LONDON — The award-winning American musical “Falsettos” opened in London this week. Written by two Jews, the heavily-Jewish play features a bar mitzvah, and the opening song is even entitled, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” Surprisingly, there are no known Jewish actors in the show’s cast, the director is not Jewish, and until very recently, there was no Jewish creative input in the production.
Recently, a dearth of Jews in Jewish roles has sparked wider debate on London’s West End in a scandal which has become known as “Jewface.” The term is a reference to a previous furor over the casting of white actors instead of East Asians — a row that became known as “Yellowface.”
One group of Jewish actors, writers and directors was so concerned as to how Jews are represented in the live arts that on the eve of the “Falsettos” opening, they wrote an open letter, published last month in the British national trade paper, The Stage.
“In 2019, in London, it seems impossible that a production of a show as obviously concerned with Jewish religion and culture as ‘Falsettos’ could announce a cast with no Jewish representation whatsoever,” the letter said.
“In a time of increasing antisemitism, of verbal and physical attacks on Jewish people and wholesale, violent shootings in synagogues, Jewish schools and cultural centres forced to be protected by security guards, it feels more crucial now than ever to make accurate representation of and cultural sensitivity around Judaism a priority in theatre,” the letter stated.
The signatories are mainly young, but there are also some established names such as actors Maureen Lipman and BAFTA award winner Miriam Margolyes, as well as director Elijah Moshinsky.
Sam Brown, an opera director who works mainly outside the UK, is a member of the group behind the Stage letter now calling itself the Jewish Artists Collective.
“I see this discussion more as to how one represents diversity on stage,” Brown told The Times of Israel. “We were very keen to show that we did not present ourselves as a special case, but we do feel that we should be entitled to some respect as a minority group, and that we have agency as to how we are represented.”
He said that members of the Jewish Artists Collective had made “many attempts” to contact the UK producers of “Falsettos” in advance of the show’s opening, “but there was no meaningful response.”
Once the open letter appeared in The Stage, “Falsettos” producers did respond — but not in a way that satisfied the authors of the letter.
“Sell-A-Door [the production company behind the show] completely missed the point, didn’t apologize, and instead of focusing on Judaism [and how it is represented], just said all discrimination is bad,” said one member of the Jewish Artists Collective who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity.
“The question of performers portraying characters of different religions, ethnicities or sexualities is an extremely sensitive issue,” read the Sell-A-Door statement. “The representation and respect of cultural heritage on stage is of the upmost importance and something we take very seriously… we have been mindful of all of the sensitive aspects of the subject material, be it the story of the central Jewish family or any of the other issues raised in this work such as homosexuality, AIDS, marriage, divorce and child custody.”
Sell-A-Door later told the London Evening Standard that it was “unable to confirm if company members were Jewish as it would have been discriminatory to ask them.”
However, the guidelines for the UK actors’ union, British Equity, state that “the need for authenticity and realism might require someone of a particular age, sex or race for acting roles.”
Soon after the Evening Standard report hit the streets, a South African-born theater director, Steven Dexter, announced that he was serving as a Jewish consultant for “Falsettos.” Dexter described himself as “British-Israeli,” and has directed a number of productions for Habimah Theater, the national theater of Israel in Tel Aviv.
It is not known why Sell-A-Door would have neglected to mention Dexter’s role as consultant in its response in the Evening Standard.
In a series of online exchanges with members of the Jewish Artists Collective, Dexter, who did not make himself available for comment to The Times of Israel, wrote and then deleted the following tweet: “Why not focus on the future and propose a solution, as branding your spotlight number on your arm or wearing a yellow star in auditions is not the solution.” Spotlight is the trade publication for the performing arts in the UK, primarily for casting purposes.
Dexter later proposed a face-to-face meeting with online critics of the “Falsettos” casting, but it was not clear whether anyone accepted the invitation.
“What’s important to me is that people’s lived experience of Jewishness, in all its glorious richness, informs the way that they make Jewish art,” tweeted director Adam Lenson, who is also involved with the Jewish Artists Collective.
Lenson also said he was unhappy that “many news stories had wrongly interpreted our point and made it about casting, when it’s in fact about representation.”
Daniel York is a British East Asian who was deeply involved in the “Yellowface” protests outside London’s Print Room theater in 2017, over a play that was set in medieval China but which had an all-white cast.
York told The Times of Israel that it was important that minorities stick together. He said that he strongly supported the Jewish Artists Collective for speaking out, as well as its plan to link with other minorities to produce a set of “best practice” guidelines for all future theatrical productions.
“That’s a great thing,” said York, “we have really been missing something like that. People get very defensive about casting — and nobody is saying only Jews should play Jewish parts. But producers have to be aware of cultural sensitivity.”
Actress Maureen Lipman, perhaps the biggest name on the original “Jewface” letter, is mindful of complaints from other minorities about how they are portrayed on stage, but feels that Jewish thespians face a unique predicament.
“For Jews it seems to be working the other way — the last thing anyone appears to want is to cast a Jew in a Jewish part,” she told The Times of Israel.
London theater has recently seen non-Jewish actors such as Jonathan Pryce playing Fagin, a negative Jewish stereotype portrayed in Dickens’s “Oliver Twist,” or actress Juliet Stevenson cast as a Holocaust survivor.
“This is not just to do with talent, particularly if the Jewish element is specifically the force of the play,” said Lipman, adding that Jewish artists were in a bind. “If we don’t speak up, the issue goes to the wall, if we do speak, it’s, ‘Oh, those whingeing Jews again.’”
Two of the biggest London productions in recent years, “Angels in America” and “The Lehman Trilogy,” did have a Jewish adviser, Rabbi Daniel Epstein, who is Orthodox. He was taken on at the suggestion of the National Theatre’s wig maker and hairstylist, Adele Brandman, a member of his synagogue. It was she who mentioned to the directors of both plays that they could do well to “speak to my rabbi” about the “Jewish stuff.”
Epstein said that what was important for him was “the notion of being able adequately to reflect the community and Jewish experience. For the audience, the way of telling the story must feel authentic — and anyone giving a serious portrayal [of a Jewish character] must do their homework.”
Of the current debate in the UK, Epstein said: “We [British Jews] don’t like to be spoken about. This issue has put us above the parapet. So it’s now a question of, literally, you have the stage — what will you do with the media bandwidth? Anyone putting on a show [with a Jewish theme] has a tremendous responsibility to be correct as to how Jews are portrayed.”