By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly
Before she won a Tony Award for her acclaimed portrayal of Kim in the hit musical “Miss Saigon,” Lea Salonga captivated audiences inside her childhood home near Manila.
“One of my earliest memories was singing at family parties,” said Salonga. “Whenever somebody asked me to sing, I kind of just did.”
The Filipina discovered her love for music at an early age and received some of her first lessons from a close relative.
“When I was 3 or 4 years old, my cousin, who lived a couple of streets away, would come over to our house to babysit me. She’d bring over her guitar and teach me pop songs,” said Salonga.
Salonga’s angelic voice and precocious talent quickly gained attention across Manila. At the tender age of 7, she made her professional debut as a cast member in the Repertory Philippines’ musical production of “The King and I.” She earned the lead role in “Annie” and roles in “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Sound of Music,” among other shows. Singing and acting on stage came naturally for the rising star.
“I don’t remember having stage fright. I was too young to really know anything,” said Salonga. “I just remember that it was fun.”
Salonga’s parents began to see their daughter’s potential as a recording artist. They bought studio time, hired musicians, and booked sound engineers so that Salonga could record her first vinyl single. Unfortunately, pitching the single to record labels was no easy feat.
“My mother went to different recording companies to see if anybody would release it, but they all turned her down,” Salonga said. “But she would not give up.”
Salonga’s mother descended upon Raon Street, a Manila thoroughfare lined with record stores, in hopes of convincing shop owners to buy copies of the single.
“We printed and pressed I don’t know how many pieces of vinyl,” said Salonga. “Then my mom went from store to store, and all of these stores would order [my record]. Before we knew it, they would call saying they had run out of pieces to sell and would ask to order more. And it just kept on going from there.”
The young artist’s popularity continued to soar. In 1981, at the age of 10, she released her first album, entitled “Small Voice,” which received a Gold certification in the Philippines. She then starred in her own variety television show called “Love, Lea” for about two years and appeared in several Filipino films, before releasing her second album, “Lea,” in 1988.
Salonga’s biggest break came in 1989, when she successfully auditioned for the lead role in the new musical “Miss Saigon,” which was set to open in London’s West End, the British equivalent of Broadway. The casting team held auditions in Manila after a search across the United Kingdom and in other countries failed to turn up a star.
“I think there was a full-page ad for the auditions in one of the Manila newspapers,” said Salonga. “I remember it was a really big deal.”
The president of a singers’ union in the Philippines called Salonga’s mother, urging her to enter Salonga into the auditions. However, her mother had strong reservations.
“My mom was skeptical because of the reputation that a lot of overseas producers had — that they were ‘fly by nights’ who took advantage of young girls. Then the lady on the phone told her, ‘No, no, no. These are legit producers. They are the people behind ‘Les Misérables,’ ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ and ‘Cats.’ They aren’t messing around.’ ”
As a pre-med student at the prestigious Ateneo de Manila University, Salonga was torn between pursuing her college career and seizing the opportunity to perform on a world stage.
“I was 17, in my freshman year in [college], so I really wasn’t interested in auditioning for anything. I was trying to be single-minded in pursuing my degree. I was a biology major, and all I wanted was to go to school and finish that, and maybe sing whenever I could,” she said.
After receiving blessings and encouragement from family and friends, Salonga entered the “Miss Saigon” auditions in Manila, impressing the panel of internationally known producers, directors, and composers.
“I was extremely nervous,” she recalled. “I could feel my knees knocking against each other. I was terrified.”
Salonga was invited for final assessments in London and, following her return to Manila, was ecstatic to learn that she had been selected among more than 100 women to play the lead role of Kim in “Miss Saigon.”
“Thankfully, I got a lot of support from my parents in my pursuing the singing career, especially from my mom,” said Salonga. “I think that she [initially] wanted me to take a more pragmatic route — as in, finish college, get a job, make sure [I had] a steady source of income, that kind of thing. But I think that all went by the wayside when ‘Miss Saigon’ happened.”
About 15 other Filipino actors were also selected for various parts in the production and joined Salonga on her journey to London.
“I was thankful that we were a pretty big group heading over, so I didn’t feel like I was all alone in this,” said Salonga.
Despite Salonga’s extensive singing and acting experience, she faced a steep learning curve upon her arrival in London, as she sought to embody her role as a Vietnamese bar girl romantically involved with an American G.I.
“I lacked a lot of life experience that someone at the age of 18, you would presume, would’ve had by then. I mean, I’d never really had a boyfriend, so there was a lot in that role that I had not experienced,” she said. “It took a long time for me to figure out exactly what they wanted me to do, and it took physical demonstration from the director to actually get me to do these things … But once I got it, that was it.”
“Miss Saigon” premiered in London’s West End in September 1989 to critical acclaim. About one year later, the musical moved to Broadway in New York.
“By the time I got to New York, it was like, ‘Oh, okay. We’re talking [about] a whole different ball game. This is Broadway,’ ” said Salonga. Just two months after “Miss Saigon” opened in the Big Apple, Salonga received the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.
