The 11th longest running musical on Broadway, Miss Saigon tells the tragic love story of an American GI (Chris) and a young Vietnamese woman (Kim) during the Vietnam War. The story centers around Kim, and it is her story that has mesmerized audiences worldwide. Created by Tony Award winners Claude Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil, the team behind Les Miserables, Miss Saigon similarly employs a lush score, beautiful melodies, powerful ballads, and an incredibly compelling story.
The actress behind Kim, Manna Nichols, graciously agreed to join me for an interview where we discussed her insights into the iconic role, her preparation, other times she has played Kim, and what led her to where she is now.
EH: Miss Saigon is one of my favorite musicals, and Kim is such an incredible role. Is Kim one of your dream roles as an Asian actress? Do you have any other dream roles?
MN: Well, I grew up with listening to Broadway CDs in the car with my parents. I grew up with Disney movies- with songs that were so melodic and singable. Les Mis and Miss Saigon- any show that has a gorgeous, lush melody- I'm a total sucker for! Any show where the leading lady or ingenue girl gets to sing beautiful song after beautiful song is a dream. How can you listen to them and not be totally moved by them?
It was in college when I came up with a bucket list, and Kim was definitely on that list. I love Lea Salonga. Listening to Flower Drum Song, Les Mis, the Miss Saigon CDs, King and I... I thought, "I could actually play these roles!" Then, later, I realized that these parts are all sung by Lea Salonga. She is the one voice I keep going back to. All these songs, "I Still Believe", "On My Own", "Reflection"...
MN: I loved also that she was one of the first Asians who got to play all these huge Asian roles.
EH: She also did some of the first colorblind casting, which you've also done.
MN: Yes, as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.
EH: What have you learned from playing Kim?
MN: You know the days when you're totally exhausted, and you're thinking, "There's no way I can sing anything else or run one more set or carry this little child three more feet"- I'm not that big of a person! Then, you hear the orchestrations and gorgeous melodies- and think about the story. Some of these things legitimately happened to people. You have to give it 100% of your heart and soul. I just feel so fortunate. I mean, this is my job, my full time job. I'm like a kid in a candy shop- it's so much fun. I love what I do.
EH: Now, I know you have not yet begun rehearsals for this production, but I noticed from your resume that you have played Kim twice before. Could you tell me about your first experience?
MN: The first time was at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia where I was the Kim understudy for Melinda Chua. I had never been an understudy before, and basically your job is to know your ensemble track backwards and forwards, and spend as much time as you can watching the director in rehearsal and taking notes. It's 'independent study Kim'- you learn the part, all the memorization, blocking on your own. Melinda was wonderful and so helpful. She is a beautiful person, inside and out. It was a wonderful learning experience. We had four understudy rehearsals, which is also less than ususal. I went on for almost a week. I found out Melinda was sick when I was coming back from a day off spent at Six Flags. Then I found out from the stage manager that I was not going to get an emergency put in rehearsal since most of the cast had left town for the days off, and they couldn't be called back.
EH: I would have freaked out- did you freak out?
MN: I felt prepared, but I was definitely nervous. It felt like a trial by fire. Luckily, Eric Kunze, who was playing Chris, was gracious enough to come in early to run parts of the show. He was probably thinking, "Oh- this girl is really young, she's never played the role before, she's never understudied- this could be really bad..." I was allowed to make a wishlist of the top three parts I really wanted to run. Also, I had never fired a gun before, so I had to learn -in about 5 minutes- how to fire a gun with a blank in it. For an understudy reherasal, we don't use props. Luckily, the guy playing the Engineer (who was my former roomate)- he was our fight captain. About 5 minutes before the house opened, I had a lesson. When I fired it- it was so loud! I mean, I thought I'd lost my hearing. It was just numb- I couldn't hear anything. And maybe it was the stressful tension from the afternoon or the terror of thinking I'd blown out my eardrums, but I started crying. People were talking to me but I couldn't hear what they were saying to me, and I all was thinking was "Oh my gosh, I have to sing this two hour, 45 minute long show, and I just lost my hearing! What am I going to do?"
EH: Wow, what a crazy story! How was your second Kim experience different?
MN: Well, after that understudy experience, I was cast as Tuptim in Walnut Street's production of King and I. Coincidently, the King and I director, Mark Robin, was planning an upcoming production of Miss Saigon at the Fulton Theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. So on my day off, I took the bus back to New York to audition for his production. Um, it sounds cheesy, but that is where I met my current boyfriend, Will Ray. So, in my audition, they were like, "We're going to bring in a Chris to sing with you," and in walks this handsome, red-headed guy. We sang "Sun and Moon" and in the musical interlude where Chris and Kim kiss, he just kinda looked and me and shrugged his shoulders as if to say "I'm just gonna go for it". Then he gave me a really long, long kiss! And- I mean, that has never happened to me before. So, we finish off the song, and the director just starts teasing us! I'm staring at the floor, beet red, mortified because my King and I director is laughing at me...
