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Casting Movie Musicals: What’s the Drama?

The past few years alone have bestowed a multitude of movie musicals upon us: In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and dare I name it, Cats. Now, it seems that the much-awaited film adaptation of Wicked will be amongst the next to join this ever-growing list, with the casting of its two principal characters having been announced. On 5th November it was revealed that Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande will play leading ladies, Elphaba and Glinda respectively, in director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the stage show. While the announcement was the cause of much excitement, it triggered the revival of wider conversations surrounding the casting of movie musicals, begging the question of whether anyone will ever get it ‘right’.

The primary argument from the theatre community is that musical theatre roles should go to musical theatre actors, those who have made their name on the stage and have proved themselves in live performances night after night. For many, this was part of the cause for celebration for Erivo being cast in Wicked, as she has many impressive stage credits to her name, including her Tony Award-winning run in The Color Purple. On the opposite side, it’s individuals such as Grande, who despite having a theatrical background, suffer from this approach, because she is most widely recognised for something other than theatre. Casting actors from other disciplines can lead to accusations that they are being cast for their name alone or suggestions that they may be less invested in the material.

These debates within the theatrical community are not exclusive to film adaptations of musicals but are also applied to the phenomenon of ‘stunt casting’ in theatres themselves, in which well-known individuals are cast in a production to boost interest and, crucially, ticket sales. In both instances, the underlying concern is the same, whether the role should have gone to someone else who has spent years dedicated to their very specific craft. Yet this attitude may risk some members of the theatre community appearing to be gatekeepers, suggesting that unless someone has taken the long, traditional route into theatre they are less deserving to be there. 

Casting directors of movie musicals are in the incredibly unenviable position of navigating the balance between respecting the craft and dedication of performers and producing a financially feasible film. Theatres use so-called stunt casting to boost profits, and the film industry must do the same in order to market their product to an audience much wider than the traditional theatre-going public. The beauty of the movie musical is its ability to make theatre more accessible. Cinema tickets or the cost of a Netflix subscription are infinitely cheaper than a night at a West End or Broadway show. People are able to watch a film from the comfort of their home, not having to factor in any additional time or costs for travel. Film removes some of the barriers that traditional theatre puts in place, working to encourage a wider audience to give musicals a go, and casting familiar faces is a part of this process. Someone who’s never considered watching Wicked in the West End but who loves Grande’s solo work might consider watching the film solely for her performance. Film musicals must appeal to those outside of the theatre community, something that would be unlikely utilising only stage actors, or they simply won’t be made at all.

The line between movie musicals being respectful of their origins while resisting the temptation to lean into a theatrical elitism (of sorts), all while being financially viable, appears so thin, it seems impossible to tread at all. Yet alongside this background of fierce debate and discussion, some adaptations have proved in various ways that it is indeed possible, if not to get the balance right, then to get it as close as possible.

Whilst the 2019 film Cats attracted much criticism for its CGI and some of its celebrity casting choices, not enough recognition was given for some of the positive casting choices that were made. The involvement of famous faces such as Taylor Swift and Idris Elba undoubtedly gave the film media attention before it was released, allowing for some of the principal roles to be taken by professional dancers. Ballerina Francesca Hayward took the role of Victoria, with the part of Munkustrap being given to fellow dancer Robert Fairchild, known for his work on An American in Paris. A similar approach was taken in the recently released Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which boasts a star-studded cast but features recent theatre graduate Max Harwood in the title role. Both films harnessed the talents of individuals who could produce strong performances and generate audiences, alongside those from the industry which lovingly crafted the musicals the films owe themselves to.

A balance between famous faces and stage talent appears to be the simple compromise but the dance of the casting director is a tricky one. What one viewer may see as a poor choice, is the reason another went to the cinema at all. Ultimately, those casting films have only half the power. The rest lies with the viewer, in the judgment of whether we want someone to cast a film ‘just right’ or whether we want to see movie musicals made at all.

Jenny is a current Theatre and Performance Studies student and English Literature graduate with more opinions on both subjects than most are willing to listen to. A lover of all things creative, literary, theatrical and anything in-between.
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