That Time I Played Benny: Diversifying Casting in Theatre

Adriana Nocco

When I was about seven or eight years old, I attended The Lion King on Broadway with my family for the first time. This was an extremely big deal for me, especially since The Lion King was (and still is) my all-time favorite Disney movie, and I was ecstatic to witness its magic live onstage. Roughly five minutes before the show started, however, I noticed a slip of paper that had been tucked inside my Playbill. It read, “The Lion King on Broadway Casting Call: Seeking Children to Play Young Nala and Young Simba.” I believe I stopped breathing for a full minute. I was restless and more excited than I had ever believed possible. After the show ended, I knew I had to tell my parents about my brilliant idea to audition to be Young Nala. They had to understand. This was obviously my destiny.

I squealed my case to my parents in the car on the way home, begging and pleading for the chance to make my new-found dream a reality, and I distinctly remember them exchanging many a nervous glance. Once we had arrived home, they decided to sit me down in the living room so that we could have a chat. My father cautiously said to me, “Honey, I know this is hard to hear, but I don’t think you can be Nala on Broadway.” My heart sank. “Why? I don’t get it!” I replied, confused and upset. My mother, albeit unsteadily, took over: “Adriana, honey, how do I put this…? You need to be, um, a certain race to be in that show. You, well, you need to be African American. You need to be black.”

Justin Keyes (Benny) and Steena Fernandez (Mimi)

Justin Keyes (Benny) and Steena Fernandez (Mimi)

I was devastated. I was crushed. I simply did not understand. “But that’s not fair!” I exclaimed over and over again, unable to handle the fact that I would never play Nala, would never be cast in my favorite Disney story. However, I gradually put two and two together. The Lion King takes place in Africa. Most Africans have dark skin. I am an Italian American who has white skin, and based upon my appearance and racial background, audience members would never have believed that I (as Nala) inhabited the Pride Lands of Africa in the context of The Lion King. I had learned that, in the context of certain theatrical projects, casting that is specific in terms of certain characteristics (race/gender/etc.) is necessary (well, it should be but isn’t always treated as such, unfortunately, ex: how Emma Stone was cast as an Asian American in the recent Aloha movie). Casting is not, in fact, blind, and sometimes, it most certainly should not be.

However, there are certain cases in which diversifying casting can be done, and done successfully. Ironically, as a twenty year old, I would go on to play a role in a much beloved, iconic musical that I’d never in my life have thought I’d play; said role was actually originated by a black, male actor, and I am neither black nor male. Yet, in the fall 2014 semester of my junior year, I was cast as Benny, aka Benjamin Coffin III and the former roommate and current landlord of the other principal characters, in my college’s production of RENT, which is a role that was originated by Taye Diggs both on and off-Broadway. (I’ll give you a second to pick your jaw up off your keyboard before you continue.)

I went into the audition process for that production hoping that I would be cast as Maureen, RENT’s eccentric, bisexual performance artist (and one of my dream roles). I was called back for Maureen twice, and towards the end of the audition process, I was definitely being taken into heavy consideration for that role. However, something I would never have expected happened during the casting process. I soon received an email from the creative team, which included the cast list, and the email informed me that I had been cast as Benny instead.

I knew that the director, a student in my year named Maya whom I’ve worked with on numerous college productions, had been planning on gender-bending Benny, but I was still completely shocked. It had simply never occurred to me that someone could possibly believe I was capable of playing that role. However, Maya needed to fill a void in her cast, for many more women than men typically audition for Bryn Mawr/Haverford productions. So, she went into the audition process looking to cast Benny as a woman, was excited to put a new spin on a character that is often overlooked, and felt that I was well suited to her vision of a new, female Benny. She also had tested my vocal range during the audition process, and knew I was capable of singing Benny’s part as it was originally written (aka, in a man’s range); the music director would not (and did not) need to transpose any of Benny’s songs with me as Benny. I was excited by the prospect of reinventing Benny; I do not believe a woman has ever played Benny before, and I had never had the chance to reinvent a role before. I accepted my role, and Maya and I worked together to 1) reinvent Benny as a character and 2) attempt to successfully incorporate our reinvented Benny into Jonathan Larson’s piece.

I worked very closely with Maya throughout the process of reinventing Benny as a female character, and we made some changes to allow the diversification of the character to make sense within the context of the show while also staying true to Jonathan Larson’s original message and intention. For instance, in the context of the production, due to the fact that Benny was now to be a woman, Benny became a lesbian instead of a straight man (still married to a wealthy woman, Alison Grey), which in turn affected Mimi, who now had to become a bisexual character instead of a straight character. The director and I not only changed Benny’s gender and sexual orientation, but also decided to put our own spin on Benny’s personality and backstory in order to provide audience members with a fresh, new take on the material.

Maya and I sat down together for about an hour when the rehearsal process first began, and analyzed Benny as a character. First of all, we changed the character’s full name from “Benjamin Coffin III,” which is typically perceived as a “masculine” name, to “Bentleigh Coffin III,” a more seemingly “feminine” one. Benny is supposed to be “yuppie” and pretentious, and in our opinion, the name “Bentleigh” certainly fit the bill. Maya and I then went on to discuss what we believed were Bentleigh’s roots as a character: where she came from and how her background affected who she had become when the musical began. The results of our discussion were as follows: Bentleigh was born and raised into a very wealthy family, and therefore became rather used to living with a high level of financial security and comfort. She then met Mark, Roger, Maureen, and Collins during her college years in New York City (at NYU), became very close friends with each of them, and became infatuated with the Bohemian lifestyle that the four of them were pursuing as a result.

