Lea Salonga: Celebrating 40 Years Onstage – from Li’l Orphan Annie, Vietnamese War Orphan, Disney Princess, and Now Love Goddess
By: Ellis Nassour
Olivier and Tony Award winner, “Disney princess,” recording artist, and international concert star Lea Salonga has returned to Broadway in the breathtakingly imaginative revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once On This Island, set on a Caribbean island “at the mercy of the wind and sea” with the lure of tropical and voodoo rhythms..
Lea’s birthday on February 22 will mark 40 years in show business. In her return to Broadway in the one-act musical, based on a novel by Rosa Guy, which tells of the unbridled joy of first romance, hope and faith, and the inevitable broken heart. In addition to and myths, there’s a telling sub-plot on class bias. And there are gods: God of Water, Mother of the Earth, Demon of Death. Salonga makes an enviable transition from a poor villager named Erzulie to becoming the Goddess of Love.
Lead producer Ken Davenport notes, “Lea is a Disney princess and Tony and Olivier actress, not to mention an inspiration to people, especially young girls, around the world. Her voice is what love sounds like, so when [director] Michael [Arden] and I were looking for a Goddess of Love, we didn’t have to think too long. She is the perfect choice!” Arden first bonded with Salonga when they were cast in a concert of Ahrens/Flaherty’s Ragtime in 2013 at Alice Tully Hall.
Salonga has high praise for her co-stars, which include golden-voiced Tony-nominee Philip Boykin (Crown in 2012’s Porgy and Bess revival) and marvelous Kenita R. Miller [who become Ti Moune’s guardians]; and megabelter Alex Newell [Mother of the Earth].
In a casting coup, similar to Salonga’s, Hailey Kilgore, 18, as Ti Moune, the show’s lead, segues from a mere orphaned human [involved in a bittersweet love triangle] to a goddess. She was cast at the last minute right out of acting school after months of talent searching. “It’s a real Cinderella story,” states Lea. “She’s from Oregon, where Hailey did her first equity role at 12. It’s a thrill to watch her. She’s a raw talent with a terrific learning curve.”
Salonga says the composers’ musical deserves an intimate setting, “so Circle in the Square is ideal.” But don’t come expecting a copycat of the original. Except for new arrangements, there’s nothing that’ll remind you of it. “When you enter, you feel you’ve left New York City for the tropics. The design is a great way to tell this enchanting story. There’s a different rhythm with movement and dance from beginning to end and a beautiful visual language.” [The 1990 premiere Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizon moved to the Booth Theatre, where it ran 469 performances.]
Dane Laffrey’s set design is at once idyllic and stark. Audiences meet the cast as they recover from a hurricane. Tropical breeze sift across a lagoon. On the sandy beach, as tropical breezes drift across a lagoon, the islanders go about picking up their live. s again. There’s a huge, defunct truck, fallen utility pole, an overturned boat, a hungry goat, storm debris of all kind.
Though you’d never know it from their sound, the show only has five band members. However, much of the music is provided by the cast, who pick up broken glass and items displaced by the storm and create instruments. You might also catch Salonga on percussion.
Lea explains that performing in the round delivers a new dimension to the story as the cast, often going into the audience, draw members into the story. But there are challenges: “You have to favor everybody 360 degrees. You can’t be still for too long or three-fourths of the audience won’t see you.”
Lighting for a show in the round can also be a challenge. To avoid light glaring into cast members faces as well as the audience, multiple award-winning lighting pros Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer have lighted with banks of overhead light grids.
Lea particularly enjoys the pre-show routine of the company onstage to clean up their ravaged town. “We’re all over passing the baton from one to the other. It’s serious, but we have fun — especially when I spot people I know out there and get to play a little. It’s a great way to get rid of pre-show jitters.”
Stardom: From Manila to the West End and Broadway
At 17, Lea Salonga was plucked from hundreds of talented hopefuls auditioning for Cameron Mackintosh and director Nicholas Hytner for the coveted role of Vietnamese war orphan Kim in Claude-Michel Schónberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby Jr.’s Miss Saigon.
Lea could never forget her last call back in Manila when she sang again for Macintosh, Hytner, Schónberg, and Boublil. How could she perceive what was about to transpire – and change her life forever? Arriving beautiful and calm, she casually asked Schónberg for his autograph on a promotion sheet from Les Misèrables. In a sheer moment of inevitability, no mere pianist accompanied her. As Schónberg played, the team hung over the piano on every word as if history was in the making. Salonga came prepared. She sang the poignant “Sun and Moon,” with the composer singing the role of Chris. It was magic. When she finished, they’d found their Kim.
She may have arrived an unknown to London but, “I was far from a greenhorn.” Lea had been performing since age seven, and had her first album at 10. “We peddled my music, going from music store to music store. It didn’t happen overnight. What does? Then, the orders were coming in – more than we ever imagined.”
