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Disney Princess and Broadway Legend Lea Salonga.


By MARILYN ABALOS
Exclusive to the Filipino Reporter

 

Mabuhay!

What fun to celebrate May with Fil-Am actors currently on Broadway and with one very special Filipino icon.

In May we commemorate Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Disney celebrates its 25 years on Broadway this month of May featuring Filipino-American and Asian-American company members in FROZEN, ALADDIN and THE LION KING.

I capped off my personal celebration with the Disney Princess turn Broadway Queen — the iconic award-winning Lea Salonga in concert at Sony Hall in New York.

Mabuhay to Disney Theatrical Productions for honoring the positive impact and contributions of Filipino and Asian cast and crew have had on Disney’s Broadway productions over 25 years!

FROZEN, which celebrates its one-year anniversary on Broadway, has joined Disney Theatrical hits ALADDIN and THE LION KING as one of the most popular and best-selling shows on Broadway.

Since opening on March 22, 2018, FROZEN has emerged as the biggest hit musical of the last two seasons, breaking four St. James Theatre house records and placing in the top 10 best-selling shows every week.

It was in December 2013 when I spent Christmas Day with my nephew Philip and his maternal grandmother Norma at the movies in Pennsylvania.

We did not see an action film, nor sci-fi thriller, nor a romantic comedy.

To my great surprise — and delight, we saw Disney’s FROZEN, an animated musical fantasy film.

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Snow Queen,” FROZEN tells the story of a fearless princess who sets off a journey alongside a rugged iceman, his loyal reindeer and a naive snowman to find her estranged sister, whose icy powers have inadvertently trapped their kingdom in eternal winter.

Years later I entered the frigid icescapes on Broadway as the St. James Theater freezes before my eyes!

What a thrill to chill with the sisters Elsa and Anna and Reindeer Seven and Snowman Olaf as Broadway magic tells this rich story.

FROZEN is wonderful entertainment — theatrical, enchanting and powerful.

The singing was outstanding and emotional, especially the rendition of “Let It Go.”

It was heartwarming to see the strong bond of the sisters overcome the strive and struggles they endured.

Kudos to the younger Elsa whose persistence and buoyancy reunite and reconcile their separation.

The magic and wonderment of FROZEN is awe that young girls and boys should see.

For tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 800-902-2787.

ASIANS ON BROADWAY make up a good part of the cast of Disney Broadway musicals.

Speaking to these artists, it is very evident that Disney revels in the diversity on stage along with the diverse audience it entertains.


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Circle of Life of The Lion King with Cheetah and Giraffes.  (Photo by Joan Marcus)


Fil-Ams and Asian performers currently on stage include Alyssa Fox, Ann Sanders and Adam Jepsen from FROZEN; Arielle Jacobs, Bobby Pestka, Don Darryl Rivera and Angelo Soriano from ALADDIN; and Darcy Chen, Rosie Lani Fiedelman, Pia Hamilton, Suri Marrero and Kellen Stancil from THE LION KING.

In FROZEN, I was able to speak to Ann Sanders who plays Queen Iduna and Alyssa Fox in the role of Elsa Standby.

Ann is part Korean while Elsa is part Japanese.

They both were born and raised Chicago and Dallas, respectively.

Their extended families from grandmother to aunt & uncles and cousins were key in learning and appreciating their mothers’ culture, history, food and values.

After completing college, Ann immediately auditioned for various Broadway roles and was cast as Kim in the MISS SAIGON production in Germany then later in BEAUTY & THE BEST.

She was in BEAUTY & THE BEAST ON BROADWAY when 9/11 happened.

Disney gave free tickets to 9/11 relief workers to their Broadway show.

She cited that the show gave people joy during a very difficult time.

“This is what I am going to do!” she committed to herself a commitment to the arts.

It’s been a full circle for Ann who now plays Queen Iduna, mother of the two sisters in FROZEN.

She noted that “Disney is championing diversity pointing out that during the audition process for FROZEN there was a spectrum of people in the waiting room.”

She believes that Disney is primarily more interested in “similarities than exterior differences.”

Alyssa chuckles that her final audition for the sister Elsa role was during a blizzard in January 2018 in New York.

She was Elphaba Standby in WICKED on Broadway at the time (after WICKED in San Francisco).

It was in college when she decided to pursue a career in musical theater.

