Love, don't look away:Lea Salonga and José Llana in Flower Drum Song(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Love, don't look away:
Lea Salonga and José Llana in Flower Drum Song
(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Lea Salonga and José Llana, the Filipino-born actors who play the romantic leads in David Henry Hwang's revisal of Rodgers and Hammerstein's penultimate musical, Flower Drum Song, both have associations with another of the team's musicals, The King and I. It was in a Manila production of the show that Salonga made her stage debut as one of the monarch's children, while Llana made his Broadway bow as Lun Tha in the 1996 Broadway revival. From a musical theater version of Siam in the 1860s, they've journeyed to "Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, USA" in the mid 20th century.

Compared to Miss Saigon, for which she won a Tony Award for the role of Kim, and Les Misérables, in which she played Eponine, Salonga considers her present assignment "a happy Broadway musical." Still, she claims, stress is involved. "I think [theater] is stressful all the time; it doesn't matter what show you're doing. I don't take anything for granted in any show because something can go horribly wrong. I go to work thinking: 'Okay, what is my challenge for the day?' There's never an easy show for anybody, I'm sure."

Was there any particular facet of her character, Mei-Li, that was difficult to capture? "Strange as this sounds, it was just her being this very innocent person," Salonga replies. "That's kind of funny for me to say, since I've made my living playing innocent people. I've been in the United States for a long time and I'd forgotten what it was like when I first moved to the West, to London and to New York -- how my senses were jolted. I remember being in the car from the airport when I first came here [to New York] for Miss Saigon and seeing the skyline that I'd only seen in the movies rising from the horizon. Now, I come from the airport and pay no attention. The older I get, the more jaded I get. So, to find that naiveté was a bit of a challenge."

Does she have a favorite number in the show? "Anything I'm not in," she jokes. "I love watching the choreography and how hard all the dancers work." The show, which has a new book by Hwang, has changed a lot since its engagement at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. According to Salonga: "My fiancé, who saw the Taper production four times, saw a preview [here on Broadway] and said, 'It's a different show.' But he loved it!"

Born in Manila, Salonga has a younger brother, who's a musician. Following her King and I debut at seven, she played small parts in productions of The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, The Rose Tattoo, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof before successfully auditioning for the title role in Annie. Leading roles in The Bad Seed, The Goodbye Girl, Paper Moon, and The Fantasticks followed. In addition to her stage work, a successful recording career made Salonga a star in her native land.

Following three Saigon auditions in Manila, Salonga flew to London for another; a while after returning home, she learned that she'd been cast as Kim. She and Jonathan Pryce (as the Engineer) were the only cast members who made the transfer from London to Broadway, and Salonga has fond memories of the musical. "I made some really good friends," she says. "I think I may have had more fun when I came back to the show in 1999. Then I left again and came back to close it on Broadway. When I came back, I wasn't as traumatized vocally. My voice was stronger; I'd gotten more comfortable with it. I don't go crazy over my voice anymore. If I'm tired, I know exactly how to deal with it, how to sing and not drive myself up a wall. You know what? Life is much more than that. My attitude about performing has changed: I've learned that this is my job rather than my life."

Salonga as Eponine in Les Miz(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Salonga as Eponine in Les Miz
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Returning home to Manila after her first Broadway experience, Salonga played Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady there. When she came back to Broadway as Les Miz's Eponine in 1993, she had "a great, great time because it was something different from Kim, and because I was Asian and playing the part." She later appeared for four months in the London production. Salonga also enjoyed playing the Witch in a 1994 Singapore production of Into the Woods and Sandy in a 1995 Manila production of Grease, but the role that has given her the most satisfaction is Sonia in They're Playing Our Song in 1999-2000 in Manila and Singapore. "That character is probably the closest to me that I'll ever get," she says. "She does really well professionally, but when it comes to her personal life, she's a wreck! And I have the same messy apartment that she had."

The actress met her fiancé, Rob Chien, through one of his cousins, a dancer in Flower Drum Song. Their first date, she recalls, "was the best, bar none, that I've ever had in my life. It was seven hours long -- and there was no hanky-panky, mind you! There was conversation, listening to music, appreciating good wine and good food, and enjoying each other's company. I remember closing my apartment door and thinking: 'Something is going to happen with this man.' And it did! He proposed in July and we're going to be married December 6, 2003."

