Cover Story: Lea Salonga On The State Of Philippine Arts And Culture
For decades now, Lea Salonga’s star power has held audiences enrapt with wonder. A cut above the rest, especially on stage, she is famed for her perfect pitch, crystal voice and powerful control. Both the seasoned fan of Broadway and the young child discovering Disney must have, at one point or another, encountered the renowned talents of this Tony-award-winning actress.
“I really love getting up in front of an audience and singing,” Salonga, cool and collected, says. “It really is my thing.” And who can dispute it? Her career, which began in the Seventies, has blossomed in fruitful progression. Since her first musical at the age of seven, the world has watched Salonga in stellar performances on stages in Manila, London and New York, winning much-coveted honours such as “Disney Legend” and Theatre World awards. Despite her success, she remains with feet firmly planted on the ground, still calling Manila home, and flying back and forth in between jobs.
In this Zoom interview, she spoke with candour. “I’m someone who enjoys isolation and being far away from everybody,” she chuckles over this self-admittance. “So, I guess I’m just naturally antisocial, I don’t know.”
Salonga, who’s been known to keep her affairs private, elaborates: “It’s good to keep a separation between my public and my private life. There have to be things about myself that the public need not see or know.” But of course, she assures us, the public is entitled to the one thing she can deliver: a fantastic performance. “Whether they’re sitting up in the balcony or down in the orchestra, they are entitled to get the best that I can give to them.”
For all intents and purposes, a fantastic performance seems to parallel good storytelling, at least in Salonga’s interpretation. “What I always try to stress is the importance of telling a good story while singing, because that’s what a song is: a good story set to a really effective melody.” And as the first Asian to play Eponine on Broadway’s rendition of Les Miserables, Salonga knows that a truly good show will leave people feeling more than just satisfied. “[I] want to be moved and feel like [I’ve] had an experience,” she says.
Glamorous though it may sound, the stage is not without its pitfalls. “I’m in an industry [wherein] it feels like it’s dominated by Caucasian people. [So] I feel like I must work twice as hard and be twice as good to gain respect, and to maintain it,” Salonga confesses, speaking of her early days on Broadway. “[There was] always this thing in the back of my mind [that] someone is out there watching to see if I’m going to fail—and I was not going to give anybody that satisfaction.”
But while Salonga’s accomplishments have proven her worth, a whole new challenge is now testing those in her industry: Covid-19. “It’s devastating,” Salonga says matter-of-factly. “I know quite a lot of onstage people and offstage crew whose livelihoods have just been decimated by this.”
Performers have also had to adjust to the new normal, a strange time wherein digital reigns supreme. This has proven difficult for Salonga, who admits that she thrives on the interaction inherent in live performances. “There’s a very unique sort of interaction and conversation that happens with a [live] audience,” she explains. “[I] enjoy being in a room where it feels like all of the heartbeats of everybody in that theatre synchronise and you’re having this common experience with, say 800, 1,000 or maybe even 3,000 people.”
Salonga also comments on that strange time right after the pandemic hit when everything seemed to be suspended. Livelihoods and lifestyles had to be put on hold. “It’s heart-breaking. To be in limbo and then get word that: ‘Sorry guys, you’re not going to be able to come back.’ That’s hard. If they’re able to get this pandemic under control to the point that they can finally reopen the theatres, things are gonna have to open really smartly.”
That’s not to say, however, that the vaccine, or even the end of the pandemic, can be considered a silver bullet in solving the problems that have befallen our cultural scene. The Philippines, while having produced its fair share of internationally renowned talents, can hardly be called the Mecca of entertainment or arts. “The talent here isn’t lacking, that’s the thing,” Salonga says. “But for us to have a wave [like Hallyu], we need help, we need support. It’s not just going to happen because of the talent of artists [alone].” Much like Hallyu (“Korean wave”) from South Korea, any movement towards advancing arts and culture needs support—and patience. It’s not something that can be achieved overnight. “I think this is one of those things that took its time. We’re seeing BTS explode now, [they] really exploded in 2020. But there were so many groups prior to them [too].”
“There might have been support given to individual artists here and there in the past, but not to the entire arts community as a whole,” Salonga observes. Despite this, the natural creativity that shines in each artist has manifested itself in a plethora of creative pursuits, all of which have advanced Filipino culture in its own way. “It’s a varied [industry]. It’s not just popular culture, not just popular music. There’s a lot. We have our painters, our sculptors, our theatre.” And no work that’s been produced by any local artist, craftsman or mover and shaker can ever be said to be exactly the same. Even the intention of each piece is different. “There’s work that’s meant to just entertain, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s also work that’s meant to make you think, and make you feel.” Salonga, who’s no snob to the arts, has also admitted to her own fondness for the more light-hearted. Not everything “culturally significant”, she asserts, is necessarily an opus or a think piece. In her own words, “There’s room for the fluffier stuff.”
So, while this virtuoso has managed to create a name for herself—and her country—in the field of music and theatre, she’s not one to take herself too seriously. “There are artists who literally drop dead on stage so maybe that’s my fate,” she jokes. “[But as for my legacy, the only thing] that I want to impart is that I did the best I could. And hopefully this will be enough.”