Broadway Follies: Gerard & Roth On Trevor Nunn’s Shakespeare And Cirque Du Soleil’s Broadway

Jeremy Gerard has covered the shifting fortunes of Jujamcyn Theatres since it became a formidable competitor to the larger Shubert and Nederlander organizations in the late 1980s. In 2013 producer Jordan Roth became Jujamcyn’s majority owner and the Street’s youngest power broker. In this weekly email conversation they talk about the state of the industry, the only stipulation being no holds barred.

GERARD: Trevor Nunn, a great director, is shocked, shocked that anyone would call him out for his racially cleansed production of The Wars Of The Roses, a mashup of Shakespeare history plays. Twenty-two actors, none of color because, he explained (as reported in The Stage), “I took the artistic decision that a trilogy of Shakespeare’s early history plays, telling in documentary detail the story of the English monarchy and English nobility in the second half of the 15th century should be represented with, as far as possible, historical verisimilitude.” I assume Trevor said, or wrote, this with a straight face. Shakespeare doesn’t need me to enumerate the virtues of his history plays but “documentary detail” and “historical verisimilitude” ain’t among them. They may even qualify as enemies of Shakespeare.

Not surprisingly, Nunn prefaced his comment by listing his bona fides as a devoted practitioner of nontraditional casting. To my mind, that makes the blockheadedness even worse, smacking of paternalism: Who are we to question his choices? I wish that, like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, we could produce not Marshall McLuhan but Billy Big Boy himself to set Nunn right on matters of casting his plays. Meanwhile on Broadway we can celebrate the fact the first black President was the first President, period, at least on stage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. History — as both William Shakespeare and Lin-Manuel Miranda remind us — belongs to the storyteller.

ROTH: Not too long ago, a director might have had to defend the decision to cast a play inclusively, so amen to progress. Mark Shenton points out in that Trevor Nunn undermines his own argument of historical verisimilitude by casting a Norwegian actor to play the British king and two British actors to play French characters. That points us to a troubling reality: There are some elements of an actor’s identity that many believe she can transcend, and others that she can not. Race is too often thought of as one she can not. And so too are sexuality and gender identity. A straight actor is of course applauded for bravery for playing a gay character but a gay actor is often deemed “not believable” as a straight character. And how many openly transgender actors are ever cast with no comment on gender identity? The difference is the default. White, straight and male is the default so we think choosing anyone who isn’t has to be deliberate and defended. But the default is just our perception, so instead, we can be deliberate about changing that default.

Cirque Du SoleilGERARD: Next subject: Today comes news that Cirque du Soleil is planning a big new musical, Paramour, for the Lyric — the theater previously known as the Foxwoods, Hilton, and Ford Center for the Performing Arts — to open next spring. The project is being led by Scott Zeiger, whom I’ve been writing about since his days at Texas-based Pace Theatricals. Cirque calls it a Broadway musical with a Cirque “aesthetic,” which means circus acts and weird music, but also promises a Broadway-style musical with an actual story — though there’s neither writer nor composer/lyricist attached.

I love the idea of Broadway as a bazaar offering something for everyone — back in my Variety days I was probably the only critic who praised a splendid variety show called André Heller’s Wonderhouse, which lasted all of one week at the Broadhurst in 1991. And lord knows Cirque has lots of fans (not me so much; my preference, when it comes to artsy Canadian circuses, runs more to Les 7 Doigts de la Main). But this feels a little corporate, a little Big Box to me, like Walmart moving into Times Square.

ROTH: Writing from jury duty waiting room with Byron Pitts’ orientation video about rendering impartial verdicts fresh in my mind, I say let’s presume all shows innovative until proven otherwise. And actually, the evidence we have thus far points in favor of the Plaintiff du Soleil. Cirque has given us some of the most magical and unique stage experiences ever. O still ranks among my all-time greats, so I’m excited to see what they come up with on a Broadway canvas. As for corporate, bringing new resources, new developmental processes, new marketing strategies to Broadway brings new potential.

Another new project just announced: Elsie Fest, an outdoor music festival of tunes from stage and screen. I’m excited to be part of the group supporting this, led by Darren Criss and manager Ricky Rollins. I sometimes hear people bemoaning that Broadway is no longer the pipeline of top 40 hits and top films as it was in the Golden Age. But actually a new generation of performers and creators are bringing the vocabulary of musical theater to popular television (Glee), film (Frozen), internet (Todrick Hall, Side Effects), and now music festivals. Darren’s vision of a Coachella for show tunes offers an innovative step in creating community among fans and artists and in further expanding the reach of theater music beyond the walls of the theater.

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