With less than a year remaining to find the actress for the role ofKim—the lead character of the tragic Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublilopera—the team behind the West End musical MissSaigon, led by Sir Cameron Mackintosh, were all feeling desperate.
The production team held a string of auditions in the hope of discoveringa competent Asian actress-singer fit for the part of a Vietnamese bar girl whofalls in love with an American soldier in the midst of the Vietnam War.
Their Londonquest to find Kim failed and the producers found themselves starting all overfrom scratch.
Setting their sights outside the UnitedKingdom, Schönberg proposed a visit to the Philippinesto hold an audition. The highly esteemed composer was confident that they wouldnot return home empty handed. He knew the abundance of singing talents in the Philippines.
"Singing was in their blood," a bold Schönberg reportedly quipped to theproduction team to emphasize his point.
FINDING THE ONE. On the early morning of November 13, 1988,Filipinos leafing through their newspapers were intrigued to find a logo thatlooked like a helicopter hovering at sunset, with the vague image of a womanlurking at the side. It was an advertisement announcing an audition for thelead female character of Miss Saigon.
One of those who learned of the audition was 17-year-old Lea Salonga. A childstar who was a fixture both on television and the stage, Lea was already awell-known personality even before Schönberg had thought of the Philippines asa talent goldmine.
Like most young celebrities at the time, Lea was part of the teen varietyshow That's Entertainment and evenappeared in the syrupy wholesome movies, TropangBulilit; Like Father, Like Son; Ninja Kids, Captain Barbell, and Pik PakBoom. She was also identified as the "lucky girl" who sang and performedalongside Menudo—the popular Latino boy band who gained international successin the early ‘80s.
Lea was also very active in the theater and it was quite obvious early onthat the young singer-actress's heart belonged to the stage.
ENTER LEA SALONGA. When news came out that a Miss Saigon try-out was about to takeplace, Lea was coaxed by her friends from the theater to audition. Landing thelead role would be amazing, of course, but securing even a bit role wouldn't bethat bad, what with the huge scale of the project, they reportedly told thehesitant young thespian.
Setting her fears aside, Lea heeded the call and went on to face the Miss Saigon jury composed of Cameron Mackintosh,Claude-Michel Schönberg, Nicholas Hytner and Alain Boublil. A clip of theaudition (which can be found on YouTube) showed a young Lea—sporting apony-tail and a long-sleeved polo—bursting into the room clutching a brownenvelope containing a copy of what appeared to be a lyric sheet of theaward-winning musical Les Miserables.
"Before we start I would want to ask a favor," she told Schönberg. "Canyou autograph this for me?" Lea handed the lyric sheet to the composer. Schönbergtogether also with Boublil wrote the music for the stage adaptation of the famousVictor Hugo novel back in 1980 in Paris.
After the brief autograph session, the ever professional Schönbergquickly proceeded to the piano to work and teach the young aspirant the material.Picking the song "Sun and Moon" the French composer simultaneously sang andplayed the first few lines to guide Lea—who looked a bit nervous and attentive,alternately darting her eyes from the transcript of the song lyrics placed onthe piano to Schönberg.
After a few false starts, Lea found her rhythm and confidence. Lea'sdistinct, clear voice was already evident as she melodically enunciated thewords in harmony with the music. The YouTube clip showed the three panelists—Mackintosh,Hytner and Boublil—listening intently. Gradually they shed off their sterndemeanor, as if Lea's voice completely melted their impenetrable armor.
In the end of Lea's remarkable rendition, the three could only gush, "Beautiful...fantastic!"
Later on, the jurors said they were certain that they had finally foundKim the moment they heard Lea sing the first note of "Sun and Moon."
Lea learned the good news that she had bagged the coveted role of Kim at"around 10 in the morning of November 18," she recalled.
Schönberg's prophecy bore rich fruit as the production team returned to London not just with Leabut with 14 other Filipino artists: Monique Wilson, Cocoy Laurel, JenineDesiderio, Isay Alvarez, Pinky Amador, Junix Inocian, Andy Lanai, MichaelWilliams, Jay Ibot, Robert Sena, Bobby Martino, Jonjon Briones, Lyon Roque, andMiguel Diaz.
All of the names mentioned were included in the cast with Monique Wilsonserving as Lea's alternate, aside from playing the role of a bar girl namedMimi.
MISS SAIGON OPENS ON STAGE. Completing the cast were British actorsJonathan Pryce, Simon Bowman, Claire Moore, Keith Burns, and Peter Polycarpou.In London, the complete Miss Saigoncast together with the ensemble converged at the Sadler's Wells Theater on July3, 1989 for the first day of what would turn out to be a grueling two-monthrehearsal.
On September 20, 1989, Miss Saigonpremiered at the Theatre RoyalDrury Lane in London. The late Princess Diana headed the2,250 people who came to watch the theater spectacle.
As it turned out, Miss Saigonlived up to all the hype that preceded its grand opening. Earning thefascination of the audience were the effects used, e.g. life-size replica ofVietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh and the helicopter hovering abovethe stage.
But most importantly, the acting, most notably of Lea Salonga, made Miss Saigon a massive stage hit. LeaSalonga became the "new toast of London."
BROADWAY CALLS. Following its Londonsuccess, Miss Saigon moved to agrander stage in New York:Broadway. The transfer was not easy as Jonathan Pryce and Lea found themselvesbeing questioned by the American Equity Association (AEA)—an associationfounded to defend and protect the interests of American actors. Foreignactors—in this case, Lea and Jonathan—must first gain the approval andpermission of the body.
Mackintosh, not willing to bend and compromise, fought hard for both Leaand Jonathan. Despite strong ticket sales, the strong-willed theater producerwent all-out and even canceled the show unless the AEA reversed its ruling andallow the original actors to reprise their respective roles on U.S. soil.
The argument against Lea was her foreign nationality and AEA wanted oneof its members to be given the opportunity to play the role of Kim. Problem was,and as Mackintosh explained, he wasn't able to find someone in America and Canada with the same caliber as Leato fill in the role.
On January 7, 1991, arbiter Daniel Collins finally allowed the questionedactors to star in the Broadway version of the musical. According to the ruling,the court granted Lea permission because she was "an actor providing uniqueservices."
Miss Saigon opened on April 11, 1991 to a jampackedBroadway audience that included fashion guru Calvin Klein, Hollywood fixtures JohnMalkovich, Amy Irving, and music mogul David Geffen. The musical, which earnedstanding ovations and four curtain calls, also garnered rave reviews from variouscritics despite some condemnation labeling MissSaigon as "racist and sexist."
Lea Salonga's performance as Kim earned her several awards andrecognitions from the Outer Critics, Drama Desk, and Theatre World. Recognizedfor her Outstanding Performance as an Actress in a Musical, Lea received thecelebrated Antoinette Perry plum.
A few months after receiving the honor, Lea's greatest achievementfinally came when she was bestowed the Best Actress in a Musical by the TonyAwards in front of a global audience.
The huge success of her Miss Saigonperformance paved the way for other world-class projects. Lea lent her singingvoice to Princess Jasmine in the Disney animated film Aladdin. She portrayed the tragic character of Eponine in theBroadway rendition of Les Miserablesin 1995. And in 1998 and 2004, Lea once again lent her beautiful voice to Disney'sanimation, Mulan.