Lea Salonga has performed on some of the world’s most prestigious stages since her breakthrough role as Kim in the original West End production of Miss Saigon in 1989. Since then, she’s played several leading roles on Broadway, provided the singing voices for Disney Princesses Jasmine and Mulan, and sold more than 19 million albums.
But the 45-year-old Filipina music icon will perform at the Sydney Opera House for the first time next year, supported by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
“You see the architecture of the building and it just makes you cry,” Salonga says. “One, there’s just how breathtakingly beautiful it is, and growing up watching travel videos, you see the silhouette of that building and place that wish in your heart that you’ll get to perform there.
“Performing in a place like Carnegie Hall or the Royal Albert Hall, it feels like one of those venues that a performer needs to tick off — it’s like for a mountaineer climbing Everest or Mount Kilimanjaro. I don’t know if there’s even a word for the kind of emotion that these places evoke in an artist.”
Salonga will also perform at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, and brings with her a catalogue of songs that her fans know and love. She promises there will be the “inevitable” material from Miss Saigon and Les Miserables, alongside some songs she’s never performed in Australia before which have new and thrilling symphonic arrangements.
But Salonga won’t be performing anything from her latest musical project — the Philippines premiere of Fun Home. The musical forthrightly deals with suicide, sexual repression, and featured was the first Broadway musical to feature an openly lesbian protagonist.
Salonga played Helen, the matriarch of the family who’s pushed aside by her secretly gay husband. She says she’d love to do the character’s heartbreaking song Days and Days, but there’s already enough dark material in the concert setlist.
“There would be nights when we wouldn’t get a standing ovation at all, and that would actually be a very appropriate response.”
“It’s really interesting how incredibly well it translated here in the Philippines,” she says. “I would joke around with the director ‘maybe we just do repression better than a lot of people, maybe there’s that?’ I don’t know — I think there are things that are very connected to our culture and how we do things or just how we are that really resonated with a lot of the audiences that came to see us.”
The musical was warmly received in Manila although the response was often a little quieter than Salonga had come to expect from local audiences.
“There would be nights when we wouldn’t get a standing ovation at all, and that would actually be a very appropriate response, because we could see that people were shellshocked or physically and emotionally affected.
“What I did find, when I first watched the show, was that so many people in Manila would be able to totally relate to it. So getting to play that role, and knowing the women who are very much like this character, and pulling from their experiences to create that, it was a tribute to every women I know who suffered at the hands of a philandering, abusive husband.”
Salonga’s career has taken her around the world and seen her perform in many different places with different cultures, and has worked to connect with audiences no matter where they are.
As an Asian actor, she was one of the pioneers of “colour-blind casting” on Broadway, having played Eponine in the Broadway production of Les Miserables in 1993, and later playing Fantine.
“I don’t think the change is fast — no significant change is ever going to happen overnight.”
“I look forward to a time when it really won’t matter. There are many shows in which race and racial relations and being specific with regards to what that colour is — for example Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, The King and I, Allegiance — those shows obviously have race as the uncredited character in the production. But something like Les Miserables — that has nothing to do with race, so you can be more free casting wise. For that show, you find the right person for the role and cast them.”
In 2015, Salonga opened Allegiance on Broadway, set during the Japanese American internment of World War II and inspired by actor George Takei’s personal experiences. It was part of a season which was praised for its racial diversity, featuring shows like The Color Purple and Lin Manuel Miranda’s massive hit Hamilton.
It was seen as a breakthrough season for Broadway, but Salonga is more cautious in her optimism.
“I don’t think the change is fast — no significant change is ever going to happen overnight. There was the last Broadway season, where Hamilton was the big feature, then I look at this season, and it doesn’t seem to be a very diverse season. There may be a smattering of people of colour in shows, but I don’t know if the stories are specifically from people of colour in the way that Allegiance was. I don’t know if we’re going to see a season like 2015 in a while.”
But Salonga is heartened by the success of young Broadway performers such as Phillipa Soo, an Asian-American actor who picked up a Tony nomination for her performance in Hamilton and will star in the musical version of Amelie.
In 2011, Salonga was named a “Disney Legend” for her voicing both Princess Jasmine and Mulan, and is excited by Disney’s latest major movie musical Moana, which follows the brave and determined daughter of a Polynesian chief. While Salonga’s 10-year-old daughter has seen the film, the performer is yet to catch it, but says she listens to the soundtrack in the car with her family.
“The music is really beautiful and I’m just so proud of Lin Manuel Miranda [who composed songs for the movie] … So many musical theatre people are part of that, and it’s so wonderful that there’s this person of colour who is the daughter of a chieftain who is magical, and I can’t wait to see it.”
Salonga is known for not just singing the Disney songs she made famous, but for taking on other pieces, like the mega hit Let it Go from Frozen. So are there any songs from Moana she has her eye on?