Much ado has been made about the fact that Wayne Brady, the actor, singer, comedian and television personality, will be doing a brief stint in the Chicago production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton,” taking over the role of Aaron Burr from Joshua Henry from Jan. 17 through April 9 at The PrivateBank Theatre.
It’s not as if the show — like many productions playing on Broadway in recent years — needs a celebrity to generate interest or boost ticket sales. With many performances of the show sold out through its announced run until Sept. 17 (and you can bet there will be news of a subsequent block of tickets going on sale in the coming months), the real question is: Why did the show’s producers and creative team shift the balance in this show by introducing a high-profile actor into an airtight ensemble of performers who are superbly talented yet far from household names? And why, given all the talk about how much they admire the Chicago theater scene, have these same people not drawn on Chicago’s fine stable of actors for any major role?
Once upon a time actors made their names on Broadway and were then seduced by Hollywood, and more recently by television. And while actors now move freely between New York and L.A. — and while Broadway still has its own stable of stage veterans (Patti LuPone, Bette Midler, Glenn Close, Nathan Lane, Kevin Kline are among the many appearing in the current season alone) — the box office power of a different sort of celebrity is often harnessed to give the revivals of classics by everyone from Arthur Miller to August Wilson an additional boost.
Consider Denzel Washington in both “Fences” and “A Raisin in the Sun” in recent years, or Scarlett Johansson in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A View from the Bridge,” or Michelle Williams in “Cabaret.” And think even further back to when Madonna starred in David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow,” or, eons earlier, when Richard Burton starred in “Hamlet.” This season, to name just a few, there is Cate Blanchett in a Chekhov update, Sally Field in “The Glass Menagerie” and Josh Groban in “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”
But back to “Hamilton.” Although Rebecca Scholl, who oversees casting for “Hamilton” in the New York office of Telsey + Company, said she would not comment about casting for the show, several major Chicago talent agents, who have national reach – and have sent their actors to auditions for the show and submitted videotapes – express frustration.
“I’ve sent seven of my African-American actors out for mostly principal roles and only got one callback,” said Robin Hellman, an agent at the Paonessa Agency. “I have phenomenal performers who can do it all — act, dance, sing, rap — but I think it all comes down to people wanting to work with the people they know. It’s such a great show about innovative spirits that you would think the casting attitudes would be equally brave, including giving new people a chance, whether in Chicago or in the other planned touring companies.”
Anyone familiar with the current Chicago theater scene could easily name actors who would be ideal in a variety of roles in “Hamilton”: Eric Lewis (who starred as James Early in the Porchlight Music Theatre production of “Dreamgirls”); James Meredith (the Steppenwolf actor who has starred in the national tour of ‘The Book of Mormon”); Kelvin Roston Jr. (currently in “East Texas Hot Links” at Writers Theatre); Evan Tyrone Martin (in “The Little Mermaid” at the Paramount Theatre); Travis Turner (recently seen in Steppenwolf and Lookingglass shows); JC Brooks (of the Uptown Sound); Nathaniel Stampley (who lives in New Jersey, was so extraordinary in the Marriott Theatre production of “Man of La Mancha, and just finished a stint in ‘The Color Purple” on Broadway.) And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
As Lynne Hamilton of the Shirley Hamilton Agency explained: “I guess it’s all about the comfort level. Replacements are usually cast out of New York, and have been groomed at a lower level before making the transition. And especially when a show is still in its initial incarnation, and is known as widely as ‘Hamilton,’ there is the desire to stick closely to the original types in terms of height and looks, at least for now.”
As Dawn Gray of Chicago’s Gray Talent Group noted: “I tell my actors not to give up. I encourage them to just keep on working, perfecting their dance and vocal technique, and putting themselves out there.”