Eva Noblezada, who turned 21 on March 18, is a Pisces “to the extreme”, loves milk chocolate, a good dry red, and Friends reruns (she’s a self-proclaimed Monica). She also stars eight times a week as Kim, the lead in the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon, and was nominated for a Tony Award, alongside stage and screen veterans Bette Midler and Patti LuPone, for Best Actress in a musical.
Oh, Miss Saigon just happens to be her Broadway debut.
Noblezada is not a newbie, per se. A native of North Carolina, she likes New York but misses London terribly, where she made her professional debut at 17 as Kim in 2014 and then as Eponine in Les Misérables last year between the Saigon runs. She loves SoulCycle and doing Vinyasa flows on her roof during her off hours but bristles at the assumption she must adhere to a strict diet and sleep regime in some monastic obeisance to her craft. She is at once as self-possessed as someone three times her age (coincidentally, the age of most of her fellow nominees) and extremely chill. Talking to her at Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side this week, it was hard to reconcile that Noblezada, charming, confident and possessed of a stage veteran’s gimlet humor, could so compellingly inhabit Kim, a young woman who is subject to the violence and terror of a nation at war and one of the more poignant, and ultimately tragic heroines of the musical theatre canon.
At a glance it would seem that Noblezada’s path to Kim was something destined, a kind of proscenium prophecy foretold. Her “Auntie” Annette Calud Staudinger—her father’s cousin—had understudied and played the role of Kim on Broadway in the '90s and had acted as an early influence, showing young Eva (pronounced EEE-va) YouTube clips of musicals and opening up the world of song and dance to her.
While attending an arts high school in Charlotte, Noblezada performed at the Jimmy Awards in New York (a sort of NCAA finals for high school musical kids) where she caught the eye of a casting director who knew that super-producer Cameron Mackintosh was putting together a revival of Miss Saigon.
After auditioning in New York, she got the part—though without really realizing it. She explains: “I honestly thought I was auditioning for the first cover or alternate or something, which would have been amazing on its own. And it honestly wasn’t until my agent came down to North Carolina to sign the contract that I realized, and actually saw, that I was playing Kim in Miss Saigon!”
For students of musical theatre history or even those who were around for the first time in 1989, it is impossible not to draw comparisons to the fairy-tale like casting of Lea Salonga, who was plucked from relative obscurity as a student in Manila (also 17) to star as the original Kim. During rehearsals for 2014, Noblezada recalled how the legendary Miss Saigon creators, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, said to her: “Lightning does strike twice….”
But a lot has changed since 1989. Would Kim’s story and the terror and unlikely hope of the show resonate the way it did three decades earlier? Ironically and perhaps tragically, the tale of a young woman exploited and sacrificing against all odds for the future of her child in a war-torn capital has more relevance than ever, a fact not lost on the young woman conveying that every night.
“Unfortunately we have a lot of things that we can use today that parallel this story, like Aleppo. And the more I can just make it more real, that’s a good start for her," she said.
The violence in the show is forceful and chillingly relevant, but there is a far greater power in Kim, or at least the image of her—a strong and complicated female Asian character at the center of a multimillion dollar production on Broadway, played, no less, by a Mexican-Filipino actress who is just starting out in the business.
“I love when girls who look like me say, ‘You inspire me as someone who is mixed, who never thought she could be anything. And it’s amazing to represent that. It really really fills you with pride. And it allows me to want to get to know my parts of me better," Noblezada said.
It is not clear what effect, if any, this production will have on how Broadway casts, but this Sunday's Tony Awards may be an indication of its more immediate future. In addition to Noblezada’s nomination, the show is up for Best Revival. For Noblezada, the red carpet is a welcome escape from the tough world of her character, not its modest costuming.
“As Kim I'm so bound in this very unflattering, window-curtain-of-a costume and don’t have a chance to be Eva. So these red carpet events are an opportunity to be me. I’m goofy and often say the wrong thing. But I love having a fashion moment!” She is mum on what designer she will wear, but hints it will be a risk, an instinct she tends to follow when it comes to fashion.
After living alone in London at 17, starring in a hit musical, Noblezada already projects a healthy DGAF attitude about opportunities that may intimidate others, like a red carpet for instance. She confessed that her time in London was where she did a lot of her growing up, like dealing with an eating disorder and anxiety that took her out of the West End run for nearly two weeks, and almost ruined her vocal chords.
“I'm quite open about it. I think it should be normal to talk about,” she said. She began seeing a therapist (“I recommend it to everyone!”) and got on the road to recovery.
It is fair to say that whatever the contents of the Tony envelope on Sunday, Noblezada will keep captivating audiences with her once-in-a-generation Kim in the same way she has for the last three years, at least for the foreseeable future. What is sure however, is that she’ll have the time of her life and look amazing on Broadway’s most glamorous night no matter what.
“Theatre right now has such diversity. I will proudly be an Asian-American wearing Valentino or Givenchy. I'd like to see that more in fashion. The spread of culture we have now is beautiful and stunning. I want to be a part of that!" she said, by way of explaining fashion’s growing interest in the Great White Way. “It’s about damn time!” she added.
Though the forecast for Radio City on Sunday is hot without a cloud in the sky, there’s always a chance for a bit of lightning.
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