In a recent article in Theatermania about children performing on Broadway, Zachary Stewart asserts, “… and while I’m sympathetic to the call for representation of all types of people onstage, I don’t think it needs to be perfectly literal. Ultimately, by insisting on actual kids to play kids, we’re encouraging unimaginative storytelling for unimaginative audiences.” I wholeheartedly disagree with his assumptions from the standpoint of not only an audience member, but also as a mother of three professional, child actors working in the industry for over ten years.
I can say for certain, that as a child, I would not have enjoyed a grown Orphan Annie or Mary Lennox or Little Red or Oliver. When I saw those shows, and when I see shows with children in the cast now, I want to connect with the innocence of a child and the childlike realness that she or he brings to the character. I enjoy hearing child like voices and their timbre singing the songs that are written in keys to capture their wonder and possibility. This is certainly not unimaginative, yet the opposite. I would not have enjoyed adults playing kids in Runaways, which was recently at The Delacorte this past summer after playing Off-Broadway at New York City Center two years ago. My young teenage son could bring a depth, connection, and understanding to the role that a grown person could not. I find it difficult to accuse the late Elizabeth Swados of “unimaginative storytelling”, or for that matter Sam Pinkleton or The Public Theater who chose to cast children and teens to represent them at their annual gala this past year. The same could be said for the creatives of Billy Elliot, or The King and I, or A Christmas Story, or even Macbeth where the murder of a child is best represented by a child. ( My children have had the good fortune to be in all of these shows.) Many stories cannot be told properly without children being a part of the story telling. No amount of “imagination” is going to change that.
The argument could be that this is work, and it is just unethical to allow children to work. Anyone who knows any Broadway children and families personally will know that when children are as passionate as these kids are, the most ethical and moral thing to do as a parent is to help them pursue their passions. Broadway children are akin to Olympic athletes. They have a drive and motivation that is hard to contain. We would not thwart our young chess champ or violin prodigy; so why would we stop a child who is capable of the juggling and balance that professional performing requires? And yes, each show is different in the way children are treated backstage, but I can assure you, there is no child doing this who does not love it! It is not possible because a child works two full-time jobs when he is on Broadway, and this takes discipline and focus, but it does not mean childhood is lost. Every family that I have met over the years focuses on keeping the balance for their children. It just isn’t what it seems like to the outside world. Ninety-nine percent of the kids who work on stage are the most humble, hard-working people you will ever meet. It is wrong to even imply that time in a Broadway show could somehow make any child actors divas or that “… done wrong,you can definitely find some zonked-out robots who sound like they’ve been media-trained by Stepford Wives…” as quoted by Hayley Levitt in the same article in Theatermania. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Reporting this kind of stereotype, even saying that it may only happen occasionally, just perpetuates the idea of Mama Rose and the unwilling child actor. I personally know over 50 child actors, many who have sat in my home studying for tests, writing music, planning benefit concerts, singing karaoke, baking cupcakes for the Broadway Flea Market…just being genuinely good people.
Did performing in a show harm those kids or enrich their lives? Did having them in the show enhance the performance or hinder it? Did the life skills that child actors gained of: time management, delaying gratification, self-motivation, patience, problem-solving, collaboration, innovation, creativity, fortitude, cooperation, and self-sacrifice contribute to the building blocks of their character? As my youngest child, William Poon said, “Kids need to be played by kids. Kids can do this.” He knows as well as anyone even at age twelve, having been on the international tour of Beauty and the Beast and then playing a royal child in The King and I at Lincoln Center all the while juggling third and fourth grades. Kids in Broadway shows are a special breed for all the right reasons, and they should continue to be an integral part of the Broadway community and bring a realness to the stage that only youth can afford.