Local productions address cultural shifts, specialized skills and financial challenges of beloved shows.
By The 5th Avenue Theatre
Think of a classic American musical. Something like “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” or “West Side Story.” If you picture the stage, it’s filled with actors – singers and dancers joyfully performing musical numbers that have imprinted on our hearts and minds even if we aren’t musical theater fans. What you may not think about is the process it took to fill that stage. Finding the talented triple threats it takes to perform this complex choreography and sing an iconic score can be a challenge even for organizations like Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, one of the largest musical theaters in the country.
“There are pragmatic issues,” says Bill Berry, producing artistic director for the The 5th Avenue Theatre and director of their upcoming production of “West Side Story.” “To do one of the classics right you need a large cast and a large orchestra, so those are problems that an organization has to solve; how are they going to afford the large number of bodies necessary to do the show,” he says.
Outside of being able to afford the right size of cast and orchestra – finding a cast that is talented and specific enough to execute the complex choreography and vocal ranges for the show can also be difficult. Finally, Berry says it’s important to think about “how are you going to cast these shows that make sense in a contemporary landscape and speak to the diverse culture that we currently live in.”
For help with these challenges, they’ve partnered with Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater to cast talented and diverse dancers who can recreate the complex Jerome Robbins choreography, and also completed a coast to coast search to fill out many of the principal roles in the show.
“Even people that don’t know musical theater know the dance language of ‘West Side Story.’ They know what it means when you pop your knee and do the double snap,” laughs Rebekkah Vega-Romero, the native New Yorker who has just been cast in the seminal role of Maria in the production.
Casting Vega-Romero – a Latina and daughter of a Cuban immigrant – in the lead role of Puerto Rican Maria is an important casting choice because – as Vega-Romero notes – representation matters. A recent diversity study by the Actors Equity Association breaks it down: Nationwide, for principal roles in musical theater productions, white actors held 71% of roles, African American actors had 8% of roles, and Latinx actors and Asian actors each only had 2% of roles. In fact, for many years, Maria was played by a white woman in brown face – from the original 1957 Broadway production to the 1961 film adaptation starring Natalie Wood.
“For me personally, those versions of Maria were pretty damaging because it creates this vision of what it means to be a beautiful Latina that is based on white beauty and a specific skin tone. It leaves me growing up thinking that because I don’t look like that, I’m the wrong kind of Latina,” Vega-Romero says.
Casting these iconic race-specific roles with an appropriate actor is only the tip of the iceberg. Some theaters are using unconventional casting to start conversations, too. For example, the 1945 musical “Carousel” was revived on Broadway in 2018 with the lead roles of carnival barker Billy Bigelow and his love interest Julie Jordan played by African American actor Joshua Henry and white actress Jessie Mueller. The play was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won two.
A review in The New York Times called the production “unselfconsciously colorblind.”
Some people might say they don’t go to the theater to think, or that they go so they can forget about the horrors of the world. But Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater disagrees.
“Maybe the goal should be to go to the theater and the problems and challenges that we see in real life, we see projected on stage and that opens up possibilities for how we might deal with those challenges,” Byrd says.
Fifty percent of Spectrum Dance Theater’s company are people of color, helping theaters like The 5th Avenue Theatre and others across the country ensure color-conscious casting, especially when filling out large cast dance shows. Previous collaborations between The 5th Avenue Theatre and Spectrum Dance Theater include the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.”
“It’s important to remember when “West Side Story” first premiered on Broadway its Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale of lovers from different cultural backgrounds was somewhat shocking,” Byrd says. “That audience wasn’t prepared for what they saw. That was very uncomfortable material that they were talking about, and people were not comfortable with it. But they recognized how important it was and how innovative it was to take on that manner using this particular theater form.”
He hopes people “lean in” to challenges or uncomfortable feelings when it comes to seeing classic musicals revived with contemporary casts, saying “If [theaters] aren’t helping us see a production differently than how it was done in the past, there’s no reason to do it.”
Berry agrees, thinking back on the first time he directed “West Side Story” for The 5th Avenue Theatre in 2007. “The time to be more cognizant about diversity in casting decisions was probably 10 or 12 years ago.” And while the movement is building, there’s always room to grow.
“We want to do better than we are doing. We want to do better than we did this time and every time. And it’s not just casting but it’s who is creating art, who’s on the board, who is backstage, it’s all aspects. How do we create equity and inclusion across the whole organization,” he says.
The 5th Avenue Theatre is one of America’s leading musical theater companies, giving the Pacific Northwest a front-row seat to original powerhouse productions that go on to light up marquees and audiences all the way to Broadway.