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Asian Actors Onstage: Lea Salonga, Phillipa Soo Sound Off on Broadway Representation, Cultural Perceptions

The leading ladies of 'Hamilton' and 'Allegiance' weigh in on the current breakthrough season for diversity onstage and discuss what it means for Asian-American actors and stories: "Stop seeing us as exotic or oriental. Don't see us as foreigners, see us as part of the country."

“Do people just ask you to sing Aladdin all the time?” Phillipa Soo asked Lea Salonga when they met for the first time on a November afternoon at Manhattan’s Paramount Hotel.

Soo, 25, is making her Broadway debut in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, while Salonga, 44, is starring opposite George Takei in Allegiance. Their conversation began as a laugh-filled “fangirl” session, swapping stories about their shows’ opening-night parties, and short stage breaks. (“Should I get cake from the costume room or run to the bathroom?!” debated Soo.) But it quickly evolved into an in-depth discussion about advocating for racial and cultural representation onstage, pushing past “typical Asian” professional goals, and meeting their own parents’ standards of excellence. 

“I understand the practical pieces of advice that parents give their kids,” said Salonga, who is taking a breather from her role as a judge on the local edition of The Voice in the Philippines to return to Broadway. Turning to Soo, she added: “Someone who looks like me and looks like you can have this career.”

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Salonga made history as the first actress of Asian descent to win a Tony Award when she took home lead honors in 1991 for the blockbuster musical Miss Saigon, and she remained the only Asian actress in the Tony club until earlier this year, when Ruthie Ann Miles won for The King and I. Theater awards pundits are already predicting that Soo has a good shot at expanding the membership to three when Hamilton is up for consideration at the 2016 Tonys.

Lea Salonga and Phillipa Soo meet for the first time at the Paramount Hotel’s Think Tank in New York City. Photo credit: Jai Lennard

For a long time, roles for Asian actors on Broadway were severely limited, and resumes tended to read the same — with revivals of The King and I, Flower Drum Song and maybe a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures or David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. Coming in the wake of a year-long off-Broadway run at the Public Theater for the Imelda Marcos bio-musical Here Lies Love (which also starred Miles), the ongoing King and I revival and the Broadway premiere of Allegiance mean that more Asian actors have been consistently employed on prominent New York stages than at any time in history.

The big question now is whether that momentum will continue, with more non-traditional casting like that of Soo as Eliza, Alexander’s wife, in Hamilton.

Phillipa, when did you first learn of Lea?

SOO: Aladdin was a huge part of my childhood — that was the first time I heard you. Then, becoming more interested in theater and definitely looking into plays and musicals that represented people I thought looked like me, that’s when I found all these amazing videos of you auditioning for Miss Saigon. I don’t know if you’ve watched those.

SALONGA: I actually have. People on Facebook tag me and say, “Oh my god, Lea, you were so young!” That’s 27 years ago! It blows my mind to think about it now.

SOO: Truly, such an important part of me growing up, as someone of mixed race and someone of color, was seeing someone so successful but so beautiful in your work and what you do.

What do you each love about your character? What’s your favorite musical moment of hers?

SOO: In Hamilton, the most amazing thing about my journey [as Alexander Hamilton’s wife Eliza] is her discovery of herself and her power, and the impact on history that she’s searching for and doesn’t necessarily realize herself, but the audience can see.

I always look forward to that last moment [when Eliza sings of her accomplishments after Alexander’s death in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”], which is very much a culmination of the entire three hours of experience, the entire 20 years we’ve just seen in the play, the entire rehearsal process — where we are in that very moment.

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Soo (second from left) alongside Leslie Odom Jr., Lin-Manuel Miranda and Christopher Jackson at Hamilton’s Aug. 6 Broadway premiere. Photo credit: AP Images/Invision

As a woman, it’s nice to hear people at the stage door say, “I didn’t even know! She’s a woman, and that’s the most amazing thing.” And I say, “But isn’t it crazy that you’re so surprised?” It’s a surprising thing that it ends with her story! But I think that’s great. We’re making our way toward something else.

I can’t wait to see your show but I’m sure there’s something similar.

SALONGA: Yeah. In AllegianceKei Kimura starts out compliant with her environment. Her father says, “We have to keep our heads down,” and she’ll say yes. She pretty much bends in whatever direction she feels she’s being pushed in. Very compliant, very traditionally Asian; “This is my role in this family.” Then she gets thrust into a whole other set of circumstances with a whole other set of influences pushing her.

I look forward to a very short reprise [of “Higher”], when everything is taken away from her and she now gets to that decision: “You know what? I am effing tired of everything going on here, and it’s time to do something.” I look forward to ripping into that every day. Then we see her more proactive and less compliant and much more of an instigator of things.

