In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs September 15 to October 15, we’re taking a look at the history of Hispanic and Latinx theater artists on Broadway, both onstage and off, including some lesser-known projects beyond beloved hits like In The Heights and On Your Feet!
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Manuel Puig, a queer Argentinian writer and dissident, grew up obsessed with the glamor of Hollywood leading ladies. He turned these experiences into his 1976 novel El beso de la mujer araña, or The Kiss of the Spider Woman. Terrence McNally collaborated with Kander and Ebb to turn it into a dark, sensual musical set in an Argentine prison, with Latina trailblazer Chita Rivera as the fantastical Spiderwoman. It won 6 Tonys in 1994, and rumors continue to circulate about a possible revival.
A Chorus Line
You’re probably familiar with this 1975 mega-hit musical. You might not know how the show, with a cast reflecting the diversity of New York City, has important connections to the Latino community. Puerto Rican New Yorker Nicholas Dante co-wrote the book with James Kirkwood Jr., making him both the first Latino to write a Broadway musical and the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Fellow Nuyorican Priscilla Lopez was Tony-nominated for her role as Diana Morales. While there were many Latino dancers and performers in New York at the time, there were very few roles specifically written for them outside of West Side Story (and, a widespread practice of casting non-Latinos in that show, including in the 1961 movie.) Morales’ identity was prevalent in the storytelling (“hey, they don’t have bobsleds in San Juan”), but it was not her only character trait, and she wasn’t the sole Latinx person onstage. Equally groundbreaking was the character of Paul, a queer Puerto Rican who worked on Broadway and as a drag queen, closely based on Nicholas Dante’s own life.
Premiering at the Vivian Beaumont in 1974, Short Eyes was the first Broadway play by a Latino playwright. An indictment of the racial injustices in New York’s prison system, it was written by Miguel Piñero during his sentence at Sing Sing. Joseph Papp shepherded the production first to the Public Theater and then to Broadway, where it was nominated for the Tony for Best Play.
Latin History for Morons
Colombian-American comedian and actor John Leguizamo turned his own frustrations and lack of knowledge of his own history into a one-man Broadway show, which premiered at the Public Theater downtown in 2017 before moving to Broadway. Sparked by his son getting bullied for being Latino, Leguizamo parses through forgotten history and unkind stereotypes to find role models and heroes. The show was also filmed as a Netflix special, and Leguisamo received a Special Tony Award.
Anna in the Tropics
Cuban-American Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece premiered on Broadway in 2003. The original production starred Jimmy Smits, Priscilla Lopez, and Daphne Ruben-Vega as workers in a cigar factory in Tampa. Smits’ character Juan Julian reads Anna Karenina to the workers as they roll cigars, and the drama of the novel bleeds into their own lives. It was also nominated for Best Play at the Tonys.
Starring Edward James Olmos, Zoot Suit was the first Latino-written and -directed musical on Broadway. The title refers to the wide-lapelled suits popular among young Chicanos in the 1940s. It had a wildly successful run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1979, where it told the true story of the World War II era L.A. Chicano community, including the famous ‘Zoot Suit’ riots of 1943. While its Broadway run in 1980 was short-lived, Olmos was nominated for his first Tony award for it.
Sometimes a musical leaves you with a tune you’re humming for weeks afterwards. But sometimes, you’ll remember a costume look for the rest of your life. Here are our favorite truly iconic costumes that, in some cases, became even bigger than the shows they were in.
The Glinda bubble dress
Wicked costume designer Susan Hilferty had the unique challenge of creating costumes that reminded audiences of The Wizard of Oz, but that also placed characters in the musical’s much darker story. This enormous flouncy gown for Glinda’s entrance at the top of the show is all overstated femininity, while putting Glinda in blue instead of the pink she wears in The Wizard of Oz signals that we’re in for a very different story – and avoids any copyright violations. You can even buy the Glinda dress for American Girl dolls.
Honorary mention: The Fiyero Pants. Father/son duo Norbert Leo Butz and Aaron Tveit are among the many Fiyeros who have donned the vaguely Edwardian white jodhpurs that Fiyero wears to the Ozdust Ballroom.
