Transgender advocates and actors took to the streets, gathering in Manhattan’s theater district on Monday, to call for greater access and casting on Broadway. The protest was spurred by recent comments by the famed producer of Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera, Cameron Mackintosh, who stated that casting trans actors in roles in classic musicals is a “gimmick.”
Among those who spoke at the protest was Peppermint, star of RuPaul’s Drag Race, who is also the first Black trans woman to originate a principal role in a Broadway production in Head Over Heels. “When I look out, I see so many beautiful faces,” Peppermint said to the protesters. “Of the trans faces I see, I see actors, performers, speakers, writers, and creators. And I don’t see a single ‘gimmick.’ What I see are opportunities, and it’s time that they—they who are in the business of Broadway—know it.”
The protest began in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow and made its way down Broadway to Shubert Alley, which lies at the center of the Broadway universe. In attendance alongside Peppermint were Sis, Ianne Fields Stewart, Jayae Riley Jr., and Qween Jean. Also joining them were former Jagged Little Pill cast members Nora Schell and Iris. Iris opened up about zie’s experiences of working on Jagged Little Pill and said that despite being a musical intended to take on modern issues of social justice, it didn’t live up to that mandate behind the scenes. “What happened to me was insidious and violent transphobia,” zie shared. “I’ve spent countless hours untangling the messaging in my head that I received from people in positions of power who claimed to support me and my community, and I’ve cried in rage about the fact that none of my cisgender cast members spoke out against the transphobia I was facing.”
Iris discovered that zie was the only trans actor in the production when zie arrived at rehearsals, and it didn’t take long for zie to feel unsafe in the situation. “I was bombarded with invasive questions about my experiences as a trans person from cast members and members of the creative and producing team. I understand now that my position was simple,” Iris recalled. “Offer up my trans experience as consumption as cis people in positions of power took from [my] lived experience, decided what to keep in their cis re-telling of [my] experiences, and chose to call it a trans narrative.”
Sis, speaking with Variety, said that the focus moving forward on Broadway must include innovated transgender stories that also uplift the artists who are cast. Sis added that it doesn't have to be at odds with commercialism. “Disney is successful, Apple is successful because they’ve found a way to innovate while making a commercially viable product,” Sis said ahead of the march. “We have to learn to take chances. All performers know that for something to be good, it must be special. You need a gimmick if you will,” she continued, with a wink. “You can do two things at once, and they’re things that are of value to this industry,” she concluded. “Tell a story and make money.”
After receiving backlash for his “gimmick” comments, Mackintosh has subsequently attempted to clarify his statement, saying that he was specifically referring to recasting the lead of Mary Poppins with a trans actress.
“Unfortunately, my answer has been misinterpreted to suggest that I am opposed to casting a transgender performer to play the role,” Mackintosh said in a statement. “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.”
“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 added. “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.”