ORVILLE MENDOZA DISCUSSES PACIFIC OVERTURES, INEQUALITY AND THE ONGOING CONTROVERSIES OF MISS SAIGON
It’s that time of year, kids! That one magic moment in June where the best of Broadway comes together, gets gussied up in all of its finery, walks the red carpet and consistently loses in TV ratings to the NHL Finals and, one year, “Ice Road Truckers.”
But let’s save the Tony Awards for another day. Today, it is my artistic imperative to tell you about one Orville Mendoza. To the common person on the street, he might appear as an everyman, one of the Happy Wanderers or (to fans of Tony Kornheiser) “A Little.” But I am here to feature and celebrate a man beautiful in the face, elegant on the stage and fearless on the page.
I first became aware of Mendoza by way of his standout character turns in shows like Adrift in Macao, Road Show, Found, Passion and the truly superb Charles Francis Chan, Jr's. Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery.
But it was during a mini-tour of Miss Saigon where I became fully aware of the power of Mendoza’s talent, dedication and ability to fearlessly brandish his words as a powerful advocate for common sense and equality. Some might even call him a hero, and I would not disagree. You can learn more about that particular Saigon controversy by using your Google Machine.
Currently, he can be seen as Manjiro in the acclaimed Classic Stage revival of Sondheim and Weidman’s Pacific Overtures. In a fairly unprecedented move, I opt NOT to waste your time with self-indulgent blather. So let’s get to the interview!
I've been a fan since the first staging of Adrift in Macao, in which your character “Tempura” had been “battered by life.” Let's go back a little bit. Where did you grow up and when did the theatre big first bite you? Was your family supportive of this path, and was there a specific moment you realized you wanted this to be your career?
I was born in Manila, Philippines, and my family came to the U.S. when I was two. I grew up in Victorville, CA, in the middle of dirt, tumbleweeds and Joshua trees.
My family are devout Seventh-day Adventists. A Christian theatre troupe came to our church and needed a boy to play Isaac -- they were reenacting the scene where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son and then stops him at the last minute because he sees that Abraham would sacrifice anything for God thereby passing the test — I got the part of Isaac. I think I was six or seven years old at the time. All I had to do was lay there and then get up and hug Abraham at the end of the scene. It was so dramatic. I loved it. I was hooked.
In high school, I played Tevye in our show choir's presentation of "Selections from Fiddler on the Roof." I was a character actor even as a teen.
Fast forward to college. I started pre-med at Loma Linda University/La Sierra and realized that I was miserable. I transferred to Cal-State, San Bernardino under the guise of being a Business major. I secretly took an acting class in the theatre department and once again the acting bug bit.
When I announced to my parents that I was changing my major, they were not happy, to say the least. They had no idea how I was going to make a living. Frankly, I didn't either, but somehow I knew it was going to be alright. When I got the national tour of Miss Saigon after graduation, they were better with my career decision, if not whole-heartedly supportive.
Leaping into Pacific Overtures, you have the distinction of having been a part of both the 2004 Broadway revival and the current production. As an overall piece of art, do you find that its meaning and resonance have noticeably changed in those 13 years?
Pacific Overtures is more relevant now than ever. I think when Sondheim, Weidman and Hal Prince were originally exploring the piece, they wanted to make a statement about how we as Westerners are viewed by the outside world.
With our current presidential administration, we have sort of switched places with the Japan of the 1800's. We are now the ones wanting to keep people out and isolate ourselves. It is a history lesson and it's interesting how for good or for bad, history really just repeats itself.
What was your first exposure to Pacific Overtures? It is SO Sondheim and SO ambitious and SO difficult. Paint me a word picture describing your first reaction to the show.
In the desert, the only culture I got was through PBS and the local library. As a kid, I remember riding my bike to the public library and pouring over their record collection. It was vinyl records and cassettes back then.
One of the first albums I checked out was Pacific Overtures. I had no idea what the show was about, but the pictures showed Asians onstage on Broadway. It was the first inkling that I could possibly be an actor when I grew up. The first time I heard the vamp to "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," I was transported. It was foreign, yet familiar. It was complex and intricate but yet made perfect sense. I didn't understand the brilliance of the lyrics until much later. I fell in love with the songs and Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations which were captured so brilliantly on that original cast recording.
Do you have any particular memories from the Broadway revival that really stood out?
