Is Broadway now a diverse place, or is this just a lucky year?

With the Tony Awards taking place this evening, people are reflecting on the Broadway season that has passed by left, right and centre. As someone who is a huge fan of Broadway theatre and follows it as though I'm a sheep following my shepherd, it's been hard to not notice how wonderfully diverse this Broadway season has been in regards to race, sex and physical ability.

This season's two most Tony-nominated shows - a little unknown musical called Hamilton and the smash hit Shuffle Along - are made up of entirely non-white casts, while plays like Eclipsed became the first ever Broadway play to have been written and performed entirely by women of colour. This diversity in the theatre is great to see and it's so nice to see it be embraced and supported by everyone, but does this mean that Broadway now has the upper hand in comparison to Hollywood when it comes to diversity, or is this season just a fluke?

Heather Headley, Cynthia Erivo and Danielle Brooks star in the Tony-nominated The Color Purple

The idea of it being a fluke didn't enter my mind until Eclipsed's Lupita Nyong'o was asked for her opinion on the matter. Nyong'o said that, much like her year at the Oscar's, she was simply lucky that that year had seen a sudden resurgence in films about people of colour. Sadly, that evidently was a one-off as #OscarsSoWhite taught us this year, so it's no surprise that people wonder if the same will happen to Broadway. While these shows all came in this season, the majority of them actually just came in at the same time by chance, much like the season at the Oscars that Nyong'o references: Hamilton had been in production for six years and made the move in because it was time, with the same happening for Eclipsed; The Color Purple is also a transfer which came in following its London premiere; On Your Feet! happened in a similar way as its success is due to the Estefans' careers that came before it. The only show that opened cold turkey on Broadway this year that fits into this category is Shuffle Along, which you could argue isn't even a risk because of the well-known cast that lead the show.

Tony-nominee Adrienne Warren stars in Shuffle Along (And the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed)

In fact, none of these shows seem to be as risky as things like American Psycho and Tuck Everlasting, both of which opened on Broadway this season with all white casts and have since closed due to lack of success. Hamilton already had momentum before it premiered off-Broadway at the Public last year, same with Eclipsed and its star Lupita, and The Color Purple had Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks as two of the leads. It seems as though Broadway producers are still finding it hard to bring in new writing for people of colour as they probably see it as being "risky", so how does this support the idea of Broadway being a very diverse place to be? It has nothing to do with a lack of black/Asian/Latina/female writers out there, so why is it not being reflected on the stage?

It should be said though that the success of these shows is a huge winner, regardless of how daring the producers of the shows are. Hamilton became the most Tony-nominated show in history this year with a record breaking 16 Tony nods and is undoubtedly one of the most successful musicals of the past decade, despite the fact it hasn't even been running for a year on Broadway yet. The Color Purple has reinvented a show that the theatre community saw promise in when it was first on Broadway in 2005, but disregarded due to the poor original production. Not only that, but the show has made a star of British actress Cynthia Erivo in a performance that she is sure to take a trophy home for tonight. Eclipsed - while not proving to be all too successful at the box office - is a real and honest look at Ugandan women at a time of war and is an inspiring piece of theatre no matter which way you look at it.

Tony-nominee Leslie Odom Jr. stars as Aaron Burr in the Broadway smash Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers

Perhaps the reason Broadway can freely be so diverse again is because of Hollywood, though. While Hollywood is having a crisis with making cinema an appealing medium to pay to experience - what with our ability to stream movies so easily these days - Broadway doesn't have to succumb to that kind of commercialism as much anymore; while the point of film is to be appealing to almost every single person who has the ability to get to a TV screen, theatre's immediacy allows it to be as risky and as artistic as it wants, especially as it's suddenly so unique again in this golden age. Last year's Tony Awards were proof of that when Fun Home - a new musical about a lesbian growing up in the suburbs with a closeted gay and suicidal father - took home the Best Musical prize. For the first time in a long while, a show that was undeniably risky and edgy when it came to subject matter and performance style was awarded with the highest honour a musical can be awarded with. The same goes for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder the year before that.

While Broadway suddenly has all of this artistic license though, what does the West End have to offer by way of diversity? I've already expressed before on Twitter that London theatre producers really aren't as willing to take massive risks for shows, so it's no surprise that only two new musicals premiered on the West End last season. Nicely though, one of them was Bend It Like Beckham - my personal favourite from last season - which focuses around Indian culture, but that was it by way of racial diversity. It seems that the West End might have a bit of the Hollywood fever, while some of the only other critically acclaimed shows which featured people of colour that played in London last season were at the National, with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom seeming to carry that torch. It's high time that this changed as well.

The female cast of Deaf West's Spring Awakening revival on Broadway, Tony-nominated for Best Revival of a Musical

Diversity also came to Broadway in more forms than race this season, though. Last Fall saw Deaf West's revival of cult classic Spring Awakening land at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre which played to great critical and audience reception. The company - famous for incorporating American Sign Language into its productions - hadn't staged a show on Broadway since their Big River revival in 2003 and it was inspiring to see something so different and accessible come to the stage. As well as that, Glee alum Ali Stroker became the first ever actress in a wheelchair to perform on Broadway when she debuted in the show. It's heartwarming to see this game-changing revival be remembered at the Tony Awards some six months after its closure on Broadway.

Women also continued to do well on Broadway this year. Following last year's success of Fun Home's Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, Waitress - with music by pop star Sara Bareilles and with a cast led by Tony Award-winner Jessie Mueller - became the first musical on Broadway to have a primarily female creative team (composer, director, book writer, choreographer and star). While plays didn't fare as well as musicals did when it came to diversity the season, Eclipsed triumphed in multiple ways, namely by becoming the first Broadway play in history to be written and performed exclusively by women of colour; the show's tagline is even "A new play for a new Broadway".

Tony-nominee Lupita Nyong'o stars in Eclipsed by Danai Gurira at the Golden Theatre

At the end of the day, whether you're criticising the white men who are still against change in the Broadway community or you're looking at how well these more diverse shows are doing this season, it cannot be denied that Broadway is suggestively ahead of the game once more. While we might still have a long way to go when it comes to sustaining this flow and spreading it wider across the theatre community, it's nice to take a moment to reflect on what has been achieved so far up to this point. It's been a year of success in more ways than one, but we'll just have to wait until next season to see if this new Broadway chapter continues...

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