Casting Ethics And “The Music Man”

A recently closed summer production of “The Music Man” at the Berkshires’ Sharon Playhouse illustrates many of the ethics landmines overly ambitious directors and non-traditional casting can trigger.

New York director Morgan Green was hired to direct Meredith Willson’s  1957 classic. Until “Hamilton” came along, only two Tony winning musicals had a book, lyrics and music all written by one person: “The Music Man” and “Oliver!” “The Music Man” isn’t my favorite musical, but a strong argument can be made that it is the Great American Musical, celebrating small town Americana with Sousa-style marches, barbershop quartets, and the best ending in musical theater history (stolen, with great success, by “School of Rock.”) There is no need to mess with it, since the show is pretty close to perfect. I was taught that a production should be equally satisfying for an audience member who is seeing a show for the first time and for one who is seeing it for the last time.  A version that takes the show out of 1912 and litters the landscape with anachronisms and forced 2017 social and political references isn’t fair to either of these. This was, I presume from based on Jesse Green’s review, a “Music Man” for people sick of “The Music Man” (like Jason Green.) You know what? If a director is sick of a show, she has an ethical obligation to let someone direct who isn’t sick of it.

Naturally, there was the obligatory stunt casting of women in some men’s roles (but never men in women’s roles, of course), and  the non-traditional casting of a black actress as Marion (the Librarian) Paroo, the romantic lead originally created by the recently departed Barbara Cook in the original production.

I see no problem in principle with casting Marion as black. It’s certainly ahistorical, and the hint of a trans-racial romance in 1912 Iowa is unimaginable, but “The Music Man” is, or should be, about kids, romance, parades, sentiment and fun, none of which is impeded by non-traditional casting.

There is a problem, though. One of Marion’s big solos, in which she sings about her ideal man (whom her mother believes is too ideal to be real), is called “My White Knight.”


Directors are always falling in love with new concepts or staging twists only to find out as rehearsasl proceed that they don’t fit, or work, or require so many other changes to make them fit that it harms the show as a whole. The best directors have the guts to say, “Oh, well, I guess that’s out; too bad” and abandon their pet idea. These, however, are few and far between.

Green had two legitimate choices. One was to decide that Marion just can’t be black because of the material. A white man can’t play Porgy in “Porgy and Bess”: there is no sin in accepting a show’s limitations. The other is to decide to give the audience some credit. We know what a “white knight” is. The term isn’t racial, and having a black woman sing about her white knight isn’t, or shouldn’t be, more than momentarily jarring, if at all.

I would have let my black Marion sing the song. If she sang it as well as she should, nobody would be concocting racial complaints. Here’s Kristin Chenowith, who is no Barbara Cook or even Shirley Jones (the film Marion), but still pretty great…

Instead, Green just cut the song. (She also cut “The Sadder But Wiser Girl,” though for the life of me, I don’t know why. It has one of my favorite lyrics, as Harold Hill explains why the less virginal a woman is, the more he likes her: “I hope, and I pray, For Hester to win just one more “A”…”)

 Music Theater International, which licenses “The Music Man” on behalf of its rights holders, contacted the playhouse and threatened  to shut down the production if it did not perform the show as the license specifically requires—no unauthorized cuts, and no significant changes in period and setting.


The songs were put back in, and even though some of the anachronisms remained,  Music Theater International allowed the production to continue, saying in a statement,  “Once we received confirmation that the cut songs and the altered period and setting were restored, we were authorized by the rights holders to let performances resume.”

15 thoughts on “Casting Ethics And “The Music Man”

  1. At the time the play is set, Jewish women were often portrayed as exotic temptresses. The director obviously feared that the audience would hear, “The Seder but Wiser Girl,” thus perpetuating this unfortunate stereotype.

  2. Are certain words creeping into his conversation?
    Words like ‘White?”
    And “Jefferson Davis?”
    Well, if so my friends,
    Ya got trouble,
    Right here in River city!
    With a capital “T”
    And that rhymes with “Lee”
    And that stands for General Lee!
    We’ve surely got trouble!
    Right here in River City!

  3. The music man is my favorite musical. I remember seeing it performed when I was at fort lee and have seen the different movie adaptations. When you brought up a black women playing Marion I thought that was odd given the time period. However after reflection her role playing the necessary outcast actually might make more sense has a black woman in 1912.

  4. Iowa repealed it’s anti-miscegenation law in 1851 so a romance was possible but unlikely. Probably, in 1912 the residents of a small town in Iowa would have shunned the married couple. Using this kind of casting requires the audience to suspend belief and the musical becomes ironic rather than funny and nostalgic.

  5. Is this a case of “The Niggardly Principle?” Everyone knows what “white knight” means. I’m glad they put it back in the show.

  6. I think you’re right about not giving the audience credit, and that explains cutting “The Sadder But Wiser Girl,” too. After all, no one who thinks “white knight” is about skin color will know who Hester is, or what the “A” is all about… or will know what’s special about Diana, or that HH won’t play faun (as opposed to “fawn”) to her.

    I keep going around and around about the specifics of race in casting (I’m hoping to write something more substantial soon, and these questions will certainly be a part of discussions in my directing class this fall). But I really think it’s a case by case basis, with lots of factors involved. I cast a black man as Kulygin (Masha’s husband) in Chekhov’s Three Sisters a few years back despite the fact that there weren’t exactly a lot of POCs in Tsarist Russia; I didn’t even consider him for Andrei (the brother), however… I would have if there were three strong African-American women to play the sisters; there weren’t. I cast a very dark-skinned black man as the Father of the (very pale) Bride in Blood Wedding, but wouldn’t have done so in a more realistic play. And so on.

    I continue to be intrigued by what bothers people in terms of conforming to expectations–historical, traditional, or whatever. One of my favorite moments in my (modern) theatre history class is talking about the great Swiss designer Adolph Appia, who was a pioneer in the use of 3-D scenery. He argued that the painted drops used in Wagnerian operas destroyed the sense of authenticity. After all, you don’t see 2-D castles in real life. Notice, though, that Appia wasn’t at all bothered by a singing dragon (as long as he’s a bass, of course).

    Bottom line: I’d have cast a black woman as Marion if she was the best singer/actor for the role. If not, not.

  7. I think I tend to not pay a lot of attention to nontraditional casting outside of big professional productions, or situations where they make it obvious they wanted to Make a Statement. I’ve been in enough community theater to assume that the priorities went:
    Right age and gender
    Someone with the ability to play the role (singing, dancing, and acting chops)
    Someone who could make rehearsals easily
    And then, if they still have more than one contender, who suits the role best in terms of appearance and charisma.

    I recognize that some companies feel lucky if they can afford to look at the third factor, especially for more challenging parts.

    To toss in some personal anecdotes, I was in a production of Bye Bye Birdie where Rosie was cast as black, but there is some… acknowledgement in the script from where she’s supposed to be Spanish. It made Spanish Rose ironic, but probably funnier. It does help that Birdie is a tongue in cheek show anyway.

    A bit weirder was when someone I know was in a production of The Wiz at the historically black university she attended. She was cast as Glinda, the “beautiful” sister played by Lena Horne in the movie. She was the only white person in the show. I assume it was because she had a lifetime of dance training, but even fifteen years ago we noticed there were some weird undertones to that one…

    All that said, whoever thought then needed to cut the songs seems to be trying to enter whatever contest is going on for idiotic virtue signaling.

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