When it was announced last week that Sierra Boggess and Norm Lewis would step into The Phantom of the Opera this May, most of the press was about the fact that Lewis was to become the first black Phantom on Broadway. I didn't care about that. My first thought was simply: "I'm going back." Then I thought: "How nice that they are really taking care of this show." Sadly sometimes that is not the case with long-running shows.
I believe there are many occasions where Broadway replacements have been better than the original performers. Longtime readers of mine know how often I've written about how much better Meredith Patterson was in 42nd Street than Kate Levering. Louise Pitre was not even comparable to Carolee Carmello in Mamma Mia! -- only one of them deserved to take it all, and it wasn't the original cast member. Actually, I recently went back to Mamma Mia! and am happy to report the show, even minus Carmello, is in great shape. The cast has exactly the right attitude and spirit. Through the years, it has been clear that someone cares about keeping Mamma Mia! fresh. They care that audience members see a lively performance. They realize that most audience members are seeing Mamma Mia! for the first time and they want that experience to be special.
This all seems obvious -- the people behind every show want tremendous audience reaction. No matter how long a show is running, you need word-of-mouth. You can't just start having people leave saying: "What was the hype all about?" But, alas, sometimes producers, casting people, directors, etc. begin to believe their show is casting proof. No show is casting proof. The Lion King is not about the actor playing Scar. But I've seen good Scars and I've seen bad Scars. After the former situation, I have left thinking: "Oh, I keep forgetting, I should totally tell [insert name here] to see this." After the latter situation, I have left thinking: "Yeah, the first ten minutes are absolutely amazing, but this really isn't a great show." And, yes, some shows are more casting dependent than others. Miss Saigon is the one blockbuster I've always loved, yet it is so dependent on its cast that I have seen one bad star ruin the enterprise entirely. (This is different to me than Les Miz, a show which, if you like it, is not killed by a single traitor.) But more than Miss Saigon needs to be cast carefully -- everything needs to be cast carefully. I saw Spider-Man right before it closed and was shocked at the shape it was in. People are paying to see a spectacular show. They are expecting to see actors that captivate, Broadway actors giving Broadway-caliber performances.
So I congratulate Cameron Mackintosh and all the people behind The Phantom of the Opera. Will Sierra Boggess and Norm Lewis be amazing? I don't know. Will they be any better than two people I haven't heard of would be? I don't know. I am not saying you need to always cast replacements that theater insiders are familiar with. Often people I'm not familiar with (ala Patterson pre-42nd Street) are the best people for the job. What I am saying is this announcement reminded me how important paying attention to casting is. The folks behind-the-scenes at Phantom and Mamma Mia! are clearly keeping close eyes on their shows. That is all I ask of anyone in a similar position reading this -- remember that your show is only as good as the people up on that stage.