After weeks of waiting, Lea Salonga finally let loose when she got a midnight phone call from New York announcing that she had won the lead role in the Broadway opening of London’s hit musical “Miss Saigon.”
“I started screaming when I heard the news,” the 19-year-old Filipina actress said excitedly early Tuesday. “We were all screaming. I was so happy. Really, really happy!
“We had no champagne,” she added in a telephone interview from her parents’ home in San Juan, a north Manila suburb. “So, my dad got out a bottle of bourbon. My mom had a glass of grape juice. And I just sort of sat there and started talking about all sorts of things. . . . We’re all just very happy.”
And why not? The dimpled former child star once called the “Shirley Temple of the Philippines” had beat the odds, or at least Actors Equity. The powerful union had challenged the casting of a non-American in a lead role on Broadway. Equity already had lost a bitter battle to prevent Salonga’s London co-star, British actor Jonathan Pryce, from acting on Broadway.
Few expected Equity to lose again. But Daniel Collins, a New York University law professor who served as legal arbitrator, ruled Monday that British producer Cameron Mackintosh had proved that Salonga provides “unique services” and deserved the job.
Few who have heard Salonga sing disagree. She created the lead role of Kim, a Vietnamese bar girl who falls in love with a U.S. Marine, when “Miss Saigon” opened in London’s West End in September, 1989. She played to standing ovations for 298 performances and won the Laurence Olivier Award for best actress in a musical. She now will have nine-month contract to re-create Kim on Broadway.
Salonga said she hopes to get her U.S. visa and working papers to fly to New York before rehearsals start Jan. 28. Even if she’s two weeks late, she added, she’ll be ready when the $10-million production opens at the Broadway Theater on April 11.
“I played the role for a year and a half,” she said. “So I don’t think I can be any more ready than that.”
The show already has more than $30 million in advance ticket sales, a Broadway record.
Salonga said she hopes that those Asian-American actors who have argued that the role should be reserved for a U.S. citizen will not resent her performance.
“I hope they receive me OK,” she said. “I just hope I’m not received with hostility or anything.
“I’m not going to invade or take away a job that another Asian-American could have had,” she added. “Because Cameron told me that he intended firstly to have somebody from New York to have the job as Kim. So I never expected to have it.
“But later on, he said, ‘If you still want to go, we’re going to start the fight with Equity.’ I said, ‘Yes, OK, fine.’ So he knew that I wanted to go. But he never ever said, ‘Count on it, we’re going to win it.’ He said, ‘Don’t count on it, because Equity’s not going to bow down to pressure. We might just lose this.’ So I didn’t expect to come out the victor in this fight.”
Salonga admits she’s “a little afraid” of New York. Her mother, Ligaya, will join her in Manhattan, and her father, Feliciano, and younger brother, Gerard, will come initially to help them settle and “convince my mom that there’s nothing scary about New York.”
“It’s not exactly the safest place in the world,” she said. “There are lots of muggers and dangerous people. But a lot of people who have lived in New York say, ‘Oh, New York is a great place.”