Lea Salonga

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"For Lea, Who is Very Talented"

The creators of Les Miz knew a great talent when they heard it: Lea Solonga got a starring role and an international career. She returns to the Center April 2.

By Sheryl Flatow

Lea Salonga video

There is a video online of 17-year-old Lea Salonga at a call-back audition for the original West End production of Miss Saigon. She had already impressed director Nicholas Hytner, producer Cameron Mackintosh and the team of Claude-Michel Schönberg (music and book) and Alan Boublil (lyrics and book) at her first audition, when she chose to sing "On My Own" from Schönberg and Boublil's Les Misérables, which was also produced by Mackintosh. Now she was being asked to learn and sing the duet "Sun and Moon" from the new show, with the composer not only accompanying her on the piano, but singing with her.

The first thing you notice is her extraordinary poise. She's up for a highly coveted part in a much-anticipated show, yet she calmly walks into the rehearsal hall as if nothing is at stake and asks Schönberg for his autograph—which he signs, "For Lea, who is very talented." And when she begins to sing, that talent illuminates the screen much as it did the studio that day. The beauty and purity and range of her voice are exquisite; you feel like you're watching a star being born. And you are. She got the role, of course, and went on to win both an Olivier Award in London and a Tony® Award on Broadway for her portrayal of the orphan, Kim.

George Takei and Lea Salonga in Allegiance.
Photo by Bruce Glikas, broadway.com.

In the ensuing quarter of a century, Salonga has played both Eponine and Fantine in Les Miz, starred in a revival of Flower Drum Song, and most recently appeared with George Takei in Allegiance, a musical inspired by his family's relocation and incarceration in an American internment camp during WWII. She was also the singing voice of Jasmine in Disney's Aladdin, in which she introduced the Oscar® -winning song "A Whole New World" with Brad Kane, and was the singing voice of the title character in Disney's Mulan.

On April 2, Salonga brings her golden voice to Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, presenting a program that will feature the expected and the unexpected. "There are certain things I always need to include," she says. "There always has to be something from Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, Mulan and Aladdin. I usually sing 'A Whole New World,' and because it's a duet, I pick someone from the audience to do it with me. It's always fun to do it that way, and always unpredictable. I round out the program with songs that I want to do, which usually means a little bit of everything—songs from other musicals, standards, jazz and pop. I try to make the evening accessible and fun for everybody; for me, for the band and for the audience."

Salonga has been a professional actress and singer since she was a child, and a mega-star in her native Philippines since she was a teenager, which probably accounts for her quiet self-assurance at the Les Miz audition. She was 7 years old when she made her debut in The King and I, and within a couple of years she was playing the lead in Annie. She had a gold record at 10, hosted her own television show when she was a teenager, and opened for Stevie Wonder when he performed in concert in Manila.

Lea Salonga as Fantine in Les Misérables.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.com.

Miss Saigon made her a star on the international stage, but for all her success in the West, she's been offered many more varied roles in Manila and other Asian cities, where she's played Sandy in Grease, Sonia in They're Playing Our Song, The Witch in Into the Woods, Lizzie in Baby, Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and the title role in Cinderella. She will return soon to Manila to appear in the first international production of the award-winning musical Fun Home.

"Most of the shows I've done in the Philippines, I'd never get cast in here," says Salonga. Only Mackintosh, who chose her to play Eponine in 1993 and Fantine in 2007, has been willing to cast her on Broadway in roles created by a white actress. "I don't know that any other producer would have taken the risk."

Despite the short-sightedness of casting directors and producers, her career continues to flourish in the West as well as the East. Manila is her home base, but she estimates she spends about half the year working outside the Philippines. For more than seven years, she's been writing a weekly column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, in which she offers her perspective on the performing arts. She has also been a coach on The Voice of the Philippines, that country’s version of The Voice franchise. On one episode, she watched as a video was shown of her singing "Tomorrow" when she was 9 years old. Then a child named Nicole Beverly Chien came out onstage to sing the song with her. The adorable Nicole is her daughter with husband Robert Chien. (The mother-daughter duet is also online.)

Does that mean a second generation performer is waiting in the wings?

"It’s something she's interested in, but I think she wants to do it because she thinks it's easy," says Salonga. "I told her she has no idea how hard it is. So I have to instill in her the value of discipline and practice, and she has to figure out what she really has her heart in. Because to succeed in this business, you have to really want it."

Sheryl Flatow is a frequent contributor to Center publications.

 

RENÉE AND HENRY SEGERSTROM CONCERT HALL
Dates: April 2, 2016
Tickets: $39 and up
For tickets and information, visit SCFTA.org
or call (714) 556–2787.
Group services: (714) 755–0236

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