Lea Salonga's name is back on a New York theater marquee and the actress-singer couldn't be happier it's happening at a time when the Great White Way isn't all white.
"It's an amazing atmosphere. This season on Broadway is so diverse," the Philippines native said in a telephone interview. "We've got 'On Your Feet!' Then there's 'Hamilton' a block away, 'The King and I.' And then there's us."
"Us" is the predominantly Asian cast of "Allegiance," the story of the Kimuras, a Japanese-American family forced to live in a U.S. internment camp in the wake of World War II-era prejudice. The debate as to whether internees should fight for the country that put them there drives a wedge between the Kimura siblings, played by Salonga and Telly Leung ("Godspell," ''Glee").
It's the first Broadway musical led by Asian actors in 13 years since "Flower Drum Song," another production where Salonga originated the lead. "Allegiance" has been in previews and officially opens Nov. 8 at the Longacre Theatre.
The production was inspired by "Star Trek" icon George Takei's childhood. The actor, known for playing Sulu, was 5 years old when soldiers ordered his family to abandon their Los Angeles home. Now, Takei is playing the Kimura patriarch in "Allegiance." At 78, he is making his Broadway debut as Salonga, 44, makes her return.
Salonga first shot to fame in 1991 as the ingénue who walked away with the Tony Award for best leading actress for "Miss Saigon." A few of her friends from that production actually now work on "Allegiance."
"We were the teenagers when we started 'Miss Saigon'... It's like what happened to us? Yes, now we're the older people," Salonga said with a laugh.
Salonga isn't taking it for granted that she still gets to be a leading lady as well as take part in other projects, such as the Philippines edition of TV's "The Voice." Married with a 9-year-old daughter, she compares her career path to a tunnel that "is still being built. There's no final opening and that's a good thing."
Her star has not faded with age. Immortalized as Princess Jasmine's singing voice in Disney's "Aladdin" in 1992, she lit up social media last month singing "A Whole New World" during a televised cast reunion. After "Saigon," Salonga went on to play other popular heroines including Eponine and Fantine in "Les Miserables." Her turn as Fantine in 2007 was her last Broadway stint. A long-running show with set blueprints, it was relatively easy for Salonga to slip in.
A completely from-scratch production such as "Allegiance," however, has provided daily adrenaline rushes. The show's creators have thrown changes big and small at the cast since starting previews last month, Salonga said. Although it's a "crazy, crazy, time," she is embracing it all.
"What I've learned about doing this show is that when something absolutely makes sense, when there's a change that comes down the pike that feels absolutely organic and that it comes from a real, legitimate place — then it's a change I don't really have to think about making," she said.
Salonga also praised Takei, whom she calls "indomitable."
"I think he realizes in his position as leading man, he cannot register as tired because it gives everybody else permission to be tired," Salonga said. "It's a great example to see this 78-year-old man just being up on there and completely awake and aware and with it and doing everything that's being asked of him on stage."
Takei and Salonga have been on a long journey with "Allegiance." Both have been attached to the production since it began with workshop readings in 2009. They and Leung brought the show to life at The Old Globe in San Diego in 2012. But Salonga said she is happy that the show didn't get a Broadway run immediately. The subject matter seems timelier this year with all the conversations about immigration and race relations in the U.S., she said.
"I don't think 'Allegiance' could have picked a better time to be on Broadway, to be honest," Salonga said. "Now it's in the form it's meant to be in for this year and for this time in history. We can feel that there is this energy in the audience. They're ready for this."
"Allegiance" is also premiering at a time when people, like Emmy winner Viola Davis, are questioning how actors of color can get plum parts if the opportunities aren't there. Salonga said she is proud that the multi-generational story has opportunities for Asian performers of all ages.
Several of the creative minds at the helm, including director Stafford Arima and composer/lyricist Jay Kuo, are also of Asian descent. And unlike a lot of musicals, the Asian characters are refreshingly American. They aren't the exotic foreigners crossing paths with the protagonist.
"It's not an 'Asian' Asian story — if that makes any sense," Salonga said. "It's an American story."
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