It's a long way from Hawaii to Broadway. Melanie Tojio, who plays a bar girl in Miss Saigon, has made the journey amid the show's controversy, ethnic protests, star power, and great expectations. Jonathan Van Meter goes backstage to see how an actress -if not yet a star- is born.
On Broadway: Melanie Tojio in Times Square, New York.
Because she is Asian, because she is short, and because she is from Hawaii, Melanie Tojio never dreamed she'd be on Broadway. It was so far away, so mythical, she thought. When would there ever be a part for a five-foot-one Japanese girl? She liked Broadway from a distance, but she was being sensible. She was content with her degree in psychology from the University of Hawaii, working behind the desk at the Kahala Hilton, and occasionally babysitting for Sylvester Stallone or Cheryl Ladd when they were staying at the hotel. "Baby-sitter to the stars," her friends and family jokingly called her. That was as close to fame as she would ever come, and that was enough.
Tojio planned, in fact, to live in Honolulu for the rest of her life. She hoped one day to work with handicapped children or the elderly. Running a kids' program at the hotel and taking care of her sick grandparents were the two things she had found most fulfilling. She is the only child of a fifth-generation Japanese-American family settled in Hawaii. Her father is an electrician, her mother manages a local bank. Tojio was the first in the family with a bent toward show biz. Dancing was her thing. She had taken it up in college but never with any grand ideas that it might lead to a career. And as far as singing, well, she hummed along to the radio and got by in the chorus. During college, Tojio performed in local productions of Broadway musicals, most ambitiously at the American Theater Company, founded by Tommy Aguilar, who had played Paul in A Chorus Line on Broadway for ten years. But performing was nothing more than a hobby. She lived in her own apartment on the ground floor of a house with her pet rabbit, Foo-Foo. Her family, her friends, going to the beach, watching TV, and maybe finding something to do with her degree were her priorities, not necessarily in that order.
But now-largely for the very reasons that she thought ruled her out (she's Asian, short, and from Hawaii)- Melanie Tojio is on Broadway. Not only does she dance and sing in the ensemble of Miss Saigon, the ten-million-dollar, hype-ridden, and most controversial Broadway show ever mounted, but she is also the understudy of Lea Salonga, who plays Kim. The lead.
Dreams can come true. Even if they're not yours.
A modern-day version of Madam Butterfly, Miss Saigon is set during the fall of Saigon in 1975, and because it is a product of the Les Misérables team (it's presented by Cameron Mackintosh, created by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg), it is riding on advance sales of more than thirty-five million dollars. The disputes about the production have been well documented. There were protests over the casting of English actor Jonathan Pryce in a Eurasian role that Actors Equity demanded be given to an Asian. And more recently, charges from the Asian-American community that the show's lyrics are racist and sexist and perpetuate stereotypes of Asian women as exotic and subservient. Last August, while the show was playing to full houses in London, Cameron Mackintosh canceled the American production, forcing Equity to change its mind about Pryce in the lead. But all of that only made Melanie Tojio's road to Broadway a little longer, a little more interesting, and a lot less likely. Her new life actually started more than three years ago. What follows-in Tojio's own words- documents her experience.
November 11, 1988
[Auditions in Honolulu for the London production of Miss Saigon.] I heard about the auditions from Tommy Aguilar, whom I had done A Chorus Line with a few years before. It was an open call. They were looking for an Asian girl who was very young-looking, so he called and said, “I know you haven't been doing anything, but why don't you audition anyway?” I didn't even know what the show was about, and I walked in wearing this real frilly dress, with my hair all curly and a lot of makeup on. They sent me home and said, "Can you go wash your face and put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and come back?” I was actually one of the first people ever to sing the music. I remember crying because it was so emotional and so beautiful. They said, "Well, you don't have a trained voice, but we'll still consider you." ' And I never heard anything. I never really thought I had a chance to begin with, so I didn't pursue acting.
