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'MIss Saigon': 5 important things the New York Times didn't tell you ... over 25 years later
Last Edit: WaymanWong 08:32 pm EDT 03/18/17
Posted by: WaymanWong 08:22 pm EDT 03/18/17
In reply to: NYT: Miss Saigon's "yellowface" controversy re-visited - SallyFx 02:10 pm EDT 03/17/17

Wow, time flies. As the N.Y. Daily News reporter who broke the story about the ''Miss Saigon'' casting controversy (''Musical angers Asian actors,'' July 11, 1990, page 5), this New York Times retrospective brought back a lot of memories after a quarter of a century. Even in Michael Paulson's avalanche of quotes, which cover a lot of terrain, some things got buried or forgotten.

1. ''Miss Saigon'' misrepresented its casting search for the Engineer, from the start. They claimed they had conducted a worldwide search for any Asian actor with the credentials or skill level to play the Engineer, and concluded that none could be found. Only AFTER Equity reversed itself and allowed Pryce to come to Broadway, on Aug. 16, a Mackintosh spokesman admitted that no such search was held and ''it is unfortunate and regrettable if any misunderstanding has arisen.'' And now, Mackintosh acknowledges: ''I threw [Pryce's name] in the hopper. The entire audition process, we never saw anyone else.'' Which is what Equity argued: that Mackintosh cast Pryce all along and wasn't interested in any Asian actors.

2. Kudos to Equity's Chuck Patterson and Colleen Dewhurst for taking a principled stand on behalf of its actors of color. What was at issue wasn't being ''P.C.'' about casting ONLY Asians to play Asians, etc. It was about: equal opportunity for minorities to play themselves, especially when those rare leading roles came along. The Engineer issue gets muddied a little because he's supposed to be Eurasian, but the important thing is that he needs to look Asian to pass for Kim's brother. It's why Pryce wore prosthetics in London. Pryce even claimed that with them on, ''no acting was required.'' Yes, Pryce stopped the heinous practice before ''Miss Saigon'' came to Broadway, but only after all the controversy in America.

3. Frank Rich, in this new Times piece, claims to be ''completely sympathetic'' to the plight of minority actors who get a ''raw deal.'' But Rich insists: ''I still feel a director has the right to do what he wants to do.'' I agree, and said as much in a commentary that ran with the Daily News' review of ''Miss Saigon'' (April 11, 1991): ''If Mackintosh wanted to cast Pryce for purely artistic reasons, fine. It's his prerogative to cast whomever he likes. It's his money; it's his show. But that doesn't give his company the right to mislead the public or write off an entire group of actors BEFORE it has even auditioned them.'' ... Can anyone think of any similar circumstance? ''I'm gonna cast this white actress to play the mixed-race Julie in 'Show Boat.' I've done a worldwide search and cannot find ANY black actresses capable of the part. Oops, and by the way, we never made that search.''

4. Frank Rich adds that Pryce gave a ''fantastic performance,'' as if that makes everything right. But that's a subjective call. I believe Joseph Anthony Foronda is the best Engineer I ever saw. But far more pertinent is this: If our society considers it insensitive and racist to cast Caucasians to pass for black, why isn't it similarly insensitive and racist to cast Caucasians to pass for Asian? In principle, ''blackface'' is no different than ''yellowface.'' ... And whatever you think of the Engineer, it's a star-making turn. ... Thanks to the role of Kim, ''Miss Saigon'' was willing to give that star-making turn to Lea Salonga, which earned her a Tony. It could've done the same thing and elevated an unknown but gifted Asian leading man, but no, it was a lost opportunity. Instead, I believe more Caucasian guys may have won Tonys for playing Asian than actual Asian guys playing Asian.

5. Finally, when I broke the story in the N.Y. Daily News, I had no idea that it would set off a cultural firestorm. But there was a lot of money and ego involved. Mackintosh and Equity got into a battle of wills. A couple of years ago, Mackintosh admitted to the Telegraph something that's missing in this Times piece: that he vastly underestimated the controversy in America, and wrongly laughed it off (''I was actually being stupid''). Though I'm sure he still believes casting Pryce was the right move, he now concedes that those who argued for an Asian actor had a valid point. And now, 25 years later, ''Miss Saigon'' stars Jon Jon Briones, a Filipino-American actor from L.A. ... Looking back, as B.D. Wong notes, then-Mayor David Dinkins really wanted the show to come to New York. And, I suspect, so did the Times (whether for advertising or artistic reasons). Funny thing: Back then, I asked to interview Mackintosh and Pryce, but was told they were ''unavailable.'' But they were available to the Times. Just to bring things full-circle, I saw Pryce at the Tony Awards. So I went up to him and introduced myself. At which point, he exclaimed: ''Oh, so YOU'RE the one! Why didn't you ever try to get my side of the story?'' I explained that I had, but was told he wasn't interested. Pryce insisted: ''We'll have to sit down and talk.'' I agreed. I tried to contact him later, and never heard from him again. Oh, well. That was 25 years ago. Time to let ''Saigons'' be ''Saigons.'' ;)
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