Both of your characters are empowered to continue the work of men in their lives, these goals might not be achieved without them. Did that factor into accepting the role?

SALONGA: When this role was first developed, there was a whole lot of none of that! Then [co-writer] Marc Acito came into the picture and streamlined the script — killed off the mother and an older brother, and gave their arcs to me, which made for a really rich experience. Even in the San Diego production where Kei was introduced, she was still not this instigating force that she is now.

As for looking for roles, my gut just tells me, “Yes, you have to do this, and you have to stick with this.” Sometimes it’s the arcs of the character, but usually, because I tend to be led by singing over anything else, if it’s something I feel I can really work with, that’s the path I’ll go.

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From left: Salonga and George Takei as Kei and Ojii-chan Kimura in Allegiance. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

SOO: I joined [Hamilton] as the ball started rolling faster and faster about two years ago. I relate to that idea of not necessarily seeking out “interesting female roles,” but “this character, this role, who happens to be a woman, is interesting to me, and I relate to it in some way, so I’m just gonna go with my gut and see where it leads me.” Is it exciting to work on this? Even if I don’t necessarily hit the nail on the head the first time, is the prospect of working on it getting my gears going? Then it turned out to be a wonderful surprise. I hope that’s how I can do it for the rest of my career.

Both shows also use your Asian makeup in different ways: Allegiance tells an Asian-American story about the WWII internment, and Hamilton uses colorblind casting to showcase the founding fathers.

SALONGA: It’s amazing that both of these shows are on Broadway in the same season.

Allegiance is one of those shows where race is like a main character in the show, because the xenophobia happening at the time needs to be very clearly illustrated. The only people who can replace us are other Asians, which is rare. The only exception is Katie Rose Clark, who is “as white as snow,” and understudied by two girls who are Hapa — half [Asian, half white]. One of them also understudies me, but she can be pushed either way and it would not be politically incorrect to do so because she embodies both.

It’s refreshing that this is a specifically Asian-American story that shows the uglier, seedier side of American history, and how relevant it is today — for example, with so many discussions about immigrants in this country today, and with what’s been happening around the world with the terrorist bombings in Beirut and Paris. The lens is now closing on Muslims and the Muslim-American community, and I feel sick to my stomach, hearing the politicians talk and seeing which states will not allow [Syrian] refugees in. Yes, we understand, we get it, but remember, this same attitude was trained on another ethnic group back in the day. It’s happening again — have you not learned from history? Have you not read your history books? Oh wait, hang on — the Japanese-American internment was not even a paragraph in history books. Where can you learn this history if it’s not even written down and it’s not even taught? It’s just very scary. I totally went off-topic.

SOO: There’s a hope that one day, enough people will have been exposed to enough art and enough history just to think twice. [When watching Allegiance,] I’m not just enjoying this as a story, but this is really messed up.

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“Someone who looks like me and looks like you can have this career,” said Salonga (left) with Soo at the Paramount Hotel’s Think Tank in New York City. Photo credit: Jai Lennard

Phillipa, you’re of Asian descent and playing a character that isn’t written as Asian, or any race at all.

SALONGA: But it’s awesome and with all of these colorful people!

SOO: Yeah! So I’m half-Chinese and half white, and it wasn’t until being part of this show — even though I’ve been in other mixed race casts — that I have been considered an actor of color. Up until now, I haven’t been talking about being an Asian-American woman! I don’t know why, but clearly it has something to do with the statement that we’re making in our show, and that you’re seeing so many different colors that you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, what is everybody?” I was in Natasha Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, a Russian story based on Tolstoy and with a mixed race cast. But it wasn’t a mixed race cast playing Russian people; it was just us telling the story. Because of who I was playing opposite, I think people assumed I was white. It depends on the frame that highlights different things.

Also, it hasn’t been until now that I received this beautiful letter from this young woman who thanked me for representing Chinese-American people in the theater. That’s never happened to me before! But it’s beautiful because I feel like as amazing as it is to acknowledge, it’s also amazing on the other side that people don’t even think twice about it [in Hamilton].

At the Allegiance opening, speaking about Asians in the performing arts, George Takei told me, “Other parents, if they had talented children, they would be encouraged. But Asian parents all want their sons and daughters to be professionals — it’s an insecure business and that’s the reality …”

SALONGA: Right. My parents told me that.

“… They not only don’t encourage them, they discourage their youngsters. We should be confident enough that if they have talented children who have that drive, to give them wise guidance: ‘Yes, it’s a very competitive field and there aren’t that many opportunities, but if you really have that grit and the talent and the ability to bounce back from rejection, then we will support you.’ That kind of encouragement is needed, and I think it’s starting to happen now.”

