Currently starring in Fun Home, Elena Wang has dazzled audiences on Broadway and in the West End. Get to know this talented actor who made her professional debut in W!LD RICE's Beauty World!
“The universe is very uncanny,” observes Elena Wang. “It always steers my life in completely unexpected directions, and keeps throwing me things that I end up really, really appreciating but never even thought to ask for!”
As anyone who’s seen her perform can attest, Elena is being modest. A consummate actor with a golden singing voice, she’s made waves in theatre circles all over the world because she’s talented and hardworking.
That said, it can’t be denied that the universe had some pretty big ideas for her from the get-go.
Almost a decade ago, Elena found herself caught between two countries: Singapore, where she was born; and Australia, where she grew up and spent most of her formative years.
After graduating from high school, she returned to Singapore with her family. But, missing Australia badly, she had already resolved to go back to study at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts under Dennis Follington.
As it turned out, Follington had moved to Singapore to serve as one of the programme leaders for the new Musical Theatre programme at LASALLE College of the Arts.
“And that’s how LASALLE happened!” Elena laughs.
A Star Is Born
Elena was very quickly ‘discovered’ in a LASALLE showcase – a production of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’sOnce On This Island.
Ivan Heng and Glen Goei, W!LD RICE’s Co-Artistic Directors, were so impressed by Elena’s performance that they invited her to audition for the company.
In January 2008, Elena made her professional debut in W!LD RICE’s 20th-anniversary revival of Beauty World as the idealistic Ivy Chan Poh Choo. It was the first all-Singaporean musical to be staged at the Esplanade and the company pulled out all the stops.
- Elena goes star (and moon) gazing with Daren Tan!
Almost ten years after the fact, Elena is still awed by the scale and spectacle of that production.
“Ivan had such big ideas and it was so beautiful,” she gushes. “I even remember the dried ice that we used every night, as I climbed up to the rooftop and that big sign. W!LD RICE invested so much time and energy and money in that very special production – I’m so happy I got to be a part of it!”
Later that same year, Elena starred alongside Dwayne Tan and Sebastian Tan in W!LD RICE’s Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs, her first pantomime. While figuring out how to handle audience interaction from the stage, particularly with children, she also learned a lot from Hossan Leong, who was making his directorial debut.“Hossan was phenomenal!” says Elena. “I love him to pieces.”
- Shall We Dance? Elena makes her West End debut in The King & I
Just as Elena's career was taking off in Singapore, things took an unexpected turn.
In another stroke of luck, producers were casting for The King & ! - a lavish production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical that would be staged at London's Royal Albert Hall in honour of the Queen's birthday."
"It was just a wonderfully rare opportunity," she explains. "They don't normally audition worldwide!"
- Whatever Floats Your Boat!
After snagging a role in the ensemble, Elena flew to London to be part of one of the most incredible theatrical experiences of her life.
“They built actual rivers, with floating boats, in the theatre – we had to cross bridges to get on stage!” she marvels. “And there were fireworks indoors too! It was stunning.”
Best of all? “It was a wonderful start to my international career because I made life-long friends on this show, and I still keep in touch with them.”
- Shaq Attack: Elena on set with Shaquille O'Neal!
Performing inThe King & Igave Elena the courage to expand her horizons to Hollywood.
“I’ve always had an innate passion for film,” she explains. “It can’t get much better than this show and, yet, I remember standing on that stage, in front of 5,000 people… and I found myselfstillwondering about film.”
She took it as a sign that she should do something about her celluloid dreams. Barely a year after she arrived in London, she began looking up film schools in Los Angeles.
In no time at all, Elena was in the heart of Hollywood, studying for a Master’s Degree in Film Acting at the New York Film Academy.
“I picked that school because I wanted something that would give me practical experience in front of the camera,” she says. “As an aspiring film actor, I needed to know how to work a camera and what happens on sets.”
For two years, she worked with professionals in the industry – her lecturers would often take time off to work on major films and television shows. She also had the opportunity to shoot on the Universal Studios backlot, with access to the studio’s entire back catalogue of costumes.
