|There have been five Broadway productions of Gypsy, and for many the Ethel Merman original remains the best|
One interesting phenomenon among musical theatre aficionados – really all theatre fans, but it’s more pronounced in musical theatre circles – is the near-universal belief that a show’s original cast is always the best one. No matter how many times a show has been successfully revived or remounted, these fans insist the original group of actors represent the best possible incarnation of a property. If the work is particularly beloved, suggesting different actors for the lead roles becomes tantamount to sacrilege, and eventually you get people who think the then 43-year-old Sarah Brightman is an appropriate choice to play ingénue Christine Daae in the 2004 Phantom of the Opera film.
The above example is extreme, but the thinking behind it is so widespread that people have paid good money to see a 37-year-old Adam Pascal play Roger in Rent or a septuagenarian Carol Channing do Hello, Dolly! Those real-life examples can be explained away as people who missed legendary performances willingly suspending their disbelief in order to see great actors recreate their most famous roles, but such reasoning doesn’t justify the idea that no matter how many times Gypsy or West Side Story get done, the original cast will always be the best.
So what’s driving this belief? Is there any substance to the assertion that the original cast is always the superior one? In large part, I think the primary reason comes down to mere familiarity. With musicals, many times the only thing resembling a permanent record of the show is the Original Cast Recording. This is how the vast majority of fans are first exposed to a show, and it is just about the only way anyone can relive the experience of actually seeing a live production. The particular set of mannerisms, vocal tics, and acting choices captured by the recording becomes subconsciously ingrained in the listener’s head, and through repeated exposure becomes the accepted or “correct” way the material should be done. If the person has never actually seen the show in question, then the cast album becomes representative of the ideal version of the property that’s been created in the listener’s head. Any deviation from this imagined ideal can prove off-putting, even with supposedly open-minded people.
But if the reasoning behind this preference for the original cast seems somewhat arbitrary, that doesn’t mean the resulting wisdom is entirely wrong. The truth of the matter is that the originating actor often ends up being the best, or at least one of the best, people to tackle a particular role. If the performer is lucky enough to have the part written expressly for them, the way Gypsy was written for Ethel Merman or The Producers was tailored specifically to Nathan Lane, then of course he or she is going to impress in the role. Even if the writers don’t have a particular person in mind when creating a character, they will inevitably end up fashioning the part around the person chosen to play it. If a scene or song isn’t working, any rewrites will almost certainly take the performer’s strengths into account. In a particularly collaborative environment, the actor may have direct input into the character’s moods and actions, subtly but forever skewing the script towards that performer’s interpretation of the role.
Then there are the times when a performer proves so compelling in a role that it takes on a life of its own, becoming greatly expanded in order to fully utilize that actor’s talents. Anyone who has read the novel Wicked will tell you Glinda is a much more prominent presence in the musical, because the writers wanted to put for focus on Kristin Chenoweth’s bravura performance. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens wrote the song “Sarah Brown Eyes” in Ragtime specifically to give Tony-winner Audra McDonald more to do, since she was simply too good to leave out of the second act. Rory O’Malley’s Elder McKinley didn’t even exist is early drafts of The Book of Mormon, but Matt Stone and Trey Parker were so entertained by his antics in the ensemble they crafted a role to better highlight him. When a role is so specifically tailored to the original performer, their take on it will naturally be one of the strongest.
Original casts (and premiere casts of revivals) also have the benefit of extended rehearsal time to explore their roles. A typical Broadway musical has about a month of rehearsals and another month of previews, giving the performers plenty of time to discover the nuances of their characterizations and iron out any kinks. Add to that the months or even years spent workshopping a modern musical, and you have an artist who is intimately familiar with their particular character. By the time workshops, out-of-town tryouts, and previews are taken into account, Idina Menzel spent three to four years refining her Elphaba, whereas her many replacements got at best a couple weeks of rehearsal before their first public performance.
The massive investment of time, combined with the knowledge that they are the first person to portray a particular role, results in actors feeling a sense of ownership that is difficult to replicate. The original cast of a show has a heightened investment in making the show succeed, and going through the journey of discovering their characters with the writers and director gives their performances a more fully-realized and believable quality. In contrast, many subsequent actors are encouraged to replicate the original’s performance, which can create a feeling of inauthenticity in their work. Even if the production is new, such as a revival with entirely original staging, the shadow of their predecessor can loom large over any actor. Every woman who’s played Joanne in Company has had to choose between trying to mimic Elaine Stritch (thereby inviting director comparison) or veering from Stritch’s blueprint and likely being criticized for it.
As we have seen, there are a lot of factors that contribute to making the original cast of a particular show the preferred one. Because of this, I will always try to see a show while the original company is intact, but I have also seen enough replacements and understudies to know that they can be every bit as strong as the original performers. I’ve also seen some incredible revivals that surely must compare favorably with the originals, such as the Patti LuPone-led Gypsy or the most recent New York staging of Follies. Ultimately, the right actor in the right role will make for amazing theatre, whether that actor is the first person to ever play that character of the hundredth. That is what makes live theatre so exciting, and being able to see multiple interpretations of the same show is what keeps me coming back, time and again.