When I was a kid, my Aunt Emma used to take me with her when she went to see shows at the Los Angeles Music Center. While I enjoyed these outings, it was like visiting an alien world. We rarely saw other Latinos in the audience, and certainly not on stage. While the shows we saw together were entertaining, they seemed to have no relation to my real life. When I went to school the next day my classmates would have thought I was insane if I mentioned that I saw a play set in the drawing room (whatever that was) of an English country manor, or a musical about a spunky red-haired orphan.
But times have changed, and for the better. Broadway is slowly becoming more diverse and inclusive. Now more than ever, Latinos can see themselves in the songs and stories on “The Great White Way,” and such progress is as welcome as it is overdue.
Last night, the musical On Your Feet! opened on Broadway. Telling the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, its creative team includes a nearly all-Latino cast, a Colombian-born choreographer, and the Estefans, who wrote the music and lyrics. On Your Feet! joins Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Hamilton in providing a showcase for Latino performers (Hamilton is a multicultural look at our founding fathers, set to hip-hop music). The fact that these two shows are running simultaneously is a breakthrough.
Actors Equity, the union representing stage performers, reports that in the 2013-2014 season, Hispanics accounted for only 2.9 percent of active membership. This small group of performers and aspiring performers is competing for a limited number of jobs; last season, nearly 40 percent of Equity’s members earned $5,000 or less. So On Your Feet! and Hamilton are both providing opportunities and visibility for an elite group of artists.
While the audiences for film and television show dwarf those of Broadway, live theater nonetheless carries the potential for enormous impact. Many iconic films, from The Sound of Music to Grease, were originally stage musicals. Now consider that Miranda’s 2008 hit In The Heights is currently available for licensing to high school and community productions. This means that all across the country, people who may not know any Latinos will be feeling the excitement of Miranda’s Tony-winning musical – and learning about Latino culture. People who have never set foot in Washington Heights’ vibrant Latino neighborhood will be on stage portraying characters waving the Dominican flag, worrying about abulela, and shouting “Wepa!” How amazing is that?
The new crop of Broadway shows represent a sea change in representation. In the past, shows were written about Hispanics (West Side Story), but not by Hispanics. Nor was it unusual for a show with Latino characters not to hire any actual Latino actors; the original Broadway production of Evita, a show set entirely in Argentina, was picketed by the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors for not hiring Latinos. However, more recently composers like Miranda and playwrights like Nilo Cruz (Anna In The Tropics) have been able to present authentic Hispanic stories featuring Latino actors. Their work is vital for its artistic value, and because it can inspire the next generation of Latino writers, directors, and performers. Somewhere out there in the audience could be the next John Leguizamo, who will go on to a theatrical career of his own.
Sure, performers like Chita Rivera, Rita Moreno, and the late Raul Julia enjoyed great success in the theater. Yet Latinos have a long way to go before we are fully represented on Broadway stages. One possible reason for this is that the audience for Broadway shows is overwhelmingly white. According to the Broadway League, almost 80 percent of ticket purchasers last season were Caucasian. That doesn’t mean audiences are not interested in shows with Latino themes. In fact, Broadway is having a “diversity moment” right now, with shows featuring Asian-Americans (Allegiance) and African-Americans (The Color Purple) in addition to Latinos. As the New York Times recently noted, we've come a long way from “Tradition” (Fiddler on the Roof) to “Tradición” (On Your Feet!).
Another barrier for Broadway in terms attracting Latino audiences is the cost factor. Last year, the average price of a Broadway show ticket passed $100 for the first time. So it was great news that the Rockefeller Foundation and the producers of Hamilton announced last month that they would be making 20,000 tickets available to students from urban high schools. The Broadway League has also created “Viva Broadway!”, a campaign to reach out to Hispanic audiences. We need more of such efforts, so that our community can share in the magic of live theater.
Hispanics succeeding on Broadway is reason to celebrate. At last we are seeing shows about Latinos, for Latinos – and with Latinos.