Broadway of the 1980s was dominated by British imports, all of which were produced by Cameron Mackintosh. He provided the original productions of Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables, among others. When his West End production of Miss Saigon was ready to leap the pond, he ran into some trouble.
The male lead in Miss Saigon is a pimp called "The Engineer," who acts as a narrator, commentator, and occasional participant, to the story. (If Kander and Ebb had written the show, Joel Grey would have played the role.) In the West End, Jonathan Pryce played the part, and Mackintosh had every intention of importing the actor to recreate the role for Broadway. "The Engineer" is described as a Eurasian, a man of both French and Vietnamese heritage, and American Equity, under pressure from the Asian-American acting community, refused permission for the Caucasian Pryce to appear. With some justification, they felt the role should go to an Asian actor.
Mackintosh was the Darth Vader of Broadway at the time, and though Miss Saigon had the biggest advance box office sale in history, he threatened to pull the plug on the production (thus sacrificing hundreds of jobs and thousands of union work weeks). Equity relented, and Pryce opened the show in April of 1991, winning the Tony as Best Actor in a Musical. The show ran over 4,000 performances, and Pryce was succeeded by a long string of Asian-American actors.
Here is the performance of Miss Saigon at the Tony Awards, in which Jonathan Pryce gyrates, salivates, and practically masturbates. The number was apparently one of the showstoppers (I've never seen the show, as I'm afraid of helicopters), and it helped Pryce to his second Tony (he previously won for Comedians in 1977).
This year's Tony Awards are happening on Sunday, and in light of this week's bail-out of General Motors, I doubt anyone will be humping a Cadillac like Pryce did in 1991:
Jonathan Pryce turned 62 this week.