Denzel Washington has confirmed that he will play the frustrated son Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun” next year on Broadway. “We start previews in March.” When Sidney Poitier played the character, that actor was in his early 30s (as was Sean Combs.) Washington is 58.
Orlando Bloom, at 36, is making his Broadway debut next month in “Romeo and Juliet.” While Shakespeare never mentions Romeo’s age, Juliet is explicitly 13 years old in the play. In Franco Zeffirelli’s film of “Romeo and Juliet,” Leonard Whiting was 18.
Some greeted Denzel Washington’s announcement with jokes. (“They’ll have to change the character’s name to Walter Older.”)
Broadway is not alone.
Vanessa Redgrave, 75, and James Earl Jones, 81, are slated to play the lovers Beatrice and Benedick in a production of Much Ado about Nothing at the Old Vic directed Mark Rylance, (Derek Jacobi was considered old for the role when he won a Tony for playing Benedick on Broadway when he was 46.)
Does age matter?
As theater artist (and fellow Tweeter) Isaac Butler points out, “nearly every stage actor plays parts that they are either too old or too young for. This list is endless. Nearly every single play to feature a teenager has that part played by someone in their mid 20s, for example. Most every elderly characters are played by actors in their 60s.”
Mary Martin played Peter Pan, an eternal boy, starting at age 42.
Celia Keenan-Bolger played a young girl in “Peter and the Starcatcher” at age 34.
Cathy Rigby is still playing Peter Pan at age 60.
Bernadette Peters (age 65) played the mother of a 12-year-old girl in A Little Night Music
Sarah Bernhardt played the role of Hamlet at age 56.
Ethel Merman reprised the young sharpshooter Annie Get Your Gun in her 50’s
Eileen Herlie was 11 years younger than Laurence Olivier when she played Gertrude to his Hamlet.
Nearly everybody in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is an adult playing a child; the same is true in “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” (although one of the actors plays a dog.)
Many found Phillip Seymour Hoffman too young for Willy Loman – although he was older than Lee J. Cobb was when he played the role.
Kerry Butler, who is 42, has played a teenager in Hairspray and Rock of Ages, and somebody in her 20s in “Catch Me If You Can.”
Angela Bassett, age 54, played a character in her 20s in “The Mountaintop,” where Samuel Jackson played Martin Luther King Jr., even though he is 25 years old than King was when he died.
Tom Hanks, 57, is 16 years older than Mike McAlary was when he died, and Hanks played him in “Lucky Guy” mostly in his 20’s and 30’s. “Didn’t hurt box office,” Howard Sherman observes.
Both Orlando Bloom and Denzel Washington have their defenders.
As Michael Kimmel points out “in the original source, Romeo is supposed to be around 20 and Juliet 18- Willy is generally considered to have lowered both. “
Besides, says Rebecca Bromels “no one wants to see a 13 year-old attempt the role of Juliet, do they? Not an easy role to pull off.”
As for Denzel Washington as Walter Lee Younger: The character “is about the desperation and establishing manhood,” says Evita Castine “or what people think it is – not how old he looks.”
In writing about Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones’ forthcoming romp in “Much Ado About Nothing” (which would be an apt title for this post), Lyn Gardner concluded: “What great actors do is make you suspend your disbelief so completely that age becomes irrelevant.”
Thanks to the contributors not already mentioned: Tyler J. Martins, Jeff L. Walker, Patrick J. Maley, Phil Iannitti , Billy Flood, Beau Cybulski, Darius Smith, Piarsaigh MacCuagh, Shawna Tucker Monson, Lauri Levenberg, Erica McLaughlin, Whitney Fetterhoff