"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."
Lea Salonga's voice has captivated audiences from different generations. The first Asian actress to win a Tony Award, Lea Salonga is known for her legendary credits, from voicing iconic Disney Princesses to bringing memorable musical theater characters to life.
As a college freshman studying biology, Lea initially planned on entering the medical field. Born in Manila, Salonga debuted on stage at the age of seven during a production of The King and I. Her theatrical talents landed her roles in more productions in the 1980s such as Annie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, The Rose T, The Goodbye Girl, and Paper Moon.
As the producers of Miss Saigon struggled to find a strong Asian actress in the United Kingdom, they searched for aspiring actresses from across different countries. From her first note, the producers saw her potential, and she was cast in the musical as Kim, a seventeen-year-old orphaned girl. This role would land Salonga prestigious awards in the industry including the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Theater World, and Tony Awards.
In the 1990's, Lea lent her voice to Princess Jasmine from Disney's Aladdin and Fa Mulan from Disney's Mulan. In 2011, Salonga became the first Filipina to be honored with the Disney Legend Award.
Her iconic performances have brought awareness to diversifying the theater industry. As the first actress of Asian descent to win a Tony Award, Lea Salonga is an icon for many aspiring Asian actors.
"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."
With rising stars like Philipa Soo of Hamilton giving credit to Lea as an inspiration for them to follow their dreams to be an actor despite the lack of diversity in theater, Lea continues to be a symbol for many Asian actors who want to enter the theater industry around the world.
"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."
Joseph Fortuno, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Content Curator