Today we are talking to one of the brightest lights in the Broadway galaxy who has wowed West End and Broadway audiences alike with her tour de force performances in MISS SAIGON and LES MISERABLES, sold out stadiums the world over with her acclaimed concert appearances - many of them also available on CD and DVD - and, now, Lea Salonga tells us all about her experiences with LES MISERABLES over the years - the star-studded 10th Anniversary Concert Dream Cast performance, to essaying the role of Fantine in the Broadway revival opposite Norm Lewis and Aaron Lazar, among others, to preserving her take on the show‘s most famous song, "I Dreamed A Dream", and the role of Fantine, for all time in the stunning 25th Anniversary LES MISERABLES: LIVE IN CONCERT, available now on DVD and Blu-ray. In addition to all things LES MIZ, including some fantastic behind-the-scenes stories, Lea and I also discuss her favorite moments in the show, its themes, how she got into the role every night - and, again, anew, for the concert celebration - and the unmistakable power and sweep of the concert as presented in full HD on Blu-Ray. Additionally, we touch on her favorite cast-mates, future roles, preferred performers, current obsessions and, even, a little GLEE - including her cross-Pacific flight with new breakout star Darren Criss. Most importantly, she shares her most pressing political and moral concerns as they pertain to our thorough consideration and discussion of the prescient themes at the core of Victor Hugo's classic tragedy and what message the novel and the show have for audiences today around the world - as well as much, much more! And, just what did Lea think of Anne Hathaway's take on "On My Own" from LES MIZ at this year's Oscars? The LES MISERABLES: LIVE IN CONCERT DVD and Blu-ray are available now to own and can be purchased here.
Lea, Fantine & Eponine
PC: The LES MIZ Blu-ray so vividly captures the emotional experience of seeing the show itself live in the theater. What have been your impressions now that you've gotten a chance to sit down and watch it yourself?
LS: We recently got and watched the Blu-ray and it is just fantastic. It is just... ridiculous! The detail and how crystal-clear everything is - totally unreal!
PC: And the sound, too, right? Such detail with the DTS sound - especially on a 7.1 system.
LS: Yeah, it's really, really great technology all around. I'm so lucky to not only be a part of the legacy of the show, but be a part of this technology and this version of the show. It's so amazing - so, so gorgeous. As I said, it's just ridiculous to me that I‘m in it! (Laughs.)
PC: What an amazing cast to preserve, as well - besides your awesome performance, I was particularly taken with Ramin Karimloo - late of PHANTOM and LOVE NEVER DIES. Talk about a guy who has it all!
LS: Ramin is amazing - and he is really, really nice in person, too.
PC: What is it like, looking back on playing Eponine in the 10th Anniversary versus becoming a mom, and, now, playing Fantine in the 02 concert? Do you think you could have done Fantine then, knowing what you know now - or, the reverse?
LS: No, I couldn't have done Fantine right back then, at that time. I was about 24 when I did Eponine, so it was quite a ways to go to get to Fantine, for me. There was no way I had the life experience necessary to do justice to Fantine. So, when I finally got to be Fantine on Broadway and, then, again, at the O2, it became very clear to me that it's one of those things where she's just one of those characters where you have to live a little bit of life in order to pull it off. I think that when the actresses chosen for the role had lived a little bit, it made for a more dynamic portrayal. I was a young pup when I did Eponine and it just felt really right to do Fantine now when I did it.
PC: Would you have considered essaying Eponine again?
LS: Looking back, there was no way I could do Eponine now.
PC: Did they always want you to play Fantine in the O2 concert?
LS: It was Fantine - that's the only role they wanted me to do. That was it.
PC: So, they approached you to do Fantine right off the bat?
LS: Yeah, yeah - they approached me and said, "We want you to play Fantine in the LES MIZ 25th." And, I said, "Are you sure? Are you sure?!" I wanted to make absolutely sure! (Laughs.)
PC: That's so funny.
LS: Yeah, they said, "We want you to be the person to do this." So, I was like, "All right!" So, it was great and it was so much fun. But, I felt a lot of pressure, though, because it's one of the first main songs that is sung in the musical.
