Where are the roles for older people in musical theatre?

The death of the much loved Ann Emery has been in the news recently. She was 86 when she died and she played Grandma in Billy Elliot from 2005 – 2010, which means she was still playing Grandma when she was 80.

I’ve been pondering the opportunities for older people in Musical Theatre lately. I’m by no means anywhere near 80, but I’m at the age when suitable parts for me in Musical Theatre are getting scarce. As I write, I’m waiting to hear if I’m going to be recalled for the part of Fairy Godmother in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. I have to say, I think it’s unlikely. It was an audition where the competition was not only fierce, but also much younger than me. Talent I might be able to compete with, but I can’t turn back the hands of time.

“Where are the roles for older people – particularly older ladies – in musical theatre?”

I’ve heard people mention Grizabella from Cats; and certainly, that part ought to be played by an old, worn out woman. Originally, of course, it was Elaine Paige, who certainly couldn’t have been called old at the time; but it’s unlikely they’d cast her in a revival now, although she’s a more appropriate age. These days, the part is more likely to go to a pop diva with a vocal virtuosity that is not so subtle as in the original. My own favourite in the part was Anita Harris, who played her for a couple of years. Now in her 70s, she must have been in her 40’s then. She was brilliantly understated, and her acting was emotive, her singing sweet and pure, and her beautifully observed cat-dancing full of grace.

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Is it that Musical Theatre is purely a young person’s game? The desire to dance is certainly still there for mature women, with much in the news about the health benefits. It’s not that we are not able; it’s just that we are not thought of. Is it because no-one wants to see an oldie dance? That may be true, but there used to be a variety act called the Roly Polys. They were, of course, a comedy act who played to their strengths; but no-one could doubt they could all dance – and they were immensely popular in their time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zllH86e-DFc

Of course, there are roles – Momma Rose in Gypsy; Momma Morton in Chicago; Donna, Rosie and Tanya in Mamma Mia – these are the ones that spring immediately to mind; but where are the ensembles that include the more mature hoofers? I looked out for Mrs Lancaster in Groundhog Day, but I don’t think she was much older than her colleagues. Personally, I think it very sad that the wonderful part of Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical was given to a man. What a missed opportunity for a mature woman – and of course, the precedent is now set, so despite the amazing Pam Ferris landing the part in the movie, I doubt we’ll ever see a woman take it in the stage show.

There’s no doubt you need to be very fit to work the demanding schedule of a Musical Theatre show, and maybe that’s why MT casting appears to me to rest relentlessly upon the under 35s. I would love to see some shows based around older folk though. Hooray for Gary Barlow, who’s The Girls is coming in 2017, based on the Calendar Girls’ story, http://www.thegirlsmusical.com I can’t wait to see it, and hey, let’s have more. What do you think? A musical version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with all those lovely old Mamas, Uncles and Aunties? Or better still, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? No. Don’t get me started on film-to-MT. Someone else has already covered that one!

Dawn Bush for @MTAS_Official

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