Features Essays Published 2 September 2019

If not now, when?: Falsettogate, and what it teaches us about meaningful minority inclusion

Theatre director Adam Lenson writes on the Falsettos casting controversy, and why the Jewish community needs to be involved in telling its own stories.
Adam Lenson

The cast for ‘Falsettos’, at The Other Palace

When I was thirteen years old, I stood in front of my family and friends and recited a portion from the Torah in Hebrew for my Bar mitzvah. I had been studying how to sing and pronounce these ancient Hebrew characters for a year. Prior to that I had been to Hebrew classes at the local synagogue from the age of 7 where I met friends who I still know to this day. Each week before my Bar mitzvah I went to synagogue where I recited the same prayers and I celebrated the same festivals that every Jewish person celebrates the world over. I learnt customs, ritual, history and ethics. I should say that my family were not overly religious, but, like many British Jews, we belonged to a traditional Orthodox synagogue so the service took place in Hebrew, using words, melodies and customs that had been passed ‘l’dor v’dor’ – from generation to generation – for thousands of years. A lot of the customs we repeated were pretty strange at first glance, but they were a strange that grew familiar to me. I wasn’t sure that I believed in God (in fact I’m still not), but I was told that Judaism went beyond pure religious belief: it meant community, celebrating our history, and keeping those customs alive. Inevitably, understanding British Jewish history meant understanding antisemitism. It meant learning why beautiful English cities like York and Lincoln come with resonances of the pogroms and massacres against the Jews that took place there in medieval times. It meant being surrounded by an older generation who had lived through (and escaped from) the Holocaust. But as I took my place to read from the Torah that morning, that history felt distant. I lived in London, I saw a thriving British Jewish community, and I was surrounded by Jewish friends and family. Representation didn’t feel like an issue.

A few months ago I found myself in a conversation with a group of Jewish artists. We collectively lamented the tangible sense of rising antisemitism and talked about how the Jewish culture was often misrepresented in theatre. Everyone had seen ‘that Fagin’ or ‘that Shylock’ or ‘that Tevye’ with ‘that voice’ and ‘those arms’. We also noted and appreciated a culture shift where minority cultures were gaining traction in their long and important fight to define their involvement in the telling of their own stories. We recognised that Judaism wasn’t a special case, but rather a part of this same need for minority groups to speak for and represent themselves. We may have been late to the conversation, but we were having the same one. We collectively wondered if there was a statement to be made, a way of reminding the industry that Jewish people are a minority and that we deserved meaningful inclusion in stories about us.

Judaism has always been difficult to define. It has been and continues to be describable as a religion, an ethnicity, and a cultural heritage. People who seek to undermine Judaism tend to look to unweave these threads, when they are, in fact, tightly knotted together and have been for centuries. What is certain is that in the UK, Jews are a minority and represent only 0.5% of the population. 

Our group discussed the fact that while non-Jews could and should play Jews, that if they did so in rooms absent of any other Jewish voices, the misrepresentation, caricature and misunderstanding that we had observed was likely. We began looking for case studies of times where the theatre establishment had (knowingly or not) misrepresented, undermined or erased Judaism. Every case was nuanced, every point was subjective, but then along came Falsettos.

Falsettos, a 1992 musical by William Finn and James Lapine, is an incredibly Jewish musical. It opens with a song called “Four Jews In A Room Bitching” and takes place in the run up to a Bar mitzvah. It became apparent that none of the creative team or cast in this London revival were Jewish. We were concerned. This was one of the most obvious and egregious examples we had seen of excluding a minority from its own story. How would anyone in that rehearsal room know what they didn’t know about the specificities of Jewish ritual? Of Jewish humour? Of Jewish history? Non-Jewish audience members would be learning about Jewish life from an entirely non-Jewish team. Who would know what was being ignored, misrepresented, or missed out? We also disagreed with the idea that this situation is ameliorated by the fact that the writers of Falsettos are Jewish. Writing is only the first part of a theatre production and this musical was written over twenty years ago. It is the responsibility of each new production to ensure that they include rather than erase the minorities whose stories are being told. How would Jewish audience members feel about an entirely non-Jewish team staging numbers like “Four Jews in a Room Bitching”? At what point does gentle self-deprecation turn darker when the joke is on us, but not by us?

