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Lea Salonga, reprising an old role for a last time

'Miss Saigon' star returns

When "Miss Saigon" debuted on Broadway in 1991, Lea Salonga starred in the title role. She plans to return to the stage as the show ends its run  

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Twelve years ago, no one outside the Philippines had ever heard of Lea Salonga, a 17-year old aspiring actress and singer, but she was a veteran in her own country.

She began her career at age 7, appearing in movies, and was the host of her own TV show by 12.

Then, in 1990, Salonga, a premed student, moved to the stage when she landed the title role in the London musical "Miss Saigon," the story of a young Vietnamese woman and the American soldier whose child she bears. The show became a hit and moved to New York. So did Salonga. On April 11, 1991 she debuted on the Great White Way opposite British actor Jonathan Price.

She performed the role here for a year, then returned for six months in 1999 to reprise the part she brought to the United States.

Musical 'Miss Saigon' opens in the Philippines, home of its leading lady

Now, Broadway's "Miss Saigon" is scheduled to close January 28 -- but not without its original star. Salonga, 29, is returning to close the curtains for good.

CNN recently spoke with the actress, who's come back on a request from the producer, about her decision to reprise her Tony Award-winning role.

CNN: Why was it so important to you to return for the final weeks of this show?

Lea Salonga: The show has been such a big part of my life, and I guess it was a way for me to show my gratitude, to pay tribute to a role that's been such an incredible part of my life. (It) has started so many things for me in terms of my career and brought attention to Filipino talent. It's incredible. This show has just brought so much to so many people. Now that it's closing, I feel it is important to say "thanks."

CNN: What influence did this show have on your career?

Salonga: Oh, my goodness! Well, it brought a lot of attention to who I was in terms of my being a singer and actor. I was able to do a TV movie. ...But more important, when it opened in London (before transferring to New York), it brought a lot of attention to my country as to how artistic the people are and how musically talented the actors and actresses from the Philippines are.

Salonga won a Tony Award for her portrayal of a Vietnamese woman who becomes involved with an American soldier
Salonga won a Tony Award for her portrayal of a Vietnamese woman who becomes involved with an American soldier  

CNN: How have Asian performers benefited by the show? Are casting agents more aware of their talent?

Salonga: Now it's more diverse. You have people like Lucy Liu on "Ally McBeal" and so many other actors who are up and coming who are of Asian descent. But having said that, the competition is still really tough.

CNN: When "Miss Saigon" opened on Broadway 10 years ago, hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside the theater. Some felt that the show's leading man, British actor Jonathan Price, was playing a role that should have gone to an Asian-American performer. Others complained about the portrayal of Asian women as prostitutes. How did you feel backstage, knowing that that was going on outside?

Salonga: We didn't really know why there was a protest. ...The thing is, "Miss Saigon" is a dramatization of what went on in a country (Vietnam) far away; what happened over there was far more severe than what is being dramatized. ...Take it in context as a little piece of history.

CNN: What do you plan to do after "Miss Saigon" closes?

Salonga: 2001 could be a very lean year for me, but that's part of the profession I decided to be part of. ...I'd love to try out film and television.

CNN: What is your favorite memory of "Miss Saigon"?

Salonga: Charlton Heston came backstage after the opening-night performance (in London). He was really rallying for Jonathan Price and me to come to Broadway. So when Charlton Heston came back stage, I just had to give him the biggest hug for fighting so hard to get (us) over here. It was Moses in my dressing room! I was so in awe of him.

CNN: How do you think you will feel during the last performance?

Salonga: Sad in a way that it is closing. It's a really great show. It really shouldn't be closing, but I guess all good things have to come to an end some time. So it will be overwhelming. It will be emotional. I know I'm going to be crying my eyes out.


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