West End producer Cameron Mackintosh is clarifying statements published in a Telegraph interview seemingly calling the casting of trans actors in roles not explicitly written as trans a “gimmick,” following online backlash which included a lengthy response by Broadway star and Transparent actress Alexandra Billings.
Mackintosh posted a statement on Twitter, writing that his response was to a question about “making the character of Mary Poppins (not the actor playing the role) a transgender woman” and that it had been “misinterpreted.”
“Unfortunately, my answer has been misinterpreted to suggest that I am opposed to casting a transgender performer to play the role,” the statement reads. “This is absolutely not true. I meant only that I would not as a producer disregard the author P.L. Travers’ original intention for the character.”
— CameronMackintoshLtd (@CamMackLtd) August 30, 2021
“To be clear, whether a person is trans has no bearing on their suitability for any role in any of my shows, including Mary Poppins, as long as they can perform the role as written,” he continued. “I am very sorry for any distress caused by my remarks being misrepresented. Trans actors are welcome to submit and audition for any of my productions. What matters is what has always mattered: the talent and storytelling. I have long been and will continue to be a proponent of diversity in casting for my projects around the world.”
Days before, Billings — who made history on Broadway in 2020 after she was cast as Wicked‘s Madam Morrible, cementing herself as the first known trans woman to join the Broadway company of the musical — addressed comments made by “Sir Cameron” in a post shared via her Instagram. Her statement began by detailing her own transition and history as a trans person, as well as the role she plays in the larger history of trans representation in entertainment.
“I am playing Madame Morrible in Wicked on Broadway. I am Trans and began my transition in 1980, when it was illegal to do so. I am now a very small part of a very powerful moment, every time I set foot in the land of Oz,” the statement reads. “This is not lost on me. Especially at 59-years-old and having now survived this, my second viral plague. The first, took most every Trans family member I had in the 1980s. AIDS smothered our survival for generations to come. And it resonates to this day.”
Billings then goes on to directly respond to Mackintosh’s comments from an Aug. 7 interview with The Telegraph, in which he states that instead of casting trans actors in existing roles that may not have been written as trans, writers and composers should make more transgender leading roles. “You can’t implant something that is not inherently there in the story or character, that’s what I think,” he said. “Just to do that, that becomes gimmick casting. It’s trying to force something that isn’t natural.”
While the producer of The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Mary Poppins said he supports diverse casting and welcomes a non-white nanny or Jean Valjean for Poppins, he did not support a “transgender twist,” as The Telegraph describes it, to the story. According to Mackintosh, the tale “was not about that, that was not the story of that family” before stating that trans actors should appear in productions focused on trans subject matter.
“There are a number of shows that deal with that, like [Everybody’s Talking About] Jamie and things, not quite transgender, but people finding their true selves,” he said. “I think if the material for the piece requires it, and it’s well done, that will be popularly embraced.”
Billings rebuked the suggestion that trans actors should only be cast in roles and productions explicitly written and about trans issues. “I am an actor. I am Mame and I am Madame Rose. I am Miss Hannigan and I am Annie Oakley and I am Fantine… although if that ever happens, I’ll be singing it in the key of Elaine Stritch, and everyone needs to be okay with that,” she wrote. “But I am these stories because I am part of the human fabric and no one has the right to take any [of] this away from me. Not the police who arrested me, not the society who shunned me, …and not you, who labels me.”
She goes on to write that “I am an actor, Mr[.] Mackintosh, not a gimmick,” and pushes back on the notion that the producer stating there should be more roles and productions featuring trans artists makes him any kind of “revolutionary” or the arbiter of trans inclusion in the arts.
“And just so we’re clear; you don’t have to make room for me,” she says. “I take up my own space and that was given to me by a power much greater and far more powerful than you. Suggesting there needs to be more roles and more plays for transgender artists, doesn’t make you a revolutionary. It makes you human. It is simple common sense. We will create that space with or without your consent.”
She concludes her statement by acknowledging that trans people and trans actors have always existed and have been playing a variety of roles, whether Mackintosh or the theater mainstream knew it.
“Please try and remember that Trans people have been in theater for as long as there has been theater. We have been playing these musical roles in the theater for centuries. The only difference is, now we are becoming visible. And that’s frightening. That’s upsetting. This is about you and your fear and the fear of many others, but it is not about the Trans community. And whilst I understand this, my job on the planet is not to hold your hand through your years of societal conditioning. [I’m] busy. I have lines to learn.”
“Instead of proclaiming all the things that cannot be done, how about filling the music of the universe with things that can be done,” she added.