Broadway Still has some Thinking to Do: A Follow-Up to “Broadway Needs To Re-Think Their Size Issue”

Edna Turnblad (Nick DeSantis), Motormouth Maybelle (Shaunyce Omar), and Tracy Turnblad (Callie Williams). Photo by Tracy Martin for Village Theatre.

Edna Turnblad (Nick DeSantis), Motormouth Maybelle (Shaunyce Omar), and Tracy Turnblad (Callie Williams). Photo by Tracy Martin for Village Theatre.

  • Bridget Conway

In a small conference room in the Midtown Hilton in New York City during BroadwayCon weekend, a group of very passionate fans took part in a panel. It started with the panel rules, spoken as if we are on a journey, and this was the flight for that journey. The entire hour was filled with so much passion, love, and positivity, ending with a rousing sing-along to “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman. Everyone left with a smile on their face and their hope that the dialogue will continue at the next year’s con. As one of the incredible people that helped run the panel, that fire that was lit under me is still going strong.

For me, “Broadway is for AnyBODY” had been a long time coming and, to be honest, we haven’t even skimmed the surface, and I am so looking forward to hopefully keep the conversation going and this time, being even louder than before. This is something I have always wanted to talk about, and it is so refreshing to see that others felt the same and want to change the status quo. I haven’t been as loud about Body Diversity in the world of theater, and I just could not be quiet anymore about it.

And it all started with an article.

On May 9th, 2017, I was at work when I noticed a friend of mine, one of my fellow panelists actually, shared an On Stage Blog Article entitled “Broadway Needs to Re-Think Their Size Issue.” Almost immediately, I clicked on the article, and I started to tear up.

For me, performing was always in the cards, I just didn’t know in what way would be my calling. It wasn’t until I was 12 and listening, really listening to the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Hairspray that the lightbulb went off and realized that I wanted to be on Broadway, because, Hell, if Tracy Turnblad can do it, so can I. From there, I became more active in my school’s theater, did a couple of community theatre productions in my area, and went to college for Musical Theater and Tech Theater. I graduated with my degrees and was ready to take on the world. However, I then quickly realized that while my passion is there, and I know that I have talent, I’m not exactly what casting directors are looking for.

Let’s start with the obvious. I am a curvy cutie, very much a plus size woman, and, just between you and me, I know that I’m no classic beauty as well, I’m just uniquely me.  As I went to more auditions, local as well as open calls in the city when I could, that feeling always seemed to creep up on me, that I felt like a black sheep, that I am out of place. I looked around in the holding room, and no one in that room looked like me, more like, they all looked like each other. It was like a bakery of Broadway performers in their cookie cutter forms. And me? Well, if this is a cookie cutter world, then I am a goddamn 3 tier funfetti cake, buttercream and all, I don’t quite fill that mold.

And then I start to notice the same thing when I go to shows. Now, as not only a performer but as a fan, we all know that the theater as an escape from life, that, even for a few hours, we can be part of their world (Little Mermaid pun intended) as well as the characters within them. However, I then notice that a lot of the people on the stage also look the same as well. I then see if I can spot the largest person on stage. And I then I inadvertently follow their track. It started to become a habit when I go see a show. I would find the largest person in the cast, follow their track, and see if I could do what they are doing on stage. However, it seemed like even the largest person I could find was still a cookie cutter.

At the time the article came out, I was at a place where I was working my 9-5, doing theater sometimes if my schedule can swing it, but I was not really seeking anything from it, as sad as that sounds. I thought I was alone on this.

When the article came out and I saw that not only my friends were sharing, but commenting as well, showing support and calling out against this, it made me smile, and I wonder who else will join in the conversation.

I tried pitching the panel for BroadwayCon 2018, but I missed the deadline. After 2018’s amazing con at the Javits Center, I ended up in a conversation with 3 other incredible ladies who had the same passions as me, and not only from a performer’s point of view, but from the audience’s as well, which turned out to be those same incredible people that joined me in the front running the panel.

As we were planning it, we also wanted to not only explore diversity in ways of body types and sizes, we also wanted to divulge into also diversity in terms of abilities, and disabilities as well. You think it’s hard as a large person to get a role? It’s even harder for my friends with disabilities or other abilities.

It also does not help that many plays and musicals seems a lack of characters with those features and quirks. It seems that playwrights and book writers seem to forget to or just don’t make an effort to have characters of a different body type or ability, for reasons that I do not know. And if a character is written in of those characteristics, it seems as if their “flaws” are part of their story, part of their character, part of why they are treated the fashion they are. Yes, they look different, we get it. But it would be nice to see someone who looks different to be just like any other person.