January 27, 1990
When they came back a year later to cast the American production, I heard about the auditions, and I wasn't even going to go. But it just so happens that I was working the graveyard shift at the front desk of the Hilton and I checked in Cameron Mackintosh. I was debating all the next morning whether to go or not when Tommy Aguilar called and said they had remembered me and they had a picture of me and wanted to see me. I didn't have any music prepared, so they gave me one song to learn overnight, and I had to come back the next day and sing it. I don't read music, so I had to have my friend come over and teach it to me on his flute. The next day I came back and sang. And they said, "You need to lose some weight and start taking voice lessons, and we'll see how you do in the next four months or so. If you do these things for us, then we'll fly you up to New York for the final callback."
This time, Tojio wasn't going to blow it. She called Neva Rego, a famous voice teacher in Hawaii (who had also been the teacher of Willie Falk, a performer who was then in Les Misérables and who would eventually land the lead as Chris in Miss Saigon). She begged Rego to take her as a student. She started taking dance classes again. But something had to give, so she quit her job. While she was busy preparing for her audition, the controversy over Jonathan Pryce was brewing in New York, and the callbacks, which were scheduled for July, were set back four more months. So Tojio waited. And practiced. Then she performed in a production of West Side Story to gain some experience actually singing for an audience.
October 4, 1990
[Callbacks in New York City…) There were four of us who auditioned from Hawaii whom they flew over: Jade Stice, J.P. Stewart, Chloe Stewart, and me. All of us were in West Side Story here. They treated us like royalty. A car picked us up at the airport; we each had our own room. And the next day we had a half hour to go in and work with the musical director and sing the songs that we were to sing during the audition three days later.
October 5, 1990
[Journal, entry.) I start to warm up voice. Getting nervous! Wonder how Jade and Chloe did. Take cab to theater. Meet two sweet girls, Emelda and Leila. Both are from the Philippines but live in NYC. We're all up for Kim but look so different. Session goes well. David C. and Vinny L. made me feel at ease. I'm to wear same clothes and sing the same way at audition.
October 7, 1990
[Journal entry.] J.P. and Cathy come over to tell me about their audition. They did well but don't think they got in. Warm up voice. I can hear someone across the way warming up, too. Boy, she's good! Audition at Royal Theatre! Feel good about it. Mr. Mackintosh seemed pleased. Noticed weight loss. Dance audition. Lots of guys, only twenty girls. Went OK. Got to meet Bob Avian, choreographer. Go to Village for dinner. Meet up with the Hawaii gang. We all went to psychic Zena. She told me I'd be making a trip to a big city in January '91.
October 8, 1990
[Journal entry.] Walk down Broadway and people-watch. Trying not to give beggars money (but still do). I have to learn not to smile as I walk. The hotel busboy laughs when I ask him if the water from the tap is OK to drink.
October 9, 1990
[Journal entry.] Jade gets called back to sing. Chloe and I get called to go home. They don't need to see us again (is that good or bad?). Mr. Mackintosh's assistant calls. He's left tickets for us for Les Miz! !!! Wow! Great!! See Les Miz! I cried it was so beautiful! Stood outside stage door looking for Willie Falk, Neva's former student. Hard when we don't know what he looks like. Wonder what it's like to walk out that stage door?
October 10, 1990
[Journal entry.] Get call from theater; they want to see me again. Rush to theater. Sing a few scales, they thank me, and I'm off, can't get taxi, have to run back to hotel. (I'm so flustered! I didn't get much of a chance to warm up before I sang. Only in taxi! The driver thought I was crazy.) Jade, Chloe, and I talk all the way home on the plane. It's good to be going home with a feeling of accomplishment and no regret! Whatever happens from here is just icing on the cake!
