Lea Salonga’s theatre and concert work regularly receives overwhelming accolades from fans and critics alike. To date she has sold a colossal 19 million albums worldwide and this makes her one of the best selling Filipina artists ever. She is best known for her Tony Award winning performances in the original 1990 production of Miss Saigon as Kim and her role as Eponine in Les Misérables. She is the first actress of Asian descent to play both roles of Eponine and Fantine in the Broadway production of Les Misérables. Lea Salonga also works as a judge on the popular Philipines’ version of The Voice and has sung the Disney characters Princess Jasmine (Aladdin) and Fa Mulan in two Mulan films. She is in constant demand in the USA and the Philippines, where she lives, and her visit to Nottingham is highly anticipated. Her UK tour was cancelled earlier this year due to a skiing accident in Japan where she broke her leg.
I catch up with Lea who is in Manila busy preparing for the tour. The time in the Philippines is 23.30. In the UK it’s only 16.30. As we speak on the phone Lea seems little bothered by the late hour and I enquire about her leg.
“It’s much better thank you. I was starting to walk maybe twelve weeks after the accident. My doctor was very encouraging and telling me that I need to exercise it without overdoing anything. I started walking about mid way through my US tour. I was starting to ditch the crutches, the wheelchair and the cane and by the time I came home all I had was a leg brace. It took time and I needed to be really patient. By the time I get to the UK in July it will be tons better.”
Lea Salonga is giving her concert in Cardiff, Nottingham, Birmingham, Manchester, York and London and is very up for the event. “I’m extremely excited and July turns out really well as far as my return to the UK because it will be almost exactly thirty years from when I first went to London to work on Miss Saigon. Also in the Summer the weather will be nicer. I love Winter but Winter in the UK can be somewhat bone chilling. So much has happened in the last thirty years and so much for me. My career has done quite well (laughs). I can’t complain. When I saw Jonathan Pryce who played The Engineer with me on Miss Saigon, on Game Of Thrones, that was such a thrill. I love the programme I really do and I really get into it but the one time I found myself getting yanked out of the story was when I saw his face! I thought I can’t take this seriously any more.”
She goes on to explain that Jonathan Pryce was fun to work with but also a real mentor in his acting style. “I learned a lot. Just watching him trying to navigate that role being The Engineer. Just watching how still he is and how centred and he is just being who he is. He’s very magnetic without trying too hard. That’s the thing I think a lot of performers can learn from someone like him. It’s like he went to the school of less is more as far as acting; where he’s just standing still and doing very little but with a lot of intent and energy behind it. He’s able to just draw the focus of an entire theatre to his direction and its incredible to watch that kind of work – how to navigate a role – the language and the physical language of the character. And that was his first musical. Since then he’s done Oliver and My Fair Lady.”
I ask if she has ever been to Nottingham and she confesses she hasn’t and only knows it from Robin Hood. I tell her it is great city with lots of creativity. Lea asks about the Royal Concert Hall where she is performing and I explain that it has an incredible quality of sound due to the unique acoustic design. I also say that the sound has a rich quality and many performers rave about it and say they have never sounded better.
“Wow! I am in for a treat! I find older theatres tend to have really good acoustics because they were built to transfer human sound all the way up to the rafters. Whereas a lot of modern theatres were built knowing there would be amplification with speakers and that kind of thing. There have been venues that have been very challenging and others where I’ve not needed a lot of technological help. I’m hoping that when people have been raving about the Royal Concert Hall it’s gonna be something really special. I tend to really enjoy a concert when I feel there’s a really nice balance of sound where its not just my voice that I hear clearly but that I’m hearing the instruments too. It’s important that everything’s mixed right and also that I’m getting feedback from the audience. This is because I’ve been in venues, and this is strange, I’ve been in venues where the stage sound is mixed quite well but when it comes to the audience applauding its almost like you can’t hear any feedback. You think ‘Is the audience responding?’ It happens. For the artist on stage its a very strange feeling because you don’t know either way how your performance was received.”
With New York based Larry Yurman as her musical director and pianist, Lea says that the other six musicians will be hired out of the UK. Lea Salonga continues by explaining her own personal routines prior to going on stage to perform and afterwards.
“Normally I try to get as much rest as I can in the days leading up to a show so usually I just watch TV or play video games. On show day I try to be as quiet as possible. I head to the theatre maybe a couple of hours before; do a quick sound check and then start warming up. I always travel with a make up artist so that I don’t have to think about glam because that’s the kind of multi-tasking I don’t do very well. Once I’m dressed I get up on stage, do the show, and then go back ‘home’ and have a nice meal and I try to have something light before the show because I really can’t eat anything too heavy before a show because then I can’t breathe. For this tour my song repertoire will definitely include something from Miss Saigon and Les Mis and Aladdin and Mulan and beyond that it’ll be a hotchpotch of all kinds of different things.”
Lea Salonga has a huge back catalogue of work since she started out as a child actress in the 1970s. Therefore, I ask Lea what her younger self, who recorded Small Voice in 1981, would think of her many successes so far. And, who would she say was her biggest influence in terms of her ambitions.
“Oh my gosh! That’s an interesting question. I think there would be a feeling of awe and wonder. She would say ‘Really!? That’s what’s gonna happen to me!?’ And she would probably think that it was gonna be amazing but not really aware of how hard the work is. I think when you look at a career you tend to focus on the highlights and not always how tough it can be getting there. Influences and ambitions? Hmm I don’t know. I don’t remember being that ambitious about this career when I was that young age. For me it was just fun and my parents pretty much encouraged and were very supportive but it was always with the need for me to get a college degree and not really depend on this show business thing because it is volatile and fickle. My parents didn’t raise me to put all my eggs in one basket as far as show business and performing arts and that kind of thing. I was actually considering a career in medicine. In reality I was in uni and had finished my first year of pre-med but then there were these auditions and I went and… (laughs) now here I am! I guess I was academically inclined enough but I also guess the universe had other plans for me. Not that I’m complaining because it has been fantastic.”
Lea Salonga’s career has covered a multitude of performing mediums including a recently released film called Yellow Rose. This important film has theme of the Filipino immigrant experience and stars Ms Salonga alongside another rising US/Filipina musical theatre star Eva Noblezado. Interestingly, Salonga talks not about herself but about the Eva Noblezado who played Kim in Miss Saigon.
“Oh my gosh. As a performer and as an actor she has grown since that Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary Gala. She’s incredible and she’s fearless in whatever she puts her heart into as far as her performances. She’s just like – I’m gonna hit you now and ask questions later! That’s the impression that I get. She’s wonderful on film and comes across with a real honesty and sincerity and is feisty. She’s a lot of fun to watch on film. Really beautiful work that she’s done for Yellow Rose. And I also got to see her in Hades Town on Broadway and she also did it at the National Theatre in London. She is fantastic and she was nominated for her second Tony Award. Really really exciting.”
I wish Lea ‘break a leg’ for her UK solo concerts in July but ask that, this time, it’s not a real broken leg.
Originally written for Nottingham Post.
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