By Chris S. Nishiwaki
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
This is not your romantic comedy of the academic high-achieving Asian student. Mind you, Paolo Montalban, Filipino-born and New Jersey-bred, stars in Mamma Mia!, a contemporary fairytale set to the music of disco supergroup ABBA, running at the 5th Avenue Theatre Feb. 9–25.
Montalban was that high-achieving student on his way to becoming a doctor. Thriving as a student at St. Peter’s Prep School in Jersey City, N.J., he earned academic scholarships to Rutgers University, one of the oldest universities in the country, in nearby New Brunswick.
He grew up across the street from the Juilliard School, the art conservatory at Lincoln Center in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, surrounded by immediate and extended family. Montalban has always been close to his family.
His parents came to the United States to pursue careers as chemists and with a passion for the performing arts when Montalban was a year old. His father played the piano. His mother studied theater at St. Paul University in Manila. Two aunts, who lived on the same floor of the Upper West Side apartment building, were conservatory students at the Juilliard School. One was a violinist, the other a pianist. Montalban learned from all of them.
Montalban breezed through the pre-med requirements by the beginning of his junior year. Killing time before medical school, he started taking voice, acting, and dance classes.
“Being the good Filipino American son, I got my pre-med [requirements] in the first 2.5 years out of the way,” Montalban said. “I spent the last two years taking the classes I wanted to take.”
While at Rutgers in 1993, a talent agent scouting conservatory students spotted Montalban. That’s when the would-be-doctor turned into an actor. With his parents’ blessings, Montalban signed with the agent shortly afterwards.
“My parents said, ‘Why not give it a shot. If it doesn’t work out, you can go back to grad school,’” he said. “It doesn’t mean my parents haven’t reminded me I can still go back to school. I didn’t have any sense of theater as a job. It wasn’t my career plan. I was doing theater as an extracurricular activity.”
That summer, with very little formal training, he was cast in the tour of the Broadway revival of “Man of La Mancha.” Life on the road was grueling, traveling non-stop and performing daily.
“It was a great way to cut your teeth,” Montalban recalls.
He hasn’t stopped working since, at times declining coveted roles over existing commitments. Soon he would be cast in the Broadway production of “The King and I,” starring Lou Diamond Phillips, another Filipino-born actor.
In 1997 came his breakthrough role as Prince Christopher (aka, Prince Charming) in Disney’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, opposite Brandy (aka Moesha) and also starring Whitney Houston and Whoopi Goldberg, which aired on ABC to an audience of 65 million viewers.
He would reprise the role in the Broadway revival opposite singer, songwriter, and actor Deborah Gibson and Jamie-Lynn Sigler of Sopranos fame.
“At that time, after Cinderella, my eyes were open to the world of non-traditional casting,” he said. “What the producers of Cinderella wanted to put out there was very appealing. If you can do a story, casted in a way non-traditionally, within the confines of a fairytale, and you put it out in the world, you are changing perceptions to the public, to critics, to audience members about how people of color should be represented in mainstream entertainment.”
Montalban has shattered stereotypes and crossed over audiences. He has been cast against type. In Mamma Mia!, he plays Sam Carmichael, an Irish American architect played by the Irish-born Pierce Brosnan in the movie version.
In 1998, the strapping 6-foot-1 Montalban was selected among People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, a recognition rarely afforded to people of color.
“After Cinderella, I don’t know if I was foolish or just proud. I told my reps I would like to avoid going in for shows that play a racial stereotype” he said. “When I was younger, I would keep my mouth shut more and I would listen. It is nice to be able to speak up as an artist.”
Montalban has seen progress in multiracial casting since the beginning of his career. He points to the Broadway smash hit Hamilton, featuring a diverse cast playing the founding fathers, as the latest touchstone in diversity in entertainment.
The Hamilton tour runs through March 18 at The Paramount Theatre.
“You look at that show, it is clear that the founding fathers were not people of color,” he surmised. “Why can’t we tell the story? Why can’t we as a public engage in the story? Why can’t we suspend disbelief and be moved?”
Through his success, Montalban has remained modest and, in his words, “the good Filipino American son.” He remains close to his family. When he called one recent afternoon, his mother’s name flashes in the caller ID.
“We are on the family plan,” Montalban explains sheepishly. “It was the best deal.”
His parents, as they have for the last 25 years, continue to support Montalban, traveling the country to watch him perform, including plans to attend the opening night of Mamma Mia! on Feb. 9. And playfully, they remind him that he could still become a doctor, not just play one on TV.
“Early on, I would have stopped acting and I would have gone back to medicine or psychology, if I had stopped getting work,” an introspective Montalban said. “It never stopped.”
Chris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.