SALONGA: I grew up in the Philippines, and I spent most of my life acting and singing and dancing onstage or TV or on film. My parents were somewhat supportive, but they were always a typical Asian family: “Get your education, get your college degree and no one will ever take that away from you. Don’t count on show business as a primary occupation because it’s very fickle.” Which it is, and we’ve seen people be complete successes one minute and total wash-ups the next. It’s a very practical piece of advice. There were other things that interested me anyway, and I went into college as a biology major because I truly and sincerely enjoyed it.

Then, Miss Saigon happened, and bam, my life changed. All of us were feeling like we’re blazing a trail for other people of our race, and we have no idea what’s going to happen once this show opens, and it then became an incredible employment opportunity for so many Asian-American actors. But even while I was in that show, I thought, ‘One year and then go back to college, pick up where I left off and life will just continue.’

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Salonga (second from left) at the 1991 Tony Awards alongside fellow winners Nigel Hawthorne (‘Shadowlands’), Mercedes Ruehl (‘Lost In Yonkers’) and Jonathan Pryce (‘Miss Saigon’). Photo credit: Richard Drew/AP

I do understand why a lot of Asian-American parents, especially the first-generation and the immigrants that come here, would encourage their kids not to get into the business: because Asians onscreen, onstage, it’s a very underrepresented group. Until Allegiance and Hamilton and other shows are written for people like us, it’s difficult, and it’s extremely competitive as it is, so I understand the practical pieces of advice that parents give their kids.

But the cool thing about Allegiance is, you see the Asian romantic lead get the Asian romantic leading lady at the end! It’s not a spoiler: there’s B-roll of us kissing at the end of a romantic number! That’s not been seen on Broadway yet, and it’s awesome. And there’s another Asian lead and he’s involved in an interracial romance — how often do these stories happen? The times, they are a–changing. Someone who looks like me and looks like you can have this career.

SOO: I was having a great conversation the other day with a very mixed group of friends: black friends, white friends, gay friends, straight friends. And we were talking about particularly just giving anybody of minority an opportunity in the theater. The opportunities don’t exist because there’s not enough people, and there’s not enough people because the opportunities don’t exist. It’s a catch-22. So you create the opportunity, even though the perfect people might not be there, you create it so that more people [emerge]. There’s a catalyst. It has to start somewhere.

There’s a huge responsibility to tell those stories and put those stories out there so we can be a part of it. And then there will be a young woman outside the stage door saying, “Oh my gosh, thank you.” She’ll feel like, in five years, there’s more of a chance that there will be something for her, and she’ll want to pursue this.

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SALONGA: Exactly.

SOO: In terms of my own experience, my dad is first-generation, so his parents were from China, and my mom was born and raised in southern Illinois, and she was involved in the arts. My dad’s a doctor. I was very much always encouraged, but the mentality of “get your education” was still there.

But of course, from his experience, he was like, “I kind of want you to do what you want to do, but remember, there’s a legacy here, and you have a lot to live up to. Don’t forget that.” I think he just wanted me to do the best at whatever I wanted to do, so whether it was in the arts or the sciences, to be well-rounded and to have an amazing time doing it, but also to just educate yourself and if you’re going to be a performer, be the best performer that you can be. I think that still lives on in me and will be something I pass onto my own children. I think there’s something beautiful about that.

What can Hollywood learn from Broadway right now?

SALONGA: Watch the season, first of all! And with On Your Feet! and The Color Purple, it’s an incredible season of shows. It’s quite groundbreaking, and it just shows what’s possible. It’s possible for any ten-year-old of any background to look up at the stage and say, ‘Mommy, that’s what I want to do,’ and then for that mom to say, ‘Well then go for it. I’m right behind you.’ It’s nice to be able to have a hand in that, instead of saying, ‘There’s nobody like you onstage, where are you gonna fit?’ But we’re fitting quite nicely, eight shows a week.

Stop seeing us as exotic and oriental and far-removed from the experience of what this country actually is. Don’t see us as foreigners, see us as part of the country. Then, maybe there will be more really great stuff written on film for people that look like us, because theater people are writing things for us! Kei was written for me — I can actually say that!

SOO: Hamilton just asks us all to go a little bit deeper: whether you’re a hip-hop fan seeing musical theater for the first time, or if you were thinking you were gonna see some reprise of 1776, and now it’s this? And you’re thinking, ‘Wait a minute, these people aren’t white!’ It asks you just take a step and go a little deeper.

It’s not like there’s no opportunity for you to get on the train; there’s a lot of opportunity to get on. Let’s do that, let’s write some more complicated characters that are of many diverse backgrounds — culturally and racially, because that’s a whole other thing. Yeah, I’m being represented racially, but culturally, that’s so broad! I’m seeing broad people, not my neighbor, not you, not me.

SALONGA: It’s baby steps.

SOO: But it’s what we love.

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