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Starring in a Big Musical at 18, Hailey Kilgore Swaps Stories With Lea Salonga

As Kilgore makes her Broadway debut in Once on This Island, costar Salonga looks back to her debut in Miss Saigon.

Hailey Kilgore and Lea Salonga share the stage nightly in Michael Arden's new Broadway revival of Once on This Island. But the two actors also share a very similar story about how they got into this industry to begin with. Both Kilgore and Salonga won a worldwide casting search that lead to their Broadway debuts.

Eighteen-year-old Kilgore is currently starring as Ti Moune. When Salonga was 18, she played Kim in the West End mounting of Miss Saigon. At age 20 she led the show to Broadway. Both women have experienced the pressure of having a Broadway production rest on their young shoulders. Here, they discuss the emotional toll it takes, and how they found a way to persevere.

Hailey Kilgore and Lea Salonga in Once on This Island on Broadway.
(© Joan Marcus)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Lea, why did you audition for Miss Saigon? Hailey, why did you audition for Once on This Island? What was the process like?

Lea Salonga: I auditioned for Miss Saigon at the insistence of the president of the singer's union, who talked to my mother. The producers had started looking for someone in London, but then they headed to New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and finally, Manila.

I went in and sang "On My Own" from Les Mis. Cameron Mackintosh asked me, "What is the biggest audience that you've played?" I thought and said, "It was this year. I opened for Stevie Wonder in a football field of 10,000 people. But I don't know. It was dark." And he was like, "You answered our question." Then I came back, started learning music from the show, and then they asked me to come back again, and then flew me to London for what they called "final assessments." I got a Telex telling me I had gotten the part.

Hailey Kilgore: Actor-playwright Rodney Hicks and I knew each other from Portland after I did one of his readings. We had become family friends. He saved my audition tape for future projects, one of them being The Wiz Live! to play Dorothy. It was the most embarrassing video for me, because I was 15 and in my room with a hairbrush, and I sang "Home."

When they did a worldwide search for Ti Moune, I was here in my first semester of college and didn't go to the open call. But Rodney emailed Michael Arden and sent the video of me singing, "Home." I got a call from Telsey casting out of the blue and they asked me to come in during callbacks. Two days later, they asked me to do the workshop. Then, I heard nothing until July, when they asked me to reaudition. Then they asked me to do the show.

What went through your head when you found out you were cast?

Lea: I was in my first year of pre-med, believe it or not. Once they told me I had been cast, I went to all of my friends in college and asked their opinions. They were like, you'd be crazy not to. This is the opportunity of a lifetime that so many people dream of having. School will always be around, and you can always pick up where you left off. Many of them are doctors now.

Hailey: I was really focused on getting a degree. I like to be very realistic. If I go to this, how many girls will have gone in, and am I willing to risk not being in school because I started auditioning for things? That conversation, realistically speaking, made my reaction to them asking me that much more…I was very shocked. I don't actually remember Michael asking me.

Lea: Thank goodness they caught it on video. You left the room and you came back in. I remember seeing that.

Hailey: I had gotten a taste of what it's like to be her. I wanted it so bad. I'm very lucky.

Lea: There was so much drama surrounding Miss Saigon coming over, and I was already having doubts that I would make the crossover to New York. I got a phone call about a week before I had to fly over. My father knocked on the door and said, "You're going to Broadway!" That night, when we were all upstairs talking about it, our house was robbed downstairs. Somebody broke into the house, but it's like, I don't care right now, I'm going to Broadway!

Tell me about the pressure of being 18 years old and starring in a big musical. Do you feel it, and how do you deal with it?

Hailey: The main thing for me was coming in so young and so new. I remember when Michael told me Lea was doing the show and I freaked out. I knew I was coming into a company of people who are not only are incredible at this, but have been doing it forever. You just want to be really good, and you want people to think you're really good. But being so young…

Lea: It's a lot. When you're an adult and starring in a Broadway show after you have amassed a list of credits and have been doing it for a while, you go in with a skill set, and know how to navigate anything. You want to try and please everybody and you don't want to disappoint anyone, and there are like 90 million people looking to you to be this thing. It takes an emotional toll. Am I disappointing an entire country?

And then, it becomes, whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I started training with an incredible teacher who taught me how to sing everything correctly, how to position myself correctly and not twist myself into knots trying to fulfill a staging requirement. As I got stronger, it started to feel like…Not a breeze necessarily, but that I can do this without losing my mind.

What is the best piece of advice you have received and/or what is the best piece of advice you give people?

Hailey: Just be you. Doing a show is a lot, being in the industry itself is a lot, so using your voice and sticking with your gut is hard at first. But just be you. Just be the weirdo.

Lea: Everybody's a weirdo. You have to be a weirdo to do this. Do the best work that you can and learn as much as you can. Know what your physical limits are and try not to be everything to everybody. Also, keep your feet on the ground, because after all of the press is done, the day-to-day reality is that it's your job…And always be kind.

Alex Newell, Merle Dandridge, Hailey Kilgore, Lea Salonga, and Quentin Earl Darrington at the opening night of Once on This Island.
(© Tricia Baron)