tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS May 15, 2011 8:30am-9:00am PDT
>> hinojosa: she took the world bytorm when at age 17 she was cast as the lead of the hit musical miss saigon. since then she's won a tony and provided the singing voices for the princesses in disney's aladdin and mulan. celebrated international singer and actress lea salonga. i'm maria hinijosa. this is one on one. lea salonga, the star of miss saigon >> hi. >> hinojosa: thank you for coming. >> sure, absolutely. >> hinojosa: so a lot of people know you as this amazing star. you had the lead role in miss saigon, playing kim in the original production out of london, and then in new york. >> right.
>> hinojosa: but probably people don't know that you... even before you got to miss saigon, you were a pretty big star in manila. you had... like, you had recorded records, you had been in the king and i, you had been... >> i'd done some film and some tv, and yeah. i grew up, i think, pretty much in the eyes of many filipinos. a lot of them have seem me from when i was really little doing, you know, musical theater, and then eventually doing tv and then doing film and doing records. back then we were doing records. >> hinojosa: yeah. >> yeah, and people pretty much saw me grow up... i grew up in the public eye. so in the phillipines it's like, "oh, i remember seeing you when you were nine in annie." you know, and so yeah, it was a life that not a lot of people in the us or in london were aware of at the time that i was doing miss saigon. >> hinojosa: so then you hear about... this was 1989. >> mm-hmm. >> hinojosa: and what, does your agent say, "look, they're going to start casting for this show
called miss saigon"? what did you know about it? >> well, actually, the auditions were in 1988, a year earlier. and i was in the phillipines. i was in college. i was a premed major. i was a biology major in college. and there was a singer's union in the phillipines called opm. and the president of the union called my mother and said that there were these auditions coming up for this show which was going to open in london. and so my mom was really skeptical. >> hinojosa: because your mom plays a major role in your life. >> yes. you know, she manages me when... you know, in the phillipines. and of course she's a mom, so her instincts were like, "i don't know about these people, because what if they're these fly-by-night producer types that take advantage of these young girls and then leave the country and whatnot?" and it happens in the phillipines. so my mom was a little hesitant to let me audition. and then the president of the union said, "no, no, no, no, no. these guys are the real thing. they produced cats and les miserables and phantom of the opera, and there's nothing that
you need to worry about." >> hinojosa: and you were thinking... >> i was 17, and i'm thinking, "i've just planned 13 years of my life, for college and med school and all that." and in my head... >> hinojosa: so you were kind of done with the... >> not so much that i was done. i mean, i knew that i was probably always going to be singing, but certainly not as actively as i was up until that point, because academics came first for me. so i said, "okay, why not? i don't have the job yet. why not audition, give it a try, and then if i do get it, then we'll think about what to do next." >> hinojosa: and they came to manila? >> they came to manila. they actually started searching in london. then they went to new york, los angeles, honolulu. and then when they landed in manila they flew, i think, a couple of people out of hong kong to see the producers. >> hinojosa: and is that... like, that kind if international search, is that common? >> i think it depends. i think if they're able to find somebody in the city that
they're first looking, then i don't think that they would have need to gollhe way to the phillipines to search for the lead of this particular show. >> hinojosa: and did you know at that point... did you know at that point that there had been, like, a search, that they had auditioned... >> no. i was not aware of how exhaustive the seach had been previous to their arrival in manila. i had no idea. it's probably better that i didn't have any idea, that i didn't really have the bigger picture of who these people were. and i knew that they had created les miserables, and that cameron had produced all these other shows, but it didn't really occur to me, and i really had no ide how big of a deal these shows actually were. >> hinojosa: because you hadn't been to broadway in new york. >> i had never been to new york, and the last time i was in london i was maybe 11 or 12, and i had seen evita. but still, you know, it didn't dawn on me that there were mulitimillion dollar productions
in london and in new york. and... >> hinojosa: and you walk in... >> we knew what broadway kind of was. but it still didn't occur to me how huge it actually was. and i'm really grateful that it didn't really hit me at the audition. >> hinojosa: so you go into this audition... >> but yeah, so i go into the audition, i'm prepared. i had prepared "on my own" from les mis. i figured, "i'll do also also a boublil and schonberg song, just because boublil and schonberg are in front of me," right? and after i was done, they asked for another song. and i hadn't prepared another song. so... >> hinojosa: and did you think you had done well? >> i think i had done well enough for them to actually ask for more than just one number. so i said, "well, i do have another song. it's 'the greatest love of all' by whitney houston." and so i went up to the piano, and i asked the pianist if he knew the song. but i think before i even finished the question i saw on top of the piano somebody had
left behind "the greatest love of all," on top of the piano. and so i told the pianist, "can you just play this for me?" and he did, and i was praying while i was standing on the x on the floor, "please let it be in my key, please let it be in my key." >> hinojosa: because you can't ask? >> and it was. >> hinojosa: you can't say, "i need it to be in such-anduch." >> at the time i don't think i was as knowledgable with regards to "i need this in the key of b-flat, please." and he played it, and i'm like, "yes! this was meant to be." and so i sang it, and they asked me a few questions at the audition, like, you know, "what is the biggest audience that you've ever performed for? what size?" and i'm like, "well, i just finished doing the opening act for stevie wonder, and there were at least 10,000 people there. i don't know, it was dark, or whatever." and they were all just laughing at me. i'm like, "why are they laughing at me?" >> hinojosa: and you had also opened for menudo, right? >> yes, i did. >> hinojosa: menudo in manila. >> yeah, they were huge. >> ming: and you were the opening act.
