by Mo Brady
Scanning the stage of Broadway’s Pretty Woman: The Musical, I saw a host a familiar faces among the denizens of Hollywood and Vine. Among the onstage cast of 21 are many performers familiar to New York theatre audiences. From Lauren Lim Jackson to Alan Wiggins, the cast is chock full of Broadway stalwarts with handful of Mainstem credits to their names.
However, many of these actors are not only Broadway regulars but frequent collaborators of director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell as well. Andy Karl and Orfeh both famously worked with Mitchell on Legally Blonde, originating the roles of Paulette and UPS Guy. Jennifer Sanchez is a veteran of his On Your Feet! while Matthew Stocke collaborated with him as an original swing on Broadway’s The Full Monty. Both Ellyn Marie Marsh and Jake Odmark are longtime cast members of his current hit Kinky Boots.
However, this kind of repertory acting company is nothing new. For a large part of the 20th century, repertory theatre companies were a mainstay of American theatre. Acting companies would present multiple productions “in rep,” either in a single location or while touring to multiple locales. While this practice had been around for decades, it thrived in the mid-20th century when “Repertory Theatres” sprung up in cities across the country from Seattle to Kansas City.
Today, the practice of repertory acting companies has mostly waned. The Shakespeare festivals in Stratford and Oregon notwithstanding, most Rep theatres are repertory in name only, producing shows one at a time with different actors in each. However, the practice of using a repertory acting company continues in Broadway theatre under a different guise.
It’s been said that “people like working with people they like working with.” This is true in any profession, but particularly in theatre where contracts are limited and new jobs are constantly being vied for. In both commercial and non-profit theatre, directors and choreographers find actors that they trust, admire and want to support. When those directors and choreographers work on new productions, they bring along some of the performers who have helped them in the past to facilitate new visions.
Pretty Woman is not unique on Broadway for this repertory-style casting. Look to the cast of Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, where choreographer Sergio Trujillo assembled women from A Bronx Tale The Musical, Jersey Boys, Dirty Dancing and Flashdance to create his ensemble. The original Broadway cast of Something Rotten! was practically picked from Casey Nicolaw’s resume of Spamalot, Aladdin, The Drowsy Chaperone and The Book of Mormon.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Actors should be rewarded for being reliable, talented and easy to work with. Regardless of your talents, acting is a tough enough business that performers should be able to rely on their colleagues and collaborates for job security.
For audiences, this style of repertory casting is also a boon. We get to see talented ensemblists showing their skills in multiple scenarios. Thanks to Rob Ashford, we’ve seen Adam Perry strut his stuff from the swinging 60s in Promises, Promises to Arendelle in Frozen. Samantha Sturm has followed Christopher Gattelli from In Your Arms at the Old Globe to Broadway’s My Fair Lady. By championing ensemblists, Broadway directors and choreographers give us the opportunity to champion those artists as audiences.