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Broadway Musical Canceled After Union Bans British Actor

August 8, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ The Broadway production of ″Miss Saigon″ was canceled today after Actors’ Equity refused to allow a white British actor to play the role of a Eurasian in the musical.

″The debate is no longer about the casting of ‘Miss Saigon’ but the art of acting itself,″ producer Cameron Mackintosh said in a statement issued on behalf of the creative team for the hit London musical.

The show, scheduled to open in March at the Broadway Theater, had a more than $25 million advance sale, the largest in Broadway history. The money, according to Mackintosh, will be refunded. The producer said an estimated $600,000, already spent on pre-production work for the show, has been lost.

The union Tuesday denied Englishman Jonathan Pryce permission to repeat his award-winning performance as a brothel owner when the London hit comes to New York in March.

″The casting of a Caucasian actor made up to appear Asian is an affront to the Asian community,″ said Alan Eisenberg, the union’s executive secretary.

″The 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.″

The union has jurisdiction over all performers appearing on Broadway and must give its approval to actors from foreign countries who appear there, except for British ″stars.″ But the definition of ″star″ is hazy.

″We did not deal with the issue of whether this man is a star or not,″ Eisenberg said.

Mackintosh said he would not take the matter to arbitration, a process Equity suggested Tuesday might be the next step.

″The inaccurate and inflammatory statements which Equity made concerning ‘Miss Saigon’ have served only to craete a poisonous atmosphere in which creativity and artistic freedom cannot function or survive,″ Mackintosh said. ″Arbitration cannot clear this atmosphere.″

Mackintosh and other producers have argued that the ban is an infringement on their right to choose the performers they want.

″When my production team cast the noted black actor Robert Guillaume to replace Michael Crawford as the Phantom in the Los Angeles company of ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ we did so purely on the grounds of talent and suitability,″ Mackintosh said last week.

″Ironically, in the current Broadway production of ‘Phantom’ we have an Amerasian actor of tremendous ability playing the lead role of the Vicomte de Chagny. Why is it quite proper for him to play a European artistocrat and not for Jonathan Pryce to play a Eurasian?″

Robert Stigwood, who produced the musical ″Evita,″ said in a letter to Equity earlier this week that he is casting the film version of the show.

″Does the view of Actors’ Equity concerning ethnic casting preclude my consideration of an American-Italian female star to play the title role?″ he asked. ″Will I incur the wrath and condemnation of Actors’ Equity for casting a non-Hispanic in the role of Che?″

Eisenberg said the union’s decision was made ″in full awareness that many jobs may be lost to actors of Asian background″ if ″Miss Saigon″ is canceled.

According to Variety, the musical would employ 182 people, including 50 actors and stage managers, 26 musicians and 34 stagehands.

Non-traditional casting has been more common off-Broadway, particularly at the New York Shakespeare Festival, where black actor Morgan Freeman recently played Petruchio opposite Tracey Ullman, who is white, in a Central Park production of ″The Taming of the Shrew.″

The festival has used black, Hispanic and Asian actors in almost all its recent Shakespeare productions. It even cast actress Diane Venora in the title role in ″Hamlet″ several years ago.

″You do non-traditional casting whenever possible, but it depends,″ said Alan Coleridge, a casting director. ″You look at the text. Does the text support it?″

The controversy over ″Miss Saigon″ began with a complaint filed by playwright David Henry Hwang, author of ″M. Butterfly,″ and actor B.D. Wong, who starred in the play.

″There is no doubt in my mind of the irreparable damage to my rights as an actor that would be wrought if ... Asian actors are kept from bringing their unique dignity to the specifically Asian roles in ’Miss Saigon,‴ Wong said in a letter to Equity President Colleen Dewhurst.

In London, Pryce won the Olivier Award as best actor in a musical for his performance in ″Miss Saigon.″ He won praise on Broadway in 1976 for his performance in ″Comedians,″ which earned him a best-actor Tony Award.

About 300 to 400 of Equity’s 40,000 members are Asian, Eisenberg said.

″We are talking here about color and this union responding to the wishes of its membership,″ Dewhurst said Tuesday.