18 Times Asian and Asian Americans Made History on Broadway | Playbill

Special Features 18 Times Asian and Asian Americans Made History on Broadway

Playbill celebrates Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month with a timeline of artistic milestones.

May is Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month. To celebrate that, Playbill has put together a timeline of all the times Asian and Asian Americans have made history on Broadway. 

But first, a caveat: Theatre history can be murky. So much of it went undocumented, especially the history of BIPOC artists on Broadway. Many artists in the beginning of the century did not openly identify as Black, Indigenous, or as a person of color, due to the negative impact it could have on their careers. That is why the history of who is "first" on Broadway can be unclear at best. 

But below, Playbill has created a somewhat comprehensive timeline of Asian representation on Broadway, from onstage to backstage. This shouldn't be considered a complete look at Asian American theatre history—you can read more about that in this textbook or at Asian American Theatre Revue. Suffice it to say there are many artists who have not made it to Broadway and whose contributions to theatre have been immense, such as Frank Chin, Velina Hasu HoustonQui Nguyen, Lauren Yee, and many others.

And many of the artists named below are also continuing to make waves in the theatre (such as BD Wong, who is currently starring in What Became Of Us Off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company, or David Henry Hwang, whose Yellow Face will get its Broadway premiere this fall). 

It's important to remember that as the industry continues to become more diverse and inclusive, history continues to be made every year. 

Cast of Flower Drum Song

A Japanese Nightingale is produced on Broadway. The melodrama by William Young was adapted from the Winnifred Eaton novel. Eaton was Chinese-British, making her the first known openly Asian author to be produced on Broadway.

John Patrick’s play The Teahouse of the August Moon premieres on Broadway. It features incidental music by Dai-Keong Lee, who was also a finalist for the 1952 Pulitzer Prize.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song premieres on Broadway. Based on the novel by C. Y. Lee, with a book by Joseph Fields, it is the first musical on Broadway to feature a mostly Asian cast—Juanita Hall and Larry Blyden both played principal roles as Asian American characters but they were not Asian American. 1951's The King and I had mostly white actors playing the Siamese characters, too.

When Flower Drum Song was adapted into a 1961 film, it was the first major Hollywood film to feature a mostly Asian cast. Flower Drum Song would not be revived on Broadway until 2002, with a revised book by David Henry Hwang (more on him later). 

13 Daughters
is produced on Broadway. It featured book, music, and lyrics by Eaton S. “Bob” Magoon, Jr., who was 1/8th Chinese. The show was based on Magoon's great-grandfather, Chun Afong, who had 13 daughters. O Chun was played by Don Ameche, who was not Asian. It won't be until 1990 that another Asian American composer would have a musical on Broadway (Paul Chihara with Shōgun: The Musical).

From Left: Mako in East West Players' 1979 production of Pacific Overtures; Mako and June K. Lu in East West Players' inaugural production of Rashomon.

Actor Mako founds East West Players with a group of other Asian American artists (Rae Creevey, Beulah Quo, Soon-tek Oh, James Hong, Pat Li, June Kim, Guy Lee, and Yet Lock). The company is a way for Asian actors to perform multifaceted roles outside of the stereotypes and minor roles offered to them by the entertainment industry. To this day, it is the oldest Asian American theatre company in the U.S. and one of the oldest theatres of color in America.

Mako later makes his Broadway debut in the original production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Pacific Overtures in 1976. In a groundbreaking move for the time, the show did not feature any non-Asian actors playing Asian characters.

Willa Kim is the first openly Asian American costume designer to win a Tony Award, for Sophisticated Ladies. She would go on to win another Tony in 1991 for The Will Rogers Follies.

Ming Cho Lee, also known as "the dean of American set design," is the first Asian scenic designer to win a Tony Award for K2. To this day, he is the only Asian American to have a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement (awarded in 2013). He passed away October 23, 2020 at the age of 90.

B.D. Wong and John Lithgow in M. Butterfly, 1988

David Henry Hwang becomes the first Asian American playwright to be produced on Broadway with M. Butterfly. The show later goes on to win three Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Direction (for John Dexter), and Best Featured Actor In A Play (for BD Wong). Hwang is the first Asian American playwright to win a Tony Award and Wong is the first Asian American actor to win a Tony.

Miss Saigon opens on Broadway. Prior to its coming to Broadway, a number of Asian American artists protest the musical for its casting of Jonathan Pryce (who is white) to play the Engineer, a half-white, half-Vietnamese character. Because of these protests, in subsequent versions of Miss Saigon, the Engineer is cast with Asian actors, and non-Asian actors playing Asian roles becomes more frowned upon in popular culture. 

The Miss Saigon protests are later dramatized in David Henry Hwang's play Yellow Face, which will play Broadway in fall 2024 (with Daniel Dae Kim as Hwang, one of the leading voices in the protests).

Lea Salonga in Miss Saigon Joan Marcus

Lea Salonga wins a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for playing Kim in Miss Saigon. She is the first female Asian-American actor to win a Tony. It won't be until 2015 that another Asian American actor will win a Tony (Ruthie Ann Miles for The King and I, the first Asian American to win in the category of Featured Performance by an Actress in a Musical). Salonga has been part of Asian American theatre history on Broadway multiple times, also starring in the Flower Drum Song revival, Allegiance, and Here Lies Love (more on all of those later).

Ayad Aktar's play Disgraced wins the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Akhtar is the first Asian American artist to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play, about a Muslim-American lawyer, is produced on Broadway in 2014.

Also in 2013, Diane Paulus is the first Asian American director to win a Tony Award, for Pippin.

Allegiance opens on Broadway. It is the first Broadway musical created by Asian Americans (composer, lyricist, bookwriter Jay Kuo), directed by an Asian American (Stafford Arima), and with a predominantly Asian American cast. It's led by George Takei, Lea Salonga, and Telly Leung, and is based on Takei's childhood in a Japanese internment camp. 

Young Jean Lee

Young Jean Lee is the first female Asian American playwright to have a play on Broadway with Straight White Men.

That same year, Kai Harada becomes the first Asian American sound designer to win a Tony Award for his work in The Band's Visit.

Helen Park is the first Asian American female composer to have a musical on Broadway, with KPOP, which she co-wrote with Jason Kim and Max Vernon

That same year, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition receives a Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre. The organization was founded in 2011 to address the lack of representation of Asian American actors on the biggest stages in New York City. Through their advocacy efforts, including comprehensive reports about the racial and gender breakdowns on NYC stages, they've been a leading voice for diversity in theatre.

Conrad Ricamora, Arielle Jacobs, Lea Salonga, and Jose Llana Michaelah Reynolds

Here Lies Love becomes the first show on Broadway to feature an all-Filipino cast. The musical is by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, and features a cast led by Arielle Jacobs, Conrad Ricamora, Jose Llana, and Lea Salonga.

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