Critic's Notebook

Broadway musical 'Hamilton' could teach Oscar a lesson on diversity

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic

A tremor of excitement ran through the Los Angeles theater scene on Tuesday with the announcement that "Hamilton," Broadway's biggest phenomenon since "Rent," will play the Hollywood Pantages next year.

But it's a pity that Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton couldn't get here sooner. This unlikely juggernaut is something Hollywood moguls, implicated in the controversy over the all-white acting nominations for this year's Academy Awards, ought to see pronto.

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"Hamilton" has been the hottest ticket on Broadway since it opened in August. (Twitter was recently abuzz over StubHub, the preeminent secondary ticket marketplace, selling a "last row, rear mezzanine side" single ticket for $2,200.) Earlier this month, "Hamilton" beat "The Lion King" once again to win the weekly box office sweepstakes.

Let's take in for a moment the sheer implausibility of it all. This is a rap musical about American history in which the Founding Fathers are portrayed by actors of color. The show was inspired not by a popular movie or a beloved song catalog but by Ron Chernow's biography "Alexander Hamilton"— a book, it's safe to say, most Broadway theatergoers don't have dog-eared on their nightstands.

There's a little something to alienate everyone. Older people are widely thought to be allergic to rap, while hip-hop aficionados are likely to assume that, if it's in a theater, the music has to be ersatz. Youngsters, who can't afford Broadway unless their affluent parents escort them, aren't known to gravitate to historical pageants. And white people, still the overwhelming majority of ticket buyers, tend to want to see reflections of their own pigmentation when shelling out hundreds of dollars for a night's entertainment.

No doubt a fair number of old school producers rolled their eyes when word got out that Miranda, coauthor of the Tony-winning musical "In the Heights," was working on a show that must have sounded to them like Snoop Dogg redoing "1776." Fortunately, there were people well placed to support Miranda's improbable vision. Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of New York's Public Theater, opened his theater to "Hamilton" as part of a commitment to expanding the demographic reach of the contemporary American musical.

The Public is where "Fun Home," the coming-of-age musical about a lesbian cartoonist haunted by the apparent suicide of her closeted gay father, also premiered. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's show, based on Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, had many predicting it would be at best a short-lived succès d'estime. But "Fun Home," which was perhaps an even bigger long shot than "Hamilton," not only won the Tony for best musical but recouped its capitalization in the relatively quick span of eight months. It will go down in the annals of Broadway as both a commercial and critical hit.

As a result of an off-Broadway theater's determination to reflect American multiculturalism in the work it produces, along with the courage of some farsighted Broadway producers, the Great White Way suddenly seems a lot more welcoming if still not as multihued as it could be.

Oscars 2016: Full Coverage | Complete list | Top nominee photos | #OscarsSoWhite

Broadway continues to have serious diversity problems in terms of audiences and artists. Last year's Tony nominees were nearly as white as this year's Oscar contenders, yet there was little uproar as one pale Brit after the next took home a statuette with plummy gratitude.

But what "Hamilton" and "Fun Home" spectacularly demonstrate is that making an investment in extremely talented artists from diverse backgrounds is still the best business plan for simultaneously growing prestige and revenue.

Marketing-driven decision-making can score huge jackpots (as well as crippling losses) as the many film franchises aimed at pubescent boys of all ages demonstrate. But for the sake of future growth, to say nothing of democratic fairness and artistic vitality, movie industry gatekeepers need to do a better job of searching out and supporting the next generation of filmmakers who can better represent the mosaic of this nation.

The annual Oscar snow-out is merely a symptom of a more systemic disease. Awards get everyone fired up, but this is a tricky conversation.

The Oscars aren't meant to be egalitarian: All artists aren't created equal. Political correctness has no place when individuals are asked to make choices about their subjective preferences. Students today may feel entitled to get an "A" for merely raising their hand and turning in their homework, but no one is entitled to a gold trophy. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are our birthright as citizens, but the Declaration of Independence says nothing about delivering an acceptance speech to a massive worldwide audience.

On the other hand, history confirms that creativity has nothing to do with skin color or gender or sexual orientation or economic class. If one group maintains an apartheid chokehold on the arts even as the country grows more diverse, there's a problem with the pipeline, not the talent pool.

As Viola Davis said when accepting her Emmy Award last year — stunningly, the first African American woman to win in her category — "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there."

Increasing diversity among Oscar voters is only a very slow step in the right direction. A more dynamic approach would be for studio leaders, too many of whom act like moneymen in an orphaned subdivision of multinational corporations, to recognize the ways cultural inclusiveness, artistic excellence and long-term profitability are linked.

Hollywood honchos may not have the power of their Golden Age predecessors, but they can and must do better in cultivating, producing and promoting a wider swath of talent. (The recent bidding war at the Sundance Film Festival over "The Birth of a Nation," Nate Parker's film about Nat Turner's slave rebellion, is a reason for optimism.)

Miranda's "In the Heights" was far from a perfect show (Tony Award notwithstanding), but there was no denying his rising star. The theater establishment wisely embraced him. Artists of Miranda's caliber are rare, but they represent the tide that can lift many, many boats.

Look what happened when Sylvester Stallone took a chance on screenwriter and director Ryan Coogler. The moribund "Rocky" franchise was not only successfully revived but Stallone, winner of several Golden Raspberry Awards for worst actor, received an Oscar nomination for his supporting performance and won a Golden Globe to boot.

Industry leaders who get behind the next Miranda and Coogler may not only walk away with trophies come awards time, but if "Hamilton," "Fun Home" and "Creed" can serve as examples, even their normally grim-faced accountants may crack a smile.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 28, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Show could teach Oscar a lesson - `Hamilton's' diverse cast and hip-hop take on history are wowing Broadway audiences." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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