Miss Saigon movie in Lea's mind

Nathalie Tomada (The Philippine Star) - June 29, 2012 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - “It’s about time.”

That’s what Lea Salonga, who originated the lead role of Kim in Miss Saigon, thinks when asked about the reported film adaptation of the musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh, the man behind other commercially successful musicals such as Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Les Miserables.

Miss Saigon, which tells about a doomed romance between an American GI and a Vietnamese bar girl with the Vietnam War as backdrop, opened in 1989 on West End’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It made the then teenager Lea an international stage sensation, winning every possible award that could be won for her performance — the OlivierTonyDrama Desk, etc. Miss Saigon ran for a decade on West End in London and close to 10 years on Broadway in New York.

Talks about the film version come on the heels of more musicals enjoying the big screen treatment like Chicago, Mamma Mia!, Rock of Ages and the soon-to-be-released Les Miserables.

Lea tells The STAR, “I think Cameron said something to the effect — this is after Les Miserables’ 25th anniversary concert (in 2010) — that now I know how to do Saigon. That’s what he said: Now I know what to do with Saigon.

According to Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com), the Miss Saigon movie is already in its development phase. Variety.com reported that Precious director Lee Daniels might helm it.

Then there are discussions as to who’s going to make it to the cast. For the coveted role of Kim, some Asian singer-actresses have been floated around as prospects including Fil-Am Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, who starred in the Godspell revival on Broadway.  

“She’s in Godspell and she’s very good. (But) whatever opinions I have of whoever should play it, they’re all gonna be thrown out of the window,” says Lea.

While Lea had “created” the Kim template, she believes though that the Kim in the film version should be a fresh interpretation.

“Whoever they will get for the film will have to create the character all over again. They can refer to the old version, but they can kind of try and forget it, because you’re creating it for a brand-new audience that for whom 1989 is ancient history. And whoever will get to play probably wasn’t even born yet (in 1989) if you think about it.”

Vocals-wise, Lea says the new Kim will have to be a mix. “It’s a ‘rang-y’ score, especially on the lower end of it. And I’ll take the blame for it because not very many women can sing low, and I’ve seen the show so many times, wherein whoever is playing Kim can sing the hell out of the high notes, but when it comes down to singing low, I’m like, ‘oh, I feel so bad for you right now.’ But yeah, it has to be somebody who has the range,” she explains. “But there’s also a particular quality that they seem to look for. I guess it has to be somebody who has clarity; (the voice) can’t be that big and bombastic.”

The casting will obviously be a tough one. “But thankfully, there has been productions of it, so it should be easier than it was to cast the first time around. Because (before) it was, we don’t know what we’re looking for, and yet we know we haven’t found it. Once you found the first Fantine or the first Eponine, it’s like ‘Oh, we have a mold, it’s easy now to fill.’ So after the West End production (of Miss Saigon), people kind of have the idea that okay, we can now get this person’s understudy (as) we have a type.”

Does she think the film’s casters should also try to travel around the world like what was done 22 years ago when she was discovered?

“I think they’re gonna have to look everywhere again to find that special girl to play the part,” says Lea. “Casting the first time was hard. They went to London, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, then they landed in Manila. That’s how they found me, and they found every other Asian person for the roles for the West End in Manila. Out of 15 or 16 Asian roles, including the ensemble, they found 13 of them in Manila.”

Sorry to disappoint fans, but Lea rules out the possibility of being part of the movie, more so, of reprising Kim. “I’m not ever going to be asked to sing that because I’m 41 years old and the character is from 17 to 20,” she says with a laugh. “I’d rather get tickets to the premiere and let that be the end of it. (If it’s on) a behind-the-scenes context, I’d rather do that.”

Nevertheless, thanks to videos of Lea’s Miss Saigon callback auditions circulating on YouTube, one gets a clearer picture as to how she secured the part.

 The video clips showed a 17-year-old Lea, who even looked several years younger, not to mention seemingly unaffected by what was about to happen, as she held her Miss Saigon casters led by Mackintosh in a spell while singing Sun & Moon.   

Lea now recalls, “I was oblivious to a lot of that. It was very cute. They were very sweet about everything. And I was just very stoic and cool. I think part of it was that I didn’t want it all that badly, I was in pre-Med, a student in university… I mean if I didn’t get the role, it wasn’t going to be the end of life.” 

While she was fairly aware of the works of the people behind Miss Saigon, having been a child of Philippine theater (with her first starring role via Repertory Philippines’ Annie), but at that time, she had never seen Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera or Cats. “I think it was much better that I didn’t have any expectations or prior knowledge of the magnitude of what the show is going to be. It didn’t really hit me until (I saw the) theater, and I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, it’s 2,550 people, what am I going to do?’”

Of course, the rest is now history. Told that she is credited to have opened a lot of doors for Asian artists on West End and Broadway, she readily dismisses the notion and says, “They’re giving me way too much credit, I think. I think there are a lot of Asian actors that trod the boards. With the show being on West End and New York that employed so many people over the 10 years or so that it was running, that was a lot of people coming in and out of Asian descent. Majority of the Kim that got to play on Broadway are Filipino, and we’re extremely proud of that. I cannot be credited for what the show has done.”

Meanwhile, Lea will soon head for the US to star in a new musical titled Allegiance with George Takei of Star Trek fame, which is about one family’s struggles during the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII.

But prior to that, she’s returning to the Philippine stage via Atlantis Productions’ God of Carnage, wherein she and Adrian Pang, whom she worked with before in They’re Playing Our Song, are playing a married couple. 

The Tony and Olivier-winning dark comedy and straight play will have a limited run in Manila on July 13 to 22 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium before traveling to Singapore for a three-week run.  

Amid the overseas travel demands of her work, Lea is making the Philippines her base for now. “Right now, yeah, I’m based here. My husband (Robert Chien) really likes it here. Raising a child — I have a six-year-old (Nicole Beverly) — is far more possible here because you have a lot of help. I mean she only has one grandma, and grandma is here.” 

And is her daughter following in her footsteps?

Lea shares, “Her voice might come to its own when she’s older. I mean she can carry a tune. But she seems to want to be a painter or a fashion designer, something very visual and artistic. I think she’s exceptional in that department. So, she says she wants to be a paleontologist, a painter, a fashion designer, a doctor, but not once, (did she say) I want to be a performer or a singer (laughs). At the end of the day, I can’t do anything to push her in any direction, she has to find it on her own.”

(For details on God of Carnage, call Atlantis Productions at 892-7078.)

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