Lea Salonga guests in US TV series season finale
LOS ANGELES—As befits the country’s No. 1 musical export, Lea Salonga will guest in the season finale of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the first prime-time series on mainstream US television to depict Filipino-American life, with a large cast of Filipino actors.
Rachel Bloom, the star and cocreator of the groundbreaking comedy-musical series on CW network, revealed details of Salonga’s appearance on the April 18 episode to the Inquirer.
The 2016 Golden Globe best actress in a TV series—comedy or musical—portrays Rebecca Bunch, a Harvard-educated lawyer who gives up her high-powered New York job. Rebecca moves to West Covina, a Los Angeles suburb where many Filipinos live, to pursue her ex-boyfriend from teen camp, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III).
“Lea Salonga is playing Josh’s Aunt Myrna, the sister of his mom, Lourdes (Amy Hill),” Bloom revealed.
She said, “We knew Lea was both a musical theater icon and a Filipino icon so we were looking to cast her in some role throughout the season. When the writer’s room started coming up with the story for the season finale, Aline (Brosh McKenna, cocreator) and Rene Gube (the episode’s Fil-Am writer) realized that a certain role would be perfect for her.”
Gube penned the season finale which involves the wedding of Josh’s sister, Jayma, played by another Fil-Am thespian, Tess Paras. One of the episode’s stills shows Josh and three of his friends in barong Tagalog (traditional Filipino shirt), doing a dance number at the wedding reception.
In the episode directed by McKenna, Rebecca’s and Josh’s relationship, as well as that of Rebecca’s and two of her friends, are severely tested.
“Lea sings an astounding solo number that we wrote specifically for her!” exclaimed Bloom, who cowrites the show’s musical numbers.
Bloom recalled being very impressed when she first heard the Tony and Olivier Award winning actress.
She recalled, “The first time I heard Lea sing was when she voiced Jasmine singing in ‘Aladdin.’ The first time I saw her perform was when she sang ‘On My Own’ on a televised broadcast of a live concert of ‘Les Miserables,’ where she played the role of Eponine. I remember thinking she had the best singing voice I’ve ever heard.”
Of her guest stint in LA, Lea Salonga said: “I really had the best time. It’s such a wonderful family (the writers have) created, and everyone is so nice to work with. Rachel is just a funny, generous, sweet human to be around with.
“Most of my scenes though are with Amy Hill and Vince Rodriguez,” Lea added.
Gube also wrote the series’ Thanksgiving episode, which marked the first time that a mainstream TV show portrayed a Fil-Am family celebrating the American holiday in its own way, with dinuguan (pork blood stew) and all.
Bloom explained why the Fil-Am community scene is familiar to her. “I was a little bit familiar with Filipino culture before the show through my friend Tess (Paras), whom I’ve known for many years.
“We knew that Josh Chan should be Asian and, once we cast Vincent Rodriguez, we wanted to dig into the fact that he is Filipino,” she added. “We believe that creating good characters comes from exploring specificity, and one’s culture is a massive part of one’s identity and specificity.”
The Los Angeles native, who also won a Critics’ Choice Television Award for best actress in a comedy series, said, “I have learned so much about Filipino customs and culture (while) doing this show.”
She is grateful to Gube, who also acts in the show as Father Joseph, a Filipino Catholic priest nicknamed “Brah” by Josh.
“Rene is an essential resource when it comes to the Filipino elements in this story,” Bloom acknowledged. “He is our Filipino ambassador. We really start getting into specifics about Filipino culture in episode 6, which was the first episode Rene wrote.”
She added: “Every single Filipino specific in that episode is due to Rene. Even little things were due to Rene, like when Rebecca talks to Josh’s aunt about frozen shrimp dinners. And, I know that he felt and continues to feel a massive amount of pride being the main ambassador for his culture in our show.”
Recounted the series’ star: “When there was a shot demanding that my character stir the dinuguan, Rene pointed out that the dinuguan we had on set didn’t look real. We immediately cut the shot. It is very important to us that we represent Filipinos and their culture accurately.”
Bloom pointed out, “It just goes to show that diversity in a writer’s room is essential to telling new stories.”
The lack of diversity in Hollywood is an issue raging in Hollywood, especially in the weeks leading to the Academy Awards show, which critics denounced for its predominantly white and male nominees.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is being hailed for its pioneering vision to feature Asian, specifically Filipino, key characters on prime time. Bloom and McKenna will be honored on April 25 by the East West Players, the premier Asian American theater in the US, for helping raise “the visibility of Asian-Pacific American community through their craft.”
Rodriguez was quoted as saying in another interview, “I’m proud of the show” because “I didn’t see a Josh character on TV (when I was) growing up.”
Said Bloom: “From the beginning, we wanted Josh Chan to be an Asian ‘bro.’ I grew up with a ton of Asian bros and it was a character type we hadn’t seen on television before. It felt new, specific and very true to the show’s setting of Southern California. We were just going for something that felt fresh and new and, inadvertently, broke new ground with a sexy male Asian lead, something that hadn’t really been done before.”
Apparently, being exposed to another culture was a good experience for Bloom as well. “I did taste the dinuguan and it was delicious!” the actress said about the Filipino dish which her Rebecca character cooked to impress Josh and his Filipino family at their Thanksgiving celebration. “I truly loved every second of eating in that Thanksgiving episode. I was also a massive fan of the kare-kare (stew cooked with a thick peanut sauce)—that was my favorite dish.”
Asked if another Filipino food item would be featured in the show, Bloom replied, “I don’t know whether or not Rebecca will eat balut but it’s a definite possibility!”
On whether other Filipino talents will guest star in the series, which was renewed by CW for season 2, Bloom said, “We have just started writing the second season, so we are not sure yet! Whoever it is, our standards for guest stars have been set very high by Lea Salonga.”
(E-mail the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben)
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