October 12, 1990
We were home two days before I got the call. Vinnie Liff called, and he had kind of a somber voice, but it didn't bother me because I knew I wasn't going to get in. He said, "We just wanted to let you know that you did a really good job and we're really proud of you and you worked hard. " And I thought, OK, here comes the rejection. And then he said, "And by the way, you got into the show. " I said, " 'You're kidding?! You're kidding! Right?! !" And he said, "No, I'm not kidding. We want you to come to New York in January. You're going to be in the ensemble, and you're probably going to be covering Kim." ' I just started crying and screaming. I didn't really believe it until the next day.
Over the next three months, Tojio set about preparing to move to New York City. She found two friends who would take over her apartment, sold her car to her cousin, and finally, two years late, picked up her diploma from the University of Hawaii.
Bar girls at the barre: Melanie Tojio (seated) with other members of the chorus of Miss Saigon, LEFT TO RIGHT Annette Calud, Sylvia Dohi, Mirla Criste, Raquel Brown, JoAnn Hunter, Jade Stice, Marina Chapa, Imelda De Los Reyes, and Jane Bodle. Hair, Leonard Calandra for Oribe at Elizabeth Arden; makeup, Rumiko.
When I was in West Side Story, the only information we were getting about the Jonathan Pryce controversy was from the newspapers. Because we had some local kids going up for the audition, the media really kept up on it. At first I was really scared that the show wasn't going to happen, because we were hearing all kinds of things-that the show was canceled, that they were going to refund all the money. It was heartbreaking, but I thought, Well, Cameron knows what he's doing. But Vinnie kept saying, "We don't know what's happening right now, but just keep working hard and we'll let you know one way or another. " Having auditioned for Cameron before, I really felt that he was very honest, very fair with us, and he wasn't trying to do anything negative by hiring a Caucasian for a Eurasian role. There was nothing behind it. When he auditioned here, the newspaper said that they were strictly looking for Asians. I couldn't understand how the union could go ahead and let Cameron cancel the whole show and spoil the chances for a lot of Asian people who were going to be given this opportunity, just because they wanted an Asian to have Jonathan's role. I'm sure that if he had found somebody Asian who could have done that role he would have gone ahead and made that person a star. I think with this much money involved, Cameron has to do what he thinks is right. He should be allowed to pick who he wants.
Everybody feels for the Asians in New York, including me. I know how hard it is to get a job when you're an Asian. That's why I never thought I could do something like this. The ideal thing would be if Cameron could find somebody who could do it, but if that doesn't happen, he has to use who's best for the role -obviously Jonathan. I mean, what is theater? Theater is creating fantasy. Jonathan Pryce said in one of his interviews that if he goes onstage and he is portraying an Asian then he is one. That's what people should see. You look at Robert Young, who plays the phantom in Phantom of the Opera-he's black.
I think in Hawaii the idea's a little different because there's not so much racial tension here. But I understand what people in New York, the Asian actors guild, are going through. This is a good opportunity for them to make a statement and try to help their cause. But I just hope this isn't going to hurt the production. We haven't signed contracts yet, and that was supposed to have happened a while back. I'm a little nervous because I've told my cousin he could have my car and started packing. I'm starting to get real excited. If this is postponed again, I'm going to cry.
The week before she left, there was a party or a dinner for Tojio every night, and, ominously enough, just two days before her trip, the war in the gulf broke out. On the morning of her flight to New York, she went to the hospital to say goodbye to her grandfather and then gave her grandmother her last foot massage for a while. That was the hardest part -leaving her family. Both grandparents have cancer, and she may not ever see them again.
With two suitcases, three boxes, and her rabbit, she arrived in New York on January 19. During her first few days in the city -before rehearsals started- she found a one-thousand-dollar-a-month studio apartment in the building where her friend Jade was living (one block away from the Broadway Theater, where Miss Saigon would be performed), saw her first snow, went to see the Broadway musical Once on This Island and the closing-night performance of Shogun, and was in a taxicab accident.
