Hamilton, the smash phenomenon about one of America’s founding fathers, is used to getting attention. Barely a week goes by that the show doesn’t make news. But most of that coverage has been overwhelmingly positive. This week the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical got its first taste of controversy.
The issue that drew fire to Hamilton was casting. The musical has been praised for its bold casting policy of using ethnically diverse actors to play the mainly white Founding Fathers, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Burr and Hamilton, himself. Observers have pointed out that the nontraditional casting offers an enlivening new perspective to the familiar story of the birth of American, while also helping to illustrate the role immigrants played in the building of the nation. So it was perhaps not surprising that, when a casting notice went out recently looking for replacement performers, it asked for “non-white” performers.
That wording, however, proved to be a red flag, at least to one civil rights attorney. Randolph McLaughlin of the Newman Ferrara Law Firm slammed the notice, saying it may violate the New York City Human Rights Law that forbids discrimination in hiring based on race. McLaughlin told CBS, “What if they put an ad out that said, ‘Whites only need apply? Why, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians would be outraged.”
Actors Equity Association also questioned the wording of the notice.
Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller issued a statement the evening of March 30, defending the notice, but also promising to amend its language. “Hamilton depicts the birth of our nation in a singular way. We will continue to cast the show with the same multicultural diversity that we have employed thus far.”
The statement continued: “It is essential to the storytelling of Hamilton that the principal roles— which were written for non-white characters (excepting King George)—be performed by non-white actors. This adheres to the accepted practice that certain characteristics in certain roles constitute a ‘bona fide occupational qualification‘ that is legal. This also follows in the tradition of many shows that call for race, ethnicity or age specific casting, whether it's The Color Purple or Porgy & Bess or Matilda.”
He did add, however, that the notice would be amended to include language that people of all ethnicities were welcome to audition for Hamilton.
Equity spokesperson Maria Somma told Playbill.com, “The Hamilton call on their website is inconsistent with Equity’s policy. All of our calls have the following language: ‘Performers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds are encouraged to attend.’ We also have strong language in our Production Contract agreement which states, ‘The parties hereto affirm their commitment to the policy that employment hereunder shall be without discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, creed, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression or political persuasion or belief.’”
That wasn’t the end of it for Equity, however. In the hours that followed, the Equity twitter page was deluged with posters who disagreed with what they perceived as the union position on nontraditional casting.
In response, AEA posted the following statement on its website and twitter page March 31. It said, in part:
“Casting notices do say (and have said) that a character is Caucasian (Bright Star), a child (Matilda), African American (The Color Purple), “non-white” (Hamilton), etc., because this reflects authorial intent. Excluding an actor from auditions based on sex, race, color, creed, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, political persuasion or belief not only conflicts with our firm policy of advocating for equal employment opportunity, but also could raise legal questions.
“The real issue here is not a single casting notice, or a reporter trying to create a story. The real issue is that in 2016, there are still far too few roles for non-Caucasian actors. In that respect, of course, Hamilton has been groundbreaking, and we hope that the true and exciting diversity on display at the Richard Rodgers inspires casting directors and creative teams throughout the industry.”
Also this week, Miranda announced we was going to take a week off from playing the lead role of Hamilton to take a much-needed vacation. No doubt, after the events of this week, he needs one.
Belgian director Ivo van Hove opened his fourth production of the season this week, when his new vision of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan plays Abigail Williams, with Ben Wishaw as John Proctor, and Sophie Okonedo as Elizabeth Proctor and Ciaran Hinds as Deputy Governor Danforth.
Van Hove can chalk up another New York success, if a qualified one. Critics were generally awed and impressed by his radical interpretation, which is set in a classroom, but some impressed-good, while others were impressed-bad.
“The director Ivo van Hove and a dazzling international cast...have plumbed the raw terror in Arthur Miller's The Crucible,” said the Times, “And an endlessly revived historical drama from 1953 suddenly feels like the freshest, scariest play in town...Mr. van Hove divests a historical work of period associations, the better to see its inhabitants as timelessly tragic.”
Time Out New York agreed, saying, “Van Hove's electrifying and audacious staging achieves what more revivals should: It makes old work seem new, blows away the dust and exposes caulked cracks.”
Detractors were most struck by the talented cast, while questioning the director’s work. “The ensemble, led by Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Ciaran Hinds, and Saoirse Ronan, is superb, and the play sustains its power to shock and thrill,” wrote Variety. “But the directorial concept is baffling… The Crucible [is] too big, too complex, too philosophical to deconstruct and reduce to its ‘essence.’” Other reviews echoed that praise, particularly for Whishaw, Okonedo and Ronan, whose Abigail, one reviewer said, “shines with maleficence.”
Predictably, the worst review came from the arch-conservative Wall Street Journal critic, who said, with Danforth-like certitude, “It's amazing how much damage Ivo van Hove, the most pretentious stage director of our time, can do to a good play when he puts his mind to it.”
Christian Borle will play the lead role of Marvin in the upcoming Broadway revival of William Finn and James Lapine’s musical about love and the changing face of the conventional family, Falsettos, which begins previews September 29 prior to an official opening October 27 at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Borle has, in recent years, become a fairly bankable leading man along Broadway. He won Tonys for his performances as William Shakespeare in Something Rotten! and the Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher.
Award season has begun. The Lucille Lortel Awards nominations were announced this week.
Roundabout Theatre Company's The Humans led with a total of six nominations, including acting nominations for Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell. However, the Stephen Karam play which recently transferred to an acclaimed Broadway run, was not among the Outstanding Play nominees.
FUTURITY, Guards at the Taj and John all tied with five nominations. Actress Leslie Kritzer earned two nominations for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for her performances inGigantic and The Robber Bridegroom.
Casey Nicholaw can strut around Times Square like a peacock all he wants this spring.
When the curtain rose on the first preview of Tuck Everlasting the week, director Nicholaw will have four shows running on Broadway simultaneously: Tuck Everlasting, The Book of Mormon, Aladdin and Something Rotten!
The last director to equal that feat was Susan Stroman in fall of 2001. From October 25, 2001 to December 30, 2001, her Contact, The Music Man, The Producers and Thou Shalt Not were playing concurrently. The achievement was fleeting however; Thou Shalt Not closed after 85 performances, and The Music Man closes a week prior.