BY CARY GINELL
Last month, Southern California audiences got a special treat when the Musical Theatre Guild presented a rare stage reading of the 1954 Broadway musical The Golden Apple. The show, an updating of Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, set in turn-of-the-century Washington state, was a disappointment when it had its original Broadway run, despite receiving raves from critics. The show’s through-sung, operatic approach was apparently too cerebral for audiences used to comedy/fantasy shows like Peter Pan and Damn Yankees, which were hits at the time, and the show lasted only three-and-a-half months (125 performances).
Paul Wong, who appeared in the ensemble for the MTG stage reading, has been seen on Ventura County stages in such shows as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. We talked with Paul last month about his career and started by having a fascinating discussion about shows he has done and then about ethnic casting in Broadway musicals.
VCOS: What are some of the highlights of your career thus far?
PAUL: Of course, playing Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was a lot of fun for me. I love Sondheim. I was Anthony in Sweeney Todd years ago. I was Charlie in Merrily We Roll Along. I was also the understudy for Mr. Lindstrom in A Little Night Music. The East-West production of Pacific Overtures that opened the new space downtown was pretty up there as well.
VCOS: Comedy vs. drama. Which do you prefer? And can you talk about one of your all-time favorite performances?
PAUL: I like both. I think that as I’m getting older, I’m looking for more dramatic roles, although comedy’s fun.
One of my favorite things is I did a production of Souvenir, which is actually a two-person play with music that has to do with Florence Foster Jenkins and is based on real people. She was a 1930s-’40s New York socialite who became infamous for being a terrible singer. It was kind of a “she’s-so-bad-she’s-good” sort of a thing. But she was very rich and she’d put on these fundraisers and invite all her friends to come and hear her and her friends would come out of obligation. She could afford to rent out the Ritz-Carlton ballroom, so she’d have four or five hundred people, and she had kind of a cult following. People would go hear her because she was just so entertainingly bad, but she had no clue. People would try to stifle their laughter as long as they could, but when they couldn’t, they started applauding loudly to cover up the laughter. So all she heard were these thunderous ovations, which kept feeding her ego.
I played the role of Cosme McMoon, who was her long-suffering piano player, who took the job as a young man because he needed the money and thought it was just a one-off thing, but somehow wound up staying with her for twelve years as a regular accompanist and became her friend and self-appointed protector, at least in the show. They called it a “fantasia.” Nobody knows exactly what went on between them but this was the author’s idea explaining why he stayed for twelve years and the dynamic between the two of them. He would try to guide her and protect her against doing things that were particularly ill-advised, although he couldn’t stop her from taking a gig at Carnegie Hall which she sold out in two hours.
So in the show, he’s playing in a piano bar twenty years after her death, and reminiscing about his life with her and what he learned from her about the nature of art. For example, if people don’t get your art or people don’t think you’re any good or they don’t understand it, is it still art? Should you give up? Should you keep going? Is it art just because you say it is? His character is on stage the entire time and two-thirds of it is him monologuing – and then, every now and then, she’ll pop up to play a scene or sing a song. It requires an actress who sings bad 95% of the time, but sings “Ave Maria” gloriously at the end because this is how she heard herself in her head. So it can’t be a bad singer, it has to be a great singer who can sing convincingly bad 95% of the time.
Our particular production had an additional twist in that the person playing Florence Foster Jenkins was Christopher Sands, who won the Ovation Award in 2000 or 2001 for Pinafore at the Celebration Theatre, playing the gender-bender Joseph/Josephine. He’s made a career out of playing women’s roles, but seriously. He did five performances as Florence Foster Jenkins in three different locations and actually, the guy at the Sierra Madre Playhouse wanted to book us for a month. Then, a week later, the author contacted him and said, “I don’t allow my piece to be played with a man playing a woman’s role.” We sent him testimonials and video clips showing him that we weren’t doing it as camp, we were doing it seriously, and people would say after the first thirty seconds that they forgot that it was a man playing the role. Oddly enough, he didn’t have a problem with me playing McMoon, since that was cross-ethnic casting.
VCOS: Do you do a lot of cross-ethnic roles?
PAUL: When I can. I’ve done a lot of things with East-West Players and they, of course, use Asian-American casts, but in order not to be limited, I like to try to find projects like Forum, which was one of those things. We were talking about that kind of thing in a class I was taking in which the argument about Les Mis originally was that there were no black or Asian people in Paris in the early 19th century, so historically it’s not correct. Of course now, you have African-Americans playing Eponine and these people in 1800s France are singing pop songs, so how realistic are we being? There was a big L.A. Times article about how there is an underrepresentation of people of color in the theater. There is actually a move to try to encourage non-traditional casting.
VCOS: I did a review of The Mikado that our local Gilbert & Sullivan company did, and I got two hate letters from a couple of Asian-American television actors on the West Side who did not see the show, but called the show “yellow face minstrelsy.”
PAUL: Traditionally, Mikado has always been cast with white actors, but I understand their point. I think what’s more galling is when roles that are specifically Asian are cast as non-Asian.
VCOS: Like The King and I?
PAUL: Yes, exactly, although the new revival that’s going up in New York in a couple of months will have an Asian King. The regional productions around here have had that as well. It’s tough. On one hand, if you’re doing colorblind casting, then it shouldn’t matter. But I guess, historically, the thing is that, just like with blackface, there’s a whole overlay of discrimination and other racial overtones that – for want of a better word – color that. When I was thirteen, I was in a production of Finian’s Rainbow. Our city had no black people. Why they chose to do Finian’s Rainbow, in which a third of the cast has to be black, in a place that had no black people, is beyond me. So put the dark-haired people in the cast in blackface. I didn’t know any better at the time, so I was one of the black children because I had dark hair. And since we were playing kids in the South, we were in shorts and T-shirts, so we also had to have black arms and black legs.
Our discussion with Paul Wong turns to his performance in The Golden Apple in part 2 of our interview next week.