Arts & Culture

Gender-switching in famous roles is nothing new

‘Peter Pan’ featuring Cathy Rigby
‘Peter Pan’ featuring Cathy Rigby Isaac James

Both the Dallas Theater Center and Avant Chamber Ballet have cast women in the role of Scrooge in their productions of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol.

Casting a role with an actor of the opposite gender is not new, and in many cases it happened because of politics in that time and place (famously, Shakespeare’s female roles were played by men in his time).

This should not be confused with intentional gender-switching, such as in the film, stage musical and film musicals of John Waters’ Hairspray, with the role of a woman written to be played by a man in obvious drag (in this case, Edna Turnblad was portrayed by Divine, Harvey Fierstein and John Travolta, respectively).

Here are several other examples of women stepping into famous male roles — and one the other way around.

Hamlet

In 1899, French actress Sarah Bernhardt — one of the most famous stage actors of all time — played what many consider the greatest role of Western literature, Hamlet, in London and Paris. She also played Hamlet in a 1900 film — the first actress to play the Dane on film.

And more Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s plays have the most instances of gender-switching. Many women have played the great male roles in London, including two-time Oscar winner Glenda Jackson, currently playing King Lear at London’s Old Vic theater. Also this year at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park, there was an all-female production of the Bard’s most famously sexist play, The Taming of the Shrew. In Dallas, local actress Anastasia Muñoz played Brutus in a Shakespeare in the Bar production of Julius Caesar.

Peter Pan

The famous musical version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is meant for an adult woman to play the boy who wouldn’t grow up, because of the vocal writing. Weatherford native Mary Martin originated that role in 1954; it has since been played by Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby and others. In the 2014 live TV version, Allison Williams starred.

Hedwig

This one is tricky: The role of Hedwig in the glam rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch is that of a rocker who began life as a man, and then had sex reassignment surgery to leave communist East Berlin with an American G.I. The show’s creator, John Cameron Mitchell, originated the role in 1998 off-Broadway; in the 2014 Broadway revival, Neil Patrick Harris played it.

In the original off-Broadway run, Ally Sheedy briefly played the role. In the current national tour, Lena Hall (who won a Tony for playing Yitzhak, Hedwig’s sidekick who has his own transformation in the show), played Hedwig for a few nights. The tour is coming to Dallas in February with Euan Morton as Hedwig.

The Importance of Being Earnest

In 2009, the great British actor (and now late) Brian Bedford played Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in London, in an acclaimed production that came to Broadway in 2011.

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