Fast forward later and our apartments ended up being right next to each other. That production is so special to me because- as cheesy as it sounds- it felt like I was falling in love in real life as I was, you know, doing it 8 times a week on stage. That, for me, was so special.
EH: Obviously you are building a name for yourself in the musical theatre community, but I'm sure it didn't happen overnight. What were some of the things you did to get where you are now?
MN: My first year in New York was rough. At one point, I was waking up at or before 5 in the morning, waiting in line at 6 to sign up for an audition, working my 40 hour a week desk job until the end of the day, then auditioning at 5pm. Then, I would spend time at nights doing a telephone job 25 hours a week. At 11 I would jump on the train, get home by midnight, then wake up the next day and do it again. One night a week, I would take off from my telephone job and take a class. On weekends I also worked for my desk job doing other work. I did that for about a year until I booked my first job in New York.
EH: Wow. What a lot of work and crazy hours! That sounds like such a stressful lifestyle. Was it worth it?
MN: Oh yeah. Maybe if I would have know that that's how it was going to be while I was in college, I probably wouldn't have come here. But nobody wants to know what they're going to go through before they get there. It was so worth it because I am so happy with what I get to do now. If someone had told me what that first year was going to be like, I might have been discouraged. It was a very rough first year. I was mugged, I was followed home from the subway... It was miserable, but it was also like earning your stripes. I didn't know how badly I wanted this. I didn't even know- enough to work 65+ hours a week, enough to pay rent, enough to lose a lot of things I thought were really fun- I didn't go out for dinner with friends for like a year...
EH: I know this is a cliche question, but is there any advice you would give someone who was starting off their first year and was feeling discouraged?
MN: I guess I'd have to say just know yourself and know what makes you really really happy. And work as hard as you can to make that happen. If you have a dream and can make money doing it- even when people are constantly telling you you're not hired, or even when you're consistently called back but don't ever make the cut- keep practicing on your own, keep taking classes and finding ways to work on your craft. Save money so that you can take classes. Then, when you're not rehearsing or in a show, work as many temp jobs to survive and save money so that when a great opportunity come along that maybe doesn't pay a lot, you can have money in the bank so you can do it for the sake of honing your craft or for your resume. That was one of the things that was hardest for me- just figuring out how to survive...
EH: Manna, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I am looking forward to seeing you play Kim in Miss Saigon this weekend!
Miss Saigon is playing at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit from September 24 through October 06, 2013. Tickets are available HERE.
Kansas City's Starlight Theatre is the lead producer of Miss Saigon. The production will travel to the Bushnell Theatre in Hartford, the Fisher Theatre in Detroit, and the Ordway Theatre in St. Paul. It is Starlight's sixth and final production in its 2013 Broadway Series and is presented by U.S. Bank.
The creative team for Miss Saigon includes: Director Fred Hanson who is based in New York and Rio de Janeiro. In Brazil, he has directed new productions of Baby and Jekyll & Hyde. Hanson's previous experience with Miss Saigon includes Associate Director to Nicholas Hytner on the original Broadway productions and directing his own versions for the St. Louis Muny, São Paulo, and Tokyo (2004 & 2008).
Music DirectorKevin Stites served as the Music Supervisor, Arranger, and Music Director for the Broadway musical A Tale of Two Cities; the Music Supervisor and Incidental Music Composer for the Broadway musical and the national tour of The Color Purple; and the Music Director of the Broadway revival of Les Miserables.
Choreographer Baayork Lee debuted on Broadway at the age of 4 as Princess Ying Yaawolak in the original production of The King and I in 1951. Lee was a member of the original 1975 Broadway cast of A Chorus Line, which won nine Tony Awards and the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. She has started her own Production Company, the National Asian Arts Project, in order to open theatre doors for people of Asian descent.
Other artists and staff include: Denton Yockey, Executive Producer; Kirk Bookman, Lighting Designer; Braxton Cornelius, Sound Designer; Mary Traylor; Costumer; Joanne Weaver, Wig Designer; Susan Kikuchi, Associate Choreographer; Robert Thurber, Production Stage Manager; Kent Andel, Production Manager; Caroline Lakin, Company Manager; and Randy Moreland, Head Carpenter.