Looking Forward to Replacement Casts

Aaron Netsky

  • OnStage New York Columnist

I was pretty much resigned to the idea that I would not be seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda in his musical Hamilton on Broadway before it even opened unless I won the lottery (either lottery). It was more disappointing because I’d been looking forward to this musical since he performed a segment of it at the White House in 2009 and my inability to see it stemmed from everyone in the world suddenly catching up with me all at once than because of any attachment to seeing him play the title character. Sure, that would have been nice, but I had seen his understudy in In the Heights (I don’t have the insert, but I suppose it was Javier Munoz), and lost nothing by it. I’ve had two encounters with Miranda, during one of which he very enthusiastically answered a question I had asked a panel he was part of, and in all likelihood will have plenty more, probably including seeing finally him in something he wrote (or something someone else wrote). The point is, the announcement that he would be leaving Hamilton after July 9th did not hit me like it seems to have hit so many. So I want to reassure everyone: replacements are awesome.

First of all, they are usually at least as talented as original cast members, sometimes more so (no names, not that I can think of any). Often, replacements in one show were original cast members of others. The very first Broadway show I saw had a cast filled with replacements, and for the most part I’m glad I saw those people instead of the originals. Carolee Carmello is the power behind the music on the original cast recording of Parade, but I barely knew what a musical was when she was in Parade, so her being part of my first Broadway show, the revival of Kiss Me, Kate (and really, even original casts of revivals are replacements when you think about it) is a special detail for me, even if I didn’t know it at the time. What I did know at the time was that the secondary female lead, Lois Lane/Bianca, was played by Janine LaManna, not only the original star of the musical that turned my attentions to Broadway, Seussical, but a native of my own hometown, Rochester, NY. I don’t know the name of the person she replaced, but I’m glad I saw it when I did.

Beyond the equality of performances, another way to look at it is that everyone will flock (as the have with Hamilton) to get a look at the originals, whose performances will be immortalized on the cast recording and on various television performances, not to mention at the Lincoln Center performing arts library, at which people will be seeing the original cast performances for years to come. The replacements in a hit may get as many viewers, but so far as I have seen with hits since I’ve been paying attention, not as much attention or discussion, as the musical ages and becomes part of the Broadway background. Occasionally a star will step in and get press attention, but mostly their performances are only for those who come to see the show. More and more, I am interested in seeing those performances, the other interpretations, not the ones stamped in the cultural memory. One of the pleasures of being an usher was seeing not only just about every understudy performance in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but two replacements that came along toward the end of the run, who had very distinct performances to offer that were not filmed or recorded, except maybe illegally, though not on my watch. One in particular (again, no names, even though this time I have one) I actually liked better than the original performance, and I had previously seen this person as a replacement in another musical. This person has also headed up original casts.

Then there are the confirmations that the replacement you saw was as worth seeing as the star you missed. Again, these confirmations are not necessary, do not in any way reflect the relative qualities of one replacement or another, or the replacement over the original or vice versa, but replacements rarely get reviews in The New York Times. About a week after I saw the revival of The King and I currently playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, I was surprised to see a review of this musical, which had been running for nearly a year, in the Times. The reviewer said he had been inspired to re-review the show by the man who replaced Ken Watanabe, Hoon Lee. Civilians seeing the production had written to Ben Brantley to say how great Lee was, and Brantley had decided to use his platform to bring attention to this relative unknown who had taken over from a movie star. Nothing against Watanabe, but I had never had much interest in seeing him as the King of Siam, and according to the reviews it was hard to understand his line readings because of his accent. Lee, on the other hand, is an American with a musical theatre track record, and hearing his very clear deliveries of the Rodgers and Hammerstein material made me feel the way I imagine the British feel when they hear their own perform Shakespeare. I knew I’d seen something great, but it was nice to have Brantley confirm it.

Hamilton is going to be around, and I’ll see it when I see it. This season I was much more interested in less sure things, like Allegiance and School of Rock and Disaster!, two of which I managed to see. Perhaps by the time I see Hamilton, some in the cast will have been born after it opened on Broadway, as is now happening with The Phantom of the Opera cast replacements. I hope it doesn’t take that long, but it’s not as important to me as it would have been some years ago. I want to see musicals and I want to see performers, but they don’t have to be in the exact combination originally ordained by producers and directors. I’ve seen great performances that will be forever immortalized on video and audio recordings and great performances that will be mere statistics in Broadway encyclopedias. I don’t distinguish between them, I cherish them equally, as everyone should.