America will miss "Miss Saigon."
The Broadway production of the $10-million musical was canceled Wednesday by its British producer Cameron Mackintosh, angry that Actors' Equity vetoed his casting English star Jonathan Pryce in a lead role.
The union denied permission Tuesday for Pryce to re-create his London role in "Saigon." Equity had been prodded by Asian-American activists who objected to the casting of a white actor in a Eurasian role.
The show had already sold $25 million worth of tickets in advance of its March opening--the largest advance sale in Broadway history.
"Racial prejudice does seem to have triumphed over creative freedom," said a statement from Mackintosh and the show's creators, who also charged Equity with violating agreements with the League of American Theatres and Producers and British Actors' Equity, as well as "fundamental principles of federal and state human rights laws" and federal labor laws.
The statement cited a personal assurance from Equity's executive secretary Alan Eisenberg to Mackintosh, from "several months ago," that "there would be no problem at all" in the casting of Pryce--who subsequently turned down other work in order to appear in "Miss Saigon." The producer also cited a loss of $600,000 in pre-production costs and noted "a substantial loss" by the Shubert Organization, which had reserved its Broadway theater for the show.
Actors' Equity had not issued a response to Mackintosh's charges by press time Wednesday; Equity officials were said to be in meetings much of the day. But late Tuesday, Eisenberg and Equity president Colleen Dewhurst released a statement explaining the Pryce decision, which was made by the union council in a vote Tuesday afternoon. The trade paper Daily Variety reported the vote was 23-19 against approval of Pryce. The organization lists 69 council members and nine officers on its letterhead.
"The casting of a Caucasian actor made up to appear Asian is an affront to the Asian community," said the union's statement. "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."
Preempting criticism that the union was violating its own policy on non-traditional casting, Dewhurst and Eisenberg defined the term 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."
There would have been 34 jobs for minority actors in the planned production, and a total of 50 jobs under an Equity contract. Equity was "well aware of the threat that we comply with the demand (to approve Pryce) or we will be punished by the loss of jobs," according to the statement from Dewhurst and Eisenberg.
Mackintosh has a contractual right to take the matter to arbitration, and Eisenberg acknowledged Tuesday that "our lawyers have already indicated that it would be a very difficult case for us to win in arbitration. But we have some good arguments."
"Equity has abdicated responsibility for its own actions," responded Mackintosh, labeling the suggestion of arbitration "cowardly." He said he would not go to arbitration "simply to prove a legal point. The inaccurate and inflammatory statements which Equity has made . . . have served only to create a poisonous atmosphere" which, he said, could not be cleared by arbitration.
Mackintosh's decision not to go to arbitration means that "lost employment and lost revenues are ultimately his responsibility," said the Equity statement.
Until now, Equity had never used its veto power over foreign performers for racial reasons. Mackintosh said that contractual agreements prevent Equity from invoking a veto except on the issue of whether the performer is a star. "Equity has previously certified Mr. Pryce as a 'star,' when it endorsed his appearance on Broadway in 1984," the producer said.
Star status was the issue Equity raised regarding Mackintosh's casting of the British actress Sarah Brightman as Christine in the New York production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera." Equity eventually allowed Brightman to perform.
Lloyd Webber supported his colleague Tuesday: "I'm not saying that there cannot be anyone other than Jonathan who could play that role or that only Sarah could play Christine, but the point is that (Pryce) was involved with this production in the first place, as Sarah was, and he was the producer's first choice. 'Saigon' is not my show, but there's a parallel. To keep him from appearing in America is an extraordinarily pigheaded decision. I can't believe we're in this situation."
Los Angeles producers denounced Equity's move. "It's a terrible decision," said Diane White, producing director of Los Angeles Theatre Center. "The whole affair smacks of censorship. Censorship of any kind is limiting to any of us." White pointed out that an Asian American has been cast in a traditionally black role, and a black in a traditionally white role, in LATC's upcoming production of "The Crucible." "I believe in freedom for producers, freedom for directors, freedom for actors."
