As a kid growing up in the Philippines, I remember being completely enamored by the incredibly talented Lea Salonga, one of my native country's premier superstars. At a very young age, she was already a well-known singer and musical theater actress there, releasing her first album at the age of 10, then later hosting her own TV show and appearing on international stages with the likes of Menudo and Stevie Wonder.
I had already been living here in the U.S. when news broke that after an exhaustive, worldwide search, this bright, shining talent had been cast in the lead role of Kim in the musical MISS SAIGON, the then new Mackintosh / Boublil / Schönberg stage extravaganza that was being mounted in the UK, which then, of course, later marked Ms. Salonga's triumphant Broadway debut.
To say that the pandemonium of pride didn't penetrate my family during her Tony Award win for the role would certainly be an understatement -- quite especially for me, the quirky one in the family with dreams she personified. In addition to the Tony, she has won the Olivier, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Theatre World Awards, in the field of musical theater.
She later returned to the role that made her internationally famous just in time to close both the London and Broadway productions respectively. Naturally, many iconic roles were filled by Ms. Salonga, from Mei-Li in the bold, re-imagined revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's FLOWER DRUM SONG to the megahit epic LES MISERABLES -- in which she was the first actress of Asian descent to play both Eponine (in 1987) and Fantine (in the 2006 revival) on Broadway. Oh, and let's not forget... she's also provided the singing voice of not one but two Disney Princesses! Now how's that for being a pioneer?
Most recently, she starred alongside George Takei and Telly Leung in the pre-Broadway World Premiere production of ALLEGIANCE, a stirring new musical that recounts one family's story about Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II. More than anything, her appearance in the show once again reminded audiences of her inimitable musical theater gifts.
Which now brings us back to the present. Much to my delight, Ms. Salonga agreed to answer a series of silly, rapid-fire questions from me before her cabaret concert appearance on January 19 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
Hi, Lea! You started your career fairly early at a young age in the Philippines -- which I got to observe first hand, by the way, growing up there myself... Which do you find more satisfying, your work in stage musicals, the recording studio, or the concert stage?
I feel most comfortable pretending to be someone else and inhabiting another life for a few hours, so musicals would be it. My concert work comes a very close second. The recording studio comes third.
Your Tony Award-winning turn as Kim in MISS SAIGON skyrocketed your stardom in the West End and, of course, Broadway. Looking back at it now at 2013, what were some of the more important things you learned about yourself that you discovered during your time with the show?
That I'm stronger than I think I am, and that a sense of humor goes a very long way... As well as self-imposed vocal rest on the weekends.
Now, you have the rare distinction of singing the voice for not one but TWO Disney Princesses. Which of the two do you hold dearest to your heart and why?
I hold them both very dear for different reasons: Jasmine because she was the first, and Mulan because she's an Asian heroine. They both kick ass in their own ways!
And you've also played both Éponine and Fantine in LES MISERABLES, both of whom meet tragic ends -- but do it after a really awesome belty ballad! If communicating through time was possible, what would you like either Fantine or Éponine to say to the other about their impending fates?
I think Fantine would tell Eponine, "Love sucks... get out while you still can!" Ha! And get an education!
I recently caught the Opening Night performance of the World Premiere production of ALLEGIANCE at The Old Globe in San Diego. What was your favorite part of that experience?