Surprising none and infuriating some, an arbitrator Jan. 7 ruled that Filipino Lea Salonga’s “unique” abilities make her eligible to repeat her London performance in the title role of “Miss Saigon” on Broadway.
The decision gives producer Cameron Mackintosh a perfect score against Actors’ Equity in bringing the musical to New York on his own terms. Last summer, Equity reversed its decision barring Jonathan Pryce from appearing in the show when Mackintosh threatened to drop the $10 million production, which already had racked up about $25 million in advance sales.
Equity turned down Mackintosh’s request Dec. 11 to bring Salonga to New York, and the producer demanded arbitration. New York U. Law School professor Daniel G. Collins held hearings Dec. 21 and 26 and phoned Equity and Mackintosh representatives Jan. 7, with written verdict to follow. Collins decided that Salonga’s stamina and experience in the role qualified her under the Production Contract, according to Equity exec secretary Alan Eisenberg, because she provided “unique services” to the show.
The “unique services” ruling was a surprise, Eisenberg said. “Obviously, we’re disappointed by the decision. We thought it was a stretch. We feel there is a qualified pool of Asian talent in the United States.”
Eisenberg noted that Collins did not rule on whether Salonga is a star. Equity had anticipated that possibility; she won an Olivier best actress award for her performance.
Tisa Chang, head of the Pan Asian Repertory Theater and an outspoken opponent of the casting of both Pryce and Salonga, insisted there’s plenty of Asian-American talent to fill the major as well as minor roles in “Miss Saigon.” The show will employ some 27 Asian-American actors.
“If Cameron Mackintosh had only said in the beginning that he wanted to bring the production intact,” she said, “he would have had more integrity. To say there aren’t qualified Asian actors is defamatory and libelous.” Chang also blamed Equity for setting up the situation when it waffled on the Pryce decision in August.
“M. Butterfly” playwright David Henry Hwang, another key supporter of using Asian-American actors in “Miss Saigon,” said he was less upset by the Salonga decision than he was about Pryce. But he scoffed at the notion that Asian-American actors don’t have the abilities or star quality of the London cast.
“When Rodgers and Hammerstein were casting ‘Flower Drum Song’ 30 years ago,” he said, “they managed to find Pat Suzuki and Miyoshi Umeki, among others. It sort of makes you long for the good old days.”
Ruling is the second against Equity in recent weeks. Last month, Collins, arbitrator in Equity/League of American Theaters and Producers disputes since 1983, said it was okay for David Merrick to banish an actor in “Oh, Kay!” from curtain calls.
Chang and Eisenberg don’t anticipate any further blocks to “Miss Saigon.” Mackintosh declined, through “Saigon” spokesman Fred Nathan, to comment on the Salonga decision. Nathan added that the show would, as announced, begin previews at the Broadway Theater on Jan. 28, with a Thursday, April 11, opening.