nontraditional-casting

Odom has earned career-making reviews as Aaron Burr, the villain of Hamilton. But he was moved to comment: “If a white actor was having a similar situation as I’m having right now in this show, the kind of success of this show, there might be three or four offers a week for the next shows you’re going to do. There are no shows for me to do. There’s just no roles.”


This does not seem to be an exaggeration. The prospects for the next season don’t look especially bright from the perspective of diversity. Of course, announcements of new projects will continue to roll in throughout the summer and fall, but as it stands, the season is once again focused on revivals and film adaptations – Les Liaisons dangereuses, Falsettos, The Price, Groundhog Day, Hello, Dolly!, The Glass Menagerie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. With the exception of Cats, which recently announced Leona Lewis as Grizabella, and Miss Saigon, shows with actors of color in the primary roles seem unlikely (though Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, one of the few original pieces announced, does have an African-American female lead and performers of color cast in other parts).


Plays and musicals take years to come together, so it may be several seasons before we experience the knock-on effects of this one. But what will be the effect, exactly, and how successful was this season in terms of diversity? Leaving aside the Hamilton juggernaut, in which actors of varied ethnicities play founding fathers, lovers and rivals, box office receipts have been mixed. Allegiance and Amazing Grace both closed quickly. Eclipsed is hanging on. Shuffle Along, On Your Feet! and The Color Purple continue to do well. In sum, this should still be encouraging enough for producers to take a chance on more daring material requiring more diverse casts and it should encourage writers and composers, too. But if significant change comes at all, it may come slowly.


Why is this? Broadway is, for the most part, a for-profit business. Stars plucked from film and TV, industries that also have mixed records in terms of diversity, are often seen as necessary to sell shows, and a majority of those stars are white. So while this season saw James Earl Jones, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Lupita Nyong’o on the boards, it also saw Jeff Daniels, Michelle Williams, Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Parsons, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Matthew Broderick, Clive Owen, Linda Lavin, Judith Light, Keira Knightley, Bruce Willis and Al Pacino.


It’s also important to note that while musicals, both new and revived, have recently shown a greater willingness to diversify their casting, straight plays have proven more resistant, whether out of a lack of imagination or a fear of alienating audiences, who expect a greater level of realism in drama, or so producers may assume. (Perhaps that assumption also holds true of musicals. During the roundtable, Zachary Levi defended the all-white cast of She Loves Me with the somewhat tone-deaf assertion that the musical “has a fully Caucasian cast because it takes place in Budapest in the 1930s, and that’s what was written”.)


[…]

Jennifer Lim, an actor originally from Hong Kong who received excellent notices as the female lead in Chinglish a few years ago, has found very few Broadway roles to audition for in subsequent seasons. In straight plays, she has found few roles open to all ethnicities. “The opportunities aren’t there,” she says, and she tries “to not get bitter about it”. She does hope that shows like Hamilton will prove a game-changer, contesting the idea that white audiences want to see mirrors of themselves or that color-conscious casting will confuse them. “As someone who did not grow up in this country and is not familiar with that era of American history, I had no problem following the story or getting emotionally invested,” she says.


When opportunities for performers of color do arise, the excitement is palpable. Craig Burns, a casting director at Telsey + Company, held open calls for the Asian American musical Allegiance last season and remembers “a feeling of celebration” during auditions. Burns describes this season as one “for the history books” in terms of its diversity and he believes its effects will last. “The industry seems to be juiced by this season and all of its variety,” he wrote in an email. “Live theatre should reflect the world in which we live.”


So what can producers and audiences do to bring that about? Isaiah Johnson, who stars as Mister in The Color Purple and is pleased “to be a part of this significant season”, believes that producers should find new writers and encourage those writers to tell a variety of stories. “The reason we don’t have more diverse programming is because we don’t have enough producers seeking new works,” he says. “The demographics of playwrights being produced, they aren’t playwrights of color.” Producers and directors can also make themselves more open to nontraditional casting and audiences can show support for productions that do assemble diverse casts.


This is essential if we want to keep talented artists of all ethnicities working on Broadway and in the theater more broadly. As Odom said in the roundtable: “I’ll take care of myself. I’ll be fine. I’ll go do music. I’ll go do TV. I’ll go do what I have to do.” He, too, clearly hopes that the success of Hamilton and shows like it will influence writers and producers further down the line, but perhaps it won’t happen soon enough. “I’d be interested to see what the next two or three seasons look like,” he said, “because I don’t hear a whole lot of stuff.”

We wanted to be, in the words of one of the musical’s songs, “in the room where it happens” to see whether it earns the raves it has received — and my ticket money as one who is too impatient to wait for the movie version.


I also wanted to see if the production is guilty, as some critics have charged, of “Founders chic,” the practice of over-glorifying our nation’s Founding Fathers (and thanks to modern DNA tests, we’re learning more about who some of them fathered), especially when judged by today’s standards of racism, sexism and other culture war issues.


Those are legitimate concerns, in my view, although they also call upon us to judge people by the standards of their day, as much as ours, which is not always comfortable.


For example, Harvard history and law professor Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author who has been credited with reopening debate over whether Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with slave Sally Hemings, said she loves the musical yet has qualms.


“Imagine ‘Hamilton’ with white actors,” she wrote in a blog of the National Council on Public History. “Would the rosy view of the founding era grate?”


Good question. The show’s nontraditional casting of mostly nonwhites to portray white historical figures is timely, refreshing and enticingly ironic. It enables us to have a bit of emotional distance to see, for example, white slave owners portrayed by black or Hispanic actors.


