With momentum building around the globe for the international human rights movement, Black Lives Matter (BLM), the theatre industry has shown its support in a number of ways.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Show Must Go On series was cancelled last weekend in a message of solidarity for those campaigning against violence and systemic racism towards people of colour. A number of theatres in New York’s Broadway district have opened their doors to provide a safe place for protestors, offering their lobbies as a place to rest and their bathrooms for use. Now the creators of the Tony Award winning hit musical Hairspray are leading the calls for change and have announced new requirements that any future production of the show must not have all white cast members.
Hairspray is an American musical written by Mark O’Donnell with music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman. The musical is set in 1962 in Baltimore, Maryland where plus sized teenager Tracy Turnblad’s dream to dance on the Corny Collins Show comes true. The musical explores themes of racial prejudice and freedom of expression. The musical touches on the racial issues that were prevalent in 1960’s America and highlights the powers we have to change our attitudes towards discrimination. The story encourages individuality, acceptance and freedom.
OnStage blogger Chris Peterson recently published an article highlighting a loophole in the licensing agreement for the musical which allowed theatres to perform the show with all white or non-POC casts. As a result Peterson’s article prompted the following response by the shows creators on instagram.
Hello, @marc_shaiman here. (Please note that anytime I use CAPS here, it is not that I’m yelling, it’s just that social media doesn’t allow for italics (which is maddening!). Well…this casting conundrum has been an issue that all of the authors of Hairspray have wrestled with for some time.
In the past, while always IMPLORING theaters and schools to – if necessary – look outside of their own community to properly cast the show, we eventually allowed groups to cast the show as best they could as long as the WORDS and the STORY were unaltered. Since a major part of HAIRSPRAY is about fighting against the idea that someone could not be on a show because of their race, it seemed wrong that HAIRSPRAY would deny someone the chance to be in a show…BECAUSE OF THEIR RACE!
While it always seemed like common sense to us that people would choose to put on HAIRSPRAY with the knowledge that they could perform the show as written, we were naive. But, to state what I would hope to be the obvious, we never ENCOURAGED an all-white production.
But this situation has ALWAYS troubled us (it has certainly gnawed at me for years) and so, we are grateful to say that Music Theatre International (which represents and licenses Hairspray) WILL be requiring groups to cast the show so as to accurately reflect the characters as we wrote them. A show that specifically addresses one aspect of the black experience during the civil rights battles of the early 1960s deserves to have its characters accurately and appropriately portrayed on stage.
I sincerely thank you for your interest in this, and I am very, very happy to be able to communicate this news to you guys. Thank you. x Marc
The theatrical version of Hairspray has been performed around the globe. In many of these productions, roles that were originally written for black actors have been played by people of caucasian or asian descent. As a result an all white or all asian cast goes against the show’s anti-racist message. In one instance a production of the show in South Korea caused significant uproar when they portrayed Asian actors in ‘blackface’. Blackface is a term used in theatre where stage make up is used by non black performers to represent a caricature of a black person.
Hairspray the musical highlights the ongoing issues of racism and discrimination and the creators have confirmed that future productions must be cast as written, with black performers in black roles.