Part 2: Lea Salonga talks cultural representation and current politics through musical theatre
When I was given the opportunity to speak to Lea Salonga about her upcoming concerts just days after the results of the American election were announced, I couldn’t help but link her wealth of roles to current political conversations.
Below, Salonga discusses the parallels between the hate rhetoric that inspired the events of of the Japanese internment explored throughout Allegiance (her most recent Broadway show) and the elevation of Trump to the highest public office of America, the ability to influence positive change through stage work, and her thoughts on diversity and casting Asian actors in musical theatre. Settle in for an in-depth read, because Salonga knows her stuff and isn’t afraid to share her thoughts.
Want more from Lea Salonga? Read Part 1 of this interview here
When people talk about non-traditional, colour-blind or integrated casting, your work in Les Mis is always mentioned, followed by a conversation about the casting choices of Cameron Mackintosh shows.
You’ve worked extensively in CamMack productions throughout your career – do you think more productions should engage in colour-blind casting practices?
I think so, but it’s not something that can exist for every show. I mean, every producer, every production needs to look at whatever production they are planning to put up and really think long and hard. This is the basic question: is race another character in the show? What story are you trying to tell? We need to be able to tell a story effectively, that should be the first priority. It takes very intelligent directors who know their material like the back of their hand to make those artistic decisions, and then you need a producer brave enough to stand behind casting decisions. I know that it’s a really big endeavour…
With things like Allegiance, obviously everybody on that stage who was interned behind barbed wire fences all had to look like the Japanese-American internees, because race is a very big factor in the show. Because the internment was racially motivated, the show needs Asians playing those roles, so it really depends on the material, it depends on the context of the show, and so many other things, not just the music or the script. What is the political situation in which this story is set? [Ask that question,] and then go from there. Answer the basic question: is race a character in the show? If the answer is yes then you have to be racially specific, if the answer is no then you can be fluid and find the best voice that you can for the roles that are in it.
You’ve also been heavily involved in a few shows whose text focuses on Asian characters and stories.
Miss Saigon and Allegiance both featured narratives based around past historical events, but we are yet to see large/mainstream productions of original or modern musical theatre featuring Asian stories or characters. Do you have any ideas as to what needs to happen within the industry to achieve a standard where the voices of people of colour are heard in equal measure with white stories?
To be absolutely fair, there were some white stories on Broadway this season that didn’t last as long as our Asian story! So there were actually shows that didn’t do as well. So yeah, it was the year of Hamilton, and Hamilton decimated everybody. It’s not their fault, they just created this incredible piece of musical theatre and I am such a huge fan, but it kinda just erased everyone else. (And I love Lin-Manuel Miranda dearly, so I say that with a smile on my face.) […] We saw other shows that weren’t lasting as long as Allegiance, and it just seems that now that I’m looking at it, we didn’t do too bad, we actually did okay! […] it was a miracle that Allegiance got to Broadway at all, just because of the current climate in America. For me, it was miraculous that we are even here, so every day that we’re here, I’m going to savour it and appreciate it, and if tomorrow ends up being our last day, you know what? I had a really good time, and I had a wonderful experience getting to perform with my friends and getting this very important story out, being a part of something revolutionary and incredible and something that needed to be out there. So yeah, I felt like I was a revolutionary doing something very important, we all kinda felt that way and we all took George Takei’s passion as our own.
I think the more Asian stories that get produced and the better the material keeps getting and the more that Asian-American’s are seen less as the “others” rather than as part of the fabric of the country, I think once you have really total integration, then an Asian story will be as palatable and popular. It’s heartening when you see TV series like Fresh Off the Boat that is doing well, and when you see a Filipino leading man in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (I got to do one episode, their season finale), it just made me feel like this it was so cool to be a Filipino on TV, and this family is funny and very much my own… I’m so thankful to Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna who created the show, and it’s definitely something unique and very special (not to mention incredibly smart and so well done)… I mean, my husband binge-watched it before I joined the band wagon and he said “My God honey, this show is just incredible…”, and him being an Asian guy from California seeing an Asian leading man from California in the show – it’s cool for him to be able to see that.
I can’t imagine how sad and enraging it must have been to relive the horrors of internment explored in Allegiance.
Do you have any words for fans who fear persecution or a removal of their rights in the current political climate?