I was a swing so I covered four of the men in the show. The first time I went on in an emergency, I had to be Commodore Perry. In that production, Commodore Perry was a huge puppet body that sat on your shoulders with eyes that lit up. You really couldn't see once the thing was on.
Our set was beautiful blonde wood that was raked in a sort of thrust and surrounded by a pool of water on all three sides. I was terrified. I hadn't really rehearsed the puppet before and I was sure I was going to fall into the water. I survived!
My other memory is knitting backstage, I'm an avid knitter - a skill I picked up on tour. As a swing you have a lot of "hurry up and wait." I was making cashmere gloves at the time. My hero, Paul Gemignani, who was our musical director and conductor, would sit next to me during intermission and would comment on how skilled I was at knitting.
In my head I was yelling, "Ummm, you are mutha-effing PAUL GEMIGNANI! You conducted the original cast on that recording I would check out of the public library five times in a row as a kid! If I had half the skill you have in your little pinky, THAT would be something!"
It's amazing when your heroes live up to and exceed your expectations. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would be making my Broadway debut in a Sondheim/Weidman show working with some of the people on that original cast album.
In this staging, you work once more with John Doyle. Tell me more about his approach to the show and how his essentialist/minimalist take on theatre has affected the source material.
For me, John's approach has made the show incredibly personal. This show has been in my blood for almost four decades now. I've lived a lot of life in that time and the lens I look at the world now has definitely changed from when I was an 8 year old boy. Revisiting this show has been like reuniting with an old friend you haven't seen in a long time. You just kind of pick up where you left off, but hopefully this time wiser and smarter.
This is my third show with John Doyle having been in the original company of Road Show at The Public and his revival of Passion at CSC.
Whenever I work with John, it's like a reset in my artistic ideals. His work requires pure honesty. You don't have a set, props or lavish costumes to hide behind. You just have yourself and your life and your experiences. The thing I always have to remind myself as an actor is that I am enough. John constantly reminds us of that fact as well.
As a character guy, I was trained to deliver things in a specific way (usually very broad and big) to make the joke land or make the scene pop. John's work is completely counter-intuitive to how I was trained in musicals. In his shows, I don't need to put on a crazy accent or give an over the top delivery. I just need to breathe and tell the truth. Sometimes it won't be flashy, but it will be real.
That honesty is tough to do. Honestly, I think most of us really get into acting to be someone else. When what's required is the true essence of you, it's very scary but ultimately, the most rewarding kind of work.
There are big cuts, mostly interstitial scenes, with the biggest controversy being the cutting of “Chrysanthemum Tea.” We were never going to use Kabuki to tell this story. John Doyle is not a Kabuki expert and he knew right away that we would be finding our own physical language for the show. Most of those interstitial scenes were little side stories giving you more of the character of Japan. It is now really focused on Kayama, Manjiro, and Lord Abe and their human relationship. It asks what the personal toll is when a country decides to change radically from it’s former state.
I like to think of John’s work as a distillation as opposed to a trimming. You are getting all of the deep emotional and story points of the show in a concentrated single act. John thought it was important to not let the audience “off the hook” and let them experience the piece uninterrupted. It is a very full 90 minutes.
Did you put in any particular external research in preparation? Tell more about your character and his very particular, very important arc in the telling of the story.
Manjiro is based on an actual historical man named Nakahama “John” Manjiro, aka John Mung. He was rescued from his fishing boat along with his brother and two other men and taken to Hawaii. His brother and the other men decided to go back to Japan, but Manjiro opted to travel with his rescuers back to Massachusetts where he lived for 10 years. He studied in America, learned English and became a proficient seafarer.
He has the distinction of being the first Japanese person to live in America. He did eventually return to Japan where he became a translator and taught at their university. He is highly respected in Nakahama where he is from.
Pacific Overtures takes some liberties with his story. In the opening scene he has come back to Japan taking his life into his hands (since it was law that once you leave, you can’t return under penalty of death) to warn the Shogun of the impending arrival of the Americans.
He befriends a minor samurai, Kayama, who frees him from his death sentence after having come up with a plan to welcome the Americans without them actually setting foot on Japan’s ancestral soil.
