Thursday, May 14, 2009

Casting Quandaries: The Most Difficult Role to Cast

Here we have a 3 for 1 special:

Casting a play is a little like Christmas as a kid. Growing up, we’d always get the Christmas catalogue from JCPenney and Sears, then page through it, dreaming of all the wonderful toys within our grasp. Casting is the same way. Just replace the toys with talented actors, and you get the picture.

I made a big snafu my first time casting. I was being very practical about it, and after auditions, I knew who I wanted to be my Dolly Levi and Horace Vandergelder. So I didn’t add them to my call back list. It seemed pointless.

There was no greater disappointment than when my two very talented leads saw the callback list. I also have a feeling there was no greater joy then when my two very talented leads saw the final casting notice.

As I write my musicals, I’ll admit to having fun contemplating what beloved Broadway stars might get cast on the day my shows hit the Great White Way. It is, granted, a long shot, but, as the Andrew Sisters would say, I can dream, can’t I?

Casting isn’t always easy, though. I would imagine that in casting big productions of classic shows, you’re always fighting the expectations of the audience (perhaps from prior actors or, worse yet, film versions) while trying to find the actor who will best bring to life a character in a unique but faithful interpretation.

My theory is that one of the most difficult roles to cast in musical theatre has to be Annie. Yes, the plucky little orphan. Because of this, it doesn’t surprise me that the casting problem that plagued the original Broadway production reared its ugly ahead during the last revival. As detailed in the book It Happened on Broadway, the original creators cast a very talented girl in the lead, but they realized that Annie needed to be a tough kid. Out went saccharine Annie, and in came chorus girl Andrea McArdle. In the most recent Broadway revival, the understudy Peggy Sawyered her way to the top as well.

Because of “Tomorrow,” we associate Annie with chipper, cheerful-til-you-puke, pluckiness. As a result, the temptation is to cast the biggest voice or the most expressive kid in the part, which is why so many community theatres get it wrong. There are shades of Annie’s personality that can’t be painted in bright red colors. The song “Tomorrow” is so effective because it is expressed from a place of deep pain. It can’t be oversimplified and be effective, and the one-note chipper Annie simply can’t do justice to the song.

Charlie Brown

As Alice says in Alice in Wonderland:
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?”

That about sums up the casting for a couple of musicals. The more apparent one is probably Sally Bowles in Cabaret. She’s not supposed to be a spectacular performer, yet people pay big bucks to see someone who can sing. I believe it was Ken Mendelbaum who identified Susan Egan as the best Sally of the last revival because she was able to perfectly balance those two facets of the character.

Like Annie in “Casting Quandaries I,” there’s another role that’s mysteriously difficult to cast. It’s hard for me to fully comment because I don’t think I’ve seen the definitive production of the show (though I have seen several strong productions). When it comes to Charlie Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the temptation seems to be to take the kid you want to cast because he’s so nice and give him the role. After all, it is good old Chuck; how much stage presence do you need?

I love my Broadway revival cast recording of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown with Anthony Rapp in the title role, a production I never got to see. It’s interesting to hear it because, though the character is . . . well, Charlie Brown . . . Rapp is still giving an endearing, strongly sung, and theatrical performance. He found a way to bring to life a wallflower, a failure, and a self-defeating character without sacrificing stage presence, warmth, and humor.

It seems to me that the best casting of Charlie Brown would be in finding one of your strongest character performers, then casting him in that role. The show is, after all, named for Charlie Brown. He shouldn’t be the least memorable character in the show (just as he was never the least memorable character in the cartoon specials).

The casting of The Sound of Music became infinitely more challenging when Julie Andrews stepped into the role of Maria for the film. It’s interesting to ponder that Mary Martin was cast in the role in the original Broadway production after playing parts like Peter Pan and Annie Oakley. Those aren’t roles you would ever imagine Julie Andrews taking on.

Since the movie, what stage production will ever be able to live down the memory of Julie Andrews in one of the most beloved movies ever made? In the last revival, Rebecca Luker and Laura Benanti were consecutively cast as everyone’s favorite postulant, casting choices that followed the film’s lead (and both are tremendously talented women). But look at the choice—you could never imagine casting either Luker or Benanti as Peter Pan or Annie Oakley.

Casting a movie can be a very different exercise from casting a stage production. Often the integrity of the role is sacrificed for celebrity by casting someone who can’t sing too well, can’t sing the role the way it was written, or is too old for the part. Casting Julie Andrews as Maria was inspired, though it fits a film’s style more than it would probably fit a stage production (particularly in the way that The Sound of Music was reconceived for film). What the film captures in a close-up with Andrews may have been difficult for the stage to have successful communicated. I never saw Mary Martin on stage, but my understanding is that her performances were full of pluck, energy, and charm. I have a feeling her Maria didn’t abandon those traits (and the show was written to play to those strengths as well).

Yet, stage productions of The Sound of Music are always caught chasing after the beauty and charm of Julie Andrews, rather than going for someone with the plucky cow-town charms of a Mary Martin.

It’s interesting to compare this to the casting of Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie. The original Broadway Millie was going to be Erin Dilly, a very talented and versatile actress in the Julie Andrews vein (who played Millie in the original movie), but the show’s creators realized that they needed something different. It seems to me that their final choice—Sutton Foster—has more in common with Mary Martin than she would ever have with Julie Andrews. But then again, the needs of casting for the stage are something altogether different.

So, if I were to cast a stage production of The Sound of Music, I think it would be interesting to expand my horizons in casting Maria. A great role is open to many different interpretations, but I would love to see what a Sutton Foster type would do with the role . . . if I could only escape the movie.

the Broadway Mouth
Originally posted May 3, 2008, May 1, 2008, and April 30, 2008

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