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Lea Salonga, From the Heart

December 5, 2017 by Niree Noel
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Photographed by Nathan Johnson

On an unseasonably warm November morning, Lea Salonga breezes through the red velvet lobby at Circle in the Square, where she’s in the final stages of rehearsal for her role as Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, in the Michael Arden-helmed revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once On This Island, which opens Dec. 3. We lock eyes for a moment, but she walks with such purpose, I let her pass. Later, as a stagehand leads me past the last-minute detritus of a production about to start performances and into Salonga’s dressing room, the petite performer exclaims, “We made eye contact upstairs! Why didn’t you chase after me?”

Such is Salonga, a humble force since her explosive debut as the inexperienced bargirl Kim in the West End premiere of Miss Saigon in 1989. Since then, she’s become one of the most recognizable voices, both on the screen and stage. She’s won an Olivier and a Tony (the first Filipina to do so), and she’s voiced not one but two Disney princesses, Jasmine and Mulan. From Broadway to L.A., London to Manila and Singapore, she’s sang the songs we all know and love from Les Misèrables, Cats, Into the Woods, Flower Drum Song, and Cinderella. That a star of her success and stature exhibits a certain level of professionalism is no question; that a star of her caliber could also exude genuine warmth and positivity sometimes is. But whether she’s glammed up in a black ball gown and hot pink stilettos at our photoshoot at the historic Carlyle Hotel, or dressed casually in blue jeans, bright sneakers, and a grey hoodie in the dressing room she shares with co-star Merle Dandridge, Salonga exhibits an engaged curiosity that immediately diminishes any sense of intimidation.

Island director Arden says that while some may “pretend to play it cool with Princess Jasmine in their midst, Salonga is, simply put, our show mascot.” He adds: “I’ve never worked with an actor who has been so game and excited to be working and trying new things. She is an inspiration for the entire company, both in attitude and in work ethic.”

Her dressing room is cozy yet spartan, with a selection of snacks below one counter and a few makeup bags arranged beneath the mirrors with those quintessential bulbous lights. Steam tendrils flow out of a diffuser, overwhelming the room with calm. Salonga swears by essential oils since her doctor’s wife introduced them to her in Manila a few years ago. Her collection includes the basics like oregano — “anti-viral, great for if you’re in an older theater” — and blends from Young Living, her preferred brand, with such names as Valor (for relaxation) and Thieves (for the immune system). She diffuses them, drinks them diluted with a liter of water, and rolls them on her body before heading into rehearsals. They keep her chest warm, she says. Plus, they smell really nice.

Is that one of the tricks she has for taking care of that signature voice of hers? She thinks for a brief moment, leaning back in her black swivel chair. Her answer to this question is not pretentious or complicated. Instead, she says, “When I’m alone in my apartment, I don’t talk. I watch a lot of cartoons or play video games.” From Adult Swim to “Assassin’s Creed,” Salonga launches into a discussion of intelligent yet artful characters and emotional narrative arcs in various mediums. And what it all comes down to is love.

Photographed by Nathan Johnson

“One of the unique aspects of Once On This Island is that the people who created it over twenty years ago are able to look at their work again. You approach the same subject with a different lens,” she says. This is often her modus operandi when she writes reviews for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. To Salonga, “revival” doesn’t mean a reboot by comparison or a sequel-esque extension. Instead it means looking at a subject from an entirely new perspective.

“Erzulie is not a role I could have played earlier in my career. I’m playing the Goddess of Love, and love evolves over time to mean a lot of things,” she explains. “It’s not just romantic love — it’s family and friendship and forgiveness too. In Miss Saigon, love was easy. But as you get older and become heartbroken or hardened, love becomes one of those difficult things.”

If this sounds heavy for a conversation between virtual strangers, it’s not. If it seems out of place in a sand-covered theater full of bright costumes and unconventional instruments, it’s not. If it doesn’t seem to make sense coming from an accomplished artist who beams when speaking of her family and whose eyes light up as she describes the peace of mind she has now that everything has fallen into a “good groove,” it most definitely does.

“Life is so unpredictable,” she says, after taking a moment to muse on where life has taken her. “You never know what’s going to bite you in the ass.” Salonga considers “biting you in the ass” to mean meeting your future husband when you least expect it, like when you’re doing a show in L.A. post-breakup and experiencing some serious adrenaline highs and post-performance lows. “God had plans for me,” she says, simply. Those plans included marrying a man she endearingly calls a “muggle” (as in, a non-theater artist), having a daughter, and moving to Manila, where she lives near both her brother, the musical director Gerard Salonga, and her mother.

Salonga speaks frequently and highly of her mother, a “caretaker par excellence,” whom she texts every day. “Early on, my mom made sure that I still had the time to be a somewhat normal kid,” she says. “She took it upon herself to take care of me so that I could do my job. Now, she’s doing the same with my daughter like, ‘I got this.’” Salonga’s daughter debuts in a Manila production of Matilda at the same time Salonga is opening Once On This Island.

Her mother was the central figure in helping Salonga keep her life in order as she lay the groundwork for her career. Later, when her brother moved to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music, Salonga and her mother did the same for him. Cooking, cleaning, shopping — everything. Now, even if her apartment looks like a disaster zone, Salonga makes sure to make her bed each morning. “It mentally does something when you come home to a made bed after a long day,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh! I remembered to take care of myself today.’” Sometimes, when the mood strikes and she’s trying to wind down, she’ll cook something her mother would make. Traditional cuisine? “Comfort food,” she responds, clarifying that in this instance, comfort does not necessarily mean hearty but instead means something that anchors her heart and tethers her to home.

Perhaps it’s interesting that Salonga has to remember to care for herself, but that caring for others comes naturally. Arden recounts a decision made during tech to bring Salonga onstage in a moment that she would typically have been backstage. He says that instead of mourning the loss of brief downtime, Salonga rejoiced for the opportunity to watch a part she loved, night after night. “Lea is an actor who cares more about what the other actors onstage are doing than what she herself is doing. This is one of my favorite traits in an actor. They are reactive as opposed to self-centered,” Arden says, adding: “It’s always honest.”

As a judge on the The Voice and The Voice Kids in the Philippines, and as the mother of a burgeoning performer, Salonga muses on the significance of talent, the necessity of hard work, and the temptation for adults to push children to a point where that talent might dissipate, or become corrupted. According to Salonga, the talent in the Philippines is “amazing, just incredible.” She sings this last part with such selfless ebullience in her voice, you almost want her to recognize something special in you, just so she’d root for you too.

If a clear portrait has not yet emerged of just how grounded and just how real Salonga is, let’s look to her whistling Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry” at Bemelmans Bar, where she asked everyone from her manager to our photographer about their upcoming travel plans. Or later, posing in the narrow space between panels of a revolving door, as she darts out of the way and exclaims, “You’re fine! You’re okay!” when a passerby accidently turned the doors on her. Or the cheerful “hey-a”s that pepper this interview recording, as her dressing room door was open while we spoke, and each passing person received a moment of felicitous acknowledgment from arguably the biggest star in the cast.

Or perhaps it’s this bit of advice that she gives her daughter, which she says she’d give to her younger self, that could apply to anyone with aspirations of anything, really: “Get as much as you can get out of the experience. Enjoy yourself, and have fun.” For Salonga, it seems that getting as much out of the experience means fully immersing herself in the theatrical world, from reviewing productions to discovering new talent to continuously creating and performing. “It’s not that I need to constantly be doing this, but I’m comfortable doing it. I’m happy when I’m onstage,” she says. Then, she adds, “When the work you do is fun, it’s a little like Christmas every day.”

Photographed by Nathan Johnson

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