Drama over ''Miss Saigon'' -- Why Jonathan Pryce may not be able to reprise his role as the Engineer in the States

After the curtain fell on his final performance in the musical Miss Saigon on Aug. 18, star Jonathan Pryce trooped upstairs with the rest of the cast for a farewell party in the Grand Circle Bar at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Surrounded by friends and well-wishers, Pryce (best known in the U.S. as the star of the film Brazil) savored champagne and sheer triumph. Thanks largely to his bravura performance as the play’s antihero-a Eurasian pimp called the Engineer who runs a G-string circus in a squalid wartime Vietnam brothel — Miss Saigon has become one of the greatest hits in the history of the London stage (it was sold out for a year in advance), earning scalpers $150 a ticket and Pryce the kind of critical accolades that make theater legends.

But only hours earlier, when asked, just before going on stage, whether he intended to re-create his Miss Saigon performance when the show comes to the U.S., Pryce shook his head and muttered bitterly, ”I still have to think it through.”

For Pryce, the opportunity to become the toast of Broadway as well as London’s West End has been soured by the ugliest transatlantic arts controversy in recent memory. On Aug. 7, the American Actors’ Equity union set off the fracas by trying to bar Pryce from the New York production of Miss Saigon on the grounds that a white Welshman had no right to portray a half-French, half-Vietnamese character; the union argued that the role should go to an actor of Asian ancestry.

Even before the public spat began, U.S. theater fans were avid to see the show: Miss Saigon racked up advance ticket sales of $25 million, shattering the $17 million record set by The Phantom of the Opera. Buyers had every reason to expect a smash, since Miss Saigon was produced by Cameron Mackintosh, the man behind Les Misérables, Cats, and Phantom. Miss Saigon even boasts a stage gimmick to match the barricades, spacecraft, and chandelier of those shows — a hovering helicopter. The story involves a GI and a Vietnamese beauty who fall in love while the country falls to General Giap in 1975. But the crucial performance was Pryce’s, in what The New York Times‘ Frank Rich called ”the role of his career…as essential to Miss Saigon as (Joel) Grey’s was to Cabaret.”

Actors’ Equity disagreed, blasting Pryce’s casting as ”an affront to the Asian community.” But Equity hadn’t taken the full measure of the man who controls Miss Saigon‘s fate. Producer Mackintosh, whose wealth is estimated at $123 million, promptly canceled the Broadway production. ”Mackintosh is one of the few people in the world who can remain relatively calm while losing millions of dollars,” says Peter Plouviez, the head of British Equity, the actors’ union.

On this side of the Atlantic, Actors’ Equity’s action set off a firestorm of debate. Equity union member Charlton Heston resigned in protest, and the union’s board quickly voted to reverse the Pryce ban. But the carefully worded Equity statement lifting the ban seemed to admit Pryce on a technicality: Equity claimed that, as a recognized ”international star,” Pryce was exempt from its authority, but it came close to reaffirming its accusations of racism, saying it had ”applied an honest and moral principle in an inappropriate manner.” Pryce complained that Equity was essentially telling him, ‘We’ll let you in, but you’re still a racist — a star racist.”

For Pryce and Mackintosh, the lingering sting of Equity’s accusation may be the biggest obstacle to bringing the show here. Mackintosh has said he will negotiate with Equity, but says it’s up to the union to dispel ”the profoundly unpleasant atmosphere currently surrounding the production.” He insists, ”We must increase opportunities in the theater for artists of color, but in doing so we must not permit artistic freedom to be compromised.” He hasn’t convinced the dissidents. Actor Paul Winfield (Presumed Innocent) says, ”I support the original action by Actors’ Equity, and am sorry they chose to reverse that brave decision.”

Mackintosh will meet with the union in New York as early as this week, bearing a list of casting demands. He has expressed doubts that he can fill the show’s 27 Asian roles drawing solely from American Equity’s 400 Asian members. Pryce, before leaving for an extended vacation, said his plans were still ”on the edge.” In the end, Miss Saigon will almost certainly come to American shores — perhaps as soon as the spring of ’91 — but not until the producer is satisfied. In other words, the show must go on — but on Mackintosh’s terms.