We saw an obvious example of this tendency to miss important points when we saw the production’s original poster, an image of disembodied shoes. To our Jewish eyes, it was impossible to look at it and not see the piles of shoes separated from their owners in concentration camps during the Holocaust. Our concerns mounted.

So on August 21, we published a letter in The Stage signed by 21 Jewish artists. It made two main points: firstly, that there was a history of actors misrepresenting Jews onstage and secondly, that we believed that that misrepresentation became more likely when there were no Jews involved in the process of making and rehearsing a show. It was never a letter to suggest that non-Jewish actors couldn’t play Jewish characters. Rather, it called for meaningful inclusion of Jewish artists in stories about Judaism.

The initial response to our letter on August 22 tried to make the debate about things we never said. News articles and online comments said we were suggesting or debating that only Jews should play Jews onstage. The comments of “surely actors are hired to act” came in thick and fast. In fact our original letter had contained these words:

“This is not to say that non-Jewish actors cannot accurately and sensitively represent Judaism onstage, but rooms that appropriate and erase Judaism are unacceptable; there is an obvious correlation between reduced representation in the creative process and increased mis-representation in the product.”

There are two examples in recent years that came to mind of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish teams and casts making and telling Jewish stories incredibly well: the TV show Friday Night Dinner, where the Jewish creator Robert Popper cast Jewish actor Tom Rosenthal alongside non-Jewish actor Simon Bird to portray brothers; and the film Disobedience, based on Naomi Alderman’s book, where the non-Jewish Director Sebastián Lelio cast non-Jewish actor Rachel McAdams alongside the Jewish actor Rachel Weisz as women who had grown up in the strictly Orthodox part of the British Jewish community.

It’s also worth mentioning that there is no one way that Jews look, and no one place that Jews come from. Daveed Diggs, Natalie Portman, Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolf, Drake, Alison Brie, Jonah Hill and Rachel Weisz are all Jewish. There is no one way to be Jewish, and there’s no one “Jewish look”; yet all Jews share an intrinsic commonality.

Selladoor’s first public response to our letter was published in the Evening Standard and noted that all discrimination “has no place on or off stage”. This conveniently ignored our specific request for Jewish inclusion in a notably Jewish story and also did nothing to acknowledge or alleviate our specific concerns or even promise to do better next time. They simply denied our problem and looked to move on.

A number of hours later, Steven Dexter announced on Twitter that he had been serving as the Falsettos ‘Jewish Consultant’. This had been entirely missed from the earlier response and has in fact never been acknowledged in any statements or public forum by Selladoor. In addition, the show’s PR told us that they had not been involved in pre-production or casting and other sources tell us Steven was not present in early weeks of rehearsals. The timing of Dexter’s announced involvement – only after our letter was published – is curious. In addition, a Twitter post he later made to defend Selladoor included mentions of the Final Solution, yellow stars and the Holocaust. Dexter drawing a comparison between a minority asking for meaningful representation and the fascistic genocidal Nazis who in fact tried to exterminate that minority faction within the last century, showed him to be ill-equipped to be a “Jewish Consultant”. There is a great difference between talking about identity and the unique experiences that come with it, and using that identity as a basis for genocide. These events also showed exactly why meaningful Jewish inclusion rather than last minute tokenism was so desperately needed. As the activist, actor and anti-yellowface campaigner Daniel York posted on Twitter “If I never hear the expression “cultural consultant” again it’ll still be too soon”.

Selladoor’s next response was also to mis-frame the debate as one about authenticity in  casting when in fact it had always been about meaningful inclusion in the process. They said that they didn’t know the religion of anyone in the cast and weren’t legally entitled to ask. But it’s not difficult to ask people how they relate to Judaism or how they understand Jewish culture without breaching employment law. In fact, we found that in 2015, the Equity council endorsed the 2010 Equality act which agreed that an employer had:

“A legal entitlement to require an artist to have a particular protected characteristic if it was an occupational requirement and a proportionate way of achieving a legitimate aim” such as “the need for authenticity and realism might require someone of a particular race, sex or age for acting roles”

It was then disclosed by a prominent agent that the casting breakdown for the new Tom Stoppard play Leopoldstadt was very clearly asking for actors with Jewish heritage only. In addition, the Casting Director asked agencies for recommendations of Jewish actors. There are also those of us who signed the letter who have initiated casting processes specifically looking for Jewish actors and this has taken place without issues.

