Now that changing a character's race doesn't freak us out anymore, non-traditional casting (such a cumbersome term!) is expanding into other areas. Directors are starting to practice gender-blind and sexaulity-blind casting as well. In this era when we need to celebrate what unites us instead of what divides us, the musical theatre community has finally opened its collective mind the way the non-musical theatre did years ago. But, like all new ideas, this one is slow in finding complete acceptance.
As the director of an alternative musical theatre company, I'm always looking for interesting, issue-oriented musicals, shows relevant to world in which we live. As we were planning our current season, the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical Company found its way into our discussions. A ground-breaking concept musical from 1970, Company is a tour of five marriages as seen through the eyes of perpetual bachelor Robert in his quest for reasons to avoid an emotional commitment to anyone. Robert (and the audience) sees the nastier side of all the marriages until the song "Being Alive," in which he realizes that the couples' commitment is not the cause of hard times but is instead what gets them through the hard times.
Of course, with divorces in America topping a million annually and the divorce rate up over 50%, Company seems even more relevant in 1995 than in 1970. I re-read the show and discussed it with friends. We decided that making one of the couples gay or lesbian would more firmly root the show in the 90s and would make it that much more relevant to our contemporary world. It seemed to me that changing the gender of one of the characters shouldn't be any more or less acceptable than changing race. I promised myself that we wouldn't re-write dialogue (aside from changing pronouns and the character's name). Unfortunately, it was a lot more complicated than I thought.
In this era of AIDS, many gay couples are as monogamous (if not more so) than straight couples. Among my friends, the couples who've been together the longest are all gay or lesbian. Queer marriages are on the brink of being legally recognized; yet at the same time, we know that it's not the piece of paper from City Hall that makes a marriage. In fact, Company makes that point quite strongly. Robert doesn't learn that he wants a marriage license and a catered reception; he learns he wants to make an emotional commitment to someone. Company isn't just about marriage. It's about sustaining a long term commitment in our increasingly mechanized and depersonalized society. Just as Company couldn't have been written in the 30s, I don't think it can be played in the 90s without an acknowledgement of the changes that marriage has undergone sine 1970.
As a company with a reputation for producing only issue-oriented musical theatre, I felt it would be a cop-out for New Line to do the show in 1995 and yet ignore the very visible and significant gay community in our country. It's important for us all to realize that gay relationships are no different from straight relationships. But Sondheim and the show's licensing agent disagreed. I decided I should tell them both what we were planning, partly because Sondheim is a member of our board. They both replied immediately that under no circumstances could we make one of the couples gay. Apparently, mine was not the first request, and Sondheim was getting weary of requests such as mine.
But that implied that Robert can't learn about love and commitment from a gay couple, that only straight couples demonstrate those traits sufficiently, that gay couples' lives must be "different." Most of the gay couples I know take out the trash, mow the lawn, and watch Melrose Place just like straight couples. So what's the big deal?
The issue is surfacing elsewhere. The Alice B. Theatre in Seattle, which recently did a production of Company in which Robert and several of the couples were gay. The licensing agent got wind of the production and wrote a letter asking them to do the show as written, but there were only a few performances left, so they were allowed to finish the run.
In a different but related case, another company in St. Louis had cast a black woman in the role of Uncle Arvide (originally a white man) in a production of Guys and Dolls. Someone in the cast wrote anonymously to the licensing agent and they demanded that the actress be fired and a man hired in her place, or the company's license would be withdrawn.
If we're going to debate whether or not it's okay to "change" an author's work, one could argue that a black Dolly Levi wouldn't have had same experiences and couldn't have eaten in the Harmonia Gardens in 1897 in New York as a white Dolly Levi; so isn't changing her race tinkering with the characterization and with the logic of the plot? The same could be said for other shows. In a show like West Side Story, in which ethnicity is central to the plot, we still accept (and did, in a touring company this summer) an Asian Maria. Throughout the history of the world, people of different races have had very different experiences; to interchange them at random doesn't make historical sense. And if Thornton Wilder, who created Dolly (or the musical version's bookwriter Michael Stewart), had originally envisioned her as a black woman, he would have probably written the role very differently. Yet no one today would tell a black woman she can't play Dolly. It's not supposed to matter.
It's an interesting situation, one that smacks of ingrained homophobia; we're supposed to believe that it doesn't "change" a character to change his race, but it does to change his sexual orientation, because presumably gays and lesbians don't love the same way, don't make commitments the same way. They are "other" in a way that blacks used to be (and still are in many areas). Great plays and characters are supposed to be universal, to ring true for all of us, regardless of our race, gender, etc. It's widely accepted now that a director can cast an actor without regard for race, but ignoring gender and sexual orientation is not yet fair game. I wonder if it will be in twenty years. And I wonder what future generations will think of the drama we afforded what should be a trivial issue.