If she was nervous on the eve of making her debut in what may have been the biggest musical of all time on the
West End, Lea Salonga didn't show it. Nor did she quake when it came to Broadway. In fact, a semi-old pro at theater from the
Philippines
, Lea seemed unfazed by all the pre-production hype and technical activity swirling around her.

Long before she captured the Olivier Award for her performance in Miss Saigon in 1989, Lea had long been a star in her native land. She was seven when she landed her first job, in a
Manila production of The King and I. She went on to play juvenile roles in countless shows, among them Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Rose Tattoo and Fiddler On The Roof. She reached stardom at nine, playing that famous redhead in Annie. (Talk about non-traditional casting!) At 10, she recorded her first album, "Small Voice," which earned a Gold Record (over a million dollars in sales).

Then, one day, Cameron Mackintosh and his minions came to
Manila
. Lea learned some British "theatricals" were looking for a young Asian woman for the lead in a new musical for the
West End. "But I didn't know who they were and was curious if they were fly-by-night operators who'd promise fame and fortune, then take advantage of me. Then I found out who they were!"

Present for her audition, in addition to Sir Cameron were Miss Saigon composer Alain Boubil, lyricist Claude-Michel Schonberg, director Nicholas Hytner and Vincent Liff of Johnson-Liff Casting (
New York
). They were preparing a musical, loosely based on the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly, about the passionate love story between an American G.I. and a young Vietnamese girl. It would be set against the final days of the Vietnam conflict and the evacuation of
Saigon in 1975 by American troops.

If the team's mood was far from celebratory, it was because auditions in London, New York, Los Angeles and
Honolulu
hadn't yielded a Kim to their liking. Lea sang "On My Own" from the creative team's Les Miserables. Afterward, I heard some buzzing out there in the hall. I didn't know what to think." As she was preparing to leave, she heard Schonberg wonder aloud, "Maybe this is the Kim we've been seeking!" Hytner requested another song, and Lea belted Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All."

Auditions continued, and the field was narrowed to Lea and another
Manila native, college sophomore Monique Wilson. The creative team delayed their departure for
London
so Schonberg could coach the hopefuls. At their next audition, they sang with bundles of sheet music as an improvised baby in their arms.

It was decision time. It seemed everyone was leaning toward Lea; everyone but Mackintosh, who felt she was too "perfect." He also noted that her mother, Ligaya (Joy), never let her out of her sight. "Stage mothers frighten me," he said. (For the next couple of years, Ligaya was Lea's Number One "bodyguard," carefully screening those who would have contact with her daughter - especially stage door Johnnies.)

Hytner commented that Lea, then a sweet, innocent 18, looks "as if she'd really kill for her baby."

A few hours later, Lea and Monique were packing for
London
and the final callbacks. To everyone's dismay, the girls weren't up to the
Manila best, and Mackintosh tried to shake them up a bit by letting it be known that an English actress was a front-runner. No matter how much he was leaning toward casting that actress [Linzi Hateley], Mackintosh knew the subtext of the show would be missing something with a Caucasian Kim.

In the end, of course, Lea and Monique, delivered. When "Mr. Producer" announced his intentions, he had his first skirmish with British Equity, which had a stringent policy forbidding non-British actors from working in the
U.K.
unless it could be proved no British-born equivalent could do the job. Auditions continued until the talent pool was exhausted. Mackintosh proved his point. Only these two young women could create the role. The union surrendered, though a controversial battle with American Equity would follow a year later. Lea and Monique were cast as female lead and understudy.

"When the impact of Cameron's decision hit us," said Lea, it was a huge jolt. Monique and I started dancing and screaming. Soon Lea's previous dream of making a good living in show business in the Philippines, "continuing my studies and going into medicine, marriage and having a family" was sidetracked. There was a gala opening, incredible media attention, awards, visit from royalty. Writing in the Daily Mail, Jack Tinker called Lea "a talent of shattering emotional depths."

When the casting dust settled and Lea, then 20, and Jonathan Pryce arrived on Broadway at the Broadway in April, 1991 with their Oliver Awards and swirling helicopter, the stratospheric budget of Miss Saigon ($10-million) was matched by the stratospheric top ticket: 200 seats at each performance would go for $100 each. Eventually, the top price returned to $60.

"Nothing could have prepared me for the thrill of being on Broadway," Lea said. As incredible as everything was in London, there was this mystique about Broadway. It was something I'd dreamed of since I was seven. We never did shows from the West End. Everything we did at home was Broadway."

But more was to come. Lea won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. "It was the ultimate dream come true," she beamed. But she cannot forget the pressure that was riding on her performance. "It was a time of excitement and fun, but there was a lot of stress. Having my family around really made the going a lot easier."

After leaving Miss Saigon in March 1992, Lea provided the singing voice for Jasmine in Disney's Aladdin, singing the hit song, "A Whole New World," which she performed at the 1993 Academy Awards. In 1993, for three months, Lea returned to Broadway but as Eponine in Les Miz, a job she repeated on the West End (and in a 10th Anniversary concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 1995). She made her U.S. pop recording debut on Atlantic Records with the lacklusterly-produced "Lea Salonga," but world-wide sales of one-million copies qualified it to go Platinum. This was followed by a King And I recording as Tuptim opposite Julie Andrews and Ben Kingsley. Four solo albums followed. She made her TV debut in Hallmark Hall of Fame's production of the short-lived Broadway play, Redwood Curtain. Most recently, Lea did the lead vocals in Disney's "Mulan." This past summer, she returned to the role of Kim in her native Manila.

She now plans to do more college work, after a semester at Fordham studying philosophy and history; and to concentrate on her first serious relationship - with an actor she preferred not to name.

In January 1999, as she returned to Broadway as Kim a month before she turned 30, Lea reflected on where she's come from. "In slightly subtle ways, Kim has changed. More emotion goes into the performance now because I'm older and I've experienced a lot more of life than when I was nineteen.
"The thrill is there every time I go out to trot the boards," continued Lea, but I still get the jitters when I step onstage. Nothing I will ever do will equal the experience of being plucked out of nowhere, so to speak, and being given this opportunity. Kim is my career highlight."

Note: Lea Salonga returned to the role of Kim as Miss Saigon counted down to its final New York performance, January 28, 2001.

[END]

 

Key Subjects: 
Lea Salonga, Miss Saigon, Cameron Mackintosh, Monique Wilson
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline."
Date: 
January 1999
Subtitle: 
Lea Salonga And The Casting Of Kim