PC: "I Dreamed A Dream" is one of the most high profile musical theatre songs of the last twenty-five years thanks to Lea Michele and Idina Menzel on GLEE, and Susan Boyle.
LS: Yeah, it is. And, after Susan Boyle made her version popular, we did a concert in the UK and I had to really, really work to keep the song in context.
PC: Audiences are going to be comparing you to all the other versions, either way. Patti LuPone and Ruthie Henshall, too.
LS: Right. And, my vocal peg for the track is actually Randy Graff and Patti LuPone. Those are the two voices that I hear in my head whenever I study the song - those are the voices in there.
PC: You hear other performer's voices in your head besides your own? How interesting.
LS: Yeah, I hear other people's voices. Obviously, I hear my own voice when I sing, but when I am studying something or I am learning it, or if I am trying to figure it out, I kind of try to find a peg to latch onto - not to emulate, necessarily - but, to use to latch onto because I feel there is emotionally or dramatically something special in that version.
PC: What do you think of the LuPone and Graff models?
LS: I love, love, love listening to Patti LuPone's version of "I Dreamed A Dream", and I found a clip on YouTube of Randy Graff singing it on some talk show, and I thought it was one of the most devastating and beautiful things I've ever seen. It's the kind of performance I had pegged in my head. So, that was probably the mid-to-late 80s, and she was so beautiful, and it was just amazing. So, yes, I latch onto a performance or a peg whenever I am singing something and for "I Dreamed A Dream" it was Patti LuPone and Randy Graff.
PC: Alice Ripley said essentially the same thing to me when I asked her about the song and the role. She made it her own, too - just like you.
LS: Yeah, Alice always makes it her own. I love her. And, also, no approach is wrong - as long as the actor feels it and the director steered you towards it. I don't think there is ever a wrong approach as long as it comes from the same category.
PC: It seems that with you and Daphne Rubin-Vega playing the role most recently on Broadway - and you in the O2 concert, too - that Fantine is being brought closer to the book characterization in some ways now. It seemed all about the wig a lot of the time in the past.
LS: Yeah, the thing with Fantine is that, if you read the book, it says that she is really beautiful. Her hair, her teeth and her physical beauty are her riches - that‘s the sad thing. But, because she is uneducated and ignorant, she couldn't go anywhere. I think it has something to say about the feminist movement - in America and France and all over the world - in some ways. You know, "You can be pretty, but it's not going to get you very far without an education and a brain to go with it." So, there's a lot to be said about that.
PC: And that really plays into one of Hugo's themes.
LS: Absolutely. It really does. I remember when I was reading it, and thinking, "Oh, you poor, ignorant, sad soul." Because of her situation and all of the incapacities that she has, given the lack of opportunity, it is so sad how she ended up. It's tragedy, really - here's this beautiful woman who ends up in a pauper's grave with no front teeth, no hair, and dying of consumption. (Pause.) Oh, my gosh.
PC: That's the moment in the character's journey that really struck you in considering to portray her now?
LS: For me, that's the thing that brings it all home. It's when she's lying in the gutter and dressed as a prostitute and at the lowest of the possible lows that this woman can possibly reach - and, then, Valjean is moved to mercy and reaches out to help her.
PC: Was it draining to go to that dark emotional and dramatic place repeatedly - on Broadway and then returning to it again now?
LS: To be in that position? Oh, it was never easy to play. It was never, ever easy to do - not now, not ever. I was just exhausted at the end of the week.
PC: How did you handle doing the role eight times a week? Did you just need time to recoup or had to take time off?
LS: Yeah, I actually took some nights off because my daughter was sick or whatever and I enjoyed that time away. But, I didn't take too many shows off and I was very proud of it.
PC: Too many people don't have that attitude these days.
LS: For me, I feel like if I am physically and emotionally able to be at the theater, I will be there. I don't like not being there - I don't like playing hooky. I am just one of those people who feels really, really guilty if I am not there - maybe it's part of being Catholic. (Laughs.)
LS: (Laughs.) Yeah, I just love being in the theater when I am supposed to be there. Being away from it just felt wrong whenever I was or am in the middle of a long run.
