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‘Saigon’s’ Miss : Actress Has Big Plans Even If She Can’t Play Broadway. Ask Mom

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lea Salonga says the waiting is the hardest part, but actually, it looks pretty easy.

At 19, she reigns in the plush penthouse Presidential Suite of the Manila Hotel, complete with a private elevator, butler and pool. Bouquets, fruit baskets and gifts are everywhere.

Off one terrace stretches the hazy blue expanse of Manila Bay, where tiny bamboo bancas cut white wakes between rusting tramp steamers. On the other side stretches rowdy, dowdy Manila, her home and launching pad for a career that saw her take London by storm in the hit musical “Miss Saigon.” Now home for Christmas, she’s nervously awaiting word whether she can re-create the key role of Kim on Broadway.

“The thing that gets me down is the waiting,” Salonga repeats. “But what keeps me up is I have a lot of options.”

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That’s putting it mildly. While producer Cameron Mackintosh and Actors’ Equity continue talks this week over whether the little-known Filipina actress with an angelic voice is enough of a “star of international stature” to be allowed to portray a lead role in what promises to be the most expensive--and most lucrative--Broadway musical ever staged, Salonga isn’t exactly hurting for things to do.

For if Salonga is unknown in New York, she’s a star at home. On stage by age 7, she graced magazine covers by 9, had her own TV show by 12, then went on to records, soap operas, soap commercials, films, even a video with the hit pop group Menudo. Last week, she had five sell-out benefit concerts and an hourlong prime-time TV hagiography that lauds her as “The Reluctant Superstar.”

Talented she clearly is. Her wrenching portrayal of Kim, a Vietnamese prostitute who conceives a child with a U.S. Marine as Saigon is falling in 1975, won standing ovations nightly on Drury Lane and the coveted Olivier Award for outstanding performance by an actress in a musical. Reluctant, however, she isn’t.

“Kim is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says, curled on a blue sofa beside a spray of roses. “Because I’ve never done such serious drama. Nothing I did in films and TV was so serious. The roles I used to play here were teeny-bopper things. They were young roles, you know, giggly-type things. Kim was such a change.”

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Chosen for the role after Mackintosh auditioned hundreds of singers in a worldwide search, Salonga was and is still pretty giggly. Dressed in a loose, striped cotton jumpsuit, she wears her shoulder-length black hair pulled into a ponytail. Deep dimples form when she smiles or crinkles her nose, which is often. She wears pink, fluffy bedroom slippers.

“It took a very long while before I could portray the role the way they wanted me to,” she concedes. “Because I had to get the passion, the falling-in-love part, and that was very hard for me. Because I’d never fallen in love. And doing the kissing scenes and the skimpy bit, you know, wearing bikinis, that was really a shock.”

So as always in her career, her mother stepped in. It wasn’t a big step, since Ligaya (Joy) Salonga, 50, chaperoned her constantly, attended most of the rehearsals, and 112 of her performances in London. Even friends say she is that archetypal terror of directors everywhere: the overprotective, ever-indulgent stage mother.

“We had a little problem with her wearing a bikini,” says Ligaya Salonga. “I’m glad she was a little plump at the time. She was only 17 at the time. So she still had baby fat--kind of chunky really. So they decided she shouldn’t wear the bikini.”

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Instead, Lea Salonga wears an ao dai , the traditional Vietnamese long dress, but slit up the side. And her mother gave some motherly advice for the steamy stuff.

“I tell her if this guy strokes your face, don’t be afraid,” she says, stroking her own face. “Stroke his face, his hair. I showed her. You’ve got to respond.”

Just in case, however, the mother issued additional instructions to co-star Simon Bowman, who plays the Marine.

“I told him to shave more. Half a day without a shave, he looks like he’s in a war. Sit with him, you can see his beard growing. I tell him, ‘Just don’t forget to shave.’ ”

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Ligaya Salonga is the last to deny that she’s been a controlling mother. She began early--on Feb. 22, 1971, to be exact.

