The 2016 Tony nominations were announced Tuesday, and while the record-breaking 16 nominations for the acclaimed musical “Hamilton” is the biggest story to emerge, there was another huge winner on Broadway: diversity.
Coming just a few months after an all-white acting field earned recognition at the Academy Awards, the 14 Tony nominations for performers of color, out of the 40 selected Tuesday, is being hailed as a historic breakthrough, and a sign that that the theater world is leaps and bounds ahead of other arts industries in its emphasis on broader representation.
“Hamilton” has certainly been a boon to black and brown performers. The show’s creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda is Puerto Rican, and he, along with five other actors of color, were honored with nominations Tuesday. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o was also recognized for her dramatic work in “Eclipsed” along with two of her co-stars, as were two members of “The Color Purple” cast and one each from “The Crucible” and “Shuffle Along.” Minorities also scored nominations in roles behinds the scenes for choreography, costuming and directing.
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But the diversity was not only racial. “Waitress,” the first Broadway musical to have four women in the top creative spots, scored multiple nominations, as did a revival of “Spring Awakening,” which features hearing impaired cast members.
In other words, “The Great White Way” has been anything but. According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s annual report, published Monday, this past year was one of the most diverse in Broadway history.
Their research concluded that 30 percent of all roles went to actors of color, an increase from 24 percent the previous year and a triumph over the nine-year average of 23 percent. Meanwhile, in a stark contrast to the #OscarsSoWhite narrative on social media inspired by the Academy Awards, tweeters hailed Tuesday’s nominations with the more laudatory #TonysSoDiverse:
There is already some pushback to the optimistic read on the data. Still, as Hollywood struggles to make serious changes to ensure more inclusion for women and minorities in front of and behind the camera, their counterparts on the East Coast have provided something akin to a blueprint of how this can be done.
Ken Davenport, nominated for Best Revival of a Musical this year for his work as a producer on “Spring Awakening,” has long believed that Broadway has a better understanding of both the value and necessity of diversity than those in the movie business. “The Hollywood model is not built in a way to embrace all types. It’s built to put the most bucks on the bottom line,” he told MSNBC in February.
Despite earnest efforts on the part of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and others to challenge the industry status quo on race, an upcoming slate of films that show promise of awards love for actors and helmers of color, Davenport still thinks film has a lot to learn from theater.
“If you pitched ‘Hamilton’ in a typical Hollywood meeting … they’d be like, ‘What are you talking about? That’s the craziest thing ever,” Davenport said Tuesday. He believes theater benefits from more creativite flexibility because the art form relies on more imaginative thinking, but also because the writers by-and-large have total control over their vision, as opposed writing in the film business, which author Ernest Hemingway once likened to driving to the border of California, throwing your work over a fence and then collecting a check for your efforts.
“If you want a different color flower, you plant a different seed,” Davenport said. “The seeds for me are the writers. The writers tend to write what they know in their own style and they write their own experiences. That to me is how you increase diversity on all stages.”
Although “Spring Awakening” is competing with “Hamilton” in two categories this year, Davenport is buoyed by the success of the unorthodox retelling of the founding father’s story and he applauds Miranda for crafting a show that has near universal appeal.
“We will in twenty, thirty, forty years from now look back at this as a time when the Broadway musical was forever changed,” Davenport said. “I think if there was every any fear in anyone’s mind that audiences would not turn out for a diverse group of stories by a diverse group of people – this is the year that broke that mold. No one will ever say ‘well that could never be a musical’ again.”