Her family has been supportive of her choices.

She credits her grandmother whose life lessons have enabled her to pursue her career.

“Number one lesson I learned from my grandmother was strength and resilience. She taught us to be resilient through hardships,” said Alyssa.


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Jasmine (Arielle Jacob) with Aladdin (Ainsley Melham).  (Photo by Dean van Meer)


I spoke to the four Fil-Am actors in ALADDIN: from Arielle Jacobs who plays Aladdin’s Princess Jasmine to Don Darryl Rivera, the villainous Iago to Bobby Pestika and Angelo Soriano in the Ensemble.

Arielle was born and raised in Laguna Beach, California.

Her mother is from Pangasinan.

Her brother is Adam Jacobs who originated the title role on Broadway and performed from 2014 thru 2017.

Don was born and raised in Seattle.

His parents are from Pangasinan and Pasay, Philippines.

Both born in the Philippines, Ron (Cebu) and Angelo (Quezon City) moved to the U.S. with their parents at a young age.

Family life was very Filipino for all.

Singing, dancing and food was the common factor for these Fil-Ams — and basketball for Don.

For Arielle and brother Adam, they had to sing at numerous Filipino community events as well.

Both Ron and Angelo spent their youth mastering dance — from Filipino folk to Hawaiian for Ron to various dance forms.

Arielle started singing in the church choir and fell in love with the storytelling of Broadway tunes.

Selecting a music program at New York University instead of environmental science brought her to New York.

Afterwards she was cast in the Disney film HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL.

She returned to New York to perform IN THE HEIGHTS on Broadway.

She starred in ALADDIN in Australia in 2016 and on Broadway in 2018.

“I have had my share of challenges, series of rejections,” Alyssa confided.

“Believe in yourself. Allow yourself to be different. Disney’s 25th is paving the way for diversity on stage. People on stage look like New York City streets. It’s powerful to see the same people on stage.”

Don was able to convince his parents, who wanted him to take engineering, to attend Cornish College of Arts in Seattle where he earned his BFA.

He had auditioned for another role in ALADDIN but was cast as Iago which he performed in Seattle with devilish delight.

He received a call to go to New York and play the role on Broadway in 2013.

His role model is Fil-Am actor Lou Diamond Philipps.

“He made it in America. That’s what I wanted to do,” he said.

“I am thankful there were people out there who inspire us. Disney knows how to craft a story and touch hearts. Disney is a big success. Disney’s stories connect with people who look like me on stage. Your entire life is a wild card. You need to show casting I am what they want. Don’t let anything discourage you. Make them care about the character.”

Bobby’s mother wanted him to become a nurse.

At first, they did not understand that he wanted a dance career.

He ended up dancing in the Radio City Christmas Show in New York.

He continued auditioning.

He worked in FLOWER DRUM SONG.

He was cast in ALADDIN in Seattle 2011 ending up in the New York production.

“You must love it,” he said.

“There’s ups and downs. You must really want to do it.”

Angelo also auditioned for months to perform on Broadway.

He saw WICKED many years ago and wanted to pursue a Broadway career.

He moved to New York so that he could audition.

“It takes a lot to be here,” he said.

“Pursue versatility. Be marketable. Learn all the dance forms and genres in music. Be a well-rounded performer. Be open and say yes to opportunities.”

In THE LION KING, Fil-Ams Kellen Stancil and Pia Hamilton are in the Ensemble.

Pia was born in Kansas City, Kansas and was raised in Texas.

Her parents were from Pampanga.

At age 3 she wanted to be a “movie star.”

When she was 17, she saw THE LION KING on Broadway during a visit to New York.

After seeing an Asian performer on stage, it inspired and motivated her that she would fly back to New York to audition on Broadway.

“It was a dream come true!” she exclaimed, having been cast in THE LION KING.

“Don’t be afraid to go to auditions. Even those you don’t fit the bill,” advised this young millennial.

“Create your own opportunity. Don’t get discouraged. Work hard and continue training.”

Kellen had a “passion for movement.”

From Northern California, he was raised on Hula and Philippine dance.

Twelve years ago, he auditioned for THE LION KING not thinking he was going to get it.

He is the Dance Captain of the Production where he maintains the choreography, rehearses the dancers and cover all the male dancers.

He has played the Giraffe in the show.