Mark’s Sweater in Rent
The blue sweater with the red horizontal stripe – we immediately associate it with Rent’s Mark Cohen, and Anthony Rapp’s original 1996 performance in the role. (Add the black-and-white striped scarf and a mic taped to your cheek and you’ve got a great Halloween costume.) Costume designer Angela Wendt described the sweater as “not too flamboyant but still interesting enough,” for Mark to wear for the entire show. It might be the most comfortable costume in the show, compared to Roger’s rockstar leather, or Angel’s Mrs. Claus drag look, but also the most memorable.
Morales’ long sleeve color block leotard in A Chorus Line, tied with Cassie’s bright red leotard and skirt
A Chorus Line happens in real time over the course of a cattle call audition, and the performers are in one costume over the course of the show. The differences in each auditionee’s choice of dance garb telegraphs so much information about each character. Cassie’s red leotard, with its long sleeves and skirt, is far less utilitarian and more elegant than everything else onstage, immediately commanding attention, and creating unique stage pictures for Donna McKechnie’s virtuosic number “The Music and the Mirror.” Diana Morales, originally played by Priscilla Lopez, wears a jewel-toned sweater over her leotard and tights – equal parts practical and vibrant.
Dolly Levi’s Red Dress
The Hello Dolly revival did not directly draw from the original Broadway production, but there was one visual that the show would simply be incomplete without – the red ensemble Dolly wears to descend the staircase into the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, which she also wears for the titular song. The v-neck bustled ballgown would be memorable enough, but Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Bette Midler, Donna Murphy, and Bernadette Peters all also donned a 2-foot-tall red feathered headdress.
The Phantom Mask
A plain white mask that covers the right half of the Phantom’s face for most of the show became synonymous with Phantom itself, eventually serving as its key art and Playbill cover. It’s maybe the simplest costume on this list, and arguably the most powerful.
Which Broadway directors gave onstage performances before leaping to the other side of the table? Find out below!
The larger-than-life Abbott, who lived until he was 107, directed over 50 Broadway shows, including the original productions of Pal Joey, On the Town, The Pajama Game, Once Upon a Mattress, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He made his Broadway debut as an actor in The Misleading Lady all the way back in 1913.
This year’s Tony winner for Best Direction of a Musical for Parade, Arden made his Broadway debut as an actor in the 2003 revival of Big River, and also performed in Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are A-Changin’.
Vinnette Justine Carroll
Vinnette Carroll became the first Black woman to be nominated for a directing Tony in 1973, for Micki Grant’s Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope. She was nominated for both directing and writing the book of Your Arms Too Short to Box With God in 1976. Her numerous acting credits include the 1961 revival of The Octoroon.
Champion was the original director and choreographer of hits like Bye Bye Birdie,Hello, Dolly!, and 42nd Street. He got his start as a dancer in 1940s revues like The Streets of Paris.
In between directing The House of Blue Leaves and The Band’s Visit on Broadway, Cromer found time to play racist Homeowner’s Association member Karl Lindner in Kenny Leon’s revival of A Raisin in the Sun, as well as appear opposite Jeff Daniels in the pilot of HBO’s The Newsroom. He is also currently starring in an off-Broadway production of Uncle Vanya.
Graciela Daniele started her career as a dancer for legends like Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett – she was in the original company of Follies, and was the original Hunyak, a.k.a. Uh-Uh in “Cell Block Tango,” in Chicago. She’s since choreographed 9 Broadway shows, and directed and choreographed another 6, including Once on this Island. She is the only Latina nominee in history for Best Choreography and Best Direction of a Musical at the Tonys, and she won a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2020.
Graciela Daniele’s Tony-nominated choreography:
Before he was the legendary director-choreographer of Pippin, Chicago, The Pajama Game, Sweet Charity, and the director of movies like Cabaret and All That Jazz, he made his Broadway debut as a dancer in the forgotten 1950 revue Dance Me a Song. He understudied the role of Joey in the 1953 Pal Joey revival that turned it into a hit, and played the role at City Center in between choreography jobs in 1963.