February 6, 1991
[First day of rehearsal.] Jade and I were walking toward the subway on our way to rehearsal, and a good-looking Filipino guy walked past us. I whispered to Jade, "Look, there's Thuy.” Thuy is one of the characters in the show. And we were laughing and giggling because every time an Asian person walked past us on the street we said, "Oh look, it's Miss Saigon. " And he got on the same train and sat across from us and he had a dance bag, and I kept elbowing Jade, saying, ”I bet you that's him. I bet you he's in the show." So I said, "Where are you going?" And he said, "Same place you're going." And as it turns out he is the guy who's playing Thuy. What a coincidence.
I had a hard time concentrating at rehearsal. I just kept staring at people. I couldn't believe I was in the same room with all of these big fish, people who have done Les Miz and Cats and Starlight Express. The first hour and a half was just mingling and everybody getting to know each other. I also couldn't stop staring, because I saw a whole bunch of girls who look just like me. I think I'm probably the shortest one. But they're all Oriental with long, straight black hair. Nicholas Hytner, the director, told us how the show actually came to be made. He wanted us to understand the reason behind the show. Especially now because of the war. We watched some documentaries about the Vietnam War to get a better understanding of what we were going to try to portray and do it honestly. It was like a history class.
February 7, 1991
They showed us miniature sets and went through the show scene by scene to show us how the sets were going to work. Very organized. We watched The Killing Fields and some CBS documentaries, and we had costumes fitted. Then we sat in a big circle and had a long discussion about how the war in Iraq is going to affect us and the show, and what our feelings are toward war. It was a great technique for us to get to know each other and for us to speak our minds about what the show is going to be like for everyone.
My character's name is Mimi. I would be happy to just do that. Because I have a name. A lot of the chorus girls don't have names. I think Mimi has four or five lines that she sings by herself. They call it a chorus specialty role. All I know is I have to wear a bathing suit. I also have to learn the role of Kim. It's a hard role. She has three solos, three duets, and then six pieces of other people's songs, plus the monologues, which are all sung. There's not one easy song. I've always loved to dance, and I've been dancing a long time, seven or eight years. You can train your body, but your voice -you can't just make it happen. I don't know whether I'll ever go on, but just to think that I was picked to understudy this character ... I think they're looking for a combination of things. You should see the girls in the show. Beautiful. Gorgeous bodies. They can all sing, sing, sing. And they've been doing shows all their lives. And yet they picked me. I think they're looking for somebody who is sweet-looking. It has to do with personality. They want somebody kind of naive. When I look at Lea, she is Kim. She's very strong, she knows what she wants, she knows what she's doing, and yet there's this naiveté.
February 10, 1991
In the chorus, the women all play prostitutes and exotic dancers, so Jade and my cousin Andrew and I went to those strip joints down on Forty-second Street. I said, "Let's go and get the experience. This is what we're supposed to be, bar girls, right?" It was funny at first, and then, as we went to three different clubs, it became very depressing. But it was good homework. Because until now the rehearsals had been so much fun-dancing with all these guys in the cast who are our friends. But in reality, it's a degrading job, and you have to think of it as such.
February 13, 1991
I'm not doing the specialty role called Mimi anymore. They decided that since I was understudying Kim, they didn't want to have me playing a role that they would have to fill in if I ever had to play Kim. That's fine. I already have so much to learn, and Mimi only had three or four lines. So it's no big deal. We've been rehearsing every day from ten to six. They gave us our first day off on Saturday because we're on schedule. I'm doing a lot of dancing. I've learned so much about theater in the past three weeks, so much about staging and how to sing and dance at the same time. Nothing's actually been really difficult, but I'm a perfectionist. I have to get it right. It's not that it's physically hard, but it's mentally very complicated to sing and dance at the same time, and the harmonies are very difficult. So I come home after rehearsal and I practice. It's a big responsibility. I want to be a hit if I'm going to be understudying, so I come home and do what a professional would do. When I'm not doing a scene, I watch Lea and take notes. On breaks or at lunchtime the pianist will come in and play the music for me, and I will go over some of the songs.
