The musical is called Dear Evan Hansen and is written by the songwriting team Pasek & Paul, along with bookwriter Steven Levenson, and is directed by Michael Greif.
Let me say at the outset – this post is not about these people specifically. I have no personal beef with them. I respect the cast and team immensely and I’m sure the show is fantastic.
I am instead writing about my generation of musical theatre creators at large.
So here’s the video:
My first impression, even before PLAYING the video, was “Wow – look at all those white people.”
Here’s the thing. The buzz around the musical, in interviews and press, is about how contemporary the show is. The writers share, “We definitely wanted to tell a contemporary story and write a contemporary score for an actual musical.” They continue saying, “one of the things that’s so strong about the book of the show is that it’s incredibly contemporary and fresh.” Director Greif – known for RENT and Next To Normal – admits, “‘I had tremendous regard for their abilities,’ adding that the young creative team met his criteria for work ‘that pushes the form to new, deeper places.'”
And yet, I have to ask: How can any musical theatre creator of this generation write a new musical that takes place in today and now and have a cast of all white people? What version of the world are they living in?
Roundabout Theatre Company recently received a lot of backlash on Facebook when they released a photo of their entirely white cast for an upcoming Broadway revival of Noises Off.
I think a lot of attention gets paid to the ethnic diversity of revivals in particular because we’ve already seen them in the “conventional” form, and so we think, “well, now’s the time to see something different.” Especially with something like Noises Off, a hugely commercial romp making its third appearance on Broadway and with countless productions in regional theater and schools.
But what about new shows? That’s where the opportunity exists to shift the paradigm!
Let’s get something straight – I’m not only picking on Pasek & Paul and their collaborators. I’m calling out everyone in my generation.
To find a sampling of other works, I headed over to New Musical Theatre.com, a site “dedicated to the distribution and promotion of a new generation of musical theater writers.” Before even exploring the catalog of work, I was immediately struck by their homepage, filled with mostly white faces. I counted 4 (possibly 5) writers of color, which accounts for about 9% of all the artists the site represents.
But going further, I took a look at a collection of songs for sale that were featured in the site’s “launch concert”, assuming it would be an appropriate barometer of musical theatre up-and-comers. I then looked at the shows those songs were pulled from and investigated their world premieres. I figured that would be a fair sampling of this new generation of musical theater writers.
The list of shows includes: Ordinary Days by Adam Gwon, The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown by Kerrigan & Lowdermilk, Henry & Mudge by Kerrigan & Lowdermilk, The Black Suits by Joe Iconis, 35MM by Ryan Scott Oliver, Glory Days by Nick Blaemire, and Edges by Pasek & Paul. Every single one of these shows takes place in present day United States. With the exception of Henry and Mudge, which is an adaptation, all of them are original works of fiction. And yet among 36 characters, we find 2 roles that were cast with actors of color. Two. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters are specifically non-white.
Bottom line: The millennial generation of musical theater continues to write shows for and about white people, even though 42.8% of American millennials (18-34 year olds) are non-white.
How does this happen???
There seems to be a disconnect between millennials and race and obviously it goes beyond musical theater. I think part of the issue comes from the “write what you know” mentality of writers who are largely white, upper-middle class, and male. I also think that today and historically, Broadway has had a dismal track record when it comes to diversity.
I’d bet a lot of money that New York stages still look this way almost a decade later. What’s disheartening, is that given the up-and-coming work of the new generation of musical theatre writers, it’s likely to look this way for a long time to come… unless all of us start to make a change.
There are writers in this generation who are taking us in a different direction. People like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Michael R. Jackson, who also happen to be writers of color. Here’s a recent breakdown for Miranda’s Broadway show Hamilton about the all-white founding fathers of the United States:
Even in a show about a whole bunch of upper-class white guys, Miranda flips history on its head and demands that the story reflect today’s America. If he can do it with a piece of historical non-fiction, why don’t other writers do it when they’re creating something original from scratch?
Look – I’m no different from Pasek & Paul. I’m a white, upper-middle class man. But that’s my point – we’re the ones who need to make the change. I believe that as artists we have a responsibility to showcase the world around us as it truly is…or else risk irrelevance.
So let this be a call to action for all musical theatre creators out there. Open your eyes to more than just your immediate network. Look at what’s happening in the world around you. As you tell your stories, consider your own bias and work to find the deeper truth.
Your audience will thank you in droves.
Agree? Disagree? Tell me in the comments. How do you think musical theatre (or theatre in general) can change the game when it comes to race?