EDITORS NOTE: We have a very interesting opinion piece today about the color-blind casting of Disney’s new Frozen Live at the Hyperion. RJ looks at the noble quest by Disney to increase diversity in casting and how that impacts character integrity. This is sure to be a controversial topic and we hope you will add your own voice to the conversation. It’s a tricky subject and we appreciate your thoughtful comments – pro or con.
There’s something new at the Disneyland Resort . . .
Frozen: Live at the Hyperion has replaced the recently-shuttered Aladdin stage show inside the Hyperion Theater at Disney California Adventure theme park. The fan community was saddened by the closing of Aladdin and the prospect that Frozen was replacing it left many angered and concerned. Disneyland Resort already had several different Frozen-centric shows, meet & greet opportunities, and several nighttime parades and spectaculars in which Frozen plays a major role. Was yet another Frozen production necessary?
It was under this cloud of concern and curiosity that Park guests lined up early on Friday morning, May 27th, hoping to get a first look at this new musical experience. Much has been written about technical issues plaguing the first days’ performances, sound and projection problems leading to delayed performances on a daily basis.
Complaints about the hour-plus length of the show and heavy reliance on projection technology are also valid concerns. However, there is one topic that has not come up as often in written reviews but is a very obvious departure from other shows currently being offered in the parks. That issue is the use of color-blind casting for the lead roles in this new musical.
Based on the two current rotating casts, a young Caucasian or Asian male could play young Kristoff at the beginning of the show, as the show progresses the adult Kristoff appears and could be played by a Caucasian actor with a blonde “ surfer style” type wig or an African American actor with a more “Afro style” wig.
The same type of situation occurs with the character of Elsa as well. Young Elsa has been played by 2 different Caucasian actresses, then as the show progresses, the adult Elsa is played by actresses of either Caucasian or other ethnic background. Of the main lead characters, Elsa, Kristoff and Hans have been played by several different actors/actresses of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
At this point you might be intrigued, ambivalent, angered or even delighted. As we tread carefully forward, it’s understandable that people will have very different thoughts and views on the casting of this show. Please take the time to read and understand some key points and then share your personal take on this situation.
First it’s helpful to understand the idea and motive behind “Color-Blind Casting “
Color-blind casting, also called “Integrated Casting” or “Non-Traditional Casting” is best described as casting a role without consideration of the actor’s ethnicity. Historical dramas and biographies might be the rare exception and the consideration of race might, of course, matter. (Exceptions exist; see “Hamilton”). Through the years, films and television shows have taken many characters previously portrayed in comics and other media as white or Caucasian, and cast racially diverse actors. Example: The role of Perry White in “Man of Steel” was played by African American actor Laurence Fishburne.
When Shonda Rhimes was creating “Grey’s Anatomy” for ABC, she famously did not assign racial descriptions to the characters. Choosing even to exclude last names, thus ensuring the casting of the best most talented and a racially diverse cast. Another aspect to this type of blind casting philosophy could include age and gender not factoring into the character description … Leading to a personality and description that could be easily adapted by the best qualified performer. This is seen widely when new works are being created for the stage and screen and when revivals of previous works are staged.
“Frozen-Live” was directed by Tony award nominated Liesl Tommy. She has a strong roster of both director and actor credits to her name. Playbill called her “a revolutionary presence on the American Theatre scene.” In a July 17, 2014 Playbill article, Liesl spoke about directing a regional production of Les Miserables and the challenges and pressure of audience expectation.
The biggest challenge is managing the pressure of expectation. Directing Les Miz is a bit like directing a film of a comic book or graphic novel with a rabid fan base. Every casting choice and costume choice comes with a clash in the hearts and minds of the fans…”It’s not supposed to be like that…” – knowing this was on people’s minds and pushing forward with our vision regardless was quite a challenge. The brilliant costume designer Jacob Climer and I had a wonderful process grappling with “expectation” then discarding it and trusting our sense of storytelling.
It being on Broadway didn’t impact me because, in a way, it gave me license to do something very different. If people want to see the beloved traditional version, they can get it on Broadway or the tour. My job was to explore my personal connection to it and to re-imagine it.
The Interval interviewed Liesl Tommy for a March 1, 2016 article. She referenced “working on this project [Frozen] for Disney”.
Because at first I was like, “Why did these people hire me? I’ve been doing political theatre my whole life. Why am I working at Disney?” But what I started to understand is that when you work at a level like that, you want the director to have a vision, to be bold, and to lead. That’s one thing that I’ve come away from this with: all of those producers, all of those executives, all of those people whose work it is to preserve this corporate entity, they are thrilled by innovation, they are thrilled by forward thinking. They understand that it’s the future of their company, that it’s the future of their brand. So sometimes at night I wake up and I have an idea and I’m like, “That’s too crazy, calm down,” and then I’m like, “Art is risk,” and one of the biggest risks that we as directors can take is to make a suggestion that might get ridiculed. But we have to be brave and we have to make those suggestions and pitches. When you’re working at that level and that budget and that level of corporate involvement, I feel like I’ve never had to be braver. I feel like I’ve never had to trust my vision more. It’s been informative. I have to be so grateful that I never wanted to be a director who wanted to disappear into the story because I wouldn’t be doing this kind of project now.
Though previous Disney theme park shows have featured color-blind casting in supporting or “non-iconic” roles. The actors/actresses cast to play the lead roles, whether it’s Prince Charming, Snow White, Princess Tiana or Queen Elisa, have all been cast based on how the character was portrayed in film.
