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The Fall of 'Miss Saigon' : Casting: Producer Cameron Mackintosh cancels the Broadway show because Equity refuses to let him use his English star in the lead. The objection was based on casting a white actor as a Eurasian.

August 09, 1990|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

America will miss "Miss Saigon."

The Broadway production of the $10-million musical was canceled Wednesday by its British producer Cameron Mackintosh, angry that Actors' Equity vetoed his casting English star Jonathan Pryce in a lead role.

The union denied permission Tuesday for Pryce to re-create his London role in "Saigon." Equity had been prodded by Asian-American activists who objected to the casting of a white actor in a Eurasian role.

The show had already sold $25 million worth of tickets in advance of its March opening--the largest advance sale in Broadway history.

"Racial prejudice does seem to have triumphed over creative freedom," said a statement from Mackintosh and the show's creators, who also charged Equity with violating agreements with the League of American Theatres and Producers and British Actors' Equity, as well as "fundamental principles of federal and state human rights laws" and federal labor laws.

The statement cited a personal assurance from Equity's executive secretary Alan Eisenberg to Mackintosh, from "several months ago," that "there would be no problem at all" in the casting of Pryce--who subsequently turned down other work in order to appear in "Miss Saigon." The producer also cited a loss of $600,000 in pre-production costs and noted "a substantial loss" by the Shubert Organization, which had reserved its Broadway theater for the show.

Actors' Equity had not issued a response to Mackintosh's charges by press time Wednesday; Equity officials were said to be in meetings much of the day. But late Tuesday, Eisenberg and Equity president Colleen Dewhurst released a statement explaining the Pryce decision, which was made by the union council in a vote Tuesday afternoon. The trade paper Daily Variety reported the vote was 23-19 against approval of Pryce. The organization lists 69 council members and nine officers on its letterhead.

"The casting of a Caucasian actor made up to appear Asian is an affront to the Asian community," said the union's statement. "This 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."

Preempting criticism that the union was violating its own policy on non-traditional casting, Dewhurst and Eisenberg defined the term as "the casting of ethnic actors in roles where race or gender is not germane to the character. Non-traditional casting was never intended to be used to diminish opportunities for ethnic actors to play ethnic roles."

There would have been 34 jobs for minority actors in the planned production, and a total of 50 jobs under an Equity contract. Equity was "well aware of the threat that we comply with the demand (to approve Pryce) or we will be punished by the loss of jobs," according to the statement from Dewhurst and Eisenberg.

Mackintosh has a contractual right to take the matter to arbitration, and Eisenberg acknowledged Tuesday that "our lawyers have already indicated that it would be a very difficult case for us to win in arbitration. But we have some good arguments."

"Equity has abdicated responsibility for its own actions," responded Mackintosh, labeling the suggestion of arbitration "cowardly." He said he would not go to arbitration "simply to prove a legal point. The inaccurate and inflammatory statements which Equity has made . . . have served only to create a poisonous atmosphere" which, he said, could not be cleared by arbitration.

Mackintosh's decision not to go to arbitration means that "lost employment and lost revenues are ultimately his responsibility," said the Equity statement.

Until now, Equity had never used its veto power over foreign performers for racial reasons. Mackintosh said that contractual agreements prevent Equity from invoking a veto except on the issue of whether the performer is a star. "Equity has previously certified Mr. Pryce as a 'star,' when it endorsed his appearance on Broadway in 1984," the producer said.

Star status was the issue Equity raised regarding Mackintosh's casting of the British actress Sarah Brightman as Christine in the New York production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera." Equity eventually allowed Brightman to perform.

Lloyd Webber supported his colleague Tuesday: "I'm not saying that there cannot be anyone other than Jonathan who could play that role or that only Sarah could play Christine, but the point is that (Pryce) was involved with this production in the first place, as Sarah was, and he was the producer's first choice. 'Saigon' is not my show, but there's a parallel. To keep him from appearing in America is an extraordinarily pigheaded decision. I can't believe we're in this situation."

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