No, the headline today doesn’t refer to the fractious relationships amongst some of my critical colleagues at the moment, where one minor player who, in the words of Michael Coveney, “is just a bit more blatantly ignorant and stupid than is usual”, has been proving it by responding as if he was actually being supported by him.
There are more important things to worry about, and even sometimes celebrate, in the world - or at least our corner of it. Like the news officially confirmed yesterday that the classic counter-cultural musical Hair is taking a big step across the Atlantic to change at least one small bit of our theatrical culture and insularity from the inside out: this reportedly marks the first time that an entire original Broadway company will transplant their efforts wholesale to the West End.
We may have last week celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, but there’s long been an even higher wall operating between the vested interests of the respective Actors’ Equity Associations in America and Britain, and it is only now finally being breached. Sure, tiny holes have been created in the wall over the years that has allowed stars “of international standing” to crawl through, or what have previously been described as “unit companies”, such as when the National Theatre took their production of The History Boys to Broadway with the original cast. There’s also a complex system of “swaps” in place.
But there have also been long and ugly stand-offs between producers and Equity over the years. Cameron Mackintosh had to threaten to abort the Broadway transfers of two West End shows in the 80s and early 90s, when American Equity wanted to bar first Sarah Brightman from recreating the role she had created in The Phantom of the Opera, then Jonathan Pryce from doing the same thing in Miss Saigon.
As Frank Rich wrote at the time of the latter, “The producer Cameron Mackintosh had no choice but to cancel the Broadway production if he could not employ Mr. Pryce. A producer’s job is to present the best show he can, and Mr. Pryce’s performance is both the artistic crux of this musical and the best antidote to its more bloated excesses. It’s hard to imagine another actor, white or Asian, topping the originator of this quirky role. Why open on Broadway with second best, regardless of race or creed? But there are principles at stake, too, and even if Mr. Pryce’s performance were easily replicated by another actor, Mr. Mackintosh would still be right to cancel Miss Saigon rather than surrender his and his creative team’s artistic rights on the grounds Equity has advanced.”
As he went on, “The barring of Mr. Pryce is insupportable on every level. By refusing to permit a white actor to play a Eurasian role, Equity makes a mockery of the hard-won principles of non-traditional casting and practices a hypocritical reverse racism. This is a policy that if applied with an even hand would bar Laurence 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.”
But even leaving aside the question of non-traditional, or colour-blind, casting - and the role of the Engineer in ambiguous, to say the least, since the role as Rich points out is Eurasian (“half French, half Vietnamese, according to a song lyric, only because of a plot twist that requires the character to have Vietnamese citizenship papers”) - Equity were shooting themselves, and their Asian, black and Hispanic membership, in the foot: as Rich went on to point out, “By inviting the cancellation of Miss Saigon, Equity has denied its minority members the 34 Asian, black and Hispanic roles in this musical - and not merely minor ones, as the union rhetoric would have the innocent believe. The show’s title part of Kim, for starters, has far more stage time and many more songs than the Engineer; because of the vocal demands, this one role alone requires the hiring of two Asian actresses with star billing in London.”
Mackintosh, of course, finally won that particular battle - and Miss Saigon went on to a long and highly profitable run on Broadway of nearly ten years and 4092 performances. Now Cameron is also coincidentally joining the original American producing team in bringing Hair over to London, and also bringing his own career full-circle since, as he said in a press statement yesterday, “Little did I think when I was the production runner on the original London production of Hair in 1968 that 41 years later I would be bringing the Public Theater’s acclaimed new production back to London complete with its extraordinary Broadway cast.”
Already, of course, there have been murmurings of discontent: on one bulletin board, a correspondent wrote, “I am SO excited, so excited. Need the whole cast over please, not just the leads - well Jackie Burns and Kacie Sheik please”, but another promptly replied, “No we don’t - we need more jobs for British actors! I’m glad Hair is coming as it’s something a bit different (though I will be very sad if it signals the end of Avenue Q) but I will be angry if Equity allow the American cast to transfer when there’s a shortage of work but a surplus of talent over here.”
It’s a complex argument, but the truth is there is never enough work to go around as it is; and producers need to create a sense of occasion around their show and give it their best shot. That may well be served here by importing an American cast; and in turn, will support British employment, both backstage, front-of-house and amongst future actors, assuming it runs. And in the long run, more British actors will, in return, get the chance to go to Broadway. There has long been an exchange scheme in place in which the number of weeks that actors work are totted up and exchanged for working weeks in the other country. British actors can only benefit from this; as will audiences.