Friedman will direct this fall’s upcoming revival of Merrily We Roll Along. She is a celebrated Sondheim interpreter, and earned Olivier awards for her performances as Fosca in Sondheim’s Passion, as well as Mother in Ahrens and Flaherty’s Ragtime.
Tony Goldwyn is co-directing the upcoming Pal Joey rework at City Center, but he’s best known to television audiences as Scandal’s President Fitz, and he’s also going to appear this summer in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
While Kenny Leon was the artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance theater in the 1990s, he also found time to act in a number of TV shows– including The Rosa Parks Story, starring Angela Bassett. He won his Tony for directing A Raisin in the Sun in 2014, and is next represented on Broadway with Purlie Victorious, opening this fall.
Marber actually began his career in British sketch comedy. He then began writing for the English stage, and wrote and directed Closer, which transferred to Broadway in 1999 and was turned into a film directed by Mike Nichols in 2004. He is now known best for his work directing Tom Stoppard plays, including 2017’s Travesties and this season’s Leopoldstadt, for which he won his first Tony award.
Jerry Mitchell started dancing on Broadway as a replacement in A Chorus Line. He worked his way up to being Jerome Robbins’ assistant on Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, and choreographed You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in 1999. His first time directing on Broadway was the beloved Legally Blonde.
Nicholaw, who won a Tony this year for choreographing Some Like It Hot, was an ensemble member in 8 Broadway shows, including dancing Susan Stroman’s choreography in Crazy For You, and understudying Horton the Elephant in the original Seussical. Those performance chops came in handy this March, when Nicholaw went on as an emergency understudy in Some Like It Hot.
Robbins, the legend at the helm of West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and Gypsy, was born Jerome Rabinowitz, and began his career as a dancer in the 1920s in Yiddish modern dance companies. He was also a soloist with American Ballet Theatre in the early 1940s, and danced in George Balanchine’s Broadway revues. He choreographed Fancy Free for ABT, which he and Leonard Bernstein then transformed into his first Broadway choreography credit, On The Town.
Santiago-Hudson was Tony nominated for his direction of August Wilson’s Jitney, and has acted in three other Wilson plays on Broadway. He also wrote, directed, and starred in his one man show Lackawanna Blues.
Stone made her Broadway directing debut this year with Kimberly Akimbo, but her many credits as a performer include Frenchy in the 1994 Grease revival and replacing Sarah Jessica Parker as Rosemary in the 1996 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Her next project is directing the Broadway-bound Water for Elephants, which just premiered at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.
Five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman, represented on Broadway this year with New York, New York, made her debut as a dancer in the country Western musical Whoopee! in 1979.
Schele Williams, who will direct the upcoming revivals of The Wiz and Aida, was an ensemble member in the original production of Aida in 2001.
Williams understudied the title role in Aida – here she is singing “Easy as Life” from that show:
Jerry Zaks is a four-time Tony winning director, including for his Broadway directing debut, The House of Blue Leaves. He’s also known for lavish revivals like Hello, Dolly! and The Music Man. His Broadway resumé goes back quite far – he originated the role of Kenickie in Grease.
This year’s 76th Annual Tony Awards will be broadcast live from the United Palace in Washington Heights on Sunday, June 11th. As this year’s nominated shows head into the final stretch of their awards campaigns, Broadway’s Best Shows is here to remind you that no one is guaranteed a Tony, not even Aaron Tveit. Here is a list of our top 10 surprise upset wins, across 76 years of Tony history.
10. Christopher Ashley wins for directing Come From Away – 2017
Conventional wisdom had the category as a showdown between Michael Greif for Dear Evan Hansen and Rachel Chavkin for Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, parallel to the competition happening over in the Best Musical category. Perhaps because Greif and Chavkin split the vote, Christopher Ashley was genuinely flabbergasted when he won his first Tony. Ashley was previously nominated in the same category for Memphis and The Rocky Horror Show.
