he 2015-2016 Broadway season had the world thinking that theater had done what Hollywood couldn’t – it was, so it seemed, truly inclusive. The unprecedented success of Hamilton underlined the marketability of color-conscious casting: Lin-Manuel Miranda deliberately wrote his musical about America’s founding fathers to be performed by actors of color (with some notable exceptions). And while that’s not the sole cause of the show’s record-breaking ticket and album sales, it certainly figured into the praise that’s been heaped onto it.
It wasn’t just the staggering rise of Hamilton that had theater writers and fans alike celebrating a new, less white era in musical theater. Other crowd- and critic-pleasing hits like The Color Purple (with an all black cast) and On Your Feet (with a largely Latinx cast), and groundbreaking shows like the Asian-American-led Allegiance and Deaf West’s Spring Awakening highlighted the importance of not just white people without disabilities leading shows on New York’s most vaunted stages. When the Tony nominations were announced, the #TonysSoDiverse hashtag quickly emerged, a progressive antidote to the racial homogeneity of the Academy Awards and the accompanying #OscarsSoWhite campaign against them. And, for the first time in Tony history, all four musical acting awards in 2016 went to black performers. “This Broadway Season, Diversity Is Front and Center” read a New York Times headline from September.
But for Asian-American actors, there is a persistent fear of being left out of the conversation entirely, since “diversity” has often been conflated with black representation only. As Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. put it, “In America, things get boiled down into a black and white issue, but I want to see stories about Asian people, I want to see stories about trans people – diversity is not just a black and white issue. … We’ve still got some work to do when you talk about real diversity.”
After all, the 2016-2017 season on the Great White Way already looks distinctly whiter than the last. Even with The Color Purple and On Your Feet still going strong, the 2015-2016 season may have been, as Miranda himself even called it, “a fluke.” Despite that not-so-optimistic assessment of what had been hailed a groundbreaking year in theater, Miranda did conclude in the same June 2016 interview, “The exciting lesson that I hope people are taking away from Hamilton is that you don’t need a white guy at the center of things to make it relatable.”
But Broadway clearly isn’t convinced that an Asian-American guy (or woman) would have the same effect.
“Diversity is not just black and white.”
Ask Jon Viktor Corpuz, who was told by agents that he was “very specific” and would only be able to book certain roles. Ask Erin Quill, who has battled with internet commenters who don’t understand why Christmas Eve – the Japanese character she played in Avenue Q – shouldn’t be played by a white actor. Ask Telly Leung, who was told point blank that Asian stories don’t sell tickets. A dozen Asian-American theater professionals interviewed by BuzzFeed News for this piece shared similar stories: They had all been passed over for roles that were deemed “white” or were asked to lean into archaic stereotypes for “Asian parts.” (It’s worth noting that this piece focuses on East Asian-American actors; the experiences of South Asian-American actors is a different story entirely, equally worth telling.)
As it stands, there are only three Asian-American leads currently on Broadway: Two are in Aladdin – Adam Jacobs as the titular character and Courtney Reed as Jasmine – and the third is Ali Ewoldt, The Phantom of the Opera‘s first ever Asian-American Christine on Broadway. There are only a handful of additional Asian-American actors in supporting roles in shows like Wicked, Waitress, School of Rock, and Cats, and a few more in ensembles. Even Hamilton‘s original Broadway cast only had one Asian-American actor in a principal role: Phillipa Soo, who has since left. At a time in which Broadway is being celebrated for its unprecedented diversity, the discrepancy is staggering.
“There are holes missing when it comes to diversity,” said Ruthie Ann Miles, who won a Tony Award in 2015 for her role in the King and I revival. “Diversity is not just black and white. … It’s a whole. There are such massive groups of people that are just completely missing from the equation.”
Lea Salonga in Miss Saigon.
Joan Marcus / Miss Saigon
mong its merits, the much lauded 2015 King and I revival offered employment for a sizable group of Asian-American actors. When the show closed in June and the actors took their final bows, they found themselves out of a job. The next Broadway show to offer as many roles for Asian-American performers will likely be the Miss Saigon revival, which opens in March.
