The 2022 Tonys show the power of young Broadway talent
Fresh college graduates have become top contenders for this year's biggest honors.
“The young are at the gates.”
This line is sung repeatedly in the new Off-Broadway musical Suffs about women’s suffrage. The resounding refrain is a call to action for the next generation of leaders in the movement. But it’s also a reminder that emerging talent and newcomers are ready to break through on stage as well. Suffs follows its own example, casting Nadia Dandashi, an actress fresh out of Pace University, to play the college-aged suffragist Doris.
Having graduated college a year ago myself, I was thrilled to see Dandashi’s BFA as the only credit in her bio in a high-profile production with multiple Broadway veterans. I was even more excited to watch her Doris, though initially underestimated, be the one to debate a political bigwig and get him on the suffragists’ side.
And it’s not just downtown at Suffs. Uptown, the young are also at Broadway’s gates. Actually, they’ve broken through the gates, and many are now serious contenders for some of this year’s top Tony Awards.
Look at the Best Leading Actor in a Musical category. Alongside vets Billy Crystal, Rob McClure, and Hugh Jackman are two young Black men who are not only making their Broadway debuts, but their professional theatrical debuts. Jaquel Spivey landed the role of Usher in the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Strange Loop mere months after graduating from Point Park University. And Myles Frost was cast as the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, in MJ the Musical while still finishing up a degree in audio engineering at Bowie State University.
Both their performances are nothing short of electric. Frost disappears into Jackson’s voice, dance moves, and mannerisms to an uncanny degree; you’d think the singer came back to life. His audition — made especially remarkable by the fact that Frost was only able to audition after the production broadened its initial talent search, and he was bedridden with a bad allergic reaction the day before — saved MJ after Tony nominee Ephraim Sykes suddenly dropped out, director Christopher Wheeldon told New York Theatre Guide.
And Spivey bares his most vulnerable self — and a powerhouse voice — night after night for an unrelenting 100 minutes as an aspiring musical writer wracked with insecurity and self-loathing. He also delivers the show’s comedic moments with flair and ease, showing great versatility.
Look also at newly minted Tony nominees Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who created the pop musical sensation Six while in college in 2017. The show became an overnight success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival before an acclaimed West End premiere, sold-out tours in the UK and US, and a Broadway debut that now has them in the running for the Best Musical and Best Original Score Tony Awards. Moss, who co-directed Six, is also the youngest female director in Broadway history.
These success stories might surprise some — even Wheeldon, for one, told The New York Times he had “fears” about Frost’s inexperience at first. But the depth of a person’s talent has nothing to do with age.
Plus, if it’s really true that the young are at the gates, that means they’re in the audiences, too, wanting to support their peers. Six producer Kevin McCollum said as much to New York Theatre Guide: “When you give tools to young people to tell their stories in the vocabulary they want to tell them, you have an opportunity to create something new that resonates with the population of today.”
Just as people want to see themselves represented in terms of race or gender on stage, young people especially want to see ourselves represented in age. I think about The Prom, which is set in a high school but whose Broadway actors were mostly mid-20s and up — except for ensemble member and my college classmate Wayne Mackins, whose casting (and incredible dancing) gave me a uniquely deep love for the show.
Seeing a recent-grad actor or creator provides hope — not just to theatre students, but any young person — that great success in your field isn’t reserved for when you’re older. And on the creative side specifically, anyone can write or direct a youthful character or script, but references to our music and memes and pop culture and slang just feel most natural when it’s actually young people behind them.
For me, in a similar boat as one of few professional theatre writers my age, seeing recent grads succeed in other areas of the industry reminds me that despite my relative inexperience, I’m not alone out here. I’m supposed to be here. And there will be more of us.
I felt a similar hope in 2019 after seeing Jeremy Pope make his Broadway debut in Choir Boy when I was a college sophomore. Pope was 26 at the time, but he first played the role of Pharus at 21 off Broadway. He would then go on to Ain’t Too Proud and become only the sixth actor ever to get Tony nominations for two separate performances in the same season. He and this year’s Tony nominees all prove that Broadway must pay attention to young people.
As far as established sources of young talent, there are the high school theatre awards, the Jimmys, which launched the careers of Hadestown‘s Eva Noblezada, Dear Evan Hansen‘s Andrew Barth Feldman, and Mean Girls‘s Renée Rapp and Kyle Selig. But there are so many other talent pools out there beyond the Jimmys.
Neither Spivey nor Frost come from New York schools or top musical theatre programs (Frost is not from a theatre program at all!). Marlow and Moss come from the prestigious University of Cambridge and first presented Six at a well-known festival, but that doesn’t make it less rare for their work to earn a global following so soon afterward. All these artists’ origins prove that next-level talent can come from anywhere.
If Spivey, Frost, Marlow, and Moss are any example, people from all backgrounds are putting themselves out there for auditions and showcases, and it’s up to producers, directors, and casting directors to pay attention. And not just as a second or third or fifth resort — from the start.
“You’ve got to put yourselves in the room where it happens,” echoed McCollum, referring to young artists. “But what I think is more important is … to make sure we [producers] are finding or giving people those rooms in which to do their work.”
Having finished undergrad just a year ago, I knew theatre journalism jobs were (and are) just about as slim as acting jobs. I never thought I’d be able to work in the industry right out of college, but I’m so grateful that someone took a chance on me.
My own modest success makes me all the more ecstatic for the Tony-nominated actors my age, to see them shining after Broadway took a chance on them, too. I’ll be cheering them on at the Tony Awards on June 12, and I can’t wait to see the young who will be at the gates next.