PC: How do you deal with doing a song like that, physically?
LS: My singing technique is really strong and I have to thank my teachers for really instilling a sense of discipline about how to sing properly and how to maintain your voice in a run. But, I pretty much ripped my heart to shreds every time I did that role. It was just hard - very, very emotionally difficult.
PC: It comes through in the Blu-ray how deep you are digging. It's quite devastating and powerful to witness.
LS: You sort of have to, though - you don't have any choice in the matter when you are playing that part.
PC: Speaking of the book, what do you think the ultimate message of the novel is? New Testament forgiveness or a vengeful god?
LS: I do not believe we live in a world with a vengeful god. And, I like that this conversation is moving beyond theatre: Right now in the Philippines, there is a huge fight with the Catholic Church and what is happening with the reproductive health bill.
PC: Tell me what the situation is.
LS: We do not have a reproductive health measure enacted into law in the Philippines. There is a fight regarding getting the state to pass it, and one of the big roadblocks has been the Catholic Church in the Philippines. I am a supporter of the bill - and of any bill that would provide emergency health care to women, reproductive health services, education, and, whenever needed, contraception. Given the Catholic Church's stance on contraception - which I can completely understand - there have been big blocks in getting this passed because the Church has a very big influence in the Philippines on government and politics. There is pretty much no separation between church and state.
PC: What do you believe?
LS: I believe the Catholic Church can continue - and should continue - to preach what its mandate is - given what the Vatican's mandates are - whether or not the law has actually been passed; it doesn't matter - or, it shouldn't. The loyal members can continue to believe what they want to believe and, even if the law is passed, you can still believe what you want to believe. I mean, nobody is going to be forced or compelled to do anything they don't want to do or utilize any of the services the bill would offer. All the bill would ensure is access for people that aren't able to afford the services through the normal channels. I mean, contraception is legal at the moment, but there is no reproductive health measure to allow access for those who can't afford it.
PC: There are no free clinics, either.
LS: Yeah, and if there are you need certain prescriptions - it just tends to get crazy and people get on their high horses and look down from their ivory towers and that's the sad part.
PC: What's the next step?
LS: Now, I think it's going to be debated in Congress, so I guess that is the next step. The cause is starting to gather some steam and that is a very good thing.
PC: It seems to be a very important issue for you. You are certainly taking a stand on it - controversial or not.
LS: Yeah, you know, sometimes you have to pick sides. And, you know what? It doesn't make you any less of a Catholic to support a measure that will allow access to natural and artificial methods of family planning for those who can't afford it. And, it doesn't make you any less Catholic to pass the measure, either. But, the thing is, a lot of politicians are being threatened with excommunication if they support the bill. And, then, there are certain churches who are withholding communion to those who support the bill. I'm like, "What?! That's really stupid!"
PC: Talk about visiting it and not living it...
LS: Yeah, it's driving a lot of people crazy. In the gated community where I live, the officials actually passed an ordinance that would require a prescription to purchase condoms.
LS: Seriously. (Pause.) When I read that, I was like, "This has just gone far enough. This is wrong."
PC: So wrong.
LS: It infringes on the constitutional rights of every citizen. The health officials are answerable to the department of health, not the officials of the actual village. It's gotten pretty dirty. There are a lot of people now who are raising a stink - which is good.
PC: You can't expect much from the religion that won't allow women to be on the alter serving, either.
LS: Let the women on the altar! What is up with these people?
PC: Hugo would be incensed, given his views on the Church.
LS: He would. All of what he said is so relevant - to today and to even what we are talking about right now. There are people who interpret the Bible as a rulebook, but the thing is that you have to take it in the context in which it was written and the context in which you are reading it today.
PC: Exactly - the proper lens.
LS: There are so many interpretations of the Bible that could very well be valid and true, even if no one had thought of them twenty or thirty years ago, even. The thing that I like the most about LES MIZ and what makes its message so beautiful is that you have to go beyond the black and white to find the goodness in people. The thing is that the hero is, in the eyes of the law, a criminal - a thief - however, he kept on doing good throughout his life for people that needed his help. So, if you are looking at it from the perspective of Inspector Javert, who ultimately kills himself because he couldn't deal with it - at the end of the day, it's ultimately about the good you do for people.
