance speech, after she became the first black woman to ever win an Emmy for lead actress in a drama for ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder.” “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,” said Ms. Davis. “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Despite such classics as “Porgy and Bess” or “A Raisin in the Sun,” the mecca of musical theater has hardly been on the cutting edge of culture, tending to feature revivals of the tried-and-true, or entertaining audiences – 70 percent of which are visiting tourists – with familiar Disney-themed extravaganzas, such as “Beauty and the Beast” and “Mary Poppins.” (The most critically acclaimed of the Disney franchises, the Tony-winning “The Lion King,” was notable both for its groundbreaking use of puppetry and its diverse cast.)

Even as Broadway is booming, setting a record last season with more than 13 million people paying $1.4 billion to see its song and dance and dramatic stage performances, nearly 8 of 10 theatergoers skew wealthy and white. And with sky-high production costs and corresponding ticket prices that average $100 a pop, theaters and producers have to put on shows that draw audiences and make money – an economic reality that can hamper innovation, observers note.

“Theater is such a collaborative art form,” says Catherine Rodgers, professor of theater at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. “So it takes a while for theater to process ideas, issues, cultural diversity, what have you, and then come up with some creative format for what is happening in the world, whether they be political or human rights issues or such.”

Today, however, even in traditional revival shows, directors are making casting decisions bringing a new look to classic plays. The Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning “The Gin Game,” which premiered in 1976, will star James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in roles usually played by white actors. And Forest Whitaker will take on the lead role in Eugene O’Neil’s 1964 two-character classic “Hughie” early next year.

“And Deaf West's ‘Spring Awakening’ is one of the most exciting productions [this year] because of its inclusivity,” writes Margaret Lally, professor of theater at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., highlighting the California production company’s revival of the classic musical, now starring Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin, and featuring other deaf actors in what critics are hailing as an innovative Broadway show.

But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” has been thrilling audiences and making critics practically gush with its mostly black and Latino cast rapping the stories of the country’s white Founding Fathers, many of them owners of slaves. In July, President Obama took his daughters Malia and Sasha to see the musical, and gave it a standing ovation afterward.

In the opening scene, Aaron Burr, played by Leslie Odom, Jr., a black actor, enters and begins to rap about Alexander Hamilton, “the ten-dollar Founding Father without a father/Got a lot farther/by workin’ a lot harder/ by being a lot smarter/ by bein’ a self-starter.” Celebrating traditional themes in the American immigrant experience, the opening number concludes:

“The ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him,/ Another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom,’/ His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him/ And me? I’m the damn fool who shot him!”  

Abby Mercado, an account analyst for a digital marketing agency in New York, didn’t get lottery tickets on Friday night, but as an avid theatergoer, she had already seen the show during its off-Broadway run at the Public Theater. She raves about Mr. Miranda’s previous hit musical, “In the Heights,” about Dominican immigrants in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood.

“ ‘Hamilton’ is a musical about our nation, but as our nation looks like now,” Ms. Mercado says. “So even though these Founding Fathers were slave owners at one point, and this is how we started, having a multicultural cast makes Broadway accessible to others who never knew that Broadway could be cool – because Broadway’s always been, well, not multicultural.”

Yet with tickets well over $100, New York plays and musicals remain well out reach for many, and observers note that theaters must put ultimately put on shows that people with means will pay to see.

“With the current cultural conflicts, is this going to be a one season trend, will shows like these continue, or are we going to go back to all-white Disney shows?” says Lovensheimer. “That I think is going to be the telling factor, not so much that this is happening this year. Is this just a unique coincidence, or is this going to be an ongoing concern?”

“But it will ultimately come down to, do these shows sell or not?” he continues. “Because in the end, it’s all show business.”

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