When Broadway musical Waitress announced June Squibb would take over the role originally known as Old Joe and turning it into Old Josie, Playbill started wondering: Has a Broadway show ever changed the gender of a character with replacement casting before? The answer, thanks to digging into the annals of the Playbill Vault and other resources, is yes!
Squibb is one of a handful of performers who have replaced a performer of a different gender on Broadway—but she isn’t the first.
Here are six other times replacement actors brought a gender-bending twist during a show’s run on Broadway.
1. Mary Tyler Moore and James Naughton in Whose Life Is It Anyway?
When TV star Mary Tyler Moore opened on Broadway in Whose Life is it Anyway?, the production was technically considered a new revival, but given that it began performances three months following the original Broadway production’s closing night, it was really just a replacement cast after a brief hiatus. The physical design and direction didn’t change between these openings, but the stars—and their genders—did. The original production, which opened in April 1979, starred Tom Conti (in a Tony-winning performance) as paralyzed sculptor Ken Harrison and Jean Marsh as his doctor. When it re-opened in February 1980, Mary Tyler Moore was Claire Harrison, with James Naughton co-starring as her male doctor. The play went on to run for an additional 96 performances with Moore and Naughton, closing in May 1980.
2. Jennifer Holliday, Darlene Love, and Mary Bond Davis in Grease
Kinky Boots Tony winner Billy Porter made a big splash early in his career playing Teen Angel in a 1994 Broadway revival of Grease. Teen Angel is, essentially, a specialty spot within Grease, singing “Beauty School Drop-Out” and appearing briefly in the show’s finale. This made the role perfect for big-name star replacements, which included Chubby Checker and Al Jarreau. However, the show’s producers also turned to female talent when casting Teen Angel replacements, giving Dreamgirls Tony winner Jennifer Holliday a stint in the role, as well as legendary studio singer Darlene Love and Mary Bond Davis, who would go on to create the role of Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray.
3. Whoopi Goldberg in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Nathan Lane won his first Tony Award playing Pseudolus in the 1996 Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove, and Larry Gelbart’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, leaving giant shoes to fill when he completed his run. In stepped Whoopi Goldberg, at the peak of her fame—she was already an Oscar winner for Ghost and had starred in such box office winners as Sister Act and The Lion King—to play Pseudolus, originally cast as male. Goldberg played the role as a woman, and was also noted for adding some of her own ad-libbed lines throughout.
4. Rosie O’Donnell and Cathy Rigby in Seussical
When Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ ode to beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss struggled to find an audience early in its run, producers decided to try a starry replacement. They cast comedian and talk show host Rosie O’Donnell, who had become a noted Broadway fan and cheerleader after she welcomed an unprecedented amount of productions to perform on her popular daytime talk show. O’Donnell replaced David Shiner as The Cat in the Hat about a month into the run, and she was succeeded by Cathy Rigby, who then played the role in the show’s national tour as well. This particular gender-switch has lived on with the show; theatre companies producing Seussical today have the option of licensing versions of the show with keys chosen for a male or female Cat in the Hat.
5. Melissa Etheridge in American Idiot
When Grammy-winning band Green Day teamed with director Michael Mayer to adapt their 2004 album American Idiot into a stage musical in 2010, the role of St. Jimmy was created as a force of nature, a rock star-like drug dealer who turns out to later be the manifestation of another character’s inner demons. That rock star quality made it the perfect slot to insert Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong, who replaced original star Tony Vincent in the role. Armstrong’s prior engagements meant he could only perform in the show off and on, so producers brought another rock star, Melissa Etheridge, to fill in for one of Armstrong’s off weeks. Etheridge sang Green Day songs like “Last Night on Earth,” “Know Your Enemy,” and “Last of the American Girls.”
6. Rodrick Covington in Once On This Island
Tony-nominated director Michael Arden switched the genders of two of Once On This Island’s gods when first casting his 2017 revival production—still running at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Alex Newell plays Asaka, a role created in the 1990 original production by Kecia Lewis. Merle Dandridge opened the production as Papa Ge, a role created by Eric Riley in the original production. Newell is still with the production, but Dandridge has left. Her replacements have included other female actors, such as American Idol star Tamyra Gray, and male actors. The role is currently played by Rodrick Covington, who understudied the role as part of the original company.
Bonus: Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which centers on a transgender rockstar, originally starred the show’s book writer John Cameron Mitchell when it opened Off-Broadway. Mitchell is a male actor, and most replacements in the role have also been men, but the non-binary nature of the character makes that far from necessary. Former Brat Pack member Ally Sheedy replaced in the role during the original Off-Broadway run, and Lena Hall, a Tony winner for her performance as Yitzhak in the first Broadway production of Hedwig, played Hedwig during the production’s national tour.
Logan Culwell-Block is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research, and curator of Playbill Vault. @loganculwell