British-Filipino Stephanie Lao
LONDON - British-Filipino Stephanie Lao was four years old when she was cast as "Tam" in the West End musical hit Miss Saigon.
It was by no means an ordinary role for a child because she had to play a boy and to look the part, she also had to cut short her beautiful, flowing hair.
"I went along to the audition and then my dad said to me afterwards, 'if you get cast for the show, are you happy to cut your hair to look like a boy?' He said I didn't have any hesitation to do that. I knew it was only going to be a temporary basis. At that age I was quite a tomboy when I was a child. I wasn't really into girly things. I think it was quite easy for me to make the transition to having the hair cut quite short," said Lao.
"Miss Saigon" is a love story between an American GI, Chris and a Vietnamese bar girl, Kim. Set during the Vietnam War, the story tells of the painful decision of Kim to do whatever it takes so that her son, Tam, have a better future.
There was no dialogue for Tam but the epic theater production with helicopter landing, bar scenes, gunshots and chaos could have been daunting to a four-year-old child. But Lao was always reassured by her parents that the scenes were just made for theatre.
"It was a very enjoyable experience. The set - there were lines, tracks on the stage, and on the sides of the stage there were seats that slide on, so you have to hold onto the back of the set and then you come through the door," Lao said.
There were at least three child actors alternating to play Tam. By law, the children were only allowed to do two shows per week. Like Lao, the other kids in the show were British-Filipinos.
Lao recalled having her own dressing room where she spent a lot of time sleeping while waiting for her scene.
"At the side of the stage you have a curtain that the child stays behind. Behind that area, my mum or my dad was with me as a chaperone, because by law you have to have a chaperone. I only come out when she calls me and then I have to run back," she explained while showing video footage of herself shot by her father during one of the shows.
Miss Saigon premiered in 1989 at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane with Lea Salonga, playing the lead role. After Salonga, other Filipino performers have taken on the role of Kim. Lao's Kim was theater actress Joan Ampil whom she was very fond of.
"I remember there's a scene afterwards where she sings a song called 'I Give My Life For You' and they gave us a couple of sheets of paper with pens and pencils and we were told to just draw pretty pictures. I always used to give the pictures to Joanna after the show," she recalled.
At a young age, she had a taste of what it was like to be adored but her parents made sure, it didn’t get to her head.
"They were waiting in the cold and the freezing rain to wait for me and I was happy to sign just my name, and they were happy to receive that. I would accept the flowers, say thank you, go home and then continue my life as a normal child in school. "
Lao ended her theater career at age seven. She moved on to modeling up until 10 years old and concentrated on her studies after her acting and modeling stints. Playing 'Tam' for Miss Saigon has helped mold her to succeeding in other fields.
She is now a teacher and is still grateful for being part of a big, successful theater production, an experience she will treasure for the rest of her life.
"I think for me it was a very big confidence booster for me," she said.
She also added: "For me, there's nothing I can say, pinpoint to a show, or a scene. The overall, entire experience that will stay with me for a long time because that was one of the highlights for me, of my childhood - being a part of that production was a really great experience."
Theater producer Cameron MacKintosh is bringing back Miss Saigon to West End. It will open on May 3, with Filipino cast in the ensemble and playing the lead roles.
Jonjon Briones will play The Engineer, Rachelle Ann Go is cast Gigi and Fil-Am Eva Noblezada is the new Kim.