The cast of Come From Away performs in the 2017 Tonys:
9. 1978 Best Play
The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Gin Game was the anticipated winner for best play – that, or Chapter Two, a comedy about grief from Broadway heavyweight Neil Simon. However, the Tony voters chose the lesser-known Irish playwright Hugh Leonard, for Da, a memory play about a man traveling back to the suburbs of Dublin to cope with the death of his adopted father.
Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones in the 2015 revival of The Gin Game:
8. Follies and the 2012 Revivals category
For whatever reason, Follies has particularly bad Tonys luck, as we also discuss below. Its revival in 2011, starring Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, and Elaine Paige, was not a major commercial success, but it was expected to win the Best Revival category against Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Porgy & Bess. Instead, the Diane Paulus-directed Porgy won the statue.
Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald, and the company of Porgy & Bess perform at the 2012 Tonys:
The always delightful Danny Burstein performs a song from Follies at the 2012 Tonys broadcast:
7. Children of a Lesser God wins Best Play – 1980
Best known for its 1986 film adaptation starring Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God was a watershed moment for portrayals of Deaf people in theater, exploring the complex issue of Deaf schools insisting students learn to speak, instead of using ASL. Its original star Phyllis Frelich was the first Deaf person ever to win a Tony Award. It beat out Talley’s Folly, a romance by Lanford Wilson that won the Pulitzer and was expected to win, and Bent, a gut wrenching drama about queer people in Nazi concentration camps by Martin Sherman.
Children of a Lesser God was also revived on Broadway in 2018, with direction by Kenny Leon:
6. Marissa Jaret Winokur wins Best Actress
While Hairspray was expected to win Best Musical in 2003, Bernadette Peters was the favorite to win the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as Mama Rose in Gypsy. Peters had previously won for Song and Dance and Annie Get Your Gun. But it was Marissa Janet Winokur, in her Broadway principal debut as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, who ended up winning.
Marissa’s acceptance speech:
5. Kinky Boots wins Best Musical
Prevailing wisdom said that Matilda, like the many British mega-musicals before it, was going to sweep the 2013 Tony awards. In a battle between the lovably sassy British drag queens and the lovably sassy British schoolchildren (only in New York!), it was the American-produced Kinky Boots that won out. Why? Perhaps its surprise win at the Drama League Awards earlier that month moved the needle, or perhaps the almost entirely American Tony voter pool wanted to support one of its own. While both shows were uplifting, Kinky Boots’ pro-LGBTQ+ rights message may have resonated extra hard. (Matilda ended up just fine though – it ran for four years on Broadway, and is still open in the West End.)
4. 2007 Best Actor in a Musical
Theater fans are still arguing over whether Raúl Esparza should have won for Company over David Hyde Pierce for Curtains. Esparza gave a heart wrenching performance as Bobby in John Doyle’s stripped down reimagining of the Sondheim classic. While the rest of the cast played their own instruments throughout the show, Esparza-as-Bobby only sits down in front of a piano to accompany himself in the finale, “Being Alive.” Sondheim is notoriously tricky for pianists, and to also act and sing it at the same time is a rare feat:
But it was beloved Frasier star David Hyde Pierce who won out, for his portrayal of a sensitive and theater-obsessed police detective in Curtains. Pierce, who had put himself into musical theater bootcamp to prepare for his debut in Spamalot a few years prior, may have been helped by his reputation as the nicest person in showbusiness, and the goodwill he had amassed by choosing to come back to Broadway after winning four Emmys for Frasier. Below, DHP and the company of Curtains perform at the Tonys:
3. 1972 – Follies loses best musical
A piece of Tonys trivia that always surprises theater lovers: Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Follies did not win the 1972 Tony Award for Best Musical. That award went to Two Gentlemen of Verona, a groovy Shakspeare adaptation by Galt McDermot, the composer behind Hair, in collaboration with playwright John Guare. It also beat out heavyweights like Grease and Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death, and Jesus Christ Superstar wasn’t even nominated in the category.There are a few theories for why this happened: first, 2 Gents is a much frothier, more optimistic show than Follies. It was a diverting entertainment that left audiences joyful, while Follies matched the dark reality of the national mood amidst the Vietnam war, Watergate, and Greatest Generation discontent. 2 Gents takes a firm antiwar stance, but it didn’t confront middle-aged Tony voters with their unhappy marriages they way Follies did. At the same time, voters may have picked 2 Gents to save face after Hair was a massive cultural moment back in 1968 but didn’t win any Tonys, making the awards seem out of touch.
