Is musical theatre colour-blind?

Colour-blind casting. It’s a phrase that’s used to mean that the ethnicity of the cast performer isn’t taken into account when casting a role. And in practical terms, that tends to mean that a role traditionally played by a white actor is being played  by a non-white one.

In ‘straight’ theatre, it’s almost taken as given these days – despite the same examples being trotted out time after time (David Oyelowo’s Henry VI for the RSC, forever cited whenever the topic arises, was 11 years ago in 2000, for goodness’ sake).

But in West End musical theatre, there do seem to be precious few examples.

When I was reviewing the BBC’s last theatre talent show Over the Rainbow for The Stage, the topic came up more often the closer contestant Stephanie Fearon got to the final – so much so that it was addressed head on by Andrew Lloyd Webber on the show itself (something similar had happened on the preceding show, I’d Do Anything, which had sought an actress to play Nancy in Oliver!).

Now, when it comes to theatrical genres striving for historical authenticity on stage, musical theatre is usually way down the list. And yet, the number of roles that traditionally go to white actors that have been played by ethnic minorities seems to me to be quite low.

I started thinking about this as I was listening to the Ghost cast recording, featuring the peerless Sharon D Clarke as Oda Mae Brown. If, as seems likely, the show extends beyond her contract and she decides to move on, who would take her place? There aren’t many black female performers with a voice and reputation to match Clarke’s, which got me thinking why the role should necessarily go to a black actress — and, conversely, why so many roles in the West End seem so unaccommodating to ethnic minority perfomers.

At the moment, most of the roles taken by non-white performers in the West End are those specifically written with black people in mind. The Lion King, with its African setting, for example, the aforementioned Oda Mae Brown in Ghost – and, in the recent past, Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act, Gary Coleman in Avenue Q, and a whole slew of roles in Hairspray.

Beyond such roles, though, the number of characters who have been cast or recast against ethnic type is small. We Will Rock You’s Killer Queen has been played by women from various ethnic background, of course, including Sharon D Clarke (again), Brenda Edwards and Mazz Murray. Debbie Kurup, who did an amazing job as Patina Miller’s understudy/alternate as Deloris in Sister Act, has had great acclaim in Chicago – and indeed, Sister Act replaced Sheila Hancock’s Mother Superior for a brief period with former Deloris Whoopi Goldberg.

As far as male performers goes, Les Miserables has had black actors playing Javert, while Billy Elliot has gone further by having minority ethnic actors in the title role while their family members continue to be cast with white actors.

I do wonder if, given the number of current musicals which have been based on films and therefore come associated with a visual iconography which includes the ethnicity of the characters concerned, this could have some bearing when it comes to casting certain roles. The supply of musical theatre performers far exceeds the number of roles avaailable, so why travel too far away from the expected look of a given character, especially when a production has specifiically been put on to attract fans of the original film? Well, it’s a theory…

Given the number of musical theatre performers I get the opportunity to rub shoulders with as part of my job, there does seem a disproportionate number of white actors in lead roles compared to the numbers of accomplished actors champing at the bit for their chance in the spotlight. Is, as the question I asked in this blog post’s title says, musical theatre colour blind?

In the world of the tabloid newspaper, traditionally if you ask a question in a headline that begs a yes or no answer, there’s a strong likelihood the answer is “no”. But in this case, I just don’t know what the answer is. I’d love to hear from those in the industry who have formed an opinion based on their own experiences, rather my reasoning, which is based purely on patchy late-night thinking.

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.