PC: That's the overall message you have derived?
LS: Yeah, I mean, I have a lot of girlfriends who have gone out with the ultra-religious, good Catholic boy and it doesn't work out. Then, they go out with the not-very-religious guy - one of them is actually dating a doctor for Doctors Without Borders who isn't religious at all - and they are generous and good-hearted and go out of their way for other people. So, I always say that you have to go for the guy who is just plain good - who lives the message and is not just giving lip-service. If it just remains the word, then what's the point of that?
PC: Actions say more; always.
LS: Right. For me, it's about looking for someone who is kind and really good-hearted - that's really an example of God on earth, really, to me.
PC: That's the central line of the piece, isn't it?
LS: Yes, "To love another person is to see the face of God."
PC: A nun actually once expounded to me on the poignancy of that line.
LS: We need more people to live it and breath it and be it - not just say it. There are so many wonderful people who just live it - but, that said, there are people who wear the collar that I just want to b*tch-slap like crazy!
PC: The opposite of what happens in LES MIZ with the candlesticks, for sure!
LS: Definitely! (Laughs.) Oh my God, sometimes I am just like, "Are you living in the real world?" I remember going to a church on the Upper West Side many, many years ago and a priest was all about, "Homosexuality is an abomination." I was already active in the theater community in New York, so I felt like saying, "Do you have any idea what the world is like beyond Fifth Avenue?" It just drives me crazy.
PC: You witnessed Reagan not doing anything at all about AIDS when you arrived on Broadway during the late-80s. He didn't even say the word while he was in office.
LS: 1990, 1991. Yeah. I have friends who died of AIDS. I have a lot of friends who are living with it and they are healthy and working and fine because they were infected during a time when things were being done, later on.
PC: Five years later. I mean, imagine if Michael Bennett had gotten the chance to direct MISS SAIGON or LES MISERABLES.
LS: Oh, I know. I know. It could have been so amazing.
PC: It's so beautiful what a rainbow of races, ages and types of performers onstage in the LES MIZ Blu-ray.
LS: Right? Oh, it's so beautiful! A Persian Enjorlas. A Filipino Fantine. An African-American Javert.
PC: A Jonas Brother!
LS: Of course, a Jonas Brother playing Marius! An opera star playing Valjean.
PC: Alfie Boe killed it. What is he like?
LS: Oh, I love him. I love Alfie Boe. I am such a big fan of his. You've gotta have a big heart to play that part - and he's got a big heart.
PC: He's also got technique beyond his years.
LS: He's only 37 - he's really young. He did LA BOHEME on Broadway in like 2002.
PC: I think this iteration of LES MIZ on Blu-ray will be the one that will last forever. It is so exciting and moving.
LS: Yeah, it's a really, really good representation of the show, I think.
PC: It's so fabulous for fans, also, because it's completely different from the 10th in somany ways. It's so contemporary whereas that was much more steeped in the stage version. This is its own thing.
LS: Right. I agree. I think it also has a little bit of everything. And, what's also great is the people who are cast. I mean, we have people who are so young - Nick Jonas is like 18 and the girl who played Eponine is only 20 - so, these people are going to be carrying on the tradition of musical theatre in years to come. At the same time, there are these older people who have done the show and are still doing it and living it. So, it's nice to have all generations of people onstage doing this great material.
PC: What was it like to work with Norm Lewis? His voice is so, so sublime.
LS: Oh, Norm! OK, here is my Norm Lewis story: He was playing Javert already when I went into the revival [of LES MIZ] on Broadway. He had a bottle of Patron in his dressing room.
PC: Uh oh!
LS: Oh, yeah! I think he said, "Oh, I must have gotten this as an opening night gift." Yeah, right!
LS: We used to bust it out and take a swig now and then after performances on the weekends. But, anyway, he had a huge dressing room and because he is so personable and such a nice guy, that room sort of ended up being an informAl Green room. There would always be people laying on the couch and these sort of informal gatherings in his room.
