When Filipina actress and singer, Lea Salonga, first appeared on the international theater scene, she was only seventeen years old.
Her Cinderella story has become theatrical legend, as young girls recount Salonga’s West End and Broadway debuts in the original productions of the Tony- and Olivier- Award-winning musical, Miss Saigon.
Today, after an extensive career in onstage and offstage productions— including voicing some of the most beloved singing voices of several Disney princesses— Salonga has crafted a seasoned cabaret career.
From concerts in Manila to Los Angeles and beyond, Salonga has made her own, solo mark on the concert circuit.
This May, Salonga returns to New York City to Feinstein’s/54 Below for a record-breaking, 15-day concert engagement.
How do you feel to return to New York City?
Once I get over jet lag, it will be great! [Laughs] I hate jet lag. I travel with my daughter, so her jet lag becomes my jet lag, and it’s not always the most fun thing to experience. But she’s being a trooper! I have to give her that.
You probably already know this, but you are breaking records with your upcoming engagement at Feinstein’s/54 Below. What was your reaction when you found out you soon will have the longest tenure of a show at the venue?
The longest tenure is crazy! I think [the record now] is 14, and we are breaking it with 15 [shows]. We are just being naughty [Laughs].
We are doing 15 shows, and I don’t think I have a night off! The way that the show is constructed is that I do have my break. It’s a pretty easy show to sing. It doesn’t drive me insane, even if I have to do it twice in one day, it’s fine. It’s going to be a lot of fun, I think, for the audience and for one. We are just doing the exact same set we have done in the previous year.
You just completed performing as Helen Bechdel in Fun Home in the Philippines. Are there any moments from that musical you anticipate weaving into your solo show?
No, I don’t think so. It’s tough to pull from the stuff my character got to do. The real easy song to pull out from that show is “Ring of Keys.”
To pull “Days and Days” out of context is hard because there is so much that she refers to in the song that you need to have watched the rest of the show prior to that in order to get that. It’s a tough one! I am perfectly happy having just sung it in the context of the show.
Do you find that there are songs you sing that are cathartic for you, similar to how Fun Home is cathartic to many audience members in both the Philippines and the United States?
I think when I sing “Song for You/I Can’t Make You Love Me,” it’s just a really mashup to get emotionally involved in. Also when I get to sing, “I Won’t Mind.” I think the first time I sang it, I was like, “Oh my God.” It just kind of hits you. It’s a lot.
What would you like your audience to take away from your show at Feinstein’s/54 Below?
I just want people to have a good time. I want them to go on an emotional ride with me, but it is not like Fun Home where I am trying to get them to cry, or at least try to understand what that woman is going through.
I think for this is that it is not necessarily a deep and emotionally involved evening. It something you can enjoy with your dinner or with your dessert— because, my God, the food down there is so good.
Just keep on ordering everything! Please, just eat and enjoy the show. The plantains and the guacamole. That’s what we always order when we are down there.
Doing 15 shows with no break is different than doing 8 shows a week on Broadway. How do you prepare for that, mentally and physically?
I take it show by show. I take whatever my condition happens to be that day, I sing the best I can under those conditions.
It’s kind of what doing a show on Broadway has trained me to do. If you are feeling a little under, you know how to technically pull everything out and pull things together. That’s kind of the training I have, and it’s great training because theater does require a lot of discipline.
Doing a cabaret show, it requires it’s own set of rules; it has its own discipline. But I can wake up in the morning and go, “Oh, it’s not a Broadway show today. It’s just an hour of singing and 15 minutes of banter.”
So, it’s not as crazy. I go home; I rest. And my husband will be back in town, so it is not always on me to take care of our daughter; he’ll be here, too. It’s always much easier. When he gets here, though, he’s going to have the worst jet lag! By then, Nicole, my daughter, and I will totally be adjusted to New York time [Laughs].
I have to ask you about this show because it is around the corner from Feinstein’s/54 Below. Miss Saigon is back. Have you seen it yet?
I saw the London production in 2014. I have not seen the 2017 Broadway version. I don’t know if it is different at all; I am going to try to see it! But there are so many other shows to see.
There are limited runs of everything. I want to see Jake Gyllenhaal! I want to see Judy Kuhn. I want to see Sunday in the Park with George. I have heard about the meat pies over at Sweeney, so I want to go see that.
It’s apparently really good, and the pies are really good! I’ll probably just get a sitter and go. I definitely want to see that show. The stuff I know I can catch up on later… I’ll probably reserve anything I know I will see when I return.
What is one musical from which you draw inspiration as a performer?
I just sang a collection of songs in Manila from Dear Evan Hansen. That is all giving me life. I guess it is whatever I happen to be seeing at the moment or finding some sort of relation to the story.
I sang the Waitress song, “She Used to Be Mine.” Oh my gosh. That song. It is a heart trip, I’ll tell you that. And then there’s Hamilton, and singing “Burn” from Hamilton. I am definitely going to have my almost-eleven year old see that while I am here.
See Lea Salonga live, onstage at Feinstein’s/54 Below starting May 9th until the 22nd.[Feature Image Courtesy Raymund Isaac]