MARCH 2008
Ethan Le Phong is about to open in the Pasadena Playhouse’s world premiere
musical Mask (based on the 1985 Cher/Eric Stolz movie, with book by the film’s
writer Anna Hamilton Phelan, directed by Richard Maltby, Jr., and music/lyrics
by the legendary Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil). Mask is just the latest step in a
career which has taken Ethan from Georgia to Germany to New York to London
and points in between. Having recently come to national attention via his
starring role in the long-awaited film version of the international hit Naked Boys
, Ethan is poised to make yet another splash on the Pasadena Playhouse
stage opposite Ovation winner Michelle Duffy.  We caught up with Ethan
recently.  Here’s what he had to say about traveling the world as a musical
theater performer, appearing naked on the big screen, and working with some
of the biggest names in the biz in Mask.

Ethan, for someone who must still get carded all the time, you have an
impressive resume, beginning with a bunch of shows in Georgia while you
were still in middle and high school. First of all, how did someone born in Viet
Nam end up living in Georgia?

My father’s job transferred him down to Atlanta from Chicago so I got the
privilege of attending a new high school, Duluth. When we first got the news
that we were moving, I remembered asking him to find an arts high school but
instead he picked the school with the highest SAT scores. Asian parents!


I don’t suppose your parents were “in the biz,” right?

Actually, my family is very talented and had great success in the “biz.” When
we lived in Chicago, my dad managed a Vietnamese band called the
Heartbeat where my mom was one of the lead singers. I have aunts who are
all singers. Besides being the manager of the band, my dad was also a well-
known lyricist back in Vietnam. My sister is also a singer and my brother can
literarily pick up any instrument and know how to play it within minutes. Both
are killer hip-hop dancer—something I wish I can do as naturally as they do.

Obviously, talent runs in your family! Still, as you say, you come from pretty
traditional Asian parents. How did they feel about their son singing and
dancing on stage?

My parents always advised me to see it as a hobby and go into engineering,
but I always thought outside the box and took a chance on pursuing my
passion. They are very supportive parents and they wish me the best but if I
told them I wanted to start a new career and start all over in college, they
would be right there with me.

During your college years, you did more musical theater in Daytona Beach,
including the lead in Crazy for You, right? Had you already decided to pursue
a career in musical theater at that time?

Actually, Crazy for You was a college production, but to have the chance to
play a lead role gave me a head start on what to expect in the real world. I
spent a summer down at Seaside Music Theater with 42nd Street and Tommy
where I was among some of New York’s best and I took it as a master class for
my career. At first I went into college training to be an opera singer but by the
next year, I knew for sure I had to continue my dancing and pursue musical
theater. I knew I was going to be a performer in some way. I just never knew it
would have leaded me here.

In 1999, you joined the National Tour of Miss Saigon, which must have been a
big step forward in your career. How did the role in Miss Saigon come about?

Can I first just let you know how honored I am right now to be working with
Richard Maltby, Jr! (Editor’s note: Maltby wrote lyrics and additional material
for Miss Saigon and is directing Mask.) Who knew when I was first introduced to
Miss Saigon back when I was a sophomore in high school that I would come full
circle by meeting and working for one of the members of the creative team in
MASK! Crazy!

The world of show business is small indeed!  So tell me about Miss Saigon.

My first offer for the show happened when I was a junior in college. It was a
dream come true, so I dropped out and packed my bags for Germany. Not
only was I going to be part of a show that I dreamed of doing but doing it in
another country and language.

I had no idea you were doing the show in German!

While I was there, Peter Lawrence, the artistic director for the US production,
saw the show and invited all of the Americans to contact him when we were
ready to come back to the States. Needless to say, I took that opportunity
head on. I decided not to renew my contract to stay another year in Germany
but to make the big move to New York. Once there, I contacted Peter
Lawrence and he gave me an audition as promised and within three months, I
was offered a spot on the tour.

How long did you spend touring the country?

When I first joined the tour, I was only contracted for four months as a sub. It
was a great experience traveling the States. One of the greatest moments
from the tour was when Peter paid us a visit. It was a month prior to the end of
my contract. We were all in the quick changing area getting ready for the
show and Peter walks up to me and asks me what I was doing once my
contract was up. I told him I was just going back to New York and start
auditioning. So in front of the cast, he offers me Broadway Saigon if I am
interested. Of course I said yes. Another dream comes true! So that fall, I was
living the dream any actor would kill for!

How fantastic for you, Ethan!

So the following year, I somehow managed to hop back and forth between
the tour and Broadway. Unbeknownst to me when I joined the show, I made
history in all three productions by being the first Vietnamese actor to have
been in the show. I think that was pretty cool.  Plus, it wasn’t until I joined the
show that I learned about my own family’s history and our ties to the Vietnam
War and how we escaped. I love my parents for their strength back then and
how they struggled to give us this privileged life. 