PC: Only in his room.
LS: Only! And, we would all just be telling stories and waiting for our cues. And, at this point, I was done playing Fantine and I was a Bullet Boy.
PC: You could just relax.
LS: I think I was in his room every single day. So great - and he's such a nice guy.
PC: He's done some great shows, too - THE WILD PARTY, AMOUR.
LS: He did MISS SAIGON - I think it was in Toronto. When I first started LES MIZ rehearsals with him, I was like, "OK. What are you and me doing in this show? We are two of the only non-white people here! What are we doing here?" (Laughs.)
PC: That's really amusing.
LS: He‘s like, "It's LES MIZ - it's not MISS SAIGON! It's not friggin' MISS SAIGON we're working on." (Laughs.)
PC: He's another one who's definitely got it all.
LS: Oh, I know! He's got a six-pack! I remember I knocked on the door once and he answered and he didn't have his shirt on - and I was with my husband. And, my husband turns to me after we said goodbye to him and he said, "Oh, my God! He looks amazing!" And, this is my husband saying this - the straight man. (Laughs.) He kept saying, "You have to ask him what he does, you have to ask him what he does!" And, I'm like, "I'm not going to ask him gym tips - ask him yourself!" (Laughs.)
PC: What are your opinions on some other especially versatile performers like yourself and Norm? I'll start with someone who has also done this column: Harry Connick, Jr.?
LS: I saw him once on Broadway a little while back and he can just do anything! I remember seeing his show with my mom and there was a lot of stuff she was familiar with, too. We both just loved it and loved him.
PC: What other recent concerts have you seen where the performers really put it out there?
LS: I just saw Janet Jackson recently and that was good. But, honestly, I can't remember any concerts I've seen recently that I haven't been in, too! (Laughs.)
PC: What did you see last time you were in New York?
LS: Well, I haven't seen much recently, but I am going back in June and I have a bunch of shows I am going to be seeing.
PC: What pop music have you heard recently that you've wanted to incorporate into your concert repertoire? The GLEE versions of some of the hot new material probably has inspired you a bit, no?
LS: Yes, it has, actually. On GLEE recently they did a version of Destiny's Child "Bills, Bills, Bills"? Did you see that?
PC: Of course - on the Super Bowl episode. The Warblers.
LS: Yes! Oh, my God! I think I like The Warblers' version even better than Destiny's Child! (Laughs.)
PC: High praise, indeed. Darren Criss is the star of the season.
LS: Oh, my God! He's genius - Darren Criss is so, so amazing. We were actually on the same flight from Manila to Los Angeles. We didn't get to talk to each other, really, but I got to say "Hi" really quick. He is so adorable!
PC: And it's great that the show really is a melting pot for talent of all races, sexualities, creeds, etc.
LS: Yeah, I think his mom from the Philippines and his dad is just a regular American guy. But, yeah - you're so right. Lea Michele said in one of the last episodes something about his character having a "Eurasian thing going on," and, I was like, (Shouts.) "Yes! She said the Eurasian part!" (Laughs.)
PC: Were you disappointed you didn't get to have a full conversation with Darren on the flight?
LS: Well, I had my four-year-old daughter with me, and I think he slept for the entire flight. So, he actually sent me an email, (Laughs.) saying, you know, "I was really intending on being able to chat with you, but I fell asleep and I figured you were busy anyway. But, it was so great to meet you!" I thought that was so sweet.
PC: And we were just talking about you wishing for a role on the show as Charice's mom last time we spoke. One step closer!
LS: I know! (Laughs.) I could actually play Darren Criss's mom, too! That would be really cool.
PC: So, no GLEE news, yet?
LS: No, new news. I have not met with anyone even remotely involved. But, I am just such a fan of some of the actors on it and when I see them on TV - someone like Telly Leung, who has worked for years and years - I just feel so happy and proud of them because I know they have worked so hard to get there. I just get such a thrill seeing him on the show. I love him and he's ridiculously talented and this is such a great opportunity for him.
PC: What about considering playing Elphaba in WICKED on Broadway sometime soon?
