Diversity in the Traditional Musical

Jun 25, 2019


By Julio Agustin (Matos), Jr.



The 2016 Broadway theatre season showcased an unexpected shift in the representation of race, ethnicity, disability, and gender-neutral casting in the American Musical Theatre. For the first time in the history of the Tony Awards, African-American actors swept both the Leading and Featured Actor and Actress categories in musicals (Begley). In addition, accolades were bestowed upon the first actor in a wheelchair on Broadway, Ali Stoker, as well as others with disabilities not normally found on the Broadway stage.1 Furthermore, arguably the most successful theatre experience of the season, Hamilton, a musical by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, confirmed that commercial theatre had finally embraced measurable advancement in inclusive casting – casting that mirrors our audiences and reflects the world in which we live.

Not only is the face of those winning the awards changing, but it can also be argued that the demographics of theatre-goers is expanding. The visibility of a diverse body of performers is increasing, and the numbers of those writing for and about underrepresented communities has grown exponentially. Still, with all of the positive progress made in casting for the contemporary musical, directors often stumble in the handling of musicals written in the 1940s and 1950s, also known as the Golden Age of Musical Theatre.

Efforts have been made to combat the negative stereotypes and casting issues found in older musicals, yet, it remains a challenge to confront the offensive cultural and societal codes ingrained in these works. How does one remount potentially offensive portrayals of museum pieces that contain antiquated relationships and negative stereotypes? Stage directors, including those who direct within the educational frameworks of academia, frequently opt for contemporary works rather than to risk  remounting classic musicals that some may find offensive. The challenge is to honor the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Comden and Green while simultaneously showing deference to the reasoned sensibilities of today’s socially conscious audiences.

In developing a directorial concept for my university’s recent mainstage production of the quintessential Golden Age musical Guys and Dolls (1950), I attempted to employ a respect for traditional values and expectations while negotiating the issues of misogyny and racism that were inherent to the era and subsequently intrinsic to the piece. My goal was to address the causes, effects, challenges, and solutions for solving this problem in the academic setting.



Before we go further, in order to understand some of the complications of resolving  the issue of casting, it is useful to recognize the vocabulary ascribed to this area of the industry. “Non-traditional” has been the preferred term in casting for several decades, but what exactly does it mean? Taunya Lovell Banks of the University of Maryland School of Law published an article whereby she sought to clarify the definition of “non-traditional casting” by using both the New York Times definition of “placing a nonwhite in a role not specially written for a non-white actor” and the Washington Post definition of “the use of actors of any race, sex, ethnicity or degree of disabilities in roles for which such factors are not germane to the development of stage characters or the play” (qtd. in Banks).

Others prefer the term “color blind casting” which, according to Banks, denotes the process of casting the actor without consideration of the actor’s ethnicity. However, this term has been labeled insensitive by both the Actors’ Equity Association and those who work in disability services. The term is also challenging to the experienced director who recognizes that every choice made will impact the audience’s experience because it assumes that artists and audiences alike will overlook physical appearance as part of the actor’s type. Therefore, until another more comprehensive term, such as “inclusive casting,” or even “realistic casting,” becomes commonplace, “non-traditional” continues to be the most commonly used term.


The Challenges

Integrated “book” musicals of the 1940s and 1950s are defined by their ability to incorporate narrative storytelling into their songs and dances (Kowalke 162). Broadway shows during this time performed to sold-out audiences and enjoyed long and healthy runs. However, despite the undeniable popularity of this entertainment genre in the United States, these were not the best of times for everyone in the nation.

Two areas of concern that are troubling for today’s directors to confront are the characters themselves and the relationships found within librettos of this genre which often reinforce the social norms and mores of the times. Overt sexism and dysconscious racism, which is the “limited and distorted understanding... about inequity and cultural diversity,” were the norm; and the ability to observe and understand another’s perspective was not yet on most people’s social and/or moral compass (King 134). The musical The King and I, for example, was originally proclaimed as an exotic and romance-filled depiction of “the Far East.” More recently, it has been referred to by LGBTQ activist and author Christian Lewis as “a battle between sexism and racism” featuring “slavery, murder, flagellation, prostitution, polygamy, and human trafficking,” (Lewis). Given these themes, it is worth noting when a professional theatre is able to undertake a production and successfully navigate the issues. The 2015 Lincoln Center production of South Pacific, directed by Bartlett Sher, highlighted the racism inherent both in the piece and its time. In doing so, it provided a commentary. For example, Mr. Sher’s decision to stage the African-American sailors separately from those within the same infantry was one of the many subtle moments that could cause other directors great discomfort (Brantley). Sher’s other options (to have only Caucasian soldiers, or to mix soldiers of different races and imply racial integration in the armed forces during that time) would have been inaccurate. Embracing such controversies is no small feat, which explains why academic institutions simply avoid staging certain older works (Figure 1).