But even with shows and musicals that don’t have characters that have those “flaws,” most of the time, unless otherwise noted, the character description usually does not specify body type or ability to play that character, usually a personality descriptor and a voice part, sometimes a specific ethnicity. So that leaves me the question towards casting directors and producers: Why does it seem that the odds are stacked against those who look differently? Is it money? Is it costuming? Is it the ability or lack of ability to make a set or house accessible to everyone? Do you even want to try? I would love to pick at your brain if you’re willing.

It’s not to say that things have stayed the same; there have been strides. Since Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, which was an incredible production, if I may say so myself, you have seen more diversity. Is it at a rate that makes me believe that I could be cast tomorrow? Not really. But there are shining moments that make me smile and give me a little more hope.

Take, for instance, Head Over Heels, a show which, in my opinion, should have gotten more Tony nods (and by more, I mean any at all. I’m not bitter, I swear). Not only you have the incredible performances by Peppermint as well as how sweet and normal the relationship between Pamela and Mopsa was, but it was Bonnie Milligan absolutely killing it every single night as Pamela. Her singing that “Beautiful is all I see when I look at me!”, is the epitome of the level of confidence I strive to get to one day. Bonnie is an absolute rockstar and is absolutely stunning. The fact that no one seems to be fazed by her size is heartwarming.

In Be More Chill, you have Jenna Roland, played by Katie Ladner in the Two River and Feinstein’s/54 Below productions, and currently on Broadway Tiffany Mann, who also played her Off-Broadway. In the show, Jenna is the epicenter of gossip, always in the know-how and the who’s who. She is popular and cool in school. She just happens to be played by a plus size actress. And you know what? Her size does not play a factor at all with her character. And it does not need to.

I was fortunate to see Moulin Rouge!’s pre-Broadway run in Boston, and I almost cried when the opening notes to “Lady Marmalade” played and I saw a very sexy and energetic curvy cutie like myself rock those fishnets and corset. It showed that we can be sexy and not as a kink, just as ourselves. Any body can be a sexy body. I can’t wait to see her on Broadway hopefully.

Ali Stroker, you know, Tony-nominated Ali Stroker for her incredible performance in Oklahoma!? She described her struggles getting around the city during her run in DWSA. Clearly, New York City is not 100% ADA compliant. And yet, she still was able to do what she needed to do, do her job, and do it well. If the Tony nom says anything, she’s doing something right.

Behind all these incredible performances, there was a composer, a producer, a director or casting director who saw something in these performers to the point that they knew that they were the person to bring these characters to life. It seems in my eyes, that a lot of people in the world of Broadway, while they have started to see more performers of color, orientation and gender identity, and even in those realms is still not perfect, they still seem to lose focus when an actor or actress of a larger size or a different ability enters into the audition room. And that needs to change. Everyone deserves to be and feel represented on the Great White Way.

I hope one day to walk into a holding room and not feel like the odd person. I hope that one day, someone decides to give me a shot with their character and their story. I hope that one day I can be on stage so that someone else in the audience can see themselves in that character or story, so they don’t have to go to find the largest person on stage and see if they can do what they can because they know that they can. I hope that one day, that the Broadway community, while already such an inclusive place, will be a place where everyone has a shot. Cookie cutters? Naaaaa, Broadway is a whole bakery (aka: Schmack’s, duh).

So that leaves one question: Why feel compelled to follow-up on a two-year-old article? During the panel, we were discussing how fans can make a difference. “What can we do? We’re just fans.” someone asked. I replied almost instantly: “Be vocal. If you have a platform you can speak from, use it. The more people who talk about it, the more others will hear, the better the chance that the dialogue will continue to more people, even some of the importance.” So when I saw the article pop up on my Facebook memories, it brought me back to how all this started.

And you know what? I’m taking my own advice, and hopefully using this platform to start a dialogue with others.

So in the style of the original essay, I end with how it began:

I want you to close your eyes. I want you to think of a character that you identify with, no matter what you look like, what ailments you may or may not have, who you love, or how you identify.

Can you think of one? Great. Embrace and channel them, and try to have more like you out there for others to also identify with, be proud, celebrate it, shout it from the rooftops! Make sure they stay seen.

Can’t think of one? Then don’t stay quiet about it. Find a platform, no matter how large or small it may be and raise your voice. Or, if you feel inclined, why don’t you try your hand at creating characters that you and others can identify with? Start the dialogue yourself.

We all have voices, and we deserve to be heard.

We deserve to be seen.

We deserve to be where we belong.

We deserve to live our dreams.

Because, Hell, if Tracy Turnblad can do it, so can we.