Casting ‘Hairspray’ prompted campus search for racial diversity

Through every song, dance, and laughable moment presented by the Belmont Musical Theater department in “Hairspray,” there’s great entertainment — and there are essential members of the cast and chorus who had to be recruited from other departments.

There are roles for black actors in the play, which ran for 2,500 performances on Broadway, but there are no black students in the musical theater department. In fact, only about 4 percent of the Belmont student body is black.

“Open auditions for our shows are limited to specific needs in casting requirements,” said Marjorie Halbert, artistic director of “Hairspray” in an email to the Vision.  Auditions  for musical theater auditions are generally open just to students in the department.  For “Hairspray,” however, white students weren’t going to be able to fill roles such as those of “Motormouth Maybelle,” played by Queen Latifah in the 2007 film version of the play.

“We contacted the Black Student Association to recruit students for auditions,” Halbert said. “We were thrilled with the response.”

Some recruits were music majors in a track other than musical theater, and others were brought in from other organizations at Belmont.

But even that wasn’t enough.  When a number of roles for black actors, singers and dancers remained unfilled, members of the department were asked to recruit friends from around campus.

“Oftentimes they will not let anyone in that is not a musical theater major, but because we had a very specific need for African-Americans we had people within musical theater go out and ask their friends or tell them we are doing Hairspray and encourage them to audition,” said John Paul Liang, senior musical theater major.

While every African American was required to go through an audition process, it was not on the same level with the musical theater students’ auditions.

“The department obviously needed African-Americans for the show so non-musical theater majors were allowed to apply,” said Briana August. “I think they were just happy that we were willing to audition, so the audition process wasn’t as strenuous. … It was more to see if we could sing or dance, but due to the small number of us who auditioned, it wasn’t that competitive,”

Morgan Bosman, also a black cast member, said she agrees with August that there was a lot of leniency in auditions for recruits.

“Because of limited time, some of the non-musical theater students were unable to sing for callbacks,” Bosman said. “I also do not know of any African-Americans who auditioned and did not get a part. They really lucked out because there are so many talented students of diverse backgrounds at Belmont.”

While the black members of the cast are not seeking a degree in musical theater, their voices and physical presence on the stage was essential for “Hairspray.”

“Even if they didn’t feel particularly strong as performers, just having bodies on stage to beef up the ensemble was really good,” Liang said.

While the process to add diversity to the program for one show was difficult, it is not the department’s first attempt.

“It’s been a challenge for sure, but my first show I did with Belmont was “Ragtime,” and we had to grab a lot of African-American performers from Fisk University,” Liang said. “They were great to work with, but a lot of time we couldn’t really didn’t have the same level of professionalism.”

However, the department went in a different direction this year by only recruiting Belmont students, rather than those who would have to drive across town and back for rehearsals and still manage classes.

“We have a lot of people that really respect the fact that this is their school and they’re representing something they feel strongly about,” Liang said. “It’s a really high level of talent, and it’s great working with people that are not in our program because it’s something fresh, something new.”

Because blocks of rehearsal time were wired to accommodate the schedule of the musical theater majors, finding rehearsal time with the newly arrived black students from many departments was a challenge.

“Of course, there were a lot of rehearsals that had to be shifted to accommodate everyone’s schedule, and at times it seemed we would never get the entire cast together in one rehearsal,” Halbert said.

August was one of those who found it difficult to orchestrate her schedule around the department’s.

“The musical theater majors have a class and their class time is that rehearsal,” she said. “For the African-Americans, we had to leave class, get there late, and fill in where we could.”

While the process was not always convenient, working with musical theater majors was a positive experience, Bosman said.

“We worked well together because, while it was a little more segregated at the beginning of rehearsals, when we started dancing together on stage and getting to know one another, then it felt a lot more integrated, which is great,” she said.

August said the cast was gracious.

“The cast is awesome. At the beginning it was hard adjusting especially with our schedules,” she said. “I have met some really nice people; the seniors were really welcoming.”

While “Hairspray” pulled together as a diverse and entertaining production, August says the cycle of reaching out of the program only for shows that require diversity should end.

“Instead of trying something new and then just going back to the way things are, they should start to branch out the program so that they don’t have to look outside the program the next time they want to do a show that requires different ethnic groups for the cast,” August said.

For August, performing diverse musicals could be done more effectively in Belmont’s future with a change in the department.

“If they want to reflect the Belmont community I think they need diversity in the program,” August said. “Musical theater is a big reflection of the school because that’s what people go to when they think of fine arts and what people see when they visit the school. It should be a representation of Belmont, so I think it should represent every group.”

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