June 17, 1991 12:00 PM

ABOUT THE TIME BRITISH PRODUCER Cameron Mackintosh arrived in Manila 2½ years ago in search of a female lead for his musical Miss Saigon, Lea Salonga, 17, an ethereally lovely premed student, was busy dissecting frogs at the Jesuit University Ateneo de Manila. But with 11 years of stage and TV roles to her credit, Salonga decided to put aside her instruments and take a crack at the part.

First she had to overcome the objections of her mother, Joy. “My mom said, ‘They’ll probably be these fly-by-night people who come into the country and take advantage of young girls,’ ” Lea recalls. But Salonga showed up for an audition anyway and captivated everyone with her pure, sweet soprano. Says one of the show’s casting directors, Vincent Liff: “We all welled up with emotion because we knew, for the first time in a long audition process, that Miss Saigon could be done. She unlocked the door to the show.”

Door unlocked—and promise of stardom fulfilled. Last week, before a cheering Broadway house—and a national TV audience of 12 million—Salonga stepped to the podium to accept this year’s Tony Award as best leading actress in a musical. Said an emotional Lea: “This can’t be real. I didn’t expect to get it. I didn’t even prepare a speech.”

Her award, together with the two other Tonys captured by Miss Saigon, was a triumph for a highly controversial show. When Saigon headed for Broadway in a hurricane of publicity (not to mention a $39 million advance sale and a top ticket price of $100), Actors’ Equity demanded that the producers search for an Asian actor to replace England’s Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian who had won awards in London portraying the show’s Eurasian pimp. The union backed down when Mackintosh threatened to pull the play. Then, in an ironic reversal, Equity demanded that Salonga be replaced because she is Asian, not American.

It’s just as well that Equity relented after arbitration, because the union nearly triggered an international incident. It seems that Salonga’s grandfather had served in the U.S. Navy in both world wars and had an American flag draped over his coffin for his memorial service. When her father, Feliciano, president of a shipping and engineering company in Manila, found out that his daughter might be banned from the production, he told her, “If they don’t let you keep the role, I will return the flag to President Bush.”

Happily, that wasn’t necessary. Indeed, the award was something of a triumph for the elder Salonga, who was musically instrumental in launching his daughter’s career. “He won singing contests when he was young,” she explains, “and we used to sing Filipino folk songs together.” At age 7, Lea won her first stage role as one of the children in the Manila production of The King and I. After that came Fiddler on the Roof, the title role in Annie, and a plummy job from age 12 to 14 hosting Love, Lea, a TV musical variety show for kids.

At her father’s urging, Lea, who had been valedictorian of her high school class, entered premed studies at Ateneo. Meanwhile, Mom saw to social proprieties: Lea to this day has yet to go out on a date unescorted. (Her mother will allow her out alone when she reaches 21 next February.) Thus Salonga’s love scenes in Saigon provided her with her first kiss—ever. “At first we didn’t kiss at all; we just embraced,” says her London costar Simon Bowman. “We had a lot of jokes, and it got easier the more she understood and trusted me. After the first kiss, she didn’t say a word—just went completely quiet.” He adds, with a laugh, “I think she came to enjoy those scenes. She used to wear my lips out, and I had to get a new pair at the end of every week.”

Lea won’t compare her new costar Willy Falk with his predecessor. “I won’t say who’s a better kisser,” she says. “I’ll be discreet.” Meanwhile, when the curtain falls and the Lights dim, Lea returns to the family austerity plan. Her mother has rented an apartment for the season and cooks fish at home for Lea and her brother, Gerard, 17, a college student visiting his sister for the summer. For entertainment, Lea reads Robin Cook mysteries and watches Garfield and Charlie Brown cartoons on TV. And while she’s technically still on leave from medical school, she doubts now that she will return; she’d very much like to check out the film and television opportunities likely to come her way. “My mom said when she took me to my first audition,” she says, “that once I went onstage, I didn’t want to come down. Well, I haven’t come down yet. I’m still up there.”


TOBY KAHN in New York City

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