BWW Interview: Miss Saigon Star and Disney Legend LEA SALONGA In Concert At The Scottsdale Center For The Performing Arts
On May 17th, the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts presents LEA SALONGA: THE HUMAN HEART TOUR.
To hear LEA SALONGA sing is to travel the connection between the voice and the heart. Her vocal artistry is literally a matter of legend. To converse with her is to engage with a delightfully thoughtful and authentic personality who radiates the spirit of a very human heart.
LEA SALONGA's panoply of credits attests to her well-deserved international reputation as a virtuoso singer with perfect pitch, actress, and Broadway icon. The winner of multiple awards (Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Theatre World) for her breakout performance as Kim in MISS SAIGON, she has also received critical acclaim for her turns as Eponine in LES MISERABLES and Fantine in the show's 2006 revival and most recently as Erzulie in the Broadway revival of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND.
Ms. Salonga has been dubbed a Disney Legend by the Walt Disney Company for her roles as the singing voices of Princess Jasmine in the original animated film, ALADDIN (soon to be seen as a live-action film starring Will Smith) and Fa Mulan in Mulan.
[Interviewer's Note: The Disney Legends award, which Ms. Salonga received, has three distinct elements that characterize the contributions made by each talented recipient: imagination, the power of an idea; the gifts of skill, discipline and craftsmanship; and magic, the spark that is ignited when imagination and skill combine to create a new dream.]
In advance of her concert for Valley of the Sun fans, I had the privilege and the opportunity to talk with this powerhouse of talent about the Tour and her upcoming projects.
Welcome to Arizona! I wanted to say break a leg! But I understand that you already did that during a recent skiing trip in Japan. So, I'm delighted to see that you're back on your feet and on stage.
Actually, I am kind of back on my feet and back on stage. Thankfully, in the concert, I don't have to alter anything for the staging. I hobble my way with crutches, sit on a stool and put my feet up on a box (I'm just wearing sneakers) so that I'm comfortable, and then I start singing a program of about seventeen songs and then call it a night and get back to my hotel room.
[Interviewer's Note: As context for the following conversation about culture, the comments of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND's director, Michael Arden (in an interview with Greg Evans) offer interesting perspective: "I wanted to stretch the boundaries of what we thought gods could be. I was thinking, well, who are gods? We only put genders on them so that we can understand them. The first ask I made was to Lea Salonga, which was an interesting choice being she's Filipino, and the goddess Erzulie in voodoo culture is actually two different goddesses, a black goddess and a white goddess. In the musical it's one character, and so I thought here's an opportunity to open up a race question and give an opportunity to someone who might not otherwise be involved. So that's where I started, and with that I thought I needed to look at other ethnicities so that I could really show the gods as like a colorful mirror to the island world at large.]
Before we talk about the Tour, just a bit of context regarding your body of work. For example, in 2017, you released Bahaghari (which I understand means rainbow), an album of traditional Filipino songs that reflects the different languages in the Philippines and your desire to preserve the nation's culture. How does your cultural background influence your work and the interpretation of your roles?
I like to think that culture becomes a very intuitive thing. It's not something that you think about. You definitely find things within your own culture that melds with whatever culture it is that you're trying to portray ~ whether you're trying to portray something from France or Vietnam or America. I don't think that it's something that I constantly think about. I just kind of interpret it as intuitively as I can and go from what the director wants.
In ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, your character Erzulie sings Human Heart to Ti Moune and Daniel. I imagine that the title of the Tour is an homage to that experience. How have the lyrics of that song influenced the theme and content of this Tour?
I don't know that it actually has. I think maybe the title connects with the content of the song. Because what I'm finding with regard to all of the music in the Tour is that all the songs kind of portray or convey some sort of human emotion. It isn't always just about love. There is passion. There is feeling wonderful and grateful about life just being what it is. There is an extension of one's heart letting someone else know that they are a part of something greater than themselves. There is maternal love. There is romantic and unrequited love. There is something that is sensual. It's all kinds of things. Probably, each of these songs shows a different dimension of the heart. So, that's what makes the title appropriate.
