Tuesday, September 15, 2015

‘Miss Saigon’: Better Late Than Never

Filipino actor Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer in the 2014 London revival of ‘Miss Saigon’

This is kind of a big deal for me. 

I think that one of the major artistic issues of the last quarter-century or so was Broadway’s casting controversy over the musical Miss Saigon in 1990.  The event has now faded into the nether reaches of time and memory, but it’s something that’s been sticking in my craw ever since. 

Most of you are probably familiar with the title Miss Saigon, the sung-through musical, adapted from Madame Butterfly by tunesmith Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boubil, the French team behind the wildly popular musical staging of Les Misérables.  Under the producership of Cameron Mackintosh (who also produced Les Miz, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera, among other shows), Miss Saigon premiered on London’s West End in 1989 with Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce in the lead male role of the Engineer, a pimp who runs the brothel in war-torn 1970s Vietnam that indentured the young prostitute title character, Kim.  (This was after a worldwide search to find a specifically Asian actress to play Kim, finally finding Lea Salonga in the Philippines.)  The logic of the musical’s plot calls for the Engineer to be a Vietnamese national, but a white actor was cast in the role, the creative team said, because the character was “Eurasian.”  However, nowhere in Miss Saigon’s original lyrics (since revised) is the character’s European heritage mentioned, nor is such a heritage germane to the story.  Ostensibly, the Engineer was a full-blooded Vietnamese who was labeled “Eurasian” merely to accommodate a white actor in the role.  And Pryce opened the role of the Engineer in the West End wearing eye prosthetics to give his eyelids an epicanthic fold.  In 1990, the year after its London premiere, Mackintosh announced that he planned to bring Miss Saigon to Broadway the following year and to have Pryce reprise his role as the Engineer in New York. 

In 1990, I was friends with a number of Asian American actors, and I would often hear stories of their struggles about being racial minorities working for an industry whose primary goal was to attract the majority white audience.  This meant that not very many roles were written for ethnically Asian performers, and if a role wasn’t written specifically as a character of color, I was told, minority actors would seldom be considered for it.  This meant that my Asian American thespian friends didn’t work all that often, and they needed to support their acting careers with day jobs.  Complicating this was the practice of “yellowface,” which is the derogatory nickname for applying cosmetics (of any color) to white actors in order for them to play Asian roles.  So, in 1990, the playing field was decidedly tilted: Caucasian actors — not only because of their talent, but also because of their race — had many opportunities in the entertainment industry, but Asian American actors had few.  Also, the industry, through the practice of “yellowface,” enabled white actors to play Asian characters without a commensurate practice to enable Asian actors to play white characters. 

When it opened in 1991, Miss Saigon boasted Broadway’s first Asian male lead (non-supporting) role in 15 years, since the Stephen Sondheim musical Pacific Overture in 1976.  In all that time, Asian American actors were — for all intents and purposes — “racially disqualified” from playing male leads on the Great White Way.  Miss Saigon’s Engineer would have been a great opportunity for an ethnically Asian actor to open a lead role on Broadway, but with Mackintosh’s announcement that Pryce would re-create the character in New York, that rare possibility was whisked away. 

Jonathan Pryce, wearing eye prosthetics, in the original 1989 London production of ‘Miss Saigon’

Because Pryce was a British national, Mackintosh had to apply for an H-1B visa (a visa which means that no one else can do the job) for him to appear on Broadway, an application that needed to be approved by the American performers’ union, Actors’ Equity, to go forward.  Advocates of Pryce’s participation in the production called it an example of “non-traditional casting” (see below).  The Asian American actors and their supporters complained to Equity that Broadway’s first Asian male lead in 15 years was automatically going to an actor without any racial constraints on his career and that no Asian actors had been seriously considered for the part.  After some discussion, Actors’ Equity denied Pryce’s application for an H-1B visa, issuing a press release to explain their position:

Today [August 8, 1990], the Council of Actors’ Equity resumed its deliberation regarding the proposed casting of Jonathan Pryce in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon.  After a long and emotional debate, the Council has decided it cannot appear to condone the casting of a Caucasian actor in the role of a Eurasian and has therefore voted to reject the producer’s application to permit Mr. Pryce, who originated the role of the Engineer in London, to recreate his performance in the American production.  
Equity’s decision is in no way meant to reflect on Mr. Pryce, whose excellence the Union, once again, acknowledges.  
The question of Mr. Pryce’s appearance at [sic] the Engineer has prompted a long-overdue public debate over the issues of non-traditional casting and the lack of job opportunities for ethnic minority actors, in this instance, those in the Asian community.  
Actors’ Equity was created by actors to protect the actor and improve employment conditions.  When Equity membership believes that they are in some way being humiliated or ignored, the Union is bound to investigate the claim and respond.  The casting of a Caucasian actor made up to appear Asian is an affront to the Asian community.  This casting choice is especially disturbing when the casting of an Asian actor, in this role, would be an important and significant opportunity to break the usual pattern of casting Asians in minor roles.  
The Asian community of American Equity actors has strongly supported the Union’s condemnation of the proposed casting of the Engineer in Miss Saigon and has urged the Union to reject this application, in full awareness that many jobs may be lost to actors of Asian background if the production is cancelled.  
For years, ethnic actors were denied access to roles that were not expressly written for the ethnic performer.  To put it another way, ethnic actors were largely excluded from working in the theatre.  In response, Actors’ Equity has vigorously advocated the creation of equal casting opportunities for its minority members.  Equity originated the use of the term “non-traditional casting” as an avenue of increasing employment for minority actors.  This policy is defined as the casting of ethnic actors in roles where race or gender is not germane to the character.  Non-traditional casting was never intended to be used to diminish opportunities for ethnic actors to play ethnic roles.  The contract agreed to by Equity and the League of American Theaters and Producers provides that all parties agree “to continue their joint efforts toward, and reaffirm their commitment to the policy of non-discrimination, and to an on-going policy of furthering the principles of equal employment opportunity.  It is the desire of the parties that employment opportunities for Equity’s multi-racial membership be improved, and that the stage reflect a multi-racial society” (emphasis added).  [Emphasis and parentheses in original.]
The producer, Cameron Mackintosh[,] was quoted in the Sunday Times of London as stating that “I subscribe to the view that acting roles should be played by the best person and that colour of skin has got nothing to do with it.”  The casting of Mr. Pryce would not be so objectionable if Mr. Mackintosh was also willing to apply this standard elsewhere and cast visibly ethnic actors in the numerous productions of Les Misérables which have created nearly 400 jobs for Equity actors.  Instead, Mr. Mackintosh and the producers of other shows have insisted all too often that the text of a play does not allow the casting of ethnic actors and have consistently refused to consider the talent of minority members for employment.  
The “exhaustive search” for an Asian actor to play the role of the Engineer has been much publicized, but, as Geoffrey Johnson, of Johnson, Liff, and Zerman, and one of the casting directors for Miss Saigon has stated, the search was centered on casting the character of Kim, the young Asian girl in the production.  No actor but Mr. Pryce was seriously considered for [the role of the Engineer].  In fact, one leading Asian-American actor who was mentioned to play the Engineer reports that his representative returned a call he received but was never contacted again.  [I understand that the Asian American actor in question was John Lone, who had recently starred in the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor.]  Further, it has been claimed that no Asian actors have had experience in starring roles and they cannot carry the weight of a Broadway play.  This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy [sic] unless and until this cycle of casting is broken.  
The assertion that Equity’s refusal to condone the casting of Mr. Pryce reflects an anti-British bias is without foundation.  During the last three years alone, Equity has admitted more than 160 British actors as stars, as “actors providing unique services,” as members of unit companies and as part of the exchange under the reciprocal agreement between Equity and British Equity.  
The Council’s decision in this matter has been a most difficult one.  But Equity must continue to affirm, indeed press, its policy of non-traditional casting and to object whenever it, as here, is exploited.  To allow Miss Saigon to appear as cast without a strong expression of Equity’s displeasure would be a betrayal of those producers and directors and casting directors who have made every effort to encourage and enlarge the Asian talent pool by casting Asian parts Asian as well as casting other roles non-traditionally with Asian actors.  
Equity and its membership are well aware of the threat that we comply with the demand [to approve Pryce’s casting] or we will be punished by the loss of jobs.  
Finally and once again, Equity states that the producer retains the right to bring this matter to arbitration.  Should Mr. Mackintosh refuse to avail himself of this contractually prescribed remedy and cancel or postpone this production of Miss Saigon, lost employment and lost revenues are ultimately his responsibility.  
Equity has vigorously and consistently raised the issue of opening up the casting of numerous Broadway productions in order to break down the barriers facing minority actors.  Indeed right now Equity has tried to schedule a meeting to review the casting practices of not only Les Misérables, but other plays in which the lack of ethnic actors is dramatically evident.  
Equity invites the press to take an in-depth look at ethnic casting in the American theater instead of sensationalizing one example.  
The debate should not end with this decision.  (quoted in Theater Week, IV, 2, August 20, 1990, pp. 17-19)

Mackintosh had clashed with Actors’ Equity a number of times over the years over other issues, so he might have seen the union’s decision as more of a power play than as a principled position.  Although he had the option, as the press release states, to take Equity’s decision to arbitration, Mackintosh instead indignantly announced the cancellation of Miss Saigon’s Broadway production, saying that Equity had denied Jonathan Pryce a job “because of his race.” 

