Lea Salonga looks back on Broadway premiere of ‘Miss Saigon’ 32 years ago

Exactly 32 years ago today, on 11 April 1991, the musical “Miss Saigon” opened on Broadway, following its acclaimed run at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London beginning in September 1989.

Lea Salonga, who was catapulted to international stardom  as the original Kim in “Miss Saigon”, looked back on that momentous time with a Facebook post today featuring the original poster art for the musical, which she captioned: “Broadway, 32 years ago today. Unbelievable.”

“Miss Saigon” was the show that changed the course of Salonga’s life. Already a veteran entertainer in the Manila scene at a young age — she topbilled “Annie” for Repertory Philippines and appeared in “That’s Entertainment” and a number of movies and TV shows — Salonga was studying to become a doctor when she auditioned for “Miss Saigon” in Manila, and dazzled the creative team behind the musical, which included famed producer Cameron Mackintosh, composer Claude Michel Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil, who were behind the hit musical “Les Miserables”.

Mackintosh was also the impresario behind other British mega-musicals such as “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera”. He and his team had scoured the world for their ideal leading lady for “Miss Saigon”, a reworking of Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly” transplanted to the Vietnam War, but to no success. Until they came to Manila and found not one but two Kims — Salonga and her equally talented alternate, Monique Wilson — and a slew of other homegrown theater artists who would become part of the original cast of the musical in London, such as Isay Alvarez, Jon-jon Briones, Pinky Amador, Michael Williams, Lyon Roque, etc.

The London run of “Miss Saigon” would go on to win for its lead stars Salonga and Jonathan Pryce the Olivier Awards for Best Actress and Best Actor in a Musical. When the show moved to Broadway two years later, the stars repeated the feat, winning Tony Awards for their roles, with Salonga becoming the first Asian performer to win the Tony trophy for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.

Frank Rich, then the formidable theater critic of the New York Times, hailed Salonga’s “spectacular” performance” and her “clarion, emotionally naked delivery” of the score.

“Miss Salonga, whose performance has grown enormously since crossing the Atlantic, has the audience all but worshiping her from her first appearance as Kim, an open-faced 17-year-old waif from the blasted Vietnamese countryside who is reduced to working as a prostitute in Saigon,” Rich wrote. “As her romance with an American marine, Chris (Willy Falk), blossoms “South Pacific”-style in a progression of haunting saxophone-flecked ballads in Act I, the actress keeps sentimentality at bay by slowly revealing the steely determination beneath the gorgeous voice, radiant girlish features and virginal white gown. Once Chris and his fellow Americans have fled her and her country, the determination transmutes into courage, and the passages in which Kim sacrifices herself for the welfare of her tiny child, no matter how hokey, are irresistibly moving because Miss Salonga’s purity of expression, backed up by the most elemental music and lyrics, simply won’t let them be otherwise.”

Salonga’s landmark triumph in “Miss Saigon” opened the door for generations of other Filipino artists to star in succeeding productions of the musical and other productions on Broadway and the West End, among them Joanna Ampil, Rachel Anne Go, Leo Valdes, Jonjon Briones, Red Concepcion and Gerald Santos (now playing Thuy in a Denmark production of “Miss Saigon”).

To date, Salonga remains the only Asian to have won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Filipino-American actress Eva Noblezada was nominated in 2017 for playing Kim in a revival of “Miss Saigon”.

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