Lea Salonga’s Backstory: ‘Hey, Mr. Producer’

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This backstory made me even more hooked on musicals and Lea Salonga…


Backstory

‘Hey, Mr. Producer!’
By Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted Online 20:40:00 09/10/2008; On Paper, 9/11/2008

MANILA, Philippines—On June 7 and 8, 1998 I had the privilege of performing in one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve ever been a part of. “Hey, Mr. Producer!” —a tribute to Cameron Mackintosh — brought together under one roof what seemed like a million stars of musical theater, all of whom had worked, and were working, with this incredible producer.

My mother and I flew from the US to London a week before the performance … there would be a week’s worth of rehearsals for the three numbers I’d be doing: medleys from “Miss Saigon,” “Les “Misérables,” and Sondheim’s works. It was the last item I was most excited about. Since I had already performed in both “Saigon” and “Les Miz,” I knew what I would be getting into. But Sondheim? This was going to be fun!

Straight from London’s Heathrow Airport, we headed for the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. I went upstairs to the Grand Saloon. The floor right in front of the saloon’s long (and fully stocked) bar had been cleared to make room for the four singers who would be performing “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”— Ruthie Henshall, Maria Friedman, Millicent Martin, and myself.

Since I was the last to arrive (the other three were already there), by some of fate (and perhaps a bit of good-natured conspiracy), I ended up with the most difficult harmonies to sing: the very high “doo” that would pop at the end of most of the lines, and a schizophrenic mix of alto and soprano parts. One of the other singers actually said, “Darling, you’re singing the hard bits because you can.” boosted my confidence and self-esteem, but my music ear was screaming, “Are you (bleep)-ing kidding me!?”

Sleep-deprived

Thankfully, I had studied the song extensively enough, so I had the chords and harmonies playing in my head. I just had to try and remember which note in the chord I actually had to sing… while battling jet lag… while sleep-deprived. Oh, we had to learn the choreography that same day. Nice. Seriously though, I had the best time. Bob Avian was there to teach us ladies the moves. It was also really great to see Ruthie again.

If I remember correctly, I had to stay on at the Drury Lane to rehearse another segment of the show: “Miss Saigon.” Matt Ryan, resident director at the time (who would also be helping out with “Les Miz”) was going to take care of putting me in. A bunch of former “Saigon” cast members, including Isay Alvarez and Robert Seña, were going to perform, too. Jonathan Pryce would reprise his award-winning role of The Engineer for the concert, as well as play Professor Higgins in the “My Fair Lady” excerpt that would introduce Julie Andrews to the audience.

Interesting Chris

There was one interesting casting decision made for the show: The role of Chris was going to be played by Australian actor David Campbell. He was young, handsome and incredibly talented, and it was an interesting choice because he had never played Chris in any production of “Miss Saigon.” Never. Nowhere. Wow. I have to say that I wouldn’t have known that to be true, since the role fit him like a glove, and I really had fun playing Kim to his Chris. Part of me wished that we had done the show together; he would have been brilliant.
When rehearsals moved to the Lyceum Theatre, that’s when the stars began to fly. I’d find other performers arriving, hanging around, sitting in the house watching other numbers, engaged in animated conversation, or getting their souvenir posters autographed (hee hee, I’m guilty as charged!). The atmosphere in the theater was incredible, with no one throwing diva fits or tantrums.

Speaking of divas, imagine these six actresses sharing one dressing room, without so much as an entourage: Julie Andrews, Bernadette Peters, Judi Dench, Elaine Paige, Julia McKenzie and Millicent Martin. It made me smile to see Julie carrying her own garment bag as she headed to her room.

The rest of us were grouped in other rooms. My roommates were Ruthie Henshall and Lisa Vroman (she was playing Christine in the “Phantom” segment with Colm Wilkinson and Michael Ball). It was at this show that I decidedly lost my backstage modesty as we had quite a few quick changes that included microphone switching, and we were not going to send the sound guy away in spite of our state of, uh, undress. Ruthie said, “Oh don’t worry about him, Love, the sound guy’s seen it all.” She made me feel at ease and comfortable … and for the record, I had the biggest boobs in the room.

