There are numerous distinctions between Asolo Repertory Theatre’s season-ending production of Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical and Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay of the same name, but two will be immediately apparent to audience members. The first and most obvious one is that the play is now a musical–more on that later–but the second is perhaps even more significant: the story is told through the eyes of a multi-racial cast, bringing to light a multitude of new perspectives and challenging conversations about racial prejudice in our country. 

The story and the setting of Twelve Angry Men have been left unchanged. The year is 1954. Twelve members of a jury have been sequestered into a hot, stuffy room to determine the fate of a teenage boy accused of murdering his father. A unanimous guilty verdict would send the defendant to the electric chair. At first the case seems open and shut–until one juror dissents, arguing for the boy’s innocence. The musical, set to be directed by Peter Rothstein, is one that has followed Asolo Rep’s producing artistic director from his previous tenure at the helm of Minneapolis’ Theater Latté Da all the way to Sarasota. Twelve Angry Men, with music and lyrics from Michael Holland and the book by David Simpatico, originally made its world premiere in 2022. The plan to turn the courtroom classic into a musical, however, came to Rothstein several years prior. “The idea came to me because I’d worked together with Michael Holland for many years and an idea we had been working on was not materializing so I asked him what else he had in the trunk. He had actually worked with David Simpatico, the book writer, on this adaptation numerous years before, but the project dead ended,” said Rothstein. “I gave it to Latté Da’s associate artistic director and director of new work Elissa Adams and she said this is really, really good we should look at it. I looked at it, fell in love with it and that was probably five years ago.”

However, there were some key changes that Rothstein wanted to implement. “From the very beginning, I’d said we were only interested in pursuing it if it was a multi-racial cast,” recalled Rothstein. “The writers at first were on board, but they did not want to rewrite with racial specificity. I said to be honest we have no choice.” Rothstein’s main charge was that he wanted juror no. 8, the dissenting opinion arguing for the defendant’s innocence, to be a person of color. The defendant is a Latino teenager–Rothstein wanted to avoid the white savior trope present in many a Hollywood drama about race. “I’m not interested in doing a play about anti-racism with another white hero at the center, we have that,” said Rothstein. “We have To Kill A Mockingbird, we have The Help, we have all of these narratives, which I don’t mean to belittle and are important works, but I feel like if we’re generating a new work in 2023 and 2024, we need to not center on white heroes when we’re addressing issues of race and racism.”

Although Twelve Angry Men was originally set to premiere in 2020, the world had other plans. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed production, leading to a prolonged period of development and reflection on the musical. “The delays gave us the opportunity to go back with much greater insight following the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning happening in the country. We realized the conversation around racism in particular and toxic masculinity is a very different conversation, at least in white circles, than it was prior to 2020,” said Rothstein. Rothstein, his team and the actors–the majority of which had been with the play from the very beginning–reentered the world of the story “with a different humility.” The production had a female dramaturg attached, but intentionally expanded the team to include Kelly Foster Warder, a Black choreographer and director and frequent collaborator of Rothstein’s. Rothstein and his team also asked the actors what rang true to their lived experiences. With a white male director at the helm and two more white men behind the story, Rothstein wanted to address their blind spots as creators. 

There is one particular change, made after numerous development workshops and live run-throughs of the play, that resonated strongly with Rothstein. At one point during the deliberation, one juror, a Jewish immigrant, harangues another juror, a young African-American man, who would rather be at the baseball game than stuck inside determining the jury’s verdict. “I love this moment because it’s the immigrant who says: You know what is great about this country is that you have a judicial system that works toward a more perfect union. And that most countries don’t have the privilege of that, but along with that privilege comes the great responsibility and being a juror is one of those responsibilities,” said Rothstein.

While that moment had the effect of creating added tension between the young man who wants to leave and an older black juror also on the panel–“a chance to explore the generational divide when it comes to addressing issues of racism in the black community”—it also had an unintended drawback. “I think after the first preview, the audience was completely siding with the Jewish immigrant and applauding that yes, America has that judicial system. And it wasn’t sitting right for a lot of us,” said Rothstein. “We made a change where the immigrant says: “you don’t even care” and the young black man says: “you just don’t get it” and the immigrant responds with: “perhaps I don’t, God help us all.” It was a moment of learning for the Jewish immigrant, because while he can hold all of those ideals for America, he’s realizing ah, perhaps the America that even I as an immigrant have access to with white skin is not the same as someone with brown or black skin. And that perhaps the young man’s apathy comes from a different place.”

These difficult moments are intentional and made possible by the implementation of a multi-racial cast. Using the parameters of the story, the issues of racial prejudice and generational divide that pervade today’s social climate are able to be interrogated. “It puts multi-culture at the table for really challenging conversations that most of us are not willing to have right now,” said Rothstein. “You might be talking and have an opinion about BLM or about racial reckoning or land acknowledgments or retributions that we owe our Native American citizens, but we’re having those convos in silos because we feel safe there. These men are not safe, so they’re actually having conversations that I wish we all were having.”