- Dream Role: Elena as Kim in Miss Saigon
She was so focused on working in the film industry that she stopped singing – even for fun.
“I didn't even sing at home or in the shower!” she laughs. “I felt I had to commit 110%, so I cut off that part of my life.”
Her fiancé, Federico Berte' – whom she met at film school – had no idea she sang at all until she wrote and recorded a song for him.
When she made an exception to her ‘no musical theatre’ rule to play Kim – one of her dream roles – in a regional production of Miss Saigon, he was so dumbfounded by her performance that he “couldn’t speak afterwards”.
- Making her Broadway debut as Kei in Allegiance
Just as Elena was starting to think about doing more theatre, the universe threw her the biggest curveball – and opportunity – yet.
Her friend from Singapore, actress Elizabeth Lazan, told her during a coffee date about Allegiance, a new Broadway-bound musical that was casting in LA. When Elena checked her calendar, she realised that the open call – at which anyone could show up to audition – was on her day off.
The rest is history.
As captured in a behind-the-scenes documentary for the production, Elena knocked everyone’s socks off at her audition. Overnight, she was headed to New York City to understudy Lea Salonga on Broadway.
She played the lead role of Kei just once – in a special ‘put-in’ rehearsal earlier that same day – before she performed it in front of a thousand people on a Broadway stage. It was, to say the least, a surreal experience.
“I was somewhere else entirely,” Elena remembers. “I mean, I was there, obviously, but I was on survival mode – operating on pure adrenaline.”
Ultimately, Elena took the lead in Allegiance several times, playing the role for two weeks when Salonga was out of the show.
Filling in for an international star like Salonga was no easy task, however. She knew that many fans in the audience, particularly those from the Philippines, had come to see the show especially for Salonga.
She’s still grateful to this day that she was embraced so wholeheartedly by the Broadway community – artists and audiences alike.
“My creative team was so kind and loving – they gave me all the freedom to make the role my own,” she says. “And it meant the world when fans at the stage door told me that they had paid to see Lea, but they stayed to see me, and wound up loving the show nonetheless.”
- Find out what Elena has to say about playing Fun Home's Medium Alison here!
Elena may have performed all over the world, living in London, LA and New York. But there’s no doubt that she’s pleased to have been home for the past two months to perform in Pangdemonium’s critically acclaimed production of Fun Home. Since her international career took off seven years ago, she’s returned to Singapore only a couple of times.
“Fun Home came at the perfect moment,” she says. “I was actually thinking that this was the year I really wanted to see my family. If I don’t come back, I don’t get to see my folks. I’ve missed out on being a daughter, and I miss my mom and dad.”
It was a decision she didn’t make lightly. With several Broadway shows gearing up to open in the spring, her manager warned her about the opportunities she might be missing out on while in Singapore.
“I totally understand where she’s coming from business-wise, but this is a little beyond business,” Elena explains. “I really needed to see my family, and I couldn’t keep sacrificing so many aspects of my life for my work.”
Of course, she doesn’t just have her biological family in Singapore – Elena has also relished the opportunity to reconnect with her theatre family here.
“I got to meet so many people again, and we sat down and reminisced about the old days – like, ‘Remember when you stepped on my wig and I almost went bald on stage??’”
In Time to Come
- As Sophia in Bastard Jones
In the months to come, Elena has several exciting projects in the pipeline. She's hoping that Bastard Jones, an acclaimed musical comedy she just headlined off-broadway, might be staged again. She has performed in workshops of new musicals, like Tiananmen.
Her work on Broadway has also opened up more opportunities for screen projects. She has met with and auditioned for Warner Brothers, and is co-writing a movie with her fiancé for their production company, Berte' Productions.
All told, Elena is just grateful for the many amazing opportunities the universe has sent her way over the years.
“I’ve reached a point where I’ve decided to surrender myself to it – I’ll allow the universe to give me whatever is meant to come my way. I can’t wait to see what’s next!”