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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--
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.
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
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!
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
KITT: [DOES TRADEMARK GROWL/MEOW]
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
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.
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
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
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
But plays aren't documentaries says casting
director 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.
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?
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.
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.
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....
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