As Kayama elevates in rank under the Shogun, Manjiro is promoted to samurai and begins to side with the Emperor. As Kayama and the Shogunate become more seduced by the West and its trappings, Manjiro, once in love with America, now sees the potential permanent damage Westernization could do to his country and becomes more and more traditionalist. Manjiro and Kayama essentially switch places ideologically which leads to tragic ends.
I can relate to Manjiro in that I was born in another country, the Philippines, but having grown up in America since I was 2, feel more American at times than Filipino. It wasn’t until later, when I started studying acting, that I really examined my Filipino-ness. I am forever part of two cultures. I think Manjiro makes a decision that I would never personally make choosing one culture over the other. But as actors we have to ask ourselves, what would it take for me to make the decision Manjiro is making in the play? Again, a very personal journey that I have to go through every night.
Pulling back a bit, I'd like to discuss your overall experience as an Actor-of-Color. What have been the major challenges for you personally, in the casting process? Also, any benefits? You do seem to work a lot and often pop up in predominantly white ensembles. Is that at all bizarre?
As a “character guy,” or an actor who mostly gets cast in supporting roles who are either comedic or villainous, my ethnicity has actually helped. Supporting roles are where casting directors and creatives feel like they can open up the ethnicity of a character without too much risk.
With few exceptions, I've always played supporting or ensemble roles in those predominantly white shows. One of the most wonderful exceptions was when I was a standby understudy in Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway. Every actor in that show is classified by Equity as a principal. I covered 5 of those guys. Each character was uniquely British with accompanying British accent. Except for "Fighting Prawn," of course, who was a Mollusk with an affinity for Italian cuisine.
The biggest challenge I have now is getting more roles with an actual character arc -- someone you follow through the course of the play. Once you're seen as a character actor, it's hard to cross over to leads. It also has a lot to do with my physical type as well. Not only my ethnicity, but my height, weight and receding hairline.
Sadly, they are still an issue in 2017. I know what sells and I'm not necessarily it, but marketability and standards of beauty are totally manufactured, and we are taught as a society what is desirable. I've learned to embrace who I am. Maybe writers, directors and producers will realize that middle-aged people who don't have chiseled bodies live full emotional lives capable of love and at times are the heroes we are all waiting for.
When last we really talked on a journalistic level, it was surrounding your mini-tour of Miss Saigon that was met with protests in a few cities. You were a strong voice in that argument. Do you feel the issue was ever resolved on any level, and what did you take away from that tour?
I think there are many issues revolving around Miss Saigon and they are very different. First, there's the issue of opportunity, which I am very vocal about. If there is any chance that a lead can be played by an Asian because it's explicitly written in the script, the Asian actor should always be the first choice. There are gripes that the Engineer is actually "Eurasian." I may be burning a bridge with the producers of that show by saying this, but to me, that “excuse” is a cop out.
There is NOTHING in the script that explicitly says he is of Eurasian decent -- "My father was a tattoo artist in Haiphong, but his designs on mother didn't last too long. My mother sold her body high on betel nuts. My job was bringing red-faced messieurs to our huts." That's it! No where does it explicitly state their ethnicity. The whole argument of "we're all actors and should be able to play things that are not us" is true EXCEPT when it comes to the issue of opportunity. That's where the line is.
When there is a day that I see an equal number of ethnic people playing Lear or Willy Loman or Mama Rose, then we can talk about people playing whatever they want (and those portrayals better be accurate, respectful and 3 dimensional too!!!)
And don't throw Hamilton in my face as a contradictory example. We could have ten Hamiltons on Broadway and it still won't make a dent in the number of opportunities Caucasian actors have over the rest of us.
The other issue with Miss Saigon is representation -- how Asians are viewed in the piece. The thing that an actual Asian actor can bring to the role is authenticity and respect. Gone are the days where we actors just lie down and become meat-puppets for the director. The best directors I've worked with have always made the rehearsal process a collaboration. When we were protested at the Ordway, the organizers of the protest were careful to leave the actors out of their criticisms of the piece. That was disappointing, because if they had a problem with the Engineer in that production, I was at least 50% to blame.
Having said that, I have a little bit of an issue with the way the Engineer is interpreted in the new revival -- and at the risk of sounding like the protesters in Minneapolis -- I think my brother, Jon Jon Briones' acting is impeccable.
