It's rare to see roles for little people on our stages and screens. While there are some exceptions, such as Peter Dinklage on Game of Thrones, we don't see roles of such magnitude come along often. More than not, actors with forms of dwarfism, are relegated to playing mystical creatures or are the butt of a joke involving their size (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, The Wizard of Oz and the recent The Wolf of Wall Street come to mind).
This is why when genuine, substantial roles do become available for little people, it's so important that they are, in fact, portrayed by little people. But the problem is, they aren't.
Take, for instance, the upcoming Broadway-hopeful production of Moulin Rouge!. Last week principal casting was announced and in addition to Broadway big names such as Aaron Tveit, Karen Olivo, and Danny Burstein, it was revealed that Sahr Ngaujah, will be playing Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Mr. Nhaujah is a Tony & Olivier Award nominee and a fantastic talent, but he's portraying a historical figure who was 4'8". While I don't know Mr. Ngaujah's exact height, he appears to stand above 5 ft. Case in point, here he is standing next to Bruce Springsteen who is 5'10".
While I believe there are instances where a creative license can be taken when it comes to portraying historical figures on stage and screen (Hamilton), because roles for little people in Broadway musicals are so rare, this shouldn't be one of them.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a French artist whose work depicted the theatrical life of Paris in the late 19th century. He is also a central figure in Moulin Rouge! because many of his most famous works are based on what he saw inside the cabaret.
Another reason why it's so important for a little person to portray this role because it is due to Toulouse-Lautrec's condition, that he became a painter in the first place. As a teenager, he suffered broken limbs and due to his likely condition known as pycnodysostosis(which is sometimes called Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome), he developed an adult-sized torso, while retaining his child-sized legs, much like achondroplasia. Because of this and his inability to participate in various activities, Henri fell into his art and developed into one of the most famous artists of his time.
But details like these are important, and having an average-sized actor portraying him moots the significance. Especially, if the actor is rigged up like Christopher Siebler was in "Shrek".
But Mr. Nhaujah's casting isn't the first time Toulouse-Lautrec has been portrayed by an average-sized performer. José Ferrer portrayed him in John Huston's 1952 film Moulin Rouge and Mr. Ferrer was 5'10". John Leguizamo famously played the role in the musical film Moulin Rouge! which the stage musical is based on and he is listed as 5'8". Interesting note, during filming Leguizamo had to wear an amputee prosthetic that caused his legs to go numb and compressed his spine which led to excruciating pain. He's said that he still feels the effects of that today.
More recently, the musical, My Paris, which was performed at both the Goodspeed Opera House and Long Wharf Theatre, is based on Toulouse-Lautrec and his experiences at the Moulin Rouge. But while the musical is directly based on Toulouse-Lautrec's life, in the 2015-16 productions, he was portrayed by average-sized actor Bobby Steggert.
In regards to the casting of the role for the upcoming stage musical, it's problematic for a couple of reasons. Either the role wasn't written for a little person, even though the historical figure was. Or it was written for a little person, they were/weren't allowed to audition and the role went to an average-sized actor. I don't know for sure because the audition requirements for the role were never made public before Mr. Nhaujah's casting.
Nevertheless, one of the highest profile little people roles in recent Broadway history is being played by someone who is not. As an Asian actor myself, I can certainly empathize with how little people performers must feel when they see this. For way too long we've seen roles written for specific types of people to play them, and yet they're not. Worse yet, the excuses for doing so are becoming harder to believe and tolerate.
While I certainly would agree that the most talented actor should be cast in certain roles, these roles need to be cast correctly from a pool of actors the role was written for. Denying rare opportunities for marginalized groups on stage and screen is just another example of a vicious cycle.