I love a good leading man–here’s a few
MANILA, Philippines—On the plane ride from Guangzhou to Singapore (I flew into the city Monday night for “Cinderella” press events on Tuesday and Wednesday), I thought about how fortunate and blessed I’ve been to be paired up with some wonderful leading men on stage and screen. I’ve been playing the romantic leading lady, kissing scenes and all, for the good part of 19 years.
From that very first tender kiss with Simon Bowman in London, I’ve learned how important the partnership between two romantic leads is. It goes beyond chemistry and skill: it takes teamwork, communication, honest-to-goodness being “in like” with one another in real life to convince an audience of the love story that the actors are essaying. Of course, it is possible, too, for two actors who don’t like each other to work together in perfect harmony. Having said that, liking your co-star is far easier, and a lot more fun.
And so I give a little tribute to some of the men I’ve had the good fortune of working with. I can’t name them all here, but I plan to extend this article onto my blog some time soon.
“Just trust me… I will take care of you…”
These words helped put my mother and me at ease 19 years ago when work on “Miss Saigon” began. He was my very first true romantic leading man, my first onstage kiss. I was terrified! As in, “what would people at home think will I lose my fan base I’ll be labeled a heathen and a whore where on me is he going to put his hands my mother will kill me” terrified.
Simon spoke separately to my mom (who gently reminded him to shave before each show because his coarse facial hair would give me burns) and me, saying he would never ever do anything to disrespect me. And he never did; onstage, he was always a gentleman, and a gentle man. Thank goodness my initiation was with him.
We first played together when I returned to the Broadway production of “Miss Saigon” in 1999. Honestly, he was one of the biggest reasons that I returned. Sure, it was also that Cameron Mackintosh asked, but in the back of my head, one of the deal breakers was which actor would play Chris.
I went with my mother and one of my best friends, Victor Lirio, to the Broadway Theatre to watch him in the show. Will was, in a word, incredible. Not only was he handsome and vocally right for the part; he also ably carried his character’s emotional weight. His performance jolted me out of my seat. Working with him would prove even better, and a hell of a lot of fun.
We’d bicker like brother and sister offstage (not having much of an age difference probably contributed to this), which made being onstage with him enjoyable. We got along and I really liked him, and kissing him was never unpleasant. We worked for five months in New York, then in Manila for three. We would close the Broadway production together on Jan. 28, 2001.
The first time we worked together was for Singapore Repertory Theatre’s production of “Into the Woods” (I was the Witch, he played Jack). Our stage time together was minimal, but I remember him as being fun, and funny. So when the opportunity came to work with him again on “They’re Playing Our Song,” I didn’t think twice. It was my first comedic piece, and I learned a lot from him as far as timing, delivery and facial expression were concerned. In truth, he was better at all three. I can only boast of being a more competent singer.
Because we had no understudies or alternates, there were times when, if one of us got sick, you could presume the other would, too. At one point in the Singapore run, the props people set up what looked like a billion glasses of water for us, in case of a cough attack (which hit either of us randomly). But, we did get through; if there was a time to learn tandem teamwork, for me it would be this. We had to have complete and absolute trust in one another. Thankfully, we didn’t have a problem with that. My huge problem, because he was so funny, was how to keep a straight face while the audience roared with laughter. The piece was funny and romantic, too, and he made it even more so.
Michael K. Lee
He came to Manila to replace Adrian Pang for the last two of the eight-week run of “They’re Playing Our Song.” I had my doubts about anyone filling those large shoes, but Mike was wonderful. An incredible set of pipes and his own brand of comedy made the role of Vernon his own. We enjoyed ourselves a lot, and the romance leapt from on stage to off. We dated for about a year following the show’s closing. We also closed “Miss Saigon” on Broadway— he was Thuy. The one thing that really struck me about Mike was his voice, clean, clear and strong. He’s a gifted man.
