Lea Salonga: National Treasure
She knows what it is like to play a role and transform into someone else. She has been a bargirl in war-torn Vietnam, a grisette turned prostitute in the streets of Paris, and a middle-aged wife to a closeted homosexual, among other things.
All her efforts have catapulted her to a pedestal on the international stage, permitting her to tread a path that many would only ever dare to dream of. Her turn as Kim earned her a Tony Award—becoming the first Asian woman ever to receive one—a Laurence Olivier Award, and a Drama Desk Award. In addition, she was also the first Filipino artist to sign with an international recording company and receive a major album release. One can only imagine how much pride she is giving her home country.
Now older and wiser, Lea’s artistry (though she continues to perform very well in such areas) has transcended both awards and album sales. “Contrary to how some people may think, artists are not here to simply entertain,” she says. “As performers, part of our job is to step into another person’s shoes and see what it must be like to live a lifetime in them in the span of a couple of hours. The characters we play allow our audience to see things through someone else’s eyes—and, hopefully, help trigger a change.”
BRIGHT YOUNG THING
Music has always played a big role in Lea’s life. She grew up listening to ABBA, The Osmonds, Michael Jackson, and Olivia Newton-John. Performing itself was second nature to her; even as a child who’d had to audition for big names—the late Zenaida Amador easily comes to mind—the concept of stage fright was rather alien. “I was a six-year-old with a smart mouth who liked singing,” Lea recalls in jest. “I didn’t have a very clear idea of what exactly I was supposed to do at the time, but there must have been something in me that made me worthy of a callback.”
Though she was already earning a living at such a young age, Lea still went to regular school with minimal special treatment. She also had the support of both her parents, though her late father often stressed the importance of finishing school. However, pursuing further education was put on the back burner when the casting calls for Miss Saigon came into the picture.
Before Miss Saigon, Lea found herself struggling to find her place in the industry. She was different from the local artists that were also emerging at the time, and couldn’t seem to find a genre that truly suited her. “I couldn’t really pin a label on what I was and the direction my career was heading towards,” says Lea. “I also had to consider the idea that what I was doing might not necessarily be palatable to the Philippine market. Trying out for Saigon helped me find my niche. It made me realise that musical theatre was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
To help educate herself on the role, she reached out to people who had experiences similar to Kim’s, a character very far-removed from her personality. “I think the only thing Kim and I had in common was that we were both like fish out of water,” Lea quips. “Outside of that, nothing. The director said I was very good at being angry and protective, but I was having trouble embracing the romance angle.” She went the same route for Les Miserables’ Fantine, where she sought the advice of Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, who had previously portrayed the character. It’s a tried and tested strategy she continues to use today.
Outside of building her career, Lea also found herself embarking on a journey to find herself. For a time, she had lived in the United States accompanied by her mother, which gave her a sense of home. “Once you reach a certain age, you have to do your own exploring,” Lea reflects. “You have to form your own opinions and figure out who you are without parental influence.” The newfound freedom was empowering; her small day-to-day accomplishments encouraged her to keep making things happen for herself.
TO GREATER HEIGHTS
As a seasoned veteran in the music industry, Lea has gotten to enjoy many perks, including the opportunity to work with some of the best musical directors in the world. She is happiest, however, in the company of her brother Gerard. “As professionalism dictates, conductors and artists are very respectful to each other,” she says. “But with Gerard and myself, it’s a different dynamic. Whether we’re on or offstage, we’re still brother and sister. I throw him under the bus every chance I get, but he takes it all in stride because he’s the funnier, more playful one between the two of us.”
Gerard and Lea’s unique rapport also allows them a particular efficiency as a pair. For Lea, it has nothing to do with talent or chops, but rather the simple fact that she has known him for most of her natural life. There is little or no filter between the two; one only has to say little for the other to understand. “I do enjoy working with all these great minds, but Gerard is Gerard,” says Lea fondly.
In addition to her still-growing roster of projects abroad, Lea has several Philippine-based projects as well. She was in the country last November 2016 for the limited theatrical run of Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir Fun Home and is a coach on the televised reality singing competition The Voice of the Philippines. On The Voice, Lea gets to put her mentor hat on, passing on the lessons she has acquired throughout the years to young hopefuls looking to make it in the industry.
“When you’re mentoring on The Voice, you have to see how far a particular person can get with a song,” says Lea. “For me, it’s alright to have the occasional bad rehearsal, but they need to be able to deliver during performances because that’s when it counts. That is where there is an audience, so the performers have to be at their best and give it all they’ve got.”
Even though she’s had several seasons to learn how to steel herself for making the cuts, it is still hard for her to send contestants home; it can even be heart-breaking. Still, she leads Team Lea with a firm, guiding hand; she is here to encourage, to teach, to push—and she will be your biggest cheerleader if you meet or exceed what is expected of you.
Nowadays, she is no stranger to the role of stage mum. Her daughter Nicole also has an interest in musical theatre, and flits to auditions every now and then. “My husband [Robert Charles Chien] and I aren’t putting a huge amount of pressure on her—we want her to try things out and to have fun,” says Lea. “The bigger overarching lesson that comes with such experiences is that she’ll be able to understand how long it can take to do something really well.”
THE BIGGER PICTURE
As one of the most outspoken public figures today, Lea has always been firm and articulate in expressing her opinions. As an artist that performs regularly in the United States, it is inevitable for her to have an audience that consists of voters from both sides of the political aisle.
Though she leans Democrat and has openly opposed certain ideas on Twitter (“I’m very vocal over there; these are just the flags we fly,” she quips), she affirms that the concert hall is not the place to get up on one’s soapbox. Though the current socio-political climate sometimes has her on edge, circumstances, coupled with the roles she has played in Miss Saigon and Allegiance, have sparked a curiosity in her. “As an actor whose job involves doing the requisite research to portray a character properly, I’m growing more and more interested to see what else there is in these stories that explore historical conflicts,” she says.
Although it isn’t a priority at the moment, Lea sometimes finds herself entertaining the thought of going back to school. The humanities—history and philosophy, in particular—and communication arts have always interested her, and there are some facets that she feel would be beneficial to explore as a student.
In spite of her busy schedule, Lea still finds time to kick back and relax. When she has time off, she enjoys trying all kinds of restaurants (their growing list includes Michelin Star spots and recommendations from friends) with Robert, who shares her adventurous taste buds. She is an avid gamer, too; the ever popular Final Fantasy XV is currently keeping her occupied. “It’s the game that never ends!” she exclaims. “I love being in charge of a world and getting to complete quests using my hero. It’s really fun.”
The secret to her longevity is her incredible talent. Though she is an artist so admired all over the world, Lea is glad (and in her own words, flabbergasted) that there is a demand for her, still. “Show business is an incredibly fickle creature,” she observes. “Nowadays, it seems to favour the youth, so there’s the idea of an expiration date looming ahead for some of us. But to be 46 years old and still have concerts that sell out; and to still be considered relevant and inspirational feels pretty cool.” This is what drives her to keep up with the demands of the profession as well as to stay on top of her game.
She remains in love with what she does, and isn’t actively seeking to try things that are too out of her repertoire. “Performing onstage is my high,” Lea says. “I do what I do because I sympathise and empathise, and I believe that theatre can change people. Heck, even the ‘happy’ shows can stir something in an audience. If what I do leads someone who may not be so open-minded to re-evaluate their views, then I’ve done my job as an artist.”
- PhotographyBJ Pascual
- StylingMonique Madsen
- Set DesignPrincess Anne Barretto
- Make-UpDon de Jesus of MAC Cosmetics
- HairJaymar Lahaylahay