JoAnn M. Hunter was a young actor sitting in her dressing room when her director made a disturbing, yet sadly common, remark: “You’re the best actress I’ve seen in this role, but you’re just not the right type.” Hunter, who is Japanese-American, could not help but feel his critique was based on her identity. “And then he went on,” Hunter recalls: “If I didn’t know your talent, and someone showed me your picture, I would have said no.”
Despite those who have tried to confine her, Hunter refuses to be put in a box. Currently on Broadway as the choreographer for the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Bad Cinderella, she looks back on her remarkable career, and the ambition it took to get here.
Hunter grew up in Rhode Island and began dancing around age 10 (late for girls, she remarks). “I felt very at home dancing, because the only label I had in the studio was dancer, student,” Hunter says. “There was no other label put on me.”
The dancer-turned-choreographer smiles as she recalls the moment she knew she would pursue this dream. When a national tour of A Chorus Line came through her hometown, Hunter says the story of life as a performer, particularly a dancer, was something she knew she wanted to be a part of. Later, she received a scholarship to study dance in New York City under the late Charles Kelly. “I started out as a performer, and I moved to New York when I was 17,” Hunter says. “I came here and I got standing room tickets for some shows and realized, ‘Oh, I’m not going back.’ I felt more a part of something than I ever did growing up in Rhode Island.”
That creative spark ignited an illustrious career for Hunter, who made her Broadway debut in 1989 in Jerome Robbins' Broadway. As a performer, she’s graced Broadway stages in shows like Chicago, Kiss Me, Kate, Guys and Dolls, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shogun, and Miss Saigon. But as a young, Japanese-American woman, Hunter admits the industry was not always accepting.
“I auditioned, I’d go in and they’re like, ‘What are you?’” Hunter recalls. “And my answer was always, ‘Whatever you need me to be. Whatever will get me the gig.’ I know there are jobs that I did not get because of how I looked.”
Hunter recounts times where she would adjust her hair and makeup to either hide or enhance her features—whatever would fit a casting director’s preconceived idea of her identity. Those who made the decisions that could make or break her career had their own stereotypes, their own “vision for a role,” and as a young actor, Hunter was not yet in a position to fight back.
“There were times where I wasn’t ‘Asian enough,’ that was always my favorite,” Hunter says. Whenever an ostensibly white person made that comment, Hunter recalls thinking, “What does that mean? Because I’m not going to walk five feet behind you, as my mother did, growing up in her day? I’m not going to do your laundry? What do you mean by that?’”
But she would stay quiet, as was expected in those days: “Back then, you just didn’t speak up.”
Hunter was not expecting to switch to the creative side of the table. She started as a dance captain, then was credited as associate choreographer for the Broadway production of All Shook Up. She got her first opportunity to choreograph independently for the 2008 U.S. national tour of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
“It was not something I was striving to do,” Hunter professes, “but now that I’m here, I love it. It’s music, and developing the music, and, ‘What’s the arc? What am I supposed to be doing here? How do I keep the story going?’ That’s my process. [Storytelling is] what’s important to me.”
Now, her choreography shines on Broadway in Bad Cinderella. From the swirling ballgowns of a modern waltz to a lively dance party with Latin influence, Hunter explores a vast assortment of choreographic styles in the atypical fairy tale. This is not her first Lloyd Webber show, having previously choreographed School of Rock on Broadway, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on the West End in 2019, and Bad Cinderella’s West End run (where it was simply titled Cinderella).
Hunter looks back on the days of predominantly white casts in the theatre industry (which are still lingering). She recalls sitting in the audience on numerous occasions, scouring the faces onstage for someone different, or someone that looked like her, wishing that their identities would reflect the diversity of the community she knew. “Why not just have a plethora of human beings on the stage that are talented, that can deliver the story that you want to deliver?” Hunter exclaims. “I want to go, ‘Oh, look at that! It’s America, it’s New York City.’”
As a choreographer, Hunter is advocating for the representation she did not see as a young performer. The dancers in Bad Cinderella form a more inclusive ensemble—and its lead Linedy Genao is the first Latina to originate a leading role in a Lloyd Webber musical. “If you’re doing a show that’s like [Bad Cinderella], it’s about love, and wanting to be a part of it, and owning who you are,” Hunter says. “A very universal thing. So [racial identity] doesn’t matter, as long as you can deliver and tell the story.”
While she’s made a name for herself as a creative, Hunter says that her identity has sometimes made her stand out in a historically white, male-dominated field: “I would go into a room all the time, and go, ‘One’s not like the others.’”
Now, in an era of more diverse creatives, she refuses to be tokenized: “I don’t want to tick your box to make you feel better about diversifying your team,” Hunter emphasizes. “I want to tick that box because I’m the right person for this gig, and I have talent for it. I don’t want to not be in that room because of being who I am, whether that’s female, whether that’s heterosexual, whether that’s Asian American. I want to be in the room because I’m right for the job.”
As Hunter discusses her craft, the joy she finds in her art is evident. With a sparkle in her eye, she recounts how she has taken the lessons she learned as a performer and applied them to her creative role—but in her own special way. “I grew up in an age where teachers were incredibly strict,” Hunter says. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I don’t work that way. I like to have fun, I like to laugh. The most important thing is that I want so much to respect the people that I have in the room. I also expect that back.”
The care Hunter has for her performers is unmistakable. “Every night before stage management calls places, our choreographer extraordinaire, JoAnn M. Hunter, comes into our dressing room to wish us a wonderful show,” Sami Gayle (Adele in Bad Cinderella) tells Playbill in a recent feature. “The care and consideration of our creative team truly knows no bounds.”
In an ever-changing industry, Hunter highlights that diversity is essential. She does not excuse stagnancy, but recognizes that progress does take time. “The theatre is hard right now,” Hunter says. “We’re going through such upheaval and change, which is good. But change can be really difficult. Have patience with people. They’re set in their ways, and you [have to] give them time to grow and learn and change also. If you love what you do, then that’s how you walk in the room.”