By Mark Peikert
Before Dancing with the Stars, there was Chicago. The long-running Broadway revival (fourteen years and counting) was an early advocate for casting celebrities to keep audiences coming back for more.
In the musical about wannabe chorus girl Roxie Hart’s quest for fame during her murder trial in 1920s Chicago, the roles of Roxie, her lawyer Billy Flynn, and her rival Velma Kelly have been played by everyone from Brooke Shields to Ashley Simpson-Wentz, from Usher to Gossip Girl’s Matthew Settle. However, there’s more to keeping a musical running for over a decade than periodically infusing it with fresh star wattage, as casting director Duncan Stewart can attest.
Having spent almost four years casting both the Broadway and national touring companies (as well as supervising the “star casting” for the still-running London production), Stewart has practically made an art out of replacing Chicago performers.
“With a long-running show, there are always replacements being needed,” he says. “In the tour last fall, I replaced seven or eight people in three months alone. Because Chicago also has the stars in place, generally a star or celebrity contract will be roughly around every eight weeks.
“So I guess what I’m saying is I’m always looking for replacements. Always.”
And since this is Chicago, in addition to the usual singing, dancing, and acting requirements, actors also have to nail that signature sexy Bob Fosse choreography. Stewart knows just what is required. “Generally, a person will walk in the room, and you know if he or she has got it or if they just don’t,” he says. “I always say, ‘The words are sexy, the moves are sexy, you don’t need to push the overt sexuality in my face. Just bring your personality to the table.’ And it’s the people who have a very strong sense of self who ultimately do get cast.”
But no matter how much he likes a particular performer, Stewart, who also cast the current Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles, always has to think about who’s coming next (he’s already looking at star replacements for next summer in London.) For better or worse, Chicago is known for its sometimes outré guest stars, and Stewart works hard to surprise audiences with new Velmas and Roxies. “Sometimes they seek us out,” he says of the celebs who drop in for a few weeks in the show. “But quite often what I will do is flip through every newspaper, every magazine, watch every TV program, keep up with what’s happening—or what’s not happening—with pop stars. And then I create massive lists of who I think could do this part.”
After compiling his lists, Stewart shows them to his marketing, PR and road teams to rank the names. After running the numbers through a program, Stewart takes the top contenders to producers Barry and Fran Weissler. “Once they give me their blessing, which they usually do since they trust me, I start pursuing those stars,” he says.
One star that did slip out of Stewart’s grasp is Lady Gaga, whom he encountered at a rooftop cocktail party just before her career exploded. “I thought, ‘OK, she’s a little out there, a little spacey,’” he remembers with a laugh. “And a year and a half later, we’d be lucky to get her.”
There are, of course, theatre pros who return again and again, including Charlotte D’Amboise and Bianca Marroquin, who made the leap to Broadway after wowing critics in a production of the show in Mexico. “We’re always going for an international feel for the show,” Stewart explains, which is why past Roxies have included, in addition to Marroquin, West End star Ruthie Henshall (the current Roxie) and German chanteuse Ute Lemper.
And does Stewart ever get tired of the Roxie and Velma parade? Not really, since the right actor can make the show feel utterly fresh. “When I, as a casting director, see the show night after night and still see performances that take my breath away,” he says, “that’s a good sign.”
Mark Peikert is the theatre critic for New York Press.