Would she want a child of hers to be in show business? "I don't know," Salonga answers. "I certainly would not stop him or her. It can be a wonderful business but I also know how painful it can be. I would tell my child, 'Whatever you want to be, try to be the best at it that you can be.' That's all I wish."

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Not yet 20 when he debuted as Lun Tha ("sort of a cameo with two great songs"), José Llana has enjoyed a busy six years since The King and I played at the Neil Simon Theatre -- located directly across 52nd Street from the Virginia, where he's co-starring as Ta in Flower Drum Song. "My parents are happy that their son is back on Broadway, but this isn't just any show for them," he says. "This is, 'José's doing a show with Lea Salonga!'"

Llana acknowledges that the new version of Flower Drum has undergone changes since it played in L.A, saying: "We retained what worked there and have fixed what didn't." One change has given him an additional song, "Sunday," which he sings with Salonga. "Ta's very similar to who I am in general," he says of his role. "We're young Asian men born in a foreign country, raised with a conflict of interests from two different sides. We're both performers who need approval. The challenge was to trust in the character that David [Henry Hwang] wrote, rather than trying to make Ta into José. There's a lot of me in the character but there's still a lot to discover.

"When you play supporting roles, which is what I've been doing mostly in my career, it's easier," he continues. "You're not involved in the main storyline. But when your character and your leading lady's character are the main story, what you do in Scene 1 is going to have an effect on Scene 7 and Scene 14. To have an off night and not do Scene 1 right throws off 7 and 14, as well." Llana's favorite moment in the show "is the prayer moment [near the end], when everything is resolved between Mei-Li and my character. We sit and pray to her father. That's when I begin to relax: Everything in the show has been working towards that moment."

The Llana family moved from the Philippines to Virginia when José was three-and-a-half. He has an older sister and his parents now live in Washington, D.C. As a youngster, José saw a lot of national companies in D.C.: "The first was Fiddler with Topol," he relates, "and the first show I fell in love with was Les Miz." After deciding against becoming an engineer, he came to New York to pursue a career. At an audition for a summer package tour of The King and I, he heard about auditions for the Broadway revival. He went in, sang "I Have Dreamed," and -- 10 callbacks later -- was cast. "That's when I started looking for an agent," he says.

Salonga and Llana in rehearsalfor Flower Drum Song(Photo:  Michael Portantiere)
Salonga and Llana in rehearsal
for Flower Drum Song
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Following a happy experience as Lun Tha, Llana landed the role of Gabey in the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of On the Town at the Delacorte in Central Park. However, when the show later transferred to Broadway, Llana was replaced. "I shall always admire and thank George C. Wolfe for giving me the next step in my career after King and I," he says. "When they wanted to take the show to Broadway, I naively believed that everyone in the cast was guaranteed to go. But time had passed, they changed choreographers, and George had a different idea of who Gabey was. Maybe he saw something in me that he liked in the park but not a year later. Maybe I grew into a new actor. Maybe he wanted a different chemistry; he also hired a different Ivy Smith [Gabey's love interest].

"Not getting to do the show on Broadway was a huge blow to my ego," Llana continues, "but if it didn't happen, I don't think I'd have grown the same way as an actor. I was pretty spoiled up till that point." His other Broadway credits include the short-lived Streetcorner Symphony and Rent, in which he took over the part of Angel. "Talk about your ideal supporting role," he says: "Angel's purpose is to be this shining light. I wasn't there long enough."

Regionally, Llana has appeared in The Ballad of Little Jo at Steppenwolf ("one of their first musicals") and in Martin Guerre at the Guthrie and on tour. ("The show has moments of brilliance and moments that need a lot of work," he comments.) Looking back at his still very young career over the past few years, Llana is very pleased with the opportunities he has been given. "In the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, I've played young leading men," he says. "But, between those bookends, I've been able to play a drag queen and a villain with a beard [in Guerre]. I'm very thankful for that."