"The Pride of the Philippines," Returns in Concert at the Carlyle
By: Ellis Nassour
Olivier, Tony, and Drama Desk winner (Miss Saigon), Disney princess (Aladdin, Mulan), and recording artist Lea Salonga has returned for her third sold-out engagement at the posh Café Carlyle , through Saturday, June 8. She calls her new program Back to Before.
"It’s a nostalgic repertoire," she says, "which give me the wonderful opportunity to revisit my life – especially those wonderful years when I was a New Yorker." In the show, she pays tribute to her favorite ladies-most notably Ella Fitzgerald and her idol, Barbra Streisand.
There are tunes from Broadway notables such as Dietz, Flaherty and Ahrens, the Gershwins, Hart, Kander and Ebb, Kern, Lerner and Lowe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Schwartz, Sondheim, a bit of Bacharach and David, and a jazz interlude.
Ted Michael’s book So You Wanna Be a Superstar?: the Ultimate Audition Guide features and introduction by Lea Salonga, who knows a thing or two about superstardom and capturing it at a very young age.
She became the "Pride of the Philippines" when she was plucked from relative obscurity by Cameron Mackintosh and director Nicholas Hytner to star as Kim in Miss Saigon in the West End premiere of Miss Saigon, which she also opened two years later on Broadway.
No experience prepared Salonga for the life-changing events of being cast in Miss Saigon. "There was pressure. What could compare to opening a major musical on London’s West End and performing before the Queen of England? But I was disciplined, thanks to all the years I’d done theater here. The culture shock was the big thing. I had Mom with me, but homesickness set in.
"Heading to New York and Broadway," she continues, "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 and started rehearsals, I knew it was where I belonged. I didn’t have a life, however. I did the show, then went to bed."
She credits her mother Ligaya 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.’"
Salonga, long before becoming an award-winning actress, had been entertaining audiences in clubs and in concert not only in her native Philippines but also throughout Asia and in the U.S.
She had her first album at 10. "We peddled my singles and the album, going from music store to music store. It not only caught on bit, before we knew it, orders were coming in – more than we ever imagined."
Not long after, she made her stage debut in The King and I, which was followed by a number of Broadway musicals – presented in English in the Philippines, where, since World War II’s American occupation, it’s become a second language. With best-selling records, she had the name recognition to host her own national variety TV show, Love, Lea.
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, approaching her mid-40s, wanted to be a dermatologist, which might account for her ageless beauty and flawless complexion. Taking note of that, in 1991, People chose her as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World.
"I’m blessed," she said. "I’m Asian, but the youth gene runs in my family. Many people assume my mother’s my sister! 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.
Salonga’s considered a national treasure in the Philippines, where she was bestowed the rank of Commander, their highest civilian honor.
Success came with a price, she admits. "It took one thing I prize: privacy." It was especially uncomfortable in her homeland. "As I’ve gotten older, I’m better with it. I know what it’s like not to go places because your safety is threatened. I quite enjoyed the anonymity of L.A., where I was recognized for my work, but had my privacy respected."
Remembering her mother’s dictate about education, she took time off from theater to continue her studies, tackling philosophy and European history at Fordham.
Recently, Salonga appeared with an all-star cast for the Ragtime concert and did a sold-out show at Town Hall. In late 2012, she co-starred at San Diego’s Old Globe in the new musical Allegiance, about how the internment of Japanese Americans in 1941 after the Pearl Harbor bombing affected their families. It won local Best Musical honors, broke box office records, and is rumored to be Broadway-bound.
Her last Broadway role was as Fantine, in 2007, in Les Miz. In 1992, after her run in Miss Saigon, she played Eponine. Before that, she starred in the 2002 Flower Drum Song revival. She’s also attracted a loyal following of young women after being the singing voice of Princess Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin and Mulan’s title character.
In the Philippines, Salonga played played Grizabella in Cats, and appeared to great acclaim and sold out audiences in Broadway-Asia’s multi-nation tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella [this prior to the bowdlerized version currently on Broadway]. The original cast album is available from Sony/BMG Records.
"It’s amazing how popular Broadway shows," she notes. "Over seven months, we did five cities in mainland China, Honk Kong, the Philippines, Seoul, Singapore, and Thailand – all in English."
Salonga said she’s anxious to return to Broadway and tackle adult roles. "My luck’s in New York. When I’m there, something happens. I want to come back, but I think it will best when my daughter’s a bit older. She just turned five and is quite a handful!"
Lea Salonga Back to Before is directed by Victor Lirio with original arrangements and music direction by Larry Yurman, who’s joined by Jeff Harris on piano, John Miller on bass, and Jack Cavari on guitar. It plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:45, and Saturdays at 10:45. There’s a $75 music charge (bar seating, $45) Tuesday – Thursday and a $85 music charge (bar seating, $50) Friday and Saturday. For additional information, visit www.thecarlyle.com.
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