Lea Salonga Moves Beyond Mulan Toward 'Transformative' Musical Experience
Photo by Raymund Isaac
Even if Lea Salonga's name doesn't immediately ring a bell, her voice will. Thanks to a string of iconic roles, her clear, glistening soprano is all but embedded in the American musical subconscious. She was the singing voice of not one but two Disney animated heroines, Princess Jasmine in Aladdin and the titular savior of China in Mulan. Broadway buffs know her as the original Kim in Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's Miss Saigon, for which she won every theater accolade under the sun, including a Tony and an Olivier. She went on to play Éponine and later Fantine in Les Misérables, the first Asian actress to do so.
These days, Salonga divides her time between the stage and television. When she isn't performing all over the world, she's a host and coach on The Voice of the Philippines in her native Manila. Having just wrapped the second season, she's winging her way to New York to perform a one-night-only concert at Town Hall on March 14. The singer will proffer a mix of pop standards and newer songs, plus a healthy slice of Broadway and, of course, a little bit of Miss Saigon.
"We still have to test all the material when we get to New York and have rehearsals. I mean, we're going to hit the ground running, because we don't really have a lot of time," she explains, via phone from the airport in Manila.
Hitting the ground running is Salonga's modus operandi: After the Town Hall show, she'll jet off to performances in Florida and California, a master class in Pennsylvania and a concert in Manitoba with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Then it's back to Manila for another season of The Voice. "It's pretty packed, but I really can't complain," she says.
Salonga has been in the spotlight for pretty much her entire life. She started performing at the age of seven, in a Filipino production of The King and I. Her rise to international stardom came in 1989, when the eighteen-year-old Salonga won the lead role in Miss Saigon, about a doomed Vietnam War love affair, in London's West End. She went on to play the role on Broadway in 1991.
Those were the days of the big, epic musical — large-scope shows like Miss Saigon, Les Miz, The Phantom of the Opera, and Into the Woods were de rigueur along the Great White Way. They succeeded not on the strength of name recognition or star power, but on sweeping music, grand spectacle, and seasoned ensemble casts. It's a far cry from the Broadway of today, when, Salonga points out, the success of a new show is often made or broken by a familiar name on the marquee.
"It seems that a Broadway show, in order for it to be financially viable, requires a huge movie star name just to stay open," she says. "Which kind of makes me sad, because ultimately it should be the music, the material, the story — it should be everything put together that keeps the musical going. It kind of takes away from the creative team, from all of these incredible people that created the show and put the show on its feet. And I'm just hoping it gets to the point again where audiences recognize the work, and that having a famous name there is only a small part of it."
Recently, Salonga has been involved in Allegiance, a new show with music and lyrics by composer Jay Kuo that harks back to the era of epic musicals. It also comes with a big name: classic Star Trek icon George Takei. Based on the 77-year-old actor's childhood, the show follows a Japanese-American family that's forced into an internment camp following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Allegiance premiered in 2012 in San Diego, with Salonga playing the older sister of Takei's character in flashbacks.
The show is set to hit Broadway this fall. So far, only Takei is signed on, but Salonga is in negotiations to potentially join the production. Allegiance will mark the first time an Asian-led cast has taken a Broadway stage in more than a decade.
Salonga thinks Allegiance has a vitally important story to tell, highlighting a dark and often forgotten chapter in American history. "These were American citizens being placed behind barbed-wire fences by fellow American citizens. You're putting your own countrymen behind bars because they happen to look like the enemy," she says. "I'm hoping that it starts a dialogue. And even if people leave not feeling good — and sometimes it means you feeling unsettled when you leave the theater for things to happen — if it causes an internal change in audience members that come to the show, then the show will have done something right."
People often go to Broadway for escapism, but according to Salonga, theater — and musical theater in particular — can have a transformative effect on audiences. She recalls Vietnam veterans coming to see Miss Saigon in its original Broadway run. "A lot of them were very affected by the show, and saw themselves in it," she recalls. "A lot of people thought that it was still a very raw and fresh experience to be put on Broadway. But sometimes you need stories like that to be right there in front of you, for you to experience almost from a voyeuristic point of view as an audience member — seeing the pain that a whole group of people go through."
And for the men and women onstage each night, musical theater can be exhausting work. Salonga remembers performing Allegiance eight times a week during its San Diego run, and literally collapsing as soon as she stepped backstage. "It was, like, [the] eighth show, and everyone at that point is delirious and probably hallucinating and in need of some serious drinking following the final performance. I'd exit offstage, and I'd fall to the floor. Being just so tired and knowing, 'Wait, I know I have to change my clothes right now, but I can't get up. Give me a minute. Just give me a minute.' "
The tinny sound of an airplane intercom crackles in the background, and it's time for Salonga to board her long flight to New York. Then it's a speedy week of rehearsals, the concert at Town Hall, and a flight to the next show. Talk about exhaustion. "Every single cell is used," she says of being a musical-theater performer. "Nothing is wasted, ever."
Lea Salonga performs at Town Hall on March 14. Tickets are available here.
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