I am all for colorblind casting. And yet something about the casting of Corbin Bleu in In The Heights upset me (and, no, it wasn't a hidden hatred for anyone associated with High School Musical). Bleu was born of an Italian-American mother and Jamaican-American father. In The Heights is a show that built part of its media campaign around this whole idea that it offered amazing opportunities for Latino actors. Creator, and original star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, gave countless interviews mentioning this fact. But now, as we enter into the cold Broadway winter, they hire a lead that is not Latino. Does that not hint of dishonesty?
Of course, this is not the first time a similar thing has happened. Now, speak not of the whole Helen Keller/Miracle Worker uproar because that role has not traditionally been played by someone who was deaf, dumb or blind. So that's a completely different issue. Likewise, the controversy about, for example, Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon is not comparable. First of all, that show came from London and different things go there. Secondly, I don't think there would have been a Caucasian Kim. Alfred Molina, a non-Jew, in Fiddler on the Roof? Semi-close, but still not. Fiddler on the Roof was never hailed as a show that gave a voice to a previously unheard people. The closest example I can think of is Tamyra Gray in Bombay Dreams. There the producers replaced the show's original leading lady, who is of Indian descent, with Gray, who is not, to drum up business. Did that raise eyebrows at the time? I don't remember. But the key difference in my mind is that, while Bombay Dreams was obviously a show about native-born children of Bombay, producers never really played up that fact in its marketing. The ensemble was always of mixed ethnicity. There wasn't a big deal made about how the show gave Indian actors a real chance on Broadway.
Here, in my mind, is a situation where a show sold itself one way and then betrayed the line it sold. This reminds me of when, the night of the Tony Awards, the Avenue Q producers announced the show would not be touring right away but instead would be going to Las Vegas exclusively. This after road presenters (read: Tony voters) had been regaled with tales of how Avenue Q would be coming to their towns and would be a hit in each one. The Avenue Q producers--who also happen to lead the In The Heights team--even hosted a reception for road presenters just to spread that message. Then Steve Wynn came up with major dough and the show was off to Sin City. (The deal was in fact in the final stages before the reception, but that is another story.) With In The Heights we also have a show that used a gimmick to sell itself and then just said: "Hey, forget about that, we were just making stuff up."
I am wary of raising all of this because part of me believes that anything that highlights racial differences is bad as a social policy matter. I don't want to sit here examining everyone's family tree and finding out who is one-sixteenth Dominican. I also don't want to look at a map with labels of where people's ancestors are from. In a rhyming answer to message board concerns about Bleu, Miranda began defending the choice by discussing the fact that other cast members are not the correct ethnicity for their roles. The answer was fun, but worrisome because of this defensive strategy. The point is not that you should examine every cast member's heritage before casting them--that would be a horrible, and offensive, task--the point is to realize that when you market a show as an avenue for Latino actors and then take the big juicy lead role of that show, and give it to a non-Latino, you at least need to recognize that you're changing course. Admit it. It would still smack of shadiness, but it would do so in a less offensive manner.
None of this is to say that Bleu isn't a talent and won't be great. I thought Tamyra Gray was better than the original Bombay Dreams girl. That is irrelevant to this discussion, what is relevant is the producers made this decision for money. That's as good a reason as any in this recession--I don't blame them. If Bleu does sell tickets, hiring him may keep the Latino actors in the cast employed. But there is a problem with the move. I wish someone involved in the show would admit it. By casting Bleu, In The Heights is no longer what Miranda said he wanted it to be. His vision has seemingly been compromised for commerce.
In his response to me writing this piece, Miranda stated: "At In The Heights, we try to cast the best person for the role, period... I'm proud of the fact that In The Heights employs so many Latino/Latina actors. But those actors got those roles on their own terms, not as a result of some litmus test. We have actors from many nationalities, Latino and non-Latino, playing different nationalities. Corbin is no different. The spirit of In The Heights is about embracing the hyphens that make up all of us, not using them as barriers."
Does that mean if a super albino actor came in he would be cast as Usnavi? I think not, but feel free to oppose me in the comment area below.
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