Maria Lea Carmen Imutan Salonga was born on February 22, 1971 in Manila in the Philippines. In her native country, Lea made her professional stage debut in The King and I at the age of seven. She would go on to star in Annie in 1980, and a string of other Filipino productions followed, including Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, and The Fantasticks.
Lea's international breakthrough came in 1989 after being cast in Cameron Mackintosh's world premiere production of Miss Saigon in London's West End. She played the leading role of Kim and won the Olivier Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical in 1990. In March 1991, she reprised her role and made her Broadway debut in Miss Saigon at the Broadway Theatre. She went on to become the first Asian woman to ever win a Tony Award, also picking up a Drama Desk Award and Theatre World Award in 1991.
In January 1992, she became the first Asian woman to play the role of Éponine in Les Misérables on Broadway. Later in her career, she returned to the musical in the 2006 revival, becoming the first actress of Asian descent to play the role of Fantine from March to October 2007. She also starred in both the 10th and 25th anniversary concerts of Les Misérables (as Éponine and Fantine, respectively) in London.
Lea has also garnered great acclaim for her work with the Walt Disney Company, providing the singing voices for two Disney princesses. She played Princess Jasmine in 1992's Aladdin and Fa Mulan in 1998's Mulan. The company awarded her "Disney Legend" status in 2011.
She returned to Broadway to play Mei-Li in the Broadway revival of Flower Drum Song from September 2002 to March 2003. Salonga later starred as Kei Kimura alongside George Takei and Telly Leung in the Broadway premiere of Allegiance from October 2015 to February 2016.
Since finding fame, Salonga has returned to the Philippines to perform on many occasions, with her credits including starring roles in My Fair Lady (1994), Miss Saigon (2000), Proof (2002), Baby (2004), Cats (2010), God of Carnage (2012), and Fun Home (2016). Other notable stage credits in Asia include the 1994 Singapore production of Into the Woods and the 2008 Asian Tour of Cinderella. She has also been a regular coach on the Filipino version of The Voice and The Voice Kids.
As a recording artist, Salonga has released a total of 10 studio albums since her debut, Small Voice, in 1981 and has sold over 19 million copies of her albums worldwide.
Lea returned to Broadway as Erzulie, Goddess of Love, in Michael Arden's 2017 Broadway revival of Once on This Island, beginning performances on November 9, 2017. She continued in the role through June 24, 2018 and reprised the role for the production's final performances from December 27, 2018 through January 6, 2019.