Broadway and all live theater has been closed for nearly seven months due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I miss it, badly. Even though it’s closed and will be for a while longer — until June 2021, hopefully — that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy your love of theater.
Below, I will talk about two movies you should watch to get you through this brief intermission. Granted, it’s not the same as experiencing Broadway as an audience member, but it’ll get the job done. This is coming from a theater nerd, so I feel for all of you.
Now, I’m going to warn you, the two movies I’m recommending are musicals. We’re all living in such a crazy and stressful time right now, and there are a lot of people feeling overwhelmed and saddened by the world around them. But don’t fret. Musicals can be a huge mood booster with their catchy tunes, top-notch choreography and great story-telling.
Every musical I see I become “obsessed” with. Not only do I listen to the cast recording for a month, but I always find the important message of the musical and apply it to my everyday life. Guidelines range anywhere from being more aware of what’s going on in the world, to applying what I have learned to my own actions and behaviors — truly good advice to live by. The two musicals that have had a big impact on me are “Hamilton” and “Hairspray.”
To begin, the first movie I recommend is “Hamilton: An American Musical,” which you can find on Disney+. In early 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda provided us with this national phenomenon of a musical. Thanks to the catchy music and high energy dancing, “Hamilton” helped America by bringing up important conversations to a younger audience, which is always a struggle for the theater.
Of course, this musical is not historically accurate. I mean, the Founding Fathers didn’t exactly break out into musical numbers and rap during a duel or battle. Still, a musical that is full of memorable tunes and over-the-top dance numbers makes it more relevant to America today.
It also gets younger theater-goers talking about the importance of the history behind the Founding Fathers, and they may even lookup the story of Hamilton to get more insight into his life. They may not have learned as much in a history class as they will when memorizing every word of every song in “Hamilton.”
The second movie I advise you to watch is the 2007 version of “Hairspray,” which can be rented or purchased through Amazon. Directed by Adam Shankman, this version is a mix of both the original 1988 film and the Broadway musical.
What makes this musical different than many others is its body diversity. Witnessing body diversity on stage at all is a rare phenomenon. Yes, “Hairspray” was written for the main character to be heavyset, but it’s still something. Hopefully, as the years go on, society will be able to cast actors and actresses based on their talents and skills instead of considering body type as an indicator in casting decisions.
These two musicals have inspired me to better educate myself with the subject matters behind stage performances, as I was not as familiar with the history in these storylines as I wanted to be. With “Hamilton,” it was about the legacy of Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers. With “Hairspray,” it was about Black lives and segregation in the United States — a topic that is still very relevant today.
Additionally, another aspect of both the musicals that caught people’s attention is the amount of diversity found in each of the casts. While “Hairspray” and its storyline is written to be diverse, Miranda made casting a wide variety of actors and actresses in “Hamilton” a large part of his work. Miranda focused more on building a diverse cast while he was creating Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution than he did the historical accuracy of the visuals.
Diversity is increasing on Broadway; during the 2015 to 2016 season, for example, 35% of all roles went to people of color. This was the season “Hamilton” was in, so I’m not surprised by the percentage increase. The previous season, only 30% of the roles went to people of color, and the season before that, only 24%. To break it down more, during the 2015 to 2016 season, approximately 23% of the roles went to actors who were African American, 7% went to Latino actors and 4% to Asian American actors.
Musicals like “Hamilton,” “The Color Purple,” “Hairspray,” “Motown” and “On Your Feet!” have provided many opportunities for African American and Latino actors. When I saw both “Hamilton” and “Hairspray,” for example, I was completely blown away by the amazing storytelling, and I felt so inspired seeing people of color having the opportunity to be on stage doing what they loved.
It’s extremely important for young theater-goers to see how much diversity is being presented on stage, especially if they are a person of color themselves. Of all the shows I have seen performed on stage, more than 80% of the actors were white. What does that say toward people of color? In the society we live in today, diversity is more important than ever, and people of color need to know that they do matter.
Musical theater is an incredible form of art, and creating diverse spaces would make the stories being told even more inspiring and evocative. I am hopeful as the years go on that there will be an even larger increase in the diversity found on Broadway. Furthermore, as we see numbers increase for musicals, I am hoping that will be the case for plays as well. Plays haven’t cast nearly as many people of color as musicals have, but with our everchanging world and the success of the Black Lives Matter movement, I am more encouraged than ever.