Here Lies Progress: Asian Actors Fill the Playbill in New York ; Shows and Revivals on Broadway Are Steadily Increasing Demand

By Healy, Patrick | International New York Times, June 24, 2014 | Go to article overview

Here Lies Progress: Asian Actors Fill the Playbill in New York ; Shows and Revivals on Broadway Are Steadily Increasing Demand


Healy, Patrick, International New York Times


"Here Lies Love" and several upcoming revivals have increased the demand for Asian-American actors, and Asians are landing roles that traditionally go to non-Asians.

After decades of inching toward center stage, Asian-American theater actors are facing something that they've rarely enjoyed in New York: demand.

An unusual bonanza of jobs is in the offing from new shows as well as two anticipated Broadway revivals, "The King and I" and "Miss Saigon." More plays and musicals are also telling stories from Asian viewpoints, a long-held goal of Asian-American artists. And increasingly, Asians are landing roles that traditionally go to non- Asian actors.

The biggest game-changer is "Here Lies Love," one of those rare musicals that become critically acclaimed commercial hits Off Broadway and have an open-ended run. Even more uncommon, it's all about an Asian character. The subject is Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines. With a cast of 17, the show is the first in years to offer the prospect of steady employment to Asian- American actors. Productions of "Here Lies Love" are also in the works for San Francisco and London this fall, with Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver and Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, under consideration.

"Asians are used to being the third actress to the right of the star," said Ruthie Ann Miles, a Korean-American who spent 10 months in a blond wig on the road in "Annie" before landing the role of Mrs. Marcos. "The wig," she added, "was supposed to make me fit in with my two white sisters. Those were the things a lot of us did to get work."

Actors say they are also making steady gains in smaller theaters, landing more roles that they describe as "nontraditional." In recent months a Japanese-born actor played Romeo opposite a white Juliet at the Classic Stage Company and a Filipino-American actor was Bill Sikes in "Oliver!" More Asian-Americans have also been creating characters named Heather and Claire who were not written specifically as Asian.

"Casting directors are starting to take Asian diversity seriously, after focusing mostly on black and Hispanic actors," said Pun Bandhu, an actor who was cast as several minor characters in the 2012 Broadway revival of "Wit."

For the 2014-15 season, at least three new plays written by Asian- Americans will open Off Broadway -- including one, "Straight White Men," in which the female playwright, Young Jean Lee, is offering her take on white characters. Such new works are rarer on Broadway; while there have been African-American productions of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "A Streetcar Named Desire," there has yet to be an Asian-American Big Daddy or Stanley Kowalski.

Yet casting does begin next week for "The King and I," which will start performances in March at Lincoln Center Theater and feature about 30 Asian characters. "Miss Saigon," which reopened in London last month with Asian-American actors in lead roles, is expected to return to Broadway during the 2015-16 season; the show has more than a dozen Asian characters and originally ran 10 years on Broadway.

But compared to "The King and I" and "Miss Saigon," which have been criticized for recycling some Asian stereotypes, the Filipino- centric story of "Here Lies Love" represents both an artistic breakthrough and an emotional high point.

"For years I've mentored Asian actors to prepare themselves for the lack of Asian parts out there," said Jose Llana, a Filipino- American actor who plays Ferdinand Marcos in "Here Lies Love. …

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