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Lea ‘Ragtime’s’ 1st Asian Mother

/ 07:46 PM January 03, 2013

SALONGA plays pivotal role in the Tony Award-winning musical.

Salonga, who most recently played a Japanese-American sent to a World War II internment camp in the stage musical “Allegiance,” landed the role of Mother, an upper-class white Protestant woman caught in the turbulence of turn-of-the-century America, in the concert staging of “Ragtime.”

(A “concert staging” is not a full production; the actors merely perform the songs.)

Mother is a pivotal role in the Tony-winning musical based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel.


In the novel’s movie version directed by Milos Forman in 1981, Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen portrayed Mother.

On Broadway, Marin Mazzie played the role in the original production in 1998; Christiane Noll took over in the revival in 2009. They are both Americans.

“They are iconic performers,” Salonga told the Inquirer. “The challenge is just to not try and sound like anyone else who has done it before.”

Seemed the concert’s director, Stafford Arima, was confident that Salonga could make the role her own.

No audition

Arima, who directed Salonga in “Allegiance,” personally asked the Filipina to sing the role of Mother in the concert to be held at the Avery Fisher Hall of the Lincoln Center in New York on Feb. 18.

“One fine night during our tech period for ‘Allegiance,’ as I was sitting in the darkened theater (the Old Globe in San Diego), Stafford approached me to gauge my interest in singing in a ‘Ragtime’ concert,” Salonga recounted. “Thankfully, I didn’t have to audition.”

Arima then sent her the song “Back to Before” from the musical.


“After I listened to that one song he sent me, I said, ‘Yes,’” she recalled. “It was that simple.”

(Although Salonga knows about the musical, she has yet to watch the movie and the play.) “To be completely honest, I hadn’t heard the music at the time, either,” she said. “However, it’s one of the favorite scores of friends and colleagues. So it’s something that I need to listen to, if only to appreciate it.”

She is glad that there’s plenty of time before the start of rehearsals for the concert next month.

Salonga refuses to be pressured by the fact that she’d be the first Asian, to tackle a role that was previously reserved for Caucasians.

“I’m not trying to think about it,” she admitted. “I’d like to think that the director had thought my voice fitted the role, so he asked me. It’s pretty cool.”

Her friends felt the same way.

‘Very special’ gig

“I got some really wonderful messages from my friends,” she related. “I’m glad that they’re happy for me. It’s really cool because there’s a racial component to this show. I never thought that I’d ever get cast in this musical in any role… so this one is very special.”

The “Ragtime” concert will likewise be Salonga’s homecoming at the Avery Fisher Hall of the Lincoln Center. “I did an all-Filipino Stephen Sondheim concert there in November 2011. It’ll feel like old hat to occupy that space.”

She will also be reunited with fellow Tony winner Tyne Daly and Tony nominee Norm Lewis in the “Ragtime” concert.

“I did a Hollywood Bowl concert with Tyne many years ago and I worked with Norm in ‘Les Miserables’ on Broadway, and in the 25th Anniversary Concert, too,” she said.

According to online reports, Arima who staged the London premiere of “Ragtime,” will gather a chorus of 100 singers from the United States, along with former cast members, in the concert.

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TAGS: concert staging, Lea Salonga, Ragtime, Theatre
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