DIVA TALK: Chatting with Les Miz Star Lea Salonga Plus News of LuPone, Cook and Kuhn

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Les Miz Star Lea Salonga Plus News of LuPone, Cook and Kuhn News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Lea Salonga as Fantine in Les Mis
Lea Salonga as Fantine in Les Mis Photo by Joan Marcus

LEA SALONGA
Lea Salonga, who boasts one of the purest voices in the musical theatre today, burst onto the international theatre scene in 1989 when she created the role of Kim in the original London production of Miss Saigon. Salonga would later repeat her success in the 1991 Broadway production of that Alain Boublil/Claude Michel Schönberg musical. In fact, Salonga won both Olivier and Tony awards for her heartbreaking performance of a young mother who sacrifices her own life for that of her child. This writer was lucky enough to catch Salonga's performance several times — both during her original Broadway run and when she returned to the show nearly a decade later — and she was never less than thrilling, giving a haunting, moving and beautifully sung performance that was one of the theatregoing highlights of the '90s. In fact, Salonga possessed such a perfect mix of wide-eyed innocence and steely determination that one never questioned that this young woman would go to any length for her child's welfare.

At the time she was playing mom Kim to young son Tam in Saigon, the Philippines-born actress was single; now, Salonga is married to Robert Chien, and the couple welcomed daughter Nicole into the world this past May. Last week Salonga told me, "I wish I had [experienced motherhood] when I did Miss Saigon, all of the experiences and emotions that go with it."

The recent birth of her daughter, however, has greatly informed her performance in her latest Broadway outing — Les Misérables' Fantine, another ill-fated mother who sells her locket, her hair and eventually her body to help care for her young daughter Cosette. Salonga has succeeded former Renter Daphne Rubin-Vega in the role that was created for London audiences by Tony and Olivier winner Patti LuPone and for New York theatregoers by Tony winner Randy Graff.

Salonga, who joined the cast of the Broadway revival of Les Miz at the Broadhurst Theatre March 2, spoke with me during her brief rehearsal period. "I first sang [for the role of Fantine] for Claude-Michel Schönberg when I was eight months pregnant," the singing actress laughs. "Later on, way after I gave birth I sang again for John Robertson, who is in Cameron Mackintosh's office in Australia. I guess he gave Cameron a positive assessment and reported back saying that I would be good for the part. The wheels started going in motion, and here I am."

Fantine, Salonga admits, was actually not a role that she had particularly coveted. "I was always obsessed about [playing] Eponine, and then I got to play her [on Broadway and in the West End], and [the producers] made my dream come true. Fantine never really entered my mind until people started talking that perhaps it would be a good idea, and then I started thinking about it." Fred Hanson, an associate director and executive producer of the current production of Les Miz, guided Salonga during rehearsals. "The great thing about how he's been steering me along," she explains, "is that given the constraints and the context of the show, we're trying to be as faithful to the original novel as we can be. I read the Fantine pages of the novel I don't know how many times . . . . It's just gut-wrenching to read . . . [and] jarring to read, and it's also a little jarring to play. I'm trying to stay as close to how Victor Hugo painted her and envisioned her and created her, and sometimes that means going to an emotional place that isn't always comfortable or pleasant or sweet or lovely. Sometimes it's going to some of the darker places of one's mind and heart and trying to get all of that out."

Salonga says she regrets not having read the Hugo novel before she played Eponine during the musical's original Broadway run, so "[for] Fantine I really wanted to get back to read the original material and see exactly who she is. I've seen so many Fantines — I've seen it played so many different ways, so in my mind I'm thinking, 'Okay, I really should read the book' so that I really know how this person lived and breathed in the pages of this novel, rather than going by how Patti LuPone created her or how Randy Graff created her, and the many, many Fantines that have come and gone throughout the 20 or 21 years of the show's existence.

"I wanted to read the book and figure out who she was from reading it. It's really been interesting, and the great thing also is . . . [I'm] not married to any staging that has been created in the past by anybody. I'm not a peg that's being put into any of the holes. It's been like, 'Do what you feel. Do what your instincts tell you. Do what your gut tells you. . .' Obviously, there are certain spots and certain areas on the stage where I have to stay in for either lighting purposes or the sets, but for the most part, I've been given a lot of free rein to create this part. So, in a way, I'm sort of starting from scratch, which is really nice."

When asked to describe Fantine, Salonga says, "She can be a bit of a dreamer. She can be somebody who finds herself in her own little world from time to time, and she keeps going back to the good experiences of her life, even though her life is turning into a hell of sorts. She's somebody who's just fiercely devoted to her daughter and will do anything [for her]. As we all know in the story, she sometimes does the unthinkable just in order to send money to her daughter — and in the novel she sells her teeth. It's something that nobody in this day and age can relate to, but if you've got to grasp onto the blade of a knife, you will. And, in that case, she did in order to send 40 francs to her daughter."