We replied to Selladoor with a considered response. We reminded them and the industry of our position. This was never about only casting, this was about meaningful representation and inclusion. This was about a minority wanting to be part of telling its own story rather than having others tell it for us. What we hoped for was a moment of reflection, apology or consideration. This never came. We hoped more of our industry might hold Selladoor to account and that too never happened.

But what did come is a great deal of support from other minority communities. Tweets of alliance and support flooded in from other artists who understood what it felt like to be erased or appropriated. Who knew what it was to be gaslit and stonewalled. I want to say thank you for every non-Jewish person who publicly supported and engaged with us. It means a lot to know that we don’t stand alone, and to have our situation recognised and amplified is so very appreciated. But it is also worth reiterating our disappointment that so many majority voices and those in positions of power chose to remain silent about Selladoor’s behaviour. Our original letter stated that we believed this to be an industry-wide blind spot; and engagement from artistic directors, producers and organisations would have meant so much. It never came.

But even though we currently lack those mainstream voices, there is a growing volume to our concerns and our support. So where next? Is there any point continuing to punch Selladoor’s brick wall? It seems unlikely that they will learn anything meaningful from this. But I hope that others can learn from their failure. Those who wrote the letter (and many who have since joined under the banner of the Jewish Artists’ Collective) are looking to put together a best practice guide and a forum to continue to discuss this issue. We will look to create a meaningful change to our industry and to fight alongside other minority voices for inclusion in our stories.

I will note that I am white-passing and I acknowledge the privilege of that. It is perhaps because many Jews in this country are also white-passing that it has taken this long for an accumulation of situations that override this privilege. That accumulation, and Falsettos as a case study, is what has led to our letter and this public engagement with this conversation. Situation by situation, we have come to be reminded that we are (and may well continue to be) outsiders.

I have been outspoken about this but I am not the only one speaking. My thanks go to Sarah Sigal, Eve Leigh, Guy Woolf, Tash Hyman, David Djemal, Stephen Laughton, Abi Symons, Rachel Hosker, Naomi Westerman, Tommo Fowler, Josh Seymour, Emma Jude Harris, Caissie Levy and all those who have added to this thoughtful and insightful process. I also want to thank the many non-Jewish voices who have joined and supported us including but definitely not limited to Daniel York, Tobi Kyeremateng, Marcus Bernard, Matthew Xia, Irvine Iqbal, Nick Holder, Firdos Ali, Morgan Lloyd Malcom and Sevan Greene.

In Rebecca Solnit’s recently published book Whose Story Is This? she writes:

“These are collective projects that matter not when one person says something but when a million integrate it into how they see and act in this world. The we who inhabits those structures grows as what was once subversive or transgressive settles in as normal. As people outside the walls wake up one day inside them and forget they were ever anywhere else.'”

Those who have found themselves outside the walls have spoken. Theatre is specific and that is part of its beauty. By showing audiences the specific we all are allowed to learn more about the general. But I believe that at some point in life, everyone deserves to see themselves and their lived experience, not just onstage but in television, in film, in books, in video games. Falsettos was a chance for the thirty-four year old version of me to see someone getting Bar mitzvahed in the same way I was Bar mitzvahed all those years ago. It was a chance to get to see customs, rituals and history that I recognised. At some point in a theatre-going life everyone deserves to see their lived experience accurately and sensitively portrayed. Selladoor took that chance away from us. We hope others don’t make the same mistake.

For more discussion of casting, representation and inclusion in UK theatre, read Exeunt’s coverage of The Color Purple and All in a Row


Adam Lenson

Adam Lenson is a Director, Dramaturg and Producer with a specific focus on Musical Theatre. His directing includes The Rink, Superhero, Wasted (Southwark Playhouse), Songs For A New World, Whisper House, 35mm (The Other Palace) and Ordinary Days (Trafalgar Studios). He recently founded Adam Lenson Productions, a company to develop new and experimental artist-driven musicals. ALP produce SIGNAL, a curated concert series and have just commissioned their first new musical.



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