Jeremy Gerard has covered the shifting fortunes of Jujamcyn Theatres since it became a formidable competitor to the larger Shubert and Nederlander organizations in the late 1980s. In 2013 producer Jordan Roth became Jujamcyn’s majority owner and the Street’s youngest power broker. In this weekly email conversation they talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.
GERARD: The Metropolitan Opera’s chief Peter Gelb announced yesterday that when Bartlett Sher‘s production of Verdi’s Otello opens the Met season next month, tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko will not play the title role in black face. It’s hard to believe that in 2015 this qualifies s “news.” But white tenors “blacking up” to play Shakespeare’s commanding Moor in minstrelsy caricature has been so long-accepted that the break with tradition seems remarkably brave. What strikes me is that the opera world was otherwise so far ahead of the theater in color-blind casting that I once got into a heated debate with my friend John Simon over the issue. We don’t tend to register black or white, thin or fat, old or young in opera productions, or at least we overlook “logic” in favor of art. (Unfortunately or otherwise, the advent of gastric bypass surgery has changed this somewhat.) Could the issue be any more relevant on the eve of Hamilton opening? I still wonder how Broadway audiences will react to seeing the tale of the Founding Fathers refracted through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s eyes.
“In Hamilton, the race of the actors playing our Founding Fathers is not incidental — it goes to the heart of the work and is one of the reasons it is so inspired.” — Roth
ROTH: Storytelling sometimes shows us the world as it is and sometimes as it could be. That’s the power and the responsibility. Dennis Haysbert, Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones and others addressed the nation as our Commander in Chief in movies and TV for years before Barack Obama did for real. I think audiences are hungry to experience the world as it could be and also the world as it really is — whether through color-blind casting, where we ignore the race of the actor (or by extension the gender or age, as you said) or through non-traditional casting, where an actor’s race, different from the traditional or expected, is part of the point of the piece. And while we’re at it, we can build this as our tradition so we can stop calling it non-traditional. In Hamilton, the race of the actors playing our Founding Fathers is not incidental — it goes to the heart of the work and is one of the reasons it is so inspired.
The Met’s decision points to the many opportunities we can still take. Amen to an Otello not in black face. Here’s to more Otellos who are actually black. Here’s to our ensembles on Broadway not having just one woman and one man of color. Here’s to the stories we’ve seen thousands of times given new perspective by new voices and faces and lives. And here’s to telling the stories that we’ve never told.
GERARD: Next topic. The latest Broadway air rights deal involves our friends the Nederlanders, who traded 20,000 square feet of invisible cubes of oxygen above the Neil Simon Theatre for about nine million very visible dollars. The beneficiary is a hotel at the edge of the District, on Seventh Avenue between 40th and 41st streets. These air rights transfers may be great for theater owners who can’t develop your century-old structures but they’re allowing developers to fundamentally alter the once human scale of the District. It’s looking more and more like 57th Street as every new cigarette-thin skyscraper and luxury apartment building sprouts up. It seems to me we’ve saved the child — i.e. the individual theaters — while suffocating the parents, which would be the Theater District itself.
ROTH: Yes, I’m a theater owner, but I’m actually heartened by the development in our area. We all remember the time when people didn’t want to even walk through the theatre district let alone invest in it. Development has brought more stores and restaurants, renovated subway stations, and more hotels and offices – all of which bring more people. And more people means more audiences. Broadway would not be as vibrant as it is without all the people coming in from around the tri-state, the nation and the world. I always remember that when walking in Times Square feels a little congested. Crowded sidewalks beget crowded theaters. So amen and welcome!