In the past few years, there has been a surge of new musicals whose stories are centered around teenagers. From shows with serious themes, like Dear Evan Hansen, to shows that are more extravagant and fun, like Mean Girls, to shows that fall into both categories, like The Prom, the teens seem to be taking over Broadway.
But despite the slew of shows set in high schools and with high-school-aged characters, there are very few actors in these shows who are actually the age of the characters they are portraying. While there are some exceptions, it is very difficult to find a professional show about high schoolers with a cast the same age as its characters.
Of course, there are many valid reasons why it is difficult to cast teenagers in Broadway shows. The most obvious reason is that kids under the age of 18 are still considered minors in New York, and are often still attending school. When children and teens are employed as performers in New York, their employers are responsible for ensuring that the child’s work schedule, tutoring schedule, and break time comply with the state’s child labor laws. (For curious minds, these regulations can be found at https://www.labor.ny.gov/formsdocs/wp/LS559.pdf.) And aside from the legalistic side of it, it is true that older actors and actresses are often just better choices for the roles. It is much easier to find a performer in their 20s with several Broadway credits and professional training than a teenager with the same qualifications.
Obviously, there are some shows that require children to be cast. Shows like Matilda, School of Rock, and The Sound of Music, among many others, simply cannot be performed in a convincing way without child performers. It is the characters in their late teens that are most often filled with actors and actresses that are older than their onstage counterparts.
While there have been many recent shows set in high school, the casting of adults in teen roles isn’t a new trend. Musicals about high schoolers have been around for decades. From West Side Story, to Grease, to Bring It On, Broadway musicals set in high school have always had casts full of 20- and 30-year-olds.
But at what point does an actor stop being believable as a teenager? Perhaps the most drastic recent example of casting older actors as teenagers is the current Broadway production of Be More Chill. With a cast made almost entirely of actors in their late 20s and early 30s, much of the cast is almost twice as old as the characters they are playing. Living in the midwest, I haven’t had the luxury of seeing this show- or any recent show, for that matter- on Broadway, so I feel that I can’t make a judgement on whether the actors truly appear to be in high school in the show, or if they appear to be adults portraying high schoolers. But I do wonder, what made the casting directors decide to cast multiple actors in their 30s instead of actors closer to the age of the show’s characters? What must be done to make a 30-year-old believable as a high school student? Does anything have to be done at all? Would they have still cast the same actors if they were 35? 40? (But I digress… perhaps this should be a discussion for a later blog.)
Of course, an obvious exception to this trend is Andrew Barth Feldman, who just made his Broadway debut in January as Evan Hansen at just 16 years old. This was a huge shift from the opening of the show three years ago, in which Ben Platt, at 23, was the youngest member of the original cast. Since Platt, several actors in their 20s have played the role of Evan. But now, for five of the eight performances each week, Evan’s shoes are filled by someone who has been walking the halls of a high school himself for the past few years. (Feldman isn’t playing the demanding role full time in order to allow time for training and to build up his stamina. Michael Lee Brown, an actor in his 20s, plays the role for the remaining three shows each week.)
Recently, a friend of mine took a trip to New York City, and was able to see Feldman as Evan. When I asked her about it, she could not stop raving about how amazing he was, and how wonderful it was to see a teenaged role filled by a teenager. When I searched for reviews online, these same remarks kept popping up. Many of the critics talked about how seeing a teen play this role made the experience all the more real and raw. And just last week, a new review came out in The New York Times, claiming that, “At many moments he [Feldman] surprised me, despite my repeat viewings, with new melismas and spins on lyrics that sharpened the story to a slightly different point.”
This got me wondering, should Broadway be giving teens more of a chance? Of course, there is no shortage of incredibly talented adults searching for work in the theatre world. But I also don’t believe that there is a lack of talented teenagers who are capable of impressing audiences on a Broadway stage. After all, there have also been shows on Broadway that required children to hold very large roles (Tuck Everlasting, Finding Neverland, The Secret Garden). Why, then, should there not be a larger number of teenagers playing teen roles?
Whatever the reason, teen actors and actresses will most likely just have to wait their turn to be in the Broadway spotlight. While seeing a teen play a leading role on Broadway is no doubt inspiring, there is no indication that the age of the actors are correlated to the success of the show. And after all, the goal will always be to sell tickets and fill seats. Teenage actors who wish to wish to attend any of Broadway’s most famous high schools may just have to wait until they’re older to do so.