When I was a little kid, I wanted to be Lea Salonga. Of course, back in the '90s, all
little Asian girls who loved to sing wanted to be the Miss Saigon
star. She was the Asian musical theatre Cinderella, a young Filipino girl with a beautiful voice, plucked out of obscurity and turned into a Broadway diva by her fairy godmother (ahem, godfather
) Cameron Mackintosh. And then she actually became a real-life princess of sorts by voicing royalty in Disney's Aladdin
But it must have been lonely for her at the top. For decades after Miss Saigon
debuted, there wasn't another Asian leading lady in a big, commercial musical. Sure, there were a handful of supporting roles in the Broadway revivals of Pacific Overtures
and South Pacific
, but none of those performers became household names. And while Mei-Li in David Henry Hwang's reworked Flower Drum Song
was a protagonist, guess who played her? (For the record, it was Salonga.) It seemed like musical producers didn't think Asian actresses could carry a splashy, for-profit production.
And then Ruthie Ann Miles hit the scene as Imelda Marcos in the immersive musical Here Lies Love
at the Public Theater last year. From the first notes out of her mouth, I felt like I was 8-years-old again, listening to Salonga sing "A Whole New World" for the first time. I have listened to the Here Lies Love
cast album on repeat more times than I can count, and I love that Miles's voice is present in almost every song. It's an Asian voice that, for once, isn't just in the chorus. It's front and center, demanding to be heard.
Currently, Miles is the only actress of Asian descent playing a leading role in a commercial musical in New York City. And while that makes her performance notable, it's not what makes it so extraordinary. Miles effortlessly sells the audience on the infamous Marcos's charisma and likeability while also conveying her gradual moral decay in a world of power and wealth. She's an anti-heroine you root for even though you feel guilty for doing it. It also takes a skilled performer to convincingly play a character from girlhood to middle age, while singing and dancing
on a rotating platform to boot.
With her triumph in Here Lies Love
(for which she won Theatre World and Lucille Lortel Awards),
Miles has joined an exclusive club of Asian musical theatre leading ladies. It's a small one that seems to finally, (hopefully) be growing. There's Phillipa Soo who portrayed the luminous title female in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
(first Off-Broadway and eventually in Times Square in a tent). Her background is Chinese and Caucasian, proving you don't need to look like Audrey Hepburn or Keira Knightley to play a Russian heroine.
And though she hasn't headlined a musical yet (a girl can hope!), I must give a shout-out to Ann Harada, who originated the role of Christmas Eve in Avenue Q
. Her 11-o'clock number, "The More You Ruv Someone," is my favorite song in that musical. Anyone who wants to see her razor-sharp comic timing in action can catch her as one of the stepsisters in Cinderella
. Someone needs to give her a one-woman musical ASAP.
Despite the limited progress made in recent years for divas of Asian descent, there's a long way to go. According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition
, from 2006 to 2011, Asian actors only made up 2%
of roles on and
Off-Broadway. It's also telling that all of the recent commercial productions I cited above started out Off-Broadway or at nonprofit theatres.
While I won't go so far as to say that Miles's performance represents a watershed moment for Asian artists, I hope the ongoing success of Here Lies Love
, and of Harada, Soo, and Salonga, shows theatre producers that Asian actors can shine. They are absolutely capable of leading a musical and shouldn't always be relegated to supporting players---assuming they're represented at all.
With rumored Broadway revivals of The King and I
and Miss Saigon
, and the new musical Allegiance
(starring a certain two-time Disney princess) looking for a theatre, we may see more Asian ladies singing and dancing on the boards soon. But, following in the footsteps of the first African-American Cinderella (congratulations Keke Palmer) and the first African-American Phantom (hi Norm Lewis) on Broadway, I would also love to see an Asian Cinderella or Christine. They can play non-ethnic roles, too! For now, though, I'll keep raving about Miles's work in Here Lies Love
to anyone who will listen. I find it comforting to know that theatre-loving Asian kids growing up right now have more than just Salonga to look up to.
Diep Tran is a writer and editor based in New York City
Photo by Joan Marcus