Wanted: Child Actor. (Make That Four)

In 1991, actress Daisy Eagan became the youngest female stage performer ever to win a Tony Award. She was 11 when she won Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden.

Daisy Eagan and Alison Fraser in The Secret Garden.
Daisy Eagan and Alison Fraser in The Secret Garden. (Photo by Bob Marshak)

In 2013, the child performer who portrays the title role in Matilda The Musical will receive Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre. Make that child performers; the Honors will go to Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro.

As with the musical Billy Elliot, which premiered on Broadway in 2008, multiple actors play the youthful lead role in Matilda, alternating different performances. Back in 1991, meanwhile, Eagan was all on her lonesome, playing eight shows a week of The Secret Garden for the first three months, until her school schedule interfered. After that, she did a mere six a week.

What's happened over the last two decades? Have child musical roles gotten tougher? Or have child actors become less tough? Why are three or four performers needed to do what one could once handle alone?

"Daisy was amazing in that role," said Nora Brennan, who was casting director of the children for both Billy Elliot and Matilda, and has, in recent years, made a specialty of finding young performers for stage shows. But today, "there are shows with these large casts of children and the requirements are so high—the kind of dancing they are required to do now is so much more difficult that, say, years ago in The King and I or The Sound of Music."

Lilla Crawford in Annie.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Certainly, the intense dancing skills needed to play the ballet prodigy Billy Elliot explain why three young men were needed to fill the role in every production of the musical—the original London premiere, the Broadway version and all the touring shows.

"I think the role of Billy Elliot was demanding enough that it made sense to multi-cast it," agreed Eagan. "The dancing alone was enough to justify it. I don't know if anyone would be able to perform eight shows in that role, kid or not."

But young Matilda does not dance a lot, and sings as much as, say, the lead character in Annie, who is primarily played by one actress, Lilla Crawford, in the current Broadway mounting. Why must a quartet of youngsters tackle the job?

"With Matilda, it's a very emotional show, in terms of what she goes through," explained Brennan. "She has some horrible people in her life that she deals with. It isn't a very happy show for her to do."

Also, and perhaps more importantly, Brennan pointed out that the actresses playing Matilda are all 9 and 10 years old, whereas Crawford turned 12 on her last birthday. In terms of maturity and stamina, a few years can make a world of difference among child performers.

Though multi-casting of child musical leads does seem to be a trend, the traditional route of hiring a single tyke, and then backing them up with a standby and an understudy, remains common. It is what casting directors Bernard Telsey and Patrick Goodwin did on Annie.

David Alvarez in Billy Elliot.
Photo by David Scheinmann

The producers "might have for a minute or two" considered the triple- or quadruple-casting model, Telsey said. "In rooms I was in, it was thrown out there. But Annie was always done with one person. The touring companies were always done with one person. If it was originally done with one girl, and it's a revival, we wanted to do that same thing. The objective was always to find one person."

How to cast musicals with children has become a lively topic of late because, as Telsey put it, "We have a lot of shows with kids these days."

Not only are there are plenty of stage attractions that feature actors under five feet tall, but those performers are often the leads, and the shows are actually named after them: Billy Elliot, Matilda, Annie, etc.

"I don't know if it's coincidence," mused Telsey. "I don't have experience with tickets sales and marketing to know if it's a proven thing with audiences. The thing I'm noticing is the kids are having much bigger parts. You always had shows like Kinky Boots where you need two kids. And that's tricky, but they don't have to carry the show. In Billy Elliott, Annie, Tuck Everlasting, you have kids carrying the show. It does seem that more and more they are much bigger parts."

And more and more, casting directors know how to locate the kids to fill those parts.

"We know where the kids are and how to find them," said Brennan, who had to draft a couple dozen children for each production of Billy Elliot and found 17 young actors for Matilda. (She and the show's adult-actor casting director, Jim Carnahan, jointly cast the girls who play Matilda.) "Kids today are in dance classes all around the country. And some of these shows go searching for kids."

"I think we're able to do a lot wider search now because of the internet, and because of the access to people being able to self-tape" their auditions, said Telsey, who conducted a year-and-a-half search for Annie's ragamuffins. "The days of just doing an open call in New York and L.A. are gone. We have a girl in the show from Virginia, a girl from North Dakota; it's unbelievable with just six girls. We have people from all over the place. Our access is much wider now, and we want to take advantage of that."

The welfare of the child actors, said Brennan, has been stressed by the directors she has worked with. "Working with Stephen Daldry and Matthew Warchus, I know the child's well-being is paramount. In Billy, the first thought was always, 'How do we take care of the child?'"

She said the same was true of Warchus. "You hear all the old stories about Judy Garland—that kind of thing doesn't happen anymore."

The four Matildas have formed a small classroom of one, Brennan said. "They're all tutored together, they go to school together, they work together, they've all become good friends."

Though she has yet to see Matilda, Eagan observed that, if the show was any indication of child-casting trends, "I would say that it sounds like producers are perhaps doing what they think might be in the best interest of their child employees."

Still, she wondered if it wasn't all a bit much. "As long as schooling is taken into account, I don't think kids need to be treated all that differently than adult actors. Kids are strong, resilient and full of energy. I don't think they needed to be treated like china dolls."

Young <i>Matilda</i> stars Bailey Ryon, Milly Shapiro, Sophia Gennusa and Oona Laurence
Young Matilda stars Bailey Ryon, Milly Shapiro, Sophia Gennusa and Oona Laurence (Photo by Joan Marcus)