As for the song itself, it has a very specific perspective. Erjulie does sing it for Daniel and Ti Moune. But then, in the way that Michael Arden directed it, it is also sung for this little girl who is being told the love story of these characters. And, you're being told by this person telling this part of the story that it isn't just about the characters; it's also about you ~ that you, this little girl, are as much a part of this as they are. And that made it so much fun and so rewarding to sing every night, because these little girls would just look at me with a face of innocence. They're so impressionable and beautiful, and to be able then to sing this song to them...it was always just such a wonderful experience. And, it didn't matter how I was doing that night, vocally or physically, those girls would make it so rewarding.
As Jasmine in ALADDIN, your character has the spirit of a rebel, determined to find love on her own terms. Then, as Fa Mulan, you're a warrior with something of a similar rebellious spirit. As Erzulie, you're a goddess of love. Are these attributes that we might use to characterize Lea Salonga? Is there a compatibility between the roles you've played and your persona?
Either there was something that drew me to those roles or prompted the directors and the casting directors to cast me in these roles...because maybe they saw a streak of some kind that lent itself to these roles. I don't know...ok, maybe they saw there's this kind of rebelliousness in this woman and in this voice that she has, and maybe it's the right fit or what this character needs.
I don't remember anything that I have done in my past that was rebellious. Instead, it's always going to be something in me that's always going to want to go against what others are telling me because I know that, okay, this is the right thing to do, therefore that's what I'm going to do.
Is there a part of you that connects with Erzulie, the goddess of love?
I think there's some fight in that goddess, too. I mean, at the very end, it's her and Papa Ge who go at it in the battle for this young woman. So, even though in the story line, we see that love wins, it's kind of a battle where these two gods look at each other and go, What have we done to her? So, there really was no winning. That's how Michael directed it. And it made absolute sense, because sometimes, in the games of the heart, there is no winner, and people get hurt. And that's what happened there. In that sense, the capriciousness of these gods and their treatment of the young girl led them all to a result that no one wanted.
Jasmine in ALADDIN was the first Disney Princess to have her speaking and singing voices delivered by two different actresses.
Both times that I did it, I would only sing.
What was that like?
Oh, it's completely fine. (Laughs) I just have to remember the music. And I still get to sing the songs as I'm out on Tour. It's been fantastic, and I got a Disney Legend title out of it, so I can't complain.
Let's talk about the Tour. What can fans expect from this show?
Certainly, they can expect to hear Miss Saigon and Les Mis and the two Disney anthems that I got to sing in the movies. No surprises, I guess, because by the time I get to Scottsdale, social media has covered a lot. But they definitely can expect a variety of other songs.
It's been a rewarding list of songs because they make me feel really fulfilled as far as the sound of the music that I get to do and the kind of music that has been chosen. It's so rewarding. It's what makes musical theatre feel like a right fit. And then, it's incredibly fun to do.
You're off to the United Kingdom in July? Are there any differences in the content of the show for the British audience?
Not too many differences. I think maybe the opening number might be changed or the encores will be a little different. But, of course, we do have our core material.
After the Tour, what's next for Lea Salonga? What's on your dream list?
I'm going to go home. I get home at the end of May and then I head to the UK in July. So, I'll get to take a little break, see my daughter off to school, and have dinners with friends and catch up. Even when I was recuperating from this broken leg, there was a lot of stuff that I wasn't able to do because the doctor said, "No, you have to stay home and stay off that leg for this amount of time," and I had to have physical therapy every day. So, there was a little bit of my social life that suffered a little..so, I've got to catch up on it. And that's what I'm going to do be doing for the month of June before I head off to the UK.
Are there any other major projects on the horizon?
Oh, a performance in Manila in October. That's about as major as it's going to get. Maybe corporate gigs.
[Interviewer's Note: In October of this year, Lea Salonga will be featured as Mrs. Lovett in Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group's production of SWEENEY TODD at The Theatre at Solaire in Manila.]
Thank you. It's been a privilege and a pleasure to talk with you. Oh...and, seriously, break a leg!
Thank you. I have to learn not to take that seriously!
On May 17th, the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts presents LEA SALONGA: THE HUMAN HEART TOUR.
Photo credit to Raymund Isaac
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts ~ https://www.scottsdaleperformingarts.org/ ~ 7380 E. Second Street, Scottsdale, AZ ~ Box Office: 480-499-8587