To recast or not to recast: That’s the dilemma often arising when a British hit is snapped up by Broadway.
Some shows cross the Atlantic virtually intact, like the 1997 Tony-winning revival of “A Doll’s House,” with its two Tony-honored leads, Janet McTeer and Owen Teale. In 1995, the Ralph Fiennes-toplined “Hamlet” came to the Great White Way with many of the supporting players who had appeared with the lead in London.
This season has seen no shortage of British plays, but not always with British players. “Democracy” ran more than a year in London between the National and the West End, winning praise for an Anglo-Irish cast headed by Roger Allam and Conleth Hill. But when the Michael Frayn play transferred in the fall to Broadway, the author and director Michael Blakemore decided to cast American talent.
As Blakemore explains, “This isn’t a play about an Englishman. And also, with a political play, it’s possibly better to cast the play with nationals of the country in which it’s playing.”
What’s more, he adds, “America is not familiar with coalition governments. All the political types the play presents will seem foreign if the casting is not homegrown — if it has a European exoticism,” which can be useful in other instances but was not wanted here.
Frayn and Blakemore’s previous Broadway collaborations had done well — and in some cases even benefited — from a New York cast. Many thought the Tony-winning American preem of “Copenhagen” was better acted across the board and far more emotional than the play had been in London with three English thesps.
Back in the 1980s, the original Broadway “Noises Off” and the Tony-nommed “Benefactors,” with its sterling performances from Glenn Close and Mary Beth Hurt, suffered no setbacks in the transatlantic crossing.
It’s important, too, that “Democracy” and “Copenhagen” are British plays not set in Britain. The same is true of Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” which traveled from the National Theater to the Booth Theater.
“Martin and I felt the accent should be closest to the audience’s accent given that the play is loosely set in Eastern Europe,” explains “Pillowman” director John Crowley, “apart from the fact that the producers didn’t feel they could get the English cast in.”
Initial Broadway overtures were made to London co-star Jim Broadbent, who passed. Otherwise, “artistically, we just felt it would make the most sense to an American audience that this play, set somewhere in Europe, is (played) in their own accent,” says Crowley, who made his Broadway debut with the project.
It’s surprising that “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” so deeply English, has such a decidedly un-British cast in the Broadway incarnation. Raul Esparza plays Caractacus Potts, originated in London by Michael Ball. He is accompanied by Erin Dilly, Kevin Cahoon, Jan Maxwell and Philip Bosco; Bosco and Esparza have become go-to names when you need a Broadway local to play a Brit.
Director Adrian Noble praised the New York company’s talent for shifting between genres and assignments with an ease that, he says, is typically American. “Jan Maxwell is a musical comedy person and also a serious actress.”
Thoughts of cultural hurdles never crossed his mind. “I didn’t worry about that at all,” Noble says, “especially casting someone like Raul who, in a way, comes from a straighter theater background than any of the guys I had in London, certainly more so than Michael Ball.”
Besides, if the car flies, who cares about the actors’ passports?