In the last few years, The Cher Show has come to Broadway with three leading ladies starring as Cher (and Stephanie J. Block earned a Tony Award as Star), Summer: The Donna Summer Musical found three women playing the disco diva at various stages in her life (LaChanze and Ariana DeBose both earned Tony Award nominations), and Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf, and Allison Pill played A, B, and C, who (spoiler alert) are the same woman at different stages in Act 2 of Three Tall Women—and Jackson and Metcalf both won Tony Awards. Don't think of this style of casting as a a trend, but as a tried-and-true storytelling device.
Here’s a look at nine Broadway shows that have featured multiple actors playing the same character simultaneously:
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Broadway’s newest jukebox musical cast three actors as its leading lady, queen of disco Donna Summer. LaChanze, Ariana DeBose, and Storm Lever all take on Summer at different stages in her life; the production names them Diva, Disco, and Duckling Donna, respectively. LaChanze and DeBose were both nominated for 2018 Tony Awards for their performances! Summer also sees LaChanze and Lever inhabiting other characters close to Summer, with LaChanze also playing her mother, Mary Gaines, and Lever her daughter, Mimi.
Speaking of seeing a character at multiple times in their life, the 2015 Tony Award-winning Best Musical Fun Home adapted Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel for the stage, quite a feat as the novel often jumps through time rather than using a straight forward chronological narrative. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s musical adaptation attacked that challenge by having three actors playing Alison at different points in her life, often simultaneously. Beth Malone starred as Alison, which corresponded to Bechdel at the point in which she was working on the graphic novel. Sydney Lucas played “Small Alison” (Bechdel as a child) and Emily Skeggs was “Medium Alison” (Bechdel’s early college years). All three were nominated for Tony Awards for their performances.
Based on Moss Hart’s autobiography, James Lapine’s Act One tracks the playwright and director’s life from his poverty-stricken adolescence all the way to being a big-time Broadway success with the opening of Once in a Lifetime. Santino Fontana starred as Hart on Broadway, but Lapine devised a featured role for Tony Shalhoub that had him playing both George S. Kaufman (Hart’s longtime writing partner) and an older version of Hart, who acts as the play’s narrator.
This jukebox bio-musical focused on the post-Beatle days of John Lennon, and like Summer and The Cher Show, featured multiple actors in the title role. Unlike Summer and The Cher Show, however, Lennon used its entire nine-person cast—made up of women and men of different age groups and races—in the title role throughout the evening. Director Don Scardino took inspiration for this move from Lennon’s own lyric to “I Am the Walrus,” specifically the line “I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together.”
Three Tall Women
Edward Albee’s Pulitzer-winning play, now enjoying its first Broadway production, centers on three women that are, in the first act, only tangentially related; “A” is a 92-year old woman on the verge of death, “B” her middle-aged caretaker, and “C” a young lawyer sent to help with A’s affairs. In the play’s surreal second act, the three women are revealed to all be “A” at different points in her life, and they discover how age can distort the context in which we view our own lives.
Based on the semi-autobiographical Fellini film 8 1/2, the musical Nine tells the story of a genius Italian film director named Guido struggling with both his personal and creative life. Ultimately the story of a 40-year-old man who has never had to become an adult, Nine shows Guido facing his childhood self throughout the musical in flashbacks to his youth and “present day” scenes. Notably, the movie musical adaptation of Nine dispensed with this device altogether, relegating young Guido to flashback scenes only.
Another musical about coming to terms with one’s youth, James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies takes place at a reunion of performers from the Weissman Follies (akin to the real-world Ziegfeld Follies). Held on the stage where they used to perform on the eve of its demolition, Follies features young “ghost” counterparts for almost every character. As the anecdotes and alcohol flow, the characters increasingly find themselves looking to the past, and are sometimes haunted by what they remember.
The original production of Little Me featured two kinds of actor doubling; comedian Sid Caesar played seven roles throughout the show, while two actors shared the leading lady character. Based on the Patrick Dennis novel of the same name, Little Me tells the fantastical life story of actor Belle Poitrine (née Schlumpfert), from her humble beginnings in Illinois all the way to a life of luxury in New York. Belle was primarily portrayed by Virginia Martin, who received a 1963 Tony Award nomination for her performance, but an Older Belle narrated throughout and ultimately dueted with her younger counterpart on the title song. Subsequent revivals have played with this casting; A 1982 revival kept the dual Belles but split the Caesar roles between James Coco and Victor Garber, and the 1998 revival starred Martin Short in all of the Caesar roles but dispensed with the Older Belle.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1943 Broadway classic Oklahoma! was the first fully-integrated musical, with a book, songs, and choreography that all existed to further the plot. Agnes de Mille’s ballet-infused choreography re-imagined how dance could function in a musical, which was most apparent in the show’s Act 1 finale: the dream ballet. Since 1943 was before the concept of a “triple threat” (a performer who can act, sing, and dance) fully existed on Broadway, de Mille had Laurie and Curly trade places with “dream” ballet dancer counterparts for a ballet that explored the existential crisis at the heart of Oklahoma!’s plot. Later productions have cast leading players with dance ability, resulting in the elimination of “Dream Laurie” and “Dream Curly.”