LS: I would. But, I actually don't think I'd be young enough now since Elphie is in a college-type situation - I just turned forty recently, after all.
PC: How was your birthday?
LS: Well, I was still on antibiotics, so I couldn't drink - which was kind of a bummer! (Laughs.) So, no, I couldn't get stupidly drunk on my birthday.
PC: What's your favorite cocktail when you can actually imbibe?
LS: I like vodka tonics and gin & tonics. I also like gimlets. I like things that have sweetness with a bit of a kick.
PC: Isn't there a line about gin & tonics in the bar scene in the beginning of MISS SAIGON?
PC: (Laughs.) I wasn't onstage, so I'm not sure, but I do know there are a lot of beer references.
PC: Bringing it back to WICKED for a moment: you and Mandy Gonzalez both appear in MULAN 2. Did you get a chance to work with her on that at all? I've always wondered.
LS: No. The thing about doing a lot of the Disney movies is that you are in a pretty self-contained type of situation where you are the only one who works in the studio on a particular day at a particular time. And, you don't get to meet anybody else.
PC: How alienating.
LS: I never met Robin Williams when he did work on ALADDIN - the only person I met and got to work with was Brad Kane, and, because we were singing a duet, it was really a requirement that we did it in the same studio together because we had to be singing together. That's the best way to record a duet.
PC: What about the promo video they did of the recording studio sessions? I recently featured it in my Flash Friday column.
LS: Oh, God, what the hell was I wearing? I look back on those things that were recorded for all posterity and it's like, "I was the biggest dork!" (Laughs.)
PC: You were like 19 and it was the 1980s!
LS: Well, I guess I should give myself that lee-way - but I won't. (Laughs.)
PC: What did you think of this year's Oscars since you've performed on the show yourself?
LS: I love Anne Hathaway - when she broke out into "On My Own" I was just cheering for her!
PC: Really? You enjoyed her take on it?
LS: I thought she was smoking hot doing that. I found that to be really funny.
PC: You are the authority on that song, if anyone is.
LS: If there was a way for me to tell her myself that I loved it, I would. I loved her glare at Hugh Jackman. She is brazen! As far as hosting, I thought Anne Hathaway really nailed it.
PC: Too bad James Franco dropped the ball.
LS: Yeah, he's a really smart guy, though. I love him as an actor - but, as far as hosting, I really liked Anne Hathaway. He does all kinds of things - NYU, writing scripts, acting; he does it all. He's really talented and really smart. I love him in those SPIDERMAN movies, though. He's just got a moody, brooding presence.
PC: What about lip-synching to "A Whole New World" with Brad in that Oscar production number on the telecast the year the song won Best Song?
LS: We really didn't have a choice when it came to lip-synching - the magic carpet was a forklift!
PC: Too loud.
LS: Yeah, I think we tried to do it live a few times in rehearsal, but every time the carpet would come on it was this (Whoosh Sound.). It would just go right into the microphones, so there was no way we could do it live. But, there were many game attempts! But, that whole thing was really involved - belly dancers and sword dancers and everything.
PC: Turning the stage into a TV screen doesn't quite match the excess of a number likethat.
LS: But, the Oscars is about movies, so I am kind of OK with it all being transformed into a movie screen. But, with something like the Tonys, I'd like to see more people get the chance to just sing, you know? But, the technology is great.
PC: Would you consider doing a show using 3D elements and film projection? Is it scary to consider reacting to an actor on a screen, pre-taped?
LS: Well, I think that if a show is developed with that technology in mind, then it probably would work - but, it really depends on the actors and the writers and execution of what they are doing. But, I do like an actual set and there being something you could interact with. I mean, when we did the old touring productions with the turntables and the gates that would come off-stage - being able to interact with a thing as opposed to a hologram was important.
PC: MISS SAIGON was one of the first musicals to fully integrate film into the musical, as well, with "Bui Doi".
LS: Yeah, yeah, yeah! That's right, that's right. Of course.
PC: "Bui Doi" to LES MIZ on Blu-Ray - you can do it, and have seen it, all, Lea!
LS: Oh, you're so sweet. This has been so wonderful, Pat. We'll talk again soon. Bye bye.