[…] Under the law, every single American has equal rights. That includes for me, the right to be joined in marriage with the person that you love, period. Every person under the law should have that right (and I don’t think the LGBT+ community is asking for marriage in church), but justice is blind. She cannot give preference to one segment of the population, and completely marginalise another under the law. In the name of the law the Supreme Court was right in granting the right to marriage for the LGBT+ community, and that’s it. My opinion is based solely on secular society – it has nothing to do with Christianity, it has nothing to do with being Catholic, and I’m raised Catholic, I know the attitude of the church towards homosexuality. I totally understand, but that’s not where the fight is, the battle is within the law and under the law everyone should have the same right, period.
If rights are taken away, immediately you are labelling a segment of Americans as second class citizens that had rights – until they came out of the closet. Are you kidding me? There’s going to be uproar in America, and it is so sad that this kind of hate rhetoric was used to get people to vote… The most disappointing part [of the election] for me, was that this rhetoric was totally eaten up. A lot of countries see America as a leader, in so many ways, in policy, in diplomacy, in how they treat their citizens, in the arts, education, the armed forces… You look to them to be voices of reason because of how powerful they are. Now I don’t know that the world is going to look at America that way, because of this… You’ve just elected this person based on the electoral college (which I think is outdated), not even the popular vote. More people voted for Hillary Clinton, more people voted for this woman who is incredibly qualified to lead the country, so now you’re going to have world leaders looking at America and going… “Okay, are we going to do that, or will we do something different?” Now there’s an opportunity for all of these world superpowers to replace America (and that statement is not me speaking out against America as a country, because it still holds incredible ideals, I have so many family members there and I’ve always felt welcome), but times are changing, and things are changing… People’s opinions, viewpoints and perspectives will change, as well as America’s positioning in the world. I’m wondering what the current Prime Minister of Australia is thinking, what Angela Merkel is thinking, given what’s happened in America. I’m thinking of all of these world leaders now, and how they are going to position themselves in current events… Somebody has just exited the stage, and somebody is going to step up onto it now. I’m hoping for the best. I don’t think the world wants to see another World War II, the way that happened…
You’ve recently played Helen Bechdel in Fun Home, why did you become involved with that project?
The theatre company I’m doing Fun Home with is headed by a really good friend of mine. His name is Bobby Garcia. When he saw Fun Home, he was thinking already of doing it, but he wanted me to play Helen Bechdel. He sent me to Circle in the Square theatre on Broadway to see the show and I went, and he told me to check out the role of Helen. A friend of mine, Judy Kuhn, was playing her, so I saw the show and I spoke to Bobby again and I said, “This was something. This was incredible.” That story was incredible, and even though it was very specific about a woman being married to a closeted gay man, I mean, my god, women in Manila, a lot of women in Manila and women that we know are going to be able to relate to this character. She’s about sacrifice, about trying to keep your family together, it’s about keeping up appearances and enduring this marriage that is based on a lie for the sake of their children, of society, it’s a classic example and adds another layer of dysfunction. Being able to play this role in my home country where I know that there are women who are going to be watching this and seeing themselves in her, it’s nuts! When I have friends who come and see me at the end of the show, their eyes are always red, they look they’ve been crying buckets and they don’t know what’s hit them.
Many of your roles have given voices to under-represented people. Is the ability of a project to make a difference or make the world a better place a factor in your choice?
I think the older that I’m getting, the more important it is to give voices to people that are not always given voice to. I mean, Helen is somebody who is a supportive wife. The husband is always someone that you see, for example… In this country, it’s always the male politician that you see, you don’t always know what’s going on with the wife, so when you give voice to that wife it’s incredibly powerful when people get to see it. When I do a show like Allegiance, where I’m representing a community that was placed behind barbed wire fences because of completely racially motivated intentions, it’s like I have to give a voice to that too. Whether or not the show is a success on Broadway is immaterial, I need to give a voice to what is happening. It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to do that, so it’s wonderful to be able to choose pieces with my gut, not so much with my head. If my heart is fluttering or beating faster as a result of a story that I’m hearing or being asked to be a part of, I have to do it. Something is telling me to do this and I’m not always able to articulate why at the time – not until I’m deep into the process of it and can put words to my feelings. I go with my gut, if it says I have to do project then I have to do it.