To most passers-by, the sounds around “Miss Saigon” at the Broadway Theatre today are just the same as the old noise. Ears flinch from the usual Times Square din. Traffic honks, barkers hawk bus tours and panhandlers pretend to be superheroes for spare change.
If you were around this same theater around this same time in 1991, however, the atmosphere was anything but usual — with protests, racial controversies and months of raging raw emotions.
A brief reminder: When “Miss Saigon” had its Broadway premiere that April, angry demonstrators lined the streets demanding jobs for Asian-American actors and respect for their culture.
As early as August the previous year, the news was filled with reports of furious meetings between Actors’ Equity Association and producer Cameron Mackintosh over the casting of the Welsh star, Jonathan Pryce, as the Engineer — the Eurasian pimp in this Vietnam-era update of Puccini’s tragic love story, “Madame Butterfly.” Not only is Pryce white, but the celebrated London production had him in yellow-face and Asian eye prosthetics — without controversy.
There was also a less glitzy, but hardly less sensitive issue. To cast Kim, the Vietnamese brothel worker and star of the love story, the Brits didn’t look at American actors, but went to the Philippines, a ripe talent center for actors who can approximate a range of different Asian nationalities, and discovered the gifted young Lea Salonga.
She and Pryce both won Oliviers, London’s equivalent of the Tonys. So for the Broadway edition, instead of conducting a national search here to give a huge break to someone in the historically underemployed Asian-American acting community, the producers planned to import Pryce and Salonga.
The actors’ union voted to keep Pryce out of the Broadway production. In an equally shocking move, Mackintosh refused to go into arbitration, vowing to cancel the costly production and refund the record $25 million in advance sales. By September, there was an uneasy peace treaty. The union “acknowledged the artistic integrity of the creative team,” and Mackintosh “acknowledged Equity’s efforts to improve employment opportunities of its ethnic members.”
Salonga and Pryce went on, he without the bronzer and the fake eyes. Both won best-actor Tonys and the show ran for almost 10 years.
End of story? Not nearly.
Employment for Asian-American actors has certainly risen in the minds of the theater community, if not always in the plans of the producers. Right now, Phillipa Soo, whose father is of Chinese descent and whose mother is white, and played a “Hamilton” original role as Alexander Hamilton’s wife, and is now opening April 4 on Broadway in the title role of the musical “Amelie.” The Lincoln Center Theater’s ravishing, ethnically-sensitive revival of “The King and I,” with only Asians playing Asian characters, single-handedly bumped Asian actors’ employment in New York theater from 4 percent to 9 percent in 2014-2015.
But the source of those statistics, a study by the Asian-American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), also noted that that one show (including replacements and understudies) accounted for 53 percent of all Asian actors employed that season.
Still, nobody involved in the new “Miss Saigon,” which opens March 23, is forgetting what happened here more than a quarter of a century ago.
Both the Engineer and Kim will be played by Asian-Americans. In fact, they both starred in the London revival, too. Jon Jon Briones, born and raised in the Philippines, is now an American citizen living in Los Angeles. Eva Noblezada, 20, although born in this country, is also of Filipino descent.
Briones, 51, has been around long enough to understand the importance of the early protests. Mackintosh found him in the Philippines in the late ’80s and cast him in the ensemble of the original London production. It is from there that he watched what was happening in the headlines and in the streets here.
“Personally, I am so proud,” Briones told me in a recent phone interview. “That whole controversy served its purpose in a very positive way. It opened a lot of people’s eyes, even in the Asian community. A lot, a lot of work still needs to be done. We need to be relentless with talent and passion. But we found our voice.”
Laurence Connor, the British director of the new “Miss Saigon,” says, “I can totally understand the Asian-American objections to white actors in Asian roles.” He suggests in a recent phone interview that the proximity to the Vietnam War may have made feelings here more sensitive back in 1991. “The show may have been a hard pill to swallow.
“But I think the show earned its place in people’s hearts. And, obviously, we would never again see prosthetic eyes. It was a thing of its time.”
Connor, the go-to guy for such new mega-musical revivals as “Les Miserables,” also directed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s current hit, “School of Rock.”
He understands the fine line between revising old favorites and repeating them. For “Miss Saigon,” he reassures fans that there will still be a helicopter, as there was in director Nicholas Hytner’s earlier production. “From what I’m told and what I remember,” Connor adds, “This one feels less operatic in performance, a little grittier, with lots of layers woven into it.”
And, of course, all the Asian characters will be played by Asians — only three, including Briones and Noblezada, are imported from the London production. “And actually,” Connor jokes, “We imported them [first] from America.”
Still, according to AAPAC studies, “Asian-Americans were the minority group least likely to be able to transcend their race” as actors. Just 2 percent of Asian-Americans had roles that were “not defined by their race.”
For Asian-American actors, most of the jobs are still in productions of “King and I,” “Miss Saigon,” “Pacific Overtures” and, for a brief time in 2015, “Allegiance,” George Takei’s important and underrated musical about Japanese-American detention camps during World War II. Takei, who was not available for an interview, is in rehearsals for an Off-Broadway revival of “Pacific Overtures.”
Briones admits that those shows remain the biggest employers in his community. “But we need to push. We need to have people who look like us write stories about us.” He says progress is “slow, but it’s out there and something to feel positive about.”
In an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald last fall, Pryce reportedly sighed when asked about his experience as the Engineer. “I talked a lot about it then and I have talked a lot about it since . . .”
He will say, “Of course, it was a very valid debate. It wasn’t pleasant . . . but it was a good argument to have. Things have gotten better but the advances, even in 25 years, haven’t been made as they should. People are still talking about the lack of opportunities for ethnic minority actors.
“I’m all for supporting the fact that more opportunities need to be made for nonwhite actors,” he said, though, “If the argument is valid that any actor of any race should be able to play any role, then it’s two-way traffic.”
At this moment, that one is probably more traffic than Broadway can handle.