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The Ensemblist is an inside look at the experience of being a Broadway performer- from the first rehearsal through performing eight shows a week and beyond. Whether you’re an experienced theatre professional or a passionate fan, The Ensemblist will give you the opportunity to get to know new performers and the great work they do onstage, while also shedding light on some of the hidden innerworkings of the Broadway experience. Created and hosted by Mo Brady (The Addams Family, SMASH) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Chicago, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), The Ensemblist is the only podcast that shows you Broadway from the inside out. 

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AN “UNCLE TOM” FOR UNCLE TOM, OR: HOW I LEARNED TO SPEAK UP (PART 1)

Mo Brady

by Emilio Ramos

The day had finally arrived.

 Emilio Ramos

Emilio Ramos

It was a hot mid-May evening and I was on a Peter Pan bus from Boston to New York, when I saw that The Muny was getting ready to reveal the cast of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway via their Instagram story. I had been sitting on my accepted offer for months and was eager to know who I’d be sharing the start of my summer with.  

When it was announced in late 2017 that The Muny would be tackling this enormous feat (a full-scale revival of the Tony-winning revue which had not been seen since it closed a national tour in the early nineties), I knew I had to be a part of it. The meat of my resume is various productions of West Side Story and The King and I, so the Robbins vocabulary is very close to my heart - I feel it in my bones. Shortly after the audition in February, I found out that the job was mine: I would be honoring one of my heroes, an unparalleled storytelling genius, and getting to learn his lesser known works from the show’s original associate choreographer, Cynthia Onrubia. It was going to be perfect.

The principal cast was revealed first. Tony-nominee Rob McClure had already been announced to play Jason Alexander’s Tony-winning role as the emcee of the evening, “The Setter." There were people I had been dying to work with since I started in New York on the list, fierce dancers and actors who I was ecstatic to be listed amongst. One such actor was Sarah Bowden, an Australian who had spent the majority of her career as a star in Europe, and had recently relocated to the US.  Her Cassie in A Chorus Line at the Hollywood Bowl had been a hit. As a fellow Aussie, I was excited to get to know and work with her.  

Like the other principals, I noticed she was playing multiple roles. It’s a huge show, and I knew from an Ensemblist interview with Megan Larche Dominick, the Muny’s resident casting director, that a lot of the cast “tracks" resembled the original production’s, to help with the Muny’s famously expedited rehearsal process.  Sarah was announced to be playing “Claire” in On The Town, “Fruma Sarah” in Fiddler on the Roof… 

…and “Tuptim” in The King and I’s “Small of House of Uncle Thomas” sequence.  

When I read this, my stomach dropped. This iconic Asian role was being whitewashed.  How could this have happened? A production this size, this monumental, with an Asian-American woman (Onrubia) at the helm? I was flabbergasted. But, I rationalized with myself, surely there was a reason for this that I was missing out on. This was history in the making, and this one oversight had to have some sort of thought behind it.  I quickly laughed it off and rolled my eyes. I would give the team a chance to explain themselves. All would be revealed in due time.

This is the part where I write a disclaimer: The following is a personal account and an opinion piece. I am writing about my own experience as an actor in the thick of the controversy that ensued during our run at The Muny. My views do not necessarily reflect that of anyone at The Muny, anyone on the JRB creative team, or any of my fellow cast mates. This piece, and opinions expressed forthwith, are entirely my own.

In addition to The Muny’s usual ten days of rehearsal prior to opening, the JRB cast was given an additional five days of rehearsal in NYC to complete the West Side Story portion of the show, as well as get a head start on High Button Shoes’ “Mack Sennett Ballet." That weekend was fast and furious, but it was clear from the first few steps of rehearsal that this was a dream cast. A group of focused, openhearted artists with nothing but reverence for the history we were making.  I was humbled to be amongst them. Soon, we were off to St. Louis where we met the additional cast members who hadn’t been called for the NYC rehearsals. We shook hands and fawned over our collective luck: here we were, at last. Rehearsals had begun.

When numbers began to be set, it was clear that it was a race against time. We worked extremely hard to get the pieces to show-standard as quickly as we could, absorbing and applying each detail as fast and as accurately as we could.  “Charleston," a beast of a story-ballet from Billion Dollar Baby, was set entirely in four hours. FOUR. It was a rush of accomplishment. When King’s “Uncle Thomas” ballet was given one day to get the majority of it on its feet, I was confident that it could be done - I was overly familiar with the piece (having been a part of the show’s most recent Broadway revival and tour), and I knew this group could easily grasp it. For whatever reason, this was not the case.  Many of the dancers unfamiliar with the specifics of Robbins’ King vocabulary were left confused, and the story unclear to them. Wanting so badly for it to be of the standard of everything else in the show, I worked with our associate, Michael, and our dance captain, Robin, to give insight into the movement and provide clarity to our extraordinary ensemble of dancers. 

