A "Visceral" Reaction from Lea Salonga's Grandmother-in-Law Was Why She Couldn't Say No to Allegiance

News   A "Visceral" Reaction from Lea Salonga's Grandmother-in-Law Was Why She Couldn't Say No to Allegiance
 
Lea Salonga became a theatre phenomenon when she landed the role of Kim in the hit musical Miss Saigon in 1991. More than 20 years later, she's returning to the stage creating another new role — one that strikes a personal chord for the stage and screen star.

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George Takei needed no one to tell him what the characters in Allegiance, the new musical at Broadway's Longacre Theatre, were going through. The show was partly inspired on his own experiences as a child living in one of the many internment camps infamously set up by the United States during WorldWarII to detain Japanese-Americans.

Lea Salonga, Takei's co-star in the show by Jay Kuo, Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione, received her personal intelligence of what that shameful chapter in American history meant to the people it affected in a different way. At one point, she and her husband Robert Chien — who is half-Japanese, half-Chinese — attended the show with his grandmother, who had escaped internment by fleeing to Colorado.

A scene from <i>Allegiance</i> in its pre-Broadway San Diego run
A scene from Allegiance in its pre-Broadway San Diego run Photo by Henry DiRocco

"She had very visceral reactions to what she saw on stage," says Salonga. "She is 94. It was something that she has never forgotten. Even though she never experienced the internment per se, she never forgot what took place."

Her grandmother-in-law's reaction was an affirmation of sorts that she had signed on to an important endeavor — her first time originating a role in a Broadway musical since her breakout performance in the 1991 epic, Miss Saigon.

Allegiance, which was previously staged at the Old Globe Theatre in 2012, has been slow to grow and Salonga has actually been attached to it since 2009 when she did a reading.

"I liked what I heard," she says. "I just went with my gut. It wasn't about who wrote it. I just went with the music. And I knew George was connected with it. That was it. Something about it felt good."

Salonga plays Kei, the sister of Sammy. (Takei plays Sam as an older man. His remembrances frame the narrative of the show.) Their mother having passed away, Kei acts as both sister and parent to Sammy when their family is imprisoned in a camp in Wyoming.

Salonga with Telly Leung in <i>Allegiance</i>
Salonga with Telly Leung in Allegiance Photo by Henry DiRocco

"It's while in the camp that she discovers a whole lot more about who she is as a human being," explains Salonga. "The camp allows her to bloom as a woman, which she hadn't allowed herself to do before, and she discovers how strong she really is."

Her gut reaction has led to what will be Salonga's sixth visit to Broadway, and the first since she stepped into the role of Fantine in Les Misérables in 2007. (She had previously played Eponine in the musical). Accepting a Broadway role is a bigger decision for her than it might be for another actor, as it means a trip half-way around the world for the Manila-based performer. To keep her surroundings somewhat familiar, she has arrived in Manhattan complete with her nurturing mother, who will help cook and care for her during her busy new eight-show-a-week routine.

Allegiance will also mean an indefinite halt to the concertizing that takes up a great deal of Salonga's professional schedule.

"I do all kinds of different music," at her performances, she says. But audiences have expectations from the Tony winner who has provided the voice of Jasmine in "Aladdin" and the title character in "Mulan."

"A lot of the requests are in the Disney and musical theatre departments," she admits. "I do sing the Disney stuff. I sing 'Reflection.' I sing 'A Whole New World.' I do music from Miss Saigon and Les Miz. And I round out the set with standards from musicals that I love. I sometimes also sing pop."

Lea Salonga and Brian R. Baldomero in <i>Miss Saigon</i>
Lea Salonga and Brian R. Baldomero in Miss Saigon Photo by Joan Marcus

Strange as it may seem to Americans, who still think of her as the headline-making teenage star of the blockbuster British megamusical Miss Saigon, these days the actress may be more famous for something else in her home environs. Since 2013 she has been a coach on the Philippines version of the television talent competition "The Voice."

"Our ratings are crazy," Salonga marvels, with 40 percent of Filipino television owners watching the show. Being on the program has brought her a wider visibility among the public. She recently went to Australia for two weeks of concerts and, for once, people didn't ask her about Broadway and Disney.

"People knew who was on my team. They wanted to know how to vote, that sort of thing. It was really something."

Salonga and George Takei in <i>Allegiance</i>
Salonga and George Takei in Allegiance Photo by Henry DiRocco

"The Voice" was still in the middle of its second season as Salonga was getting ready to fly to New York. She planned to use the long flight to become familiar with the many solos, duets, ensemble numbers, and reprises she has in Allegiance, including a duet with Takei.

Oddly enough, this is not the first time she has worked with him. Both were vocal artists on the 1998 Disney film "Mulan," though Salonga does not remember if they actually met at that time. She does, however, clearly recall their first encounter at Takei's home when she became involved in Allegiance.

"He's really funny, incredibly intelligent, very articulate, passionate about the causes he believes in," she says before adding a bit sheepishly, "The man, at 70 — he had a six-pack, and I was floored." Somewhere on Salonga's side of the long-distance phone interview there was a muffled noise. "My daughter's listening to me have this conversation," she explains, "and she's like, 'Whoa.'"

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