Posts tagged #Come From Away

Thoughts on Diversity in Broadway Musical Storytelling

Travelers on diverted planes in the wake of 9/11 find themselves in and around the town of Gander, Newfoundland.

In an attempt to fit in, a high schooler tells a lie that gets completely out of control.

A zoom lens is taken to a section of Tolstoy's War and Peace as we follow the romantic story of two outsiders who find each other.

A weatherman is forced to relive the same day over and over again.

These are very roughly (very, very roughly, since I haven't seen any of them!) the plots of the four Best Musical Tony 2017 nominees, which are also the four nominated for Best Original Score and Best Book: Come From AwayDear Evan HansenNatasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812; and Groundhog Day. I love how different these stories are from each other. It's evidence that musical theatre as an art form has really branched out beyond any particular template of storytelling. And it has been like this for a few years now. Book of Mormon, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Grey Gardens, Fun Home, Hamilton, Waitress - the subject matter of contemporary musicals is so varied from show to show — even on Broadway, which can often be seen as a purely commercial venture with great potential to fall victim to cookie-cutter producing. This trend is heartening to me, because it shows that commercialism need not win over storytelling. Or even, that good and diverse storytelling can lead to commercial success on Broadway. Something that doesn't seem to ring true for Hollywood blockbusters.

Yet, amidst this diversity of stories is something worth noting: All of the musical theatre writing teams (and even the directors) of the four musicals listed above are white. Of course, I acknowledge that "white" is a largely diverse group in and of itself. The writers come from different countries, and undoubtedly bring different perspectives to musical theatre. But if you look over the Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Lyrics Tony nominees over the past twenty years, you'll see that writing acclaimed musical theatre is a very white thing to do (and more often than not, white male). Writers like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stew are the exceptions, not the norm. And as an Asian American, it's not particularly encouraging that the few times that Asian Americans are heavily featured during the Tony Awards ceremony is due to revivals of South Pacific, The King and I and, this year, Miss Saigon - all stories written by white men. (For the record, I view those shows as simultaneously beneficial for Asian American actors in the industry AND problematic for the perception of Asian Americans in musical theatre as a whole.)

I don't write this to place blame. Or to inflict guilt. The point is observation. All but two of the actors and actresses nominated for performances in a musical this year are white. Who gets to write the stories affects who is represented on the Broadway stage. Who gets to write the stories influences the kinds of stories that get told. I don't necessarily have any magical solutions to this problem, other than to buckle down and write, compose, get better at my craft, learn from other musicals, collaborate with amazing people, and keep advocating for diversity in storytellers as much as diversity in storytelling. Maybe I'll make it to Broadway, maybe I won't. But I hope that no matter where my work gets performed, I'm tilting that dial of representation to better reflect the actual diversity in the US.