DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Winner Lea Salonga, Musical Mondays and News of D'Abruzzo and Errico

DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony Winner Lea Salonga, Musical Mondays and News of D'Abruzzo and Errico News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tony Award winner Lea Salonga.
Tony Award winner Lea Salonga. Photo by Raymund Isaac

LEA SALONGA

One of my favorite aspects of musical theatregoing is the chance to witness several actors take on the same role. The most recent revival of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret was a perfect example. If no one quite compared to Natasha Richardson's Tony-winning portrayal of Sally Bowles, there was something to enjoy in each Bowles I witnessed, including the Sallys of Susan Egan, Molly Ringwald and Jane Leeves. And, while I thought Mary Louise Wilson made a fine Fraulein Schneider, eventual successor Polly Bergen was the most touching and vocally exciting that I saw in the role of the aging boarding house owner.

That said, when Miss Saigon opened in New York, I caught Lea Salonga's title-role performance twice during the show's first year at the Broadway Theatre but never had the desire to catch subsequent Kims. I remember feeling that Salonga's portrayal of the innocent woman who gives her heart to an American G.I. was so perfect that it was nearly impossible anyone could bring more to the part. 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. She also dazzled with her beautiful, pure and often soaring tones, creating one of the great musical theatre performances of the nineties.

In addition to Miss Saigon, Salonga has appeared on Broadway in Les Misérables (she was a wonderful Eponine later in the show's run) and, most recently, in the revival of Flower Drum Song, where she delivered a sensational version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic "Love, Look Away." Now, Salonga is back in New York, set to make her solo concert debut at Carnegie Hall Nov. 7 at 7 PM in a benefit evening for Diverse City Theater Company, a company run by playwrights, directors and actors, whose mission is to encourage diversity in all aspects of the theatre.

I recently had the chance to chat with Salonga, who is "very excited and a bit terrified" about her upcoming concert. "I was a guest [performer] at Russell Watson's concert, but this will be the first time that it's my concert there. I know there's a level of prestige that comes with the name," says Salonga, adding with a laugh, "and to say that you've actually performed there is like, 'Oh my God!'" She's also pleased that the evening will benefit Diverse City Theater Company, where many of her friends — including Artistic and Producing Director Victor Lirio — work. "A bulk of [the company's] work really brings attention to important issues," says Salonga, "issues about women, issues on homosexuality, issues on poverty in third-world countries." Diverse City's Lirio adds, "We believe that the theatre is a profound venue to examine social and cultural issues. Now more than ever, we need to know our neighbors and understand how we are all connected. We want to discover and celebrate what it means to be an American artist in a country that has become larger than the geographical space it occupies; the shared humanity underneath the social and cultural collisions in our daily lives; the stories underneath the issues, stories that are compelling, fun and wise. We strongly advocate non-traditional casting of actors. Our company is young, but our heart is large and our mission ambitious." About Salonga, he gushes, "Lea is one of my best friends — I was her best man at her wedding. She serves on the advisory board of DCT and is a huge supporter of our mission statement. Her artistic achievements are proof that diversity in the theatre works, having successfully and effectively played non-Asian roles in her career."

Salonga's personal musical influences run the gamut from the Carpenters to Frank Sinatra. "Growing up," Salonga reveals, "I listened to a lot of the Osmonds, a lot of the Carpenters, ABBA, Olivia Newton-John. As I got older, I got into Ella Fitzgerald. Now that I'm much older, I'm finding myself getting into Frank Sinatra. I still listen to Ella, [Barbra] Streisand. Those are the singers that when I listen to them I think, 'My God, what impeccable technique. The emotion is just incredible.' I love a lot of the way the older singers used to sing, just really simple, direct and to the point. Michael Buble has that same quality, and I love his voice also. . . . Riffing is appropriate when it's appropriate, but I want to know that the hard work that was put into the song is actually appreciated. I want to hear what that lyric is, I want to hear what that melody line is, where it's going. Sometimes it gets lost when there's too much riffing going on."

