NEWS BLOG (WSAU) My theater review of “Miss Saigon” had an interesting comment. Why were there only two Asian-Americans in the cast?
The obvious answer is that open casting implies that the best, most talented people get the roles. Kim is a demanding singing role. Having someone who wasn’t as good a singer in the name of ethic purity would make for a long night for the audience. And, while Miss Saigon does give voice to a specific ethinic group, the play's theme is the tragedy that war inflicts on interpersonal relationships.
There was a similar controversy during Miss Saigon’s runs in the West End and Broadway. On stage a Vietnamese woman has never starred in Miss Saigon in London or New York. The role was created in London by Lea Salonga. She’s a Filipina. So the part went to someone who “looked right” on stage, but really has no more cultural connection to the story than a white, corn-fed actress from Nebraska. Salonga was also part of the original Broadway cart. Her eventual replacement, Ma-Anne Dionisio, is a Canadian of Filipine descent. Naoko Mori, whose performance I saw on Broadway, is a Japanese actress.
When Miss Saigon moved from London to New York there was a controversy surrounding actor Jonathan Pryce. In London he played The Engineer, and would wear heavy stage makeup to make his skin appear bronzed. He was initially denied his Actors Equity card to perform in New York because of it. Throughout Miss Saigon’s run in New York, the child-actor who played Tan would wear face make-up to match the complexion of the actress who was playing his mother. Tan became a controversial role again when a Native-American child was cast in the role instead of an Asian.
We’re offended and ashamed that generations ago we were entertained by actors in black-face. But today analyzing the ethnicity of the Miss Saigon cast seems to be ridiculous.
Ethnic casting is a case-by-case basis. In general, color-blind casting today opens up roles to minority actors. Only rarely does it open ethnic roles to white performers. We’ve had all-black Shakespeare companies tour the U.S. (Michael Dorn, who played Warf on Star Trek-The Next Generation was an outstanding Hamlet.) But you’d have people picketing outside the theater if you presented an all-white cast of Porgy & Bess.
I saw two productions of Mama Mia! The first production was an all-white cast from Canada… the next with an African-American leading man, and an interracial wedding scene. His race was not central to the role; it worked. Could we have a black Phantom of the Opera? I don’t see why not. The sequel, “Love Never Dies”, is being sung in London by a dark-skinned Iranian actor. Could “Ragtime” feature a white Coalhouse Walker? No.
Part of being an audience member is suspending disbelief. Try to look past ethnicity and enjoy the show.
Operations Manager-Midwest Communications, Wausau
My original theater review of Miss Saigon is here: http://www.wsau.com/blogs/post/cconley/2010/aug/06/theater-review-miss-saigon/#disqus_thread