There also existed a lack of diversity within the original acting companies of many Golden Age musicals. This unwillingness to reach out to the community of multiethnic performers who were ready to more authentically portray these roles was commonplace. Hit musicals such as Kismet, West Side Story, and The King and I prominently featured Caucasian actors in leading roles that were written for Latino and Asian characters.

The Non-Traditional Casting Project was established by the Actors’ Equity Association in 1986 “to promote the inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and the disabled in all areas of theatrical activity” (Pao 4). The 2012 report from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition describes varying levels of increases since 2006 in the number of non-Caucasian actors hired by New York producers (AAPAC). Yet despite the progress in the visibility of ethnic minorities on stage in the past few years, a major recent setback was incited by one of the professional organizations that had been entrusted to protect its membership. On November 18, 2015, the Dramatists Guild released a warning to directors everywhere:

Play licenses clearly state that “no changes to the play, including text, title and stage directions are permitted without the approval of the author” or words to that effect. Casting is an implicit part of the stage directions; to pretend otherwise is disingenuous. (Dale, emphasis added).

Although the statement was, in large part, put forward to protect minorities from losing roles to Caucasian actors, the unintended consequence of this was that it was now also obligatory to hire a white actor if this was indicated in the playwright’s character description. Given the disparity in the number of roles available to people of color versus those written for Caucasian actors, this statement could serve to reduce the number of non-white actors cast. The estate of Edward Albee recently rejected a non-traditional casting choice for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Oregon’s The Complete Works Project. That is, perhaps, the freshest example of this adherence to the authority of play licensers (Simon).

Additionally, the convention of reinforcing negative stereotypes for comedic effect, especially among the featured characters, was prevalent in the musicals of this period. There are those who consider Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s sensitivity to racial tolerance and gender equality in their 1951 Broadway musical The King and I commendable, given the times. Yet conventions such as the prominent knife-wielding Puerto Rican gang members of West Side Story, or the pipe-toting Native American in Annie Get Your Gun reinforce negative or limiting stereotypes. During this era, it was deemed unnecessary to reach out to those who might have been able to inspire greater authenticity in the development of the script; the negative stereotypes went unchallenged.

Although examples of non-traditional casting decisions in high-stakes commercial musical theatre are becoming more mainstream, there appear to be very few examples of this in Golden Age revivals. Audra McDonald is still one of the only African-American actresses who has been able to transcend race in musical theatre; her “Carrie Pipperidge” in the 1994 Nicholas Hytner version of Carousel, and “Lizzie” in 110 in the Shade, are the most well-known examples of non-traditional casting in a Golden Age revival. (Sher’s insistence on actors of Asian descent for King and I has been less publicized.)

Arena Stage’s 2011 production of Oklahoma! represents a recent example of nontraditional casting in a Golden Age musical that advanced the perception of what is often seen as representative of the American landscape. One reviewer wrote:

The breakthrough of director Molly Smith’s production is in fusing the making of America ethos of “Oklahoma!” — set at the turn of the 20th century, before the territory achieved statehood — to a more modern understanding of how the country’s composition is utterly dynamic. Thus, Aunt Eller (an amusingly persnickety E. Faye Butler) and Laurey are black; Curly is played by a Latino; the lead cast and ensemble include other actors and dancers who are white, Asian American and African American (Marks).

This production also shattered box office records, thereby proving that audiences are prepared to accept this change (Healy). (As an olive-skinned Latino actor/dancer with dark, curly hair, my own experience performing in a professional production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as “Brother Benjamin” proved that, much like the spectators of Arena Stage, audiences were prepared to accept differences in features and complexions in our family unit despite my having six blond Caucasian “brothers.”)

In seeking solutions to the issue of inclusivity in casting for the Golden Age musical, specifically those containing culturally insensitive traditions, some have called for the cessation of producing these works until the positive portrayals of ethnically diverse characters equal those that perpetuate the negative. Unfortunately, a balance of equality is not only a problem for persons of color. There is enduring discrimination in roles for women over forty and actors with disabilities, as well as an overall disparity in gender equality. Although female playwrights like Bekah Brunstetter and others caution against “blindly program[ing] a play by a woman just because it is a woman,” a call to action was made by the Goodman Theatre’s longtime artistic director Robert Falls who remarked that he has always been conscious of this balance when choosing his season. In fact, Falls’ record is respectable: forty-seven percent of the plays that he has produced have been written by women (Evans).


