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Sweet Saigons - and we've never been kissed before!

They're old-fashioned girls, they're here and they're a West End smash

Miss Saigon opened at London's Theatre Royal four months ago to huge critical acclaim. Audiences still rise to their feet in a standing ovation at the end of the show and there's rarely a dry eye in the house.

It's the story of a teenage Vietnamese girl who turns to prostitution out of despair and hunger. She then falls deeply in love with a young American soldier called Chris, who is one of her clients, and their scenes are of tenderness and passion. The hugely-powerful part of Kim is played by Lea Salonga, but eight week performances a week were such a strain on her voice she now shares it with Monique Wilson. The two brown-eyed, exquisite young girls were friends in Manila, acted in the same shows and came to London together just over a year ago to audition for Miss Saigon.

The extraordinary thing is that neither of them has ever had a boyfriend, never even been properly kissed in private life, but portray the eroticism of physical love on stage with searing intensity.

When Lea turned up for her first rehearsal knowing that love scenes with actor Simon Bowman would ultimately face her, she was apprehensive.

"It's so good now to have Simon playing Chris", she says, "but in the beginning I was terrified of him. It took a long time to get used to each other. He said to me 'Lea, I know you come from a very conservative country, but trust me, don't be afraid I'm not going to hurt you'.

"When we started I was very quiet. I did a lot of smiling but I wasn't that comfortable. Then the time began to do the love scenes and I was as stiff as a board. At that first kiss my heart was beating so fast.

"Nick Hytner, the director, was demonstrating a scene where I'm kneeling on the bed and I've got to keep grabbing Simon, kissing him. We've just been to bed and I don't want him to leave. I was watching Nick and suddenly there was a breakthrough, and I knew what Kim felt.

"From that moment, I'd react when Simon touched me, I'd just move towards him, kiss him, touch him, I wanted to. I knew what Kim was feeling. Gradually, from that first kiss where I stood like stone, it got more and more passionate until opening night, when it just erupted.

"You know how you feel inside, and it's a very nice feeling. I'm beginning to think it might be nice in real life, but I want to wait for real love. I'd like to have just one guy to love and marry.

"Playing Kim is very physical, you've got the songs, the emotion. I go out on stage, the light hits you, and I become Kim.

"She's gone through the war, been a prostitute, fallen in love, had the baby, travelled millions of miles. She goes through betrayal, abandonment, ending up in suicide.

"She's so brave, so loyal, I love her. I love her resilience, her passion, her love for this man's child, her absolute selflessness, her courage. I don't cry easily, it takes a lot to make me cry, but the bit where Kim is losing her son is easy, I just imagine he's my little sister".

Home for Lea is a large, two-storey apartment on the outskirts of Manila, where her father is president of a Philippine shipyard and engineering company.

Monique's father is an actor who is coming to London soon to see his enchanting daughter in the show. Her mother saw her first performance as Kim and sent her flowers with a note saying "One of God's greatest blessings to me is having a sweet, loving daughter like you, from Mama".

Lea's mother has come to London with her, but Monique lives alone. "A part like Kim is very emotional, everything I feel in real life comes into Kim, I cry every night", says Monique. "Lea and I are just playing Kim, but there are a lot of girls in her situation, her life is their reality. Before we left to come to London we visited the centre in Manila that takes in child prostitutes, unwed mothers.

"I don't think my Dad will like the kissing scenes, because he's kind of strict. He said to me before I left 'Just use your head Monique', because I tend to use my emotions all the time. I'm so transparent, people know exactly how I'm feeling, I don't hold anything back, it all comes out. As a person I'm passionate, quite intense and my Mom says 'You'd better control it Monique or it will get you into trouble'.

"All of us in the show who are from the Philippines had to adjust to so many things when we got to London, to the weather, to being alone.

"I have a crazy, noisy, loving family. I'm the second eldest of four, and I miss them so much. London is home now, but in the beginning I cried every night. In our profession it is quite hard because our priority always has to be work.

"When we flew over to do the audition I was overwhelmed by the size of this theatre. I was telling myself 'Even if you don't get into the show you will always know you stood on the stage of London's Theatre Royal'.

"It's been my dream to come to the West End, but I'm only 19 and I thought it would happen later. My Dad used to say 'Don't dream too big dreams Monique'.

"Now I have to dream even bigger ones. He didn't want me to come to London. He got scared for me, but I think he realised it was what I had been waiting for all my life.

"I've had a few crushes but never been in love, and I don't want to settle for anything less than the best. At home boys would say 'If you're going to be my girlfriend, you'll have to give up the theatre', but I wouldn't have that. Manila is still a male-dominated society, even my brother is quite chauvinistic, he likes to lord it over me".

The two young stars have adjacent dressing rooms. Monique's is a jumble of clothes, make-up, magazines, posters, honey for her voice. Lea's though is neat and tidy. She is still only 18, but has an extraordinary serenity and presence.

Lea says: "I grew up in showbusiness, I've been with so many adults all my life, but inside I'm just a kid. At first, coming into Miss Saigon was daunting. I thought 'I know they expect a lot of me, I can't disappoint these people".

"There was such pressure. There were photographers at the airport when we left Manila and they said 'What do you want to say to your fellow countrymen?' I said 'Please ask them to pray for us, to hope for us and we will try to make our country proud of us'.

"There are 15 Filipinos in the show, 13 of us came over together, the other two were already here. We've taught the rest of the company some phrases like 'Mahal kita', which means I love you, and 'Maganda Ka', meaning you are beautiful.

"Mom brings me to the theatre every night and she picks me up, but she didn't come to rehearsals. She said 'Surprise me on opening night'. I love her so much, she's brilliant.

"When we were kids we were told, in the nicest possible way, how to behave, how to be polite. I have a brother two years younger and he cried the first time he saw me play Kim.

"He said 'I never thought you could do that'. I love him a lot. I have a little five-year-old sister who stands on the table and sings. My Mom misses her, but my Dad is there and he says they're all managing.

"I'll definitely finish my education sooner or later, be it back home or here. After all, what's next for me after this? There are not that many Asian roles. Before I played Kim I was doing my pre-med at Ateneo de Manila University. I had it all settled. In four years I would graduate, be a doctor. Then Miss Saigon came along and I thought 'Is God trying to tell me something? Does he want me to go into the theatre?'

"I think this is something God has decided for me. I pray fervently before the show, after the show, during it. In my darkest moments, when my voice was very tired and I was panicking on stage. He got me through. I was just tired, overworked, sometimes your body tells you that you need to rest. I was then off for three weeks and it was so difficult to be away. I have an umbilical cord to this place, I'd sleep on stage if I could - it's got to that extent.

"It was very difficult at first to accept that I was going to share the role but it's the best decision. I've got my future to think about and I wouldn't want to destroy it. If I was going to blast through eight shows a week I'd have nothing left. I auditioned on November 15 and got the part the second week in December, just over a year ago.

"My life has always been work. People say 'You should come out more Lea', but after the show I just go back with my Mom, to our home in Islington. I enjoy it. I'm a home body.

"When I returned after being sick, people kept coming to the dressing room saying 'Welcome back'. It's such a lovely company. We're a hugging, kissing lot. We all love each other so much".

Lynda Lee-Potter, Daily Mail, 5 February 1990


Copyright © 2002 M. Kniestedt. All rights reserved.