Stunt Casting: A Theatrical Problem
Stunt casting is a topic often discussed on many blogs and vlogs and everything in between. It causes much of a debate within the theatrical community and has many positives and negatives. This post might be a bit longer than usual, but take your time to read it and weigh up the pros and cons and let me know your opinion. I'm intrigued!
The Big Culprit - Chicago
Chicago has become heavily linked to the world of stunt casting. Ever since the revival opened in 1996 on Broadway it has been full to the brim with celebrities and the same goes for the various runs in London. When it originally opened in 1975, the show was not that well-received but the revival brought it back to life with a cast including Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey and Ann Reinking. The Tony-winning revival played at the Richard Rodgers for a year before transferring to the Shubert until 2003. The show then moved to The Ambassador Theatre where it runs currently. Many Broadway alum including Charlotte d'Amboise, Amra Fay Wright and Brent Barrett regularly star in the show, usually when a star is in rehearsals for a role. Some stunt casting has been positively received such as Brandy Norwood, Ruthie Henshall and Bonnie Langford (Brandy was so successful her run was extended and Ruthie and Bonnie were both UK exports).
But some other stars didn't fare as well. Jerry Springer and Billy Ray Cyrus made interesting appearances as Billy Flynn, as did Wendy Williams and Sofia Vergara as Mama Morton. Mel B from the Spice Girls took on the role of Roxie, infamously breaking character to sing a segment of 'Wannabe' in the middle of the show! The most interesting to date is the casting of Erika Jayne who is one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills!
The UK is just as guilty of stunt casting although the casting is never as celebrity-based, with more West End stars and experienced performers in the roles. Michelle Williams from Destiny's Child fame starred in the show, later pursuing a successful career in theatre. Martin Kemp, Cuba Gooding Jr and the late Caroline Flack have all also starred in the show's most recent production.
But does it work? Chicago has been running on Broadway for 24 years, the longest revival in Broadway history. It continues to make big money at the box office and is still a firm fan favourite. I saw the revival both on tour here in the UK and on Broadway and in some way, I feel stunt casting the show cheapens it and distracts from the fact that the source material is actually very good! Chicago is in desperate need of a reimagined production without the help of some average B-lister in the lead role.
The Broadway Successes
Stunt casting, in general, is usually well produced and executed. Broadway has had its fair share of stunt casting across a wide range of shows. In my opinion, there is a difference between theatrical stunt casting, for example Bernadette Peters in Hello, Dolly!, compared to celebrity casting like the ones below. Theatrical stunt casting is the use of performers in the industry who have built up careers within it such as Patti LuPone or Aaron Tveit. They have stuck with theatre and built up a fanbase that way. It's the bringing in outsiders which is the problem.
The best Broadway stunt casting examples:
Corbin Bleu - In The Heights
Jordan Fisher - Dear Evan Hansen
Jordin Sparks - Waitress
Katherine McPhee - Waitress
Reba McEntire - Annie Get Your Gun
Darren Criss - Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Vanessa Williams - Kiss of The Spider-Woman
Antonio Banderas - Nine
Brendon Urie - Kinky Boots
All these names were excellently cast in their respective roles and brought in more audiences to these shows. There are many more examples that you could pick out but from what I've seen online these ones pop out. Vanessa Williams, for example, took over the lead role in Kiss of the Spider-Woman from Broadway legend Chita Rivera. She then went on to get a Tony nom for Into the Woods and has performed in numerous musicals since.
The UK Stunt Casting Problem
The UK has become more and more involved with stunt casting over the last few years. We are no stranger to the odd celebrity here and there but generally, it isn't that often. Stunt casting in the UK is often well-received with stars such as Amber Davies from Love Island recently starring in the West End premiere of 9 to 5 - she does have training in musical theatre which is a bonus. YouTuber Carrie Hope Fletcher has built up a hugely successful following in musicals and is about to headline the new Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation of Cinderella. Soap stars often make appearances like Martine McCutcheon in her ill-fated (yet Olivier winning) run as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Pop stars have their fair share of stage time; Kimberley Walsh pops up in numerous musicals, and Gareth Gates and Will Young have also made stage appearances. One show that really springs to mind when looking at UK stunt casting is Waitress.
Waitress Stunt Casts:
Katherine McPhee - Reprised her role from Broadway but left pretty swiftly
Lucie Jones - X Factor star turned actress was a firm favourite with fans
Joe Sugg - The YouTuber was a pleasant surprise and was well received
Jack McBrayer - 30 Rock star didn't really capture UK audiences
Sara Bareilles and Gavin Creel - The pairs run was cut short due to COVID-19
Blake Harrison - The Inbetweeners star had mixed reviews
Ashley Roberts - Pussycat Doll didn't get much support in her run
The thing that makes me angry here is that these all took place over just 12 MONTHS. That's a lot of stunt casting in a very short amount of time. Yes, the production had many issues along the way but seriously, why that many?! Controversy surrounded Ashley Roberts' casting as Dawn due to the fact they were letting Laura Baldwin, the show's original Dawn, go for the summer and bringing her back later just so they could put a Pussycat Doll in to gain some cash. I really disagree with this and think it was wholeheartedly unfair to Baldwin and it should never have happened. I understand the show wasn't selling but seriously it was a low blow.
The main issue here is that stunt casting takes away opportunities from hundreds of actors. They work their socks off to get into the gruelling musical theatre industry only to have their roles taken away by some random soap star. I do completely understand that shows need to sell and make money and that stunt casting usually does bring in more cash but PLEASE if you are going to do it, cast someone with a theatre background. So many actors are waiting for their big break to come and unfortunately, they are never going to get that if casting continues in this direction. I sincerely hope that after months of theatres being closed, producers, directors and casting directors have all had a chance to rethink any ludicrous casting ideas they had in mind. It is important for shows to sell but it is even more important - especially post COVID - to represent everyone.