Last summer I had the privilege of experiencing the Cole Porter classic Kiss Me Kate at Pasadena Playhouse, featuring — get this — an all-Black cast. Starring Wayne Brady, Merle Dandridge and directed by the acclaimed Sheldon Epps, the ingenious adaptation of the beloved musical not only affirmed my adoration for the time-honored piece, but perpetuated my thought that the possibilities for non-traditional casting are endless. Hamilton boasting a multi-racial cast, Keke Palmer as Cinderella, the late Kyle Jean-Baptiste as Les Mis’ Jean Valjean, are all indications that ethnic is IN. So now, I’m like a kid in a candy store, re-imagining entire works, mostly Broadway classics, that would feature some of my favorite Black artists without boundaries. Here is my Broadway Black Wish List:
David Alan Grier & Stanley Wayne Mathis – The Producers
When I went to see Porgy & Bess with the brilliant Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, I was less than enthused that Grier, that guy from TV’s “In Living Color,” would be making an appearance. Clearly, I was ill-informed. The Yale School of Drama alum approached the role with a wisdom, a professionalism and a personality that made me reevaluate every misconception I’d had. His charisma has since had me pining to see him recreate the role of Max Bialystock originated by Nathan Lane with Mathis as his sidekick, Leopold Bloom. With Grier’s comedic cunning, just a twinge of Mathis’ Schroeder-like wit, and some obvious tweaks to the cultural references, this duo could possibly pull off “the biggest flop in history.”
Nicholas Christopher & Nikki Renee Daniels – The Music Man
I’ve seen Christopher in a few roles, mostly contemporary pieces, and to say he is charming would be an understatement. But many aren’t familiar with his straight-toned, classical music style and I’d love to see him bring that to the stage as the smooth-talking, fast-walking Professor Harold Hill with Daniels as the sensible and sensitive Marian…the Librarian. Daniels’ performance in Porgy and Bess proved that she has the vocal timbre to handle the traditional Meredith Wilson score and, quite honestly, I’d just love to see their chemistry on stage.
Audra McDonald – St. Louis Woman
This show is already traditionally done with an all-Black cast. Most recently, it was seen as part of the City Center Encores Series with Vanessa Williams starring as the belle of St. Louis, Della Green. However, I dream that Ms. McDonald recreates the role of Lila, the scorned, jilted lover who murders her cheating man, because that’s pretty much what we expect from an Audra performance and what she does best – dark with just a twinge of crazy.
In my excitement to devise my Broadway wish list, I came across only one problem: my performer list was too short. I found myself coming up with the same male lead or the same female protagonist, reminding me that though the pool is expanding, we have yet to reach the level of equality that we strive for in this field. We are still outnumbered and often discounted, but art is universal and diversity is on the rise. We’re heading towards an era where inclusive casting won’t even need to be articulated. Go ahead and take it in: non-traditional is the new normal.
Hello, Dolly! The Past, The Present, and The Prospective Future
A few weeks ago, previews began for the Bette Midler-led revival of Hello, Dolly! over at the Shubert Theatre. Midler last appeared on Broadway in her hilarious one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last at the Booth three years ago, and Fiddler on the Roof in 1967, when the actress had last starred in a musical on the Great White Way.
This revival of Hello, Dolly! marks the fourth incarnation of the Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman musical since its first inception in 1964, starring Carol Channing. The original production played well, but after three years and a slight decline in ticket sales, producer David Merrick decided he needed to shake things up a bit.
What better way to achieve shock value than to recast the show and create an all-Black version with the amazingly talented Pearl Bailey as matchmaker Dolly Levi and Cab Calloway as Horace Vandergelder.
Nowadays, a stunt like this would surprise no one, but in the late 1960s –a time of war and protest, racism and hate– the casting was nearly unheard of. The cast, however, didn’t deter people from seeing the show.
In fact, Hello, Dolly! opened to glowing reviews on November 12, 1967, at the St. James Theatre. This new version would later close on December 27, 1970, bringing the total cumulative Broadway run to 2,844 performances, thus making it the longest-running musical of its time.
Due to popularity, producers released another cast recording with the all-Black cast and Bailey received a Special Tony Award in 1968. She would eventually reprise her role in a short-lived revival in 1975 with Billy Daniels.
After her successful run as Dolly, more opportunities opened up for Black actresses to step into the role of the meddling matchmaker including: Thelma Carpenter, who actually went on as Bailey’s alternate on Wednesday matinees and performed in over 100 performances, Edwina Lewis, and E. Faye Bulter — whose 1990 version included the cut song “Love, Look in My Window.”
Looking back on this amazing production, and with the revival set to officially open in April, we got to thinking: If we could recast Hello, Dolly! today, who are some Black actresses we’d like to see?
Check out some of Team BB answers below:
JHD: Jenifer Lewis. She can blow, she has sass, she needs to be on Broadway since yesterday. And she would absolutely make an amazing Dolly. She actually played the title role back in 2009 in a Seattle Regional Production. If not a Broadway reprisal, we’ll settle for a revival of Mame too.
Tristan: Whoopi Goldberg, Queen Latifah, or Vanessa Williams. Here for all three of them, though the Ugly Betty fan in me is truly here for a Wilhelmina Slater-inspired Dolly.
Who would YOU cast? Sound off in the comments below.
How Do You Solve A Hiatus Like Audra?
Taking over a lead role early in the run of a high cost, highly anticipated musical could be daunting for any performer. Taking over the lead role for an actress with more Tony awards than any other woman in history could be down right horrific.
So, no pressure to the sweet soul who will step into Audra McDonald’s shoes in Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed when the six-time Tony award winner takes a scheduled hiatus June 21 – Sept. 25 to fulfill a prior commitment. And OH, what large tap-dancing shoes they are. Here’s who we think has the chops to succeed the diva and thrill the masses while she’s away:
We have to imagine that production knew Audra would be stepping out for a few months before completing casting and thus prepared accordingly when adding this stunning performer to the Shuffle Along roster. This lady would be beautifully suited to assume the role of “Lottie Gee” in Audra’s absence. Warren, who is most known for her role in Bring it On: The Musical, is a strong singer, skilled dancer and versatile actress, as seen in her roles on shows like “Blue Bloods” and “Orange is the New Black.”
For those of you who haven’t seen Something Rotten, maybe you’re not familiar with this tap-dancing kid, but the Baptized by Broadway star is definitely a force to be reckoned with. Not only is she a hoofin’ fool, but a powerhouse belter who could definitely keep up with the likes of Savion Glover, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter. Something we’d LOVE to watch.
Vanessa Williams, Brenda Braxton, Adriane Lenox
Shuffle Along could take a page out of the After Midnight book and feature a rotating lineup of special guests over the three month span to appeal to audiences in the headliner’s absence. These three ladies are just a few of the guest entertainers who made After Midnight special and could definitely bring the same star power to the Shuffle Along stage. Williams with that velvety voice, Braxton with those flawless moves and Lenox…just being Lenox, would each make it a beautifully unique and exciting experience.
There have been no details as to what Audra’s “prior commitment” is, but with “Hello Again!” and the “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar” HBO Special in the works, it could be anything. McDonald will return to Shuffle Along Sept. 27, but we will be waiting with bated breathe to hear who she’ll pass the torch to and you know Broadway Black will have it first. Hopefully, they’ll take our suggestions into consideration. Stay tuned!