Sarah Johnston breaks down the nuances of flipping gender in musical theatre roles
With so many shows and revivals dazzling us from the stages of Broadway and the West End, it’s no wonder that directors are looking for new ways to keep their pieces relevant to a modern audience. They change time periods, add new songs, or twist up the roles to give a new spin on the plotline. It’s not a new concept to gender-flip roles in shows – anyone who has done any school production ever knows that the gender of a character is more a suggestion than a strict rule and any girl who has done a nativity has probably worn a fake beard at least once – but it is one that I think can be done in the wrong way. There are some characters whose genders are essential to their makeup which simply should not be changed, and there are some who I feel need to be updated for the modern day.
Let’s start with the situations where a fixed gender is essential. Some characters need to be of a certain gender because it plays into their storyline: for instance any character who has pregnancy as part of their story needs to be biologically a female, like how a male Jenna in Waitress wouldn’t give the same impact. For many characters, it is the case that the character development they progress through in a show is related to their gender too. For instance, under no circumstances should any of the female queens in SIX ever be recast as men, as each of their stories historically links to their role in society and in royalty as a woman at the time. But equally as importantly, we need to make sure there is diverse emotional representation of characters for males too. Male characters which have an arc which promotes emotionally healthy responses to traumatic situations are very much essential. It comes down to balancing the ‘art reflects life, life reflects art’ seesaw. What we present on stage is what we expect from the real world, and thus if we can present it on a stage, we can open serious conversations about its impact on current society. Dear Evan Hansen is a great example; as much as I love the music, Evan should under no circumstances ever be played by a woman. The storyline provokes important conversations about mental health for men and about feeling comfortable with emotional vulnerability. Roles like this deserve the same rules of preservation as they play an important part in maintaining the message of the show.
On the flip side, there are of course some roles which may ultimately be better when cast in the opposite gender. Personally, I believe unless the role explicitly needs to be played by someone of a specific gender, e.g. for one of the reasons above, its casting should be a lot more neutral. Some roles I’d love to see flipped include the role of the SQUIP in Be More Chill as I think a female computer giving advice on girls personally makes a lot more sense, the genie in Aladdin, and any of the Heathers from Heathers. A lot of the time, it does come down to the director’s vision, but I think that opening more castings up as gender neutral roles could open more doors to diverse and differently impactful theatre.
At this point, it’s probably important to point out a key difference between gender flipping a role, and what is referred to as ‘cross-casting’. There are many roles where girls play boys or vice-versa. Personally, as a tall girl with a relatively low voice, I’ve played a lot of men in my time, but the important thing is that I was playing and presenting as a male character. Gender flipping a character involves making the character canonically a different gender, which means that all the other characters they interact with see them as that gender. Cross-casting is where an actor who presents as one gender plays a character of another – nothing about the gender of the character changes. Especially in musical theatre, where girls greatly outnumber boys usually, it is common to cross-cast and have girls take on male roles, but the important distinction is that they are playing men, not that the male character suddenly becomes female.
When it comes to casting a role in a different gender I think directors should look at the following system to determine whether the role is good to flip. The first, and probably most important, thing to consider is whether flipping the role fits in with the setting of the piece. For instance if you are staging Joseph, while you may end up casting girls in the roles of the brothers for ease, the brothers themselves should not become female. This is because much of the plot revolves around what the brothers do, which they only had the power to do in their time period because they were men. The setting of a show often strongly dictates what is possible for characters of different genders to do. Back in 1430 BC, women couldn’t own land or conduct business or travel alone, and Joseph’s sisters – who according to the bible did exist – notably don’t get a mention in the show because unfortunately they simply had no autonomy in that era to do anything which could advance or change the plot. As much as we want to make the past nicer in shows, not erasing struggle is hugely important and we need to be aware of the cultures utilized in shows and make sure they are respected as much as possible. This doesn’t just apply to the historical setting, but to cultural setting too.
The second thing to consider is if changing the gender of a character erases an important message from the show. For example in Legally Blonde, Elle needs to be played by a woman because the story is ultimately that of female empowerment and learning to put your own worth above what a man defines you as. The message of the show would be defeated if the role was played by a man. Equally in Kinky Boots, the plot revolves around Charlie overcoming his subconscious stereotypes around femininity and masculinity, which wouldn’t have nearly the same impact if played by a woman.
The third thing to take into account is if changing the character’s gender impacts the journey of other characters in the show. For instance, if you introduce a gender flip which then causes a relationship to become same-sex, how does that fit into the storyline. It is rare that changing such a big part of a character doesn’t have a knock-down effect, and it is crucial to not ignore any issues it causes to other characters in the show. If Sandy from Grease became a male character, would the bigger issue be teenage angst or would it be a same-sex relationship in America in the 60s?
I think gender flips can be a wonderful tool, and I would love to see more roles made gender neutral in the name of inclusivity, diversity, and of course creative license, but directors need to be careful when they choose to do this. A gender flip is a powerful creative device , but with power does come responsibility. It would be fantastic to see more female newsgirls flipping across the stage in Newsies, and more male best friends sorting out love on Greek islands in Mamma Mia, but care needs to always be taken that in making these changes something important isn’t lost along the way. The flexibility theatre offers is amazing, but it shouldn’t be simply taken for granted because it can all change at the flip of a switch (or a gender).