"Equity has its head up its tochis ," said Eric Krebs, producer at the Westwood Playhouse. "A major musical has to be star-driven. They're grandstanding in the wrong ballpark. The right ballpark is their own non-traditional casting policy, and the letter that producers have to sign saying they'll adhere to non-discrimination." He cited Mackintosh's casting of Robert Guillaume, a black actor, as "The Phantom of the Opera" in Los Angeles as evidence that producers are open to non-traditional casting.
Mark Taper Forum casting director Stanley Soble said he disagreed with Equity's decision--if the "Miss Saigon" producers had truly made diligent efforts to "open the door" to Asian actors. But "if people were denied auditions, then Equity was right."
Mackintosh had previously described "extraordinary casting efforts around the world" in order to fill the 34 non-Caucasian roles in "Miss Saigon," but he also acknowledged in a letter to Eisenberg that "we have never made any secret to you that we considered Jonathan Pryce the best possible artist to open the Broadway production as the Engineer." He had stated his "intention to continue to look for Eurasian replacements and understudies, as well as actors to originate the role in other companies."
Equity found support for its decision from some prominent theater artists.
Stuart Ostrow, producer of the award-winning Asian-themed play "M. Butterfly" on Broadway, said in a written statement that Equity "has taken the independent high ground in their protest against the miscalculation of the American character," adding that a non-Asian would never have been cast in the role if the production had originated in America.
"M. Butterfly" playwright David Henry Hwang was one of the activists who began the protest against Pryce. "It has never been my intention to see a show canceled," he said in a written statement Wednesday. "I simply felt that an important point had to be made, and this has clearly been achieved."
Said Lloyd Richards, the prominent educator and director of most of August Wilson's plays, "I'm very sad that such a decision became necessary, but I am more sad that the conditions that exist in our theater created the circumstances that made such a decision unavoidable."
Mako, the founder of East West Players in Los Angeles and one of the few Asian Americans to star in a Broadway musical (he received a Tony nomination for "Pacific Overtures" in 1976), saw "Miss Saigon" with Pryce three weeks ago and found Pryce "very competent." But he said there are Asian actors who could play the role; he cited B.D. Wong and Jason Ma. He said he would not consider himself a candidate for the job, but he asked, "Why are we not good enough to do leading roles?"
"Shogun," a Broadway musical set in 16th-Century Japan and being co-produced by the book's author James Clavell, has cast Asians in all the Japanese roles, including the female lead. One of the casting directors, Julie Hughes, said this was the result of "a concerted effort" by the show's creators. But she and the show's producers declined to comment on the "Miss Saigon" imbroglio.
Ernest Harada, another "Pacific Overtures" veteran who is the president of the Assn. of Asian-Pacific Artists in Los Angeles, was "overjoyed" by the Equity stand. "It's the first time Equity has stood its ground on an issue like this." He said the precursor of his group was created two decades ago in response to the casting of Kenneth Nelson as a Japanese character in, "Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen," the stage musical version of "The Teahouse of the August Moon."
An Equity spokeswoman recalled several other occasions when Equity protested casting for racial reasons and mounted informational picket lines--including an Iowa production of the originally black musical "The Wiz," which used a white actress in the leading role of Dorothy and two New York productions in which whites were cast as Latinos. Because these were not foreign actors, however, Equity had no approval right over the casting.
The character of the Engineer in "Miss Saigon" is explicitly Eurasian, and representatives of the Santa Monica-based Amerasian League contend that even an Asian or an Asian American would be miscast in the role, in contrast with a Eurasian (of mixed European and Asian blood). An officer of the group, Teresa Williams, suggested John Lone would be an ideal candidate for the role.
Lone, the star of the Oscar-winning "The Last Emperor," is "possibly" Eurasian, said Alice Jankowiak, the office manager at his production company--"he doesn't know much about his family background." She added that she did return a telephone call in January from the "Miss Saigon" casting agency, but "they were not in, and I never heard back from them." Lone does sing, she added; "he's in the process of making a record."
Geoffrey Johnson, one of the casting agents who worked on "Miss Saigon," confirmed that Lone was considered for the role of the Engineer, "but he wasn't interested."
Times staff writer Sylvie Drake also contributed to this article.