To be Filipino on Broadway
By Cristina DC Pastor
Getting a role on Broadway is like reading the tea leaves. Sometimes, it comes easy, other times you have to go to a hundred auditions and callbacks until you land it. Sometimes, the culprit is an unmotivated agent, other times it’s the casting director with blinders. Race is one of the factors, but it is not the only one.
“As an actor, it is hard to get cast, generally speaking,” said J. Elaine Marcos, a theater veteran who is playing the mail-order bride Cynthia in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”
“Whether I’ve lost a role because I’m Asian, I don’t know.”
J. Elaine summed up the sentiment of many Filipinos in the Great White Way. Many of them say they are “blessed” to be getting good roles; whether they have been racially passed over they couldn’t tell. Like being declined for a job, the hiring officer will not say he would rather go with someone younger and single.
Last month, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition met at Fordham to examine the underrepresentation of Asian actors on New York City stages. The marginalization is dramatized by way of declining numbers as tracked by the AAPAC.
“Asian Americans comprise 12.9 percent of New York City and is the city’s fastest growing major minority group, yet Asian American actors accounted for only 1.6 percent of all available roles in new productions on Broadway,” said AAPAC. “There were only 18 principal Broadway contracts for Asian American actors in the last five years.”
Asian performers “do not seem to be a part of the trend” towards more inclusive casting, said AAPAC.
“Asian American performers saw their numbers drop, from 3 percent of all roles five years ago to 1 percent in the 08/09 and 09/10 seasons with a slight uptick to 2 percent this past year,” it said. The numbers are becoming worrisome. In the past three years, according to AAPAC, numbers of non-traditionally cast roles increased for Latinos while they decreased for Asians.
“I feel blessed,” said actress Catherine Ricafort. “In most of my experience in professional musical theater, I have found myself working in a very diverse environment.”
In “Mamma Mia” where she plays a teenager in a Greek island, there are usually three Asian American cast members, each playing or understudying different roles.
“Most of the casting directors I have met have been very progressive, and considered me on multiple occasions for roles without regard to my ethnicity,” she said. Lucky indeed, as the celebrated Tony winner Lea Salonga who snagged a non-Asian role in “Les Miserables” as Eponine, a young French woman. Or Mig Ayesa who played rocker Stacee Jaxx in “Rock of Ages.”
Very rarely do Filipinos land non-Asian parts. It is more common for them to portray Asian characters in productions, such as “Miss Saigon,” “Flower Drum Song,” or “The King and I.” But how often do Asian-themed musicals open on Broadway or off?
The industry ratio appears to be is 80:20, where 80 percent of roles go to Caucasian actors and a myriad of ethnicities compete for the token 20 percent. Some say it’s up to the casting director to bring in more non-Caucasians and balance the mix.
It would be wonderful, said Catherine, if Broadway would encourage books/material that open up more opportunities “in the same way that ‘Miss Saigon’ and ‘In The Heights’ opened a lot of doors for performers with diverse backgrounds.”
The two Filipino actors in the Broadway revival of “Godspell” defended the diversity in their production
“’Godspell’ is a step in the right direction,” said George Salazar whose mother is Filipino and whose father is Ecuadorian. The cast of the Stephen Schwartz musical includes three Asians, three African Americans and two Latinos. “Not one color dominates the cast,” he said.
As a Fil-Hispanic, George said he could technically aspire for roles meant for Asians and Latinos. But the “world is changing,” he added, and it’s just a matter of time for Broadway to realize the diversity that truly reflects the city of New York.
Like George, Anna Maria Perez de Tagle – who is debuting on “Godspell” – said she wished “there were more” Asian Americans on Broadway. Asians, she said, “work very hard and try to do their best” in whatever roles come their way.
The actors said they usually audition for all types of roles including those that are ethnic-specific.
“I would always go,” said J. Elaine. “I need to get into that room to show people what I’ve got. They don’t need to decide right away. Maybe they’re looking for chemistry of all actors involved. I’m hoping, they will appreciate the idea that I am Asian and that I am also talented.”
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