“Winning it felt incredible. It was — I don’t know if I can describe it — it was just crazy,” said Salonga. “My brother was sitting right beside me and we held hands, and when my name was called, we both were just jumping up and down. We were both incredibly, incredibly happy.”
Salonga enjoyed continued success on Broadway over the next several years, but she also endured her fair share of adversity.
“I was on Broadway at a time when non-traditional casting was almost non-existent. And [there would be times when] I would be called in to audition for a show, and then a few minutes later, my agent would call and say, ‘Oh, they won’t see you because you’re Asian.’ And I thought, ‘I grew up in a place where being Asian didn’t matter because everybody else was. But now, I’m in a place where being Asian does matter … It was a very interesting thing to think about,” she said.
One of Salonga’s proudest moments came when she earned the role of Éponine in the musical “Les Misérables” in 1993, becoming the first Asian to play the part. She especially enjoyed performing one of her all-time favorite songs, “I Dreamed a Dream,” before a Broadway audience. To Salonga, it was her chance to prove naysayers wrong.
“It was like, ‘I’m Asian, but here I am, cast in this role, and I’m going to do the very, very best that I can to show that non-traditional casting does work. And I’m going to sing this song and you’re not going to forget it.’
So it’s kind of an attitude and a mindset that I put upon myself,” said Salonga.
Salonga was later invited to sing at the 10th and 25th anniversary shows of Les Misérables, which she considered a great honor.
Off Broadway, Salonga often lent her talents to Disney, providing the singing voice of Jasmine in the animated film “Aladdin” and of Fa Mulan in “Mulan” and “Mulan II.”
“Oh, it’s always fun,” Salonga said, of working for Disney. “The nice thing about being a voice for a character is that you really don’t have to look your best to be at your best. [There is] no makeup. You walk in, open your mouth, and perform. It’s really fun to be able to do that.”
Salonga also gained satisfaction in knowing that children in future generations will get to enjoy her music through the films.
“It feels great that, in a way, my voice kind of transcends time … Generations and generations of kids will get to see it. It’s amazing,” she said.
Salonga experienced her own fairy tale in 2004, when she married Chinese-Japanese businessman Robert Chien on a sunny winter day in Los Angeles. The pair met while Salonga was a cast member in “Flower Drum Song” several years prior. Salonga still lights up when she thinks back to their special day.
“I think it was just the most beautiful day ever,” she recalled. “I remember my husband crying a lot on [that] day, and I remember my brother laughing a lot while escorting me down the aisle with my mom. It was just a lot of happiness,” she said.
The couple welcomed a daughter in 2007, and to Salonga, being a mother is her most coveted role.
“Oh, it’s fun. The older she gets, the more fun it is,” she said.
“[Our daughter] has a really incredible vocabulary, and she’s incredibly funny. She’s a goof ball. She’s really goofy,” said Salonga, laughing.
“My husband asked at dinner [recently], ‘Honey, why are you such a goofball?’ And she just looked at him and said, ‘I have no idea. I guess I was just born this way!’ And it was just so hilarious, and we’re just thinking, ‘This is coming out of a 5-year-old!’ We were both just taken aback at just how witty the answer was.”
Salonga said that her daughter already understands the difference between the real world and the acting world. She even knows that when she sees Jasmine or Mulan singing on the screen, it is her mother’s voice bringing them to life.
“She’s completely aware that’s what mommy does. She’s absolutely aware that that’s mommy’s voice, so it’s no mystery as far as [movies] are concerned,” said Salonga. “She also understands costumes and understands it when people pretend to be other people. She gets it, and she gets that mommy has to be a character. She doesn’t like watching people kissing, though. She thinks, ‘Ew, yuck!’ and turns away. She’s still a kid.”
Salonga is adamant about letting her daughter choose whichever career path she pleases when she grows up, whether it is in the arts, sciences, or any other field. But for aspiring artists who wish to pursue a career in musical theater, Salonga urges them to never give up. In fact, in her 1991 Tony acceptance speech, Salonga dedicated her award to “everyone back home who dreams of winning a Tony.” She hopes that her success continues to inspire.
“A lot of people back home were really happy when I won, and I think that a lot of young people felt strengthened to pursue a career in musical theater,” said Salonga.
The Broadway legend currently divides much of her time traveling back and forth between performances in the United States and the Philippines. She hopes to get more involved with theaters in her home country — where she got her start at stardom.
Salonga also looks forward to meeting her fans and aspiring artists when she visits in Seattle on April 13. She said that fans could expect a diverse and exciting set list consisting of Broadway musical numbers, Disney favorites, Filipino hits, and pop or rock songs.
“I just have fun with the repertoire. I include things that people may not expect me to sing. It’s just a lot of fun,” she said.
Guests may even find themselves on stage, singing with the Broadway star, as she often invites a volunteer on stage to join in a duet.
“Oh, that’s always fun to do. I almost always just ask someone to sing ‘A Whole New World’ with me, so chances are I’m going to do it again.” (end)
Lea Salonga will perform in concert at the Moore Theatre in Seattle on Friday, April 13. For more information, please visit www.stgpresents.org or call 1-877-784-4849.
Evangeline Cafe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.