Salonga as Grizabe in CATS

The Soprano

Award-winning singer Lea Salonga talks about Broadway, touring and her future as a mentor.


Growing up in the Philippines, Salonga learned to sing American pop songs since around age three from an older cousin who would babysit her. She soon became the star at family parties, and at age seven, made her professional stage debut in the King and I.

“I always knew I could sing, and I always was singing,” notes Salonga. “It wasn’t really this big epiphany on my part. It was something I just always knew how to do.”

Listening to Salonga’s voice, it’s clear that she was born to sing. She recorded her first album at age 10, which was certified gold in the Philippines, took part in many other stage productions, and acted in various films and TV shows, including hosting her own musical television show called Love, Lea. But her big break didn’t come until she was 17, when after an extensive worldwide search, she was ofiered the lead role of Kim in London’s West End award-winning production of Miss Saigon.

A pre-med student at the time, she moved more than 6,000 miles away to the United Kingdom and instantly became an international star, captivating audiences and earning the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. A few years later, she moved with the show to Broadway in 1991, and garnered more awards, including the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and fleatre World.

“When I was younger, I never thought I would do a Broadway show, it’s not something that was ever on my radar,” she recalls. “It was something that I knew was possible for people here [in the U.S.]. I would see the Tony awards on TV in Manila, but I did not see myself as one day being one of those performers that would appear on the Tonys and actually win one. It was not in my stream of consciousness.”

Off-stage, she recorded more albums, made appearances on more TV shows (such as ER and As the World Turns), and was the singing voice of princess Jasmine and Mulan in Disney’s popular animated films Aladdin and Mulan. She also continued to make history when she became the first Asian to play Eponine in the musical Les Misérables on Broadway, later returning to the show as Fantine in the 2006 revival.

“I think definitely Kim in Miss Saigon was a highlight in my career, it’s the one that really kicked the door open for me,” says Salonga. “But also Les Misérables is a big highlight because that was the first time someone with my ethnic background was cast to play a traditionally Caucasian character, which kind of opened the door for non-traditional casting for that show.”

Just this past February, Salonga spent her 42nd birthday performing on Maui followed by a concert on O’ahu the next night. With Hawai’i’s large Filipino community, countless trips to the islands and extended family residing here, Hawai’i has become a special place for Salonga. She and husband Robert Chien (who is from California), along with their six-year-old daughter, Nicole Beverly, visit once a year, at the very least.

“My husband has quite a lot of family in the area, so it makes it less of a vacation spot for me because I’m not just going to see the sights, I’m going to see loved ones,” she explains. “When I’m over there, it has a very different mental and emotional connection. It’s all about local restaurants, local spots, and not about the touristy areas. It’s really more about priori-tizing visits with family and with friends.”

Of course, the beautiful surroundings and weather also are her favorite things about the islands, as well as the friendly people and local food, including sitting in Like Like Drive Inn, eating saimin and Spam.

“My hair doesn’t really frizz up in Hawai’i because I’m from a much more humid place,” she adds. “And I like visiting the beach. I’m not the biggest beach person, but listening to the waves is very relaxing.”

When she’s not working, Salonga enjoys reading, listening to music and discovering new restaurants. She’s also a video game fanatic. “Right now it’s Assassin’s Creed, she confesses. “I kind of have to put it away, or else I would not get any sleep or anything done. When my husband and I started dating, he had a PlayStation and I think I ended up going on it more than he would. I would play Final Fantasy or the snowboarding game, and he would just kind of hang and put his head on my lap and fall asleep.”

Home is in the Philippines, but Salonga spends much of her time on the road. To remember her many travels, she collects refrigerator magnets, particularly from new shows and plays she’s been to. This month, she has performances scheduled in California and at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. After that, she’ll head to New York for a workshop for Allegiance, a musical she’s been working on with George Takei; then it’s a concert in Japan.

“As far as what I’ve laid out for myself to do, I think I’ve done quite a bit that I’m very, very proud of,” she says. “As far as any other goals, eventually I would like to mentor young performers. I’ve done that on a small scale in Manila, but I’d like to do that more.”

She adds, “I’d like to think that I have something to share, that I have something to impart to somebody younger whether it’s truth about the business, about performing and kind of what the expectation is of a performer.”

She says to succeed in the business, you need to have a good sense of humor and the hunger to really want to do it.

“There are so many talented people but not everybody is hungry or persistent or passionate,” she says. “You have to want it bad, almost to say you want this more than food, more than sex, more than air.”

Looking back, she says she probably had that fire in her when she was starting her career, and it’s a flame that continues to burn. “You have to love it and I really still do,” she says about her work. “I would not be doing it for this long if I didn’t.”

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