Teenage Star Lights London Stage

Despite critical acclaim, `Miss Saigon's' Filipino lead, Lea Salonga, remains `natural'. THEATER: INTERVIEW

IT'S three hours until curtain time for ``Miss Saigon,'' the blockbuster London musical created by ``Les Mis`erables'' lyricist Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Sch"onberg. Lea Salonga, the 19-year-old Filipino star of the sold-out show, is guiding me toward her dressing room, across a set littered with realistic bomb-shell craters. ``Be careful,'' Ms. Salonga cautions, ``this is meant to be war-torn Vietnam....''

We reach her brightly lit dressing room, with masses of cards from well-wishers lining the walls. The young actress, who has been hailed by critics as ``a talent of shattering emotional depths'' and ``a remarkable find,'' sits down casually, knees splayed, devoid of makeup, like the teenager she is, to talk about the show and what it's like to be the London stage's most lauded newcomer in a long time.

``Miss Saigon,'' which opened here seven months ago to enthusiastic notices, is a loosely updated version of Puccini's tragic ``Madama Butterfly'' tale, reset at the close of the Vietnam War. It tells the moving story of an orphaned Vietnamese girl, Kim (Salonga), unwillingly forced into prostitution in order to survive. It is written in a ``sung-through'' style, with no spoken dialogue. It is expected to transfer to Broadway sometime next year, and the London-cast album is already available in America on the Geffen label.

Salonga was chosen for the role after a worldwide search involving more than 1,500 auditions from Singapore to San Francisco. Earlier this month, her portrayal of Kim won her Britain's coveted Olivier Award for best actress in a musical.

``Until we went to Manila and heard Lea sing our songs, we never thought that we would find Kim,'' recalls lyricist Boublil. ``She is the most amazing and intuitive professional of her age that I have ever met.''

Salonga is articulate beyond her years. Describing her feeling at her first standing ovation in a house packed with 2,500 people, she says simply, ``My jaw dropped. I couldn't move. I didn't think I would have that kind of effect.''

Of the ``Miss Saigon'' experience, Salonga says the most gratifying part has been her recognition as a Filipino succeeding in the West. ``I like being seen in that way,'' she says. ``In terms of the star status, it doesn't really matter so much. It's actually making my people proud that matters to me.''

The ovations are a regular occurrence now, but Salonga gives every impression of remaining unchanged by the adulation. ``It doesn't really sink in - the star bit,'' she comments.

British co-star Simon Bowman says, ``There is nothing false about her at all.'' Fellow Filipino actress Monique Wilson notes with amusement, ``She's too humble! I don't think Lea realizes how big she has become.''

Ms. Wilson, also 19, who has known Salonga for more than 10 years, is the lead ensemble player in ``Miss Saigon'' and alternates as Kim in some performances. ``Lea has always been an achiever,'' she observes, ``and was a child star back home. But at the same time, she was also studious; she got good marks and was on the honor roll. She has always been extraordinary - in an ordinary way.''

Salonga had her own national television show in the Philippines, ``Love, Lea,'' when she was 12. Despite her celebrity status there, she considers landing the lead in ``Miss Saigon'' a ``once in a lifetime'' break. Though she appeared in a variety of top musicals, films, and TV shows in her own country over the years, this is the first time that she has performed outside the Philippines.

Producer Cameron Mackintosh (``Cats,'' ``Phantom of the Opera,'' ``Les Mis'erables'') recalls the excitement she generated at the audition: To familiarize her with a song from the show, composer Sch"onberg played it three times. ``And Claude-Michel never quite remembers what he has composed,'' says Mackintosh, ``so there were slight alterations in each version. At the end of that she said, `Mr. Sch"onberg, which version do you want me to sing?''' The producer breaks into a hearty laugh. ``She had remembered all three versions; that's uncanny! I have never come across it in a performer before. It's a gift.''

Surprisingly, Salonga had her heart set on becoming a doctor until recently. In fact, she had just completed her first year of medical school at Ateneo de Manila University when she was got the role of Kim. ``It's like `someone up there' is telling me something,'' she says. ```You're not meant to be a doctor; you are meant to perform.'''

Salonga, a Roman Catholic, says her faith helped her overcome the tremendous pressure she felt in a role that could make or break the play. During rehearsals she doubted she could carry it off. ``But come opening night,'' she remembers, ``after praying, I just felt very calm and serene, and went out there and did the show.''

Salonga also feels committed to setting a good example for other teens; she believes that is something she can give back to the society that has made her a success. Two years ago, she became part of the Young People's Project, jointly run by the Philippines' Population Center Foundation and America's Johns Hopkins University, to help promote ``sexually responsible'' messages aimed at countering one of the biggest problems among single Philippine teen-agers: pregnancies.

Salonga recorded two hit songs with a well-known Filipino pop group geared at conveying that, in her words, it's ``all right to fall in love and have fun without engaging in sex - that it's wiser to wait to learn if it's a lasting kind of love.'' She sang the songs on TV and in schools.

Salonga was asked to represent her country at a conference in Los Angeles last year, known as Enter-Educate, where performers from all over the world gathered to discuss ways of advancing positive messages on socially relevant issues through music, movies, and television. She plans to continue using her talents in this way. ``You're entertained,'' she explains ``but you're also being educated. That's very important to me.''

And after ``Miss Saigon''?

Salonga is all too aware how difficult it is for Asian performers to make it to the top in the West. She is heartened, though, by some signs of change. ``Asians are on TV everywhere in the States now,'' she notes, ``and in nice roles, not just tiny walk-ons or in stereotyped parts....'' She hopes ``Miss Saigon'' will give momentum to that trend and help persuade Western producers and directors to use more Asians.

Whatever happens, ``Miss Saigon'' has made it clear that Salonga's gifts of talent, character, and compulsive watchability are equalled by few others. ``I think Lea absolutely has it in her to become an international star,'' predicts Mackintosh. ``Indeed, she already is a star.''

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