Showbiz is anything but fair. Many of us say that when it comes to casting, we simply want to see the most qualified person in each role, but in actuality there’s nothing simple about doing that and keeping the lights on at the same time. Enter stunt casting, the entertainment industry practice of casting a star/well-known celebrity/public figure in your project, generally in a smaller role, to capitalize on the fame that they bring with them. It’s been around as long as entertainment itself, and it happens in every aspect of the biz, but today I’m talking specifically about black folks on Broadway.
If a theatrical production is conceived with a star in mind, either because of a personal connection to the material or an ideal marriage of performer and part, that’s no stunt; to be a part of the original cast of a production, (including a revival), is a huge commitment. However, when a show has been running for a while or even if it hasn’t but is in danger of closing, that’s when the stunt casting demon perches on the producers’ shoulders and starts whispering. They’ll throw out names of pop stars and “personalities,” measuring the value of each one in potential ticket sales.
Sometimes a choice of a recognizable actor in a cameo role lends a project another layer, or a winking nod to their celebrity persona that somehow serves the project at hand. But, like the little girl in the fairy tale, when stunt casting is bad it’s horrid.
The battle for better representation of black people has an a meandering path where Broadway is concerned; we’ve been there in larger numbers than in other areas of entertainment, but often relegated to either token chorus slots, dehumanized tropes, or allowed to shine only in all-black productions.
Because of the higher suspension of disbelief required with Broadway productions, what’s called nontraditional or “colorblind” casting is an easier sell than in other mediums, yet we’re still not there yet. We are seeing an influx of black women performing on Broadway right now, but they were largely cast for their fame, not their blackness.
As such, we end up with what seems like significant representation, but in ways that may be more harmful than good. Let’s focus first on the good: Keke Palmer is an extremely talented young lady who has had success in a number of fields of entertainment, and her recent Broadway casting as Cinderella is a great fit, not a stunt. When Fantasia Barrino went into The Color Purple, she brought the house down. However, when black women are stunt cast and their fame comes from yelling at other black women on reality TV or being an outsized trope to begin with, they bring that with them on stage and perpetuate the idea that that’s all we are.
I’ve performed in theater since I was a child and I made my Broadway debut in 1999, but I’m not one of those theater purists who talks about the craft and feels that film and television actors don’t belong there. On the contrary; I really don’t care how you got there, I just care what you do once you’re there. Whether you won a contest, had a reality show, or went to school for ten years and hold advanced degrees in theater doesn’t matter to me. But if you are in a position that requires skills that you neither possess nor are cultivating, I have concerns.
I know black women who could slay your stunting faves on stage. Both seasoned stage vets and fresh-faced ingenues who were made for the stage life and now have to fight for the understudy slot to your reality TV “diva” so they can keep their health insurance. Ironically, they do get to perform, and with some semblance of regularity, because the fish-out-of-water stars often can’t hack the Broadway schedule of eight shows a week. Then the understudies have to endure audience members asking for refunds because they came to the theater to see the “star,” or crowds that are against them before they even get on stage. Or they’ll “get to” perform regularly in the interim between stunt casting incidents, since the stunt contracts are often in smaller increments like two or three months, unheard of for the non-famous, but common when stunting.
A solid theatrical production can run for years and years with a rotating cast of players who disappear into their roles, not co-opting the production itself to suit their needs or limitations. When the material is solid, either you’re up to the task or you’re not, which is another thing that puts stunt casting in a different league. Producers are so thirsty for those ticket sales that they’ll alter a production to suit a “star,” which is what I’m against. They’ll alter costumes to suit their whims; they’ll do whatever it takes to get that “star” in the show and those butts in the seats.
Broadway’s longest-running musical, The Phantom of the Opera, was in the news recently for casting Norm Lewis as the Phantom, making him the first black man to play the role on Broadway. Mr. Lewis now qualifies as “famous” following recent television work, but his Broadway bona fides are legit. He’s been performing at the highest levels of musical theater for decades and he has the chops to be an exquisite Phantom. In that case, the show made news for a landmark casting choice, as opposed to casting someone specifically to make the news.
When a reality or daytime TV personality is cast in a Broadway show, they can make the talk show rounds drumming up publicity in a way that non-“famous” Broadway performers cannot. And if they are a talk show host themselves, they devote airtime to their own publicity and the producers of both their own show and the Broadway show count the coins as they come rolling in. Do these people perform numbers from the shows they’re in when promoting them? No, because they often can’t do so proficiently. What they can do is talk about it. They can misrepresent what many people fight for the chance to do, such as when a host bragged on TV about routinely showing up to the theater late, and they can wave an attitudinal finger in the air and say “Haters gonna hate, but I’m on Broadway, hunty!”
Yes, Miss Thing, you are. And Congratulations. But if you’ve already shown on that other reality show that you’re unable to execute basic dance moves and that is a requirement of your role, I can only say I hope you don’t actually “break a leg.”