This month, Keke Palmer will be the first Black actress to take on Cinderella’s glass slippers on Broadway, following in the recent footsteps of the likes of Norm Lewis being the first Black actor to star in Broadway’s Phantom of the Opera. We’ve talked a fair amount about colorblind casting on this blog, and I’d say these are examples of the practice working for its desired benefits: making sure actors of color get a fair chance at playing a variety of roles, including leading roles that have long been considered “whites-only” territory. However, I’m asking the reader to consider: is Broadway seeing its first Black Cinderella, or merely the first Black actress to play Cinderella? What is the distinction and why does it matter? Allow me to elucidate.
Any Phantom of the Opera phans here? Yes? Good, because I hope you’ve heard this news: in May, Norm Lewis is going to be playing the role of the Phantom on Broadway.
Norm Lewis, for those of you who don’t know, is a Tony-nominated Broadway veteran (he’s also in Scandal, for TV fans). In the past, he’s played such famous roles as Porgy in Porgy and Bess and Javert in Les Misérables. When he comes to Broadway on May 12th, he’ll be the first African-American to ever play the role of the Phantom on Broadway. (Robert Guillaume, another African-American, had previously played the Phantom in an L.A. production of the show.)
This is notable for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that this is yet another step toward more diversity in our theatre world. In regards to his getting the role, Lewis himself says, “I love the show but also (sic) to have hopefully set a precedent to see more diversity in casting.” This isn’t the first time Lewis has spoken out on the importance of diversity—he certainly recognizes his own position as a role model to aspiring performers of color. Speaking to the Orlando Sentinel, he says, “These young, black men from high school and college, they come up to me saying, ‘You’re the reason I’m singing.’ I felt that way about Ben Vereen and Andre DeShields.”
Here at Lady Geek Girl and Friends, we’ve often said that having a diverse cast can only add to the meaning of a story, not detract from it, and I think this is a prime example. The Phantom was discriminated against because in every version of the story, his face was disfigured in some sort of horrifying manner. When we add race into the equation, this is probably going to become a little uncomfortable for the audience—and that’s a good thing. This is an excellent opportunity for a discerning audience to examine their own subconscious prejudices towards both people with disabilities and people of color.
And on a lighter note, I personally can’t wait to hear him take on “Music of the Night” or the more emotionally dramatic (and more range-y) “Point of No Return”. Lewis definitely has the vocal chops for this role—just listen to him singing “Stars” from Les Misérables as proof:
What do you all think of this news? Let me know in the comments.
You know what really grinds my gears? When people go to see a musical, and then complain because a POC is playing their fave and that’s just not realistic. Like seriously, guys, there are chimney sweeps dancing on rooftops and people singing their deepest feelings in front of crowds, but a character of color is unrealistic in a part? Continue reading