“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Henry Higgins famously asks, in song, in My Fair Lady.
Well, lately, more and more directors and music directors reviving classic musicals have been asking themselves the professor’s question and answering: Actually, there’s no reason a woman can’t.
Cross-gender casting – a part of theatre since its very origins – has finally started to reach musical theatre in a major way, as two current Ontario productions demonstrate.
In director Dennis Garnhum’s new take on Cabaret now on at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., audiences are wilkommen-ed by a Master of Ceremonies played by Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane, a young female triple threat who doesn’t actually officially graduate from Sheridan College until this summer.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, director Philip Akin is preparing to open a new Musical Stage Co. production of Next to Normal as part of the Off-Mirvish season that will see the dual roles of Doctor Madden and Doctor Fine played by Louise Pitre, the Tony-nominated musical-theatre veteran.
Both the Emcee and the Doctors are parts originated and traditionally played by male actors.
For Garnhum, the decision to cast a female Emcee came about through what he calls an “open-minded” audition process for an already unusual actor-musician production that required performers to play a musical instrument as well as sing a song.
While the men who auditioned seemed to be influenced by Joel Grey or Alan Cumming’s iconic performances as the Emcee when they sang Willkommen or Two Ladies, Sinclair-Brisbane, a London, Ont., native, brought something entirely fresh to John Kander and Freb Ebb’s songs. “It all began for me with Olivia,” Garnhum says. “The idea of a strong woman leading this cabaret – you just listen differently and you understand differently.”
For Akin, the cross-gender casting of the Doctors in Next to Normal, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 musical about a suburban mother struggling with bipolar disorder, came out of a discussion about how the pill-prescribing psychiatrist character are like rock stars in the show – and a sudden memory he had of watching Tina Turner sing and stutter-step on stage at the Royal York Hotel.
“Nothing in art is a straight line,” Akin says. “You have to get the agreement of the creators for that – and then you have to find someone to sing it. … And you end up with Louise Pitre.”
Garnhum and Akin may have made their creative decisions independently – but their casting is also part of a wider trend worldwide. What was once seen as a rare replacement-cast gimmick (Whoopi Goldberg following Nathan Lane as Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway in 1996) is now becoming common.
In London, the hit revival on the West End this season was director Marianne Elliott’s hilarious new version of Stephen Sondheim’s Company featuring a female Bobby grappling with her 35th birthday (and a female Amy turned into a male Jamie, singing Not Getting Married Today); the conceit worked so well, it will transfer to Broadway.
Likewise, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last summer, artistic director Bill Rauch got international attention by transforming the lovers of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! into same-sex couples – casting a female Curly and a male Ado “Andy,” “jist a girl who cain’t say no.”
Cross-gender casting is hardly newsworthy in non-musical plays: Men played female roles in ancient Greek drama, in the playhouses of Shakespeare’s London and in Japanese Kabuki – while, in recent centuries, the idea of switching the gender of parts in either direction when reviving a classic play has continuously come in and out of fashion. (It’s currently very in.)
But while music theatre has sometimes featured male characters written for female voices – think breeches roles in opera, or Peter Pan – switching the gender of a part for a revival is a relatively new idea.
This is because, while it’s relatively easy to turn Prospero into Prospera, it’s a trickier proposition for a woman to sing a man’s part or vice versa without making significant changes to a score. Vocal categories such as tenor, baritone, alto or soprano have long been treated as immutable even if individual voices rarely fit perfectly into those categories.
And, indeed, there are biological differences in what a voice can do. “A woman’s voice is typically an octave above a man,” says Wayne Gwillim, the music director of Cabaret at the Grand. “Essentially, the difference is that a woman’s vocal cords are ever so slightly smaller than a man’s – and that, of course, happens during puberty.”
But the idea that a musical-theatre song must stay in the original key it was written has mostly been due to practical rather than artistic concerns: Moving a part up or down to be in a different range used to be a real ordeal.
“In the golden age [of musical theatre], it was incredibly tedious to transpose a a song – every note would have to be rewritten by hand,” Gwillim says. “If there was a replacement [actor] brought in to a show, they had to be able to sing in the same key – it was the determiner.”
Digital music-notation software has made transposing songs as simple as a couple of clicks, however – and that has very gradually led to changed views on casting over all.
Lily Ling, the in-demand Canadian music director who’s taking a break from conducting the San Francisco production of Hamilton to work on Next to Normal in Toronto, says when she started out she thought it a make-or-break for an actor to sing in the key a song was written, an opinion she now says was “young and innocent and slightly uneducated.”
In general, the trend in musical theatre has moved toward finding actors who are right for the part, then adjusting the orchestrations so songs are in their ideal key. “For me, everything always comes from: Is this person, this actor, right for the role – and then you look where, vocally, they’re at,” she says.
Ling prefers to situate songs within the speaking range of an actor. “The way I like to approach things is that songs are basically pitched monologues,” she says.
This is an approach Gwillim certainly agrees with in the case of Cabaret which, especially in terms of the Emcee, has conversational songs: “Cabaret is the farthest thing away from operetta; the [characters] speak and they shout and somewhere in between they find a song.”
Once Next to Normal’s creative team reached out to Pitre, it turned out that the Doctor Madden and Doctor Fine songs were actually just right for her in the keys they were written – and none had to be adjusted to move from a high tenor to what Ling calls Pitre’s “warm, velvety alto”; it’s only in some of the group songs that she had done some vocal redistribution to move Pitre to the middle of harmonies.
For Cabaret at the Grand, however, Gwillim has had to constantly examine the orchestrations and the keys of all the songs not only because of the cross-gender casting but due to the ad hoc instrumentation. In the case of the mezzo-soprano Sinclair-Brisbane, she’ll be singing songs a third higher than original Emcee Joel Grey did (or a sixth lower than him if you consider the octave disparity between a woman’s and man’s voice).
While Sinclair-Brisbane was surprised to get the part of the Emcee in Cabaret, as an actor of Jamaican and Irish background, she is used to being cast in roles that some of her teachers told her she probably shouldn’t be aiming for. “I love breaking barriers,” she says. “If it were ever possible to play George Washington in Hamilton, that’s a role that I would absolutely adore playing."
Pitre, on the other hand, is only now beginning to think about new parts that she might be able to play as what’s normal, or next to normal, changes in her industry. “Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar,” she says. “I’ve never actually thought about that before but as you ask me. … To have the chance to sing Gethsemane on stage. I think that would be absolutely thrilling.”
Then she adds: “I also have always wanted to play the Emcee in Cabaret.” Well, that’s now definitely an option.