Miss Saigon yesterday broke box office records. I just heard Cameron Mackintosh on 5 live. He was on good form. Sounded very modest and cool.
I auditioned for this production. I auditioned for the infamous Jonathan Pryce “Yellowface” lead role, The Engineer. I had good reasons to think I would do well.
1. Because I am British.
2. Because I am Eurasian (the very ethnic mix they are looking for).
3. Because I am the right age.
4. Because I can sing it.
5. Because I can act it (admittedly this is subjective, but I am one of very few British Eurasian actors who has worked at the RNT, Hampstead, Soho, Birmingham Rep and Royal Lyceum theatres in main parts not to mention having been nominated as best actor at the Manchester News Awards).
6. Because I was in it before, when I understudied the part, 20 years ago, 1992-1994 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
I was delighted therefore to get a call from Cameron Mackintosh’s casting director Trevor Jackson, a few months ago, to prepare a few songs and strut my stuff. This I did and dare I say it, I did rather well. It was obvious to all present that I could sing it. After all, I had remembered to warm my voice up, and had learned the words.
Trevor had called me in after his appearance at the Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee annual Open Meeting, earlier in the summer, which I had arranged. Trevor had initially approached a group I am a member of, British East Asian Artists, to ask how he could avoid the trouble the RSC had got themselves into 6 months previously with the casting of The Orphan of Zhao. I will blog about this story another time, but you can get an idea of it from this article below.
I spoke with him at length, and suggested he officially speak at an Equity annual Open Meeting, given I was (and still am) also a member of the actor’s union’s “Minority Ethnic Members” committee. This was agreed, hastily arranged and Trevor made an appearance before 60 ethnic Equity members at what was quite short notice. It was quite a brave thing to do. He spoke engagingly and acquitted himself in a potentially volatile environment, despite a few early faux pas. The general mood of the meeting was actually very good natured. I have witnessed other such meetings degenerate into a slanging match.
What Trevor said, among other things, was that he encouraged us (as an ethnic minority) to never given up the fight (against being discriminated against) and he hoped he would be able to avoid the Pryce casting controversy of the late ’80s, by casting an East-Asian actor in this role. All this sounded fair and reasonable, but as always the proof would be in the pudding.
So I auditioned, and did so well, with Trevor sat on the panel alongside 2 or 3 others, some weeks after this. I was flabbergasted to learn 2 weeks later that I was rejected. Without recall.
I was tempted to call him and ask how this could be. I still may yet. I was extremely disappointed. Not because I expected Cameron Mackintosh to open a multi million pound musical starring me – I didn’t. I don’t. But rejected without being seen again? After this one audition? After what he had said in front of 60 other actors of ethnic origin? I was disappointed because this threw into doubt the veracity of Trevor’s platitudes that day at Equity and with it, perhaps all the strides the group British East Asian Artists (think they) have made this past year on behalf of East Asian actors.
I was certain that I deserved a recall. To be fair, my agent said that Trevor had told her they didn’t want to waste my time with a load of recalls when the outcome was already clear. I would not be cast in the role so why waste everybody’s time? I agreed with that and again, I am not naive enough to think I would have been cast in the role, so I appreciated the gesture. Initially. But this occurred to me: why am I not being considered to be cast in the show at all? Perhaps I could have understudy responsibilities? That is surely feasible?
If I was able enough to do exactly this 20 years ago (in 1994 I simultaneously understudied The Engineer & the role of Thuy (for which I am now too old)) – and now I am the right age, having 20 more years of performance experience under my belt (not least as ChineseElvis!) then I am surely capable as a performer?
It seemed unfair and implausible. But that’s show-business, I suppose.
It seems equally implausible that they would sell £4 million worth of tickets in advance sales and have no idea who is playing the lead part, which is the story at the moment. Show-business really is unfathomable. To quote Canadian comedian, Stewart Francis, who made the same observation,”In the UK, Sharon Osbourne judges talent”!
I just hope this current ‘worldwide search for a cast good enough for the show’ is not an exact replica of what happened back in the day a quarter of a century ago and it is not all a smokescreen so they can cast a white guy. Not again. 25 years after this shameful episode, it would be extremely bad for race equality and much else.
Incidentally, one problem we learned at that meeting of the Minority Equity Committee is that Equity has no idea or policy to guide what they would do about it. Much like in 1989, they will be clueless and not able to lead the arguments.
The only thing that is different this time is that British East Asians have found a political voice, using the power of the internet and social media to get worldwide support. It is not well organised, which is perhaps one of its strengths, but it has demonstrated itself to be quite powerful and not to be taken lightly.
So we are left with the situation, that we have to keep our fingers crossed that Trevor lives up to his promises. Otherwise, it will be up British East Asian Artists to flag it up again and it may look like sour grapes, when it is really not just that.
Let me put one thing straight. I am a fan of Miss Saigon and want the show to do well and employ many of my British East Asian friends and colleagues for years to come. I would love to be considered seriously to be in it. I just don’t want to see a white actor playing the part of The Engineer.