But as a product and reflection of hip-hop culture, the play defies attempts to imagine it with a traditionally white cast. “Hamilton” sets out to be more than that. Its multiracial cast and Miranda’s lyrics seamlessly connect rap compositions with storytelling in a way that respects and renews the nation’s founding narratives.


This, in short, is a patriotic production that, among other messages, conveys the notion that U.S. history is not for whites only. It is U.S. history reimagined for an era in which people of color increasingly are taking more responsibility for a multiracial future — all the way up to the White House.

—  ‘Hamilton’ is even better than its hype (Chicago Tribune)
Neil Gaiman reveals that a black actor turned down the role of the 12th Doctor
  • snuffles44 asked: Thank you very much for your explanation of why you think it was not time for a female doctor (though I respectfully disagree). What about someone of another race than white playing the doctor? As someone who understands casting/storytelling, do you think there will ever be a non-white doctor?
  • Neil Gaiman: Of course. (I thought I’d said that I was disappointed that it didn’t happen this time, and that there are some amazing actors out there. I was rather disappointed that Paterson Joseph didn’t get it last time, although I’ve loved Matt’s Eleven.) And yes, I have no doubt there will be. (I know one black actor who was already offered the part of the Doctor, and who turned it down.) Just as there will be a female Doctor.
  • papercranechronicles asked: Can I ask you who the black actor who turned down the role was?
  • Neil Gaiman: You can ask, but seeing that it was something I was told in confidence by the actor in question, you won’t get an answer.

Broadway has made a lot of strides in the past few years for much more diverse casting, and I think that’s so amazing. But something that’s lacking (and honestly, always has been tbh) is fat representation.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw a show where the main protagonist was fat? I can’t think of any since Hairspray or Lisa Howard in It Shoulda Been You, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

It just feels like that if you’re a fat musical theatre actor, the only roles you’ll get to play are those that specifically call for fat people (like Martha from Heathers) or a villain (like Carlotta, Madame Thenardier, or Madame Morrible- and even those roles are played by thin people often).

Outside of that, the only other role fat people ever can land on Broadway is (for lack of a better term) the token fat belting ensemble member- if a show has one, then it only has one.

It would be awesome if people who cast shows could put heavier actors into more roles- especially leads. There are plenty of roles that could be played by fat people, but it seems like casting directors only ever seem to put actors who fit society’s view of beauty into leads, especially romantic ones.

And it would be great if we could move past putting one fat ensemble member with a few random belty solos here and there. It would absolutely blow my mind if there were two or three heavier ensemble members.

I know that dancers on Broadway are typically pretty thin, and so are most romantic leads, but there is definitely more that could be done.

Fat representation matters.

2

That lovable moppet with the red dress, the curly hair, the big dog, and the even bigger voice is back.

This time, though, Little Orphan Annie is back with a difference: Quvenzhane Wallis is playing an African-American orphan in an ethnically diverse, up-to-date world. And that got us thinking about other instances where producers have breathed fresh life into familiar shows by making them dance to a new beat.

In the late 1960s, after 1,500 performances, Broadway's Hello Dolly! was still arguably “glowin’” and “crowin’” but was no longer “goin’ strong.” Carol Channing had long since departed with a touring company. And her first three replacements on the Great White Way — Ginger Rogers, Bette Grable and Martha Raye — had been playing to ever-diminishing crowds. Newer shows like Man of La Mancha and Cabaret were making Dolly seem old hat.

Then producer David Merrick figured out how to make Dolly the freshest face on the block. He hired not just a new star, but a whole new cast. A whole new black cast, at the height of the civil rights movement — Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, even a youngster named Morgan Freeman making his Broadway debut — and suddenly, his tired old warhorse looked new again.

An Updated ‘Annie’ And The Tradition Of Nontraditional Casting

Photo credits: (Top) Barry Wetcher/Sony Pictures Entertainment. (Bottom) Columbia Pictures/Getty Images, (Left) John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty. (Right) Mark Kauffman/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

SCOTT HELLER: It seems appropriate that the season was in effect bookended by “Hamilton”and “Shuffle Along,” which were both the biggest vote getters and had much to say about race and American history.


CHARLES ISHERWOOD: I agree that they make perfect bookends. “Shuffle Along” reclaims a musical more or less lost to history and affirms the importance of black artists to Broadway going back almost a century. It’s nicely fitting that it should appear in the same season as “Hamilton,” which re-envisions American history through a new lens: emphasizing, through both its nontraditional casting and its story, the ideals of inclusiveness that are at the heart of American history. We are and always have been a nation of immigrants, after all, which makes the new stirrings of xenophobia in the country so dispiriting. “Hamilton” may just be a musical, but it’s a nice cultural rebuke.


BEN BRANTLEY: Both musicals are works of reclamation, and yet they’re so different. Each is a reminder that there’s more than one way to control the narrative (to use the most overused phrase du jour) and to translate history into the present tense. “Hamilton” is the more truly organic of the two works in that sense; its audacity is in turning contemporary musical style into an expression of a spirit of revolt, of cockiness, of daring that infused a great revolution of the past.


“Shuffle Along” is of course more annotative, with illustrative detours and asides that give us context for a great show of decades ago. One quick aside on another, very different musical, which I just saw: “On Your Feet!,” which is in itself a sort of rebuke to the xenophobia you mention, Charles. Most pointedly, there’s the moment when Emilio Estefan says to the record producer who doesn’t want to sell Latino music to American audiences: “Remember my face. This is the face of America.”