Sunday, May 27, 2007

Untold Pinoy Story No. 13

On Their Own

There was a time when one would not see the original Miss Saigon, Lea Salonga, without that familiar face behind her: Mrs. Saigon a.k.a. Joy a.k.a. Ligaya. That’s Lea’s mother.
And Ligaya Salonga was there wherever Lea went. Yes, they were always together. Everywhere. All the time.
But now that Lea has gotten married and she is now a Mrs. Saigon herself, Ligaya has disappeared from the picture.
Finally, Lea is on her own.

Lea’s fellow Repertory Philippines alumna, Monique Wilson, has also moved out of the shadow of her original theatre group, Repertory Philipines. Just like Lea, Rep (as it is more popularly called) honed Monique’s theatre talent since she was a small girl. Later, Monique took a theatre course in London. Upon Monique’s return, she organized her own theatre group, the New Voice Company, which was instrumental in bringing to Philippine stage those cutting-edge theatrical productions which no other theatre group would dare touch. Like The Vagina Monologues.
Finally, Monique is on her own.

Lea and Monique have really come a long way from that fateful audition day for Miss Saigon in a small function room at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

At the age of nine, Lea and Monique auditioned and subsequently appeared together in some Rep musicals, the most memorable of which was Annie. Lea played the title role while Monique played a relatively minor role.

Three thousand two hundred and eighty five tomorrows later, Lea and Monique were together again for an audition for Broadway producer Cameron Mackintosh’s latest venture. It was a new musical by the same team who brought the highly-acclaimed Broadway musical, Les Miserables: Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. This new musical is called Miss Saigon, a modern retelling of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

The competition for a role in Miss Saigon was fierce. All those who auditioned chose their respective song carefully in order to increase their chance of bagging the lead role in the year’s most anticipated musical. And the competition was really so fierce that even friends like Lea and Monique kept their audition song a secret from each other.

The audition team of highly respected composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, maverick Broadway producer Cameron Mackintosh (producer of Broadway blockbusters such as Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, etc.) and Tony award-winning director Nicholas Hytner (also the director of such acclaimed films as The Crucible, The Madness of King George, The History Boys, etc.) trooped to Manila to search for the actress who would play the lead role of Kim in Miss Saigon’s run in London’s West End before moving to Broadway. The idea of flying to Manila came after the audition team noticed that most of those who impressed them during their audition sessions in different parts of the United States had Filipino blood in them. This paved the way for the most exciting chapter of the search for Miss Saigon’s Kim which was compared to Hollywood’s search for Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara.

Upon arrival in Manila, the audition team was astounded by the wealth of talents that they discovered there. All of Manila’s theatre and movie stalwarts showed up for the auditions. Sadly, many famous names did not make it during the initial and subsequent auditions, like Asia’s songbird Regine Velasquez, actress Rica Peralejo, belter Dulce, singer Roselle Nava, among many other familiar names.

But two young Filipina girls made it during the first audition session in Manila. Among those considered for the lead role of Kim were Lea Salonga and Monique Wilson. These two teeners have many things in common. They were both 18 years old. They both started doing theatre work with Repertory Philippines while they were little girls. They appeared together in some musicals, like Annie, The Sound of Music, among others. They were also both film actresses.

However, the similarity between them ends there. Because Lea and Monique have contrasting styles. If you saw both of them portray the role of Kim in Miss Saigon, you would come to one conclusion : Lea Salonga is a singer who can act while Monique Wilson is an actress who can sing. Yes, Lea is the better singer and Monique is the better actress. This was clearly evident during their respective audition.

During her audition for Miss Saigon, Lea sang a song composed by Miss Saigon composer and one of the audition panelists, Claude-Michel Schönberg. This song was a showstopper in the hit Broadway musical, Les Miserables, where it was sung by one of the musical’s most memorable characters, Eponine. Several years later, Lea Salonga would reprise the same audition song after she accepted the offer to play the role of Eponine in the Broadway production of Les Miserables. With this, Lea gained the distinction of being the first Asian to play the role of Eponine on Broadway. For this role, Lea had to wear a hat wherever she went in order to keep a Caucasian complexion. She also had her Asian nose transformed during each performance. In early 2007, Lea made another Broadway history when she became the first Asian to play the role of Fantine in the restaging of Les Miserables on Broadway.

In 1995, Lea also bagged the honor of singing her audition song in the hit show entitled, Les Miserables in Concert: The Dream Cast. In celebration of Les Miserables’ tenth year, this show gathered together the best actors/actresses who performed in the hit musical around the world for a concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall. Among several great stage actresses who played the part of Eponine during its ten-year run, Lea was chosen to play the part for this ultimate Les Miserables production. And Lea got to sing one of the musical’s most memorable songs which happened to be Lea’s audition song for Miss Saigon.

It must have been quite a thrill for Lea to reprise her audition song before a distinguished audience at the Royal Albert Hall in London together with the best stage performers around the world.

Lea has indeed come full circle from that fateful audition day for Miss Saigon in that small function room at the Cultural Center of the Philippines where she first sang her audition song.

As witnesses distinctly remember, Lea arrived at her audition for Miss Saigon dressed casually without any trace of facial make-up. Then there was silence in the audition room. And in her trademark crystal clear and crisp singing voice, Lea Salonga started singing her audition song.

Lea Salonga sang “On My Own” during her audition for Miss Saigon.

During the same Miss Saigon audition, Monique Wilson also came dressed casually with nary a trace of facial make-up. Then there was silence in the audition room. And in her trademark penetrating and heart-wrenching singing voice, Monique Wilson started singing her audition song.

Monique Wilson sang “On My Own” during her audition for Miss Saigon.

Yes, Lea Salonga and Monique Wilson sang the same song for their Miss Saigon audition.

And neither of them knew that the other will sing the same song.

And they both eventually portrayed the lead role of Kim in Miss Saigon’s original staging at West End’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

From thereon, they both worked their way to be on their own.

And, as we all know, the rest is history.

Images from,

NEXT: The Woman Who Played Haydee