Things I had the biggest issue with in this production -- *SPOILER ALERT* -- the Engineer is an actual murderer, he sniffs coke constantly, and he wields a weapon. For me, the redeeming quality of this character in past productions is that he was sort of a MacGyver. He didn't need anything but his mind and ingenuity to get what he needs. You root for him because of that. This new incarnation really makes one question why they should be on this person's side.
Musically speaking, what is the one moment in Overtures (and all Sondheim shows have them) where you look at the page and just say, ”Are you fucking kidding me??"
The duet that Kayama and Manjiro sing, "Poems" sounds simple and easy, which it should… but it ain't!!! If you look at the music, the intervals are so tricky! Sometimes they change slightly, you'll be singing what seems like the same melodic line, except he'll change the last note by a half step the next time. Musically, it all makes perfect sense, but getting it into your body and your soul is challenging.
Overall, how has the audience reaction to the piece been, especially in such an intimate setting?
From what people have told me after the show in the lobby, those who enjoy it the most had no prior knowledge of the show before our production. I know there are people who miss the pageantry and grandness of Kabuki, but I think there is a danger in that concept too. In the Kabuki presentation, people get seduced by the scenery and the costumes and after about 20 minutes, tune out. It becomes more distancing. Sure the finale, "Next," is more jarring when the cast doffs their kimonos and come out in modern dress, but I think the piece is saying more than "that was then, this is now."
It's about humanity. In our production, you have nothing but the humanity to cling to. Those who have seen and loved the original production come out of our revival and say, "I finally UNDERSTOOD the story!" I tell people who have seen the original or the last Broadway revival to leave all their expectations outside and let the piece unfold in the way we are telling it now.
I have no doubt this show will be revived again with the original Kabuki concept intact, but I love how Sondheim and Weidman -- two living legends -- were completely excited about blowing up their initial idea for the show and see what other way the story could be told. Sondheim famously loves puzzles and thinking out of the box. This was definitely another opportunity for him to solve another puzzle. I can imagine it was probably really fun for him.
Since we have had previous discussions on the topic, what is your general sense on Diversity in Casting, particularly as it pertains to Asian-Americans? For me personally, it is starting to feel like a bunch of Asian people yelling at each other while accomplishing very little. The solidarity seems to have evaporated. As an outspoken, fair-minded veteran of the business, where are we at?
To turn a metaphor, it's three steps forward - two steps back. We make progress but take a couple of steps backward… but ultimately I think we are still progressing forward. It gets tiring when it seems we have to educate people and institutions one person/one institution at a time, but no one said it would be fast or efficient work. As with anything in the biz, tenacity wins. We can't lose the goal. That goal for me is a completely even playing field. An industry that reflects all of our stories and is a TRUE representation of the face of America. Where protagonists are every color under the sun in equal measure. Where they are male, female, trans, gender-neutral, big, small, gay, straight, etc…
It may sound like PC Pollyanna, but look at the world, the REAL world. We are out here and we are all protagonists in our own story, no one story more valid than another. We need to demand that in our media and in our art.
To those unfamiliar with Pacific Overtures and all that it potentially represents and depicts, tell me why you think it is important for people to come out and see it!
There are so many themes in the show that are brilliant and valuable and universal, but to my non-Asian theatre patrons out there, I think coming to a show that is explicitly about a culture that is not your own, yet being able to relate to it and its characters, is that biggest reason why I want people to see this and any other show with Asian principals.
I grew up in this country and 99% of the images and stories I grew up with featured people who looked nothing like me with backgrounds completely different from mine. The few times we are able to flip sides and show that “ethnic stories” are universal stories is always a cause for celebration and people should take advantage of it. And be wildly entertained in the process!!!
Finally, what's next for you??
I like to say I have a few things "in the fire." As of this date, nothing set in stone yet. As I get older, the hardest thing in this business is the "in-between." Some years it can be a true test of your mettle. I've been trying to re-frame the meaning of the "in-between" as a chance to create my own opportunities -- because if anyone's going to write a musical about a middle-aged Filipino-American superhero with a receding hairline, it's going to be me!
Matt Blank is an arts journalist, educator, designer and lecturer. He most recently spent a decade on the editorial team for Playbill.com and as Editor-in-Chief of PlaybillArts.com, publishing over 7,000 articles and covering five Tony Award ceremonies. Follow him on Twitter @MattBlankPlease and Instagram @brdwymatt.