Actors' Equity reversed itself Thursday and said it would allow a white British actor to play a Eurasian in the $10-million Broadway production of the hit London musical "Miss Saigon."
The vote to approve actor Jonathan Pryce came at a special meeting of the union's 70-member council, called in response to a petition from more than 600 Equity members outraged by last week's decision to bar the actor. About 54 members of the council took part in the meeting, which lasted nearly six hours.
"The council determined that, indeed, Mr. Pryce qualifies as a star in accordance with the criteria established in the agreement between Equity and the League of American Theaters and Producers," said Alan Eisenberg, the union's executive secretary.
The union has veto power over foreign actors. Star performers from other countries usually are given automatic approval to perform in the United States.
"The council stated that it had never been Equity's intention for this issue to reflect in any way on Mr. Pryce, whose excellence and abilities the union has consistently acknowledged," Eisenberg said.
The union's reversal was taken as a sign of encouragement by producer Cameron Mackintosh, who had scrapped the musical's Broadway engagement after Equity's initial vote.
"Over the next few days, I will confer with members of the creative team and with Jonathan Pryce to determine if it will be possible for the production to be reinstated for Broadway," Mackintosh said late Thursday.
A final decision was not expected until sometime next week, said Mackintosh spokesman Marc Thibodeau. "Miss Saigon" originally was to begin previews here in March.
In changing its mind, the council took into consideration Mackintosh's willingness to respond to three issues about the show, Eisenberg said. They were "his written commitment to seek qualified Asian actors as replacements or understudies on Broadway and to originate the role in future companies," his assistance "in the vocal training of those Asian actors who may be considered for such roles" and Pryce's removal of prosthetics on his eyes for makeup "immediately upon his becoming aware that their intended use offended members of the American-Asian community."
Mackintosh had said that cancellation of the $10-million production, which had a record $25 million in advance ticket sales, would cost him about $600,000.
The controversy prompted debate over the issues of non-traditional casting, the lack of job opportunities for ethnic minority actors and artistic freedom.
"The debate is no longer about the casting of 'Miss Saigon' but the art of acting itself," Mackintosh said last week.
Equity had denied permission for Pryce to repeat his London performance as a Eurasian pimp in the American production because "the casting of a Caucasian actor made up to appear Asian is an affront to the Asian community."
The controversy began after Equity's Committee on Racial Equality received complaints about the show's casting from playwright David Henry Hwang, who wrote the Broadway hit "M. Butterfly," and Asian actor B. D. Wong.
The committee decided that "it should take a stand," said Chuck Patterson, its chairman.
At a news conference Thursday, Patterson said Mackintosh did not allow Asian-American actors to try out for Pryce's role in the New York production. A spokesman for Mackintosh said the British actor already was the producer's first choice to play the part on Broadway.
Mackintosh is one of the most successful producers in London and in New York. Among his other hits, which are still running in both cities, are "Cats," "Les Miserables" and "The Phantom of the Opera."
"Miss Saigon" is a love story about an American soldier set during the closing days of the Vietnam War in 1975. The musical has lavish special effects, including a helicopter that lands on stage and takes off.
Pryce won the Olivier Award, London's equivalent of the Tony, for his performance in "Miss Saigon."
Pryce has appeared on Broadway twice before. He won a Tony in 1977 for his performance in "Comedians" and later starred in Dario Fo's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" in 1984.
Pryce leaves the cast of the London production of "Miss Saigon" at the beginning of September. His replacement will be another white actor, Hilton McRae.