“Lea was born on George Washington Day,” her mother says, smoking English cigarettes. “I picked the day. She was a Caesarean delivery. Washington was a strong figure. I thought that was very important. I wanted her to know that being strong was very important.”

The mother is still a strong influence herself.

“How do you want her?” she asks the photographer shooting for this article. “Casual or what? She has a nice red thing. We’ll use that.”

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Moments later, she tells the photographer his lights are wrong.

“She’ll be back-lit,” she warns.

She points to the 18th-floor bowling alley-long balcony. “Maybe out there,” she says. “But don’t let her lean over. She could fall.”

Ligaya Salonga says her role now “is strictly to see Lea’s not exploited,” and not to meddle.

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“If I wasn’t there,” she adds, “she would have gone insane. She’s still young. And this is tremendous pressure.”

Sitting separately later, the daughter doesn’t disagree.

“No one really understood what kind of relationship I had with my mom,” she explains. “She’s my best friend. They used to tease me. But after a while, they got used to it. They’d expect her to be there if I was there.”

“I’m very stoic,” she adds. “I don’t see a lot of things. My mother sees them. My friends see them. They say this person just wants to use you. This person is taking advantage of you. I don’t see it. I’m pretty dumb--stupid when it comes to things like that.”

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Not everyone is so understanding. Zeneida Amador, president and grande dame of the Repertory Philippines, which first cast Salonga as the title role in the musical “Annie” when she was 9, says that Salonga’s “innocence and naivete is precisely because she’s been so shielded and protected.”

And Amador says that the child-star suffered as a result.

“A lot of people who called Lea a brat really wanted to call her mother a brat,” she says. “She gets hyper-volatile. That rubs people the wrong way.” But Amador has nothing but praise for Lea Salonga’s voice and acting.

“She always had star quality,” she says in her office. “It’s something you have or you don’t. It’s magic or chemistry. Lights hit a person on stage and something happens. It’s star quality, and Lea’s had it. Even in ‘Annie.’ She was out there alone, 9 years old, with a dog. And nobody looked at the dog.”

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There was something else too.

“I’ve never seen anyone so sure that she’d make it,” Amador said. “I’ve never seen anyone so sure that good things could be plucked out of the universe and be hers. She always expected success.”

The daughter of a successful engineer, Salonga has near-perfect pitch, an even better memory and studied enough between performances to be salutatorian in grade school and valedictorian in high school. She was in her first year of a pre-med course at the Ateneo de Manila, a Jesuit university, when Mackintosh and “Miss Saigon” came knocking.

She knew nothing about Vietnam. The cast was shown parts of “Platoon” and “The Killing Fields,” and a Vietnamese refugee told them how he’d escaped. She saw similarities to the Philippines, especially since her father’s ship-repair company is near the giant U.S. naval base at Subic Bay, famed for its red-light district.

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“Sometimes, we’d go driving and see the girls standing there outside the bars, waiting for GIs,” she recalls. “It’s kind of sad.”

She refused all dates in London, she says, and only went to cast and crew parties. “I don’t go on dates because I don’t like to go on dates,” she says defensively. “I’m more of a homebody.”

Chunky around the hips, she was ordered to lose weight. She became a petulant vegetarian instead.

“I hate going on a diet,” she says. “I love to eat. I love it. I love food. And I don’t plan to stop loving it.”

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Now she waits for news from New York. The $10-million epic production, expected to open April 11 at the Broadway Theater, already has set a record by selling more than $30 million in advance tickets. If she’s offered the role, she’ll take her mother and “if necessary, my dad. I’m scared of New York.”

If not, she’s given up last year’s goal of singing like Janet Jackson. Now, she says she’ll consider returning to the London production, finishing school, or even teaching singing and drama.

“God gave me this talent, and I may as well use it to the fullest,” she says.

And just in case the need arises, she recently bought her first bikini. Her mother helped.

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