Exactly one year ago, Eva Noblezada made her Broadway debut on the Minskoff stage, where the National High School Musical Theatre Awards (also known as the Jimmy Awards) were held July 1. Noblezada, who came from Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, NC, to compete for the coveted Jimmy was a Blumey Awards winner for her performance as Ariel Moore in Footloose. Following a confident and energetic performance of "Hero" at the Jimmys, she was selected as a finalist in the competition and sang "With You" from Ghost for her solo performance. Casting director Tara Rubin, a judge at this year's annual event who cast the original company of Broadway's Ghost, was in the audience and was so moved by Noblezada's performance that she set up the teenager's audition for producer Cameron Mackintosh, who mounts the London revival of Saigon. Much like Saigon's original, Tony Award-winning leading lady, Lea Salonga, Noblezada landed the role of Kim on raw talent and leads a company of a major musical at 18 years old.
How is Miss Saigon going out there in the West End?
Eva Noblezada: Oh, it's going so well! Can I just say it's so glad to hear an American accent via phone? [Laughs.]
You killed it at the Jimmy Awards last year. I was so excited when I heard you were cast in Saigon because I covered the ceremony last year, and your performance was incredible. How did you get on board for Saigon? What happened after the Jimmy Awards, and how did things take off?
EN: Tara Rubin, who is a casting director in New York, was in the audience, and she heard me sing ["With You"] from Ghost — and, funny enough, she cast the original cast for that [musical] — and she heard that and thought, "I have the perfect audition for this girl." [She] gave me her contact information afterwards and got in touch and helped me set up my first audition for Cameron [Mackintosh].
I heard that you had a bit of a crazy audition story?
A bit! They had me fly up several times from Charlotte to New York to audition, and it happened so fast — the timespan [from] when I started auditioning — and my last audition, I was supposed to leave the next morning, [but] Cameron said, "Why don't you stay tonight? Go see a show, and tomorrow morning, I want to see you for one final callback at the Majestic Theatre." The next morning I go, sing two songs, and Cameron sits me down in the theatre and says, "How would you feel about moving to London?" [Laughs.] So it was absolutely crazy!
What was going through your mind in that moment? What's it like hearing that you're going to star in Miss Saigon? It's a life-changing event.
Well, at first — I'm going to be honest — when he told me, I thought that he was talking about [just] being in the show. I knew that I was going to be a Kim, but I [also] knew that there were going to be alternates and covers, so I didn't know exactly what my part was. I was very grateful. It was such a surreal moment, and it was very magical, and I just started crying when he told me because it meant [that] I get to be a part of it. But it wasn't until my new agent came down from London a month or two later and said — [and] pretty much put it in stone — "Yeah, you're Kim." … I don't know! [Laughs.] I could not believe what was actually happening.
What were the original plans for after high school? Were you planning on going to college? Has this taken you off into a different direction?
Not at all. It's absolutely what I've always wanted to do. In high school, I never was really interested in going to college. I mean, I went and visited colleges. I went and visited every college you could think of that had an awesome musical theatre program, but it just never sat with me. It never made me feel good to think that I would have to go to college, so what I wanted to do as soon as I graduated was actually go to New York and scrape by and work my way! [Laughs.] I mean, that's the glory of being an actor — you get to work for it, but the reward is that, because you love it so much, it's never really work… It was perfect — all part of God's awesome plan, I guess — just one thing after another. I'm still doing online classes to get my high school degree, but yeah, everything's been able to work out so perfectly.
Tell me about adjusting to life in the West End. Had you been there before?
I've never left America until I had to come here, so it was kind of crazy, but I'm such a city girl, so London is the perfect place for me. Everyone here has been so lovely, and I've met so many amazing people. I get to work with this amazing, international cast, representing 18 different countries, so it's really magical, and it's powerful stuff that we're working on. It's not so much adjusting lifestyle-wise for me — it's just living the dream. But, yeah, I love it here!
Were you a Miss Saigon fan from the beginning? What did you know of the show before going into it?
I knew "Sun and Moon" and "I'd Give My Life for You" because those are the two songs in any Asian girl's portfolio. I mean, I knew the show, but I never got deep into it because — from where I'm from, they'd never do a show like that because that ethnicity isn't as popular where I'm from [in] Charlotte, NC. That's where I lived for the majority of my life, and that's where I did all of my training. It's a show that has inspired me. It haunted me at the same time, and it's amazing to be able to work on it and find my own Kim amidst all the legendary Kims that I get to stand next to, so it's a really exciting process to get to be a part of.
What have you discovered about Kim? What are your favorite parts about her?
