International Broadway star Lea Salonga discusses issues of Asian representation in theatre, discriminatory experiences and her favourite go-to band for a pick me up.
Photo: A Star is Born event banner / Asia Society Hong Kong.
This article was co-authored by Cyril Ma and Thomas Chow.
Since her first lead role as Kim in the original 1989 run of Miss Saigon on the West End, Broadway and Disney star Lea Salonga has become an international household name. However, the musical theatre scene was for many years racially conservative and Lea, despite her stardom, is aware of the difficulties of being Asian in her industry.
In a talk hosted by Asia Society Hong Kong, Lea talks about how she managed to make it into an industry hostile to “people that look like us”.
“[Growing up] I didn’t face any discrmination in the Philippines because – well duh – but I got a bit when I got [to America]”
Despite winning a prestigious Tony Award for her role as Kim in the original 1989 production of Miss Saigon, Lea recalls how she was turned down at an audition for her race.
“I was raised by my agent to audition for a role but 10 minutes later he called me back saying they won’t see me because I’m Asian. And this was after I got my Tony”.
“But soon after I got a call to play Eponine on the West End (Les Miserable) … I took it upon myself to nail that song every night because I didn’t want anyone to say this was ‘for everyone to get through the winter’, I wanted people to say that ‘she was totally right for this’ “
Lea Salonga became the first Asian to play Eponine, and though she was only cast for three short months as temporary replacement for Frances Ruffelle, her influence during the run was unrivaled and opened up the floodgates for blind casting in upcoming productions. Lea Salonga would perform Les Miserable again, in the role of Fantine, in the 2006 revival at which point the show was known for being racially diverse.
“The cool thing was when I did Fantine in Les Mis in 2007, the cast was multiracial. I really love that because race was not that extra character – it was Hamilton casting before Hamilton.”
Allegiance: The Musical
In 2015, Lea Salonga was part of the all-star Asian American cast of Allegiance, based on fictionalised experiences from George Takei, tells the story of the fictional Kimura family who are forced out of their home in California into a Japanese American internment camp in Wyoming. Although previous Broadway musicals such as Miss Saigon and South Pacific had Asian stories at the forefront, Allegiance was the first Broadway show to be primarily written, directed and performed by Asians.
Last month, as part of the celebrations of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Asia Society Hong Kong gave a showing of Allegiance with Lea Salonga on a discussion panel alongside George Takei and Telly Leung.
Allegiance ran from November 2015 to February 2016 – an incredibly short run. Nonetheless, Lea is proud of having been part of the groundbreaking project.
“It was something all of us in the musical felt important, that we have to be a part of it. Just me as an actor of Asian descent, and everybody else that was part of the show. It kind of feels like a mission.”
“Hopefully more of these incidents come to life, because in knowing the less triumphant parts of history, we then get the complete picture”.
Humbly, Lea Salonga attributes most of her original and continuing success to good luck. Being at the right place at the right time gave Lea audition opportunities that “steamrolled” her career.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has been difficult for performers around the world, and this is no exception even for stars like Lea. When asked how she stays an optimist in the worst of times, she says she listens to BTS.
“They’re cute”, she admits.
As a leaving word of advice for budding performers, Lea tells everyone to worry less but do their best.
“ The biggest obstacle is getting into your own head: ‘I’m not talented enough for this’, ‘I don’t deserve this spot’ – thinking that you are not enough”.
“You figure out where you belong and once you get in, you do everything to get there. You practice, you get into shape [but] Your best on one day is not going to be the best on another day.”
“To do your best on whatever given day is going to be enough.”