On screen, Disney has been creating whimsical worlds of magic and wonder for generations, establishing a legacy of championing characters who are courageous outsiders. As Disney Theatrical Productions approaches its 25th anniversary on Broadway—presenting stage adaptations of classics from Beauty and the Beast to Newsies to Aladdin to Frozen —it’s clear that legacy extends outside of cinemas. But in between the thrilling spectacle and toe-tapping numbers, Disney also manifested another important legacy: representation.
“Disney is a leader,” says Capathia Jenkins, who originated the role of Medda Larkin in Newsies on Broadway. “They create pieces onstage that look like the world around us. It’s important that we see ourselves everywhere.”
Racial representation in entertainment has an intricate and perhaps tenuous history. Actors of color have often been limited to portraying archetypal characters onstage, enforcing harmful stereotypes offstage. But as the conversation of racial representation in theatre presses forward, casting has been pulled into the spotlight.
For Disney, the importance of diversity and representation starts at the top, with President Thomas Schumacher. “We want to represent and reflect the world around us,” he says. Schumacher has been around for nearly the whole history of Disney Theatrical Productions, and his prioritization of inclusivity comes as no surprise; he led the charge with Disney animated features such as Mulan, Pocahontas, and Lilo & Stich during his time as the president of Walt Disney Feature Animation.
“If we don’t represent on the stage or with directors and [creative teams], how do kids of color know [they can pursue it as a career]?” he points out.
Aisha Jackson, the standby for Frozen’s Princess Anna, also finds teachable moments with young people. “I go out to the stage door and see little girls, not just little black girls, but of many different races and ethnicities, feeling so excited to see a character who is quirky, honest, goofy, is comfortable with herself, and proud of her skin and who she is,” she says. “I think it’s very important to see ourselves reflected onstage and in a positive light.”
Frozen, in particular, features a much more colorful Broadway cast than its source material. Jelani Alladin, a black actor from Brooklyn, originated the role of Norwegian Kristoff on Broadway. The show’s Queen Iduna, Asian-American performer Ann Sanders, is encouraged by the casting process. “Disney is more interested in what you bring into the room for the character than the way you look,” she says.
Sanders is no stranger to color-conscious casting. She made her Broadway debut in 2002 as Belle’s understudy in Disney’s Beauty in the Beast, where she eventually replaced as the full-time lead. In fact, Beauty and the Beast is the show Sanders cites as an inspiration to act professionally.“The very first Broadway show I saw was Disney's Beauty and the Beast. I still remember it—I just immediately fell in love —that entire production just opened up a whole new world to me.” She would go on to make history as the first Asian-American woman to play Anna Lenowens (a role she normally understudied) in the 2015 revival of The King and I.
But perhaps the most pressure falls on Jackson, who not only carries the responsibility of taking on an iconic Disney animated character, but manages the expectations of an audience ready for a fair-skinned, red-headed Anna.
“I received a message from someone who walked into the theatre and did not like the fact that I was black, but left the theatre understanding that it was OK. [Anna’s spirit] can be played by many different people. It doesn't matter how you look. They were transformed in the show. To me, that is why we are doing what we're doing.”
The responsibility of color-conscious casting is not just on the actors. Fostering a community of understanding and acceptance allows for important collaboration beyond the wings. Jackson asks, “Where's the diversity in our crews? Where's the diversity in our casting directors? In our writers, our music directors, our stage management, our producers? Diversity goes beyond the stage.”
Jackson worked with Frozen’s wig designer, and together they decided to design Jackson’s wig with brown hair, but keeping Anna’s signature streak.
Jenkins recalls a similar feeling of unity when working with Alan Menken during Newsies rehearsals: “His spirit is really open to a collaborative effort. I really felt respected and that they really wanted me to be there. You don’t always get that.”
Giving actors of color agency in the rehearsal room is essential to any successful and authentic storytelling.
James Monroe Iglehart—who originated the role of Genie in Aladdin on Broadway—brought his own comedic style in addition to the “swagger and showbiz style” of the original inspirations for the character: Fats Waller and Cab Calloway. “In stand-up comedy there is a rule that you don’t steal other comics’ material, and Robin [Williams] put so much of himself in the role, I didn’t want to do a carbon copy of his performance,” he says. Iglehart’s individuality paid off, earning him a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, the ninth black man to ever win. “I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life,” he says. “It’s surreal to think that I’m a part of the Disney history because Disney has meant so much to me since my first time seeing The Jungle Book as a child.”
For Mandy Gonzalez, authenticity and individuality have been her guiding lights, even before she made her Broadway debut as Amneris in Disney’s Aida. As she was taking her first steps in the business, she was approached about changing her last name from Gonzalez to something that could allegedly afford her more opportunities. She declined.
Gonzalez’s commitment to authenticity (and her last name) would pay off, giving her more opportunities for connection with Latinx audience members. “People would open the Playbill and [see my last name], and at the stage door they would speak Spanish to me and all of a sudden we had this connection.”
Not only was Gonzalez’s Broadway debut in Aida significant for audience members, but for future artists of color as well.
Gonzalez says, “I proved to myself and this community that it wasn’t about what I looked like. It wasn’t about my last name, it was about that I was the best person for the job at that time. And I felt like it was a window that opened for me when I was cast for that and that I have continued to break down for the people coming behind me.”
Sanders also feels the impact on the larger community. “Frozen transcends race, class, all of that. We come out and tell a story of a family. During the bows at one show, I looked out and there was this Asian woman married to a black man with their mixed-race children right in the front row. I got choked up because I thought, ‘This is a family, and it’s important that they’re represented.’”
The significance of joining the Disney legacy is not lost on these performers. “When you stop and let yourself think about it, it’s overwhelming. It’s so big. You grow up watching and loving Disney and then there you are. It’s an honor really to be a part of that family,” Jenkins says.
“For me, Disney was the place of dreams and [now with my own daughter], it continues to be that place where we’re all equal through love,” says Gonzalez. “And so for a kid that comes from a family of migrant workers to Broadway, it’s the ultimate American dream.”