Corbin Bleu is the first performer to take the stage for Black Broadway: Proud History, Limitless Future, a concert celebrating the impact and contributions of Black artists on Broadway. He sings "Make Them Hear You" from the musical Ragtime, a fitting anthem to start the evening; its opening lyrics are: "Go out and tell our story/Let it echo far and wide."
"It's a song and a role that I don't usually get the opportunity to do," Bleu tells Playbill. In Ragtime, "Make Them Hear You" is sung by the character Coalhouse Walker, Jr., originated by Brian Stokes Mitchell in the 1997 Broadway premiere of Ragtime. "I definitely had very, very large shoes to fill," says Bleu, a self-professed Stokes fan himself.
The Black Broadway concert will be televised February 28 at 8 PM on PBS (check local listings), as well as on PBS.org and the PBS app. The program features performances by Broadway artists including Nikki Renée Daniels, Tiffany Mann, Nova Payton, Stephanie Mills, Norm Lewis, John Manzari, Amber Iman, Sydney James Harcourt, and Peppermint, as well as interview appearances from Brian Stokes Mitchell, E. Clayton Cornelious, Allyson Tucker, and Ephraim Sykes. Black Broadway was filmed in October at Howard University, and featured a choir of students from both Howard and Morgan State University backed by the American Pops Orchestra, guest conducted by all Black conductors.
For Bleu, the concert really was as much about the "Limitless Future" as the "Proud History." The performance of this particular Ragtime song marks what is hopefully a new direction for his career. Bleu began his career as a child actor in television, but he really took off with his role as Chad Danforth in the High School Musical franchise, leading to some pop music opportunities that he says are "not actually my wheelhouse."
He went on to croon in several Golden Age musical regionally and on Broadway, such as Kiss Me, Kate and Holiday Inn. But Black Broadway is one of the first chances for him to showcase his baritone in a serious number. "It's been such a wonderful growth and transition," Bleu enthuses.
Although his number does a little heavy lifting with the lyric, Bleu is quick to point out the concert is as much about joy as it is about the struggle of Black artistry. "When we talk about the history of Black performers on Broadway or even Black shows on Broadway, a lot of times they're not written or created by Black artists, but for Black artists. From the Black perspective, there is so much joy. There's so much more than just the struggle," he says. "If we actually give the opportunities to the Black storytellers, we'll get to see all of the stories that are there."
His own joy comes from his family and friendships, and, of course, performing. He takes particular joy in being in a position where he's no longer in the background because of the color of his skin. "I've played the token before," he says. "And now I'm proud that I'm getting a chance to play the lead and to play the characters that are not just the support. We get to see the whole picture. All the sides of the story."
Bleu would love to do new works, to tell new stories in the next phase of his career, which to him feels like it's evolving. "I really am standing at the edge of the next level. Whatever the precipice of what the next step is right now. And it can go in a lot of different directions," he says, admitting that it's exciting and scary. "It's the mystery of it all."
Whatever it is, though, it's surely limitless, and we'll be here to celebrate it.