Salonga's upcoming Carnegie evening will no doubt offer the technique and emotion that the singer enjoys in others, and the evening will be helmed by Richard Jay-Alexander, the theatre director whose impressive resume also boasts concert stagings for Bernadette Peters, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler. "The first time we worked together," Salonga recalls, "was on Les Miz when I went in many years ago. I remember him being very enthusiastic, very passionate, very hands-on, very emotional and very committed to what he does. And that has not waned in any way in the years that I've known him. . . . He's just very direct, very candid about what he wants from you — how you should do this, how you should do that. He pretty much has that same enthusiasm. He's like a kid in a candy store, and it's so much fun to see that there are people in this business for whom this has not gotten old. For as long as he's been in this business, it's so refreshing to watch him and to interact with him. He's got so much fire, and it's just incredibly enjoyable to work with him because of that."

Director Jay-Alexander is equally effusive when speaking about Salonga. "The reason I was dying to work with Lea on this particular concert," he says, "is there are very few women who can stand on a stage for an evening and deliver the kind of vocal expertise and versatility that Lea can. She has a perfect voice with no break — meaning that she can glide right from the chest to the head voice, and that's a lot of fun for someone like me to play with. . . . Her voice is so pliable. It's a very exciting tool to work with, and anybody — whether they're a musical director or director or teacher — they're only as good as the muse, and Lea Salonga is a beguiling muse." Jay-Alexander also notes Salonga's sense of humor, explaining, "Rehearsals have been really exciting because people don't particularly know Lea to be funny or the versatility that she has. She just makes me laugh, [and] she has some great stories to tell."

Some of those stories will revolve around Salonga's special guest stars for the Carnegie evening, all hand-picked by the star herself. Liz Callaway, Andrea McArdle and Paolo Montalban — on his night off from the Paper Mill production of Cinderella — will duet with Salonga, and each will perform a solo number as well. Callaway, it should be noted, worked with Salonga in the original Broadway cast of Miss Saigon, and like McArdle, Annie was the musical that made Salonga a star in the Philippines, where actor Montalban was also born.

Although Salonga's brother Gerard often musical directs her concerts, the Carnegie event will feature musical direction by The Color Purple's Kevin Stites, who Salonga worked with previously in an evening of Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schönberg tunes in the Philippines. "I just remember [Stites] being really, really fun and charming and talented — very charismatic when he conducted," Salonga says. "You knew just by looking at him what he wanted to get from you. There are some conductors who are completely charmless. You might as well just be a robot in the pit," she laughs, noting, "but there are some that with one look — not so much the size of the gesture but how intense it is when it comes from the conductor — you know exactly what it is he wants from you, which is kind of nice."

Though he won't be standing at the podium, brother Gerard has written several of the arrangements for the 28-piece orchestra, and concertgoers can expect to hear tunes from Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, Chess, Jesus Christ Superstar, Funny Girl, A Chorus Line and Annie, songs from Salonga's Disney outings, a few jazz standards, a Filipino work and, perhaps, a tune from Flower Drum Song, her most recent Broadway outing, which she notes, featured "an all-Asian company, which doesn't happen very often. It was a really special show. It was a revisiting of really old material, and the songs were just beautiful. It was just a really good time. I'm sorry it didn't last as long as we all wanted it to, but we're really grateful to the audiences that did come to see it."

Salonga, who splits her time between the U.S. and the Philippines, also spoke about her nearly two-year marriage to Robert Chien (Chien arrived in New York this week, set to cheer his wife on this Monday night) and how that affects what jobs she will take. "It makes me very discriminating," the actress says. "It has to be really special for me to want to travel and be away for months at a time. It has to be something worth it to me, not necessarily financially, but artistically. . . . The two of us discuss everything. The one thing though that [I'll] always accept is a Broadway show. He always says that the opportunity to do Broadway is just incredible, and if something comes my way again, I'd be an idiot to pass it up because it's just special. He's kind of seeing more and more what New York means to me and how special the city is to me and how special this community is. He understands that if I'm asked to do a Broadway show, it would be very difficult to say no."

