Some of the best and classic shows of 20th century musical theater don’t always translate seamlessly to 21st century concerns and sensibilities. Social issues they portray include misogyny, racism, objectification, ignorance of disabled people and homophobia.
What is an appropriate and responsible way to portray these musicals – to introduce them to younger audiences – without promoting the negative aspects?
“I love these musicals. It’s my job to make sure this art form doesn’t die. Because some of these musicals are gonna die with this generation. And I’m not willing to let that happen,” says Kyle Dougan, producing artistic director of Music Theater Works.
“You have to accept change,” he added. “You have to accept that this world doesn’t look the same as it did in 1950.”
The terms “diversity, equity and inclusion” are used frequently in conversations that address hiring practices at any public company, organization or educational institution. What does that mean in practice?
The RoundTable asked to speak to Dougan after attending a performance of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. The White Christmas production was charming and enjoyable. (Here’s the review.)
But the cast seemed to be made up of nearly all Caucasian actors, save for one Black actor in the ensemble.
And in the program, Music Theater Works lists its values, including “We support equity and diversity on and off stage.”
It is an issue that has had been widely discussed by Dougan and other members of the company’s management team and board. Of the 33 members of the cast, six people (18%) were considered BIPOC – Black, Indigenous, People of Color. At Music Theater Works, diversity and inclusion may also include actors who are gender nonconforming or those with a disability.
“What a casual observer might perceive and how someone identifies are two different things. Do they identify as African American or Black, or consider themselves as Latinx, which is the nongendered word for someone from the Latin American community? Do they identify as nonbinary or queer or transgender? It’s not always something you see on stage,” said Dougan.
“We not only look at what’s on our stage, but how we’re educating our audiences and how we’re also holding ourselves to some standard,” he said.
Music Theater Works, he said, is committed to creating opportunities for theater people both on stage, behind the scenes and “behind the table,” as musical directors.
“What’s important to me is that we, as a nonprofit organization, have to continue to make our art relevant,” said Dougan.
“We’ve also had trans representation in multiple leads, not drawing attention, quote, unquote, to their transness, but because they were the best person for the role,” he said. “We’ve had higher weight or larger bodies on our stage as leads and the deaf and disabled representation on and off stage.”
In the latter respect, North Shore Center accommodated Music Theater Works’ needs by installing a fully wheelchair- accessible stage.
Music Theater Works maintains a deaf interpreter partnership with Columbia College Chicago for interviews, rehearsals and performances, an essential resource earlier in 2022 when Joshua Castille, a deaf actor, was chosen as one of the co-directors for Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
Another commitment Music Theater Works has made is audience outreach. It makes tickets available through the Skokie Library, local schools and social service organizations.
Dougan said the company is very aware that ticket prices make seeing live theater out of reach for many socioeconomic groups. “We’re not just looking at what’s on our stage. We’re also looking at who’s in our audience and thinking, how do we get folks from different communities to come see our shows,” said Dougan.
Dougan is leading the way in these changes. He said, “We look at the significant changes that we can make within our organization and how we talk about it, in order to change the fabric, not just to mend it. Our artists know this, our teams know this. They know it’s a priority when it comes to folks that work for us. Our staff knows this, and we continue to make those changes, because it’s not just something we have to do. It’s something we want to do.”
Music Theater Works’ 2023 season includes Avenue Q, Pippin, The Producers, Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon and Shrek: The Musical.