An Interview with Lea Salonga

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No stranger to the New York stage, Tony-winner Lea Salonga will make her Carnegie Hall debut on November 7th in a highly anticipated concert. I spoke to the star to get the scoop on that 'bound to be memorable' night, 'Wicked', what else she's been up to...and lots more!

Last seen on the Broadway stage starring in the acclaimed revival of Flower Drum Song, I picked up with the star where she left off in New York, and asked her about that experience. "It was great! First of all, it was wonderful to be part of an all-Asian company. It was also a nice reunion, because I got to perform with a lot of my friends that I had done Miss Saigon with. Best of all, was to be doing a show on Broadway again - it always is!"

Since then, aside from getting married, the star has been working all over the world. "I've mostly been doing concert work recently, in the Philippines and elsewhere. I also did a musical in Manila - Baby - which was a trip because it was so much fun."

In addition to her work on stage, Salonga's also found herself in a place you're less likely to think of her – behind the scenes. "I've also started coaching a few younger people in other musicals, while holding the hand of a friend of mine who was doing the same thing. That friend of mine who was directing a production of Beauty and the Beast, and called me in, along with another actress friend, to help the 'Belles.'

As he put it – 'the two of you both know what it's like to be ingénues and leads in shows, so your experience will be invaluable to these two young girls who've never done this before.' In we went, thinking that, at most, it would be a day or two of work and we wound up going almost every day for weeks, because we found ourselves to be deeply entrenched in the show."

How entrenched was she? Entrenched enough to keep tabs on their progress, even when work called her away. "When the show was up and running, I had to leave to do a concert in Munich, Germany, which was a Leonard Bernstein tribute, where I had the amazing experience of getting to sing Maria in West Side Story. I kept in touch with all my friends back in Manila in the show, and my coaching partner would be giving me all the news on what was happening at Beauty and the Beast on a daily basis. It was a fun experience, and it's certainly something that I want to continue doing throughout the rest of my life. It fueled my passion for performing while I coached them, and have found it to be extremely rewarding, and very satisfying. It puts a smile on my face when I see somebody that I've helped along 'get it,' or to understand on the same level that I understand things."

While she's teaching these younger performers, and sharing her experiences – she's also learning from them as well. "I'm kind of feeling my way around it all, and my acting teachers in LA really inspired me because these guys are fantastic at what they do, really inspiring, and really passionate, and just infectious with how much they love their work, so I kind of caught the bug. One thing that I learned, is that you can't coach everybody in the same way. When I'm doing a one-on-one with somebody, I have to speak in a language that that person can understand, using a vocabulary that they instantly get, and I always have to feel my way around to figure that out. It's a lot of fun, and it's also really challenging – challenging in a different way from performing. In performing, I'm in control of everything, and if something goes wrong it's totally my fault. When I'm coaching somebody, once they're on stage I have no control, and I feel more afraid – because there's nothing that I can do to help them if something goes wrong. When it's just me, I know that if something goes wrong, or I hit a bad note, or I trip or a costume change goes wrong – and those things are always going to happen - all I have to do is to calm myself down, and fix things. I can't do that though when it's not me, so I'm like 'Oh my God, what is she going to do? What is she going to do? I'm panicking; help me… help me…' I've had that happen, and it's an awful feeling, but at the same time – when you see them get through it, relatively unscathed, I breathe a sigh of relief."

Traveling the world throughout her career has given Lea some perspectives on the world, and on its varied audiences that many other performers don't get to experience. What's universal is how they show their appreciation for great shows. "I think that if an audience is truly appreciative of a performance, they will show it. Sometimes though, there are little differences, and there are audiences that are very reserved even though they are enjoying the show. In many places, there are audiences that are really enthusiastic, and really display their admiration and their love for your work without any reservations. I try to take into consideration that there are audiences in certain countries, like the Philippines that may be very reserved because it's culturally like that. Here in New York, a lot of audiences are very demonstrative, which is really wonderful. I'm able to gauge how I'm doing based on that, which is nice and also very encouraging. In terms of level of appreciation...I think that it's the same everywhere."

At the moment, Salonga is back in New York preparing for her next career milestone, which takes place on November 7th, as she makes her Carnegie Hall debut – to benefit the Diverse City Theater Company. So how did it all come about? "When my friends at the Diverse City Theater Company called me and asked me if I'd do it, I said OK right away and we were off. It was pretty much that simple, because the head of Diverse City (Victor Lirio) is one of my best friends, so it didn't take a lot of convincing. I'm on the advisory board, and I'm just a very staunch supporter of the people who are involved with it. A lot of what they do is focused on socio-economic issues using theater. I saw rehearsals for a show that I wasn't able to see, called The Female Heart, and it attacks issues regarding homosexuality, regarding women, how women can be treated, also love for family members and all from a very Filipino perspective. It's a theater company that encourages people that have something to say – it's not just entertainment and it's not just fluff. Their efforts are noble and these are people who are very passionate about what they do...so out of support for that, I said yes to doing this."

