Interview with Tony Award winner Lea Salonga

Lea Salonga with Alex Newell and Merle Dandridge in Once on This Island

Tony Award winner Lea Salonga is a Broadway fan favorite, who shot to international musical theatre fame back in 1989 when she was cast as Kim in Cameron Mackintosh's world premiere of Miss Saigon in London's West End. After winning the Olivier Award, she made her Broadway debut in the production in 1991 at the Broadway Theatre and added a Tony Award to her list of accolades. Since Saigon, she also became the first actress of Asian descent to ever play the roles of Éponine and Fantine in Les Misérables on Broadway (in 1992 and 2007, respectively) and starred in the 2002 Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song and the 2015 Broadway premiere of Allegiance.

As a recording artist, she has sold over 19 million albums to date and she was also awarded "Disney Legend" status in 2011 for famously lending her vocals to not one, but two Disney Princesses - Jasmine and Fa Mulan - in the Disney animated classics "Aladdin" (1992) and "Mulan" (1998).

On November 9, 2017, she returned to the Great White Way to take on the role of Erzulie in Michael Arden's much-adored Broadway revival of Once on This Island at the Circle in the Square Theatre. We recently caught up with Ms. Salonga to find out if the Goddess of Love is still in love with the Great White Way, 27 years after her Broadway debut...


Lea Salong at the 2017 Tony Awards
(Photo by Tom Millward)

Once on This Island has been one of my ultimate highlights of this season. How is life on the Island now, five months into the run?

Life on the island is beautiful. It does make all of us feel very proud. Doing this production nightly, we’re so proud of all the work that we’ve done. Some people have to take a couple of days once in a while just to recover and recuperate. It does have its strains on the body and the voice. Those vocal orchestrations are not easy to execute. But it’s such rewarding work and it’s a wonderful company. Everybody’s having such a great time from stage management onwards. It’s such a lovely place to go to work every day!

And you even have a couple of goats to keep you company as well… and a chicken!

(Laughs) Yes! Goats, chickens, children… We’ve got everything!

And it’s not your first time at the rodeo, Lea, having won a Tony Award for Miss Saigon, starred in two different productions of Les Mis, and Flower Drum Song and Allegiance to boot, how would you compare this Broadway experience overall to your past Broadway ventures?

I think it’s safe to say this is the most unique experience compared to all of the others which all seemed like very straightforward, traditional musical theatre experiences. This one is very different. Yes, it’s straightforward in terms of its musical theatre form, the music and the book, but everybody in the audience is totally immersed in this environment. The show is in the round, which already makes it a unique experience, and because there is a pre-show, we kind of bring the audience into our company and we are also free to interact. You see the sand trampled into the steps as you’re getting to your seat. You feel the wind. You see the water. You’re as much a part of the experience as the actors are. There really isn’t a huge gulf between the audience and the actors. We get pretty close to them. At any one point, I can be singing and I’m just a foot away from somebody who paid $100 to watch this. It’s very different from anything I’ve done in my past and I think it’s safe to say that it’s very different from anything currently running on Broadway.

The original Broadway premiere of Once on This Island was back in 1990. In your opinion, what made it such a timely decision to revive the musical for this season?

It seemed more than coincidental that there were so many natural disasters, happening one after the other. It was like a divine intervention that was telling us that this was going to be a very timely piece. The power of rebuilding isn’t just about bricks and mortar. It’s about people telling stories about resilience. The cool thing about this particular story is that this peasant girl goes through so much for love. Despite all the things that happen to her, she still chooses love. And she does it with elegance and that is a beautiful thing for any young woman to see. There is this dark-skinned, beautiful girl who has been elevated to the level of four gods that were so capricious. They were all dismissive of her in the beginning, but in the end embraced her and elevated her. That’s how I see it. Ti Moune was not able to enjoy the love that many generations later, people take for granted. But she was able to break the walls and the barriers between light-skinned and dark-skinned. That’s a symbol of being able to create an environment of racial integration and she is making that happen for generations after her. It’s quite a powerful thing and empowering to be able to witness that every day.


Lea Salonga in Once on This Island
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

Speaking of empowering women, Lea, a lot of our readers will know you as a Disney legend, famously lending your vocals to two iconic female characters - Princess Jasmine in “Aladdin” and the title character in “Mulan”. Of course, Disney’s Aladdin is still playing to packed houses on the Great Way, but do you ever foresee a Broadway musical adaptation of “Mulan”?

Ooh I don’t know. There’s already a junior version which is mostly done by schools or children’s theatre companies, but I don’t know if it’ll ever make it to the Broadway stage. But there is going to be a live-action movie of Mulan.

I hope you’ll get to sing in that one too…

Oh I think my time with Mulan is done, but I certainly wouldn’t mind a cameo! It’s live-action, so I would love to actually appear on it. If they decide to recruit some of the old folks from the animated movie, that would be great, but in the end, it’s really up to the director to make the best movie they can.

There are two other new musical revivals playing on Broadway – Carousel and My Fair Lady – which are your competitors this awards season. How confident are you and the rest of the cast in terms of that “Best Revival of a Musical” category?

I haven’t seen either of those two other revivals yet, but they are two scores that I love. The funny thing is this: the first musical that my brother ever conducted was Carousel in the Philippines and I actually got to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady in Manila. So these two musicals have great sentimental value for me personally. They are definitely two shows that I’m planning to see. I mean, these are timeless musicals. And there’s always some kind of lesson they can teach audiences of today. For example, in every Rodgers & Hammerstein show, there was a lot of stuff they couldn’t always be very direct about. Some stuff they hid in the music or in the librettos. So it’s up to this generation to figure out what they were hiding and see how much weight you can place on those things. But as for awards season, I suppose we’re expecting the worst but hoping for the best. That’s all anyone can do.


Lea Salonga with Alex Newell and Merle Dandridge in Once on This Island
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

Once on This Island Tickets are available now for performances through to December 30, 2018.

(Header photo by Joan Marcus)