Diana Huey’s ‘Little Mermaid’ reminds us why diverse casting matters

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Diana Huey plays Ariel in the current national touring production of the musical adaptation of Disney's "The Little Mermaid." Photo provided

Diana Huey plays Ariel in the current national touring production of the musical adaptation of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo provided

Even Diana Huey doubted that she would be cast as the lead in the national touring production of the latest stage adaptation of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

It wasn’t because she couldn’t sing the iconic songs while suspended from a harness or play a rebellious teenage mermaid princess who becomes a mute human in the second act.

It was simply because she was born in Japan.

“When I went in to audition I was like, ‘I’m not gonna get this because I’m not white. I don’t look like Ariel.’ I knew the director from another project, so he called me in and I was like, ‘How nice of you to call me in. Yeah, I do think I could do this, I do think I could play Ariel, and I do think I could do the things that are required to play her. … But you’re not gonna want to take me across America,’” the Japanese-American performer told me in a recent phone interview.

“Looking back at that now makes me really sad that I put the same self-doubt on myself that other people are putting on me based on the way I look. I should have not felt that way, and I’m learning now. I am deciding to not let those things affect me. I’m an actor. I am obviously not a mermaid in real life, but I’m acting, so why can’t I be?”

Huey’s casting in the touring stage musical version of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and the reaction – both negative and positive – is a great reminder of the power of film and the importance of diverse casting.

Huey recently went viral after she talked with a Buffalo (New York) News reporter about the negative feedback she has seen on social media about an Asian-American performer playing Ariel. Less than a week later, she and I got a chance to talk about her experiences on the national tour, which wraps in Oklahoma City run today and is headed next for Tuscon, Arizona.

For instance, soon after the first poster of Huey in the role was unveiled last year in Seattle, where she grew up and where the tour originated, she recalled that someone commented, “‘Since when is Ariel Asian? I love ‘Little Mermaid,’ but I won’t be going to see this. Keep it classic.’”

Of course, Ariel is depicted in the movie as a pale redhead. Even though Disney writer-directors Ron Clements and John Musker made many changes to Hans Christian Andersen’s “classic” fairy tale (especially the ending), because of the success of the animated film – it performed so swimmingly critically and commercially that it launched the Disney Renaissance, a creative resurgence  for the Mouse House that led to the production of other famed animated features like “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” – the movie version is now considered “classic.”

The character of Ariel is shown in a scene from Disney's 1989 animated film "The Little Mermaid." Disney photo

The character of Ariel is shown in a scene from Disney’s 1989 animated film “The Little Mermaid.” Disney photo

It’s a formidable illustration of the power of cinematic images: What the beloved film shows is by many people considered the only “correct” way to depict the perennially popular Disney Princess. As more and more films are being adapted for the stage as well as for television, that means the way Hollywood chooses to depict characters also influences what we see on stage and on TV.

That’s troubling considering the numbers still being reported by the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. As previously reported, this year’s report finds that the representation of women, minorities, LGBT people and disabled characters in films remains largely unchanged from the previous year — despite the heightened and attention to diversity in Hollywood.

For nine years since 2007, USC has analyzed the demographic makeup of every speaking or named character from each year’s 100 highest-grossing films at the domestic box office (with the exception of 2011), as well as behind-the-camera employment for those films including directors, producers and composers.

“Every year we’re hopeful that we will actually see change,” Stacy L. Smith, a USC professor and the study’s lead author, recently told the Associated Press. “Unfortunately that hope has not quite been realized.”

Women remain egregiously underrepresented when it comes to both speaking roles and lead or co-leading parts in films. Of the 4,583 speaking characters analyzed from the top 100 films of 2016, 31.4 percent were female, a number that is basically unchanged since the USC study started in 2007. Also, only 34 of the films depicted a female lead or co-lead — and only three of those were from other underrepresented groups.

Along with staying mostly male, the cinematic landscape is still mostly white. Of the speaking characters surveyed in the study, 70.8 percent were white; 13.6 percent black; 5.7 percent Asian; 3.1 percent Hispanic; and less than 1 percent American Indian, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian. (According to the latest U.S. Census, the nation is 61.3 percent white, 17.8 percent Hispanic, 5.7 percent Asian, 13.3 percent black, 1.3 percent American Indian and Alaska Native and 0.2 percent Native Hawaiian.)

Note that the second set of numbers is just tracking the percentage of minority speaking characters, not lead characters. In January, Michel Liu lamented in a post for Affinity Magazine that with white leads cast for both “Ghost in a Shell” and “The Great Wall” (which both bombed at the box office, by the way), that Hollywood was planning no mainstream movie with an Asian lead in all of 2017.