>> they were huge. everybody my age and maybe a few years older or younger will remember who they are. that's, like, the original boy band. and they were huge, so huge. and they were beautiful, and so nice. >> hinojosa: so you met ricky martin? >> of course i got to meet ricky martin. and i remember him being really... just really sweet and adorable. he grew up to be really handsome, and he was really, really great looking even back then, when he was, like, 13. >> hinojosa: did these guys know, kind of, when they saw you, who you were, and the fact that you had this background, or did they just think, "wow, we have just discovered, like, an amazing talent here." >> hinojosa: at the time i don't think they really knew how experienced i was and how trained i was. until i gave them my resume, which was probably ten pages long. it's like, "here, this is what i've done." >> hinojosa: and then at that point, how much time between that audition to the time that they actually offered you the lead as kim? >> well, the audition was, i think, sometime in november.
and then a little bit after that, they brought me over to london for what they called final assessments. so i was actually onstage at the theater on drury lane. and 42nd street was playing at the time, so i was on that stage. and i got to sing, and i got to meet the guy who eventually became my leading man in the show, as well as one other cast member who, on the spot, was offered the role right there. so i got to see that, and his excitement and everything. and so that was exciting for me to be able to witness that. so it was incredibly exciting heading over there. and so after final assessments, i think on the last day, they took us for, like, a photo shoot. and i'm like, "what is this for? i don't know what this is for." and i think at the time they hadn't made their final decisions as to what my casting situation was going to be. >> hinojosa: did you want it? were you like, "oh, my god..." >> actually, you know what? no. it's not that i didn't want it, but i didn't want it, i think,
as badly as i would have wanted it it if i had auditioned maybe five years later, when i was a little more aware of who these people wer or i was an actor in new york city. so i didn't really want it that badly. and maybe that aloofness worked in my favor. and, you know, it kept the nerves at bay, i think. >> hinojosa: and then when they finally said to you... >> and i actually found out by looking at my picture on the cover of a sunday magazine in the uk. >> hinojosa: you're kidding! >> somebody sent me a copy of this magazine of the daily mail. it's called you, y-o-u. and i think... i don't know if we got a phone call or what, but somebody said, "you are on the cover of the sunday magazine called you. you're on the cover." and i'm like, "what?" and there was a huge article in the magazine regarding the search, and how they found me and everything. >> hinojosa: but you still
didn't know! >> "what?" i think up until then it was like "you are definitely cast in the show, but we're not sure what's happening." >> hinojosa: oh, my god. >> so i was like, "okay, whatever." "okay, whatever" was my response." >> hinojosa: you do the show in london for about two years. >> i did it for a year and three months. >> hinojosa: year and three months. >> and then i headed to manila to spend the holidays, and i had concerts in the phillipines. and i was in manila for about a month, a month and a half, when i got the call that i was going to broadway. >> hinojosa: now, the thing about miss saigon on broadway is that it was incredibly controversial. >> mm-hmm. >> hinojosa: i mean, a lot of people, if they haven't seen miss saigon, what they know is miss saigon, controversy. the controversy was around the casting of jonathan pryce to play the lead... >> yeah, we were feeling the controversy in london too, because he and i were both still in the show as it was running in the uk. we were both still in the
original company. i think when the casting announcement was made, there was a big uproar in new york city. and cameron then said that he was going to cancel the show if he wasn't cast. >> hinojosa: just so people remember, so the uproar was about the fact that they were casting... >> a caucasian actor to play a eurasian part. >> hinojosa: and then in terms of your controversy... >> in terms of my controversy it was kind of the opposite, because it was an asian part, and i was an asian actor, but i wasn't an american citizen. >> hinojosa: and they tried to... >> so i was... yeah. so there was actually arbitration that went... >> hinojosa: it's amazing. people kind of forget, but you were actually... you were... the fact that you weren't an american citizen was questioned. >> it was questioned. >> hinojosa: the fact that, were you enough of an international star to merit the role? >> right. >> hinojosa: i mean, that must have just... what were you thinking? here you are, 19 years old, and you're thinking, "wait a second. i just want to act or sing." and you've got... >> well, i mean, i was... i'm a very pragmatic person. and cameron was very, you know,
