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Geoffrey Johnson, Casting Director of ‘Cats’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ Dies at 91

geoffrey johnson obit
Courtesy of Valerie Cortalano

Geoffrey Johnson, the casting director for “Cats” and “Les Miserables,” died Friday in New York City at the age of 91, Variety has confirmed. The cause was respiratory failure.

In a career that spanned decades, Johnson worked with Broadway legends such as Hal Prince, Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Merrick and Noël Coward. It was Coward who gave Johnson an early break, selecting him to be a stage manager for the Broadway production of “Sail Away,” a 1961 musical that was a key stepping stone in the career of another theater luminary, Elaine Stritch. Johnson became a close friend of Coward, serving as his U.S. representative until the playwright’s death in 1973.

But it was in selecting the performers who graced some of the most popular plays and musicals of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s that Johnson forged his most enduring legacy. Along with his business partner Vincent Liff, he created the casting agency Johnson-Liff, which worked on some of the longest running Broadway shows in history, including “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” and ”The Phantom of the Opera.”  Other projects included “The Producers,” “The Wiz,” “The Elephant Man,” “Dreamgirls,” “Miss Saigon” and ”Kiss of the Spiderwoman.”

Johnson summed up his casting philosophy in a 2003 interview with Playbill. “I don’t believe you discover actors,” he said. “You give them the chance to audition. They have to have the talent. They have to do it themselves.”

Johnson was born in New York City on June 23, 1930 and raised in Larchmont, New York.  His mother, Agatha Gennette Johnson Hagelston, was a high school teacher and his father, Dr. Alfred Ashton Johnson, was an obstetrician. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and the Yale School of Drama. Before moving into other production work, Johnson also worked as an actor, appearing in ”Saint Joan” on Broadway in 1956. That early experience on stage later helped Johnson assess acting talent as a casting director.

“I used a lot of the stuff I used in my acting classes when I was trying to find the right actor to show to the director,” Johnson said as part of an oral history project conducted by the Primary Stages. “I don’t think I was the best actor…but I do know, and this may sound very conceited, I really have good taste.”

In 2003, Johnson and Liff were awarded a Tony Award for excellence in theatre as well as the Hoyt Bowers Award and several Artios Awards from the Casting Society of America. Liff died in 2003 of brain cancer.

He is survived by his niece Valerie Cortalano (Bruce) in Garrison, NY; nephew Bruce Johnson in Wilton Manors, Flor.; great nephews Charles Cortalano (Elizabeth) in White Plains, NY; Geoffrey Cortalano (Christine) in Cold Spring, NY; Nicholas Cortalano in Garrison, NY; Ryan Johnson in Palm Coast, Flor. and cousins and many friends in the U.S. and England. Johnson was pre-deceased by his brother Alfred Ashton Johnson, sister Patricia Johnson Friedman, nephew Craig Johnson and longtime life partner Jerry Hogan.