We watched more documentaries, and we've had three people come in and speak to us about Vietnam. We talked to a marine who was actually there during the evacuation: he was on the second-to-last helicopter to leave Saigon. And we talked to a Vietnamese woman who told us what it was like in Saigon prior to the fall, which is what our story is about.
February 15, 1991
Today Nick, the director, took me out of one of my favorite scenes. "Movie in My Mind” is a very emotional song about the way the women deal with being prostitutes. Kim sings it with one of the bar girls. She goes, "When they hurt me I just close my eyes and dream.” Now Nick has Chris and me exit in the middle of the number. We go offstage and are actually supposed to be having sex somewhere, but that means I don't get to sing the chorus of the song anymore, and I was really disappointed. But Nick said, "That's OK, Melanie, we had you exit with Chris because it's part of your story and because it adds to what we're trying to say. Plus, we know you're going to get to do it as Kim, so don't feel bad." Then he hugged me and said, "I'm so sorry. If you really want to go back in we can try to work something out." And I said, "No, no, I really want to do what's right for the show.” That's how he is. He's so wonderful. I could never have dreamed this whole experience would be as wonderful as it has been. Never. I mean, I came here with ideas that, oh, I was going to miss Hawaii and I was going to hate it here and I wasn't sure I was going to get along with all the cast members, because I'm such a hick from Hawaii. I thought these famous Broadway stars were going to be hard to work with. But they couldn't be nicer. I mean, the cast, all forty-one of them, plus the crew, I feel like they're my family now. All these different personalities, and yet we all get along. There's not one person in the cast whom I don't absolutely love. And Lea and Jonathan. We were kind of intimidated at first because they're big stars in their own countries, but they're wonderful. They sit on the floor and eat lunch with us. Lea said to me, “Melanie, if you ever have to nag me, just do it. Don't be afraid to ask questions, because I'm always going to want to help you." ' That's very rare to find a star willing to help a nobody. And Jonathan Pryce is so nice and so funny. Every word that comes out of his mouth is funny. He's always making everybody laugh.
On March 6, Melanie Tojio has thirteen members of the cast over to her apartment for dinner during their break from rehearsal and serves chili and salad. Because many of them are also on Broadway for the first time, some in New York for the first time, they are remarkably close. At one point, one says, "Because it's the Broadway debut for many of us, we're really bonding. It's not the old jaded chorine who comes in and says, 'I've been doing this for fifteen years...'" Then someone makes a sarcastic reference about a member of the cast who exemplifies that attitude and they all crack up. After a half hour of intense shoptalk, they get into giggling fits about some of the lewd things they have to act out in the opening number, which is set in a bar where the GIs grope the Vietnamese prostitutes. One of the guys says, "How do you girls feel about playing prostitutes onstage and having your parents see it?" Says Tojio: "I told my mom, 'My partner is really nice, he's a sweet boy and he would never touch me that way. Please explain that to dad before you come.' And every time I talk to her I say, 'Well, did you tell him yet?' 'No, not yet,' she says, 'I'm trying to think of a good way to tell him.' My dad is a typical protective Japanese father of an only daughter."
March 21, 1991
[Dress rehearsal.] I got bonked on the head and was unconscious onstage. It was right after a scene with Thuy, and I'm running and Chris is holding my hand. The timing was off, with some people running the other way, and I got hit and I fell and somebody rapped me on the head with his pole. And then I totally dropped out and Chris dragged me offstage. I blacked out for about fifteen minutes. I woke up and Chris was over me, and he had on his next costume, which has a big fishing hat. I woke up and started to laugh and said, "You look like Opie going on a fishing trip."