upfront about the entire process. he was like, "we have just been through this with jonathan. we don't know if we're going to be successful in bringing you over." and i told him... he called me in for a meeting in his office, and i'm like, "you know what? for everything that you've done for me up until this point i am extremely grateful." so i was already making plans to stay in the uk, to start drama school in the uk, because the drama schools over there are really good. so i was really kind of moving on with my life, moving forward, regardless of whatever was going to happen. i was not going to put all my eggs in the broadway basket, you know? >> hinojosa: you ultimately did... they did... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: i guess it was actor's equity that basically had to make a decision to allow you to perform. >> right. >> hinojosa: but opening night there were picketers, there were protestors. >> there were picketers throughout previews, too. i mean, during one of the preview performances there were picketers that came into the balcony. and so we were doing this... we were onstage already, we were doing a preview performance. and then we just hear this
screaming in the balcony. and i'm thinking... i'm looking up going, "what's going on up there? we're trying to do a show," you know? "are you going to give us a little respect?" >> hinojosa: people were also very upset about the fact that miss saigon... you know, the terms that would be used now would be to say well, it was a show that was looking at the forced trafficking of women in vietnam who were forced to become sexual objects against their will. and you know, this whole drama is made around them, and there's a love story. but do you think that... >> the show would exist today? i don't know. i think it would have been... i think it would have still been able to exist, because then it would really shine a light on how ugly this kind of situation is. and, you know, a lot of the protest at the time was, "you're denigrating women, you're making them out..." but we have to think of it in context. this is 1975. we're not portraying women as they are in 1991, which was when the show opened on broadway.
this is 1975, and everything is pretty much going to hell in saigon. and everybody's pretty much grasping... and, you know, there's an expression in the phillipines where we say (speaking tagalog), which literally translated is "you are hanging onto the blade of a knife to survive." and... which means that you'll basically do whatever you need to, and do anything, no matter how denigrating or terrible, just to survive. and so within the dialogue of the show, a lot of the ad libs were, "gi, get me out, please get me a visa, get me a passport, please..." >> hinojosa: because this is when the united states is pulling out of saigon. >> exactly. and so the gis just really want to be there for the sex. and they know they're all getting out. and the women are trying to hook themselves onto one of these men to get out of what they know will be a very terrible situation once the americans are
gone and the communists take over. >> hinojosa: when you stand back now and you look at the experience of what happened, the controversy around miss saigon, do you think that things have gotten better for asian actors? >> i'd like to think so. i'd like to think so, that there's certainly more asian actors who are working actively in shows, that blind casting does exist. >> hinojosa: so blind casting, basically... >> it's like it doesn't matter if you're whatever race. i've you've got the goods, then you get cast. >> hinojosa: do you think it really... blind casting really exists? >> it can exist. >> hinojosa: it can, but not across the board. >> not across the board. for example, have you seen billy elliot, for example? blind casting must exist for that role, for that lead role, because it's so hard to find a boy who can do all those things, having that skill set. and to restrict it to a certain ethnic group is... you know, you're just basically centering
on, "okay, he has to be white to play this role," when there are so many other talented kids who could very well do it. so i think they open that role to whomever could play it realistically. and no one even looks twice. >> hinojosa: so there's been progress made. >> i'd like to think so. i'd like to think so. mean, e la production on broadway that i was in was les mis. and the first first production you pretty much had to be pasty white to be in the show,. i went into the show and... >> hinojosa: did you have to audition for that as well? >> no, i didn't have to. >> hinojosa: they just... a phone call? >> they just said, "do you want to do it" i'm like, "sure, i'd love to play eponine." >> hinojosa: wow. >> and then when they asked me to play fantine for the revival, i went in to replace daphne rubin vega. so it's like, "i'm replacing another..." >> hinojosa: she's dominican, yeah, latina. >> so the cast actually was made up of... we had a black javert, there was... the cast was just so diverse, it was crazy diverse.
but it never centered on just how diverse everyone was. it was just, "here's a story, and these are the people that we have chosen to tell the story and to tell it well." >> hinojosa: do you think that now there are more asian american producers who are saying, "okay, i need to step..." i mean, what about you? couldn't you produce? >> well, i actually just did a reading in new york city yesterday, and it's a show called allegiance. and the subject matter of the show is japanese internment in world war ii. so the cast... i mean, it's... obviously this is not open to blind casting, because you have to be asians to play japanese, and there has to be either white or black to play the americans. and so it's very specific. >> hinojosa: are you going to get the role? >> i read for... i was playing the lead in the thing. so hopefully i continue on with the process of developing the show. and it's currently in consistent development. and i did a reading in la last year, and we did the reading in new york city.
