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"...[T]he wife is black, the cousin is white, the aunt is black -- ...but the rocking horse glued sideways to the roof; that didn't bother you at all."

      Non-Traditional Casting

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Juen 2, 2001

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This weekend the year's Tony Awards are being presented to the best of Broadway. Brian Stokes Mitchell is up for a Tony for his role in August Wilson's King Hedley II. Last year Mitchell won for his role in Cole Porter's musical Kiss Me, Kate. A black actor in a traditionally white role. Of course most roles in musical revivals are traditionally white if that means originated by white actors. On the Media's Tony Maciulis reports on the origins and the evolution of non-traditional casting. [SCENE FROM KISS ME, KATE PLAYS]

MAN: Why there's a wench! Come on and kiss me, Kate! [MUSIC] KISS ME, KATE--

TONY MACIULIS: Wearing a sweater vest and seated in his stately Manhattan brownstone, Philip Rose does not appear particularly revolutionary, yet those are the words used to describe him in the '60s. He was a theatre producer, a hot one, and controversial, having just produced the hit play A Raisin in the Sun. An idea struck him.

PHILIP ROSE: There are so many roles that are nondescript in terms of color. They don't say it's a white man or, or a white woman; a black man or a black woman. The theater owners and the theatre producers and the writers just assumed that it would be all white people cause that's what they were writing about.

TONY MACIULIS: In the 1960s when the script for a two-person love story, The Owl and the Pussycat, came across his desk, he thought it would be perfect for Diana Sands, a black actress, and Alan Alda, a white actor.

PHILIP ROSE: At the time, people were calling me up, even friends of mine, saying you're crazy! I mean how can you do this? But we did.

TONY MACIULIS: Rose cast a white actress as the understudy in Owl and the Pussycat. He describes one very important evening in 1964 when the lead lost her voice on stage.

PHILIP ROSE: After the first 5 minutes or so of the play she was supposed to go off to the bathroom while Alan Alda went off to the bedroom, and she entered the bathroom; closed the door and came out about a minute or so later only came-- who came out was the white understudy in Diana's costume. Well of course there was an enormous laugh from the audience. But then the understudy went on to finish the play. It didn't change anything. It didn't change a word. And it just made the point that that could be done and it didn't matter!

TONY MACIULIS: The box office success of Rose's plays were a signal to less adventurous producers. Casting actors of color would not hurt profits. The Owl and the Pussycat went on the road to equal success with another non-traditional choice: a cat-woman.


TONY MACIULIS: At 73 Eartha Kitt is still making men uncomfortable with her timeless sex appeal. She is currently touring as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, a non-traditional role. She wonders why stage talent is held up to a different standard than other professions.

EARTHA KITT: The sports world has no color. If you're playing the game well and you're one of the best, the why should we - any of us - be thought of in terms of color? We should be thought of in terms of talent or our capabilities!

TONY MACIULIS: That's what the Nontraditional Casting Project wants casting directors to ask. The non-profit organization was founded in 1986 after an Actor's Equity study revealed that 90 percent of employed actors were white. The staff keeps a data base containing resumes and photos for nearly 3,000 actors of color and has helped place them in over 3200 productions in regional theatre, Broadway and television. Sharon Jenson heads up the Nontraditional Casting Project.

SHARON JENSON: We don't insist that Hamlet is Danish. We don't insist that St. Joan is French. We, we still go along with what -- with those stories because they're powerful stories and it's --and we believe if we have a powerful enough actor who is transformational enough to take us along in those journeys.

TONY MACIULIS: It's not a journey that every theatregoer is willing to take. John Simon is the theatre critic for New York Magazine.

JOHN SIMON: I do think history has to be accounted for. I am bothered when Hamlet is played by a black actor, quite aside from the fact that he may be good, bad or indifferent. It just doesn't ring historically true.

TONY MACIULIS: Simon criticized a revival of Carousel for which African-American actress Audra McDonald won a Tony. The musical, set at the end of the 19th Century in New England was cast with several interracial couples.

JOHN SIMON: Not only is it unhistoric, but it is unbiological when this same person's brother and mother and father are all white and then suddenly this person is black. It sets up questions. I mean what kind of indiscretions did his mother indulge in.

TONY MACIULIS: But plays aren't documentaries says casting director Arnold Mungioli.

ARNOLD MUNGIOLI: It's absolutely ridiculous that in that time period the husband is white, the wife is black, the cousin is white, the aunt is black -- and my response was: but the rocking horse glued sideways to the roof; that didn't bother you at all.

TONY MACIULIS: Mungioli's casting credits include Ragtime, Fosse and Candide, all of which employed several actors of color. He cast Diahann Carroll for the role of Norma Desmond in the Toronto production of Sunset Boulevard. He recalls a press conference when a Canadian critic asked his star the inevitable question. You're black and Norma Desmond is white. Can you comment on that?

ARNOLD MUNGIOLI: And Diahann Carroll said, with perfect sang-froid, certainly. [SUNSET BOULEVARD MUSIC UP AND UNDER] First of all Norma Desmond is a creation of Billy Wilder's imagination, so we don't know what color she is, do we? Secondly, this is a story about a woman who fears aging. She is 50 years old. I have long passed my 50th birthday, and I understand the emotional arc of this character. The man was silenced; I wish forever.

TONY MACIULIS: New York Magazine's John Simon.

MAN: What I particularly would object to is affirmative action casting. A part calling for a white actor is deliberately given to a black actor who is not nearly so suited for that part as some white actor who is equally a candidate for that role.

TONY MACIULIS: There seems to be little danger of rampant non-traditional casting. It has only been in recent decades that Asian actors, for example, actually got to play Asian roles. Christine Toy Johnson is a member of the Nontraditional Casting Project. She has performed on Broadway and off for over 15 years.

CHRISTINE TOY JOHNSON: If a breakdown came down for a role of a female who was born and raised in Scarsdale, was a cheerleader who had a passion for musical theatre, blah, blah, blah right -you - and it was on Broadway - you can bet that I would not be brought in on the first run for this, although I just described myself.

TONY MACIULIS: An all American girl. Johnson has roots in the U.S. tracing back to 1850, but she's a hundred percent Chinese, and that's all casting directors tend to see. But she admits it's getting better. Her agent has recently gotten her auditions for those all-American roles she identifies with. They would have been out of the question a few years ago.

CHRISTINE TOY JOHNSON: If you will see me, I will show up and let you know that I can tell the story. And if you let me tell the story, I can pretty much guarantee that the audience will not go running, screaming from the theater saying oh, my God - you put a person of color on your stage!

TONY MACIULIS: Philip Rose proved that on that fateful night during the run of the Owl and the Pussycat when colors changed in an instant, leaving the meaning of the play unscathed. He recalls those days in his new book titled You Can't Do That on Broadway. Thanks in part to him, now you can. The Nontraditional Casting Project is currently waiting for results from a national survey of diversity in theatre companies. They're hoping that the faces on stage now better reflect those on the streets. [SONG WHEN I MARRY MR. SNOW FROM CAROUSEL PLAYS] WHEN I MARRY MR. SNOW-- For On the Media, I'm Tony Maciulis in New York. --THE FLOWERS WILL BE BUZZING WITH THE HUM OF BEES; THE PETAL MAY.... 51:00

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