Celebrating Diversity in Today’s Musical Theatre

The Street 1
David Sisco

This week, our beloved colleague Sheri Sanders publicly launched the Rock the Audition Coalition. This collective provides town halls for diverse performers to share their stories. In addition, RTAC offers growth opportunities for under-represented performers by connecting them to a cooperative of supportive teachers and industry professionals.

I want to share my own personal views on the importance of diversity in our industry as a way of celebrating this amazing coalition.

Before I begin, however, I want to acknowledge that, as a white, cisgender man, I have very likely been given opportunities others with more diverse backgrounds and equal talent may have not been offered or been able to afford. Yes, I am also gay, but it is by simply being white and male that I have been given favorable leverage. For me, this unearned privilege comes with a great responsibility to not only celebrate diversity in all the ways we are made diverse, but to promote conversation and action around issues of diversity in collaboration with students, teachers, and other industry professionals.

We have a lot of celebrate these days. The industry is moving toward diversity in a way that I personally didn’t experience when I first moved to New York in the early 2000’s. It’s exciting. And yet, the work is far from done. 

Here’s what I have experienced that is positive:

More diversity in casting roles that do not call for a particular race or experience

I recently attended a performance of Frozen, where the Young Anna was played by a white girl and the older Anna was played by Patti Murin’s standby, Aisha Jackson, a person of color. It was breathtaking to see young kids in the audience not bat an eye when Ms. Jackson took stage. They understood this was Anna, no explanation necessary. 

We need more of this. Casting people with diverse backgrounds better allows a diverse audience to enter into the story.

More shows that are expanding the “Everyman”

As my collaborator Tom Gualtieri and I have often discussed, the “Everyman” (a moniker with clear problems of its own) in theatre has long been the white, straight, cisgender man. We are starting to see shows that tell more diverse stories. Consider Michael R. Jackson’s Strange Loop and David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s Soft Power. It’s not lost on me that both these shows were produced in Off-Broadway houses. And yet, their success suggests audiences are hungry for these kinds of stories. With the recent success of the Once on this Island revival (currently enjoying a national tour), my hope is more producers will bring more of these kind of diverse voices and stories to Broadway.

Here’s what I have experienced that is slow to change:

Acceptance of people with any kind of disability

Ali Stroker was the first person in a wheelchair to receive a Tony Award this past June. This is wonderful (and truly well-deserved, given her performance), but so far it is the exception and not the rule. We need to be advocating for performers with all kinds disabilities. We need to be reminded that their experience can uniquely illuminate the work of today’s musical theatre writers. 

This newer realization came to me after seeing the work of deaf artist John McGinty at Rock the Audition Coalition’s first Town Hall a couple weeks ago. Watching him hand sign to a live singer was a revelation to everyone in the room about what is possible, deeply theatrical, and moving when collaborating with people of different abilities. Of course, we have seen work similar to this in Deaf West Theatre’s productions, but what if working with people of different abilities and experiences was seen as a regular part of how we tell stories on Broadway, rather than a singular event?

Diversity being reflected in all areas of the industry

The thrust of the conversation about diversity as I know it has been focused on casting. This is very important and, as I’ve said, the work is not done. I think, however, we also need to make sure that a diverse array of artists are in every possible facet of our work in the theatre. We need diverse directors, music directors, writers, casting directors… And we need diverse teachers at the college level, making sure our students are seeing themselves represented at every level of their careers as artists. For me, this is where our conversation on diversity must take us next.

***

There are certainly other things to celebrate and many others to continue challenging. These are simply examples of what I see through my own particular lens. I hope they spur healthy, productive conversations about how we each can be advocates for each other. 

I celebrate the slow awakening we are all coming to in our industry (I certainly include myself in this). And yet, there is one thing about this diversity conversation I hope we can keep in mind as it continues to evolve: labels can divide. 

We absolutely should concern ourselves with the most respectful way to acknowledge and represent someone’s experience, but my hope is that we can do that without making it a person’s defining factor, thereby discounting their humanity. In this conversation about diversity, we must lead with our commonalities, not our differences. We all have a story. It’s about making room and safe space to share it if and when we want.

I don’t know exactly how to do that. That’s why I’m excited to be involved with the Rock the Audition Coalition. And I know time will continue to teach me. I’ll get things wrong. I may inadvertently hurt people’s feelings. I will try to mend my mistakes. But most importantly, I’ll do what any white, cisgender guy should be doing right now: sitting back and listening.


Check out our new book “Mastering College Musical Theatre Auditions: Sound Advice for the Student, Teacher, and Parent” now available on Amazon.

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