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HowlRound Hosts Panel on Diversity in Musical Theatre

As part of #MusicalsWeek: Protecting, Developing & Celebrating Musical Theatre, HowlRound and Samuel French held four panels to explore “the promotion, development, diversity and future of musical theatre” from Monday, September 28 to Thursday, October 1. On Wednesday September 30, HowlRound held a discussion around Diversity and Equality in Musical Theatre.

It’s only fair that a panel coming together to tackle the topic of diversity, be diverse itself. The panel consisted of actors, playwrights, faculty, and casting directors.  The disccusion was moderated by Sarah Schlesinger (lyricist/librettist; Chair, Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program & Associate Dean of the Institute of Performing Arts, New York University Tisch School of the Performing Arts). Panelists included: Justin Huff, CSA (Telsey + Co. Casting The Color Purple, On Your Feet, Kinky Boots), Robert Lee (lyricist, librettist; Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program Faculty, New York University Tisch School of the Performing Arts), Ali Stoker (actress, Deaf West’s Spring Awakening), Michael R. Jackson (composer/lyricist).
Schlesinger, used the diversity of the panel and the audience to level the playing ground, assuring that we all agreed on one thing: a love for theatre– a theatre that’s in desperate need of further inclusivity. This alignment gave way to a fruitful discussion about the reality of the state of American musical theatre and how we got here? But more importantly: what’s next?
Stoker, who is currently making her Broadway debut in Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening and setting history as the first performer to be onstage in a wheelchair, challenged us to remember that diversity isn’t just a matter of race. She shared a personal account that made her realize disability isn’t even on the spectrum of diversity for most.
Jackson and Lee connected on the idea of seeing actors who might look like them, but identified a problem in the fact that their point of view and their story is rarely shown on stage. Lee commented that in productions such as “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera” where there is diversity on the stage, we are able to “see the progress”, but because these stories are not exploring a diverse point of view, we do not “feel the progress”. Jackson spoke of seeing Robert O’Hara’s “BootyCandy” at Playwright’s Horizon and how there were “wall to wall black people, hanging from the chandeliers” in the audience. While it was a story he identified with on a specific level, the subject matter and themes were still relatable to many. Lee champions the idea that this art form must stop following a formula to produce works that are comfortable and appealing to traditional theatregoers. If we build works that deliberately share the voices of those who are not traditionally given a point of view on Broadway and invite those people out– they will come. Moderator Schlesinger, suggested that we have to build a new audience. With a new audience comes new expectations, which is an opportunity to introduce inclusive works which can now become the norm.

HowlRound is a website and forum dedicated to being the feedback needed to strengthen the theatre for artists and performers — both established and aspiring. In addition to this event, HowlRound’s contributors have been speaking to the topic of diversity on their website over the last couple of months. In his article “Unpacking Diversity In Musical Theatre,” panelist Michael R. Jackson, reminds us that theatre’s main goal is:

To hold the mirror up to humanity and reflect it back (or distort it) in order to share, person-to-person, what it means to exist in joy and suffering in the world. 

These articles and discussions left us ready to explore the ideas of the power of point of view, the cultivation of more writers, directors, and producers of color, and the future of our new audience and how we communicate our want and need for them to indulge in our world. 

What do you see in the future of musical theatre?

Check out the footage from the discussion here!
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