There’s a reason why so many actors of Asian descent have found themselves in the constant orbit of The King and I and Miss Saigon, and why producers continue to gravitate toward these historically problematic productions. In an industry where change is often a perilous uphill climb, it’s easy to fall back on what has worked in the past – even if it’s not working well enough. The King and I and Miss Saigon have been criticized for their white savior narratives and their reliance on stereotypes, like the so-called barbarism of the Siamese people in the former, and a reductive characterization of the Vietnamese in the latter. They’ve also previously had to be called out for their use of yellowface casting.
While recent revivals have done admirable work in undoing past mistakes, they are still only two shows and the space between them can be a dead zone for Asian-American actors, who have long been among the least represented ethnic groups on Broadway. That hasn’t changed much in 25 years.
When Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce won the 1991 Tony Award for Best Leading Actor, he very pointedly thanked his fellow “multi-racial” cast members of Miss Saigon. It was an odd remark; this was a white actor playing a half-Vietnamese, half-French character, the Engineer, and he had originally worn caked-on bronzer and eye prostheses à la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Left: Actor Jonathan Pryce in yellowface makeup for Miss Saigon. Right: Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer in the West End revival.
Rex Images / Matthew Murphy / Miss Saigon
n the year leading up to Pryce taking the podium, Miss Saigon was embroiled in a heated battle over its racial insensitivity (another white actor, Keith Burns, co-starred as Thuy, an officer in the North Vietnamese army). David Henry Hwang, the Pulitzer Prize finalist and playwright behind M. Butterfly, was one of the first to draw attention to the issue. In August 1990, amid outrage within the Asian-American community, Actors’ Equity took up the cause after being asked to approve the casting, which is standard practice when an actor who is not a US citizen is cast in a Broadway production.
David Henry Hwang.
Walter Mcbride / WireImage
It wasn’t just the yellowface that Equity objected to, but also that Pryce’s casting thwarted the opportunity for an Asian-American actor to take on a high-profile role. “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 in casting Asians in minor roles,” union representatives wrote in their letter of protest.
At the time, the musical’s casting director Vincent Liff argued that Pryce had to play the Engineer because there simply weren’t any Asian-American “stars.” “The Entertainment industry in the United States … have not provided us (at present) a new generation of middle-aged star performers of Asian background upon which we can draw,” he wrote in a letter to Equity. “It is not that the reservoir is empty at the moment, it’s that there is no reservoir. We have no Asian Theatre ‘Stars.’”
Rather than push back on the ruling, Miss Saigon producer Cameron Mackintosh threatened to cancel the Broadway production entirely.
A counter-uproar ensued, during which time Frank Rich at the New York Times lamented, “By refusing to permit a white actor to play a Eurasian role, Equity makes a mockery of the hard-won principles of nontraditional casting and practices a hypocritical reverse racism.” Equity relented. Miss Saigon proceeded as planned, with an April 1991 opening, and Pryce won a Tony in June. (A representative for Pryce did not respond to requests for comment.)
Mackintosh has since ensured that the Engineer will only be played by actors of Asian descent, including for the 2017 Miss Saigon revival. Filipino actor Jon Jon Briones will play the role, as he did on the West End.
“One could argue that the battle was lost but the war was won,” Hwang told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “As a result of the Saigon controversy and the amount of publicity it got, for many years the yellowface casting question seemed to be settled in that producers basically felt that if they cast a white actor in an Asian role, there would be enough of an outcry that it just wasn’t worth the trouble.”
“When you look at the pool of Asian talent, it’s exponentially more bountiful. Unfortunately, the opportunities are not.”
While Mackintosh was unavailable to comment for this story, his representative told BuzzFeed News in an email that, “He has never regretted casting Jonathan Pryce in the role of the Engineer. His brilliant Tony Award-winning performance helped make the show the international success that it’s been for more than 25 years, leading to the employment of hundreds of Asian actors throughout the world.”
The Miss Saigon controversy framed the modern discussion of racial diversity and Asian-American representation on Broadway. But Liff’s original argument that there were no Asian-American actors who could fulfill that critical role would not hold water today.
