clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the Hamilton casting controversy recalls Broadway's troubled history with diversity

Miss Saigon - Media Call
Jon Jon Briones performs "The American Dream" as the Engineer in Miss Saigon.
Photo by Mike Flokis/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Broadway sensation Hamilton has become a major pop culture phenomenon, primarily through its use of diverse casting to retell the stories of America's Colonial Founding Fathers. But this week, a casting notice on the show's website that originally explicitly excluded white actors from auditioning for its lead roles raised a civil rights lawyer's eyebrows and caught the attention of Actor's Equity Association, the union responsible for protecting actors' rights on Broadway.

In response, a heated debate broke out online as actors, fans, and activists spoke up against attempts to change the wording of the casting notice. On Wednesday, the show's producers added language explicitly welcoming all actors to audition for any part in the show.

Problem solved; everyone goes home happy. Right?

Not quite.

Hamilton's casting notice subverts Broadway's white-as-default thinking, but it caused confusion

As it has everywhere else, diversity has become a flashpoint conversation on Broadway over the past few years. And Hamilton's approach to its subject matter — using a blatantly diverse cast to reclaim historical narratives traditionally populated by white actors — has become so iconic that these days on Broadway, "Hamilton casting" is a commonly discussed production strategy. The casting notice recently posted to the show's website (and later edited) originally explicitly sought nonwhite actors to audition for the lead roles, a way of subverting theater's typical white-as-default casting bias.

A Hamilton casting notice specifically asking for "non-white" men and women.
A Hamilton casting notice specifically asking for "non-white" men and women.
Matthew A Cherry (Twitter)

As the arbiter of casting rules and audition policies on the great white way, Equity has stepped in numerous times over the years to make sure Broadway productions remain open to all. After being alerted by the press to the Hamilton casting notice, whose inclusiveness was first questioned by black civil rights lawyer Randolph McLaughlin, Equity asked Hamilton to reinstate the show's original Equity-approved language, which says that anyone can audition.

Hamilton complied, and restored its nondiscriminatory audition language. But the Broadway community and supporters of diverse media were outraged by Equity's response. In a now-deleted tweet, the union delivered what many found to be a confusingly worded show of support:

A deleted Actor's Equity tweet praising the preservation of diversity in characters while allowing that "all ethnicities may audition."
A deleted Actor's Equity tweet praising the preservation of diversity in characters while still allowing that "all ethnicities may audition."

The tweet provoked a maelstrom of backlash, as well as a nuanced discussion of diversity on Broadway.

Hamilton fans and supporters pored through notices on Backstage and other casting websites, noting that time and again, lead characters were described as being "Caucasian."

But the issue was more complex than it first appeared, and Equity wasn't quite playing the villain.

Some of the trouble stems from the difference between casting characters versus casting actors

It appears the outrage was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how Equity applies its casting policies, which are directed at actors rather than characters. It's this difference that allowed Hamilton's producers to emphasize, even as they added the inclusive-to-everyone language to their website casting notice, that "[i]t is essential to the storytelling of Hamilton that the principal roles — which were written for non-white characters (excepting King George) — be performed by non-white actors."

In other words, as a white actor you technically can audition for the musical's title character or other major roles, including Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and the Schuyler sisters. You almost certainly will not get cast, but you can take a shot. (And, hey, there are a few token white actors in the ensemble.)

Equity spokesperson Maria Somma supported this choice. Speaking to Vox by phone, she stressed that while Equity insists that the "all ethnicities are welcome to audition" language be included in every official Equity casting notice, Equity rules also contain a nontraditional casting clause. That clause stresses "no interference" for the play's "artistic direction."

"We can't interfere or direct them how to cast," she said.

On Thursday, Equity updated its website with an official response to the backlash:

The Equity notice stressed once again that the issue was about making sure all actors have the chance to audition for any role, regardless of what the character description stipulates — and noted that this distinction was crucial in supporting actors of color:

The real issue here is not a single casting notice, or a reporter trying to create a story. The real issue is that in 2016, there are still far too few roles for non-Caucasian actors. In that respect, of course, Hamilton has been groundbreaking, and we hope that the true and exciting diversity on display at the Richard Rodgers inspires casting directors and creative teams throughout the industry.

We will continue to fight for our members of color. We know that you have changed the minds of authors, directors, and choreographers even when the casting notice has said that the character was Caucasian. Equal Employment Opportunity gives you the power to change minds.

But Equity's track record hasn't always been consistent in its attempts to uphold casting requirements for Broadway productions. Speaking to Vox by email, Erin Quill, an actor, playwright, and activist for diversity on Broadway, described it as "checkered."

"In the past, discrimination was present — even as recently as last year a[n Equity] notice went out about a show called Bunty Berman Presents, which requested actors who either were South Asian or who could convincingly 'play South Asian,'" Quill said. "Then there was their flip flop with the first Miss Saigon."

Ah, yes, Miss Saigon.

