Mark Shenton: Celebrating diverse casts in musical theatre

The cast of The Life at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Conrad Blakemore The cast of The Life at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Conrad Blakemore
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We now gladly embrace colour-blind casting in theatre, which means that anyone can play any role – it’s all acting, after all. One of the defining joys of Hamilton, which has just begun previews in London, is to tell its story of the founding fathers of America with a fully diverse cast: this is a story that belongs to everyone.

But sometimes deliberate decisions are made to be racially specific – as when an established title is furnished with an all-black cast, as happened this week with Guys and Dolls in Manchester; the show was also relocated from Times Square to uptown Harlem, a predominantly black neighbourhood, which an onstage street sign locates at 135th Street and Broadway. This made the show also newly culturally specific, setting it in and among a black community.

But there is also a long tradition of shows that have been written specifically with that community in mind.

Porgy and Bess

Clarke Peters and Nicola Hughes in Porgy and Bess at the Savoy Theatre in 2006. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Gershwin’s ultimate theatrical masterpiece is one of the defining glories of vintage Broadway, Porgy and Bess originally premiered in 1935 – and has since been embraced by opera houses as much as it has by theatres. A folk musical written about a community of African Americans, it has since 1985 been seen in notable productions from New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Sussex’s Glyndebourne to the West End (Savoy Theatre, 2006),  Broadway (2012, with Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald) and Regent’s Park (2014).

Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk

This show, which originated at New York’s Public Theatre in 1995 before transferring to Broadway the following year, has never been seen in London. Yet the original production remains one of the most thrilling I’ve ever seen on Broadway. As Ben Brantley described it in his review of the transfer there for the New York Times: ”It’s a strange and mighty force that is connecting the audience and the performers at the Ambassador Theater.  People watching the show there seem to find themselves yelping, whooping and sobbing without even being aware of it. And when the dancers onstage conclude a number with a jubilant roar, the audience roars right back. This white-hot exchange of energy can sometimes be found at rock concerts, but rarely at a Broadway musical anymore. And that, improbably enough, is what is being described here. Sing hallelujah! Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk, George C. Wolfe and Savion Glover’s telling of black American history through tap dancing, is alive and flying higher than ever on Broadway.”

Once on this Island

Once on This Island review at Circle in the Square, New York – ‘a thrillingly immersive revival’

Back on Broadway right now in a thrillingly immersive revival, this 1990 musical is a beautiful folk tale – and its new production refreshingly blurs colour and gender distinctions. As Jesse Green noted in his review for the New York Times: “The actors, of a variety of skin tones, are not obsessively matched to one another or to the colors suggested by the script. Lea Salonga, the Filipina Broadway star, plays Erzulie, the goddess of love; the heroic-voiced Quentin Earl Darrington, as the water god Agwe, is blue. And guess what? It makes no difference. Or, rather, it does, by exemplifying the ludicrousness of such distinctions and underlining the show’s bid to be seen as a universal story that every culture enacts and anyone can tell. If [director Michael] Arden’s casting choices also take some of the pressure off possible questions of cultural appropriation — he and the show’s authors are white — so be it; the larger point is worth making right now.”

The Wiz

Scene from Wac Arts’ recent musical theatre diploma show The Wiz. Photo: Gareth Worsnup
Scene from Wac Arts’ recent musical theatre diploma show production of The Wiz. Photo: Gareth Worsnup

One of a slew of 70s Broadway musicals to feature an all-black cast – others included Purlie in 1971 and Ramin in 1974 – The Wiz may be best known over here for the 1978 film version that starred Diana Ross as Dorothy and also featured Michael Jackson as Scarecrow and Richard Pryor as the Wiz. Though there have been stagings at Hackney Empire and Birmingham Rep, it’s never had a full West End run. Perhaps now is the time to give it one, after the current success of black-led shows like Dreamgirls and Motown the Musical.

The Life

The Life review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘gritty and glorious’

This 1997 Broadway musical with a score by Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman finally received its London premiere last year at Southwark Playhouse. Though not exclusively black, it features a predominantly black cast. As I said in my review: “It’s a thrusting, strutting show, gritty, dark and edgy, as it exposes the desperation, naked need and also the humanity of the sex trade. Coleman adorns it with one of his most scintillating jazz-based scores.”

The Big Life

Originated at Stratford East Theatre Royal before transferring to the West End’s Apollo Theatre in 2005, this British musical original did something rare and remarkable: it put black lives on Shaftesbury Avenue (and coincidentally marked the first time a British musical was directed by a black British man in the West End: as Clint Dyer told me at the time: “The wonderful thing about being black in this country, and how backward Britain is, is that as a black person you have an amazing opportunity to be the first at a lot of things”). In his review for the Guardian, Brian Logan wrote: “In dramatising the experiences of the Windrush generation of West Indian immigrants to the UK, it manages to be infectiously energetic and big-hearted, while never glossing over the hardship these visitors faced.”