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 aJapanese-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.” “Until now my best strategy was auditioning for Hispanic roles as well, because I can look the part,” he added, noting that he played El Gato in the Broadway musical “Wonderland.”
Still, he has slowly started winning roles that traditionally went to white actors. He was cast as Bill Sikes in “Oliver!” last fall at Paper Mill Playhouse — a decision that surprised him so much that he asked executives if the audience would accept him in the role. (“No one batted an eye,” he recalled.) It was a far cry from his experience in the lead role of Melchior in a Sundance Institute workshop of the musical “Spring Awakening” in 2000. By the time the show reached Off Broadway and then Broadway in 2006, the role had gone to Jonathan Groff, who is white.
Trip Cullman, a director who mostly works Off Broadway, has cast several Asian-American actors, including Sue Jean Kim and Maureen Sebastian, in roles that were not explicitly Asian.
“I like it when the casting of a play reflects my experience of the world around me,” said Mr. Cullman, who is white. “Expanding my collaborators’ notions of who could be ‘right for a role’ seems to me to be a moral and political duty.”
The numbers of Asian-Americans in New York theater roles have been stubbornly low for years. Between the 2006-07 and 2012-13 theater seasons, Asian-Americans filled about 3 percent of the roles on Broadway and at major Off Broadway theaters, according to a new study by Asian American Performers Action Coalition, an advocacy group. Hispanics had roughly the same numbers of roles, while black actors had 14 percent and white actors had 79 percent.
On Broadway, where producers tend to cast Hollywood names to help sell tickets, Asian-Americans actors are still more likely to be the wise adult or the best friend. In “Matilda,” Celia Mei Rubin is in the ensemble and understudies the role of Mrs. Phelps, the kindly librarian who has been played so far by black actresses. In another musical, “Mamma Mia!,” Ashley Park is in the chorus and understudies the character of a best friend, usually played by white actress.
Some shows with Asian-related story lines and characters, like recent revivals of “Flower Drum Song” and “Pacific Overtures” and David Henry Hwang’s play “Chinglish,” have struggled to find audiences on Broadway. A new musical, “Allegiance,” about a Japanese-American family in a World War II internment camp, starring George Takei and the Tony Award winner Lea Salonga (from the original “Miss Saigon”), has waited a year so far to get an offer from one of Broadway’s theater owners.
“You need Lucy Liu to have a hit on Broadway,” said Tisa Chang, who in 1977 founded the Pan Asian Repertory Theater, which significantly expanded opportunities for Asian-American performers. “But ideas like an Asian-American production of an American classic are absolutely workable.”
If it’s Off Off Broadway, that is. A new “Death of a Salesman” is running in a 99-seat theater through June 29 starring South Asian actors as the Loman family, including the show’s producer, Saima Huq, as the matriarch Linda. She put up $25,000 from savings and credit cards to mount the show.
“There was no way I could ever imagine playing an iconic role like Linda unless I put on the show myself,” she said.
But “Here Lies Love” did not rely on Asian-American creators or producers; most of them are white.
“It shows that white and Asian artists can create really great work together,” said Ms. Miles, who was born in Arizona and spent much of her childhood in South Korea. “You get to tell the ultimate story — a person’s whole life story — and that person is a very complicated, very human, stereotype-free Asian who is surrounded by other Asian characters. It’s a dream come true for me.”