The Broadway production of "Miss Saigon," under fire for casting a white actor in the leading part of a Eurasian pimp, has been canceled, producer Cameron Mackintosh announced yesterday. The production, which is set in Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War and includes a cast of 50 and a working helicopter, has been the subject of intense debate for the past few weeks after a protest was lodged with Actors Equity.
On Tuesday the union voted to deny the British star, Jonathan Pryce, permission to play the lead in the U.S. production. This in effect keeps Pryce from obtaining an H-1 visa, under which someone with "exceptional or distinguished merit and ability" can work in the United States temporarily.
The two sides continued to assert their positions yesterday, with Equity representatives calling their decision a "moral position" taken despite the prospect of losing the jobs and revenue that come with a probable mega-hit such as "Miss Saigon," and Mackintosh calling the union's stance "a disturbing violation of the principles of artistic integrity and freedom" in a statement issued yesterday.
The issue is rife with complications, calling up questions about non-traditional casting, reverse discrimination, artistic freedom and racism. Equity officials maintain they rejected Pryce not because he is British or less than H-1 visa caliber, but because he is a Caucasian made up as a Eurasian, "painted yellow" and (at least initially) decked out in prosthetic eyebrows. (Pryce stopped using them after complaints in England that they were offensive.)
Mackintosh, on the other hand, says that efforts to find someone of Asian descent to play the part were unsuccessful, and that 34 Asians cast in smaller parts will lose their jobs as a result of the cancellation. Early in the debate, Mackintosh's casting agent, Vincent Liff, reported having held auditions in Hawaii and in six cities with significant Asian populations, including Manila, as well as seeing 750 Asian performers in six days in New York. Mackintosh also points to his casting of the black actor Robert Guillaume in the lead role of the Los Angeles production of "The Phantom of the Opera" as evidence of lack of racism.
But it is clear that this fight, while focused on the immediate person of Pryce, has deeper roots. An Equity spokeswoman, for example, said Mackintosh's "track record of casting minorities is not good," noting that despite repeated protests from the union not one of the 400 people who have been employed in "Les Mise'rables" (a Mackintosh production) is black. Mackintosh, in his statement, hints at currents of internal politics within Equity, saying that the union's executive secretary, Alan Eisenberg, assured him several months ago there would be "no problem at all" in casting Pryce.
Neither Eisenberg nor Equity president Colleen Dewhurst could be reached for comment yesterday.
"Miss Saigon" opened in London last October; no British Asian actors are known to have objected to the casting then. The show has an advance sale in New York of $25 million, one of the largest in theatrical history -- at least in part because the tickets are the most expensive in history, with a top price of $100. Mackintosh said in his statement that more than $600,000 has already been spent, and that the Shubert Organization had turned down other potential bookings for the theater where the show was to have appeared. Variety reported last week that the show would have had a weekly payroll of more than $200,000 on Broadway, employing 50 actors and stage managers, 26 musicians, 34 stagehands, 17 wardrobe attendants, two hairdressers and makeup stylists, eight box office treasurers, 23 ushers and ticket takers, 10 custodians, one engineer and eight nonunion employees.
Reaction within the theatrical community so far has been mixed and heated. Producer Joseph Papp, who was one of the first to hire nonwhite actors in traditionally white roles (he cast Robert Hooks as Henry V years ago) supported the protest started by playwright David Hwang and actor B.D. Wong, but was ambivalent about the action taken by the union.
"I don't believe there has been a serious search" to find a suitable Asian American performer, he said. "Equity could have tried to negotiate that. ... As a producer I have concerns about anyone imposing conditions. But in principle they did the right thing, despite the havoc that has been caused and the resentment from the people who will suffer economically."
On the other hand, the Non-Traditional Casting Project (NTCP), an independent advocacy group that grew out of an Equity committee, supports the casting of Pryce. After considerable debate, the board (which includes actor James Earl Jones and director Gordon Davidson) was convinced by Mackintosh's assurances that Asian American actors would be hired to understudy Pryce and prepared to take over the part when he left. The part (he is called The Engineer) is described as a "one-half French, one-half Vietnamese wheeler-dealer," they noted.
At the same time, at least one NCTP board member, Washington director Abel Lopez, said he was delighted with Equity's action. "I assume this means Equity will now take the same position with American stages," he said. "They don't have approval with respect to casting, but they can exert pressure."
An Equity spokeswoman said protest picket lines had previously been set up at a Midwestern production of "The Wiz," in which a white actress was cast as Dorothy, and at two Manhattan productions in which white actors were cast in Hispanic parts.
Mackintosh asserts that Equity's decision is tantamount to reverse discrimination, citing current productions in which black actors are cast in leading Shakespearean roles. That argument doesn't appear to go very far in this country.
"I think that's a stalking horse," said Michael Kahn, director of the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger and another who has cast untraditionally -- most recently hiring actress Pat Carroll to play Falstaff. "If this were a perfect world, if this country were egalitarian, that might have some validity. But there aren't enough opportunities for Asian American actors to begin with." Kahn, like Papp, was not convinced that enough effort had been made to find an Asian actor to play Pryce's part.
Mackintosh, who started as a boy-wonder producer in Britain about 15 years ago and has established himself as one of the most successful -- at least in monetary terms -- in the current theater world, did hold out a faint ray of hope that things could still be worked out:
"Have the voices of reasonable people within the union been shouted down? In my view, 'Miss Saigon' can only be reinstated, and indeed Equity's credibility can only be reinstated, if rational minds prevail within the membership of Equity.
"It is particularly sad and ironic," he concluded, "that this controversy should surround a piece of theater such as 'Miss Saigon,' a tragic love story in which a young woman sacrifices her life to ensure that her Amerasian son may find a better life in America."