On May 26th there was a small earthquake and seismic shift in the Asian American arts community.
The Broadway hit musical, Phantom of the Opera, announced its next leading lady and actress taking over the role of Christine Daae, the object of the Phantom’s obsession. This was the role written by Andrew Lloyd Webber for his then wife, Sarah Brightman, turning her into a star. Starting tonight, my friend Ali Ewoldt will step onto a Broadway stage as the first Asian American to play Christine in the longest-running show on Broadway, now in its 28th year at the Majestic Theatre. That may seem like routine theatre news to some. After all, actors and actresses get replaced all the time, especially in long-running shows, but this was mind-blowing to those who have been fighting for visibility in an industry and world where color-blindness and diversity are still battles being waged and overcome. Consider why this announcement is a milestone and earth-shaking. First and foremost, it’s the star part. Not a supporting or secondary role. As written, Christine Daae is Swedish. She’s not written specifically as an Asian woman. And she’s not a stereotype – she’s not a servant, seamstress, manicurist, waitress, prostitute, doesn’t run a laundry and she’s not a dragon lady. She’s not submissive or passive and she is not a China doll.
Putting aside the fact that Ali is eminently qualified to play Christine – she’s beautiful, has a gorgeous soprano voice and has multiple legitimate theatre credits to her name. This includes the 2006 Broadway revival of Les Miserables and most recently as one of the King’s wives in the current Broadway hit revival of The King and I. But the fact that the producers saw beyond the color of her skin and cast her purely on her qualifications and talent is not only to be commended and applauded but acknowledged for the historic event that it is. Never before has an Asian actress stepped into a lead role in a Broadway show that had been written as a non-Asian and heretofore cast with non-Asians. In this time when diversity and multiculturalism has been debated, argued and fought over in the entertainment industry (remember this year’s Oscar-so-white brouhaha), this is a big deal.
Ali Ewoldt is the first Asian American to be cast as Christine in Phantom of the Opera
2015-2016 turned out to be one of the most diverse seasons on Broadway. Shows featured multiethnic characters, storylines and actors and in this upside down presidential election year where immigrants and immigration are dominant themes for debate, the season was also noteworthy not just for the diversity of its casts but also for the ambitious, and risky, efforts to mount big, ambitious shows out of uncomfortable chapters in US history and explore the role and importance of immigrants in how America was built. On Your Feet! tells the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan but also seeks to universalize the hardships and hopes of Latin American immigrants. Allegiance was about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII where we took away homes and possessions and put entire families in prison camps just because of their ethnicity. It didn’t matter that many of them were actually Americans. The fact that they were Japanese meant they were “foreigners” and therefore a threat to the safety of America. Sound familiar? And, of course, there is Hamilton which won 11 Tony Awards at last night’s ceremony and has racked up a more-than-impressive $90 million advance sale. That juggernaut, mega-hit and cultural zeitgeist and phenomenon uses black, Hispanic and Asian-American actors and a hip hop score, to prompt a contemporary rethinking of our founding fathers. The creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda also makes a strong and direct point that immigrants are the reasons this country is great. After all, Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant and as one of the oft-quoted lyrics state, ‘immigrants get the job done!’.
For the first time, our theatrical stages are starting to look and sound more like the world in which we live in. Theatre is most effective and impactful when it reflects the audiences themselves and the issues they deal with. As much as theatre can be an escape, it can also be a mirror held up so that audiences can not only ponder the story, the songs, the sets, and the choreography but also how these fit into their perception of themselves. Art is most effective when you can personally relate to it. These and other shows dealing with multiculturalism and diversity including Eclipsed, The Color Purple and Shuffle Along reflect the changing overall audience demographic but also showcase the faces that make up our world. I’m hoping the impact of this season will be long lasting and have an effect going forward when future producers, writers and directors will remember that you can indeed make money and art at the same time.
Hamilton is certainly proof that diversity and immigrants won’t scare audiences away. It can even lead to dramatic increases in theatergoing by audiences that may not normally go to the theatre. On Your Feet! and In the Heights (Miranda’s previous hit about a street corner in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood) led to significant increases in Hispanic theatregoers. Diverse audiences aren’t afraid of the theatre, they just want to see stories and characters they can connect with that reflect their experiences and their lives.
For the actors and creators, these shows are opportunities to tell stories that are very personal. Miranda’s own background and past informed both In the Heights (which was about the neighborhood he grew up in) and Hamilton (his immigrant parents path to America echoes Hamilton’s in their pursuit of education and a better life). I had Japanese American friends who were in the cast of Allegiance who mentioned that they never thought they would see or be in a show about their own grandparents’ experience. For audiences which are filled with immigrants, these shows show and realize the fulfillment of the American Dream they came to this country to achieve.
Without sounding too New York-centric, the success of these shows will create a national trickle-down effect that is inevitable. Shows that are hits and produced on Broadway are often later presented at regional and community theaters. They’re performed in high schools. They go on tour and play for audiences that aren’t normally exposed to these kind of shows. Many have noted that before Rent, they had never seen a drag queen or gay person on stage nor really talked about HIV and AIDS. The themes of inclusion and immigrant pride will be spread throughout the land by virtue of these shows being presented in the heartland hopefully enlightening audiences and broadening perspectives.