Let me make this clear, I mean all disrespect towards Mr. Sondheim with this column. I’ll gladly recognize him as a monumental figure in musical theatre history, but in the same breath mention that he has massively disappointed me.
In an interview with St. Louis On The Air , Sondheim talked about some of the protests against whitewashing in productions of West Side Story and The King and I.
He said, "The most famous example of that was a production of Miss Saigon, the original production in New York, where there were great protests because Jonathan Pryce was not an Asian. That kind of protest, I just find sort of silly," he said. "If you carry that to its extreme than you'd have to say that an actress couldn't be played by anyone but an actress and that a mother couldn't be played by somebody who hadn't been a mother. I mean, it's ridiculous."
For the record, this is what Pryce looked like in Miss Saigon. It’s as cringe worthy now as it was 30 years ago. Even Pryce has said it was a mistake.
I wonder if he would be okay with an all-white cast performing Pacific Overtures? Actually, I know for a fact that he does, given that he gave his blessing for this bullshit production in London in 2014.
Not surprising, most critics ignored the fact that the cast was all-white males and gave it rave reviews.
He probably didn’t have an issue with the whitewashing that occurred in the film of West Side Story or Rita Moreno being forced to darken her skin. Or the upcoming whitewashed production opening in Australia this spring.
While I’m massively disappointed in Sondheim’s comments, I’m not particularly surprised. His view is the typical moronic response I often hear from white performers who feel it’s their Caucasian right to portray any race they want to on stage. I’m also not surprised that an 88-year old white man isn’t “woke” when it comes to equal representation on stage, few from that generation are(Yes, I meant that to be as insulting as it sounds). And not for nothing, but if you “carry” anything to the extreme, it can become ridiculous. No one has ever said that mother characters should only be played by actual mother actresses. Stating that only mocks and minimizes the marginalization of performers of color. It’s the same as a racist in the 1950’s complaining against desegregation by saying “What’s next? A Black President?” You get the idea.
Thankfully, younger generations are understanding that the continued practice of “blackface”, “yellowface” and any other type of “face” is wrong. But the problem is that many who don’t seem to have a problem with it, still hold positions of power and influence in the theatre industry.
So when someone who truly belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of musical composers endorses whitewashing, a lot of people who agree are going to be empowered. I have long said that when it comes to casting, the default goes to the author’s intent. And when the author doesn’t have a problem with white people playing Asian, Latin or Black roles, that’s a problem.
Mr. Sondheim may be a hero to many, but he's not an ally to us.