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Lea Salonga was already a star in The Philippines when Cameron Mackintosh famously discovered her, at age 18, during a worldwide search for a young performer to play Kim in Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s musical Miss Saigon.
Lea Salonga. Photo: supplied
She had been performing professionally in her homeland since the age of seven but the role of Kim, which she originated in the West End in 1989, rocketed her to international stardom. Salonga later played Kim on Broadway, winning a 1991 Tony Award. In fact, so beloved was her portrayal that she was asked to return in 1999 to close the musical in London, and then to close the Broadway production in 2001.
Salonga has also played both Eponine and Fantine in Les Misérables on Broadway, and found a whole new fan base as the singing voice of both Princess Jasmine in Disney’s Academy Award-winning animated film Aladdin and Fa Mulan in Disney’s Mulan and Mulan II – for which Disney named her a “Disney Legend” in 2011.
More recently, she returned to Broadway in a short-run musical called Allegiance about a Japanese-American family forced into an internment camp during World War II, and in November she performed in a three-week season of the Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home in Manila.
Lea Salonga. Photo: supplied
Salonga began this year with a series of concerts in the US, and arrives in Australia in early February to perform in concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House and with Orchestra Victoria at Arts Centre Melbourne. Her brother Gerard Salonga, who was named Assistant Conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in September, will conduct.
Speaking over the phone from Manila, Salonga tells Limelight that she is very excited to be performing at the Sydney Opera House. “The last time I was in Sydney it was at the Town Hall, which is a really beautiful building and acoustically friendly. But I’m really looking forward to performing at the Sydney Opera House. It’s just such a breathtaking building and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do so I’m really happy about it.”
Asked about the repertoire she has planned, she says that there are a few “must haves – which would be music from Miss Saigon and Les Misérables and Aladdin and Mulan. And then I have a couple of specific requests from the producers and then for the rest of the night, it’s really up to me. So, there’s a range of music from different musicals and different eras. We have a little of Rodgers and Hammerstein and a little Sondheim and some Lin-Manuel Miranda [a song from Hamilton]. We also have some pop music, so it’ll be really special.”
Audiences can also expect some relaxed chat along the way. “I don’t sing straight on. I do chat and I tell stories and I try to set many of the songs up before I sing them, just to give the audience a little bit of context. But there are songs I feel don’t require an introduction, I just launch into them without an intro,” she says.
Lea Salonga and Katie Bradshaw in Fun Home in Manila. Photo courtesy of Atlantis Productions
Salonga’s career is a mix of musical theatre, concerts and cabaret. She is also a judge/mentor on The Philippines' version of The Voice, and the variety is something she values.
“If I were doing just one thing, I don’t know that I could handle it. I’m one of those people who needs to keep on jumping into doing something a little different. If I’m doing a whole series of concerts, then I’ll start itching to do a musical again. We’re repeating Fun Home in March so I’ll have my fill of musical theatre for a while until the itch begins to get at me again,” she says.
Written by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, Fun Home is based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name, about her life as a young lesbian growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, and her relationship with her father Bruce, a closeted gay man struggling with his sexuality. The show opened off-Broadway in 2013, then had a Broadway season in 2015, winning five Tony Awards including Best Musical.
The production in Manila was the first international staging. “It was so well received,” says Salonga, who played Helen Bechdel, Alison’s mother. “We did three full-on weeks here. By the time we got to the second half of our second week, people were just crazy and clamouring for tickets, and couldn’t find any. People tend to buy tickets at the last minute here in the Philippines, which can be a little frustrating.”
“[The show] was something that all of us felt was really special. I think people here responded to it viscerally. It really got into the bones of people who came and saw it. For one reason or another, they could feel like their own lives were being mirrored by what was happening onstage. And eerily so. It just felt like ‘woah!’ It felt like a kick in the guts for a lot of people,” she says.
Lea Salonga and George Takei in Allegiance on Broadway.
Allegiance, with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, ran on Broadway from October 2015 to February 2016, after receiving mixed reviews. Salonga played Kei Kimrui, a Japanese-American woman who falls out with her brother over how to respond to the US Government’s internment camps during World War II. A filmed performance was screened in a number of US cinemas in December.
“The reaction we were getting from people who went to see [the screening] was like, ‘oh my gosh!’ People were just emotionally moved by what was happening, and with what’s going on in the US now it seems like such a relevant story to tell, and one of those historically cautionary tales. Let’s try not to let history repeat itself. Whatever warnings a show like that could give you, you never really know what the future’s going to hold,” says Salonga.
Last year, she and Jonathan Pryce were among several original cast members to make an appearance as part of the 25th Anniversary Gala Performance of Miss Saigon, which was filmed live in the West End and then screened in cinemas worldwide in October. Taking her back to where it all began, Salonga says it was an emotional experience – even though the current production is very different to the original one that she starred in.
Claude-Michel Schönberg, Eva Noblezada, Alain Boublil, Lea Salonga, Jon Jon Briones, Cameron Mackintosh and Jonathan Pryce at the 25th Anniversary Gala Performance of Miss Saigon. Photo by Richard Davenport
Twenty-five years on, her desire to sing is as strong as ever. “I think I was just born to do this. And I do have this need to get up and sing,” she says. “And it’s not just about pleasing audiences, sometimes it’s making them think a little bit, making them search into their souls. Sometimes that is the calling of a performer, sometimes there are shows that need to make you think and search within yourself for other things in life besides entertainment. There are many people with different points of views, but [performing] is really a gateway into sharing something a little deeper. There’s only so much crowd-pleasing you can do.”
Lea Salonga performs at the Sydney Opera House on February 3 & 4 and at Arts Centre Melbourne on February 7 & 8