A West End musical about a Jewish family is at the centre of a row over cultural appropriation, with critics saying the lack of Jewish involvement in the production is typical of an industry that sidelines talent from the community.
Falsettos, which is coming to London after a successful Broadway run, debuted in 1992 and follows a dysfunctional Jewish family as they come to terms with the Aids crisis. Both its composer and lyricist, William Finn, and the original director and co-writer, James Lapine, are Jewish.
More than 20 Jewish actors and playwrights, including Miriam Margolyes and Maureen Lipman, signed an open letter, which said the producers demonstrated “a startling lack of cultural sensitivity and at worst, overt appropriation and erasure of a culture and religion increasingly facing a crisis”.
“To the best of our knowledge, no one in the cast of the UK premiere is Jewish, and neither is the director or anyone on the team,” the letter stated.
The letter used the term “Jewface” to describe the casting of non-Jewish actors to play Jewish roles and said that “Jews are omitted from this important and necessary conversation” about appropriation and representation in culture.
The signatories named several productions that have used non-Jewish actors to play Jewish roles, including Stephen Mangan as Goldberg in The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter theatre, Ian McDiarmid as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at the Almeida and James McArdle as Louis in Angels in America at the National.
Falsettos’ production company, Selladoor, released a statement saying it did not ask cast members about religion, gender, age or race because it would be inappropriate to do so and that its recruitment process is “free from bias or discrimination”.
Selladoor said that portraying characters from different backgrounds is “an extremely sensitive issue” but that it had “complete trust in [its] creative and production team to ensure that this production” properly represents William Finn and James Lapine’s characters.
After the letter was published, Steven Dexter – a British-Israeli Jew – said he had worked as a “cultural consultant” on the production.
A production of Howard Barker’s play In The Depths of Dead Love was picketed when it was performed at Notting Hill Print Room in 2017, because it had an all-white cast in a play set in China. The Hackney Empire also cancelled a performance of its opera The Golden Dragon after being criticised for having an all-white cast perform a play set in a Chinese restaurant.