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Matthew Hemley: Camp cliches and all-white casts? Welcome to musical theatre in 2016

Cast of Chichester Festival Theatre's Half a Sixpence. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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This has been a week of big openings for musical theatre. At the one end, the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical School of Rock; at the other, Chichester Festival Theatre’s transfer of Half a Sixpence. Both good in their own ways, but both also big fat let-downs.

A let-down, you ask? But the shows have had amazing reviews, haven’t they? This is true. And my complaints have nothing to do with the quality of the productions or the performers. In each of their ways, both are excellent.

Nonetheless, I found both these shows disappointing. While one is failing massively in terms of diversity, the other includes a horrendously cliched character who made me wince.

In a cast of 26, there is not one non-white face

Let’s start with School of Rock. I was disheartened to see a gay character portrayed as a highly camp stereotype simply to milk laughs from the audience. In the show, a gay couple are the adoptive parents of one of the schoolchildren. That’s really lovely. And how refreshing to see a gay couple on stage who have a family as part of the norm.

But why did one of them have to be feminine for comic effect? Surely we’re beyond that? Some of you will argue that musicals are full of cliches. Isn’t Miss Trunchbull in Matilda a cliche of a terrifying headmistress? Perhaps, but when you make a cliche of a protected characteristic, such as sexuality or gender, you’re on dangerous ground.

That said, School of Rock at least features a very diverse cast. Which can’t be said about Half a Sixpence. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the musical. As I tweeted after the show, it will charm the pants off you. It really will. It’s a fabulously staged and beautifully performed show.

But there’s just one problem: in a cast of 26, there is not one non-white face. That, for a new production, is unforgivable.

I tried to raise it with others after the show and, while in agreement, they pointed to productions such as Motown, Memphis and Dreamgirls for proof of diversity.

The problem is, these are shows either about black performers or with black performers written into them. My problem is where race isn’t specified in the roles and an entire cast ends up being white. It smacks to me of casting directors putting performers into roles that match their own image. It’s an unconscious bias that needs to be addressed.

I don’t want to be the one who rains on the parade (to quote a musical) of these shows. As I’ve said in so many ways, they’re great.

But productions today have a responsibility to think more carefully about casting and stereotypes because of the message they give out about theatre, and theatre’s attitude, which is potentially damaging. And if we’re really keen to get new and diverse audiences into theatres, then we have a responsibility to address this collectively.

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