Actor Ethan Le Phong, who regularly performs on both sides of the Atlantic, is currently in rehearsals for the Menier Chocolate Factory's upcoming revival of
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's 1976 Tony-nominated musical Pacific Overtures.
Directed by Matthew White, the co-production with Umeda Arts Theater will begin previews at the London venue November 25 prior to an official opening December 4. Le Phong plays American Admiral/Fisherman and covers the role of Kayama in a cast that also includes Jon Chew as the Reciter, Kanako Nakano as Tamate, Saori Oda as Shogun/Madam, Takuro Ohno as Kayama, and Joaquin Pedro Valdes as Manjiro.
It's been a busy season for the actor, who also played Thuy in Sheffield Theatres' summer staging of Miss Saigon, the first regional non-replica production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical in the U.K. Reimagined by directors Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau, the limited engagement featured Joanna Ampil in the traditionally male role of The Engineer.
On Broadway, Le Phong has been seen in Miss Saigon and Aladdin; he's also done national tours of Mamma Mia!, Miss Saigon, and The King and I. In the West End, his numerous credits include the revival of Miss Saigon, the original casts of We Will Rock You, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Aladdin, as well as Trevor Nunn's South Pacific at the National Theatre.
In the interview below for the Playbill series How Did I Get Here—spotlighting not only actors, but directors, designers, musicians, and others who work on and off the stage to create the magic that is live theatre—Le Phong discusses the importance of cultural advisors in shows like Miss Saigon and Pacific Overtures and how many times he's done The King and I.
Where were you born, where did you grow up, and where do you consider home now?
Ethan Le Phong: I was born in Saigon, Vietnam, which is now Ho Chi Minh City. After the war, my family escaped and were refugees in Macau. We then relocated to Chicago in the early '80s. My family now resides in Atlanta. I have lived in NYC, Los Angeles, London, but will return home to my family in Atlanta on my downtime.
Where did you train/study?
After high school, I pursued my vocal training with two great professors, Dr. John Ramsaur and Dr. John Ratledge, for about two years. I then spent some time at Valdosta State University. After a year and some months, I placed my studies on hold because I was offered a great opportunity to perform in Germany. I told myself that one day I will go back. One day...
Was there a teacher who was particularly impactful/helpful? What made this instructor stand out?
I love this question. Every one of my teachers have given me some great understanding of the arts, but I will always go back to Mrs. Ziecker. She was my music teacher and friend for all four years at Duluth High. Never did she make me doubt who I wanted to be or what I wanted to do in her classes and our shows. She gave me the best springboard in becoming an artist. We still try to see each other when I’m back home in Georgia or she will come and see me in my shows.
What can people expect from this upcoming production of Pacific Overtures?
No spoilers, but we are presenting a 90-minute Sondheim-approved production.
Excluding Pacific Overtures, do you have a favorite Sondheim show and/or song?
My very first introduction to Sondheim was Into the Woods and still stands as my favorite. "Giants in the Sky" will always be close to heart. I won my first vocal competition and have used it many times in the audition room. If I were to pick one from Pacific Overtures, "Four Black Dragons" is at the top next to "Pretty Lady."
You perform a lot in the U.K. What was your first production there, and how did that role come about?
Chris Renshaw’s The King and I at the London Palladium. I was cast as a swing to replace another company member a few months after the show had opened. I was part of the U.S. tour of Miss Saigon at the time when my friend, Melanie May Po, contacted me and told me that they were looking for a swing. The only reference I had of the show was the film at that time. So, I was pretty excited to finally be seen for this legendary musical. And, as they say, the rest is history. I worked my way up to playing Lun Tha in six more creations of the production. Hopefully the next time I visit this show again, I may get to play the King.
You recently played Thuy in a revised production of Miss Saigon. What was it like revisiting the character in this new staging?
It was an opportunity of a lifetime! Our directors, Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau, challenged us to make bold choices and bold we did. Too many times, the audience would view Thuy as the villain in the story, and we wanted to change that. Being the first Vietnamese actor to portray a Vietnamese character on stage meant everything to me, and so it was important to make him a fully developed human that I would proudly say, "Yes, I did that!"
Saigon and Pacific Overtures are narratives about Asian countries
written by white composers. What kind of responsibility do you feel to
make sure the narratives are authentic and respectful?
Having a cultural advisor on board is a key factor in ensuring that the story will be told correctly. Listening to your cast and have open discussions on how a character may approach their role through their eyes. For example, when we did Miss Saigon in Sheffield, I helped the cast with their Vietnamese. If they can use it, that’s great! But if they can’t, I would rather them use English or say nothing at all. Hearing gibberish that really doesn’t fit into the narrative is so much more offensive and disrespectful. Yes, there are Vietnamese audiences that come to Miss Saigon, and they will call it out.
For the very first time, I felt seen, and huge respect to my cast and company in assuring that what we did on stage was as authentic as possible.
You made your Broadway debut in Miss Saigon. What do you remember about your first night on Broadway?
I can’t remember how I felt. I’m sure I was extremely excited—my friend and roommate at the time, Stephanie Estep, was in the audience, and I believe we went home after and celebrated with a pizza. What I do remember and will always be grateful for is when I was on tour with Miss Saigon, before one of shows, Peter Lawrence (in person I might add) asked if I would be interested in joining the Broadway company. Yes! Of course, I would!
What advice would you give your younger self or anyone starting out?
To choose you as the hero in your story. Where is this person in 10 years’ time? That’s when you will know what you need to get there. Plan it out, but know you’ll have detours that will test you. Tests that you will rise and sometimes you will fail, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Find those that will uplift, inspire, respect, and will humble you. If there is something else that you can do that will make you feel great, I say do it, because this industry is very hard. Allow yourself to step away from it, and when you are ready, the stage is yours!