Thursday, April 11, 2013

News and History: MISS SAIGON Barely Reached Broadway in 1991, Film to Follow?

Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the Broadway opening of one of the greatest, but also most controversial musicals ever, Miss Saigon. It tells the story of a Vietnam GI who falls in love with a young Vietnamese girl at a brothel in Saigon, a plot loosely based on Madame Butterfly.

Starring Lea Salonga, Miss Saigon was written by the creative team from Les Miserables. It won all but one of the possible acting awards, including Best Actress in a Musical for Salonga, Best Actor for Jonathan Pryce, and Best Featured Actor for Hinton Battle. Willy Falk was also nominated for Best Featured Actor, and he actually has not been back on Broadway since his loss to Battle. It seems appropriate to adapt a Mean Girls quote for this moment, "And... none for Willy Falk."

Since the fame of Les Mis soared in recent years, Lea Salonga is the most famous of the winners in this list, but at the time, Jonathan Pryce was the one everyone came to see. He had earned a Tony a decade previously for Comedians, and critics absolutely raved about his portrayal of the ultra-sleazy pimp who calls himself, "The Engineer." Watch his performance from the Tony Awards in 1991!

The Broadway production became almost infamous because of some deep controversy surrounding the supposedly racist casting. According to an Entertainment Weekly article written by Tim Appelo before the Broadway run, the American Actors' Equity argued that Pryce should not be playing the role of the Eurasian (half-Vietnamese, half-French) Engineer on Broadway (which he had just played on the West End). Appelo called this, "the ugliest transatlantic arts controversy in recent memory." 

Though Frank Rich of the New York Times likened Jonathan Pryce's performance to Joel Grey's famous portrayal of the M.C. in Cabaret, the American Actors' Equity managed to declare Pryce ineligible to reprise his show-stopping role for the Broadway stage, calling his performance, ''an affront to the Asian community.'' Upon those offensive racism accusations creating a "poisoning atmosphere," the show's big-shot producer Cameron Mackintosh actually canceled the Broadway run in August, 1990! 

That set off even more of an uproar, which resulted in profuse debates and arguments, including one by Charlton Heston who resigned from the union in protest. At that point, the Equity authorities changed their minds on the grounds that Jonathan Pryce was an internationally acclaimed star. As Pryce put it, they basically said, "We'll let you in, but you're still a racist — a star racist.'' 

Of course, Rich also pointed out that excluding Pryce from this role would also mean they should have excluded, "Lawrence Olivier's Othello, Pearl Bailey's Dolly Levi, and the appearances of Morgan Freeman in The Taming of the Shrew and Denzel Washington in Richard III in Central Park this summer."

With all of that drama out of the way, the show of course did eventually open on Broadway on April 11, 1991 and ran for almost 10 years. Yes, Cameron Mackintosh has been talking about making this into a movie (ever since 2009, actually), but there have been no more details. Since the success of Glee and the movie version of Les Miserables, I think this is the best time to do a musical film, as musicals are cycling back into the main stream. Might this produce an era of musical movies like in the '60s with hits like Oliver! and West Side Story which both won best picture? We'll see.

Read more:
Entertainment Weekly: "Storm Over Miss Saigon" (Sep 7, 1990)
New York Times: "Jonathan Pryce, 'Miss Saigon' and Equity's Decision" (August 10, 1990)
New York Times: "'Miss Saigon' Arrives, From the Old School" (April 12, 1991) Miss Saigon

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