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Pulling Back the Curtain on Broadway's Cast Changes

Last month, two hit Broadway shows—the revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning rock musical Next to Normal—changed up their lead casts. The lower ranks of Broadway shows swap cast members with the regularity of a revolving door, but recasting marquee names is a bit more complicated.

More than just the costumes are tailor-made for original casts of Broadway shows. Lines, songs and staging are frequently adapted to a particular actor's strengths and weaknesses. Alice Ripley was the original actress who played the role of the bipolar mother Diana in Next to Normal. Time Out New York drama critic Adam Feldman says Ripley played Diana with emotional and vocal risk-taking—"a magical, serendipitous match of actor and role." Last month, seasoned Broadway actress Marin Mazzie took over the part that won Ripley a Drama Desk award as well as a Tony. Four more of the six cast members were also changed. "I don't envy Marin Mazzie in her current position taking over from such an acclaimed performance," Feldman says.

Catherine Zeta-Jones passed the torch to Queens native Bernadette Peters in A Little Night Music last month. Zeta-Jones didn't need to play Desirée to get her name in lights. The great beauty and successful movie star is married to another movie star (Michael Douglas), making her a regular in check-out counter magazines. Not so for Peters, who is less Hollywood, more Broadway. Theater bigwig Angela Lansbury also stepped aside in her part as Desirée's mother to let the gravely-voiced Elaine Stritch take over. Between Peters and Stritch, the production gained nearly 115 years of Broadway experience, which New York Post Drama Critic Elisabeth Vincentelli said had a "contagious effect" on the ensemble.

Drama critics Adam Feldman of Time Out New York and Elisabeth Vincentelli of The New York Post weighed in on Broadway's latest arrivals, duking it out as critics are wont to do.

Bons Mots:

Vincentelli on the portrayal of Desirée by Bernadette Peters versus Catherine Zeta-Jones:  "Bernadette Peters is so superb in that part that you're scratching your head and thinking if CZJ got a Tony for that, what could Bernadette Peters possibly get?

Feldman on switching up the cast: "It's very rare that replacement casts will be as good as or better than the people that they replace."

Vincentelli on Next to Normal's new cast: "I actually liked the whole show more.  Marin Mazzie plays it closer to the vest and it became more of an ensemble piece than it was."