Howard Sherman: The case of The Prince of Egypt shows how raised voices can change the arts

The cast of The Prince of Egypt at Mountainview Center for the Performing Arts, California. Photo: Kevin Berne The cast of The Prince of Egypt at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, California. Photo: Kevin Berne
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Mentioned in passing at the end of this column last week was the opening of The Prince of Egypt, a new stage musical based on the 1998 animated version of the story of Moses, with a score by Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz.

Taking place at Theatreworks in Palo Alto, California, it’s a relatively out-of-the-way opening for a new musical with a major name attached.

The steadiest stream of new shows originating in California comes from San Diego, home to the Old Globe Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse, though Theatreworks has a long history of developing and premiering new work.

What’s most striking about The Prince of Egypt is how little buzz it’s generating on the east of the US. This contrasts with 15 months ago, when there was a small conflagration surrounding the piece.

When the Bay Street Theatre in New York’s ritzy Hamptons region on Long Island announced a concert presentation of the show for last August, it was met with cries of discrimination and inauthentic representation.

Why? Because this concert of a show that mixed an ancient story of characters from the Middle East and Northern Africa had been cast with Caucasian actors in the leading roles.

After countless Hollywood Biblical epics and the animated film voiced by the likes of Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes and Michelle Pfeiffer, advocates for diversity saw the concert as the recapitulation of an ongoing offence: a negation of people of colour in a story about people of colour.

As with all controversies these days, the debate over The Prince of Egypt casting played out on social media, with Cynthia Erivo and Denee Benton among the performers speaking out about the casting.

Scott Schwartz, director of the production and artistic director of Bay Street, briefly defended the casting by pointing out that out of a cast of fifteen, five were actors of colour, but ultimately he withdrew the performance.

He and the commercial producers went ahead with a private workshop of the show that had been connected with the concert, and publicly declared their intent to be more sensitive to the racial issues going forward.

The fact that there has been no outcry over the Theatreworks production – combined with the recent release of production photos – is evidence that Schwartz and Dreamworks, which produced the film and has jurisdiction over the show through its stage division, have kept their word.

There’s no controversy precisely because they’ve done as they promised. Whatever the fate of The Prince of Egypt on stage will be, last summer’s divisive moment has yielded another small step for diversity and authentic representation. While Palo Alto is a long way from the New York media market, the creative team deserves credit for evolving its thinking.

I was recently one of the voices raising questions about the casting of a production of Evita at North Shore Music Theatre in Massachusetts, which featured no Latino actors in the leading roles.

In that case, the full cast was made public only weeks before the performances, leading some to question whether it was intentionally withheld. While questions about the casting yielded a front-page story in The Boston Globe, the theatre was intransigent and didn’t even suggest they would try to do better in the future.

The Prince of Egypt is evidence of why voices must be raised at times in order to bring about change in the arts, even if at the moment doing so seems inflammatory and harshly oppositional. Its current incarnation is worthy of note precisely because there was advancement, even if as the North Shore Evita proves, not every instance will yield the desired result.

But as we are learning so vividly from the Weinstein scandal, those who speak up must be respected, heard, believed and protected if we have any hope of improving the field.

And not just improving the field but improving society, forcing those in power to do better or – hopefully and increasingly – fall in the face of progress.


This week in US theatre

Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of famed film director Elia Kazan, continues her impressive dual career as actress and playwright. After this summer’s film The Big Sick, in which she played one half of the lead romantic duo, she has a new play, After the Blast, opening Monday at LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater’s home for new works. Lila Neugebauer directs the futuristic drama.

John Patrick Shanley has a decades-long relationship with Manhattan Theatre Club and he returns there with his newest play, The Portuguese Kid, a comedy about a “habitually widowed” woman and her shady lawyer, opening Tuesday, with Shanley also directing. The central duo is played by Sherie Rene Scott and Jason Alexander, the latter marking his return to the New York stage after decades away, including a 10-year stint on Seinfeld.

Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey makes its New York debut this week, opening Tuesday at the Public Theater. Chay Yew, artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, directs Alfaro’s Latino retelling of Sophocles’s famed tragedy, reset in present-day California.

Denise Gough makes her New York debut this week as the National Theatre/Headlong production of Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things, directed by Jeremy Herrin, opens Thursday at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. It runs to November 19, but Gough will be back on the New York stage three months later, when the National’s revival of Angels in America begins previews on Broadway.