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It's time the long-running musical got credit for pioneering color-blind casting on Broadway
Earlier this year, Chicago became the first Broadway show to have two Mexican actors in leading roles when Bianca Marroquín and Jaime Camil stepped in as Roxie Hart and Billy Flynn. The occasion didn't go by unnoticed: It got extensive media coverage and was hailed as historic. But this wasn't the first time Chicago busted through casting barriers. Though Hamilton gets a lot of the credit when it comes to color-blind casting, Chicago has been doing it since the last century, both in its current revival and its inaugural production back in the '70s.
When the original opened on Broadway in the summer of 1975, it featured Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly. Even though the Latina performer was already a well-established star with two decades of work under her belt, Chicago marked the first time she was cast as a character who wasn't ethnic or "exotic." Her previous credits included a regional production of Flower Drum Song (in which she "passed" as Asian); she was African-American actress Eartha Kitt's standby in Broadway's Shinbone Alley; and she gave legendary performances as "Spanish Rose" Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie and as Anita in West Side Story.
The current revival of Chicago was the very first show I saw on Broadway when I was just a teenager. A great fan of the 2002 film adaptation, I got tickets to see the show when I visited New York in the summer of 2003, and was pleasantly surprised, if slightly shocked, that the Velma Kelly I saw looked nothing like Catherine Zeta-Jones. In fact, she was Deidre Goodwin, the African-American actress who almost steals the "Cell Block Tango" from her fellow merry murderesses in the movie. ("And then he ran into my knife -- he ran into my knife ten times!")
I grew up in a third world country watching film adaptations of classic musicals. I assumed Broadway was all white. I was glad to discover I was wrong.
A few years later I moved to New York and revisited Chicago. While I realize the production gets a lot of flak for its so-called "celebrity stunt casting," often these guest stars have been people of color: Brandy, Wayne Brady, Nene Leakes, Brian McKnight, to name a handful. Curious about the show's casting process, I spoke with Barry Weissler, lead producer of the current revival, which is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary on the Great (Not All)-White Way. He explained that every time they need a new performer, they approach the role as if it's being cast for the very first time. "First they have to be able to cut it, to know how to sing, dance, and have charisma," he explained. "Once that's established, I could put a woman as Billy Flynn, I can put Asian actors, African Americans, it doesn't matter, as long as they can tell the story and do it in an accomplished way. We think big and have had such great fortune bringing people into the fold."
Of course it's fitting to see such a diverse roster of performers since the character descriptions never allude to their ethnicity. Instead they're deemed "sexy, desperate, selfish," or "tough, funny." "We're proud of our featured performers," Weissler added. "Bianca and Jaime are no exception, but we also had Ryoko Yonekura, a very big Japanese star, who learned the role of Roxie phonetically and came in and played it on Broadway. This show honors talent all over the world." (And, it should be noted, it's performed all over the world, too. Just look at the all-female Japanese incarnation, Takarazuka Chicago.)
Why, then, isn't the show more frequently praised for its expert color-blind casting when that's clearly one of its hallmarks? Yes, the achievement of Hamilton is undeniable and, perhaps, more subversive given the white historical figures the actors of color are playing. Yet, as evidenced by the casting of its Mexican stars, Chicago continues to break new ground. Who knows? Maybe Chicago will give some other musical-loving kid who's never seen himself represented onstage the same revelatory experience I had 13 years ago.
Jose Solís is a NY-based writer/editor who's been writing professionally about theatre and film since 2003. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the Drama Desk. Follow him at @josesolismayen. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top Image: Bianca Marroquin and Tony Yazbeck in Chicago. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.