At our first costume rehearsal, I spied a Kim costume hanging in my dressing room. This would be what I’d wear for the show. I knew that it wasn’t my original wedding ao dai— which, by this time, had probably deteriorated or been altered for use by another actor. So I took it off the hanger and, out of curiosity, checked the name tag: JOANNA AMPIL.

Pleasant surprise

After one rehearsal for the “Miss Saigon” excerpt, Isay Alvarez alerted me to something special that would happen in the show. She said, “Go sit in the house when the Rodgers and Hammerstein section begins… basta, just do it.” She didn’t say why, but I trusted her, so off to the house I went (we were rehearsing things out of order, so I was still dressed as Kim). As I got comfortably settled in my seat, I heard this big, booming voice come from backstage singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” My entire being perked up to listen. And then, from stage left, there entered a tall, dark and handsome man with a rich voice that was all masculine, manly charm. It was Hugh Jackman (pre-Wolverine), who would be opening “Oklahoma” as Curly at the National Theatre, in but a couple of weeks. Oh, I swooned, as did the other women around me.

Time for Sondheim now. “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” came off without much of a hitch, and it was enjoyable to perform. It was a good thing that it was done early in this section; I could then appreciate all the performances that followed. A memorable one was by the single non-singer in the group, Judi Dench. She had played the role of Desiree Armfeldt in the National Theatre revival of “A Little Night Music” and, at this concert, she would sing that musical’s most famous song, “Send In the Clowns.” It was a tour-de-force performance, one that would earn her tremendous applause. I was too lucky to be only a few feet from her. She took my breath away.

Closing number

The end of that section would come from “Gypsy,” as performed by Bernadette Peters, Julia McKenzie and Ruthie Henshall. The trio sang, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” complete with the lighted costume, pointe shoes, butterfly wings and a trumpet (which Bernadette played while bent over forwards, and between her legs!). It was easily one of the funniest numbers in the show, and a great one with which to end this mini-tribute to a great contributor to the world of musical theater.

It was a full night of one excellent musical theater performance after another: John Barrowman singing “These Three Chords” from “The Fix”… Sonia Swaby’s emotional delivery of “As Long As He Needs Me” from “Oliver”… Ellen Greene as Audrey and her version of “Somewhere That’s Green” from “Little Shop of Horrors”… Bernadette Peters, who was alternately funny, touching and sexy as she sang “Unexpected Song” from “Song and Dance”… Maria Friedman’s haunting voice in “So Many Tears” from “Martin Guerre”… the ballet from “Carousel,” and the tearjerker of a scene that followed… Michael Ball’s powerful delivery of “Losing My Mind”… Elaine Paige, “Cats’” original Grizabella, singing a very moving “Memory”… and many, many more.

Cameron’s great hit

And finally, the show that is arguably Cameron’s great hit: “Les Misérables.” A few of us would reprise our performances from the 10th Anniversary Concert from three years before: Colm Wilkinson, Philip Quast, Ruthie Henshall, Michael Ball and myself. New additions to the group included Marie Zamora (Alain Boublil’s wife who played Cosette in the Paris production), Hal Fowler (Enjolras) and Teddy Kempner (Thenardier). The segment would cap a fantastic show, and all of us who were in it really gave our all.


Oh, what an evening (rather, two evenings)… and oh, what a show! What an absolute joy! It’s not often in one’s life that a concert like this comes along, and I was so blessed and lucky to have gotten the phone call to be part of it.

Cameron’s persistence

One final bit…

In the years leading up to “Hey, Mr. Producer,” Cameron would ask the question, “Would you come back to ‘Miss Saigon’?” and my answer would always be “No, but thanks for asking.” This would happen at least once a year. When he asked me to play Kim for the concert, he followed it up with that same “Would you come back?” question. My answer this time was different: “If it feels good at the concert, then I’ll come back to the show.”

Upon my return to Boston a few days after the concert, I got another call from Cameron: “So, did you feel good at the concert?” Ha-ha-ha-ha! Hayun, nakuha ako sa kulit (his persistence paid)! I returned to the Broadway production in January 1999 and had a blast… enough of one to open the show in Manila in 2000, and finally close the Broadway production on January 28, 2001.

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