I love that she has these two contrasting sides that are equally as intimidating. You have the innocent Kim that comes from the country, and she's been through such a tragic story. She's a victim of war, and you see the white side… I see her kind of like the black-and-white swan, and she falls in love with this GI, and I think that as soon as he touches her, she starts to understand what the black swan is. And, as soon as you find out that she gives birth to his son — protecting him and cradling him and keeping him away from the evils of the world — you see the mother tigress in her: the fierceness and the bite of Kim that I love so much. I love being able to show both of those sides. She's a very complex character, but at the same time she's so young. It's just an amazing role to be able to play.
Were you a big fan of Lea Salonga growing up?
Absolutely — listening to "Mulan" and listening to "Aladdin," I grew up with her voice ringing in my house. When I found out that my auntie was in the original cast of Miss Saigon in New York, I watched a few of the videos with Lea in it, and she was always a beautiful muse to me, so to be able to play the same role that she pretty much "stamped" in world history, it's really incredible, and it's such an honor.
Did you ever get to meet her?
I never met her, no! We only communicated via Twitter or Facebook, but oh God, if I met her, I would collapse. That would be amazing. She gave me really good [words] of advice, just saying to pace myself and to remember that…it's a long marathon, and I have to prepare myself. I can't run the whole way 100 million percent. I have to pace myself. She just told me to enjoy every second and just to cherish everything, which is exactly what I'm doing. Other than that it was like, "Congratulations!" And, I'm like, "Oh my God. It's Lea Salonga! Thank you so much." That's pretty much the hint of it all, communication-wise, but still, [when] you get a tweet from Lea Salonga, your month has been made! [Laughs.]
Going back a bit, tell me about performing on a Broadway stage at the Jimmy Awards. What was that like for you? Were you nervous?
I was, actually! Because the Jimmys… It's an amazing opportunity to showcase the young talent in America, so to be able to be on stage with people my age — on the Minskoff Theatre — it was a dream come true for all of us, literally. Ironic enough, I saw my first Broadway show, The Lion King, when I was about nine years old, and as soon as the curtain went up, I told myself and my auntie — who was in the cast of Miss Saigon in New York — "Yeah, I want to do this when I grow up!" For me, it was a dream come true, and for everyone else it was a dream come true. It's awesome because I still get to keep in touch with the people who were in that.
There's been a lot of buzz about Miss Saigon transferring to Broadway. What's going through your mind? You're 18 years old, you're making your West End debut, and there's talk of Broadway… Is it overwhelming to think of it all?
It is, but then, why over think it? My contract here is definitely for one year, so if I even say, "Oh, I really want to go to Broadway," it's going to undermine what's happening in front of my eyes right now, and I would hate for that to happen. So, for me, I want to kill it every night with these people and just enjoy my time here in this beautiful city, doing this show. If something comes up where I go to New York, then I go to New York. If I stay here, I stay here. To me, it doesn't matter, as long as I keep doing what I love and I'm enjoying it... At the same time, if it did go to Broadway, that would be sick! That would be just amazing for whoever is a part of that.
What have you been exploring over in London? Have you gone to see any sights?
[In] my free time, I go shopping! Is that bad?! [Laughs.] Look, every girl has to do that. The first few weeks that I was here, I was definitely a huge tourist — Big Ben and London Bridge, London Eye and Piccadilly Circus — [but] I'm so into my routine now, I pass that stuff every day, and it's like, "Yeah, there it is." It's my home now. However, there are still beautiful spots that I've yet to discover.
Your family is still in the United States?
Yeah, they've been there since I got here. We're always talking on [the app] Viber, texting or calling, but for me it was hard to leave my family. This is the start of my career — not just that, but it's an opportunity for me as a person to grow as well as a young woman — so I love my family, don't get me wrong, but I don't sit here crying because I'm missing out on something. My parents are one of the biggest reasons I'm here today, and I'm grateful. I'm here for them. I'm here because of them, and I'd hate to ruin it by crying and being a big baby about it. I get homesick sometimes, but for the most part, I'm loving my life! [Laughs.]
What's been the most exciting part of this journey?
Every second: First day of rehearsals. First preview night. Opening night. I find something that I get to take home with me every single day, and I think the beauty of doing a role like Kim is that if I want the audience to feel a certain way, I get to tweak it. I still get to grow in the character as well as grow in myself… I'm so astoundingly happy, and I feel so blessed and so grateful to be a part [of the show]. And, Cameron — my thanks to him cannot be expressed through words. I'm just really trying to snapshot every second.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael).