By Rachel Chou, AsAmNews Intern
Those who follow their passions or dreams can often pinpoint a person who inspired them to get there. For Ann Sanders, who plays Queen Iduna in Frozen on Broadway, it was Lea Salonga.
“I thought if there’s one person doing it, there must be more like me. And if there’s one show, there must be more shows” says Sanders to AsAmNews. Seeing Lea Salonga in Miss Saigon inspired her to pursue musical theater when she was younger. “ I went and took the train by myself and auditioned at a performing arts high school, got in and started studying musical theater and never looked back.”, she says.
As Disney’s Theatrical Company celebrates their 25th Anniversary on Broadway, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month focuses a lens on Disney’s community of Asian American actors. For many who pursue the arts, role models are integral to encourage emerging talent. Lea Salonga leaves a legacy for many Asian American female performers, especially those who grew up on Disney VHS tapes. AsAmNews spoke to many of them, spanning across Disney’s The Lion King, Frozen, and Aladdin, about representation in theater and advice they have for aspiring performers.
In 2011, Lea Salonga was named a Disney Legend. She was the first Asian woman to win a Tony Award, along with many other accolades. Originating the lead role of Kim in Miss Saigon at age 18, she moved on to have a prolific career on Broadway, as well as provide the singing voices for two Disney Princesses, Jasmine and Mulan in the classic Disney movies. .
Alyssa Fox, who plays the standby for Elsa says, “Lea Salonga was really influential on what I wanted to be. She was an Asian American Disney princess and I saw her, and I was like that is what I want to do. I want to use my voice to represent the culture.”
Sanders emphasizes the importance of new narratives in storytelling. She says, “ For me, the reason why diversity on Broadway is so important to me is that it tells our younger generation that the opportunity is real. That it does exist. I just want to encourage people that it’s those things that make you unique.” says Sanders. “I do feel like now people are craving new narratives, new stories, and now more than ever I feel like we need your stories. Of course we need the special effects and the lights and all that but at the end of the day its the storytelling.”
Sanders attributes her experience and identity as an Asian American informing her performances and the choices she makes. “Growing up I kind of shunned my Korean heritage. I was made fun of so I got a perm, I wanted to be totally American. And of course now I realize those are the things that make me who I am. I am so grateful for my cultural background. And I do think it made me more compassionate towards other people who feel like an outsider.”
The outsider is a common protagonist in Disney stories, a character that can be relatable to marginalized and minority groups. In Frozen, Queen Elsa is ridiculed as a monster by her own people because of the ice powers she had always concealed. Fox says she loves her character because Elsa at first has reservations about her identity, but over the course of the story, releases herself from other people’s expectations and owns herself. Being an outsider, or being yourself is something that Fox says to never compromise.
Fox’s father is Japanese, and moved to America from Japan in the 70’s. In order for their kids to quickly pick up on English, the family stopped speaking Japanese in the household and inevitably lost a lot of the language. Her advice for performers mirrors this loss her family experienced because of assimilation. “Don’t compromise on who you are. I think for a lot of people of color, at least before, it was very hard to break in.” she says, “I think just being yourself is a lot more accepted now. Just be kind and do the best work you can and it will speak for itself.”
Arielle Jacobs, who plays Jasmine in Aladdin, has similar advice for aspiring Broadway performers. She says, “I think anyone who wants to be in the theater or act at all needs to be kind and courageous and be brave and all of those things, but be open to being yourself and not portraying someone you think that they want.”
Rosie Lani Fiedelman who is part of the ensemble cast of The Lion King believes that as roles are starting to open up for Asian American performers, they need to continue to persevere and stand on the shoulders of those who precede them. “Don’t let anything limit you. Especially now that we’re being recognized, not just as Asian Americans but as performers.” she says. Both Jacobs and FIedelman also cite Salonga as their idols.
One of the youngest performers in The Lion King is Suri Marrero, who plays young Nala. A second grader, she’s excited about the prospect of playing diverse characters. “There’s been lots of shows I’ve seen where I was like, that’s what I want to do. I saw Inside Out, which was amazing. I just wanted to be all those characters and do all the voices.” she says. She loves her character Nala but also finds Shenzi from The Lion King and Genie from Aladdin interesting roles to play on the Disney stage.
With the lack of diversity on stage and screen in the past, it’s not surprising Lea Salonga’s name stands out in the Asian American theater community. However, the prominence of conversations about media diversity and representation in recent years have led to improvements in mindful casting. The latest report from the Asian American Performers Actors Coalition shared that in the overall industry, 33% of all available roles on New York City stages went to minority actors in the 2016-17 season. Asian American performers saw the biggest increase of representation out of all minority groups, 7.3% roles being given to Asian American performers, up 4% from the prior season. However, on Broadway in the 2016-17 season, there was a 7 point drop in representation from 36% to 29%, the previous season being record breaking for diversity on Broadway.
The importance of representation is the legacy that it leaves on generations who may not otherwise believe that the opportunity is there for them. As people start recognizing that unique stories and perspectives have value, theirs and others, hopefully diversity will continue to flourish, even on the Broadway stage.
AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff or submitting a story.