In the 1983 comedy film Trading Places, which starred Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, a Black man pretending to be a blind Vietnam veteran switches lives with an entitled white commodities broker. With their puppet strings being pulled by the wealthy white Duke brothers, who bet an unmentionable amount of money on who will come out on top, these two men find themselves out of their comfort zones—one on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and the other on the mean streets of Philadelphia. With elements of some of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays, including Hamlet, King Lear, and Twelfth Night, John Landis’s film examines the roles of money and privilege in attaining success.
The basic premise remains intact for the Alliance Theatre’s musical adaptation, which opens May 25. However, the Alliance gives it some twists, including bringing back Tony Award–winning director Kenny Leon to helm the production. Here are four things you need to know about the new musical Trading Places:
It’s a gender bender.
In Thomas Lennon’s musical adaptation, hustler Billy Ray Valentine is a Black woman, and broker Louis Winthorpe III is a white man. The two switch lives and eventually team up against the system that’s keeping them both down after a series of farcical situations unfold. Lennon, who formerly created the Comedy Central series Reno 911! and wrote the screenplay for Night at the Museum, set the musical in the 1980s. Leon says the throwback setting encourages audiences to reflect on what has and has not changed about power, race, and class over the last four decades.
Aneesa Folds, whose credits include Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Freestyle Love Supreme and the long-running Off Broadway musical revue Sistas, stars as Valentine. Atlanta-based director Tinashe Kajese-Bolden serves as associate director. Kajese-Bolden recently directed the Alliance’s production of Toni Stone, about the first Black woman to play Negro league baseball. Rounding out this woman-powered team is renowned choreographer Fatima Robinson, who recently lent her talents to the Super Bowl. Robinson has worked with superstars such as the Black Eyed Peas, Britney Spears, Pharrell Williams, and Rihanna. She worked with Leon on The Wiz Live! for NBC and says she loves theater and looks forward to working on a comedy.
The music is the moment.
The film’s chamber music score earned an Oscar nomination in 1984, and songwriters Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner promise not to disappoint. They’ve even added some old school–style hip-hop. The duo is known for the musicals First Date and Twice Charmed, as well as for penning songs for Disney hits High School Musical: The Musical: The Series and Once Upon a Time.
It’s in good company.
World-premiere musicals aren’t new for the Alliance Theatre, which won the regional theater Tony Award in 2007. The theater has a penchant for adapting films into musicals including Bring It On: The Musical and The Color Purple, whose musical version is being turned into a film starring American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino. The Alliance’s original musical, The Prom, had a Broadway run and a Netflix adaptation. With Trading Places, they’re banking on another hit.
This article appears in our May 2022 issue.