The yellowface casting of Miss Saigon still haunts Broadway today

White actor Jonathan Pryce wearing prosthetics as the Engineer in Miss Saigon in 1990.
White actor Jonathan Pryce wearing prosthetics as the Engineer in Miss Saigon in 1990.
Arts in Color

One of the most controversial moments in Broadway history, the whitewashed role of the Engineer in the 1991 original Broadway production of Miss Saigon stands today as a piece of notorious racism.

Powerful producer Cameron Mackintosh was importing the production intact from Britain to the US, and it had already made $22 million in advance sales — the most in Broadway history.

But Mackintosh was insisting that his original choice for the part of the seedy Engineer be upheld — well-known character actor Jonathan Pryce, who had earned extreme critical acclaim for playing the role in Britain. The problem? Pryce is white, while the Engineer is French-Vietnamese (the character's real name is Trahn Van Dinh).

Pryce's casting provoked considerable outrage among the Asian-American theater community, and at first Equity scornfully "condemned" Mackintosh's choice to put Pryce in yellowface. But Mackintosh threatened to cancel the entire production if he wasn't allowed to cast Pryce in the role, calling Equity "hypocritical" for "ignoring the list of artistic qualifications we consider essential to perform the part of the Engineer in a star manner."

The question of star power was at the heart of the issue over Pryce's casting. Pryce's Saigon co-star Lea Salonga had been a major star since childhood in the Philippines, and had broken out in a major way in her West End debut in the title role, a fact Mackintosh was able to leverage when Equity ultimately approved her casting despite strict policies limiting the casting of actors not based in the US. For the Engineer, Mackintosh's argument held that after holding auditions for Asian actors around the world, his production just couldn't find anyone who could sell the role who boasted as much star power as Pryce did.

Equity initially held firm — a spokesperson noted that Equity's governing council "believes that it was always the producers' intention to cast the original actor in this role," regardless of how many nonwhite actors he had auditioned. However, in response, Mackintosh preemptively canceled what was already the most profitable production in Broadway history, and the union faced considerable pressure to relent, including from New York Times reviewer Frank Rich, who excoriated Equity's decision as "insupportable ... reverse racism" in a rave review of Pryce at the West End.

In the end, the union folded and allowed the casting to go through, and Pryce famously won the Tony for best actor. Mackintosh notably began to hire more Asian-American actors for his productions following the Equity standoff, which spokesperson Somma told Vox was partly a result of caveats the union put in place in order to approve Pryce's casting. At the 25th anniversary of the musical in 2014, Pryce reprised the role in a dual performance alongside Filipino actor Jon Jon Briones.

Saigon's legacy hasn't held up too well over the years — many anti-fans view it as racist, Orientalist, and othering. In recent years a protest group, Don't Buy Miss Saigon, has tracked performances of the musical and organized protests around them. A planned New York revival of the musical ushered in an accompanying — if tiny — social media protest, #MissedSaigon. (For her part, Salonga stated in 2013 that the show's large Asian cast provided an important way for actors of color to get paid.)

For actors of color on Broadway, the feeling is that things have changed — but not enough

The significance of Saigon still looms over Equity and the Broadway cultural landscape, but diversity activist Quill was quick to acknowledge that the union's policies and approach to diversity have changed and evolved over the years. Likewise, Equity spokesperson Somma pointed out that the union's approach is essentially the inverse of what Mackintosh argued in the '90s — instead of insisting that productions must allow white actors to audition alongside actors of color, the goal is to allow actors of color the opportunity to change the preconceptions of auditioners.

"Equity wants to make sure that its members are given the chance to audition for any role that they believe that they can do," she said, "and that’s why our language includes that all ethnicities are welcome." She continued:

The talent of our members is extraordinary and actors can go into an audition and change the minds of the people who are casting because of how the actor auditions. They should have the opportunity and people should take the opportunity to go in and audition. The union believes in diversity and has a history of pushing for diversity. And this language is there to make sure those doors stay open for everyone.

Somma noted several recent productions that have featured diverse casts and actors of color in lead roles as a result of this open-door audition policy. But in reality, this may be a far too optimistic stance. A 2012 study by the Asian-American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) revealed that between 2005 and 2011, even with Equity's nondiscrimination clauses, white actors were cast in 79 percent of all available parts on Broadway.

The same season Hamilton received acclaim for diversifying Broadway, the musical Allegiance, which also starred Salonga, was praised for having a mostly Asian cast and production team, yet it failed to find its audience and closed after only a few months. At BroadwayCon in February, panelists discussing diversity were quick to emphasize that even when actors of color make it onstage, often they're one of only a few nonwhite actors, in a show produced by a white creative team. It can all make Broadway feel very lonely.

That's why Somma emphasized to Vox that the push to diversify Broadway shouldn't be laid solely at the feet of Actor's Equity. "From casting directors to theater agents, everybody has to do it together," she said.

But if anything, this week's dustup over Hamilton revealed how much distrust still lingers among the public toward Equity and the theater establishment over issues of diversity. If the industry is going to do it together, it might need to start by ensuring that "together" doesn't feel like an exclusionary word.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.