Broadway's Great White Way Embraces Diversity with the First African-American 'Phantom' and Gloria Estefan's New Musical
It's been a long time coming, but Broadway's Great White Way is getting a much needed splash of color and diversity.
We've seen some ethnically-rich casts on Broadway — "Rent," "West Side Story," "The Color Purple," "Motown: The Musical," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," the recent, interracial "Romeo and Juliet" starring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad, and Audra McDonald's emotional, well-deserved Tony Award win for Best Actress — but theater-goers want more.
Latinos are also forging ahead on Broadway. Cuban-American icon Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio announced they are working on a musical called "On Your Feet!" based on Estefan's life and Grammy award-winning hits. Tony winner Jerry Mitchell will direct the production, which will feature a book by Alexander Dinelaris and choreography by Tony nominee Sergio Trujillo.
"On Your Feet!," which is due out in Fall 2015, is expected to feature Estefan's hit songs:"The Rhythm is Gonna Get You," "Conga," "Words Get in the Way," "1, 2, 3" and the Oscar-nominated "Music Of My Heart." The longtime married couple have also inspired and helped paved the way in the music industry for Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony.
Despite these great strides on Broadway, it's rare that a person of color is cast as a lead role typically filled by a Caucasian actor. So when it happens, it's a historical moment.
I recently had the pleasure of seeing Tony Award nominated actor Norm Lewis make history as he took the stage at New York's Majestic Theatre as the first African-American in the title role of the iconic Phantom in "The Phantom of the Opera," the longest running play on Broadway.
Unfortunately, it took over two and a half decades for this to happen, but nonetheless, it was monumental to witness Lewis make his mark on the industry as a whole and bring his best to a play that I had waited years to see. More importantly, it was rewarding to see genuine talent thrive — with an added bonus of diversity brought by the talented man behind the mask.
My mother and I were moved by Lewis' stellar performance (and set of pipes) that conjured emotion, mysteriousness and intensity amidst a dramatic, foggy backdrop filled with Gothic candelabras, chandeliers and statues. The legendary soundtrack of "The Phantom of the Opera" came alive through Lewis' captivating vocals, accompanied by his Caucasian co-star Sierra Boggess who plays Christine Daae. Lewis and Boggess reunited for "The Phantom of the Opera" — Boggess made her Broadway debut as Ariel in "The Little Mermaid," in which Lewis played the role of King Triton.
In an earlier interview with the New York Times, the show's director, Harold Prince dismissed the idea that casting Lewis was "in any way radical. "I think we've passed that time," he said. Producer Cameron Mackintosh added, "We're not casting Norm because he's black, but because he's good and right for the role." "Phantom of the Opera" composer Andrew Lloyd Webber reportedly said that Lewis brought "authority" to the part.
The previous Phantoms have all been Caucasian, with the exception of one who was both Chinese and white, the New York Times points out.
"There do need to be more opportunities for Asian, Latino, and African-American actors. If there is an opportunity to cast them in roles, producers should give them the chance to show their wares," Lewis told the Daily Beast before he kicked off his 6-month run on May 12.
Lewis, who received a Tony nomination for "Porgy and Bess," has wowed theater-goers with his other Broadway performances in "Miss Saigon," "The Who's Tommy," "Chicago," "Side Show," "The Wild Party," "Amour," "Les Miserables," "Sondheim on Sondheim" and "The Little Mermaid." His film and TV credits include "Scandal", "All My Children" and "Les Miserables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary." He is reportedly inspired by the extraordinary talents of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, as well as iconic crooners Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
On June 23, another one of Lewis' dreams came true when he hosted a black tie gala event called "Black Stars of the Great White Way Broadway Reunion: Live the Dream," at Carnegie Hall in New York.
"It's taken 26 years," Lewis told the Daily Beast as he laughed, "but this has been a dream role of mine. And it is about so much more, it's so much deeper, than me just doing it. It hopefully shows other people of color that lead roles, key roles, which do not have a 'color' attached to them, are open to them if they have the talent. I hope this sets a precedent. I want people to see that."
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