Post-Pandemic Broadway Boosts Innovation and Diversity
Broadway has long been the barometer of New York City’s health. On March 12, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Broadway’s doors to close for over a year—the longest shutdown period in history. To put this into perspective: Following the 9/11 attacks, Broadway shut its doors for only two days. The extended pandemic hiatus left the community questioning if Broadway could return to its former glory. And if so, what would be different?
In September of 2021, we got the answer to that question as Broadway and its 96,900 crew members returned and not only turn the lights on, but set them ablaze.
“Theatre is back,” says Darren Bagert, a two-time Tony Award award-winning producer (behind Dear Evan Hansen and the 2016 revival of The Color Purple). “When you look at the numbers and know that we’re just beginning spring, and the sales are so strong on so many shows…it’s exciting.”
Broadway may be back, but the way it has returned is turning heads this season. “Creatives were not sitting home twiddling their thumbs during [the pandemic],” says Wendy Federman, thirteen-time Tony Award-winning theatre and film producer with over 90 production credits (including Ain’t too Proud and To Kill a Mockingbird). “What was churning before was being honed by the creatives.”
In a 2022 interview, four-time Tony Award-winning producer Ron Simons expressed that the pandemic acted as a catalyst for long-overdue change. “This shifted in a year,” he said. “We had diverse audiences. We had diverse stories in one season.” For example, post-pandemic, the stage was graced with a reimagined production of Arthur Miller’s play, Death of A Salesman, as a critical examination of “the American dream through the lens of a Black Loman family living in a white world.”
Broadway legend and Tony Award winner André De Shields was at the helm of this production. Other original works include Thoughts of a Colored Man, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, Ain’t Too Proud, Ohio State Murders, Strange Loop, KPOP, and the revival of Parade.
This overwhelming triumph of diverse stories and voices is a far cry away from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s (AAPAC) previous visibility report which concluded that during the 2018-2019 season, 58.6% of roles were played by white actors across all New York City stages.
“Broadway has been a leader in diversity from the beginning, way before film and television,” says Federman. “Our collective [desire] to support new voices…whether they’re in casting or in who we are presenting to audiences, there’s a real thoughtfulness now. [We’re] making sure that everybody’s getting a shot whether they are at the table, leaving the table, on the stage, or behind the stage.”
This same sense of inclusivity has expanded beyond the stage into its philanthropy to get the next generation of theatergoers in seats. “Now more than ever,” Bagert emphasized, “we are working with incredible organizations and programs to ensure that underprivileged and younger audiences get to experience live theater.”
Broadway’s commitment to exposing young students to the theatre is not new. The Broadway Bridges program, launched in 2017, regularly provides NYC Public School sophomores $10 Broadway tickets to live performances.
“What happened during the shutdown,” Federman says, is that “fundraising between the Actors Fund, now called the Entertainment Fund, and Broadway Cares, supplied needed assistance whether it was health-related or to help keep non-for-profit theaters from having to close.” What the Broadway community has done surpassed the communities expectations. By the time Broadway reopened in September 2021, the COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund had given $18.95 million to members of the Broadway community. To say that Broadway is back somehow feels like an understatement. The lights are on, the applause is loud, and the support of those in leadership reinforces the community. “Yesterday was plain awful, but that’s not now; that’s then,” as Annie would say.