For all of the ink that Equity spilled writing the announcement of its decision, it didn’t do very much good, because I doubt that very many people read it.  After Mackintosh announced his decision to cancel Miss Saigon’s Broadway production, most mainstream news outlets castigated the union’s decision.  Much discussion abounded that the theatre was a place of make-believe, where actors play people other than themselves, and therefore Equity’s decision was unreasonable.  Some misrepresented the union’s position as calling for ethnically specific casting, as though Equity were declaring that only Danish actors could play Hamlet, say, or only Greek actresses could play Medea.  But racial discrimination against Asian American actors in hiring received extremely little attention.  This somewhat sarcastic opinion piece written for Time magazine by Japan-based Indian-British journalist Pico Iyer (who I think ought to have known better) captures the tenor of discussion at the time:

[Equity’ was] raising some highly intriguing questions.  How can John Gielgud play Prospero when Doug Henning is at hand?  Should future Shakespeares — even future August Wilsons — stock their plays with middle-class whites so as to have the largest pool of actors from which to choose?  And the next time we stage Moby Dick, will there be cries that the title part be taken by a card-carrying leviathan?

What is the title of Iyer’s essay?  “The Masks of Minority Terrorism.”  Yes, Iyer calls those struggling for racial equality “terrorists.”  I’m sure that Asian American actors will be flying airplanes into skyscrapers any day now. 

I was very dismayed that racial discrimination against minorities in casting — the motivating issue of the Miss Saigon controversy — was pushed to the background in coverage of the story.  Equity was portrayed as wrong in every regard, and virtually the only mention of Asian American actors in the press was all of the supporting (!) roles that they would lose if Mackintosh’s cancellation of the production weren’t rescinded. 

Producer Cameron Mackintosh in a recent photo

Of course, as the history books now say, Mackintosh prevailed: Equity reversed its veto of Pryce, who opened the role of the Engineer on Broadway without the eye prosthetics that he wore in London.  Also, Pryce won the Tony that year for Best Actor in a musical, perhaps as an apology by the Broadway establishment for that nasty little thing that Equity did.  (The theme of the Tony broadcast of 1991, hosted by Julie Andrews and Jeremy Irons, was the British presence on Broadway, which suggested an attempt to make amends for any perceived anti-British slight on Equity’s part.  If the Tony’s theme that year had instead been the Asian American presence on Broadway, the show would have had a lot less to work with.) 

Despite my dismay over how Miss Saigon’s casting controversy played out (there was another controversy over whether the show’s arguably stereotypical Asian characters were worth playing in the first place), I was glad to see an apparent effort on the part of the entertainment industry to increase minority visibility in the media and to cast Asian roles with ethnically Asian actors.  Even Cameron Mackintosh seemed to accept the core of Equity’s argument: after Pryce stepped down from the role in 1992, his replacements have all been ethnically Asian actors.  Of course, the situation today for minority — and especially Asian — actors is far from perfect, but given the vilification in the media of Equity’s rejection of Pryce, and the constant cries of “reverse discrimination,” I’m surprised that the issue of racial discrimination in casting came to be treated so seriously. 

But also in the intervening years, histories of Broadway and other mainstream chronicles of the past still mention Equity’s veto of Pryce (when they mention it at all) as a mistake, as an example of the union shooting itself in the foot, as a “bluff” called by the intrepid Mackintosh.  So, over last weekend, I was pleased beyond measure when I read this passage in the on-line version of Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, for a story it printed last year on Miss Saigon’s 25th anniversary production on the West End:

As far as Miss Saigon is concerned, Mackintosh believes his biggest mistake was not foreseeing how much of an issue the casting of Jonathan Pryce in the leading Eurasian role of The Engineer would prove in New York. “I said it was a storm in an Oriental tea-cup, thinking I was being clever. I was actually being stupid.” He now accepts that those who argued that the character should be played by an actor of Asian descent had a valid point.

“A valid point.”  That’s what Equity tried to make in 1990 — and was vilified for its troubles.  I don’t think that anyone (including myself) wanted to prevent Jonathan Pryce from appearing in Miss Saigon.  Equity, reports say, was hoping that Mackintosh would take its decision to arbitration, where the issue of racial discrimination in casting could be given a proper hearing before Pryce was approved.  The fact that Mackintosh didn’t take the decision to arbitration — the fact that he stubbornly cancelled the production until Equity changed its position — has long suggested that he saw the union’s veto as utterly without merit.  I’m glad finally to see in black & white, 25 long years after the controversy, that Equity’s and the minority actors’ argument has won.  Better late than never. 

‘The Heat Is On,’ a behind-the-scenes documentary of the original 1989 London production of ‘Miss Saigon’