Diana Huey appears in a performance of the current nationally touring production of Disney's "The Little Mermaid" the musical. Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography

Diana Huey appears in a performance of the current nationally touring production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” the musical. Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography

“The Little Mermaid” musical’s director, Glenn Casale, a proponent of colorblind casting, pointed out to ABC News that Huey is portraying a mythical creature in a fantasy story alongside a white woman playing a blue-skinned sea witch and an African-American actor playing a singing crab.

“The Little Mermaid” is a fairy story in which a mermaid – a nonexistent entity in real life – undergoes a magical transformation in which she exchanges her beautiful voice for a pair of human legs. So, obviously, the regular rules of life don’t apply, which means Ariel doesn’t really have to be white, even if the rest of the actors playing her mer-family are. That also means that the lead or supporting characters in any number of fantasy films or stage shows could be any race or ethnicity; if elves or goblins or mermaids aren’t really real, then why do they need to be white?

Not that you can tell much about skin color under the heavy stage makeup used in theatrical musicals – since the flame-hued hair is Ariel’s most distinctive feature, Huey’s red wig makes her instantly identifiable as Ariel, even when she isn’t singing the familiar songs — but to get terribly hung up on issues of race and ethnicity seems about silly when you’re talking about an entire story based in pure fantasy.

“I don’t think of color or race. I think in terms of talent and what he or she can bring to the role,” Casale told ABC when explaining his casting process.

For years, Nikki Rene Daniels, an African-American actress, played Belle in his production of “Beauty and the Beast,” and Paul Schoeffler, a Caucasian actor, played the Siamese king in his production of “The King and I.”

“Diana’s voice and acting were perfect. She has an innocence that’s just right for Ariel,” Casale said, adding that he picked Huey simply because she was the best person for the role.

Although she has received several hateful messages on social media, Huey told me she also has received a veritable sea of online support after her real talk about her experiences with racism went viral. She said a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, impassioned her to speak out.

“We’re so disconnected with people, I feel like, especially when people are messaging me directly, sending me, like, Instagram messages or Twitter messages or Facebook messages, saying hateful things to me. I’m like, ‘You do realize that you’re sending this to me personally right?’ … I can only hope for a more loving world for everybody and hope for this not to be an issue the way it is now. But I’m happy that at least the conversation is happening,” said Huey, who has been featured recently in Marie Claire, Teen Vogue and Huffington Post speaking about her experiences with racism since taking the role.

“I’ve had people message me, too, that were like, ‘I saw the show and I didn’t even think about the fact that you’re not white, like it never even crossed my mind, I just saw you as Ariel.’ I was like, ‘Great! Mission accomplished!’ That’s the goal. I don’t want to distract people from watching the show because they’re looking at me. I want them to be looking at Ariel. That’s what I’m trying to do.

“I’ve also had people message me that would say things like, ‘Well, to be honest I went with my friend’s family and the dad was really upset that you were Asian and was really thinking that it would be a problem, and then you won him over. By the end of the show he was totally with you,’ and I was like, ‘Great.’ But I think it’s really cool because a lot of kids come to the show, and the kids do not see it. The kids aren’t the problem, so it’s really great to get to have this diversity put up for them and for them to see it and not think about it.”

From left, Emily Pace appears as Belle, Serena Feng as the Little Girl and Kaylene Snarksy as Mary Poppins in a publicity photo for Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma's summer debut production of Disney's "When You Wish." Photo by KO Rinearson

From left, Emily Pace appears as Belle, Serena Feng as the Little Girl and Kaylene Snarksy as Mary Poppins in a publicity photo for Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma’s summer debut production of Disney’s “When You Wish.” Photo by KO Rinearson

In fact, I had the opportunity to see a great example of why diverse casting can make a difference after the opening-night performance of “The Little Mermaid” in Oklahoma City when Huey met with Serena Feng, the 11-year-old star of Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma’s debut production of the new Disney songbook musical “When You Wish.”

Serena, who is also Asian-American, sweetly told Diana that she was one of her heroes. (Kudos to Oklahoma City-based Lyric Theatre for casting Serena as “The Little Girl,” the lead role in “When You Wish.” The performer who played her character’s mother is white, but no complaints came to my ear about the mixed-race casting — not that I could have heard them over Serena’s fantastic singing. Perhaps at least some audiences are more ready to see Asian performers in lead roles than Hollywood is?)

It was inspiring that such a talented young performer as Serena could see someone who looks like her succeeding and view her as a role model. So, here’s to movies, theater and more arts and entertainment media giving us more diverse heroes of all colors, shapes and sizes.

To read more of my interview with Diana Huey, click here.

To read my review of the national touring production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” the musical, click here.

-BAM

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