With best-selling records, she had the name recognition to host her own TV variety show, Love, Lea. She played concerts to Filipino fans on the West Coast. On home stages, she was cast in The King and I, the lead in Annie, and one of the tots in The Sound of Music. The shows were presented in English which, because of the World War II American occupation, has become the country’s second language [the first in urban areas, such as Manila].
In Miss Saigon, Salonga received her first kisses. “One of my Chrises said he had to have his lips replaced every week after I was done with him, but that’s not true. He exaggerates, but I admit that all my Chrises were good kissers.”
The show brought critical acclaim. Suddenly, she was “The Pride of the Philippines” and a national treasure. However, “nothing prepared me for overnight stardom. There was a lot of hard work, and pressure. What could compare to opening a major musical on London’s West End; then, performing before the Queen of England? But I was disciplined, thanks to the theater back home. The culture shock was the big thing. I had my Mom with me. Still, homesickness set in.”
Lea and co-star Jonathan Pryce captured Oliver Awards, “I never thought I’d win,” she states. “The competition was tough: Elaine Page and Judy Kuhn. I was a fan of both. It was a nail-biter. I was flabbergasted. It took days before it all set in. Heading to New York and Broadway, there was some fear. I’d heard stories of how fast-faced and notorious it could be. But the minute I stepped off the plane I knew it was where I belonged. I didn’t have a life, however. I did the show, took my bows, and went home to bed.” More acclaim, and a Tony for her and Pryce followed.
Lea credits her mother Ligaya [Joy] for guiding her down the right career and life paths. “Mother never heard the word ‘impossible.’ She shaped my determination to succeed at what I wanted to do, and helped turn me into a strong-willed person. I believed I had talent, and was ready to go for it, but Mom kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to make sure you really have it.’”
Her parents, long separated, stressed the importance of education. “Mom told me it was something no one could take away, that it would shape the way I look at things. I also learned that intelligence wasn’t everything. If you want to succeed, preparation and perseverance are important.”
After high school, she briefly attended college, studying pre-med. Before music became her main goal, Salonga wanted to be a dermatologist, which might account for her ageless beauty and flawless complexion. In 1991, People chose her as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World. In the Philippines, she was bestowed the rank of Commander, their highest civilian honor.
“I’m blessed,” she said. “I’m Asian, but the youth gene runs in my family. I’m in a great business, doing what I love to do. It doesn’t feel like work, so there’s little stress. Travel can be drudgery, but that’s a fact of life in today’s world.” She adds that she’s very faithful to a daily workout regime.
Following Broadway roles in Miss Saigon and Les Misèrables, Disney came calling. She did the vocals for Princess Jasmine in Aladdin and Mulan’s title character.
In addition to Lea and husband Robert Charles Chien’s magnificent home in Manila, the couple maintain a residence in New York.
Remembering her mother’s dictate, she took time off to continue her studies, tackling philosophy and European history at Fordham. However, she never stopped singing. She starred in the Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. She somehow found time to star in an Asian tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
In 2012, she co-starred at San Diego’s Old Globe in Allegiance, about the internment of Japanese Americans in 1941 following Pearl Harbor. It won local Best Musical honors, and broke box office records. She had a four-and-a-half month Broadway run. Lea returned to Manila to play Grizabella in Cats. Here, she’s done two sell-out engagements at posh Café Carlyle, sold out Town Hall, and had two engagements at 54 Below. More recently, back home, she did Fun Home.
Daughter Nicole, 11, may follow in Mama’s footsteps. Performing in school plays since age five, she’s a violinist in the school orchestra and under scholarship at Kids Act Philippines. She’s also appeared solo at some concerts. Recently, she wrapped playing Alice in the Manila production of Matilda. Lea not only took off six performances [announced well in advance] to be there but took to Twitter to congratulate her.
With her mentoring spot in the Philippines on The Voice, writing a newspaper column, concert schedule, and being a mom, how did she find time to return to Broadway in Once On This Island, where she’s set to play into June. “You carve out the time, especially when it’s something you want to do,” explains Salonga. “The show is a longtime favorite. When asked, I couldn’t see any way of passing the opportunity by.”
Here, with the weather changing from day to day, how does she stay healthy?
“You can try, but if there’re people in the cast or audience who’re sick, and there always are, with the all of us in close proximity, you’re bound to catch something. No matter how many multi-vitamins and Vitamin C I take, you’ll get sick. It happens when you’re fatigued and lack sleep. But she show must go on. I arrive at the theatre early, vocalize an hour, do make-up, and go out. When the adrenaline hits, you forget almost everything.”
Lea travels much of the year, and, when possible, has Nic along. “My goal is to be the best representative of my country as I can be. I stay out of trouble! Don’t think I don’t have fun, but I keep my nose clean.”
With all that travel, is it difficult to keep a marriage together? “It’s only difficult if the two of you have no idea what you’re in for. From the beginning, I’ve had nothing but Rob’s blessing and encouragement. He told me, ‘You’re in a position to inspire people. I’d never take that away from you.’ I married the right guy!”
Visit www.onceonthisisland.com for tickets and more information.