“Being Filipino, being different was an advantage. You stand out,” he said.

“I would work endless nights. I applied body movements to represent the giraffe, zebra, water buffalo and more.”

This young man would advise, “Always aim to get the dance movement. Never give up. You are worth it. You deserve it. Go fight for it.”

Kellen was raised on the Disney movies of Aladdin and Mulan.

He remembers hearing Lea Salonga’s voice in the films.

“I did not know who she was — but she was life changing,” he said.

LEA SALONGA: Indeed, Broadway icon Lea Salonga is an inspiration to many.

In fact, a number of the current batch of Fil-Ams on Broadway have credited Lea as their role model.

During FROZEN’S Ann Sanders’ last year of high school, she saw Lea on Broadway.

She thought, “If one person who looks like me was on the Broadway stage, maybe there can be more on stage.”

She then decided to train and study musical theater.

Having worked with Lea in ALLEGIANCE on Broadway, Ann said that besides Lea’s talent, she was very professional, kind and took time to nurture everybody.

Arielle Jacob of ALADDIN saw Lea in MISS SAIGON.

“Lea Salonga is a huge idol,” said Alyssa.

“Besides being an incredible singer, Lea has the ability to branch out and cross genre from stage to animation.”


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Frozen.  (Photo by Dean van Meer)


Lea was a role model for Alyssa Fox of FROZEN.

“It was amazing that an Asian-American was a Disney princess,” she said.

Antonio Soriano of THE LION KING also reiterates the impact and influence Lea had on Fil-Am and Asian-American actors on stage.

“She made me realize that a Filipino can star on Broadway,” he said.

He also admires Jackie Chan for his action movies and Gary Valenciano for his energy on stage.

Not surprising that Fil-Am actor Vincent Rodriguez, who plays Josh Chan on the TV show CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, also refers to Lea in the Disney movie, ALADDIN, “which shaped my love of Disney and musicals.”

He sang an impromptu duet of ALADDIN’S “A Whole New World” with Lea at her New York performance of her The Human Heart Tour 2019 at the Sony Hall.

How befitting that news of Disney’s 25th Anniversary hit the press on May 15, the same night Lea closed her NYC performance.

She poignantly shared with the fully-packed theater that it was a big deal and privilege to perform major roles on stage and film.

She had hoped that her success and model would motivate further diversity and inclusion of Asian-American artists and people of color in the arts.

It is evident that the newest generation of Fil-Ams and Asians on Broadway are there because of her example and accomplishments.

“Disney leads Broadway taking the lead of casting people of color on stage. Making sure what American looks like is also on stage. FROZEN is a rainbow of people on stage,” said Alyssa.

“Disney understands diversity,” said Kellen.

“Shows on Broadway perpetuate different cultures. THE LION KING is about family and knowing pride and fighting for what you know is the truth. All same morals. It has the same heartbeat and spirit. Disney has given us that opportunity.”

Lea provided the singing voices of two official Disney Princesses in the Disney animated films, Jasmine in ALADDIN (1992) and Fa Mulan in MULAN (1998 and 2004).

In 2011, Lea was named a “Disney Legend” for her extraordinary work and outstanding contribution to the Walt Disney Company.

She was the first Filipino to receive this award.

Best known for her role as Kim in MISS SAIGON on Broadway and London, Lea won the Laurence Olivier Award and Tony Awards, among others.

Besides MISS SAIGON, she has performed on Broadway in LES MISERABLE, FLOWER DRUM SONG, ALLEGIANCE and ONCE ON THIS ISLAND.

Her career spanning three decades is a highly successful run of Broadway shows, concerts tours, recordings, film and TV in the U.S., Philippines and Europe.

DISNEY’S 25TH: Disney’s inaugural production, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, opened in 1994.

In 1997, Disney opened THE LION KING, which received six 1998 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Through the years Disney has produced highly successful shows on Broadway, including Elton John and Tim Rice’s AIDA (winning four Tony Awards in 2000), Tony winning MARY POPPINS, a co-production with Cameron Mackintosh, (2004), TARZAN® (2006), THE LITTLE MERMAID (2008), and Tony winning PETER AND THE STARCATCHER and NEWSIES (2012).

Disney Theatrical’s hit ALADDIN opened in 2014.

Its newest hit is the 2018 Tony-nominated Best Musical FROZEN.

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