Lloyd Webber on Diversity: Short-Term “Memory” Loss?

Andrew Lloyd Webber and his, er, not-so-diverse cast for the London production of the musical School of Rock. Photo: Joel Ryan, AP.

Diversity and theatre are two words that are continuing to rub up against each other and stir debate. In December 2014, Arts Council England announced new plans designed to encourage public-funded arts organisations to increase diversity across their audiences, workforces and programs, and it threatened to cut funding to those who don’t show a commitment to diversity. Designing this as a carrot rather than a stick, ACE Chairman Peter Bazalgette said:

…we are not doing well enough and we have to do better. The most important point is that you get better arts and culture if you draw on all the creative talents of the nation.

The industry, in response, has begun to publish some information. The National Theatre, which receives around £17.2M (about $22M) in ACE funding, reported that 30% of its performers came from Black-Asian-Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds during the 2015-16 season, compared to just 13% of their overall workforce.

Meanwhile, the UK’s most prolific creator of musical theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber, has this week warned of a “diversity crisis” in the British theatre, expressing his concerns for the “hideously white” industry’s survival unless it reflects the diversity of the British population. The phrase is found in a report that Lloyd Webber commissioned, through his eponymous foundation, to explore the absence of BAME people working in live theatre, and, like the ACE, including not only actors but also those who work as part of creative teams and backstage.

In writing his essay, Lloyd Webber reminds us that he is unrivaled within the commercial theatre to create change in this respect. Whilst his productions do not fall under the remit of the ACE, this is an encouraging thing to hear from an internationally recognisable name.

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Is Lloyd Webber part of the “diversity crisis”?

But as with any discussion regarding diversity in theatre, there is often a great deal of finger-pointing that follows, in an attempt to identify how and where the problem is best fixed. In the report, David Grindrod, Lloyd Webber’s casting director of choice, notes that “a vast majority” of people turning up to auditions are “white middle class.” Within that statement alone, there are multiple issues to unpack. One being the preoccupation with class and money that hangs over the industry, a raging debate as to who can afford to live and work as an actor in London and beyond.

Lloyd Webber himself laments that for his 2002 musical Bombay Dreams, which he produced, “one of our greatest difficulties was finding enough Asian actors.” He then points a finger toward drama schools that fail “to take in enough BAME talent,” leading to a “shortage of actors suitable for the roles.”

I find myself disturbed by these comments on a number of levels. The idea of passing the buck down the chain to drama schools, which Lloyd Webber suggests should be responsible for nurturing and monitoring the talent that comes through to the casting pool, fails to consider the issue as a whole. Drama schools have spent years defending themselves over their intake on gender, race, class and educational background, and whilst it is undoubtedly their responsibility to monitor their intake, it becomes a dangerous path if they manipulate it.

How far can this down-to-chain reacting go? Should drama schools throw up their arms and look even further down the chain to high schools and higher education? In fact, Lloyd Webber is a huge advocate of music and drama in schools; he’s spoken time and again of the importance of this training in mainstream education. Why, if he believes diversity must come from the ground up, has he not addressed this through his own efforts?

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I would argue that the key to diversity should be addressed at the very top: commercial theatre. It has a responsibility to showcase BAME performers in leading roles in order to show the merits of, and then to offer, diverse casting in mainstream productions.

Lloyd Webber’s musicals do not tend to be diverse and it troubles me that he uses Bombay Dreams as a sort of show pony. To highlight dipping one’s toe into producing a “diverse” West End (later Broadway) musical seems curious when that was nearly 15 years ago.  His latest musicals, Stephen Ward and School of Rock, don’t include roles written specifically for BAME performers. In the case of the former, the only such roles were in the gang of the villain, Aloysius “Lucky” Gordon.

School of Rockwhich opened in the West End last month, is a huge missed opportunity and so Lloyd Webber has to see that he is part of the problem. Yes, the musical is based on a popular film that brings with it some ghosts of recognition in terms of audience expectation. But you have to wonder: was any effort made to see if a Black Dewey Finn could have worked? Were they looking to stick so closely to the mold of Jack Black that the very thought of a Black Dewey Finn didn’t cross their mind?

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Florence Andrews, who plays Mrs. Mullins in the London production, is fantastic in the role, but it was interesting to see that she has become a cookie-cutter of Lloyd Webber favorite Sierra Boggess, down to the final strand of gorgeous red hair. Was Andrews’ casting necessary — or another wasted opportunity to offer a BAME actress a West End lead role?

His musicals do not tend to be diverse.

Sidestepping across London, Lloyd Webber’s long-running hit The Phantom of the Opera continues to play to packed houses, and it is in many ways the spearhead of our commercial theatre: an archetypal London musical, its artwork and posters have been for over 30 years. Where, then, is diverse casting in that production? Norm Lewis and Ramin Karimloo have both played The Phantom in London and on Broadway, respectively, but I don’t remember a black Christine or a Black Raoul — in the same way I don’t remember a diverse casting of Marius or Cossette in Les Miserables (despite the latter going for diversity in casting in other tracks, which is to be commended). If we’re really thinking about inspiring the next BAME generation, they need to see roles that aren’t out of reach. A young Black singer should be able to grow up thinking, Yes, I can play Christine in Phantom when I grow up.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and I’d love to be shown that these and other roles have been cast with open minds. I have friends who struggle to get seen for roles because they happen to be an inch too short, don’t look handsome enough or have a different body size. If casting is going to be that closed, what chance have we for diversity in theatre? It troubles me that “romantic leads” aren’t offered to BAME performers, and that when diversity is encouraged, it’s in smaller roles. Or, in the case of Phantom and Cats, roles where their ethnicity is covered up.

Lloyd Webber’s comments come at a time when the commercial West End feels more representative. We have Dreamgirls, Motown, Thriller Live, and the upcoming premiere of Hamilton providing large-scale opportunities for BAME performers. If Lloyd Webber is committed to diversity in mainstream musical theatre, he needs to lead by example, writing more diverse roles and widening the casting brackets in his own work.