2 Gents was revived off-Broadway in 2005 at the Delacorte with Norm Lewis, Oscar Isaac, Rosario Dawson, John Cariani, and Renee Elise Goldsberry. Here’s Goldsberry and Lewis performing “Night Letter” from that production:
2. Nine beats Dreamgirls
Dreamgirls was an instant, massive smash when it opened to rave reviews in December of 1981. Loosely based on the story of Diana Ross and The Supremes, and with an energetic Motown-inspired score, the production starred Jennifer Holliday and Sheryl Lee Ralph. Nine, a baroque exploration of an Italian film director’s psychosexual whirlwind based on Federico Fellini’s film 8½, had its first *workshop* performance in February of 1982, and opened on Broadway the day of the Tonys cutoff in May. Dreamgirls, directed by Michael Bennett of A Chorus Line fame,was at the Shubert-owned Imperial, and Nine played at the Nederlander-owned Rodgers right next door, and was directed by Tommy Tune. Even juicier, Bennett and Tune had once been dear friends, with Bennett having taken Tune under his wing (if you can take someone who’s 6’6” under your wing.) When Nine was quickly announced to open in the 1981-1982 season, on the final day of Tonys eligibility no less, Bennett called Tune and begged/threatened him to take the show out of town and bring it to New York next year instead. Tune refused. So the story goes, during the Tonys campaigning period in May 1982, the Dreamgirls team refused to step into restaurants the Nine people went to, and vice-versa. The American Theatre Wing, the producer of the Tony Awards, amped up the drama by seating the teams on opposite sides of the Imperial Theatre for the ceremony in June. The producers of Nine pushed their narrative as the scrappy show that could, and that Dreamgirls, backed by the mighty Shubert Organization, didn’t need – or deserve – a vote. Many in the industry were grateful for how fierce the competition got, since Broadway hadn’t had a huge hit since 1975’s A Chorus Line, and the brewing feud got lots of press. While Dreamgirls won many awards at the ceremony, including Best Actress for Jennifer Holliday, Nine shocked the world and won Best Musical. It ran for two years on Broadway, and was also revived in 2003 – when it won again, for Best Revival. Dreamgirls ran for four years, and was only briefly revived in 1987, although its historical impact as a Broadway show with three-dimensional roles for Black women and the way it tackles fatphobia, racism, and colorism in the music industry makes Nine’s womanizer-genius focus look a bit hollow in retrospect.
Jennifer Holliday brings down the house with “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”:
The cast of Nine performs at the Tonys:
Avenue Q bests Wicked
Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked was the enormous smash of the 2003-2004 Broadway season, its creative team and producers all established industry veterans. Avenue Q, a weirder but better-reviewed show by then-unknowns Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty, wasn’t expected to do well at the Tonys, or last longer than a few months on Broadway. In spring 2004, the country was also gearing up for the 2004 presidential election, and the Avenue Q producers crafted a campaign that both parodied politics and spoke to voters directly: “Vote Your Heart,” pleaded the red, white, and blue posters and buttons, and the puppets even participated in a mock debate. The producers were using a strategy first used by Nine in 1982, the last time a Best Musical race was this excruciating (see below). They appealed to the Tony voters, all 700 or so of them, to support the underdog, the subtext being that Wicked would do well regardless of whether it won, while a Best Musical win could make or break Avenue Q’s future. The campaign worked, and the little puppet show written by newcomers won not just Best Musical, but Best Book and Score of a Musical as well. Avenue Q ran on Broadway for 6 years, and Off-Broadway for another 10. Wicked seems to be doing okay too.
Note the shock on the producer’s faces when they announce that Avenue Q won: