MUSIC - Donna Mckechnie: The Broadway Boogie Woogie Blues]
Got up at 8:00
Did my hair
Did my face
Sang my scales
Limbered up at the bar
Janae Pierre: It's The Takeaway. I'm Janae Pierre, in from Melissa Harris-Perry. Here's a song called The Broadway Boogie Woogie Blues, which was cut from the original 1975 show, A Chorus Line, and later sung by Donna Mckechnie.
[MUSIC - Donna Mckechnie: The Broadway Boogie Woogie Blues]
I'm much too tall
Much too short
Much too thin
Much too fat
Much too young for the role
I sing too high
Sing too low
Sing too loud
Could you read it with a little control?
I've got the Broadway boogie-woogie
Known as don't call us, we'll call you
Janae Pierre: The song pretty much sums up the exasperating process of actors auditioning and trying to get cast in a show on Broadway. While being in a Broadway show is physically demanding, sometimes training and singing and dancing your heart out isn't enough. Many people have historically been excluded from casting because of certain body types, gender, race, or disability. Take one famous example, when La Cage aux Folles opened in New York, in 1983.
It was the first musical to star a gay couple, but cast two straight actors. In the critically acclaimed show Wicked, the role of Nessarose, a character who uses a wheelchair, has historically gone to able-bodied actors. We're looking at whose bodies Broadway casts, and who it casts aside.
Ryan Donovan: My name is Ryan Donovan. I am assistant professor of theater studies at Duke University, and author of Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity.
Janae Pierre: In his new book, Ryan looks at Broadway musicals and casting from 1970 to 2020, and the bodies that Broadway has excluded from its stages, based on size, gender, disability, and how that intersects with race and ethnicity. What is a Broadway body, Ryan, and what are the politics and paradoxes of that representation on Broadway stages?
Ryan Donovan: The Broadway body is the ideal body for Broadway musicals, as the industry has defined it. The way that I think about it is that it's usually a very conventionally attractive, very fit-- Think six-pack abs, think ripped muscles, triple threat performer. A performer who's equally adept at acting, singing, and dancing, who can play their part in the ensemble in the afternoon, cover the leading role, and go on that night.
They represent the way that the Broadway industry has commodified the body so that one performer can do all of those things. That's all contained within one body, saving producers money and making this ideal, also very hard to reach, frankly.
Janae Pierre: Now, musical theater and theater, in general, have been known as a safe haven for many people, and also a place to celebrate non-conformity and identities. Is that the paradox here?
Ryan Donovan: Exactly. The paradox here is what I think of as the ambivalent inclusion that Broadway musicals practice. For instance, Broadway musicals often feature characters who have physical disabilities, and those roles are almost always cast with non-disabled actors. The same thing goes with musicals like Dreamgirls and Hairspray, that are inclusive of bigger bodies, and yet, those musicals cast actresses in the leading roles and made them wear fat suits, and often have contractually stipulated weigh-ins, where producers were monitoring the performer's weight.
Broadway is both a haven for people who don't conform, and the way that it treats them once they get there, is pretty ambivalent.
Janae Pierre: Ryan, I'm wondering what was your purpose behind writing this book. What did you want people to take away from it?
Ryan Donovan: This book is an invitation to consider the histories of exclusion, actually, that Broadway musicals have long been a part of. It's an invitation then, to think about-- What if this book didn't need to be written? What if there weren't these long histories of casting non-disabled actors in disabled roles, for instance? What if there was parity in casting, and gay actors were able to play gay roles on Broadway more frequently?
What if actors of size were able to play romantic leading roles regularly, to the point that it was not remarkable? That's really where I'm coming from. I want people to think about, what are the politics of the musical that we are enjoying? Who's seen and who's not seen on stage?
Janae Pierre: In your book, Broadway Bodies, you have three different sections, on size, sexuality, and ability. Can you set the stage for us and give a few examples of shows that we're casting in these narrow body ideals? I know you just mentioned Hairspray and Dreamgirls, but could you give us a few more examples as well?
Ryan Donovan: Absolutely. I'm thinking today, actually, about Phantom of the Opera, which is closing this weekend, after becoming the longest-running Broadway show. That's a show that, it's easy to think, has nothing to do with this conversation, but the logo is the mask that covers the Phantom's facial disfigurement. That's one of the examples that I'm thinking about in the book. Just in terms of that conversation with disabled characters, for instance.
We're looking at shows like Porgy and Bess, Wicked, Annie, Newsies, The Who's Tommy, it's endemic almost. In terms of sexuality, in the book, I look particularly at the 1983 musical La Cage aux Folles, and its Broadway revivals, also at shows like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Color Purple. In terms of size, there's this trend where bigger bodies are often cast as the comedic sidekick, or the fat best friend, in shows like Grease.
Janae Pierre: Rarely the leading role.
