Many people are surprised when I inform them that talented Filipinos weren’t first noticed with “Miss Saigon.” Truth is, petite singer Cely Carillo and mestiza dancer Maureen Tiongco were the first Pinoys on Broadway.
The first musical that featured Filipinos in the cast was the 1956 Rodgers and Hammerstein production, “The Flower Drum Song,” starring James Shigeta (Patrick Adiarte appeared in the movie version with Shigeta and Nancy Kwan).
Carillo took over the role of the mail-order bride from China after Miyoshi Umeki finished her stint. She was likewise succeeded by Tiongco in the musical’s national tour. Cely’s dancer daughter, Cynthia Onrubia, also became a seasoned dancer on Broadway. Tiongco married one of the original cast members of the musical, then came home to direct its Manila cast to raise funds for the CCP.
A native of Sta. Rosa, Laguna, Maureen married tenor Harry Theyard, who sang with soprano Evelyn Mandac. The couple resides in Montauk, New York.
Before retiring, Cely became the first Filipina to appear in the international version of Playboy, which featured her with Italian actress Elsa Martinelli in a scene from the 1963 film, “Rampage,” with Robert Mitchum.
Former hairdresser Zorro David appeared with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in “Reflections in a Golden Eye.” Leon Lontoc acted with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis in Blake Edwards’ comedy, “Operation Petticoat.”
It is said that Rosa del Rosario appeared with cowboy star, Bob Steele—as a Mexican! Along with Erlinda Cortes and Cris de Vera, she also acted in “An American Guerrilla in the Philippines,” with Tyrone Power.
Barbara Perez teamed up with Jeffrey Hunter in “No Man Is An Island.” And let’s not forget Brenda Marshall—not only did she act with the stellar likes of Errol Flynn, she even married William Holden!