In our inaugural SPOTLIGHT blog post, Natasha Partnoy interviews a key figure behind the casting of the hottest show on Broadway today! Bethany Knox, of Telsey + Company, sits down for a moment in her busy casting schedule to talk about the unique and revolutionary (no pun intended) casting of Lin Manuel Miranda's hit show, "Hamilton."
Bethany: Hey, are you?
Natasha: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk about the casting process of "Hamilton" with me.
Bethany: Of course!
Natasha: So, I am really curious about these character descriptions...
Hamilton: Eminem meets Sweeney Todd
Eliza: Alicia Keys meets Elphaba
Angelica: Nicki Minaj meets Desiree Armfeldt
Burr: Javert meets Mos Def
Washington: John Legend meets Mufasa
Natasha: Did Mr. Miranda come to you with these specific ideas for the characters, or did you help him hone his vision for casting purposes?
Bethany: Lin actually wrote all of those and gave them to me years ago when we were starting the casting process. It was the vision he had while he was writing "Hamilton." They’ve evolved over time as we’ve been able to be more specific with the role requirements, but, yes, those wonderfully creative descriptions are from Lin.
Natasha: So, did you help craft the rest of the character descriptions?
Bethany: Yes. Lin gave me a couple of sentences about how he envisioned each character. And just as any other show we cast, we then put together descriptions of these characters that were as thorough and as specific as possible so that we could get the right people submitted.
Natasha: Did anyone surprise you when they came in to audition by fitting a role that you thought they might not?
Bethany: Absolutely! That was what was so great about doing this from the beginning. By putting this original cast together, we found out who these characters were. Even though we had prototypes and these wonderfully colorful and specific descriptions from Lin, there were still different takes on it - still different people to explore. Looking at who it was down to for each of these roles, it was truly a range of types. It was really interesting.
Natasha: Now that you have upcoming Chicago and National Tour productions fast approaching, will you be looking to cast people in roles similar to those playing them right now in the original company?
Bethany: No, I've been building our files and doing replacement auditions for the past several months. I'm finding that it is really not about ethnicity, type, or even age. (The characters age so much throughout the show.) It is about personality. It is about skill set. It is about what they bring to the audition.
Natasha: What's like to audition for this show?
Bethany: Initially, we have everybody come in with a song and a rap. From there we can say "Well, maybe they’re not right for this show." Or if they are, we move forward from there.
First, we give them a general packet of material, which really helps us determine where they fit. Then, we have certain people come back with more specific material for a role. Sometimes we see them with that material and then decide to change that. Maybe they’re better suited for an ensemble track that would ultimately understudy two of these roles, because they could do either, such as Mulligan/Madison, or Lafayette/Jefferson.
Natasha: So, in a few years, companies of "Hamilton" might look completely different than what is on Broadway today, but the show would have the same sort of core vibe?
Bethany: Oh, absolutely! Rather than focusing on the ethnic diversity in specific roles, it is better to remain color blind and get as many amazingly talented people in these roles as possible.
Natasha: Since the music of "Hamilton" is a crossover between rap/hip-hop/pop and musical theatre, do you see performers from a wide array of performance backgrounds?
Bethany: It is a real combination of everything and it's going to be so from here on out. Anyone we consider will certainly need to have some "stage chops." They need to have experience and a background in theatre, since the dialogue and staging is so complicated. But, I definitely think we’re going to be pulling from both the rap world and the musical theatre world.
Natasha: Since the show is about an important historical period, do you look at performers who are intellectually curious?
Bethany: Here at Telsey + Company, we’re always looking for people who are intellectually curious, because those are the people who are going to look for the most depth in their characters. They are going to want to take it to the next level of performance. For this show, it is crucial to be able to understand the history and make these history lessons come alive onstage.
Natasha: Lin said, in an interview, that he wanted "Hamilton" to be performed in high schools someday. What advice would you give to high school teachers and drama directors about how to cast this show?
Bethany: I would say "good luck!" Just kidding! It is a wonderful challenge because the material is so complex. I would tell them to remain extremely open-minded. There is no reason that any of these roles have to be played by a certain type of person, so find the best person for the material and put them in that role.
Natasha: Has the color blind casting of "Hamilton" influenced other Telsey + Company projects recently?
Bethany: I started here seventeen years ago casting productions such as "Aida" and "Rent," so I like to think we’ve always been pretty open-minded. I think that’s an area in which we’ve really excelled in. I've learned from watching Bernie (Bernard Telsey) to always find the best people for the role. We encourage our creative team to do that as well. "Hamilton" has just helped make that more visible, but I think it's always been a big belief of ours. I credit the "Hamilton" creative team for their willingness to think outside the box for all these wonderful roles.
Natasha Partnoy is the editor-in-chief for SPOTLIGHT.
Check back for more great blog posts from Natasha and the rest of our SPOTLIGHT team!