BWW Interviews: Tony-Winning Star Lea Salonga Answers Our Silly Query Prior to OC Concert, 1/19
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by Michael L. Quintos
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?
I think the camaraderie was the best part of it all, as well as learning the beautiful music and getting this piece out and seen. I made some amazing friends as a result of the show. We all bonded over it. Not to mention, San Diego is just quite beautiful.
Alright... Imagine that we just stole your iPod. What music will we find on it?
Bruno Mars, Adele, Pink, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Diana Krall, Tierney Sutton, Ella Fitzgerald. That's a bulk of it, I think. And I don't use an iPod anymore, I use my iPhone for listening to music!
What are some of your pre-show rituals that you do to prepare for a musical/concert?
I make sure to warm up an hour and a half before the show, and eat a little bit, but not a whole lot. I run through a song that trips me up, because I get paranoid. That's about it.
Briefly, describe what goes through your head right before you step out on stage:
"God, please don't let me suck!"
What's your favorite musical of all time?
Oh goodness, I think it would have to be LES MIZ. I'm just a sentimental softie.
Who are some of your icons/influences that have helped shape your journey as an actor?
I don't know that I can name one... Jodie Foster and Meryl Streep for the acting; Barbra Streisand, Olivia Newton-John, The Osmonds, Karen Carpenter and among others for their vocals... and later on, I'd listen to Elaine Paige... Patti LuPone...
So what's the song that you like belting in the shower or when you're all alone in the car?
I guess whatever's on the radio now. I do like whipping out a little Adele!
What is your one guilty pleasure?
Ha! I don't know that I have one. I don't watch a lot of TV shows, and what I do watch tends to be something like Scandal, Castle, or The Good Wife.
What do you most like to do on your day off?
Eat and sleep. And play video games! Assassin's Creed III is what's in my Xbox right now.
What or who irritates you the most?
Ha! Too many things to mention... and possibly offend!
Ha ha, okay, then what instantly puts a smile on your face?
My daughter Nicole... she doesn't have to do anything to make me happy. She's kinda awesome!
Cool. What makes you laugh uncontrollably?
A good comedy... a well-delivered dirty joke... my friends.
Name a dream role in another show you'd like to play someday that you haven't done yet...
Poppins. I'd love to play that role.
If you could trade lives with someone for one day, who would that person be and why?
I actually wouldn't... because I'd like to think that the grass always looks greener on the other side, and that another person's life wouldn't be as awesome as mine.
If you weren't an actor, what other career do you see yourself doing?
A psychologist probably... or someone working in mass media and communications in some capacity.
And finally... after a long, sustained career, what has been the funniest or most embarrassing moment that has happened to you during a show?
There are a few... forgetting lyrics, wardrobe malfunctions, onstage giggles (during a tragedy)... The most recent one was my microphone malfunctioning during ALLEGIANCE, and so another actor (Paul Nakauchi) had to bring out a handheld microphone so I could be heard during my big solo. Since the musical was set in the early 1940s, a cordless handheld mic pulled us all out of the action and made us laugh!
Read Ms. Salonga's first-person review of the film adaptation of LES MISERABLES here.
Photos by Allen Zaki, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2012-2013 Cabaret Series continues with Lea Salonga for a one-night-only concert on Saturday, January 19, 2013 at the Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, CA. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive.
The Center's Broadway-centric Cabaret series continues with Marin Mazzie & Jason Danieley (February 14-16, 2013), followed by Barbara Cook's 85th Birthday Concert (April 13, 2013), and, finally, Betty Buckley (May 16-18, 2013).
For more information, visit SCFTA.org.