Lea Salonga offered one of the most heart-breaking musical-theatre performances of the nineties as the doomed Kim in the pop opera Miss Saigon. A thrillingly sung and hauntingly acted performance, Salonga received a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her work. This month, the talented actress-singer makes her eagerly awaited return to Broadway when she begins previews Sept. 23 at the Virginia Theatre in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, prior to an official opening on Oct. 17. I had the chance to speak with the sweet, down-to earth Saigon star at this past week's Flower Drum open rehearsal. Following is my brief chat with the actress, who heads the company as Mei-Li, a Chinese immigrant who flees to America in the late 1950's.
Question: You were so young when you first came to Broadway. How is it different this time around?
Lea Salonga: I pretty much know what to expect coming into a Broadway show. I know what my responsibilities are, being cast as the lead in a show like this. I'm not as intimidated by the responsibility as I used to be. I also got really, really lucky that everybody in the cast is just wonderful and great to work with, as has been [director] Bobby [Longbottom] and [book writer] David Henry [Hwang] and everyone in the production. Everybody's just been so easy and laid back, it's just been such a pleasure. As for the difference, I guess I was a little more uptight ten years ago [laughs], and I think now, because I've done this for quite a bit, things are much easier, and I'm having a little more fun.
Q: Who approached you about doing the revival?
LS: Bobby Longbottom. Well, I first heard that there was going to be a workshop when Singapore Repertory Theatre was, I think, going to be part of it. And then, one day, I get a call from my agent saying that Bobby wanted to have lunch with me. So, we had lunch at a cafe nearby to here, and he was telling me about the show and what Mei-Li was all about and he's like, 'I'd like to invite you to be part of the show,' and I said, 'Sure!' [Laughs.]
Q: What was the deciding factor for you to accept the role?
LS: I don't know what it was. [Laughs.] I guess there was an opportunity prior, and I wasn't able to be part of it, and then the opportunity came up again to be part of it in a big way, and so I said, 'Yeah, I'd love to be part of it.' One, it's a very important show for Asians and Asian-Americans, who have the obstacle of assimilation into this country, where Asians seem to still be considered foreigners. Hopefully this show helps to say, 'You know, we may not look like the white, blonde, blue-eyed, stereotypical American, but we're American nonetheless,' and that's what the show is trying to say. And it was an all-Asian cast, and I couldn't pass up the chance to be part of a company like that. So, we did the production out in L.A., and I'm so glad that I did because I met my fiancé [Rob] out there. Q: Were you familiar with the musical before this production?
LS: I had seen the movie, and I thought that it was really nice. I never thought of it as this piece that was offensive to Asian-Americans. Growing up in Asia, I was like, 'That's so sweet, that's so nice, that's so cute, it's gorgeous, it's so beautiful.' Those were the thoughts that came into my mind, never, 'Oh that is so offensive, oh that is so stereotypical.' That just didn't occur to me. I just thought it was wonderful music, really cute story, great characters, great actors, but this whole script is totally different. When I got the script, I'm like, 'Okay, this is not the movie. This is not the old show that it was.' And I'm really glad. I guess it's more accurate in the way that it portrays Asian-Americans at that period of time.
Q: Tell me a little about your character and how you approached playing her.
LS: Her name is Mei-Li, and she is an illegal Chinese immigrant, having been shipped in a crate from China, and she finds herself in San Francisco, finds herself sort of adopted by this family in a Chinese opera theatre/night club. She falls in love with Ta, and basically everybody takes her under their wing, but a lot of things happen that burst her bubble and her ideal picture about what America is. She does have to struggle a little bit and comes to who she is, knows who she is at the end of the show, and she comes to that place on her own terms, which is really good.
Q: Do you see any of yourself in her character?
LS: A little bit because I kind of felt very out of place when I went to London for the first time, coming from the Philippines with a whole big group of other Filipinos to do Miss Saigon. Okay, it's like, this culture is totally different. This is different from how I grew up, the environment I grew up in. It was an adjustment period, plus doing a show.
Q: You also have a new CD coming out, right?
LS: We did a concert in Manila called 'The Broadway Concert,' and the CD came out there.
Q: Will it be released here in the U.S.?
LS: I don't know. I'm hoping that [it will be], but right now it's enjoying a good release in the Philippines.
Q: There's also talk of a concert tour.
LS: Maybe after my run in Flower Drum ends, we might. Hopefully it [will] all come through, and we'll tour that same concert here in the States. We're hoping that it happens.
Q: How long will you stay with the Flower Drum Song?
LS: A year.