Ryan Donovan: Rarely the leading role. Dreamgirls and Hairspray are the only two shows of the past 50 years to regularly cast a fat woman as the lead. Those shows are both about the intersection of race and popular music. You can only play Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray if you're white, and you can only play Effie in Dreamgirls if you're Black. There's this intersectional element of casting all of these roles too. I would say that race and ethnicity cut across all of the identities that I'm looking at in the book.
They intersect with size, gender, sexuality, and ability, and their primary factors as well. Part of the work the book is doing is to introduce these other elements that go into casting, apart from race and ethnicity, which are the primary ways that casting has been discussed both in the media and by scholars.
Janae Pierre: Hold it right there. We'll be right back with Ryan Donovan in his new book, Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity, when we return. Hey there, I'm Janae Pierre, in from Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. I've been speaking with Ryan Donovan, assistant professor of theater studies at Duke University, and author of the new book Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity. We've been talking about how Broadway has historically not included many different body types in casting.
I'm wondering, Ryan, who's reinforcing all of this in the first place? Is it the director, the casting director? Who is it?
Ryan Donovan: Casting directors actually, I think, are the ones trying to change this dynamic. I would argue that it's directors, and it's producers. One of the quotes in the book is from legendary director-choreographer, Michael Bennett, who directed A Chorus Line, among other things. He makes the point that when he's thinking about casting and what shows to do, he says, I'm going to quote him, "It's about, are you marketable? Is it saleable? Will it make money?"
That's always where Broadway is going to fall back on. It's a business, and it is for profit. If more inclusively cast work starts making money, that's going to motivate producers to keep doing it.
Janae Pierre: Right now, the New York City Council is currently considering legislation that would prohibit discrimination based on height and weight in the workplace. How would this affect Broadway?
Ryan Donovan: This is a fantastic bill, and I hope that it does impact Broadway, but there is an exemption baked into the bill, for employers where they have a bonafide occupational reason to consider weight or height. I think that Broadway producers are, in some instances, going to take advantage of that exemption. I think that laws are not enough. I think they're a great first step, but as we've seen with previous laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, there's often no mechanism for enforcing them.
That puts the burden on the people most impacted already. I'm not hopeful that Broadway's going to change as a result of this bill, if it's passed. I think what will change Broadway is money. I think audiences not showing up for things that aren't what they want to see and who they want to see on stage, speaks louder than any bill could.
Janae Pierre: Yes. Do you think it's just money? You said that the law would not be the best next step, so what is the best next step?
Ryan Donovan: I think the best next step is happening already. I think this Broadway season is more inclusively cast than any in recent memory. I also want to give a shout-out to this production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast that was done the last two years, at Maryland's Olney Theatre Center, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, where she cast as Belle, a plus-sized Black woman, and as the beast, an actor whose leg was amputated. It was remarkable.
It received so much notice, and it was so important, not just for kids in the audience who look like the people on stage, but I think for everyone, for people who aren't disabled, or who aren't plus size, or white, or Black. It's for everyone to see what inclusion looks like. It's important for every audience member. That's the change that needs to come to Broadway, and I think it is.
I'm actually hopeful that, even absent the passage of this bill, we're seeing this new level of inclusion on Broadway, and in all forms of diversity, beyond race and ethnicity, inclusive of size, abilities, sexuality, gender, we're really at a tipping point on Broadway this season, and frankly, it's a thrill to see.
Janae Pierre: Yes. We all remember Broadway was closed for a year and some change, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Have you noticed any changes, or additional pushes for change?
Ryan Donovan: There were so many movements agitating for change on Broadway in the wake of George Floyd's assassination by police, in 2020. I think that there was a real cultural reset on Broadway. I'm not going to pretend that everything is changed, and it's all better now. It's not, the work is ongoing, and change is incremental, as always, but I do see that this season--
The range of work that's being done, and the fact that the norms of casting are visibly changing, is, I think, a result of the work of many activists and many groups pushing for Broadway to break up its status quo.
Janae Pierre: Do you have any additional examples of some of the shows that are actually doing that, and making strides? I know earlier you mentioned Beauty and the Beast.
Ryan Donovan: Yes, on Broadway, this season, I'm particularly excited about Bonnie Milligan in Kimberly Akimbo. Camelot, which just opened, features a queer disabled performer as one of the knights. The season opened with Martyna Majok's play Cost of Living, which featured two visibly disabled performers as disabled characters. We've also got a wheelchair-using actor in A Doll's House on Broadway, non-binary performers in & Juliet.
We have a trans performer in Sweeney Todd, the musical Some Like it Hot. I could go on and on there. It's a really, really exciting season. There's a full range of humanity on display on Broadway, in a way that we've not seen before.
Janae Pierre: Yes, and I love that, for audiences who have become regulars to Broadway. Thank you for mentioning those. Ryan Donovan is an Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies at Duke University, and the author of the new book, Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity. Ryan, thanks for joining us.
Ryan Donovan: My pleasure.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.