by Marialena Rago
“It’s the job of the arts to study humanity and hold up a mirror and in our globally-connected world, humanity comes in many colors.”
In recent years, there has been a great expansion of the types of actors cast in roles on Broadway. Actress Satomi Hofmann is of both Asian and German descent and says that her journey has been “interesting.” Currently, Hofmann is in The Phantom of the Opera. She has played the roles of the opera singer Carlotta, Madame Giry and currently, Wardrobe Mistress/Confidante. She has performed in the show both on Broadway and on tour.
“At Phantom, we have the unique opportunity for a long-term ‘phamily,’” Hofmann says. “I’ve never seen a more supportive cast and some of my dearest friends are in the company. Because it’s a long running show, you can’t rely on adrenaline to keep the show alive and fresh. We still have weekly rehearsals, both for incoming cast members as well as established cast, to keep the show tight; as a cast member, you definitely need that special skill set of keeping the show fresh for yourself.”
“It’s a very special experience to be a part of something as iconic and long-running as The Phantom of the Opera,” she explained. “First off, this show makes a gloriously active effort to be diverse, even though the show is set in the late 1800’s. Ethnicity doesn’t seem to have any place in their casting – it’s all about who would be best for the telling of that story.”
However, according to a 2019 report from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), 66.8% of actors on Broadway were Caucasian, while only 7.3% were Asian American. The lack of diversity can be felt as soon as you step in the audition room.
“I was constantly getting ‘you‘re too ethnic’ or ‘you’re not ethnic enough.’ I was typed out of every single Asian casting call before they even heard me sing or saw me act; most of those were for stereotypically Asian roles, all that was available to Asians at the time. At the Caucasian and unspecified ethnicity auditions, I’d be the black-haired girl in a sea of blondes. I even had a commercial audition where I added a little dance. When the commercial finally aired, there was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl doing the dance I had done at the audition.”
It wasn’t just on the stage that Hofmann felt like she was cast out. Even the shows she watched seemed to ignore her and her story.
“Until “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Always Be My Maybe,” I’d never seen an Asian American romantic male lead or an Asian American female lead who simply happened to be the subject of the story,” she said. “While growing up, I only saw male Asians in entertainment as an evil mastermind or comic relief and female Asians as exotic sex symbols or demure, powerless victims of circumstance. None of them talked like me or my fellow Asian Americans growing up in America: which is to say, with an American accent and acting like an American. It’s true that we have the specific experience of either having immigrant parents or the cultural trappings we grew up with, but so does every other ethnic group in America.”
Feeling the lack of representation, Hofmann remembers the first time she felt seen from Broadway.
“Like many of my peers, Lea Salonga was the very first Broadway star I had ever seen who looked remotely like me,” she explained. “And then she opened her mouth and sang like I wanted to sing and everything changed. Up until then, like many Asian American children, I had been training to be a classical pianist. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved it. I am deeply grateful for my classical music training and I still play, but seeing Lea Salonga find success on Broadway meant that maybe, just maybe, I could do it too. Even though she was playing an Asian in a show about Asia from the perspective of White America, she was a trailblazer.”
After the success of Hamilton and the fact that it showed diversity and ethically ambiguous casting, Broadway is starting to get the hint that it needs to be open to more actors of color and actors of different heritage on the stage, and that it needs to show different people’s experiences on stage. When asked why she thought things are starting to change, Hofmann didn’t quite know.
“That’s a big question, and one I don’t think I can answer accurately. I’m sure there are many factors that go into changing trends.”
She does realize that a lot of it can be driven by money and wanting to appeal to one market, but she thinks companies are doing a disservice to themselves by only focusing on one demographic. She does know where Broadway and the arts community needs to start; at recognizing there is a problem.
“I don’t think many of the people making casting decisions even realize it’s there,” she said. “An Asian American man can absolutely be strong or goofy or desirable and sell tickets. An Asian American woman can absolutely be curvy or independent or crass, and sell tickets! And an Asian American actor can simply be an American actor bringing their own universally relatable self to whatever role they take on. Recognize the prejudice and ask if that’s a factor before passing on a qualified Asian American actor or actress.”