"It's like the 'United Colors of Broadway' this coming season," she said at a recent press event for Allegiance, the new musical inspired by the childhood of George Takei set during the Japanese American internment of World War II. "This upcoming season is just exciting, and I'm hoping that there is a shift."
Diversity in theatre has always been a hot topic, especially when it comes to the Asian community. "There aren't enough roles," said Ruthie Ann Miles, who recently took home the Tony Award for her performance as Lady Thiang in The King and I. "There aren't enough opportunities."
Lea Salonga, Telly Leung, George Takei, Paolo Montalban Star in New Musical Allegiance
Miles is only the second Asian actress to take home a Tony (and the third actor overall; BD Wong took home a Featured Actor Tony for his performance in M. Butterfly). Lea Salonga was the first Asian actress.
"Here's the funny thing, though — Ruthie Ann is only the next person after me to win a Tony Award," said Salonga. "I got mine in 1991. She got hers in 2015. That is 24 years between two Asian actors getting Tonys. BD Wong got his, and then I got mine, and then she gets hers, so there are just three of us. There are just three Asian Tony winners. Ever."
But, Salonga has hope for a brighter future, especially this season. Very diverse productions such as Amazing Grace and Hamilton are already up and running with Gloria Estefan's On Your Feet!, Allegiance and The Color Purple on their way. "It's crazy, but given this season that Allegiance is coming in alongside… Amazing Grace is opening," she explained at the Allegiance press event, a few weeks back. "I don't know the story, I don't know who's in it, but people are telling me that it's going to be a cool show, so there's that. There's Shuffle Along, there's The Color Purple… Hamilton is the same season as us.
"I mean, things are cyclical. The funny thing is Miss Saigon and The King and I were on Broadway at the same time, and now it's going to be The King and I and Allegiance on Broadway at the same time — two Asian-casting heavy shows. I'm hoping that there is a shift in the consciousness of producers, audiences [and] that, hopefully, with a show like this, where you see a name like George Takei — these are clearly Asian people up on the marquee — that people are like, 'I want to see that.'
"My belief is that, ultimately, there is only so much that names can do. It will spark interest, it will spark curiosity, but ultimately the show had better be pretty good or else it will not have a life. The show has to sell, and the show has to be compelling, and the script has to be good. The music has to be incredible. All of these elements have to all work together… The material has to be superb to have a life outside of [Broadway] because casting… These are revolving doors, so you're going to have people coming in. After I left [Miss Saigon], there were so many actresses who came in to do Kim. The show had better be something special in order to keep a life outside of the stars that they lose."
Speaking of Saigon, Salonga did get to see the production in London, starring newcomer Eva Noblezada, that will close next February before its plan to transfer to Broadway.
"It's very different seeing it 25 years after we had created it," she said, "and it's nice to see that there is a life for the show because there is a whole new generation of actors… But it's nice to see this, hear all these young people taking the show and running with it and re-interpreting it."
If Saigon storms Broadway, it will join the ranks of Allegiance, Amazing Grace, The Color Purple, Hamilton, The King and I, The Lion King, On Your Feet!, Shuffle Along and more — all paving way for "The United Colors of Broadway."
Before Salonga and Allegiance hit Broadway, she embarks on her tour of Australia and New Zealand today.
(Playbill.com features manager 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.)