I have to weigh in on this one, having dealt with non-traditional casting as a stage director, an artistic director of a professional theater, and as an ethicist.
Not following Ethics Alarms, an inquirer enmeshed in amateur theater had to resort to Kwame Anthony Appiah for advice regarding a controversy roiling a “well-regarded community theater.” “The director proposing the production has committed himself to colorblind casting,” the letter explains. “Others involved say that, in view of the Jewish community the play is about, they would consider this to be a cultural appropriation. How should we approach this conflict in values?”
“The Ethicist,” as is his wont, wanders through many thickets and mazes on the way to his last sentence, which is all he really needed to write: “If you have confidence in your director, let him fiddle with “Fiddler” as he prefers.” In other words, if the director is committed to doing the most effective production from an audience’s point of view, give him free rein. I would find the director’s “commitment to colorblind” casting ominous. Colorblind casting can work with some shows (or certain roles in some shows); reverse color casting can work in other shows, and with other shows, non-traditional casting is a fatal distraction. Whatever artistic choice a director makes, it is only responsible and competent if the objective is creating the most successful show. A director is not a social justice warrior; that impulse can be, and should be, satisfied elsewhere.
As for non-traditional casting in “Fiddler on the Roof,” color me dubious. Having Asian, black of Hispanic residents of Anatevka is not going to be too distracting, but a non-traditional casting of Tevya the milkman in a show that begins with a musical ode to tradition is asking for trouble. It’s not quite as objectionable as casting Porgy with a Japanese-American in “Porgy and Bess” (which the licensing agreement for that show prohibits), but its too close for me.
Literally as I was writing this post, my sister called me with her review of a local professional production of “Sweeney Todd.” One weak plot point in the Sondheim musical is that the serial killer Sweeney inadvertently kills his own wife, who has descended into physical decline and madness, because he doesn’t recognize her—yet he suddenly recognizes her after she’s dead. In this production, my sister told me, there was a good reason why he didn’t recognize her: in the flashbacks, his wife, who is described as pale and blonde, was played by a blonde white actress, but the aged, mad version was played by a black woman.
I had to consult the resident drama teacher and director among the commentariat, Curmie, who sent a typically thoughtful response regarding the “Fiddler” issue. He wrote in part,
First, it’s a musical. We’re supposed to believe that peasants in Tsarist Russia would suddenly break into song and well-choreographed dance, accompanied by a 40-piece orchestra, but we’re thrown off because a couple of the residents are more darkly-complected than others? And yes, I know the answer to that question is “sort of.”
...I’m reminded of the comments of Quiara Alegria Hudes, co-author of In the Heights, when Porchlight Theatre in Chicago cast an Italian-American (whom they believed to be Latino) in the lead of that show, and there was a big furor. She drew a distinction between an Equity production in a city with plenty of Latino actors and, say, a school production where the acting pool was less diverse. She’d still want the story to be told. But are we talking about the best available actor, or casting someone from the appropriate demographic if they’re “good enough.”
…So I think we’re back to “if it works.” I don’t think diverse casting ought to be a goal, per se, but I suspect the show might be better if casting were more open. And, I suppose, they could open up some roles but not others, as when I cast a black man as Kulygin (Masha’s husband) in Three Sisters (speaking of Tsarist Russia) but didn’t consider him for Andrei (the brother). I’m tempted to trust the director, as there’s no obvious best answer.
So Curmie, The Ethicist, and I agree.
More or less…
17 thoughts on ““The Ethicist” Tackles Diversity Casting in “Fiddler On The Roof””
“One weak plot point in the Sondheim musical is that the serial killer Sweeney inadvertently kills his own wife, who has descended into physical decline and madness… ”
Not knowing the plot, I don’t understand this sentence. Has he described into madness or has his wife?
The “who” comes after “wife”, so it could only be in reference to the wife. If it referred to Sweeney the sentence would read “serial killer Sweeney, who has descended into physical decline and madness, kills his own wife”.
Grammatically, of course, you are correct. I made a similar argument regarding the interpretation of a commercial lease, supported by the awe-inspiring authority of a 1922 decision of the Supreme Court of the Great State of Oklahoma.
The Judge dismissed my interpretation out of hand.
Not being familiar with this play, I am not convinced that Jack has not committed a grammatical error here.
Oh ye of little faith! The “who” indeed refers to the wife.
Little faith, but ample reason?
It is odd that it refers to the wife.
Maybe if I were familiar with the play it would make more sense.
Not that it’s worth bickering about, but with all the mistakes I make in my unseemly haste and one-draft writing, it is decidedly odd to be called on the carpet for a grammatically clear statement that means exactly what standard construction conventions would indicate it means. Sweeney is consumed with bitterness because his young wife was taken and sexually abused by a corrupt judge, who also sent Sweeney to prison so he could have his way with her. He assumes his wife is lost, and plots revenge against the entire human race. Meanwhile, a shaddowy old crazy beggar lady periodically appears—and she becomes another victim of the mad barber’s rampage…her death at his hands is the central tragedy of the musical. So “One weak plot point in the Sondheim musical is that the serial killer Sweeney inadvertently kills his own wife, who has descended into physical decline and madness, because he doesn’t recognize her—yet he suddenly recognizes her after she’s dead” is clear and accurate.
You really should see “Sweeney Todd,” which is probably the best of Sondheim’s musicals and the only one that will be commonly performed 50 years from now. But DO NOT see the terrible, badly sung Tim Burton movie version starring a ridiculously miscast Johnny Depp.
I don’t think any regular EA readers have a problem with excellent writing that includes typos etc. It goes with the territory. Maybe it’s not bickering, in fact, it’s kind of fun. Eg. “a corrupt judge, who also sent Sweeney to prison so he could have his way with her.” Why would Sweeney need to go to prison to have his way with his wife? Actually, the meaning is clear despite all the “he”s “her’s” and “his”s…even if the crazy old crone is “shadddowy”. (The three d’s is a hilariously intentional typo)
Never even saw the three d. Fuck.
Johnny Depp miscast? I thought he was great in the role. Maybe not the best singer, but I thought he got the character’s overall flavor right.
Even when great actors are miscast, they can often turn in a tolerable performance. But casting Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd is like casting Chris Rock as Shaquille O’Neil. And the part requires someone who can sing the notes. So does Mr. Lovett: Tim Burton cast his wife. Unforgivable.
Yes, that’s my assumption, but the context made more sense if the “who” refers to the husband. Was just curious whether that was just a grammar mistake.
Jack: “ Literally as I was writing this post, my sister called me with her review of a local professional production of “Sweeney Todd.” One weak plot point in the Sondheim musical is that the serial killer Sweeney inadvertently kills his own wife, who has descended into physical decline and madness, because he doesn’t recognize her—yet he suddenly recognizes her after she’s dead. In this production, my sister told me, there was a good reason why he didn’t recognize her: in the flashbacks, his wife, who is described as pale and blonde, was played by a blonde white actress, but the aged, mad version was played by a black woman.
I don’t know the play, but it seems like an interesting take. You are being shown what he sees, instead of seeing that he is deluded.
Anyway, I think I agree with you on the big picture about non-traditional casting. It has to make sense. Since I have already spoken out of ignorance in this comment, I may as well not stop now. I did not see the most recent Fantastic Four movie, but they had Sue Storm played by a white woman (comic accurate) and Johnny Storm played by a black man (not comic accurate, which might have been okay, EXCEPT THEY ARE SIBLINGS!!!!). Didn’t they understand that they needed to make Reed Richards black so they could have the interracial couple??!!?
Then, I thought about West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet has a social conflict between two groups of Italians. That is easily adaptable to any kind of group conflict (Catholic-Protestant Ireland; Irish-Italian Chicago; blacks and whites in most places in America;, etc.); you don’t necessarily need an all-Italian cast. West Side Story is more deliberate about the basis of conflict, but could your simply cast it non-traditionally to be about blacks and white, Democrat and Republican (I would love to see competing red and blue baseball caps—and, hell, could you find anything as divisive as that these days).
Like you said: sure, if it makes sense.
I don’t know. Isn’t “Fiddler” essentially a Jewish phenomenon? I remember it being such in the ’60s when it burst on the scene. I was only thirteen in 1964. But it was so, I don’t know, exotic and so Jewish, it was really different. Not vanilla. And I recall it being really popular on Miami Beach, which was kind of like Jewish Brooklyn South at that time. I’d say, just leave it Jewish. Why mess around with it?
Grammar comment. Remove the entire phrase between the comma’s and the subject that is mad is clear.
Proofreading, editorial and style comments are best directed to Jack via email.
Even though Wikipedia states it was the story of two Italian families I would differ. In the historical moment of the setting, there was no unified Italy to speak of. Individual identity was tied to family and fiefdom. Situated in Verona there are the two families, the Montagues, and the Capulets that were at “war” with each other. Not two Italians since there was no Italy. Just a point of historical accuracy to ponder.
Now to the point of casting. I remain a traditionalist because of life experience. I saw a version of West Side Story at e Westbury Theater. It had Richard Chamberlain, playing the role of Tony. The Sharks were all effeminate blond men. To put it mildly, IT SUCKED!