To cast these specific roles “against type” for the new Frozen musical leads to some hard questions. The expectation of the audience when seeing a favorite or well known character, be it Tiana or Snow White, is not that they are African American or Caucasian, it’s that they have a very specific and recognizable look to them. The consistency or integrity of that look is critical to the character and how they are portrayed.
In the process of creating animated characters, model sheets and character studies are designed and used by the artists to ensure a standard look for each character. The end result being as if one artist created the drawings/ artwork, instead of many different artists. This was termed “on – model”. Careful attention is paid to this process, when a character is not drawn according to the standard it was considered “off-model”. This disruption could impact the flow of the animation/artwork or take the audience out of the story or intended moment.
Rough character studies could have model sheets focusing on eyes, hair or even spots as in the case of Bambi. These model sheets were critical to showing motion and specific poses and attitude of a character, even how the movement of the mouth could change when speaking dialogue. Model sheets are very important to the process of both creating a character and then preserving the “Character Integrity”.
Disney parks also strive to ensure “Character Integrity” across all the different theme parks. When they audition performers there are very specific expectations listed.
A recent casting call for look-alike performers for Cinderella and Prince Charming for Walt Disney World.
- Cinderella: 5’3 to 5’7. Typecast
- Prince Charming: 5’10 to 6’0. Typecast
- Candidates will need to pass a typecasting audition before moving to the acting audition.
If you chose to audition as a look-alike performer these would be some of the expectations:
Height: Remember those model sheets the animation department created? They listed the various Princesses as between 5’4 and 5’8. So the casting call must meet that expectation. Every Disney character has a height estimate and to audition you must fall within that expectation
Sizing: Audition listings for Princess look a likes will call for “slender builds”. Most classic Princess costume dresses are fitted up to size 10. Those who have auditioned for Princess roles in the past stated that casting agents called them the “ Disney Measurements” going back to the original model sheets and character integrity.
Age: Typically 18 to 23 is the desired age listed in the casting calls. It’s rare to find a face character over 27 / 28 yrs old. Some seasoned performers range between 24 and 27 years old though.
Training: To ensure consistency is maintained, extensive weeks-long training is assigned. Actors would be expected to watch the original source material of the character and participate in extensive role plays to ensure they are protecting character integrity. Princess face characters would train in how to correctly apply makeup so each Snow White has the same look. Signature training would make sure autographs looks consistent from visit to visit.
“Character Integrity” is a term used frequently across the greater Walt Disney Company, from Feature Animation to Consumer Products and in Disney Parks and Resorts worldwide. This idea of “Character Integrity” ensures Mary Poppins is always proper and poised, the Mad Hatter is a little bit silly & goofy and the Evil Queen from Snow White won’t smile when you try to take a selfie with her. Disney Parks cultivate “Character Integrity” to uphold and preserve the magic. This means respecting the source material, the story and the Character. It hearkens back to those model sheets the animators initially created to ensure beloved characters stay “On Model”.
All theme park Cast Members go thru initial training that encompasses many different aspects of the Disney Parks, including its history and culture before they move on to role-specific training. These first classes introduce Character Integrity and a Disney character concept called “The Rule of One”.
There is only one Mickey Mouse, one Peter Pan and one Mary Poppins. When a guest might innocently ask how many people play Snow White, all cast are trained and expected to reply that there is only one Snow White or one Belle. Sure you might have seen her earlier at the Princess Fantasy Faire and then later during Mickey’s Soundsational parade but there is still only one Belle, one Snow White.
Over its long history, Disney Parks have gone to extreme lengths and made great effort to ensure the illusion is maintained that these beloved characters have just stepped right off the silver screen, fully formed. Thousands of Cast Members around the world interact with Guests on a daily basis, from parades and shows to one on one character meet & greets.
Currently at Disneyland resort you can watch & wave to Elsa in Disneyland’s “Paint the Night” parade, meet Elsa in person inside Disney California Adventure’s Animation Academy, and see Elsa in animated form both in World of Color and Disneyland Forever fireworks show. The effort to maintain “Character Integrity” is a critical component of the Disney “Brand”.
Guests’ expectations are high and rightly so. The opportunity to see or have an interaction with Mickey Mouse or Elsa is one of many things that makes Disney Parks special, unique and different from other theme park experiences.
I would argue that Princess Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog” should be cast as a young African American woman. Rapunzel, Pocahontas, Mulan, all the iconic and classic characters, should also be cast with that “Character Integrity” in mind.
“Aladdin”, the stage show that preceded “Frozen–live”, did a great job of casting many different races and ethnicity in multiple roles. The Genie, Jafar, even Iago’s puppeteer had a strong color conscious casting process, not to mention the many wonderful supporting roles. Aladdin and Jasmine though, always maintained a specific on-model look, cast to type with care given to the look of those iconic characters.
A valid argument can be made that not enough non-Caucasian roles are written for actors to play. But rather than changing the ethnicity of well established characters, should Disney and other studios be creating new characters of a more diverse background? The entire creative community should take on this challenge to ensure material is available or adapted for talented actors of all racial backgrounds to have the same wide-ranging opportunities to choose from.
A recent example from the world of Marvel: Captain America was conceived and portrayed as a white kid from Brooklyn named Steve Rogers. At a certain point in the comics, Steve passes off the scene and the Captain America mantle passes to The Falcon, making him the first African-American Captain America. Though this change has not yet happened in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is speculation that it could happen in the near future. This is a great example of story dictating a possible and organic change in casting – not simply changing a character’s ethnicity but creating a reason for it.
How important is it to you for Disney to maintain the on-model look of the characters in the Parks? We are looking forward to hearing your thoughts, pro and con, on the issue.
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A word of caution on comments – please be respectful of the opinions of others. However, no hostility, racism or trolling will be tolerated.