The concert represents a few reunions for Salonga as well including bringing her back together with an individual who helped to shape the early part of her career – director Richard Jay-Alexander. "I first met Richard when I was still doing Miss Saigon, and he was one of the Executive Producers working out of Cameron Mackintosh's office, but I really got to work with him when I went into Les Miserables. That's when we really got to know each other, and that's when I really got to know him better. He's really hands-on in his directing style, and he doesn't leave very much to chance. He really likes being in the thick of things, and is passionate about what he does." The pair has kept in touch over the years off and on, with the past few months being very on – after he agreed to direct. "We were all brainstorming about who would be the best person to do this, and his name came up. We called him and he said yes pretty much immediately, and have been working ever since. He started working on my concert by watching all of the concerts that I had done in the past, and picking out from each show what he loved, and eliminating what was not needed, or what he hated. He was very frank, and very honest about things which I really appreciate. I want to put on as great a show as I can, and I like that he is very candid, and very honest about what will work, and what won't. The thing is that he comes from a lot of experience directing other wonderful artists like Barbra Streisand, Bernadette Peters, and Bette Midler, so he's got that under his belt, and he definitely knows what he's talking about. He's coming from the point of view, where he has so much experience, but he's able to let my voice still speak. You'll see Richard in the show, in how clean it is, the clothing, and in how well ironed out everything's going to be. But, at the end of the day it's still my show and he always lets the performers stand out and their voice be heard."

Carnegie Hall also brings Salonga back together with musical director Kevin Stites, who worked with her on a special Manila concert of The Music of Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. "I just remember him being very charismatic, very professional, and just incredibly talented so he was the perfect person for this as well."

The team has been hard at work on the concert for several weeks now, and all early signs point to a Carnegie Hall hit. "Richard and I have been going through a lot of the songs and he'll be like 'I love this, this is sublime, this is magical, this is wonderful, let's revisit this song, let's think about this song, what do you think about this song?'. We've really been putting ourselves through all that lately, and I'm very happy with how it's turning out. There's definitely going to be stuff from Les Miz, and Saigon, which goes without saying. I don't want to spoil too much else, but I can tell you that I'll be doing the song that I sang at Standing Ovations IV (Where is Love? / As Long As He Needs Me), but the fully orchestrated version of it."


It certainly sounds like audiences are in for quite the treat. So what does the star hope the crowds come away with? "I'm hoping that audiences come away from the show going 'Wow – where has she been? What has she been up to? We haven't seen her in a while. Oh yeah, she can sing!' I just hope that audiences come away with an appreciation for what I do, and for what my countrymen can do by extension. Singers over there are ridiculously talented – as in RIDICULOUS. I watch singers over there, and I think 'how in the world do they do that?' I'm kind of filled with awe and wonder at how talented people back home are. I hope that audiences will also come away having been, in some way, affected by the music that I sang, that they'll have a good time, and hopefully, say – Oh, we want to see her in another Broadway show!"

As expected, there's definitely interest for Lea in returning to Broadway, and she has her sights set on one show in particular as well. "I'm interested in just about anything that's right for my voice, and that's a good fit for my personality in the part as well. Evita has always been a dream part for me, but it's really, really high to sing. I'd LOVE to do Elphaba, heck – I'd even do Glinda. For me, I'd do anything to get into Wicked! I'll do either one, I just want to be in that show! Also, if they ever revive Les Miserables, I'd love to do Fantine since I've done Epinone. I'd like to play the other dead girl!"

Perfect casting if you ask me, and a perfect opportunity to get the star, who's been performing since childhood, back to the Great White Way. Where did it all begin? "When I was about 6, my cousin was very active in a Filipino repertory company, doing musicals and plays. Her aunt was one of the founders of the company, and she told my mom that there were these auditions for The King and I, and that they needed kids. I auditioned, got in and the love affair started from there and just kept going. In fact it's the longest relationship that I've had!"

That relationship gets taken to the next level at the November 7th concert for which a limited number of tickets are still available. So...will she be singing anything from Wicked on the Carnegie Hall Stage on November 7th? You'll have to be there to find out. For more information, visit http://www.leasalonga.com, or call 212-247-7800.



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From This Author Robert Diamond