As Fantine, Salonga also gets to wrap her beautiful and powerful voice around one of the rich score's best offerings, "I Dreamed a Dream," which has been recorded by dozens of performers. Like the role, the Tony-winning performer also approached the song by reading the Hugo novel. "I spent many nights crying into my bed and into my pillow [after reading the Fantine pages], and once I opened my mouth to sing 'I Dreamed a Dream,' it was just never the same. It didn't feel the same, and it became more interesting for me to do."

Salonga also recently released her latest solo recording, "Inspired," which is available as an import on amazon.com. The CD, she says, features "ballads, certainly — not a whole lot of musical theatre, but they're all richly orchestrated songs. A lot of them are covers, a couple of originals. The album is in English, and [we had] a really good time recording it." The recording — which features such tunes as "When October Goes," "My Foolish Heart," "Brian's Song," "Sing" and "Waiting for Love" — has already gone gold in her native country.

When asked about her solo Carnegie Hall concert debut in November 2005 — a superb evening where Salonga proved her mettle singing nearly three hours' worth of tunes mostly drawn from the musical theatre's past few decades — the singer says, "Oh my God, it was nuts! It was absolutely nuts, but boy, it was an incredible, incredible experience. I couldn't believe I had done it — and three months pregnant."

The moment that most stands out in her mind from that evening, which was directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, was "singing 'I Still Believe' with Liz Callaway. . . . I think the audience reaction was something that neither of us expected. It was just something special because it had been maybe 13 or 14 years since we sang it together [in Miss Saigon], and when we did, it was as if we were just transported back to 1991. It was as if no time had passed. It was incredibly emotional and really wonderful."

Salonga and Callaway, in fact, will reprise that tune for the upcoming Nothing Like a Dame benefit concert March 19 at the Marquis Theatre. "We're re-creating, I guess, that moment, but I won't be pregnant anymore, so it'll be easier for me to sing," she says with a laugh.

Future plans for the multitalented actress include the title role in an Asian tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella and, Salonga says, "once Nicole is a little older, maybe we'll start working on another child."

[Les Misérables plays the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street; call (212) 239-6200 for tickets or visit www.telecharge.com.]

DIVA TIDBITS
Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone will guest star on an upcoming episode of the hit series "Ugly Betty." LuPone will star as Mrs. Weiner, Marc's (Michael Urie) mom, on an episode titled "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which will also feature an appearance by Judith Light (as Claire Meade). Scheduled to air March 22 on ABC-TV from 8-9 PM ET, the episode is described thusly: "Marc, promising to help Betty with inside info for Daniel, convinces her to pretend to be his 'girlfriend' when his suspicious mom, Mrs. Weiner (LuPone), arrives in town. Things go from bad to worse when Mrs. Weiner invites herself to dinner at the Suarez home and Betty's whole family has to play along with the charade. Meanwhile, Daniel and Alexis struggle to work together after their mom - who actually owns Mode - names them co-editors-in-chief of the magazine." Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell and country music star Reba McEntire will reunite for three concerts of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific this summer at the Hollywood Bowl. Mitchell and McEntire previously performed the roles of, respectively, Emile de Becque and Nellie Forbush, in a concert of the 1949 musical at Carnegie Hall. That evening was filmed and subsequently broadcast for PBS's "Great Performances" series and released on CD by Decca Broadway. Mitchell and McEntire will again inhabit those roles at the California venue on Aug. 3 and 4 at 8:30 PM and Aug. 5 at 7:30 PM. David Lee will direct the concerts, which will feature Paul Gemignani conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Additional performers will be announced at a later date. The Hollywood Bowl is located in Hollywood, CA, at 2301 N. Highland Avenue. Tickets, priced $7-$147, are available by visiting www.hollywoodbowl.com.

Casting is nearly complete for the George Street Playhouse's upcoming production of the award-winning William Finn musical Falsettos. The company will feature Max von Essen as Marvin, Liz Larsen as Trina, Colin Hanlon as Whizzer, Mark Nelson as Mendel, Malcolm Morano as Jason and Sarah Litzsinger as kosher caterer Cordelia. The George Street mounting of Falsettos, which features March of the Falsettos (Act One) and Falsettoland (Act Two), will be directed by artistic director David Saint with musical direction by Joshua Salzman. Performances will begin April 10 and run through May 6. Tickets are available by calling (732) 246-7717. For more information visit www.GSPonline.org.

Barbara Cook's Spotlight, a cabaret series curated by and featuring the Tony-winning actress, will kick off the new Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts season Oct. 19 with a solo performance by Cook. Other concerts in the Spotlight series at the Terrace Theater will include evenings with Judy Kuhn (Oct. 26), Lillias White (Nov. 16), Brent Barrett (Dec. 28) and Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner (April 11, 2008).

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.