My wife and I have been involved in theater for much of our lives. We have directed shows, served as assistant and musical directors as well as stage managers. I’m actually a published, award-winning playwright (though that happened long ago). Both of us have theater degrees. Offstage, we’ve built sets, fabricated props, painted backdrops, sewn costumes, played in pit orchestras, and designed programs and publicity. It’s safe to say there’s not a job in theater that at least one of us hasn’t done.
I wanted to say something about casting, which is probably the most baffling aspect of theater: casting. Let me state right up front that this is my opinion. Others may have different thoughts. Feel free to present your own perspective in the comments below.
Primary Casting Considerations
Straight plays: When it comes to non-musical theater, a role should always go to the person who can most convincingly portray the character as envisioned by the director. Physical characteristics (whether the actor is male or female, tall or short, thin or fat, attractive or not) are often a consideration, but they usually shouldn’t be primary. The play’s the thing, as the Bard says, and casting should involve putting the best available actor to play the part.
Musicals: For musical theater, priority should almost always be given to the person with the most appropriate singing voice for the role. Especially for lead parts with a lot of solo singing, it’s critical that the actor’s vocal range, quality, and singing ability be matched to the part he or she will be playing. For certain roles, dancing ability could possibly edge out singing ability, but from that, though everything else—including looks and body type and so on—is secondary to the voice. Audiences attend musicals to hear the music, and nothing does more to spoil a musical than a substandard voice in a leading part.
(And yes, Russell Crowe, we’re all looking at you.)
For school-sponsored shows, the people doing the casting have a few other things to think about. Is the student struggling academically? Is the student in sports or other activities that could conflict with rehearsals? How is the student’s attitude and work ethic? Has the student been flaky in the past, dropping out of or under-performing in other roles?
While these considerations can impact a director’s casting decisions, the primary ones—acting ability for straight plays and singing ability for musicals—should still receive the heaviest considerations.
Not everybody agrees with this. Last year Melanie co-directed a junior high school musical. Her co-director insisted on giving the biggest lead part to a kid who was (I’m allowed to say this because I’m not an educator) a total douchebag. “Giving so-and-so the lead would be good for him,” her co-director whined. “I just know he will rise to the occasion!” Other things being equal, Melanie believed in giving choice roles to students who earned them through hard work and positive behavior. The co-director overruled her, and the entire production (and the entire cast) suffered because of that decision.
More recently, one of our teenagers was cast in a role that was very much against type. At the same time, a major lead role was given to a person with an incredibly limited vocal range. During each show, we sat and cringed as this actor tried and mostly failed to hit the high notes required by the part. When we asked the director about her decision to match that actor to that role, she said, “He just really needed it.”
I’m sorry. Theater is about personal growth, but casting an inadequate singer in a lead role (whether the actor needs it or not) is simply audience abuse.
Community Theater Productions
Another special case is community theater. These are usually small, under-funded, under-staffed groups who do theater as a labor of love. The better groups often attract top talent, while other groups actually have to beg people to audition. Casting decisions sometimes actually come down to who is available and willing to put in the time. Also, since much of the offstage work is done by those involved in the production, offstage skills are likely to be a factor in casting decisions.
Community theater groups are notoriously cliquish. Many are run by a group of cronies who take turns either starring in or directing show after show after show. Once a group like this becomes entrenched, it can be nearly impossible for outsiders to get roles.
I’ve seen theater groups that cast essentially the same group of people in every show, sometimes out of necessity but often just because that’s what they do. It’s common practice for directors to cast spouses and friends and children, regardless of the availability of more talented actors.
Sometimes casting decisions come down to expediency. I’ve known groups to cast spouses in leads simply because they knew it would be a way to guarantee both would be at all rehearsals. I knew one group that always cast the same non-singer in a small role in every production … because he had his own power tools and was willing to construct sets. I once saw a director decide between two equally matched players because one of them had a pickup truck for hauling stuff.
With both community theater and school productions, finding people who are willing to do additional work is crucial. I can’t think of a single production I’ve been involved in that hasn’t involved extra volunteer work. In The Music Man, I helped with makeup and a few set pieces. For Shrek, The Musical, I painted the “Freak Flag.” For The King and I, I painted the two schoolroom maps, fabricated an easel to hold them, and also built a last-minute sailing ship. When my wife and kids are in productions, we always try to pitch in as well. I generally build sets and Melanie helps with costumes and props.
In our recent experience with Aladdin Jr., for which my wife was the musical director and all three of our kids had lead parts, I designed the set, designed and built the “royal box,” fabricated props (including swords and foam-rubber bread loaves). I did design and layout on the program (a 20-hour job) and built and sculpted the “Cave of Wonders” set piece (an 18-hour job). I did specialty makeup for dress rehearsals and all performances.
We have helped with every single school production that any of our kids have ever been in. Should offstage participation have an impact on a director’s decision about who to pick for a particular role? I think the answer should probably be: sometimes.
A while ago, I auditioned for a second show with a new theater group. After callbacks, I discovered that—for only the second time in my musical theater career—I had been offered a non-singing role. (The first time was the first show with the same group … a trend I would prefer not to perpetuate.) After I turned down the role (which I considered a slap in the face), the assistant director said, “We’d still really like you to help with the sets.”
If I’m involved in a show with a community theater group, I’m happy to contribute wherever and whenever I can. But I don’t do musical theater to take non-singing roles. This particular show was chock full of great parts for “grownup male” singers. If you want me involved, make sure I’m involved. But don’t give the leads and even the secondary characters to all your friends and associates and then expect me to put in hours on your set.
Not too long ago, two of our children were being considered for major roles in a school musical. Since I’d pitched in on previous shows, the director asked me to take charge of a major scene-shop project—one that would require almost 100 hours to do right. The callback list suggested that both of my children were being considered for major roles. When the cast list came out, however, it turned out that both children were passed over in favor of actors who (in both my and my wife’s opinion) were just plain wrong for those parts.
Both of my kids were assigned to what were essentially “ensemble” roles—in spite of the fact that they had voices (and other talents) better suited for roles that were given to other actors. With just one exception (in my opinion and the opinion of my wife), every main lead in the show had been dreadfully miscast. And yet I was apparently still expected to dedicate my nights and weekends for the next three months to a show that can only turn out to be another round of audience abuse.
A helpful hint to both school and community theater groups: when you make casting decisions, you’re determining how successful (or unsuccessful) your production will be. If you cast your friends and family and favorites over more talented actors, you’d better be certain that they have the talent to carry the show. If you award parts based on who needs the part—regardless of who is the best possible choice—you shouldn’t be surprised when others lose faith in the productions you put on the stage.
Also, unless you have an unlimited supply of skillful volunteers, it’s probably best if you make sure that the people you cast (or their family members) are willing and able to put in the work so that all the critical pieces of the production fall in place in time for opening night.
And above all, please don’t abuse your audiences by staffing your lead roles with people who can’t sing. That’s a perfect way to ensure that fewer and fewer people buy tickets the next time around.