Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Opening Doors

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Opening Doors

Article excerpt

Though roles in Sondheim shows are presumed white, they have often featured black performers

Once upon a time - April 14, 1988, at Broadway's Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld) - Joanna Gleason and Chip Zien opened the door to the home and workplace of the Baker and the Baker's Wife in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, and Phylicia Rashad stepped out. Rashad, who played Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, had replaced Bernadette Peters as the Witch. For the first time in a Sondheim show not only was a black performer responsible for a star turn, but she was also billed above the title. The news of her limited run quickly spread, thanks to black newspapers and magazines. She also headlined the 42nd Annual Tony Awards, which televised her character's transformation from a "mischievous witch" into a "beautiful woman."

Casting Rashad - big, bright and beautiful - had cultural and social ramifications. For black men, women and children, who do not value too lightly representational visibility, she was a success beyond the wildest dreams of observers and participants. "Until now, the artistic rewards of appearing in a Stephen Sondheim show apparently were not available to black performers," Alan Eisenberg, then executive secretary of Actors' Equity Association, wrote in an October 1988 letter to the editor of The New York Times. Eisenberg wrote that Rashad symbolized "nontraditional casting," which was "defined as the casting of ethnic minority and female actors in roles where race, ethnicity or sex is not germane." In bodily movement and vocal sound, she established the foundation for black performers to be seen in Into the Woods. She opened the door for such performances as Cleo Laine as the Witch (1988, U.S. national tour), Jacqueline Dankworth as Cinderella (1990, London), Leslie Uggams as the Witch (1993, Long Beach, Calif., and 2001, Houston), Vanessa Williams as the Witch (2002, Broadway) and Tituss Burgess as the Witch (2015, Miami).

Rashad's performance was a milestone, but, contrary to Eisenberg's claim, she was not the first black performer to whom "the artistic rewards of appearing in a Stephen Sondheim show" were available. For example, Suzzanne Douglas, who would become known as Jerri Peterson (Clair Huxtable 2.0) on TV's The Parent 'Hood, had understudied the roles of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and the Witch in the original Broadway production of Into the Woods (before Rashad's arrival). Outside of Into the Woods, the musicals of Sondheim, to let the critics, historians and theorists of black American drama and those of Broadway musical theatre tell the story, are not and have never been about issues of race and representation for blacks. But some of us don't like the way they've been telling it.

The musicals of Sondheim are brought to life by all kinds of people, but they are presumed white. Black performers who plied their trades in New York City by working as everything from the Sharks' girls to the Weismann Girls during 1957- 2011 are absent from the criticism, history and theory about Sondheim's shows. This absence is surprising, considering the fact that his career developed "side by side by" Civil Rights, Black Power and "post-soul" movements and organizations including Negro Actors Guild of America. These black performers beg the question of how and why one presumes the musicals of Sondheim white, even if they have not been, and have never been, so marked. In his book How Sondheim Found His Sound, musicologist and Sondheim scholar Steve Swayne suspects that, "Sondheim may not be as 'white' as some have made him out to be," and his suspicions are confirmed by the appearance of black performers in the ensembles of the New York debut stagings of West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Do I Hear a Waltz?, Merrily We Roll Along, Saturday Night, Passion, The Frogs and Road Show, as well as the appearance of Williams in Sondheim on Sondheim. …

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