Now comes what seems to me must have been an exciting, life-changing
experience for you, appearing in The King and I in the West End in London.
How amazing was that?

I know.  Working in London was the last thing EVER on my mind, but when a
friend of mine thought of me for the King and I, I threw all caution to the wind
and went in for the audition. I always thought that one day I was going to be
in a production of The King and I, but I never thought my first one would be in
London. I got to live five minutes from Buckingham Palace for my first year
there. How many actors get to say that?

I’m so jealous!  In fact, you ended up spending several years in London,
including roles in South Pacific, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Jerry Springer
the Opera. I know that a number of British actors have had a tough time
with Actors’ Equity appearing on Broadway. Is it easier for Americans
appearing on the London Stage?

I think you have to prove yourself twice as hard because they have to believe
you are the best for the part to take a position away from a British actor so I
made sure to respect everyone I came across and did my job to the best of my
abilities. I wanted to prove myself as not just another Asian actor hired to do
an Asian show, so I made a commitment to get another show before I left
London. I walked away with a couple more than two.

Awesome! Tell me what the best part was about living in England?

I think the best part about living in England was creating the long-lasting
friendships I have now, so when I get to go back, I’ll always have a place to

And that brings us to your return to the States. What made you finally decide
to return to the U.S.? You seem to be West Coast based now. Were you just
getting tired of the weather in England? (chuckle)

I needed a break from theater. Knock on wood, I was able to work non-stop
since leaving school but I never took a break between shows and I started
becoming jaded, and being home-sick for the States took its toll on me, so
that’s what made me return home. I needed a change of scenery and course
in my career, and the West coast was a place I always wanted to take a
swing at and yeah, the weather in London can get pretty gray at best.

Before we get to Naked Boys Singing and Mask, I notice that you did a “return
engagement” in Thoroughly Modern Millie last year in Maine of all places?
What was it like returning to the show that you’d appeared in several years
before in England?

It was a chance to revisit a role with a new vision and to make different
choices that you didn’t get to try in the first place. I had a great time up in
Maine. The lobster was cheap and plenty, and to step away from the LA heat
was great. The last time I was in summer stock was when I was in college. So
any chance to work somewhere you have never worked before that had a
great reputation is an opportunity to work with other artists that you can learn

It’s wonderful that professional theater exists in every state of the U.S., though
not every state has had a production of Naked Boys Singing, I’d guess. Now,
with the release of the DVD, people all across the country are getting to see
the show and you in it. And I’d guess that for the rest of your career, people are
going to remember you singing naked on the silver screen. Did you have any
second thoughts about appearing in your birthday suit in a film that would
become part of, who knows, tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people’s
DVD collections?

You know, I just thought I better get this body preserved on film before it all goes
away but yes, I was extremely nervous about taking on the project. I was so
nervous about taking off my clothes that I had to create this persona who    
didn’t give a care in the world and was willing to take off his clothes. I named
him Leland Way. I, myself, am very shy!

That is so funny!  You actually developed a split personality to play the role! ?
How did your family react to your baring all?

My family knows that I did it. Have they seen it? I doubt it, but they are proud
that I was working. My mom did ask if I really have to take off my clothes. My
dad just laughed.

Your performance of Window to Window opposite Vincent Zamora is really
exquisite, as a singer, dancer, and actor. What was it like doing that sequence
with Vincent, the only member of the original cast, and especially being the
most physically “intimate” scene in the film?

Thanks. Vincent was a pro! He gave me a lot of insight into when he used to do it
when it was on stage and its history and I am grateful for it. He’s an excellent
dance partner.

Were there any special challenges?

Rehearsing with clothes was one thing but when the clothes came off, we were
pretty concerned with where our “other member” would fall and land on each
other. Once the giggles went away, it was back to business and we were so in
tune with each other, it made for a great performance. It was like we were just
dancing for each other and I hope that came across on the screen. It was great
when the writer of the song, Rayme Sciaroni, told me that it was great to finally
see and hear his song done the way he originally envisioned it. Now that’s an
honor in itself.

You must get recognized a lot these days. I know, I recognized you right away
when I saw you in the audience of Town Without Pity. What does it feel like to
be a celebrity on the rise?

Oh, I don’t think myself as being a celebrity but it’s nice to be recognized for my
“talent.” But yes, it’s a little surreal to say the least.

And now you’re about to make your Pasadena Playhouse debut in Mask,
working with the gorgeous and gorgeously talented Michelle Duffy, whom I
love, and bringing the Cher/Eric Stoltz movie to new life as a musical.

I’m in love with Michelle Diva Duffy!

Who isn’t! So Ethan, what role, or roles, do you play?

I play various parts in the show but the one I most enjoy is Scott, a high school
student. We have a great uplifting number in the first act called “Do It for
Love” and it is my favorite to sing.

