Dallas — Early last year, when director Glenn Casale was putting together Dallas Summer Musicals’ production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, he couldn’t have predicted that his next DSM show, the much-loved and predictably popular The King and I, would turn into brief but intense North Texas dustup.
In January, Summer Musicals president Michael Jenkins received an open letter from AAPAC, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, expressing “shock and dismay” that the production had cast white actor Paul Schoeffler as the King, a piece of what AAPAC called “yellowface casting that is no longer acceptable today.”
Never was a controversy settled so quickly.
Jenkins responded to AAPAC’s open letter within days, saying that neither he nor director Casale “ever intended…that this would be disruptive, negative or disrespectful to anyone.” DSM undertook a new search, and soon brought in actor Alan Ariano—born in the Philippines and raised in California—to play the King. Ariano has performed at DSM before, in 2003’s Flower Drum Song, and he must have felt incredibly ready to go: he’d just finished playing the King for a theater in Arizona, in a production that closed just as DSM rehearsals began.
Casale, who lives in Burbank but spends five or six months on the road in a typical year, has directed musicals from Dragapella in Studio 54 to Cathy Rigby’s long-running Peter Pan, which began on Broadway and toured for many years. He is the artistic director of Sacramento’s venerable California Musical Theater, and his work has been seen around the U.S. and internationally. TheaterJones caught up with Casale just before the first preview performance of The King and I at The Music Hall in Fair Park.
TheaterJones: It’s not very usual for an upcoming musical revival to make headlines, but a few weeks ago there was some news about the show, when the national group representing Asian actors objected to the casting of a white actor as the King in your production. A new search began, and Filipino-American actor Alan Ariano was signed for the role. Now that the dust has settled, what would you say about how things played out?
Glenn Casale: You know, I think it’s part of the business. We all try to do what’s right, and we thought Paul (Schoeffler) was the very best we had at that point for the role. And I didn’t think it would create controversy. I’ve always done colorblind casting. I did West Side Story years ago with an Asian actress playing Maria; last year I did La Cage Aux Folles with an African American actor playing Albert. I did a Fiddler on the Roof with an African-American, an Asian and a white actress playing the daughters. I try to shake things up; do you have to use a white actor to play Hamlet? I don’t think so. But it did create controversy this time, and we felt the easiest thing to do was make a change, and not leave everyone upset. And Alan was right there in the mix anyway, so it wasn’t like I had to go far.
One of the problems, as I understand it, was that you were competing for Asian actors with Lincoln Center, whose King and I is in previews right now [with Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara in the lead roles].
Yes, that’s true; some of the people I would have used, Lincoln Center had already picked up. And too, because we didn’t have a long rehearsal schedule for our show, I was trying to get together with people I’d already worked with on The King and I, which I’ve done twice—and without any casting controversies. So, you live and learn.
It’s interesting, of course, that at least in their own era, Rodgers and Hammerstein were considered to be quite sensitive to and aware of cultural differences, the role of prejudice, and so on, yes?
Definitely, definitely. And I think I’ve always been conscious of those issues myself. In 15 years of touring with [Cathy Rigby’s] Peter Pan, I always worked to be sure that we had all kinds of faces in the show—so every kid in the audience could look up there and say “I can do that.”
You’ve directed so many musicals, and in such a variety of styles. What do you think is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s particular place or voice in the American musical? Why do they “stick around” decade after decade?
Number one, it’s such good storytelling. I respect their scripts so much—they’re incredibly well written, and you’re always involved with story, even when you’re listening to a song, because each one is a monologue or dialogue that moves the story along. It’s exciting, like directing a great play. With Rodgers and Hammerstein, the audience becomes so involved with the characters. They’re very layered, and we truly come to understand them.
Rodgers’ gorgeous melodies don’t hurt, either. And you don’t think their musicals are harder to sell to audiences in snarky times like ours?
No, I think people are looking for their kind of musical. They understand what they’re buying, and love the fact that they can take their families to see it.
You have a whole crowd of little children to rehearse for The King and I—including a few little stage veterans who’ve been seen locally in Les Miz and Miss Saigon. What would you tell us about the joys and perils of working with kids?
We began rehearsals in New York, and then came to Dallas last week and began rehearsing with the children. They’ve been pros, all of them. They learned the music, the choreography, the blocking very quickly. We had a dress rehearsal last night, and they were just about perfect. They’ve been attentive, and I love giving them this opportunity, because I believe so strongly that we have to grab people early in this business. That’s something we’re lacking in the schools today; I don’t know where I’d be today if I hadn’t gotten caught up in theater during high school. And it’s a great way to get the community involved in the show.
You’ve worked with your star Rachel York before [in Anything Goes]. I haven’t seen her perform, but she’s been described as a throwback to the classic Broadway stars, a “triple threat” onstage. What does she bring to the role of Anna that may surprise or especially engage our audience here?
Well, yes, she’s a triple threat: great actress, killer voice, and she can dance. But she needs more to play Anna, who is a Victorian woman who has more strength than Victorian women are supposed to have. She’s there in Thailand as a widow with a 12-year-old son, alone, and she has to be smart enough to be a great teacher, and strong enough to stand up to the king. Rachel has that strength, and she also brings a lot of heart and intelligence to the role.
How are she and Alan Ariano working together? And when you’re doing a classic like this one, where everyone already has a mental image or memory of these roles, how do you find your own production of the show?
I like to tell actors that the role is 75 percent you and 25 percent the character. Bringing your own stuff to the role is part of what makes it exciting. So, I try to find out who Alan is; I try to find out who Rachel is, and what makes them click together. And I talk about things with them, really investigating the scenes and how they feel about issues like slavery.
I do that with the ensemble too; I make them write individual bios of who they are, and what their relationships are in the palace. If you’re one of the king’s wives, how did you come here?
It makes a difference onstage—you feel they present themselves differently?
Yes, because you don’t just have a dozen wives onstage, you have 12 individuals.
What’s been great is that both Rachel and Alan came in very open to this production and each other. The chemistry has to be there, and it is.
And of course, the show is gorgeous.