And which Broadway shows have recently caught Salonga's eye? "I'll take either one of the ladies in Wicked," she confesses, "I don't care which one! And I'd love to do the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, too. I saw the show, and I could not stop laughing from start to finish. I first heard about it from my friends in Manila who are big musical-theatre freaks. Then I bought the [cast recording] off of iTunes and started listening to it. It was funny already, then when I actually saw it onstage, it was even funnier."

Although her last Broadway appearance was in 2003, Salonga has performed in productions of Proof and Baby in the Philippines. About those experiences she says, "First of all language barriers do not exist. We go from one language to another. We all speak this very unique mix when we're working together, even if the piece is all in English. . . . I'll be singing something like 'The Story Goes On,' and then I'll start crying, and then I'll get teased in Filipino. You just know what the other person is thinking. There's that kinship when I do a show [there]. . . . It's also always an incredible trip when I do concerts at home. It's fun because my brother's usually my musical director, which means at two o'clock in the morning, if I'm up and he's up, he'll call me downstairs to the piano. . . . It's nice because he's the only musical director I can boss around."

After Carnegie, Salonga has a concert scheduled in December in Cebu and then she will head back to Manila, where she now spends most of her time due to the demands of her husband's job. "It's given me the chance to rekindle friendships, watch shows, hang out at rehearsals of friends, get reacquainted with people who I haven't seen in a long time and just enjoy myself," says Salonga. "Usually when I go to the Philippines it's work, work, work nonstop, and now it's not. I think God's giving me the chance to just enjoy my country for awhile."

God has one more blessing for the Salonga-Chien family; the happy couple are expecting their first child in May. But, on Monday night, Salonga's legion of fans will have the chance to enjoy one of the theatre's most radiant stars during her solo Carnegie Hall debut.

[Carnegie Hall is located on West 57th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York City. Tickets, priced $45-$100, are available by calling (212) 247-7800 or by visiting www.carnegiehall.org. Limited VIP tickets, priced $350, include a post-performance VIP party; call Liz Casasola at (212) 309-9018 or e-mail liz@diversecitytheater.org.]

MUSICAL MONDAYS Where can you catch Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Jennifer Holliday, Idina Menzel and other Tony Award winners perform free of charge? The answer: at the Musical Monday evenings held weekly at Splash, the gay bar on West 17th Street.

A good and theatre-loving friend of mine insisted that I attend the musical festivities a few weeks ago, and I had a terrific time not only watching the assorted clips on giant video screens but also viewing them with such an enthusiastic crowd. Although the series has been in existence for nearly a decade, John Bantay, a former Broadway dancer, breathed new life into Musical Mondays about four years ago. "I started working at Splash, doing a little of everything," Bantay told me earlier this week. "I was doing coatcheck and bartending and all kinds of things, and then [Musical Mondays] landed on my lap, which was great because I loved Musical Mondays, and I'd been a fan of it ever since they started doing it."

Splash's owner originally instituted the video evenings because most theatres are dark Monday evenings. "When I first started coming to Splash," explains Bantay, "they would also show comedy stuff like 'The Brady Bunch' and 'The Golden Girls,' and I thought, 'Well, that's not really musicals.' So when I came in, I said, 'It's called Musical Mondays. I really want to keep it that and bring in the hardcore musical theatre fans. We'll do comedy on Tuesday, but Monday was really for musicals."

Although a few theatre-related announcements are made by various Splash managers between the videos, Bantay tries to keep the talking to a minimum. "It's a really hardcore crowd," he laughs, "so if anything interrupts their musicals, they get really upset!" Bantay does, however, try to vary what clips he shows each week. "Over the years," he says, "I've accumulated a lot of material. Thank God I have a lot of friends in the theatre, and they've given me more and more clips to show, a lot of rare ones. What I try to do is remember what I did the week before or two weeks before and throw in something new. At the same time, I have to take care of those people who have their favorites. Every week I have to play Barbra Streisand singing 'Don't Rain on My Parade' or 'Defying Gravity' from Wicked. If I don't do that, then they really kill me!" The night I attended, audiences were also treated to Patti LuPone singing "Anything Goes," the entire opening sequence of A Chorus Line, the original television commercial for Dreamgirls as well as Jennifer Holliday's powerhouse rendition of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," Lea Salonga's lush "Someone Else's Story" as well as clips from the films of "Hair," "The Wiz" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."

