What Lea Salonga Thinks of Don't Buy Miss Saigon
"Anything that talks about a dark part of history -- it needs to be told." - Lea Salonga
People who are not of Filipino heritage or who aren't particularly into musical theatre may not know the name Lea Salonga, but they would probably know her voice. Especially if they have kids. Ms. Salonga gave the singing voices to two Disney princesses, Fa Mulan from the film, Mulan, and Jasmine from the film Aladdin.
Filipina singer and actor Lea Salonga got her big break starring as Kim in Miss Saigon in the original 1989 London cast. Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the duo who wrote the music for Miss Saigon and Les Misérables, cast Lea for the lead. After her success in Miss Saigon, Salonga was the first Asian actor to be cast in Les Miserables, as both Éponine and Fantine. Over the course of her career, she has won the Olivier, Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics and Theatre World awards.
Recently, she played the lead female role Kei Kimura in the musical, Allegiance, opposite Star Trek legend George Takei. Allegiance is based on Takei's family history in the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
Last night I had a chance to speak briefly with Ms. Salonga, who responded to Don't Buy Miss Saigon, an open-sourced critique and boycott of the musical triggered by the recent re-stagings of the musical this fall in several Midwestern venues including the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Minneapolis, the Fisher Theatre in Detroit and, closer to Chicago, the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, IL.
Here's a quick primer on the Don't Buy Miss Saigon movement on Storify. Briefly, here's what organizers say is wrong with the musical, from their webpage:
What is especially problematic is that Miss Saigon is the longest running and most enduring pop culture representation of Vietnamese people in the Western world – and to a certain extent and by extension of racism, it presents a narrow lens through which all Asians are viewed.
While we recognize that there are many truths, we also see that institutional racism, sexism, and colonization continually reinforce shallow stereotypes of people of color, and the ‘truths’ that are most often lauded and supported are exploitative works that reproduce and validate harmful power structures and chauvinism that ultimately harms the people they claim to portray. Miss Saigon is such a spectacle: a big budget ode to colonialism that romanticizes war and human trafficking.
Note: Don't Buy organizers could not be contacted for comment before press time.
Salonga is in town to headline a benefit concert today, October 26 at 7 PM, in Tinley Park. The proceeds of "Musika SamaSama: The Together Concert 2013 presents Lea Salonga" benefit the Tinley Park-Frankfort Rotary Club youth scholarship fund.
Jan Paul C. Ferrer, newly-elected president of the Tinley Park-Frankfort Club said, “This concert will be our club’s biggest fundraiser of the year. Proceeds will be used to award scholarships to eight seniors at Tinley Park, Andrew, Lincoln-Way North and Lincoln-Way East high schools.”
Salonga spent a few minutes with the media during a VIP dinner reception last night ($180 ticket, if you were wondering).
Salonga brought the real talk as those who follow her Twitter and Facebook feeds and blog can attest.
The staging of Miss Saigon, Salonga said, means Asian and Asian American actors work.
On the practical side, "The minute that any production of that show comes up Asian actors are going to be employed. If they're equity actors, they're going to get equity weeks. It means that they get health insurance."
Colorblind casting is far from being common in the entertainment industry, and the number of leading roles meant to be played specifically by Asian and Asian American actors or by actors of any ethnicity are scant at best, and highly competitive. Many Asians and Asian Americans in entertainment go the indie route: writing, producing and directing their own scripts and shows.
Salonga still sees the so-called White Knight phenomena happening today in the Philippines. "I go to the American Embassy in the Philippines with these young, pretty girls with some butt-ugly American men because they see these men as an opportunity to escape the life that they're living in. And I'm sitting there with my husband, going I never thought that I would be face-to-face with this situation, seeing it. The fact that this is still happening makes a show like Miss Saigon relevant. Because it sheds light on the fact that, hey, this is not over yet."
Continued Salonga, "There are going to be musicals and plays that will be set in very dark and almost, not embarrassing, but shameful times of history. Those things still need to be staged because how else are we going to learn about what has happened in the past? It's like watching Schindler's List -- it is painful to watch it. But we cannot also deny that that actually happened."
Aside from Miss Saigon, Salonga cited productions that cast light on shameful parts of history like The Scottsboro Boys, a musical about the Scottsboro trial when nine African American men were wrongfully accused of a heinous crime in 1930s Alabama; Allegiance about Japanese internment camps in the US during World War II; Big River, a Rogers and Hammerstein musical adaptation of the oft-banned American classic by Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
"We have to take shows like that in their proper context. Because if we don't buy shows like that, where does it go?"
"Anything that talks about a dark part of history -- it needs to be told."
Note: Tickets for tonight's Lea Salonga show are still available online at Governors State University, One University Parkway, University Park, Illinois, are still available ($75 and above, $35 and 55 tier tickets sold out).