and this is a show where the asians and the asian americans in the show are not necessarily portrayed as villains. there are villains... there's the good guys, and there's the villains. or what is perceived as the villain. because stereotypically a lot of asian actors in a lot of american shows would be maybe the triad leaders, or gang leaders, or what. but with this, the romantic lead is asian, the romantic lead, the leading lady is asian, and george takai is the lead guy. >> hinojosa: what i love is the fact that you are here, this international star. because your music, you've, like, what, gone multiplatinum on who knows how many records? but you still have to go in sometimes and read for a part. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: right? >> absolutely. >> hinojosa: you still have to do that. and people might not know this, because, you know... >> i still have to audition. >> hinojosa: ...people don't necessar... i always watch all of the credits on everything, especially because i have kids. whenever i go see anything animated i want to see who did the voices. >> right. >> hinojosa: you did the singing
voice for... >> for princess jasmine and for mulan, yeah. >> hinojosa: in aladdin, and then mulan. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: what was... >> it still freaks kids out. i actually went to visit one of my friends in billy elliot. so one of the kids who played billy, who i had seen in the show, he said, "hi," because i had met him a couple days before when he played the role. and i've got a tony award, i've got all of these credits. and so he asked me, "so what do you do?" and so i listed my broadway credits. "i've done les miserables, and i did miss saigon, and i won a tony award for it." it just... eyes glazed over, and right over the head. he's like, "what else have you done?" very seriously, looking at me. so iookd at my friend, who i had worked with in les mis. and we're looking at each other, it was like, "well, i did the voices of princess jasmine in aladdin and mulan." i got the biggest freakout that i've ever seen. >> hinojosa: you mean he started jumping up and down like... >> "no way!" and i'm like... it's amazing what pop culture and film
will... you know, how it influences kids. >> hinojosa: so... >> it's just so... it was just so funny. it made my night. it really, really did. >> hinojosa: what are you thinking about what comes next? i mean, do you think, "look, i could be producing, i could be directing, i could..." i mean, what's your dream? >> for me, i kind of want to coach, to teach, and to do one-on-one coaching with people. i've done it for a couple of people back home in the phillipines, and i found that to be extremely rewarding, because in a very strange way it keeps fueling my own desires to perform. when i'm able to see somebody that i've kind of helped along onstage, you know, "oh, yes, i remember teaching that person that, i remember teaching this person this," and then, "yes, that dance step is looking great, yes, that's looking great," it makes me feel really good, and it makes me want to get back up there again. >> hinojosa: and obviously doesn't feel like any kind of competitive issue for you? >> no, not at all. i mean, the more... back home, of course, we say, "the more, the manyer." and the more the merrier, truly. and, you know, the more performers that we are able to encourage to love the theater
and love doing musical theater, it's best for... it's great for everybody, you know? i'm not selfish with my gifts and with what i've done and what i may be able to impart to somebody else. because, you know, i've got to pay it forward and pass it along, because i've had some really wonderful teachers to whom i will always and forever be grateful. so to be able to do that for someone else, you know, is pretty fantastic. and i had a great time. >> hinojosa: all right, so tell us the one role that you're saying, "wow, if i really could just get that role..." >> right. >> hinojosa: what would be that role? >> there are actually a couple. >> hinojosa: okay. well, we've got one minute, so tell us. >> i'd love to do eva peron in evita. i'd love to play elphaba in wicked. and i'm actually going to get to play a dream role, not my own dream role, but a dream role of a lot of people. i'm getting to play grizibella in cats in july in the philippines. so i'm looking forward to that, too. >> hinojosa: wow. all right, well, lea salonga, congratulations, and we'll look out for you.
of war or pain ♪ to make sure you're not hurt again ♪ i swear i'll give my life for you ♪ i've tasted love beyond all fear ♪ and you should know it's love that brought you here ♪ and in one perfect night when the stars burned like new i knew what i must do ♪ i'll give you a million things i'll never own ♪ i'll give you a world to conquer when you're grown
♪ you will be who you want to be you ♪ can choose whatever heaven grants ♪ as long as you can have your chance ♪ i swear i'll give my life for you ♪ sometimes i wake up reaching for him ♪ i feel his shadow brush my head ♪ but there's just moonlight on my bed ♪ was he a ghost was he a lie that made my body laugh and cry ♪ and by my side the proof i see his little one