What I found particularly interesting was how diverse the packed crowd was. Says Bantay: "A lot of dancers and singers come by and say hello. It's not just gay men. There's a lot of theatre people, there are a lot of women who are in the theatre, there are a lot of women who are just friends or fans of musical theatre. And, again, the diversity of age amazes me. There are young kids in college who come as well as the older crowd who just love shows." And, if you watch closely, you'll see much of the audience singing along with the Broadway stars and even a few who get up and mimic the moves of the on-screen dancers. "Camp" writer/director Todd Graff was also in attendance, and previous evenings have welcomed Sweet Charity's Christina Applegate and Denis O'Hare as well as Avenue Q's Jason Moore and Jeff Whitty.

Bantay, who appeared in the 1995 revivals of The King and I and Hello, Dolly!, says he also dabbles in choreography and still performs "when people call specifically for me. I don't do auditions anymore, and I really don't like to travel anymore. I used to do all these tours, but I'm trying to stay put in New York." With the ever-growing success of Musical Mondays, it looks like the performer may have found his true calling.

[Splash is located in Manhattan at 50 West 17th Street. Musical Mondays runs 8-11 PM. There is no cover charge, although attendees must be 21 years or older.]

DIVA TIDBITS

Original Avenue Q star and Tony nominee Stephanie D'Abruzzo will take a few days off from that Tony-winning musical (Nov. 8-11) to return to her alma mater, Northwestern University. D'Abruzzo and husband Craig Shemin, also a Northwestern alum, will offer "Muppets 101" on Nov. 10 at 7 PM at the University's McCormick Tribune Center Forum (1870 Campus Drive). While at Northwestern, D'Abruzzo and Shemin will also guest lecture and perform in School of Communication classes, conduct chats at the Communications Residence College and show clips of their student and professional work. The various events, according to D'Abruzzo, will explore "everything from Q to 'Oobi' to Muppets and all points in between." D'Abruzzo will return to Avenue Q for the Saturday matinee Nov. 12; in her absence co-star Jennifer Barnhart will play the roles of Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut.

Daphne Rubin-Vega, who created the role of Mimi in the original Off Broadway and Broadway productions of Rent, will return to Joe's Pub next year. Rubin-Vega is scheduled to perform tunes from her forthcoming CD at the intimate cabaret Jan. 9, 2006. Show time is 7:30 PM. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets, priced at $20, are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting the Joe's Pub box office. For more information visit www.joespub.com.

Melissa Errico, most recently on Broadway in Frank Wildhorn's Dracula, will join Marvin Hamlisch and the National Symphony Orchestra for a weekend of concerts at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Errico will be the guest soloist for three concerts entitled Salute to the Silver Screen, which will feature works from "West Side Story," "Titanic," "Singin' in the Rain," "Star Wars," "Jaws," "Gone with the Wind" and "Lawrence of Arabia." Tony-winning composer Hamlisch will conduct the famed orchestra. Show times are Nov. 25 at 1:30 and 8 PM and Nov. 26 at 8 PM. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is located at 2700 F. Street, NW in Washington, D.C. Tickets for Salute to the Silver Screen are priced $20-$80 and available by visiting www.kennedy center.org.

Twenty Tony Award-winning artists can be heard on the premiere recording of the Hanukkah-themed musical The Odd Potato, which features book and lyrics by Eileen Bluestone Sherman and music by Gail C. Bluestone. The new CD, titled The Odd Potato—The Broadway Album, features the talents of Jim Dale, Dan Fogler, Sutton Foster, Boyd Gaines, Debbie Gravitte, Judd Hirsch, Ron Holgate, Cady Huffman, Judy Kaye, Dick Latessa, Hal Linden, Priscilla Lopez, John Mahoney, Donna McKechnie, Michele Pawk, Maryann Plunkett, Hal Prince, Elaine Stritch, Lillias White and Scott Wise. Proceeds from the sale of the recording will benefit Variety — The Children's Charity. The recording is available in select Borders Books and Tower Records stores or on-line at www.theoddpotato.com.

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