What do you think people will take away from the show?

Mask will take you on an emotional journey about the relationship of a mother
and her son and their challenges through life. I hope that what the audience
will take away with them after seeing the show is the positive message of how
important family is to you. Family in the most non-traditional way can be
stronger and more powerful. That love is blind and should never be taken for
granted. Live each day to its fullest and find beauty in everything and
everyone. If people don’t walk out wanting to call their mothers and tell her
they love them, we didn’t do our job.

Thank you so much Ethan! After talking with you, I’m even more looking
forward to Mask than before!

MAY 2008
Fresh from the hit run of Mask at the Pasadena Playhouse, Broadway, National Tour, and West End vet Ethan Le Phong was gracious enough to answer our questions following Wednesday’s opening night of East West Players’ production of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin. (For more about Ethan, check out our original interview.)

Hi Ethan.  Congratulations on your smash opening night.  What makes this Pippin different from all the others that came before? 

Thanks, Steven. I haven’t seen many other productions of Pippin other than my first production of the show back at Shorter College.

I had no idea you’d done this show before.

Yes. I played The Noble and was part of the couple for the ‘sex’ dance—just wearing a white dance belt, may I add.

As the French say, “oh la la.”

What is unique about this Pippin is that East West Players is daring to bring forth the edgy and raw angst that every man and woman has felt in their search for the meaning of life, without the ‘jazz hands’ and overt comedy that most Pippin productions seek. Instead we let the audience decide for themselves if they should laugh or even feel discomfort in relating to the characters on stage. There is that life or death aspect to the story telling.

You’re right that this production is a lot more “raw” that the original Fosse vision!  Was learning the role of Pippin in a week the hardest thing you’ve ever done as an actor? 

I don’t think I even had time to realize how hard it was to learn the show in less than a week. Looking back on it, yes, it was a huge task but I think I just jumped in with a positive attitude and a willingness to keep an open mind and a focused  one, plus the great support from the cast made it seem very easy. It was like it was meant to be like this for me. 

How did you do it? 

What helped was being able to have the script in my hand during previews. You see, those were the only times I had on stage. But with each night, I managed not to look at the script more and more. Prior to that, all I could do was sit and watch the tech-runs with a pencil and start writing. Marc Macalintal was gracious enough to make a demo of all of Pippin’s songs so I could learn the song at home, driving in my car, at the gym and even in my sleep. I also had friends who were all willing to give me their time to run lines when I was not at the theatre.

What was hardest/easiest for you to learn? Was it the songs, the lines, the choreography, the blocking?

As a dancer, hip hop is still a new genre for me to grasp but with Jason Chong’s patience, I somewhat finally got there. I love singing the songs so that was the easiest of the four. It’s all about telling the story.

Do you have a favorite moment in the show, the one you most look forward to playing?

When I first heard the music, ‘Extraordinary’ was the song that I was most excited to start learning. It was the hardest song to learn in the time frame I had as there are so many lyrics and it’s a rock song. Rocking it out every night allows me to take out my frustration so yes, it’s my favorite. I used to stress about it but now that it’s in my body, I do look forward to jumping around on stage and singing the hell out of it.

What was it like performing for the creator of Pippin, Stephen (Wicked) Schwartz?

Oh wow, knowing that information as I was learning the show added that extra kick in the butt to get my role to near perfect for opening night, though even with the added pressure, I really didn’t stress too much about it. I tried my best to just center myself and do the job at hand. As long as I was being truthful with Pippin, that’s all he would need to see or want from Pippin. I’m glad to say he was very pleased. I think the audiences of East West Players are intelligent enough to know when you are faking it and when you are really in the moment, cause if you are, we all go on this great journey.

Thanks, Ethan. You did an amazing job, and we’re looking forward to seeing Pippin again in a couple weeks!

It’s been a busy year for Ethan Le Phong.  Following the success of Naked Boys Singing The Movie, Ethan appeared in Mask at the Pasadena Playhouse and then went on to wow audiences in the title role of Pippin at East West Players.  The multitalented Mr. Le Phong recently sat down to answer our questions about “Life After Pippin,” and to tell us about his latest project, a starring role in the Los Angeles premiere of Cy Coleman’s THE LIFE.

What was the most exciting part of doing Pippin?

I think what was most exciting about Pippin was that I never had the chance to just sit back and say, ok, now this is the Pippin for the show. I was constantly searching for who he was throughout the run. People have asked if I was finally having fun and not feeling too stressed about taking on the role. My response was that I was having fun but there wasn’t room to relax nor did I want to relax. 

It’s great that you kept adding new layers to the role.  What’s it like working with the people at East West Players?

Just to be a part of the East West Players family is very exciting. Meeting other talented Asian actors and to be a part of this community was something I longed for and now I found it here at EWP. 