After college, Bentleigh decided to abandon her upper class family and its finances, move in with Mark, Roger, Maureen, and Collins, and pursue life as a Bohemian with them. However, life as a Bohemian was much more difficult, a lot less secure, and a lot less glamorous than Bentleigh had expected it to be. Facing poverty as a “starving artist” was especially difficult for Bentleigh to deal with due to the fact that she knew the life (and financial security) she was missing/had given up. Bentleigh also felt as if she was in way over her head when it was made known to the group that Collins had AIDS and Roger was HIV-positive. She also had briefly started a romantic relationship with Mimi and learned that Mimi was HIV-positive as well, which was news that she wasn’t able to process easily since she had fallen hard for Mimi very quickly. So, when she met Alison three months before the beginning of the musical, whose family owned the building that Bentleigh and her friends lived in together, and learned of her immense wealth, Bentleigh decided to take advantage of the situation. Bentleigh began dating Alison, and when Alison asked Bentleigh to marry her, even though she didn’t love Alison, how could Bentleigh refuse? Our Benny was very practical and ambitious, and married Alison (out of desperation) in order to escape the life of a starving artist and regain access to the comfortable lifestyle she had previously given up. Due to her marriage to Alison, Bentleigh ended up ironically becoming the landlord of the building she’d been living in with her friends, moved out of the building and in with Alison in Westport. Even though there are some ways in which Benny still tries to help out her friends during the show and shows that she misses them, they feel betrayed by her, and shun her throughout RENT for selling out and leaving them behind. Maya and I did not treat Benny as a villain, but rather as a character whose sense of practicality/need for financial comfort ability and her love for her friends and the Bohemian lifestyle conflict throughout RENT.

Through our process of exploration and reinvention of Benny as a character, Maya and I discovered that Benny is never actually granted a conclusion at the end of the show; rather, traditionally, Benny is ordered to leave the East Village by his wife once she discovers that he has been cheating on her with Mimi, and the audience never learns what happens to Benny in the end. Maya decided that our new, female Benny would be redeemed in the eyes of her old Bohemian friends. Once Angel, a drag queen and the love of Collins’ life, died of AIDS, our new Benny reevaluated her life choices. Angel is the most selfless person she had ever met, and had the most selfless and unconditional love for both Collins and for her friends that Benny had ever seen. Benny realized that she drastically pales in comparison to Angel; she realized she’d been incredibly selfish in her relationship with Mimi (she’s already married and wants to have Mimi as well as security alongside her wife), her relationships with each of her friends, and her decision to sell out. At Angel’s funeral, when Benny witnessed that Mimi a) might die soon and b) is truly in love with Roger, we had Benny yank the Bluetooth for business calls that she wore in every scene of the show up until that point in time off her ear, symbolizing her change of heart. In the very next scene, Benny began to atone by offering to pay for Angel’s funeral. Benny does this in every version of the show, but Maya and I felt that depicting Benny’s change of heart visibly onstage both made our reinvented Benny’s character arc more interesting and made Benny’s choice to do this make more sense.

Maya had Mark change one of his lines from “In honor of Benny’s wife pulling Benny out of the East Village location” to “In honor of Benny’s wife leaving Benny here in the East Village location” specifically so that Benny’s presence at the end of the show made sense. Maya and I also decided to have Benny present for the finale of the show, which has never been done in a production of RENT before, in order to illustrate to the audience that Benny had been welcomed back by her friends with open arms after they witnessed her change of heart. She decided to have Maureen, Joanne, etc. hug Benny, thus conveying forgiveness and re-acceptance. Our Benny also was able to use the final scene of the show to finally let go of Mimi, accept the fact that she and Roger were going to be together from now on, and cherish the fact that Mimi was alive and well at the show’s conclusion.

Reinventing Benny called for a few minor script changes, and I realized that it was impossible to have my creative voice seamlessly blend within the production without said changes having been made. However, our diversification of Benny added new layers to the character, and actually helped me to see RENT through the lens of a totally new perspective. Maya and I ensured that we kept Jonathan Larson’s intention for the character and for RENT in general from being discarded during the process of reinventing Benny. In the end, the message of the show, which is that love and living each day as if it is one’s last day on Earth are the most important components in what Jonathan Larson defines as a successful life, still shone through, which is what truly mattered more than anything.

Diversifying casting, in some cases, simply does not work, for certain shows call for incredibly specific casting choices in order for their plot lines to make sense. But sometimes, when it can logically be done, diversifying casting can change people’s way of perceiving and thinking about a theatrical production, and can even enhance a piece’s original intention and message. With that being said, Taye Diggs will soon be taking on the role of Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, and will be the first black man in history ever to play the role. His Hedwig will certainly add new, fascinating, insightful layers to the character that will cause people everywhere to change their perspective and further their understanding of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I for one am thrilled.