Until about three days ago, we were doing the scenes and everything felt really good and Chris and I stayed together the whole time. He had made up the story that he was my regular, and he promises me he's going to take me to the United States, so when he comes in we're very romantic and we're all over each other. And then a few days ago they said, "No, it looks wrong. It does not look trashy. You have to make it dirtier. Chris, you can't treat her like a lady. You have to treat her like a whore.” And we said OK, that's fine. So the boys come running up from the back. And he usually says, "There's my Fifi. Come on, baby, I miss you. " And this time he says, "There she is. Come on, give it to me, you bitch." Well, he said later my whole face just dropped and I stopped moving. He was throwing me around and saying nasty things to me. I was in shock. Later he said, "Are you all right?' ' And I said, "Yeah, I'm fine. I'm a professional.” After rehearsal we went to dinner and I just sat there. It was so degrading. But we've done it three times now, and every time we do it, it gets better and better. But when Chris is grabbing my butt, he's really grabbing butt! Thank God I like him.
March 22, 1991
[Final dress rehearsal.] I didn't really believe that there was actually going to be an audience out there, so right before we went out Lea Salonga and I were backstage and we did a little prayer and she said, "Welcome to Broadway!" And I said, "Oh, my God!! You too!" And then we started hugging. And then I got scared and the music went on and the orchestra was playing and the smoke was going! It was great! It was great! It went really smoothly. After the show I was totally hyper and everybody was hugging each other and Chris came running to me and hugged me and said, "I'm really proud of you." All of a sudden it hit, My God, we're doing this. We're doing this show. And I cried so hard that my false eyelashes fell off and they were sitting on my cheeks.
March 23, 1991
[The first public preview.] There was a little less energy tonight. You know, I still think it hasn't really hit me yet that I'm actually in a Broadway show. It's just amazing how close the cast has become. After the last curtain call we were all just screaming and hugging. "Did you see me dancing with the pole?” "Is that raunchy or what?' ' It's funny because all of the stage crew sit behind me and watch. I looked behind my back offstage and they were all like, "Go Melanie!" That's fun. I'm kind of afraid of what my dad's going to think. I hope he doesn't come to the show and go into shock. He's never seen me dance like this before. He knows that I'm still the same person and I’m acting. My voice teacher is coming opening night. She's really going to be happy.
On April 8, 1991, Time magazine ran a story on Miss Saigon with a photograph in which Tojio is prominently featured.
April 11, 1991
[Opening night.] I walked into the theater, and the stairs were lined with bouquets and boxes of presents. I never imagined it was going to be this big. I was overwhelmed by the cast. My parents brought leis from Hawaii, so I gave leis to everyone.
Cameron usually gives a gift to the cast and crew on opening night, but for us he did something really special. It was very touching. He gave us these big cards, and we opened them up and they said that he has sponsored in our names for a year a bui-doi, which means "dust of life," an Amerasian child. He hopes that we'll have the opportunity to communicate with them. I think he picked out each one specially, because there's a description of each child, and mine loves to dance. And there's a picture and she looks like me! Her name is Hang Vu, she's eighteen, and she was born in Vietnam. She lives in New York at an Asian center. This is the best gift that anyone could ever have given me, because I now know so much about the background of these children. It's so nice that Cameron would want to give us something back.
The protesters tonight -there were thousands, from what I heard- were kept across the street. It didn't affect us so much, because we're so proud of what we're doing. If anything, it just makes us work harder. The protesters did what they had to do, and we did what we had to do, what we believed in -portray the truth. We knew there were going to be protests because we had a big discussion about it a few days before. The protesters claim we're sexist and racist, but we're just trying to show what happened there. That's what happened.
After the show, everybody rushed onstage and Cameron and the writers, Alain and Claude Michel, were saying how proud they were of all of us. That, to me, was the most important thing, because we were doing their work, their blood, sweat, and tears, of the last five years. But we knew it was going to be good. It just felt so wonderful to do it. And afterward, Sean McDermott, who's Willie Falk's understudy, gave me a big hug and said, "One day, you and I are going to be doing this." And I said, "Ohhhh, my Goooood!” Just to be a part of the show was like a dream come true. But to do the lead would be unimaginable.
On April 12, 1991, The New York Times featured the opening of Miss Saigon on its front page, and its theater critic Frank Rich gave the show a rave, calling it a "gripping entertainment."