Tell us a bit about your appearance on TV’s Little Britain US? It seems a bit ironic that you ended up doing a British show here in the U.S. and not while you were living in England.

Who knew I had to step away from Britain to be cast in a British show! First of all, I’ve been a huge fan of the show since when it first aired in the UK several years back, so when I got the offer to be a part of the US version, I nearly fell out of my chair. 

Little Britain writer-star Matt Lucas and Ethan

What role did you play?

I played a university student named Darin who gets to share some screen time with Linda, played by David Williams. Linda is a university administrator who uses “labels” to describe her students. Not such nice ones might I add but hilarious in their own right. The show is definitely not for the closed-minded. You can even call it a “socially experimental” kind of show. Funny enough, I knew David and Matt Lucas before Little Britain ever took off and we are great friends. I also have to thank East West Players for allowing me to step away from my duties as Pippin for one night to shoot the episode.

This past summer you appeared as part of an all-star cast at the Hollywood Bowl in Les Misérables.  I understand that Les Miz has played an important part in your life.  Can you tell us about that?

Ethan (in red) in Les Misérables

Doing Les Miz at the Bowl was a dream come true. I think I was introduced to musical theater with this show back in high school. It was a birthday gift. I remember sitting way up in the nosebleed seats at the Fox Theater watching this beautiful, profound musical and completely wrapped in the stories of these characters. It was then that I knew I had to be a part of this “show-business.”  I knew I was going to be in the other Schönberg and Boublil musical, Miss Saigon, but wasn’t sure if I was ever going to get to be in Les Miz until Lea Salonga starred as Eponine. It was then that I knew there was going to be a time when I would be in Les Miz. And what more can I ask for than to have my first Les Miz experience at the Bowl on stage with the brilliant Brian Stokes Mitchell and J. Mark McVey, and not only to watch these masters at work with our great directors, Richard Jay Alexander and Kevin Stites, but to learn from this amazing cast that included original Broadway and touring members, actors like myself who were experiencing Les Miz for the first time, along with fresh faces direct from high school that Richard invited to be involved. 

Ethan and his musket in Les Miz

How long did it take you all to put the show together?

It was a crazy and intense two-week love fest. Every morning, Julie Garyne and I would carpool to rehearsals and share the same thought of how lucky and grateful we were for this opportunity. I know I may sound like I’m gushing over the whole “ordeal” but Les Miz at the Bowl has to be the highlight of my year and we still have a month and a half to go. Large audiences are what I am accustomed to, hell, I performed Hey Jude with Paul McCartney on stage at Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Jubilee for the whole entire nation. I think sharing that moment on stage with any size audience is what live theater is all about. Sharing that moment in our lives whether it is joyful or sorrowful is art and theater.

What was it like doing the L.A. Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly?

Ethan and Butterfly Michèle Crider

It was heavenly. Madame Butterfly was what originally brought me from London to LA, so to perform it two years later was a nice family reunion … well, with a brand new cast but the same costumes and set. Robert Wilson revamped his vision from the very first time he created his concept making it fresh and crisp. I didn’t get to sing in this production or when I was in Fidelio last year, but just to have the gift of sitting in rehearsals and performances with extraordinary, beautiful, robust voices was priceless. Every night in Madame Butterfly, I would stand off in the stage right wings to watch and listen to Cio-Cio San’s Un bel dì. I had the best seat in the house.

I’ll say!  How did your role in The Life come about? 

Well, when I was first approached, I was invited to audition for the role of Enrique. But, on the day of my audition, when asked what I was being seen for, I wrote down Jojo. Lucky enough the guy who went in before me made me sound good. Poor chap. I don’t know who all were seen for the role but having the chance to follow in Sam Harris’s shoes is both humbling and fulfilling. I love his voice. I always tell myself, if he can do the role, I then know, I can do it, too! And I thank Jaxx for non-traditional casting.  Otherwise I couldn’t be enjoying my time with this group of hookers and pimps.

What can audiences look forward to in this revival of The Life?

Fun! The cast is working hard at making it our own show. I’ve never seen the Broadway production so I have nothing to compare it to. We’re getting to create the streets of NYC with our own telling of the story. Paul Romero’s choreography is a breath of fresh air with a fusion of Jazz, Funk, and Fosse influences. Joe Green really picked the right voices for the show. And the costumes are fit enough to walk down the streets of Hollywood. It’s different all right.

What are you wishing for career-wise in the coming year?

Hm, well, I’ve made a wish list but as to when everything is tangible, only time will tell. I am working with (Pippin costar) Meagan McConnell in creating our first cabaret together to be debuted at Vitello’s in February. I am on hold for several projects and hope that my auditions will be fruitful. I hope the universe will continue allowing me to perform quality projects with other passionate and talented friends. I’m ready to take my career to the next level, really. I just need the right vehicle.

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