Case Study: Guys and Dolls

Guys and Dolls was written in 1949 and is considered by many to be the “perfect” Golden Age musical—with brilliantly carved comedic characters, entertaining (if not culturally appropriate) dances, a compelling script, and a memorable score—yet my recent university production yielded more questions than answers with respect to casting. While maneuvering the requirements outlined by the copyright holders, such as those specifically delineating male and female characters, without infringing upon casting restrictions, we were able to include in our production a redistribution of gender-specific roles, including a female gambler (figure 2). Additional non-traditional casting choices were made with the inclusion of an actress over forty, a homosexual Hot Box couple, an interracial romantic leading pair (figure 3), a featured actor with a learning disability, and a leading lady who towered over her male counterpart. As revealed during an audience talk-back, some attendees observed that our casting decisions allowed for an environment in which women were in charge at the Hot Box Nightclub, while also showcasing various facets of women as opposed to the more  common overlysexualized version.

The inclusion of the female gambler, on the other hand, seemed interesting if not confusing to some who wondered whether she was intended to represent a transsexual character.

Despite these attempts at leveling the gender playing field through casting choices, issues of misogyny remained deeply ingrained in the script. My creative team—which included females in the roles of choreographer, associate director, and dramaturg—paid close attention to the script’s innate challenges and proposed solutions to each. One such challenge appeared in the Havana scene in which Sarah Brown reluctantly agrees to go on a date to a nightclub in Havana with Sky Masterson. While there, she orders a milkshake, but is handed an alcoholic drink instead. The prevalence of alcohol abuse and date rape on college campuses necessitated a reworking of this event in the script. With the team’s guidance, the actress portraying Sarah Brown took a pause at the moment of realization in the scene, then made the choice to knowingly ingest the alcohol, thereby making the conscious decision to “let her hair down” and enjoy the evening’s adventures.

Furthermore, in allowing herself to drink enough to release her inhibitions, her big Havana number “If I Were a Bell” was no longer an ode to inebriation as is more commonly staged, but rather a euphoric recognition of a world, and feelings, that she had never allowed herself to feel until this point. This moment gave our Sarah Brown greater strength and agency not typically found in traditional revivals of the piece. All of this was done without changing a single word of the script.

This balance of authenticity and contemporary sensitivity was important to our company of student actors. The ability to find balance empowered the students to make the most informed choice despite the innately sexist material. The actor portraying Sky Masterson articulated that he felt compelled to “demonstrate where we have come from, as well as where we still have to go, as men in our society.”

Rather than avoiding some of his character’s traditionally condescending and arrogant speeches about relationships and women, he opted instead to highlight those traits, allowing for greater conflicting moments and opening the door for audiences to question their own comfort level regarding the acceptability of these behaviors.

One final casting choice impacted many in the company, yet likely went unnoticed by most in the audience. We were grateful to have collaborated with our campus’ Office of Disability Services, who helped to spread the word of our auditions and our desire to cast inclusively. We were thus able to cast a student with registered disabilities in a principal role. Although the expectations to produce were the same for everyone, the management of this student’s particular needs—extra time for line memorization, greater clarity in direction, additional private rehearsals—was important to both the work and, subsequently, the final product. The disability was not apparent to the audience in performance; still, during the post-mortem, the actor expressed gratitude for the immense impact that the experience had in helping them to envision a place for themselves in this industry. This statement was met with resounding applause by castmates.

Both actors and the audiences alike commented that our production embraced diversity in all of its forms, as well as presented relationships that were not acceptable, or even legal, in our country in the 1940s yet seemed completely unremarkable in our production. The homosexual Hot Box dancers, Nathan Detroit and Adelaide’s interracial relationship, and the inclusion of the female gambler were not intended to draw focus; they were simply a natural extension of the world of the play. Our production sought to honor the traditional while also seeking to make the relationships relevant to our community and, most especially, our student audiences. As with every casting decision, the final selection of actors was dictated by the limits of the audition pool; yet their character choices evolved from the freedom they were given to build and make decisions to personalize their work.

Those of us who teach musical theatre are charged with introducing our students to the whole canon, which includes older works. Without some updates, students may construe that the Golden Age musical is, in fact, a museum piece lacking in originality and devoid of the potential to become relevant to, or have impact on a contemporary audience. Professional companies are making choices to increase relevance and impact for their audiences as well. Bill Rauch, the long-time artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, said, “We in leadership positions need to do everything we can to reflect the world we live in” (Burleson). Rauch challenged the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization; consequently, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will be showcasing the groundbreaking Golden Age musical Oklahoma! next year with what he calls “an LGBT makeover” featuring a lesbian “Curly,” a male “Ado Annie” (now “Ado Andy”), and a transgender “Aunt Eller” (Burleson).



And so we are called to educate our students and challenge our audiences. In doing so, we test the boundaries of the traditional musical. Our production of Guys and Dolls, although not at all perfect and still inherently sexist, was proof that there is room for non-traditional casting and re-interpretation even in what many consider to be one of the most perfect musicals ever written, and that even small shifts are rewarded by student interest and support. Directors in the academic setting must take risks, seek diverse talent, and embrace a more heterogeneous team of collaborative artists with a different range of human experiences than those of our own. In doing so, we educate through our choices.

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