Thursday, May 7, 2009

From the Mouth of Mary Martin: On the Writing and Selecting of Roles

In her autobiography My Heart Belongs, Mary Martin writes:

A fine libretto, wonderful music, a role full of vitality can make milestones in the careers of entirely different personalities in the theater. Annie [Oakley] was one of those roles. It was one of Ethel Merman’s unforgettable ones; it gave Delores [Gray] her first big break; it afforded me many of my happiest hours onstage.

And that brings up one more thing I have learned: beware of any role which somebody says is "written especially for you." If the role isn’t written so well, so strongly, that any professional can play it, don’t get involved. That, too, is what theater is all about.

Some examples:

Mama Rose: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone (not to mention the many great regional Roses)

Dolly Levi: Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye (and that’s the short list)

Charity Hope Valentine: Gwen Verdon, Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Allen, Donna McKechnie, Charlotte d’Amboise, Christina Applegate

Perhaps Martin’s statement rings true because the basis of any production of a show that is either new or used is interpretation. The interpretation is derived from the libretto, which means that a great role can survive many different interpretations, provided they are rooted in the text and supported by the playwright’s intentions. If someone is writing a show for a specific personality, that means that they could be using that actor’s natural charisma, acting style, or personality as a crutch, to cover any gaps in characterization.

As you can imagine, I’m always casting shows as I write them, organizing my dream cast as I go along; however, it’s equally delighting to think of the many different actors who could also play the part. I feel like I’ve done my job if I can imagine people with different appearances, voices, or personas taking on the roles.

the Broadway Mouth
April 2, 2008

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