Working with a replacement is always an iffy proposition, especially if the former actor left a remarkable impression on audiences and the company. The transition can be a difficult one. Thankfully, this one was smooth, and the company welcomed the change with open arms.
If anyone was ever a fan of “Knight Rider,” his name and face would be familiar.
Peter was my on-screen love interest in “As The World Turns,” one of the longest running soap operas in the US. I played a character named Lien Hughes (originated by Ming Na, the speaking voice of Disney’s Mulan) for three months. When I screen-tested for the role, he was my partner. I guess they wanted to see how we’d look together. He is an incredibly handsome African-American, tall, dark, and really muscular. I think his bicep measured the same as my waist— my waist at the time, anyway.
There was a scene where my character breaks up with his. It was going to be emotionally difficult to do. We made it a point to run the lines over and over again, until they were etched in our minds, so we wouldn’t have to think about them when it came time to tape. Rehearsal time was limited, so we took it upon ourselves to work on our own. The scene was shot in one take with tears streaming down our faces.
Throughout my limited time on the show, he was generous and gentle, and I always knew I’d be safe… in those biceps.
Who’d ever think I’d have a Pinoy leading man on Broadway? How wonderful was this going to be?
First time I met Jose was at his audition for “Flower Drum Song.” Tall, dark and handsome, he opened his mouth to sing “You Are Beautiful.” I then stood up to stand near him to sing “Like A God,” and then without warning, he planted a kiss on my lips! Whew! Better than coffee! I knew right then and there that he would be playing Ta opposite me.
We performed the show both in Los Angeles and New York. The best part was that we were Asians playing romantic leads in this Rodgers and Hammerstein treasure… and on Broadway at that! It was a rare opportunity that neither of us took for granted. We were both so proud of being Asian, and Filipino. Through it was a short run, we were grateful that it came at all. His strong tenor was always, always (he hardly took a night off) in fine shape.
This is my current leading man, the Prince in “Cinderella.” You can watch his audition at http://www.cinderellaonstage.com, sweaty palms and all.
It’s a given that the role of Prince would require a man who looks like he jumped out of a fairy tale. Aesthetically and vocally, Peter fits the bill. However, what impresses me most about him is not how talented he is as an actor, but how great he is as a leading man and as a team player. He understands that his responsibilities extend beyond the klieg lights, especially on this tour.
Brandy Zarle (one of the stepsisters) told me this anecdote that I’d like to share: While we were all still in Manila, she experienced a bit of homesickness and sadness. She’s a newlywed, having married her husband Tim only a year or so ago. As we were getting ready to head to China, Peter told her, “You’re still somewhere over the Pacific; you haven’t completely given yourself over to being in Asia.” That prompted her to think of ways to help herself with the process. He apologized for speaking out of turn, but she thanked him for his wisdom. In short, it was the smack in the butt that she felt she needed. She’s much happier on this tour now. Broadway Asia definitely hired the right guy. It’s an absolute joy to share the stage with him every night.
I saved this one for last.
We’ve done two films— “Bakit Labis Kitang Mahal” and “Sana Maulit Muli,” with plans for a third in the works (yes!). Not only is this man ridiculously handsome, he’s also sensitive and generous as an actor. Some rumors put us together as a real-life couple, but none of them was true. His reputation as an incurable romantic did precede him, but that didn’t concern me. In the end, we became great friends— and we still are. I felt completely safe with him, and was thankful that, throughout the making of those two movies, he held my hand and made this difficult medium much easier for me.
I’m just tickled pink that he has expressed great interest in working with me again… unless he just wants to take revenge for my subjecting him to the experience of being onstage for my last Manila concert. A valid reason. Let the punishment fit the crime, therefore! I’ll take it, with much happiness.
Playing romances are difficult enough to begin with; doing intimate scenes in front of an audience or a camera takes some getting used to, and can be very uncomfortable. However, when my partner is talented, smart, generous, open, wise and— o sige na nga!— handsome, the journey is one I look forward to taking… scene after scene, night after night.