2014 will go down as a landmark year for Blacks on The Great White Way.
In May, musical theater veteran Norm Lewis (who gained television notoriety as Olivia Pope’s only brown-skinned love interest on Scandal) made history as the first African American to take on the lead role in Broadway’s fabled musical Phantom of the Opera.
On June 9th, the already-highly decorated powerhouse Audra McDonald took home her sixth Tony Award — setting a new record for any performer — for her portrayal of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.
In July, producers for the Tony Award winning revival of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella revealed that Keke Palmer, who made television history as the youngest talk show host (with her BET gabfest Just Keke), was going to make Broadway history by being the very first African American to wear the glass slippers and take on the title role. Shortly after, Emmy Award winner Sherri Shepherd was tapped to join her as the evil stepmother, Madame, in the Tony Award-winning production. And earlier this week, Real Housewives of Atlanta star NeNe Leakes made her Broadway debut as the former co-host of The View hands her the torch just before the show closes January 3rd.
“I am so proud of my brothers and sisters for making strides on Broadway,” Shepherd told HelloBeautiful.com. “The fact that Audra McDonald holds the record for six Tony awards, I screamed at the television when she won because I felt like Audra was winning for me and every other brown skinned person who dreams of one day performing on the stage.”
The newly single mother of one, who made her official Broadway debut in the production met more than her fair share of Broadway luminaries while co-hosting The View for seven years; the daily talk show was a major stop for glitzy productions on the publicity trail. Shepherd is also was a regular theatergoer, frequenting shows such as Motown The Musical and Aladdin among countless others throughout the years.
“I have learned that sometimes secret dreams do come true, because it’s always been a secret dream of mine to act on Broadway ever since I saw Stephanie Mills in The Wiz,” she shared. “There was a woman who had brown skin like me [with] a nose and lips full like mine and our hair was the same texture. It made me dream.”
The Chicago native previously appeared in the Off-Broadway play Love, Loss and What I Wore by Nora and Delia Ephron in 2010. For Cinderella, though, Shepherd had a rough start during her initial run of performances: slips and falls; wig coming off; dress splitting while dancing, and forgotten lines. “Live theater is crazy but I love the immediate response from the crowd,” Shepherd explained.
According to a rep for the show, the leading female roles have become some of the most sought-after on all of Broadway since the show began previews in January 2013 and officially opened March 3, 2013: Laura Osnes and Victoria Clark earned Tony nominations for their performances as Cinderella and Fairy Godmother, respectively, while Tony Award winner Harriet Harris created the role of the wicked stepmother. TV veteran Fran Drescher (of The Nanny fame) portrayed the stepmother for six months earlier this year, while pop music sensation Carly Rae Jepsen (of ‘Call Me Maybe’ fame) stepped into the glass slippers for four months earlier this year.
“Ultimately we cast the best actors we could find for the parts,” the production’s lead producer Robyn Goodman said.
“From the beginning, we always wanted people of color in our production,” she continued. “We actually won an award from Actors Equity for diverse casting.”
She continued: “All producers must get away from the idea that casting this way is “non-traditional” or diverse. Only then can we get away from being thought of as the Great White Way. It is just a matter of auditioning all good actors for the parts they are right for. Our director Mark Brokaw is a champion of this and I think it is happening more and more.”
Since 1987, Goodman has produced over a dozen Broadway shows, including Tony Award winners Avenue Q, In The Heights, American Idiot and the 2009 revival of West Side Story.
“It wasn’t until we auditioned Keke Palmer that we found someone who had all the grace, innocence and talent to play our Cinderella — not to mention the vocal and acting chops,” she furthered. “Sherri Shepherd gave notice on The View and it was a natural progression. She was a delightful and frightening Step Mother.”
“We found out that NeNe was interested and the timing was perfect.”
Leakes is joining Cinderella just as the new season of Real Housewives of Atlanta premiered to record breaking ratings for the Bravo Network can surely be a boon for the production. The former Celebrity Apprentice and Dancing with the Stars contestant will be the first of her ilk to actually star in an acting role on the Broadway stage. (Other reality TV notables — mostly from talent competition series such as American Idol — have appeared in various Broadway productions throughout recent years.)
The 46-year-old Queens, New York native bragged about her Cinderella gig on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live talk show a few weeks ago. “Look, let her have her moment, I don’t have time for her, I’m on Broadway,” she cattily cooed about television frenemy Cynthia Bailey. “I’m on Broadway, honey.”
“Bye girls, I’m on Broadway. Holler,” she reiterated.
“Of course they don’t want to support me, I’m leaving them all in the dust,” Leakes also gloated to The New York Daily News about her cast mates, while boasting how other overnight sensations such as Kim Kardashian and prison-bound Real Housewives of New Jersey vixen Teresa Giudice will come see her in the show.
Dramas and controversies have proven to be major selling points for reality television. Will it translate to the Broadway box office?
When probed about how the recent casting choices affected Cinderella’s box-office, Goodman diplomatically offered, “Our current stars have kept our show successful much like the talented stars before them.”
Shepherd, who prepared a special welcoming gift basket including Broadway essentials for Leakes, said she has noticed much audience diversity while doing the show. “When Keke and I sign autographs outside after our show, it brings tears to my eyes to meet the number of people who’ve flown in from out of town and from other countries just so their children can see us on the stage. Cinderella is a classic fairytale that everyone knows, so to see chocolate people playing their favorite roles, the significance of this is not lost on me. Once our folks get a taste of Broadway and seeing themselves on that stage, I don’t think they’ll be able to get enough.”
Scroll through this gallery of photos from NeNe’s big debut: