I’m your friend

Had an idle thought – and I swear this is not about politics: When the second Bush ascended to the presidency, the first Bush got referred to as “41.” If, next year, we have our second Clinton, will the first be referred to as “42?”

Speaking of accomplished women, it’s my wife’s birthday. She runs her own business, Joy Dewing Casting, at the tender age of – well, I won’t say but it may or may not have been hidden in the previous paragraph. And I bet you’re breathing a sigh of relief that this isn’t about politics.

Au contraire, it’s about radical change! Joy has, almost single-handedly, changed the way theatre is cast in America today. I’ve observed this from a safe remove, so perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about, or am biased, but hear me out:

The revolution began before Joy started her company in 2012. Last decade, when Joy started interning for Dave Clemmons Casting, she joined a heady conversation every gin-and-tonic Friday with the likes of Rachel Hoffman and Geoff Josselson (who’d go on to cast my Such Good Friends). Ideas about the state of the casting process were passed back and forth. Joy had been on the side of the table where one is watched, and imagined a world in which performers didn’t feel like slabs of meat. Any aspirant can be the answer to a problem the creative team has, and so should be treated with respect, given a real chance to shine.

As Joy rose in that company, eventually guiding all its operations, she engineered new methods of looking at the talent that exists, giving increasingly higher quantities of players their fair shake. Where once there were paper sign-up sheets (open to the chicanery of people not present, being signed in by a friend), Joy helped innovate the system of on-line scheduling so common today. The shows Joy casts go all over the country. Back in the day, they only auditioned in New York. Joy was among the first to encourage and enable video submissions. Plus, she travels all over the country to see up-and-comers, new to the scene but not yet in New York.

Casting a wider net (sorry to reuse that verb) has been something of an obsession. I’m never sure I’m using the proper terminology, but there are differently-abled people who have something to contribute to the musical theatre stage. Joy’s at the forefront of getting them seen, expanding the minds of creative teams. Earlier this year, I saw a fantastic singer-dancer tap his heart out in a leading role. It was quite the surprise to learn that he’s legally blind..

Casting directors have a professional association, and Joy’s a bigwig on its Diversity Committee. You’re probably aware that Broadway shows are usually populated by white people  – one of last season’s new shows specified “Caucasian only” in its casting call. Joy’s Committee explores ways to upset that status quo. There was no legitimate reason the leads in Mamma Mia needed to be all-white. When Joy took over the casting the barrier broke. And I happened to be present for the first audition of the little phenom who’ll soon play Annie; she’ll be the professional stage’s first Annie-of-color.

These may be the first raindrops in an oncoming storm. Hey, I told you I was writing about radical change! Part of Joy’s genius is behind-the-scene conversations with producers, directors and choreographers. Most are white, and most start with a vision of how their show should look – possibly like the lily-white casts from the days of yore. Elsewhere, there are people of color who’ve seen so many lily-white casts performing musicals, some naturally assume that musical theatre might not be an option for them. In the slow march towards the meritocracy the arts should be, Joy opens minds on both sides.

This month, in Boston, a play will open that posed a unique challenge to its casting director, Joy. Everybody in the audience already associates specific actors with all the characters, and has a fully-formed sense of how they should all be played. Sounds impossible, no? But here comes Cheers, a new play based on the first season of one of the best-loved television shows of all times. Imagine the difficulty in seeking actors who are brilliant comedians here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, playing Sam and Diane and Carla and Norm and Coach and Cliff, characters who made an indelible impression way back in the second-to-last decade of the twentieth century. Everybody knows your name, indeed. And your inflection, body language, look, voice, accent. I get nervous just thinking about it.

 

But musical theatre fans might be used to this in two different forms. First, think of all the musicals based on familiar movies. Today, folks walk in to the Winter Garden fully expecting Jack Black in School of Rock because they remember his film portrayal so well. I know the cover in the role – that is, the guy who takes over any time the lead is out – and think: he’s nothing like Jack Black; he’s up against an expectation that wouldn’t be there if he were doing an original. But then I think back to how wonderful he was in The Wedding Singer at NJPAC, where he wasn’t remotely like Adam Sandler but was thoroughly amusing in his own way.

And then we’ve got iconic musicals. Buoyed by a film that used most of the original cast, Rentheads have opinions about how the Rent characters should be played. Touring soon will be the 20th Anniversary production, cast by Joy, where you’ll be dazzled by the gifts a new generation brings to those East Villagers. Today, of course, the best ass below 14th Street would belong to someone rich enough to pay for surgical sculpting, but we can remember when.

Which reminds me: Happy birthday, honey.

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