FALSETTOS UK Producers Respond To Jewish Representation Criticism
The forthcoming UK premiere of Falsettos was met with criticism this week when a group of Jewish actors and theatremakers spoke out over a lack of Jewish representation in the show's casting.
Miriam Margolyes, Maureen Lipman, and director Adam Lenson were among the 23 artists that signed an open letter calling out the production's failure to hire any Jewish artists, both onstage and behind the scenes.
Read their full letter below:
"To the producers of Falsettos and productions around Jewish identity:
In the past few years, the theatre industry has rightfully begun to take a long, hard look at diversity, on stage and off. Numerous theatres, production companies, industrial organisations and new writing competitions have adopted diversity policies. Transgressions in casting and cultural appropriation have been brought into the spotlight. In 2017, crowds of people picketed the Print Room for using yellowface. In 2018, more than 90 theatres signed up to BECTU's Theatre Diversity Action Plan. Recently, the Guardian celebrated the new, diverse cohort of artistic directors. There have been undeniably positive, hard-won strides in the right direction. We celebrate the hard-won recognition these communities have achieved and, in solidarity, found these political actions inspiration for the action we need to take for the Jewish community.
But Jews are omitted from this important and necessary conversation. Does being Jewish constitute a minority? Statistically, yes. After all, only 0.5% of the UK population is Jewish. So why doesn't it seem as if Jews are being treated as a protected minority within the industry? Why does it feel as if Jewish artists aren't being sufficiently represented on and off stage? Why does it seem as if stereotyping still prevails and Jewish stories are being erased? Where were the protests over Jewface when these non-Jewish performers played the following Jewish roles (to name but a few): James McArdle as Louis (Angels in America, NT), Simon Russell Beale as Chaim Lehman (The Lehman Trilogy, NT), Lauren Ward as Rose Stopnick Gellman (Caroline, or Change, Hampstead), Stephen Mangan as Goldberg (The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre), Ian McDiarmid as Shylock (Merchant of Venice, Almeida), Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice (Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory). This is by no means a criticism of these actors themselves, but rather a question aimed at the authenticity of apparent Jewish performances.
Let's go deeper. For example, take the upcoming production of Falsettos at The Other Palace. Falsettos is an undeniably Jewish show. It contains characters, story beats, events, humour and references that don't just reference Judaism but rely upon it. Its opening number is named 'Four Jews In A Room Bitching'. It contains lines such as, 'we're watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball', lampooning the stereotype that Jews are weak and not sporty. The plot is centred around a boy's bar mitzvah. However, to the best of our knowledge no one in the cast of the UK premiere is Jewish, and neither is the director or anyone on the team. At best, this demonstrates a startling lack of cultural sensitivity and at worst, overt appropriation and erasure of a culture and religion increasingly facing a crisis. In contrast, in the 2016 Broadway revival, two of the cast were Jewish and the show's Jewish book writer also served as its director; the production did have non-Jewish actors playing Jews but they were cast alongside those with the authentic, lived experience to ensure cultural accuracy and sensitivity. In the current UK production, there is no way of ensuring this.
This is not to say that every actor has to share the same religion, background or heritage as the role they are cast to play. But it seems evident that Falsettos needs Jewish representation within the rehearsal room in order to be made with the respect and consultation of those whose stories it seeks to tell and whose cultural heritage it looks to portray. Rehearsal rooms absent of living Jewish voices are in danger of viewing Judaism like a distant, historical, foreign element rather than a vibrant, contemporary and deeply relevant culture.
Like blackface, brownface and yellowface, Jewface is a heightened and characteristic (mis)representation of Jews that is built on a secondary understanding of tropes, ticks, mannerisms and vocal affectation that has no awareness of the primary factors such as psychology, geography, culture and history that have framed these outward signifiers of Judaism. Jewishness is easy to caricature and this seems all the more disappointing when Jewish representation is absent and the ability of Jews to tell or contribute to their own stories is dismissed. Caricatures feed into stereotypes and stereotypes feed into prejudice. This is not to say that non-Jewish actors cannot accurately and sensitively represent Judaism onstage, but rooms that appropriate and erase Judaism are unacceptable; there is an obvious correlation between reduced representation in the creative process and increased mis-representation in the product.
