Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 opened late last year to great reviews. Denee Benton and Josh Groban, both newcomers to the Broadway stage, play the title roles. The unique decision to cast Benton, a black actress and singer, to play a 17th century Russian countess, pushed forward conversations around blind casting, or non-traditional casting. The practice of inclusive casting, of choosing an actor regardless of their race, gender, or ethnicity is becoming more and more prevalent on Broadway. For instance, it was recently announced that come summer of 2017, Groban will hand the baton to Okieriete Onaodowan, who comes fresh from the role of Hercules Mulligan in Hamilton. Soon The Great Comet will have two black actors leading a Broadway production not written specifically for black actors. This non-traditional casting move reinforces Broadway’s steady approach to diverse casting.
Broadway has hosted shows written for black actors for decades. For a long time, shows like Porgy and Bess, Carmen Jones and The Wiz were the only opportunities for performers of color to originate roles. However, Hamilton’s success brought a resurgence to the idea of blind casting. Recently, shows like Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera opted for blind casting, which in Phantom's case allowed for the first Asian-American and African-American actors to be cast in the principal roles of the Broadway production.
In light of the recent announcement from The Great Comet, here are a few shows that remind us of the positive outcome of casting inclusively:
Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton may become the most famous example of blind casting. The continuously sold out musical has made inclusion a part of the branding of the show, and the positive response speaks for itself. When explaining the intention behind the multi-racial casting, Manuel stated, "In 'Hamilton,' we're telling the stories of old, dead white men, but we're using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience."
Jesus Christ Superstar
Over the years, several black actors have been chosen to play the role of Judas Iscariot in Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' Webber has been very vocal about the urgent need to create equal representation in theater. In a recent interview, Webber stated, “I passionately believe that the stage needs to reflect the diversity of the UK population or it risks becoming sidelined. If the situation continues, there is real danger that, not only will black and Asian young people stay away from the theatre as a profession, they will stay away as punters. And without them in the audience, theatres will become unsustainable, as they are forced to compete for a dwindling ageing, white, middle-class audience.”
The Leading Player in Pippin is frequently played by a black male. Ben Vereen, a black actor and singer, won the Tony for his performance as the Leading Player when the show premiered in 1972. Then in the 2013 revival, Patina Miller won the Tony for her performance as the Leading Player, which made Miller and Vereen the first actors of a different gender to win the Tony for the same role. While seeing actors of different genders play the same role is less common than those of different races, it become normalized in light of the success of multi-racial casting.