I want you to do me a favor. The next time you see a Broadway show, or any show for that matter, I want to you pay very close attention the lead actors and I want you to consider this question,
Could a fuller-figured performer play that role? Would it have changed your perception of the show at all?
The answers, if you're smart, should be yes and then no.
But then the question arises, would you want to see a fuller-figured performer in that role?
Although reluctant, admit it, some of you may say no.
And that answer is what the Broadway and the rest of the entertainment industry has been using to decide how the size of their characters will be depicted for decades. Because "skinny" is attached to being "healthy" and "attractive" and "fat" is attached to "unhealthy" and "ugly".
Nothing I'm saying here is groundbreaking, this issue has been addressed many times before. However what is infinitely frustrating is that while factors like race have their own battles when it comes to casting availability, there is literally no reason for fuller-figured performers to be disqualified for lead roles.
Don't believe me? Let's walk through the argument.
Typically when I bring up this topic, what I hear all the time(and probably will after this) is that it's about the heath of the actor and how would a "bigger" performer be able to handle the rigors of a lead role?
First of all, there is a vast difference between larger than "sample size" and morbidly obese. Let's get that out of the way. Secondly, I forgot where in Oklahoma! where Laurie does a full on CalAesthetics routine? Or where Belle has to do a Gower Champion-eqsue tap solo in Beauty & the Beast?
While the health argument could be used in some cases when it comes to some ensemble situations, when it comes to lead roles, the point is nearly moot.
Let's also not mention the fact that Broadway and Hollywood tend to like to shrink roles even though they may be based on an actual person who was more voluptuous. Looking at pictures of her in the her youth, I wonder if Maria Von Trapp would actually have a shot to play herself on Broadway?
There are some roles where size does matter but many more do not, yet "curvier" performers are disqualified from these roles because societal perceptions they have no control over.
Now some might say, "There are plenty of roles for fuller-figured performers out there".
My reply has always been, "Okay, name them".
Them: "Well you have Tracy Turnblad and Motormouth Mable in Hairspray and Martha Dunstock from Heathers."
I use these three roles as an example because every time I have this debate, these are the roles that are brought up. You want to shut people up? Ask them to name three more.
But let's use these three roles because it leads to my next frustration when it comes to roles that ARE available to fuller-figured performers.
Why is it that most roles written for fuller-figured performers have to include references to their size in their dialogue or songs? In Hairspray, Tracy's weight is constantly mentioned in the script and Mable even has a song called "Big, Blonde & Beautiful"(which is why I opposed the casting of Jennifer Hudson). The same is also true for the role of Martha in Heathers. It's not just these roles either, the main arc of the character of Jenny in It Should Been You, is all about coming to terms with her size.
This is where I feel that, in many cases, fuller-figured performers have it worse than performers of color. As an Asian male, I can play roles where my race never comes up as a topic or is even referenced at all, even though the role might call for an Asian person. However in most cases, when a role is written for a larger person, it needs to be addressed somewhere in the script. It's almost as if the writer needs to justify their reasoning for being in the show.
To make matters worse, in most cases, the arc of their story line is how their size is a negative and something that either needs to be dealt with or settled for.
When Broadway and the rest of the entertainment industry paints fuller-figured performers into a corner, it not only has a negative impact that those actors but "thinner" ones as well. Limiting the opportunities for fuller-figured performers instills a sense of fear that performers need to stay in smaller and even unhealthier sizes. The pressure to stay thin often leads to eating disorders and drug abuse, not to mention the health risks of eating what you should versus not eating enough.
Imagine if Broadway lifted that burden and cast more rubenesque (thanks Bethany Kay) performers. Imagine the message that would send.
But what kills me is that Broadway producers won't take these steps because it's viewed as a risk, yet it's never been tried before. So it bewilders me why producers think their only safe casting options are thin and most likely white.
In 2017, the excuse of "that's the way it's always been done" is becoming rapidly unacceptable and indefensible. We need casting professionals, producers and creatives to really consider who can play these roles. It's going to take a long time for the entertainment industry to evolve on this subject but Broadway could lead that charge starting tomorrow. They just need to look at the talent of the performer rather than their waist size.