It could be argued that because the writers are Jewish, representation has been achieved. However understanding and representation of Judaism is very different in New York and London. Antisemitism is also being seen and felt differently in different countries. We believe we should allow and invite Jewish artists and perspectives on work that includes culture and stories that relate to them. Also, as a work written in the 1990s, it is important to ensure rehearsal rooms and processes respond accurately and sensitively to the present moment in which work is being made.
In 2019, in London--a city famed for and proud of its tolerant and multicultural identity--it seems impossible that a production of a show as obviously concerned with Jewish religion and culture as Falsettos could announce a cast with no Jewish representation whatsoever. Even more troubling is the way the theatre industry as a whole has failed to notice this glaring omission--or perhaps has failed to care. In a time of increasing antisemitism, of verbal and physical attacks on Jewish people and wholesale, violent shootings in synagogues, Jewish schools and cultural centres forced to be protected by security guards, it feels more crucial now than ever to make accurate representation of and cultural sensitivity around Judaism a priority in theatre.
To the producers of Falsettos and any future productions of plays that depict Jews, Jewish culture and Jewish identity; we implore you to show sensitivity, engage with the Jewish community and hire Jewish performers and artists to work on and off-stage. Make sure there is a Jewish presence in your rehearsal room. Include us in these conversations of cultural and racial appropriation. Consider how you can depict Jews and Jewish culture without reinforcing cultural and racial stereotypes. Your show will be all the stronger for it.
Miriam Margolyes, Maureen Lipman, Elijah Moshinsky, Adam Lenson, Sarah Sigal, Stephen Laughton, Guy Woolf, Lee Ravitz, Frances Rifkin, Abigail Symons, Emma Jude Harris, Josh Seymour, Sam Brown, Helen Monks, Isla van Tricht, Joel Fisher, Emily Rose Simons, Tamar Saphra, Tash Hyman, Noga Flaishon"
The show's producers have since responded to the criticism in a statement discussing the complexities of casting. Read their full statement:
"The question of performers portraying characters of different religions, ethnicities or sexualities is an extremely sensitive issue. The representation and respect of cultural heritage on stage is of the upmost importance and something we take very seriously. We have complete trust in our creative and production teams to ensure that this production properly represents all of the wonderful characters created by William Finn and James Lapine.
Bringing this seminal piece of musical theatre to UK audiences for the first time has been a seven-year undertaking for us. Throughout that process we have been mindful of all of the sensitive aspects of the subject material, be it the story of the central Jewish family or any of the other issues raised in this work such as homosexuality, AIDS, marriage, divorce & child custody.
With regards to our cast, like all employers in the UK we are required to run recruitment processes that are free from bias or discrimination with regards to religion, race, gender, age or any other protected characteristics. We do not ask any of our prospective cast members about any of the aforementioned characteristics, and do not think that it would be appropriate to do so.
Both William and James have had direct input in all aspects of the production, including the extensive casting process, and we could not be more proud of the unbelievably talented ensemble cast we have put together for the UK premiere of Falsettos."
The cast of Falsettos includes Matt Cardle (Mendel), Laura Pitt-Pulford (Trina), Daniel Boys (Marvin), Oliver Savile (Whizzer), Natasha J. Barnes (Cordelia), Gemma K. Jones (Charlotte) have all been announced as part of the tight knit family of the show.
The production, directed and choreographed by Tara Wilkinson, is set to begin performances at The Other Palace on August 30.
FALSETTOS revolves around the life of a charming, intelligent, neurotic gay man named Marvin, his wife, lover, about-to-be-Bar-Mitzvahed son, their psychiatrist, and the lesbians next door. It's a hilarious and achingly poignant look at the infinite possibilities that make up a modern family... and a beautiful reminder that love can tell a million stories.
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