Memo to the Oscars from the Tonys — this is what diversity looks like

You can't call it the Great White Way anymore. Last night's Tony awards offered Hollywood a lesson in the crowd-pleasing power of diversity.

An explosion of diverse roles on Broadway leads to historic night at the Tonys

In a history first, actors of colour won all four musical acting awards at the Tonys. From left to right, Hamilton star Daveed Diggs, The Colour Purple's Cynthia Erivo and also from Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. and Renee Elise Goldsberry. (Charles Sykes/Invision/Associated Press)

Early in the evening, Tony host James Corden joked, "Think of tonight as the Oscars but with diversity." The audience laughed, but Sunday night the awards for the best of Broadway turned out to be master class in the power of a diverse range of faces and races.

The broadcast earned the Tonys its highest ratings in 15 years, in a large part due to the boisterous Broadway phenomenon Hamilton. But what would Hollywood have thought of the concept created by actor and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda? A musical telling the life story of the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury in the style of hip hop with a deliberately diverse cast?  Thank you very much Mr. Miranda, we'll call you.  

But by infusing the history lesson with the braggadocio style of rap and R&B, many believe Hamilton has reinvigorated Broadway, perhaps even pointed a new way forward. While Hollywood still debates whether the world is ready for a black James Bond, part of the what gives this history lesson a new sense of relevance is the colour-blind casting, breathing new life into familiar names such as George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette and more.

Hamilton actor, composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, forefront, stars in the musical as Alexander Hamilton. The Manhattan actor was inspired by a biography he'd read about the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury while on a vacation in Mexico. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Beyond the avalanche of acclaim for Hamilton, the success of many of this year's Tony nominees suggests a growing appetite for a broader range of stories. After her performance in 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong'o returned to the stage for Eclipsed, Broadway's first play with an all-black and all-female cast. Also winning raves this year is the remounting of The Color Purple, which also features a bounty of roles for black actors, and Shuffle Along, a tap dancing tour-de-force starring Audra McDonald.  

To put that in perspective, that's more actors of colour winning in one night than in the last nine years of the Oscars combined. - Eli Glasner

Group the explosion in opportunities for actors of colour together and last night witnessed a historic event where each of the four actors that won in the Tony musical categories were black. To put that in perspective, that's more actors of colour winning in one night than in the last nine years of the Oscars combined. 

While some may argue, with so many diverse productions occurring simultaneously, 2016 is an exception to the rule. However, the very fact that producers were confident enough to invest in such a wide range of stories suggest Broadway may have more faith in its audience than the penny pinchers in Hollywood. Indeed with Hamilton fast on its way to earning over a billion dollars, it's clear audiences are eager for stories that reflect the modern American experience (and they don't mind handing over a small fortune to see them.) 

This is not to say that Broadway has solved racism. In fact many of this year's most-lauded actors say there's more work to be done. Speaking with the Hollywood Reporter, Leslie Odom Jr., who won for his role as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, has said the lack of complex roles for black actors is so acute he plans on focusing on his music career following Hamilton. Looking into 2017, few expect the range of plays and musicals for the year ahead to rival this season. The real question is what comes out of the seeds that Hamilton is sowing — perhaps a new generation of actors and writers inspired to tell their own stories. 

The cast of The Colour Purple accepts the award for Best Revival of a Musical onstage. (Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Meanwhile, when it comes to diversity, the hip-hop history lesson is just the beginning. From Spring Awakening, where actors perform American Sign Language, to the Latin rhythms of the Gloria Estefan-inspired On Your Feet, Broadway is breaking boundaries and wooing new audiences. While Hollywood is busy arguing about who should direct the inevitable Hamilton movie, executives should be taking notes. Instead of playing it safe with familiar faces and bland remakes, shake things up. As Kevin Costner once said: "Build it and they will come."      


About the Author

Eli Glasner

Entertainment reporter and film critic

Eli Glasner is a national entertainment reporter and film critic for CBC News. Each Friday he reviews films on CBC News Network as well as appearing on CBC radio programs coast to coast. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee, Ont. to the Oscars red carpet.