“Uncle Thomas” is unlike other Robbins’ pieces. In the context of JRB, I would say it has the most in common with the Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story sequences, as it tackles cultures that are not representative of Robbins’ own Jewish-American backgroundWhen originally working on these shows, Robbins would do his research (as much as he could in the mid-twentieth century) on that particular culture and then do his best to fuse his western, classical ballet background with the aesthetic of the show’s locale. Fiddler has a Eastern-European bounce in its step, and West Side Story’s Sharks mambo to a clave beat. In the case of The King and I, it’s clear that Robbins studied eastern movement and Thai art, took those shapes and melded them into a vocabulary that dancers with western training could understand - a classical port de bras, for instance, applied with upturned fingers and a cocked head, became a big part of the show’s dance-language. Robbins, with help from his many associates, was a master of deep cultural appreciation, not appropriation. It is important here to distinguish the two.

We roughly finished “Uncle Thomas” and it was time for our designer run, the first time we would see all the pieces together in the context of our larger show. At the end of Act One, when Tanairi Vasquez absolutely killed her turn as Anita in West Side, I had a thought. In the 1989 Broadway production, Charlotte d’Amboise (while absolutely dancing the sh*t out of it) was a white-washed Anita, and here we were in 2018 with a gorgeous Puerto Rican woman paying tribute to her culture through one of the most beloved characters in the musical theatre canon. As a Filipino, who identifies ethnically as both Latinx and Asian, the Latinx portion of my ethnic identity was soaring. Representation is good for the soul.

Act Two begins with The King and I sequence. Due to the time constraints, this would essentially be the first time we would hear the narration of the Tuptim character as we performed the ballet.  Sarah sat on her stool and began. As she started, her voice shifted away from her natural tone.  She was doing an affectation of an accent. There was that stomach drop again. As soon as I could, I looked to our fearless leader, Cynthia. She was nodding and whispering notes to our production assistant, Matt. I vaguely remember asking someone afterwards, “Is Sarah doing that voice of her own accord?” The response was that she and Cynthia had worked on it for hours, and the accent was a directional choice. Where my Latinx side soared, somewhere inside me my Asian pride was deflating. The discomfort settled in me and I felt defeat.  

Usually, this is the point where I would say something… but I froze. I don’t know why, but if I were to guess, it would have to do with a combination of things. The creative rush of what we were achieving with the show; how much I adore Cynthia; how much respect I have for Sarah’s craft; my status as (“just!”) an ensemble dancer. I decided that it was, as I put it, “above my pay grade." I would shut my mouth and bear it.  We were recreating an old show, and old shows are reflections of their eras.  In 1989, no one batted an eyelid at d’Amboise as Anita, or a white Tuptim, or the “souvenir stand” sequence in On The Town, which features an unfortunate pass with three sailors donning grass skirts and Native American headdresses. The pieces represented in JRB were originally produced between 1944 and 1964. Times have (fortunately) changed in America. We did not have the time to sit down and reflect on what was happening; we were putting this show up, and that was that. Again, I rationalized. I would go along with it.

I was one of four Asian-Americans in the cast, and three of us (due to the nature of tracking) were part of The King and I sequence. The other two, Jessica Fry and Erica Wong, danced the lead roles of Angel/George and Eliza, respectively (and exquisitely, I might add). I approached them all outside of work to ask their opinions. It turned out that emotionally we were all in the same conflicted boat - the choices made us uncomfortable, but Cynthia (who is of Filipino descent) was doing her job a director, as was Sarah as an actress, and so none of us wanted to speak up. We decided it just wasn’t our place.

The show was refined and finessed the closer we got to opening night. I can only speak for myself, but I’m positive anyone involved will tell you how deeply we all fell in love with the final product. I knew Jerome Robbins was a master, but to witness, and even more to embody the breadth and depth of his genius was something I’ll treasure as long as I live. Here was fifty artists pouring every ounce of themselves and their craft into iconic moments, alongside steps that had not been danced in decades. The pride we felt in the show as a whole overshadowed any trepidation we had about the politics of it. We trusted Cynthia, we trusted (Muny Executive Producer) Mike Isaacson, and we trusted each other. With all of this in mind, we had an incredible opening night.

(Click Here to Read Part II.)