Race controversy over Prince Of Egypt musical

NEW YORK • Concern about a lack of diversity dominated the Oscars this year.

Now the issue has entangled an embryonic attempt by DreamWorks to adapt a popular animated film from 1998, The Prince Of Egypt, into a stage musical.

The issue erupted on social media over the weekend, after a non-profit on Long Island, the Bay Street Theater, announced plans to hold a free concert performance of the developing show next month in a park in Sag Harbor, New York. The event will be the first time the full script and score have been heard by the public.

The problem is this: Although the show, about the life of Moses as described in the Exodus, is set in ancient Egypt, the bulk of the cast is white and initial publicity about the event last week led to the mistaken impression by some that the entire cast was white.

According to Bay Street, a third of the Equity cast for the one-night reading, including two of the six principals, are actors of colour.

Reaction was swift.

Cynthia Erivo, a British actress of Nigerian descent who won this year's Tony Award for best actress in a musical for The Color Purple, posted a series of comments on Twitter, saying: "It saddens me that after such a wonderful multicultural season on Broadway, a piece set in Africa has not one POC," meaning a person of colour.

After being alerted that there are some cast members of colour, she said: "The piece is set in ancient Egypt, i.e. Africa where people darker than I resided. That is my point."

Other performers and theatre industry professionals weighed in. Denee Benton, who will star as Natasha on Broadway this autumn in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812, objected to "yet another missed opportunity to represent our colourful world".

The artistic director of Bay Street, Scott Schwartz, who is the show's director and son of Stephen Schwartz, its composer, moved swiftly to address the controversy.

He called people who had been critical of the casting, including Erivo, who said she was pleased with their conversation.

And he posted his own statement online, acknowledging the upset, reiterating that five of the 15 performers for the reading are non- white and pledging to be attentive to the issue as the project advances.

"Please rest assured that your concern about the need for diversity and authenticity in this project is something we hear and take seriously," he wrote.

Mr Bill Damaschke, a former DreamWorks executive who is now a Broadway producer and is overseeing development of the musical with Dori Berinstein, made a similar pledge in an interview.

"When we made the movie, we had every single religious consultant working on the film to make sure we were attentive to the many sensitivities and I believe what we're seeing is that there needs to be as much attention to culture, religion and race in how this gets presented in the future."

It is not at all clear that the show will ever get to Broadway - it is being developed, he says. But the project is destined to receive outsize attention.

The Prince Of Egypt was a hit as a film, with an Oscar-winning song and Stephen Schwartz is one of the most successful composers in musical theatre.

This is not the first time the casting of performers to play characters in ancient Egypt has drawn concern.

In 2014, there was sharp criticism over the largely white casts for two films then in development, Exodus: Gods And Kings and Gods Of Egypt.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2016, with the headline 'Race controversy over Prince Of Egypt musical'. Print Edition | Subscribe