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: It's a busy month for Charlotte d'Amboise, who will soon make the move from Contact to Chicago. The much-in-demand singer-dancer actress who starred in the just-closed Broadway company of Contact — her final performance was aired live on PBS on Sept. 1 — will return to the New York cast of Chicago on Sept. 17. D'Amboise will portray merry murderess Roxie Hart through Oct. 27; she takes over the role from Kiss Me Kate's Amy Spanger whose last performance is scheduled for Sept. 10. Belle Calaway will play Roxie in the interim . . . This seems to be the year for Tell Me On a Sunday revivals. As previously announced, belter-of-the-moment Alice Ripley will perform the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Don Black song cycle at the Kennedy Center Dec. 17, 2002 through Jan. 12, 2003. Now comes word that Denise Van Outen, the British talk-show host who made her Broadway debut in Kander and Ebb's Chicago, will star in a revamped version of the musical in the West End. No theatre or dates have yet been announced for the London mounting . . . Kaye Ballard, Marcia Lewis, Len Cariou and John Scherer are the latest additions to the Sept. 23 star-studded concert presentation of Funny Girl to benefit The Actors' Fund of America. The evening — the second annual concert production to benefit the organization — will present over a dozen actresses who will share the lead role of Fanny Brice, including Carolee Carmello, Kristin Chenoweth, Christine Ebersole, Sutton Foster, Ana Gasteyer, Whoopi Goldberg, Jane Krakowski, Ricki Lake, Idina Menzel, Donna Murphy, Bebe Neuwirth, Lillias White, Marissa Jaret Winokur and more! To purchase seats, call The Actors' Fund at (212) 221-7300 . . . On her official website, Karen Akers has added a special tribute to honor the heroes and victims of Sept. 11. The former star of Grand Hotel and Nine writes, "In memory of the tragic events of September 11 of last year I am offering this quintessential American song ["Shenandoah"] to the public. For someone who lives most of the time overseas, it is the most evocative song that conveys to me an image of the sweeping beauty of our country. I hope that when you listen to it you will have the same warm experience that I have in singing it." . . . And, yes, that was Phyllis Newman helping hubby Adolph Green and friend Betty Comden — who both suffered recent hip injuries — enjoy the 50th anniversary celebration of "Singin' in the Rain" at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills on Sept. 5. The Comden and Green team were responsible for the screenplay for that classic, which celebrated Hollywood's transition from silents to talkies.
Betty Buckley in Concert:
Sept. 20 and 21 in Brisbane, Australia
Sept. 28 at the Haugh Performing Arts Center in Glendora, CA
Oct. 3-6 at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, TX
Oct. 22-Nov. 9 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York, NY
Nov. 16 at the Performing Arts Center of SUNY-Purchase in Purchase, NY
Dec. 6 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC
Liz Callaway in Concert
September 23 at the 100th Anniversary of Macy's Herald Square in New York, NY
September 30 in the Merrily We Roll Along Reunion Concert in New York, NY
October 5 with the Westchester Philharmonic concert of Richard Rodgers music
May 16, 2003 in "Broadway Showstoppers" with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops in Philadelphia, PA
Barbara Cook in Concert: Oct. 19 at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, WA
Nov. 2 at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts in Brooklyn, NY
Nov. 17 at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, MN
Linda Eder in Concert
Sept. 19 at Humphrey's By the Bay in San Diego, CA
Sept. 21 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, CA
Oct. 25 & 26 at the Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte, NC
Nov. 1 & 3 at the Kimmel Theatre in the Verizon Center (with Peter Nero and Philly Pops) in Philadelphia, PA
Nov. 2 at the War Memorial (with Peter Nero and Philly Pops) in Trenton, NJ
Nov. 8 at the Providence Performing Arts Center in Providence, RI
Dec. 1 at the Bass Hall in Austin, TX
Dec. 20 & 21 at the Symphony Hall (with Atlanta Symphony) in Atlanta, GA
Jan. 3 & 4 at the Meyeroff Hall (with Baltimore Symphony) in Baltimore, MD
Patti LuPone in Concert
Sept. 14 at the Charles W. Eisemann Center ("An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin") in Richardson, TX
Oct. 4 at the Tillis Center at Long Island University in Greenvale, NY ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
March 27, 2003 at the East County Performing Arts Center in Cajon, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 28-29 at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 30 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, NV ("Matters of the Heart")
April 5 at the State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
Maureen McGovern in Concert:
Sept. 20-22 with the Grand Rapids Symphony at DeVos Hall in Grand Rapids, MI
Sept. 26 - 29 with the North Carolina Symphony at Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, NC
Oct. 24 at the annual Cabaret Convention in New York, NY
Oct. 30-Nov. 3 at the American Music Therapy Association Conf. in Atlanta, GA
Nov. 2 at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts in Atlanta, GA
Nov. 9 at the Landmark Theatre Gala in Port Washington, NY
Nov. 10 at the Hanford Civic Auditorium in Hanford, CA
Nov. 19-Dec. 1 at the Plush Room in San Francisco, CA
Dec. 6 at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA
Dec. 8 at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts in Poway, CA
Dec. 9 Laurie Strauss Leukemia Benefit at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY
Dec. 14 at the Boca Pops Big Band Series in Boca Raton, FL
Bernadette Peters in Concert:
Sept. 28 at the Weidner Center in Green Bay, WI
Oct. 5 Sundome Center in Sun City West, AZ
Oct. 24 at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis, IN
Oct. 26 at the Kleinhans Auditorium in Buffalo, NY
Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!
—By Andrew Gans