Lea Salonga

Lea Salonga talks about her glittering career as she heads to Manchester and York

by Geoff Ford

Lea Salonga, award-winning singer, actress, Disney Legend and the queen of musical theatre is heading to The Opera House, Manchester and York Barbican, in July, on her first solo UK tour. The tour coincides with the thirtieth anniversary of her move to the UK to rehearse the role of Kim in the original West End production of Miss Saigon launched a glittering career.

“That was a massive opportunity,” Lea told me. “It’s something that I’m going to be eternally grateful for because it launched my career internationally. I consider the whole thing as one very large and on-going adventure and there doesn’t seem to be any signs of it stopping. It all started from that one musical and everything that has come after that is all because of Miss Saigon.”

Miss Saigon opened in the West End in September 1989 and 18 months later Lea premiered the role of Kim on Broadway but before that she was a child star at home in The Philippines. Lea made her professional debut at the age of seven in Manilla.

Lea Salonga
Credit: Rhodes Media

“One of my cousins told my mum that there were auditions for children for a local production of The King And I and I got in. Then I kept getting hired when I auditioned for other musicals with that same company. That got the ball rolling with recording, television and film and I was 17 when I auditioned for Cameron Mackintosh when he came to The Philippines. I headed to London to start working on the show when I was 18.

“I had been abroad for holidays but not in the way that this was going to happen. A long term move to another country to be working on a musical was just massive. It was something that I’m not sure I was completely prepared for, it forced me to grow up a little faster than I thought I would,” she admitted

“I had a really great voice coach that helped me to figure out the proper way of singing, especially for doing musicals eight time a week. She really fixed how I sing and it’s thanks to her that I’m singing in a very healthy and proper way. She has, basically, saved my voice.

“The pressures of the show, the demands of the show on my body and my voice, that was the part that was tough, but being in a city like London – that was beautiful! Everyone was very kind, I do remember people being very kind to my mother and to me. It is something that I will always remember with fondness.

“And then, I moved to New York and, with all due respect to the UK, it felt like home! It’s a massively fast-paced, crazy city to be in and it was one that I did not expect to feel like, ‘Ok! This is where I’m going to live for the rest of my young adult life!’

By now Lea was known to a much wider audience and had come to the attention of Disney who cast her as the singing voice of Princess Jasmine in the 1992 animated film Aladdin and, later, as the lead character in Mulan and Mulan II. For these performances Lea was named, in 2011, as a Disney Legend. Jasmine and Mulan were strong role model characters and Lea says she is blessed to have been chosen for these roles.

“Because these films are easy to access there are many generations of children that have seen both movies and I got to play two princesses that were people of colour. Being a person of colour and giving voice to these two characters of colour, it was really quite something. I didn’t realise the impact at the time, for me this was the job, sitting here in my kitchen, now, and looking back on it, what those characters represented and what they mean in the world today, they are princesses, people of colour, and they have a lot of young women look to them, heroes, strong and somewhat influential in their own way. On some level every little girl is able to relate to every Disney princess but these two in particular, and Pocahontas, are strong women of colour. For them to be the kind of women they are, and how they were crafted to be, it’s a blessing to be involved in their creation in some way.”

Now a major international star, Lea was cast in the role of Eponine in Broadway, West End and US tour productions of the classic Les Miserables and, in 2007, returned to the Broadway show as Fantine. As Lea recalls, life in musical theatre can be very demanding.

“Yeah, oh yeah. Aagh…” she sighs. “This is probably what Hamilton is to a lot of young people now. It’s a musical that you know all the lyrics to, for any character, and I’m talking about the 3 hour 15 minutes version of it – not the shorter version, not the film, not the new production but the old one! That’s the one that is still stuck in my head.

“It’s emotionally draining and demanding. Eponine (1993, 1996) has it’s own demands but playing Fantine (2007) would zap me of all of my energy by the end of the show. I dropped, I don’t know, how many pounds. I was pretty fit when I started the run but by the time I ended it they had to make everything so much smaller,” she laughs, “because I was also climbing barricades and running up and down the stairs and walking to work. It was a long run and it had demands on my body. Without even trying I lost a lot of weight. It was a physically draining, emotionally exhausting role to play. I saw pictures of myself while I’m doing that play and I thought ‘Oh, my God, what happened to me?’” she laughs again. “Wow! I really was tired!”

Alongside all of these major roles, Lea was having a parallel recording career and appearing in numerous television, film and other musical theatre roles collecting Laurence Olivier and Tony awards for Best Actress in a Musical among a host of plaudits.

After a skiing accident earlier in the year, Lea is now returning to the UK for a solo tour and looking forward to catching up with some old friends along the way.

“I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a lot of fun,” she said. “I was supposed to come to the UK in February, in the middle of winter, but I broke my leg and my doctor said I couldn’t travel.

“The cool thing about coming to the UK in general, and having the tour end in London, is the timing of it. I think I have friends in almost every stop. We’ve kind of built a little holiday in between a few of the stops so that I can get some rest, enjoy good food, just hang out and not worry about getting myself ready to perform the following day. It’s nice to space everything to have a holiday in the midst of it all. Which is great! It will be the summer and the weather will be, hopefully, co-operative and I’m really, really excited. I just hope the pollen count won’t be too harsh!

Lea Salonga visits The Opera House, Manchester on Saturday 13 July and York Barbican on Thursday 18 July.

For more information please visit cuffeandtaylor.com/events/leasalonga/