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Dear West End Producer: ‘Would you find it jarring to watch a golden-age musical with an ethnically diverse cast?’

West End Producer West End Producer. Photo: Matt Crockett
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I wouldn’t find it jarring: I would be jubilant, dear. Golden-age musicals, although they are based in a historical period, should now be performed as a reflection of today’s society. We live in an ethnically diverse world, with performers of all races, genders, and hair colour being given the chance to play different parts.

Theatre is about storytelling, which should not be restricted to stuffy traditions such as having an all-white cast simply because ‘that’s what it would have been like’. That thinking is now redundant, and blind casting allows us to embrace the rich society we live in.

Actors should be cast for how good they are, and how suitable for the role, regardless of skin colour. Your question is particularly pertinent, after Quentin Letts’ recent comments about an actor at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Sadly he didn’t seem to realise the RSC isn’t the ‘Racist Shakespeare Company’ – in fact it’s a brilliant equal-opportunities employer. Leo Wringer, the actor in question, was cast because he was most suitable for the role. Thank God Quentin is a critic, not a casting director, dear.

RSC actor Leo Wringer: ‘Quentin Letts made an unforgivable racial slur against me’

I also recall the incident when the casting department of Cameron Mackintosh’s Half a Sixpence was berated for employing an entirely white company. The department said those cast were the best suited, and that suitable black, Asian and minority ethnic actors were employed elsewhere. That’s perhaps fair enough, so long as performers from all races were auditioned and considered – which I’m assured they were. That there are now many musicals with a predominantly BAME cast is to be celebrated – including Hamilton, Five Guys Named Moe, The Lion King, and Motown.

When theatre dares, it raises questions and changes attitudes

Any show wishing to break racial boundaries should simply give roles to the most appropriate actor. While the question of gender has been challenged on many recent shows, with female actors tackling traditionally ‘male’ roles, the same needs to happen more regularly for BAME actors. Theatre is where we go to watch stories and get lost in the magic. Within a few minutes of watching Maxine Peake’s Hamlet I forgot the role was usually played by a man, and experienced a profoundly moving and different portrayal. When theatre dares, it raises questions and changes attitudes.

The wealth of ethnic minority talent in the West End shows the promise of a more equal future in entertainment. The dream would be for the proportion of BAME performers in the West End to reflect today’s British population. We live in a diverse age, and theatre should reflect this. BAME talent is essential not only in ethnic minority-focused shows, but in all shows – only then will it truly represent the world we live in. As it all starts with training, there should also be more opportunities for BAME performers at a young age.

Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing the first BAME actor play the Phantom, Jean Valjean or Sandy in the West End. Now that really would be stepping up to the mark. The fact is, theatre is still very white, but I see a big change on the horizon, and I can’t wait.

Send questions to your dear agony aunt via Twitter @westendproducer

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