The Fallout Over 'Miss Saigon' : The Issue Is Nothing Less Than Artistic Integrity

As a member of the Asian community, I am saddened to hear that "Miss Saigon" may not be seen by Americans of all races and, in particular, by the very people who have rallied in denying Jonathan Pryce to perform in this country.

I remember the night last October when I went to see "Miss Saigon" in London. Leafing through the program, I was surprised to see that more than half the actors were of Asian descent (particularly the number of Filipino actors in the company). It made me feel proud.

Today, long after the last note of Lea Salonga's final song as "Miss Saigon," long after the sight and sound of the impressive display of theatrical wizardry and long after the Playbill was put on file, that feeling of pride is still with me.

I am not particularly proud right now, however, for all the commotion that my Asian peers have started, especially when 34 Asian actors (including Salonga's bravura portrayal of Kim) are being sacrificed due to the pigeonholing decision that Actors' Equity has taken. I believe in the principle that Equity is backing, but the signals it has sent are poisonous.

If Equity starts dictating to producers whom they can or cannot cast in a show, where does that leave the producer? There is a real danger here, as reflected in the recent problems faced by the National Endowment for the Arts, when an agency that is supposed to protect its actors from discrimination does the very opposite.

Artistic freedom is the cornerstone of American theater, but though Equity pretends to support this freedom, it has at the same time diminished it. When does non-traditional casting take place if we start enforcing these absurd and unpredictable boundaries? I fear that at some point Equity will impose its own ruling on producers to have their cast Equity-approved. This is perilous.

I have the utmost regard for celebrated Asian-American artists like Mako, David Henry Hwang and B.D. Wong. But if they were in producer Cameron Mackintosh's shoes and were producing a show and had set their eyes on a specific actor for a specific role, would they break their shields so quickly because an agency (like Actors' Equity) asked them to recast a major role, one that is integral to their vision? I find it hard to believe they would. I think that these artists would ultimately do the same as Mackintosh. If not, I need to re-evaluate my genuine admiration of them and the principle by which they create art.

As a producer and director, I support Mackintosh when he tries to uphold his artistic integrity. After all, producers are supposed to bring out the best possible show they can, not the best possible show everyone politically agrees upon.

What merits a show if not integrity? The Los Angeles Theatre Center has stood the test of time (since its early days in Hollywood) because of its integrity in bringing to Los Angeles plays that reflect the diversity of this city.

It is the very same principle that governed Room for Theatre's Dolores Mann, Beverly Sanders and Sylvia Waldman, who developed a respected theater because they believed in the plays of the late first half of this century.

Ted Schmitt, the late founder of the Cast Theatre, deserves the highest admiration and respect for his integrity and dedication in developing new plays and artists.

If an agency had challenged any of these theaters or individuals on their artistic decisions, I'd bet my life that they would have fought as strongly as Mackintosh has.

I hope that "Miss Saigon" won't be missed by Americans. Mackin-

tosh, I feel, has serviced the show with the highest regard to art, void of any prejudices. I am hopeful that Equity will come to its senses and reverse its decision, allowing Jonathan Pryce to play the role of the Engineer on Broadway. Then, Americans will be able to decide whether Cameron Mackintosh acted appropriately.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World