Nowadays, when you settle into your seat at a Broadway show and open your Playbill, a quick scan of the cast list might look like a melting pot. Some shows, like Motown and the new musical Holler If Ya Hear Me, feature predominately African-American casts. Others feature color-blind casting, like Asian actress Ann Harada portraying one of Cinderella‘s evil stepsisters and the range of races that can be found in the current cast of Les Miserables (which, as you’ll see, is a show with a history of non-traditional casting). But it wasn’t always that way. While the origins of Broadway date to the mid 1700s, it wasn’t until 1919 that a black actor first appeared on the boards, when Charles Gilpin landed a role in a play called Abraham Lincoln. Since then, all kinds of barriers have been broken – not just with race, but also sexuality, ability and even religion. And some of those changes are happening right now. Welcome to the ever-evolving Broadway stage.
A total of 13 men have portrayed the titular Phantom in the long-running hit The Phantom of the Opera. And when Norm Lewis donned the legendary mask in May 2014, he became the first African-American actor to play the title role on Broadway. Lewis has wowed Broadway before in such roles as Porgy in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, for which he earned a Tony Award nomination. He is also no stranger to non-traditional casting: He has also starred on Broadway in Miss Saigon as John and in Les Misérables as Javert, two roles that are traditionally performed by white actors.
Currently headlining as Roxie Hart in the long-running smash Chicago, Bianca Marroquín is the first Mexican actress to have a starring role on Broadway. She began her career in the Mexico City productions of Beauty and the Beast, Rent and Phantom of the Opera. But it was her performance in a Spanish-language production of Chicago that got the buzz going. Soon, she had a shot in the spotlight on Broadway, where, at 27, she also became one of the youngest actresses to play sexy murderess Roxie Hart in New York. She has also starred in Mary Poppins south of the border, so she can clearly kill ‘em with kindness too.
Bobby Steggert and Frederick Weller
Broadway has seen huge leaps in its reception to gay subject matter in recent decades — from the musical La Cage Aux Folles to Tony Kushner’s landmark play Angels in America. But it wasn’t until last season that two gay married men were seen on a Broadway stage. It happened in Mothers and Sons (which closed June 22nd), the latest from Terrence McNally, the four-time Tony-winning playwright. In this contemporary new work, one half of the wedded couple has lost a partner to AIDS, and the deceased man’s mother turns up many years later, primed for a fight. Another modern development here? Steggert and Weller’s characters also have a son of their own.
Standing center stage in the hit revival of Pippin in 2013, Patina Miller was sexy and slinky, with plenty of magic to do. She was also the first woman to portray the Leading Player. Ben Vereen originated this role in an indelible performance in 1972, winning the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, and nobody could imagine anyone else filling his famous jazz shoes — let alone someone of the fairer sex. But Miller hit it out of the park with a showing that both honored the Bob Fosse tradition and made the part entirely her own. The result? Miller brought home the statuette on Tony night exactly 40 years later — only this time as Best Actress in a Musical. Miller left the show in March 2014, with another actress, Ciara Renée, taking over the part.
This Filipina actress made a huge splash with her 1991 Broadway debut as Kim in Miss Saigon, winning the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. She’s gone on to break racial barriers in two Broadway productions: She was the first Asian Eponine in Les Misérables in 1993 and the first Asian Fantine in 2007. Interestingly, while Salonga continues to make producers think outside the box, it was Miss Saigon that ignited one of Broadway’s biggest casting controversies, when Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian actor, starred in the Asian role of The Engineer, and a huge debate erupted.
This Israeli cantor with a powerhouse voice took over the role of Jean Valjean during Les Misérables’ original run in the early 90s, becoming the first Orthodox Jewish actor to appear in a Broadway musical while honoring his faith: He was allowed to miss Friday evening and Saturday matinee performances to observe the Sabbath. To be sure, this was no small feat for both the producers and for the actor, who got the blessing of Rabbi Schneerson, the esteemed Lubavitcher Rebbe, before accepting the role. Fisher was such a smash that he later took over as Valjean in London’s West End, again with a reduced performance schedule — and this time with an invitation to perform before Queen Elizabeth II.
Condola Rashad and Orlando Bloom
The 2013 production of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Romeo and Juliet was notable for the heat generated by its two stars: movie star heartthrob Orlando Bloom and fast-rising, two-time Tony nominee Condola Rashad. But while they were falling in love at that famous balcony, they were also making history as Broadway’s first interracial Romeo and Juliet. And while race was never mentioned in the play, it could be interpreted as part of the friction between this duo’s warring families. Juliet’s parents were played by African-American actors as well.
Carolee Carmello and Heather MacRae
The first musical to address the devastating AIDS crisis, William Finn’s 1992 show Falsettos also broke barriers by featuring the Broadway musical’s first openly lesbian couple, played by Carolee Carmello and Heather MacRae. Playfully introduced as “the lesbians from next door” in one of the show’s memorable lyrics, this couple’s friendship with the show’s main gay couple deepened – and the characters fully developed — when one of the men got increasingly sick. And now, 22 years later, actresses LaChanze and Jenn Colella portray a lesbian couple in If/Then, a modern musical that proves that Broadway has evolved as well.
When Big River was revived on Broadway in 2003, audiences found tremendous wells of emotion in this classic tale of Huckleberry Finn, a runaway slave named Jim and their journey down the Mississippi River. Much of this production’s wallop came from deaf actor Tyrone Giordano, who played Huck, delivering his lines and lyrics via sign language while another actor (Daniel Jenkins, who had originated the role in 1985) spoke and sang for him. This doubling was used for most of the main characters, and the show broke ground as the first Broadway musical to use both deaf and hearing actors. In the second act, there was a true coup de théâtre when the orchestra stopped playing, everyone stopped singing and the entire cast silently signed a verse of “Waitin’ For the Light to Shine.” And the audience was moved to tears.
Amid the cheerleading, back flipping and general sass, ground was quietly broken in the 2012 musical Bring It On, when Gregory Haney appeared as La Cienega, Broadway’s first transgendered teen. Notably, there was no mention of this character’s gender identification in the show’s dialogue nor was there any lesson of acceptance to be learned here. La Cienega was simply accepted for who she was — muscles and all. It just goes to show how far Broadway has come.