Avoid the "The-OBC-Did-It-That-Way-Syndrome"
- OnStage Connecticut Columnist
Between shows like Allegiance and On Your Feet! which highlighted stories of minority groups, to the colorblind casting of Hamilton and the use of deaf (and physically handicapped) actors in the Spring Awakening revival, diversity in theater might be the biggest theme of the 2015/2016 Broadway season. Directors and casting agents are starting to see how many possibilities are out there. There are a plethora of reasons why that kind of diversity improves and strengthens theater on almost every level as well as the pitfalls that this kind of casting can fall into (The Mountaintop, anyone?), but that’s an essay which deserves a much more thoughtful analysis and a more qualified writer. No, I’m talking about another kind of diversity that’s sorely needed in theaters around the country.
For the sake of ease, I’ll refer to it as The-OBC-Did-It-That-Way-Syndrome; that is to say directors forgoing their own artistic input and simply recreating the original Broadway production. It’s an issue I’ve noticed a lot recently, especially at community theater productions or amateur shows. Everything down to the costuming, set, mannerisms and blocking are taken almost 100 percent from the libretto. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – those choices were made with the original creative team and are in the script for a reason – but far too often it impedes directorial creativity and makes the amateur version feel like a pale imitation of the original. The thrill of seeing your child/brother/friend/parent on stage aside, these copycat productions do little but offer the same nostalgia as watching The Wizard of Oz on late-night television for the hundredth time.
There are a lot of ways we can talk about this, but let’s stick with casting. Far too often we see directors get stuck in a casting rut trying to find someone that resembles the original actor/actress either physically or vocally. Once that person is cast, they costume them the same and have them mimic the original’s performance. How many Audreys (from Little Shop Of Horrors) have you seen that are bleached blonde, squeaky voiced and speak with a thick New York accent? How many Eponines have you seen that wrap their arms around themselves and wear a trench coat? How many Marks (from Rent) have you seen that have a striped scarf and glasses? A lot, I suspect. I know I have. Again, there’s nothing wrong with an archetypal image but there’s also nothing in those scripts that suggest that these traits are necessary. They are that way because of the show’s original director and cast, nothing more and nothing less. I’ve heard that Ellen Greene personally suggested the blonde bob for Audrey (Ashman and Menken originally envisioned her as a brunette) and that Eponine’s self-hugging came from Frances Ruffelle’s own nervous tic. I’d also suspect that Anthony Rapp just needs glasses to see. So why are we seeing these images over and over again?
Spring Awakening doesn’t have to include the use of on-stage mics, Grease doesn’t have to end with a leather-clad Sandy, The Witch in Into The Woods does not have to look or sound like Bernadette Peters. These things just make shows predictable and dull, we know where each beat will land before the curtain goes up. Even shows we’ve seen a million times can feel totally fresh and even suspenseful just due to a change in blocking and direction. Think of the Emcee taking off his leather coat in Sam Mendes’ Cabaret revival. While the sexy, shirtless, menacing Emcee is now as copied as the impish original, imagine how that one simple bit of blocking makes you rethink the whole show. Same goes with the ending of the Spring Awakening revival, which considerably changes the tone and meaning of the show’s conclusion.
But more than offering another helping of theatrical sameness, these carbon copy shows limits both the director and auditioners. Why couldn’t you cast an overweight, short man as the Emcee in Cabaret, turning him into a hotheaded, sinister Boss Tweed type? Why couldn’t you cast a lanky redhead as William Barfee? Why couldn’t Sweeney Todd be played by an actor on crutches or in a wheelchair, his body physically broken from his imprisonment? For that matter, what about a male narrator in Joseph or a female Jesus in Godspell? In not looking at all actors I know we’re missing out on great, original performances we might not otherwise see.
We are starting to see this more and more in the professional world. A Miami production of Into The Woods recently cast Titus Burgess (of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and a male) as The Witch, Ali Stroker (the paraplegic actress who starred in Spring Awakening) portrayed Olive Ostrovsky in Paper Mill Playhouse’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee with very little, if no, script changes. Lin-Manuel Miranda has even said that he will not limit casting in any way when Hamilton becomes available for amateur/high school rights. That is to say, we might very well see a female Hamilton, a Burr in a wheelchair, a Schuyler sister of any color imaginable. And why not?
Theater is about reflecting the world outside the proscenium. It’s also about creating something new for each audience. It’s rare that high schools or community theaters produce new work, so why not treat classics with the same sense of creation? As a director, I wouldn’t want to go through the motions of directing, based only on the notes in the libretto. As an actor, I wouldn’t want to duplicate someone else’s work blindly. And as an audience member? Well, there’s nothing better than being surprised at the theater.