Theater is one of the biggest tourist attractions in New York City, and it’s my favorite thing about the arts scene here. Growing up as a theater-obsessed kid, I spent countless mornings braving the crowds at Times Square to line up for lotteries or rush tickets for Broadway shows. But one thing that has always bothered me was how little the demographics of the theater world resembled the city I grew up in. People of color make up a majority of the population in the five boroughs, and nearly 1 of 3 New York City natives is foreign born—but I would’ve never known it flipping through the issues of Playbill I’ve collected through the years. I’ve seen hundreds of Broadway shows in my life, and it wasn’t until 2016 that I saw an Asian-American family on a Broadway stage (in the musical Allegiance, inspired by George Takei’s childhood at a Japanese internment camp during WWII). I found myself tearing up, unexpectedly moved at seeing Takei play a grandfather who reminded me so much of my own. I thought I would never see a family like mine reflected in the art form I loved, in the city that I grew up in.
The tide has been slowly turning when it comes to representation, however, and I hope no kids today will ever know what it felt like to not see themselves. Inclusive casting, where actors are hired for roles based on their talent and not necessarily based on their racial background, is not yet universal but has been gaining ground. Stories by and about women and people of color are getting more exposure. For theater lovers who want to support inclusivity with their dollars, the following is a guide to the best shows on Broadway with POC and women on stage and behind the scenes.
The Phantom of the Opera
247 W 44th St
For many people who came of age in the ’90s and 2000s, this ’80s megahit by Andrew Lloyd Webber is the gateway drug to musical theater. The adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel of the same name, about a deformed musical genius who falls in love with a young soprano under his tutelage, marked its 30th anniversary at the Majestic Theatre this year, making it the longest running show in Broadway history. In 2016, Asian-American Ali Ewoldt became the Broadway production’s first person of color to play Christine, while Jordan Donica became the first African American actor to play her aristocratic love interest, Raoul. When Donica left for a plum role in the touring production of Hamilton, Rodney Ingram replaced him to become the first Hispanic leading cast member. Earlier in 2015, Norm Lewis joined the company for a yearlong stint as Broadway’s first and thus far only black Phantom. With the infusion of new talent every few years, it is still one of the best shows on Broadway and definitely worth checking out.
Once on This Island
Circle in the Square Theatre
235 W 50th St
Colorism is at the forefront of the narrative in this starry revival of the Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty musical, which is in turn an adaption of the novel My Love, My Love by Trinidad-born writer Rosa Guy. Set in the French Antilles on an island ruled by a quartet of quarrelling gods, a peasant girl falls in love with a grand homme from the other side of the island. She is “black as night” according to the lyrics, while her lover is a lighter-skinned descendant of the original French colonizers. The gods help the two find their way to each other only to have fate and circumstance drive them apart. Lea Salonga and Quentin Earl Darrington (Norm Lewis formerly played Agwe) have supporting roles, rightfully playing the deities that they are, along with a gender-fluid turn as a Mother Earth figure by Glee star Alex Newell. Newcomers Hailey Kilgore and Isaac Powell give star-making turns as the fresh-faced young lovers. The immersive, stripped-down, in-the-round staging—which includes a lake and real goats and chickens—cede the spotlight to the gorgeously sung Afro-Caribbean score. Close your eyes and you may find yourself taken to another time and place.
The Band’s Visit
Ethel Barrymore Theater
243 W 47th St
The Band’s Visit, a musical adaptation of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, is the critical darling of the 2017–2018 season and poised to be the big winner at this year’s Tony Awards. The slow-building, slice-of-life narrative begins when the eight-member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives in Israel from Egypt to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center. They find themselves lost and stranded in a small town in the middle of the desert. Some odd and curious locals, including Dina, a sultry cafe owner with an over-the-top personality, put them up for the night. The characters begin connecting over the small things and minor dramas in their lives, and a shared sense of loneliness. The story unfolds with subtlety and never takes the obvious route: for example, politics and religion are never mentioned by any of the characters, much like how it might be avoided in real life. Instead, the lush sounds of the Middle Eastern–inspired score, performed by a mesmerizing cast headed by Katrina Lenk and Dariush Kashani (Tony Shalhoub previously had a role as well), captures all the ephemeral magic of travel and makes you long to be out there somewhere yourself, getting lost in small towns and meeting all the eccentric characters of the world.
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 W 47th St
When it premiered in 2016, Waitress was publicized as the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team. It was a distinction that is perhaps shocking given the long history of the form and the fact that women have long made up the majority of Broadway ticket buyers. Based on the movie of the same name by the late Adrienne Shelly, with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles and direction by Diane Paulus, the show centers on Jenna, a pregnant waitress stuck in an abusive marriage, whose one shot at escape involves winning a baking competition with one of her famous pies. The ensemble, as well as supporting roles including Jenna’s two best friends at the diner, has always consisted of a diverse array of actors, with Orange Is the New Black regular Kimiko Glenn originating the role of waitress Dawn.
1564 Broadway at W 47th St
SpongeBob SquarePants is, yes, a musical based on the Nickelodeon cartoon. Surprisingly (or not?), the show boasts an illustrious pedigree, with an eclectic list of composers: songs are written by a tag team of famous names, including John Legend, Plain White T’s, Panic! at the Disco, Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, Steven Tyler, and David Bowie. Plotted like an extended episode of the TV show, our titular sponge protagonist has to save the day when a volcano threatens the Bikini Bottom community. The diverse cast is full of Broadway veterans, most notably including Lilli Cooper as the squirrel Sandy Cheeks. With avant-garde director Tina Landau at the helm, the sometimes inexplicably bizarre $20 million production has earned stellar reviews, with New York Times critic Ben Brantley recommending it to families and stoners alike.
Richard Rodgers Theatre
226 W 46th St
Of course, a discussion about inclusivity on Broadway cannot be had without mentioning the musical behemoth Hamilton. Composer Lin-Manuel Miranda has spoken out about his frustration in finding roles that he hasn’t written for himself as an actor of Puerto Rican descent. His first Broadway hit, In the Heights, was inspired by his childhood in the immigrant neighborhood of Washington Heights, and featured an all Latinx and African American lead cast. This time around, he made it a point to cast actors of color to play America’s founding fathers—and mothers—to reflect the changing face of immigrants in America today. The show follows a scrappy young immigrant from the Caribbean, Alexander Hamilton, from his arrival to New York City to the part he plays in the founding of the country to the later controversies that plagued him, eventually ending with his infamous duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton’s ensuing success proved once and for all that a POC cast of relative unknowns can carry a show to worldwide fame and acclaim and perhaps change the rules of the game when it comes to casting. If you’re lucky enough to get tickets, see it! I have not met one person who regretted it.