“When you look at the pool of Asian talent, it’s exponentially more bountiful,” said actor Telly Leung, who starred in the 2015 musical Allegiance, the George Takei-led show that was the only one on Broadway last season to tell a distinctly Asian-American story. “Unfortunately the opportunities are not as exponentially more bountiful.”
According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), Asian-American actors made up only 4% of performers on Broadway and in New York City non-profit theaters from 2006 to 2015. The report does not incorporate the 2015-2016 season, which would have seen a significant lift with Allegiance, a musical inspired by Takei’s memories of life in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. It’s firmly rooted its Asian-American characters in the US – not Siam or Vietnam – during a shameful saga of American history.
That Allegiance stands out amid its contemporaries speaks to the ongoing struggle of underrepresentation of Asian-American actors and stories on Broadway.
The King and I has long been one of the only musicals with multiple roles for Asian-American actors. First performed in 1951 and revived on Broadway four times since, the Rodgers and Hammerstein show is about a white Englishwoman Anna who brings Western education and European values to the “barbaric” King of Siam. The most recent production, directed by Bartlett Sher, honored the original musical while addressing the archaic elements that have opened the show up to criticism in the past: The actors worked to master an authentic dialect, and Sher made sure to avoid the perception that in the clash between Anna’s Western values and Siam’s Eastern values, the West was always more “civilized.”
But the production also stood out for its casting – this King and I was the first on Broadway to cast only Asian-American actors in Asian roles. (Not to mention the fact that there was an Asian-American understudy for Anna. In February, Ann Sanders became the first Asian-American actor to play the role when Kelli O’Hara took a vacation.)
Over the past 65 years, various productions of the show have repeatedly cast white actors as Thai characters. And the actor most famous for playing the King is Yul Brynner, who was white, despite his spurious claims that he was of Mongol origin.
Jon Viktor Corpuz, who played Prince Chulalongkorn in the recent revival, described white King and I audience members proudly telling him about having played Asian characters in their amateur productions of the musical. At first, he would smile and nod, but by the end of the show’s run, he had started calling them out. “That would never be tolerated if it was blackface,” he said. “For some reason, it’s OK for people to do that, put on bronzer and put on eyeliner and call themselves Asian.”
“Under any circumstances blackface is not OK. But with yellowface, it’s still up for debate.”
Corpuz’s King and I co-star, Daniel Dae Kim, shared a similar sentiment. “Under any circumstances blackface is not OK,” he said. “But with yellowface, it’s still up for debate. It’s still an open question, which is very contradictory.”
The King and I is far from the only frequent offender here: Almost every year, news emerges of another production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado done in yellowface. In 2015, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players canceled their production following accusations of racism. But even now, Long Island’s Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company is performing The Mikado with white actors.
It’s up to casting directors, producers, and other members of the creative team to determine who is offered which part – but actors decide which parts to go out for and which to ultimately take. Many of the actors interviewed for this piece said that while the behind-the-scenes team shares in the blame for yellowface casting, they also hold white actors accountable for choosing to take on Asian roles.
“Maybe we need another Miss Saigon incident,” Hwang cheekily offered.
Fred Billington and George Thorne in an 1885 production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.
rin Quill was in the original cast of the outrageous puppet musical comedy Avenue Q where she was the understudy for Christmas Eve, a Japanese therapist with a heavy accent written into the character. Her showstopper ballad “The More You Ruv Someone” plays that up, and while it’s deliberately subversive and borderline offensive for any actor to perform, it becomes truly cringe-worthy when sung by a white person, as it has been in regional and high school productions. Nevertheless, plenty of people have defended the casting of white actors as Christmas Eve.
In March, theater writer and advocate Howard Sherman wrote about why that practice is deplorable, but some readers didn’t get it. On Sherman’s Facebook page, a white man sounded off in the comments; his daughter’s high school was producing Avenue Q with a white Christmas Eve, and he felt that she shouldn’t be deprived of the experience just because they hadn’t found an Asian-American student to cast.
John Lamparski / Getty Images