Duncan Stewart has been casting Chicago the Musical on Broadway for ten years. His business partner, Benton Whitley, has been casting the musical for seven. Is it difficult to maintain such a well-known property? “Hell yes it’s hard!” Stewart chuckles. “All. Caps.”
That’s partially because Chicago has become something of a revolving door for celebrities itching to make their Broadway debut. A sample of the stars that have graced Chicago’s stages in its 20 years on Broadway: Emmy-nominated actor Sofia Vergara, Grammy winner Brandy Norwood, telenovela star Jaime Camil, NFL running back Eddie George, and (most recently) Spice Girls alum Mel B. The list goes on. It’s a strategy created by Chicago producers Barry and Fran Weissler. “Some people call it stunt-casting,” Stewart says. “We firmly call it star-casting.”
Stewart and Whitley run the Stewart/Whitley casting offices in New York City, where they also cast Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 and were responsible for the recent revivals of On The Town and Pippin. And they consider themselves something of a May-December partnership. Stewart is 48, Whitley is 31, and they consider the age differences beneficial. Stewart brings decades of Broadway casting experience and contacts, while Whitley brings technological know-how, like using social media to find talent. “We have 17 years that separate us, which we find is a huge commodity for us as casting directors because we have different exposures and points of views, and pools of talent and taste,” says Whitley.
Contrary to popular assumptions, Chicago is not an open door for any A-lister to come play, it’s actually more scientific than that. Three or four times a year, the casting directors create a list of hundreds of names for potential celebrities. Then they decide—with the producers, creatives, and marketing team—which stars they want to audition, based on box-office appeal and skill set. “From that, maybe you get eight people in a year who express interest, who we audition and see a tape on,” says Stewart. “And maybe two or three end up getting cast during the year.”
In short, it’s hard work. And the casting directors admit that some roles are easier to cast than others; a majority of the guest stars either play Roxie Hart or Billy Flynn. That’s because Velma is a more dance-heavy role, requiring an actor who can not only act and sing, but execute more rigorous Bob Fosse choreography. According to Whitley, in the 20 years of Chicago on Broadway, 40 actors have played Roxie while approximately 26 have rotated in as Velma.
While preserving the quality of Chicago, Stewart and Whitley also look to add to the show. “If we duplicated the same show we did in 1996, I think the show would have closed a long time ago,” says Whitley. “We would have run out of people that actually could have done their best Bebe Neuwirth and their best Ann Reinking and their best Joel Grey.” Instead, those who audition for Chicago are encouraged to bring their own personalities, and even their own musical stylings. When Norwood played Roxie Hart, her songs had an R&B sound; Vergara retained her Colombian accent for Mama Morton. Not to mention that Chicago has a history of colorblind casting—Chita Rivera originated the role of Velma in the original 1975 production—which widely expands the talent pool. “Every role we’ve had, we've had multiple different ethnicities playing it from day one,” says Whitley.
But even with flexibility in who they can cast, there’s less wiggle room for how long they’ll be there. The star’s time with Chicago is usually brief, usually six to eight weeks. These billboard toppers matriculate immediately into a cast of seasoned Broadway professionals, which means the ensemble and principal stars rehearse weekly as they put a new star into the show (such frequent rehearsals are rare for long-running Broadway shows). “The actors up there are working their muscles, they can never be lazy,” says Stewart. “I think it's actually the star casting, in a way, that's kept this show so damn fresh.”
Suffice to say, Stewart and Whitley constantly cast Chicago. (They also cast the national tour and for Royal Caribbean Cruises show). The long-running musical may be more work than your average Broadway show, but they feel the reward as they watch actors transform from pure potential in the audition room to bonafide eight-shows-a-week performers.
“On a yearly basis, we get the true honor of giving a handful of people their Broadway debut,” says Whitley, reflecting on the whole of his projects with Stewart. “It's part of passing on this deep rich tradition of musical theatre and Broadway.” He adds, proudly, “It never gets old.”