The news that Lopez is coming to live musical television is surprising to some. After all, Lopez is a superstar with a recording career, a fashion line and her own television show (Shades of Blue, which she also produces). But, according to NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt, despite her busy schedule, Lopez was the one who brought Bye Bye Birdie to them. “She came to us and said ‘I love this show, I discovered the music,'” Greenblatt told reporters when announcing the news. The musical will be NBC’s fifth live musical event, following A Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, The Wiz Live! and the upcoming Hairspray Live!.
The news that Lopez will be starring in a live musical production is exciting, not just for viewers, but for Lopez herself. “Broadway musicals and films fueled my childhood and Bye Bye Birdie was one of my favorites,” Lopez said in a statement. But as exciting as all of this is for musical theater lovers, the news is also notable for one reason many haven’t mentioned yet: Lopez will be the first Latina to play the role of Rosie Alvarez in an onscreen production of Bye Bye Birdie.
The character or Rosie Alvarez originated on Broadway in 1960, first performed by Chita Rivera, a groundbreaking Latina actor, and yet in the two film adaptations of Bye Bye Birdie, the roles were not played by Latina actors. In perhaps the most famous take on Bye Bye Birdie, a movie musical released in 1963 starring Ann-Margret and Dick Van Dyke, the role of Rosie Alvarez was played by Janet Leigh. Leigh, best known for her iconic role in Psycho, is a white woman known for her blond hair and fair complexion. For the film, she wore dark hair and makeup to darken her complexion. And in 1995, Vanessa Williams took on the role in a made-for-TV movie.
It’s shocking to think that Lopez will be the first Latina to play Rosie onscreen. But then again, musicals, especially classics likely to end up on television in this live production trend, are traditionally white-dominated productions, reflecting the historical trends of the time. And even if characters of color were featured in musicals, they were frequently whitewashed in motion picture adaptations, as seen in Bye Bye Birdie and West Side Story. In the live musical trend, however, networks have consistently been pushing for increased diversity. In 2015, following a bit of backlash for the overwhelmingly white productions of A Sound of Music and Peter Pan, NBC decided to produce The Wiz, a famous black musical. Meanwhile, Fox featured a diverse cast in their production of Grease and recently aired their version of A Rocky Horror Picture Show starring Laverne Cox.
Diverse casting for televised musicals should not be revolutionary. And yet, it continues to be a surprising and, hopefully, inspiring practice. Rosie was a revolutionary character when she originated in 1960, and now, with Lopez taking her to the small screen, she is once again making history and breaking barriers in the musical theater world. One can only hope that nonmusical television continues this trend of diversity in casting.
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