There are a lot of reasons Pacific Overtures doesn’t get performed much—the majority of the show is done Kabuki style, for instance, in the sense that all roles are done by men until the second half of the last song, which adds women. But in its Broadway premiere in 1976, one of those men was Gedde Watanabe. In fact, he performed Sondheim’s own favourite song of all the ones he’s written, “Someone in a Tree.” Over thirty years later, his singing voice would be done by someone else in Mulan—possibly the only time it’s been done because someone’s voice was too good!
Gedde Watanabe says he wants to perform roles that aren’t just Asian, roles that could be written for someone of any ethnicity. However, that’s basically just not what he’s been provided with over his career. He doesn’t even speak Japanese; his audition for Long Duk Dong was an imitation of a Korean roommate. An examination of his career shows a majority of his named characters are clearly Japanese, Chinese, or Korean. He was born in Utah, for pity’s sake.
Unfortunately, it feels to me as though he doesn’t get enough roles written for any ethnicity. I’ve seen enough of his work to know that he really is a talented comedic actor—yes, Long Duk Dong is a horrible stereotype, but there is a certain amount of skill in his performance. And Kuni is such a memorable character in UHF that I am unable to hear the phrase “red snapper” without immediately following it up with, “Ah, very tasty!” And, you know, there’s Mulan, of course. He also spent fifty-eight episodes as the sweet Yosh Takata on ER. Yosh—the nurse I don’t remember a subplot about.
The problem, I think, is that there aren’t a lot of lead roles written for Asian characters, and there’s not a lot of lead roles given to Asian actors that aren’t explicitly intended to be Asian. I liked Crazy Rich Asians just fine, but you know, there weren’t a lot of roles in it for middle aged men, especially not middle aged men born in the United States, regardless of accent. I don’t even know if he could do a convincing Japanese accent as far as someone actually born in Japan is concerned. The time for Gedde Watanabe to become a huge success is probably over, I’m afraid.
But I still think he’s better off than he could be. After all, the reason he was born in Utah was that his parents had been interned there. Then again, “better than actually interned” is still not great, and I wouldn’t be able to blame him if he were angry on the subject. I’m not saying he ever would have been a full-on leading man, but he could have had a solid career in minor comedies, the kind where you’d say his name regularly instead of, “Wait, who’s Gedde Watanabe again?”