Columnist: ‘Chicago’ Moved The Needle On Theatrical Inclusivity


A Column, By Drew Eldridge

On Nov. 22 “Chicago: The Musical” announced via social media that Jinx Monsoon, a drag performer and social activist, would play “Matron Mama Morton” for a limited run from Jan. 16 through March 12. This was the first time in the musical’s history that a non-binary performer was cast in a principal role, and it marked Monsoon as one of the only non-binary principal performers on Broadway.

Monsoon made her debut in “Chicago” on Jan 16 to widespread acclaim. Forbes, Vulture and Entertainment Weekly all spoke highly of Monsoon and praised her performance. The largest indicator of Monsoon’s success, however, was the complete financial uptick that Chicago experienced. In Monsoon’s first week, “Chicago” became sold out, totaling a profit of over $797,000 at the box office.

This can be compared to previous weeks in the show’s run ,which saw a median 40 to 60 percent attendance. Monsoon made the difference. This trend continued throughout Monsoon’s run with the show, bolstering Chicago to over 80 percent house attendance per week. Monsoon had put Chicago back on the map. Monsoon’s run was so successful, that their initial run was extended until March 26.

To fully understand the greatness of this success, you must know the show’s previous history. “Chicago” is a musical composed by the legendary duo John Kander and Fred Ebb with iconic choreography by Bob Fosse. ‘Chicago’ initially opened in 1975 and ran for 936 performances. The show was a cultural success, especially for it’s leads Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon who played “Roxie Hart” and “Velma Kelly” respectively.

In 1996, City Center’s “Encores!” series revived Chicago for a brief run in May. This production received perhaps the most attention in Encores history. The production was so successful, a Broadway transfer was planned immediately after opening night. This Broadway transfer opened on Nov. 14 of the same year. The show won six Tony awards including “Best Revival of a Musical.” The show is still currently running on Broadway today.

“Chicago” is the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history. Some chalk this up to Chicago’s now iconic choreography or score. However, I would argue Chicago’s success depends upon its brilliant cast replacement model. Replacements are commonplace in theatre if a show runs long enough. Original cast members are replaced with new performers due to contractual obligations, new projects, etc.

However, the most popular replacement method is the “celebrity” replacement. In hopes of garnering popularity for a production, productions will cast a celebrity to replace their current “star.” This is referred often to as “stunt casting.” “Chicago” is one of the best examples of “stunt casting”.

Originally, “Chicago” opened its revival with Anne Reinking (Roxie Hart) and BeBe Neuwirth (Velma Kelly). Since then there have been over 50-plus celebrities who have taken over the respective roles. For example, Roxie Hart has been played by the likes of Sandy Duncan, Melanie Griffith, Brooke Shields, Ashlee Simpson, Pamela Anderson and Sofia Vergara.

Casting Jinx Monsoon is a utilization of the modern stunt casting technique. However, this time with a progressive and excellently smart twist. Monsoon is a non-binary drag performer. As Broadway begins to reflect its modern and accepting audience, we see a more and more inclusive Broadway. IE: The audience has now begun to see themselves on stage. This has not always been the case, nor is it a concept that is working to its full potential. Monsoon, however, was a successful use of this theoretical concept.

As America begins to enter an extremely turbulent political time period, “Drag” has become a ridiculously controversial topic. The art of “Drag” is now more visible than it’s ever been, not due to its controversy, but its core of acceptance and artistry. This has angered ignorant and hateful people, and in return “drag bans” have begun to take effect throughout the country.

Tennessee signed its first “Anti-Drag” bill into law on March 2, 2023. Since then, “Anti-Drag” legislation has been introduced in Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia. All of these bills have made it to their respective senate floor, meaning there is a very real chance they could be signed into effect. For the rest of the country, this is an embarrassing and disgraceful attempt to infuse prejudice into polticis.

Monsoon being cast in “Chicago” isn’t simply stunt casting. It’s now a political statement. Broadway refuses to march backward in terms of visibility. Drag performers exist, they are no harm to you or others, and you will continue to see them on the Broadway stage. “Chicago,” through Monsoon, says all of this with a smile on its face, and a beveled right foot. The rest of Broadway, can and should follow in “Chicago’s” footsteps.