DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony Winner Lea Salonga

News   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony Winner Lea Salonga
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Lea Salonga
Lea Salonga Photo by Ronnie O. Salvacion

Lea Salonga fans are soon in for a big treat: The beautiful-voiced singing actress, best known to theatre fans for her Tony-winning turn in the title role of Miss Saigon, will make her New York cabaret debut in the intimate confines of the Cafe Carlyle March 9-27. Salonga, who was last on Broadway as the ill-fated Fantine in the epic musical Les Miserables — where she delivered an emotional, heartbreaking version of "I Dreamed a Dream" — will be backed at the New York nightspot by a small band led by musical director Larry Yurman. Her upcoming show, which is entitled The Journey So Far, will find the Philippines native performing an eclectic mix of tunes, including works from the musical theatre, the Great American Songbook, movie musicals and even a few Filipino songs. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Salonga; that brief interview follows:

Question: When we last spoke, I think you were in rehearsals for Les Miz. What was that experience like, playing Fantine?
Salonga: I loved it so much! I had such a wonderful time.

Question: After singing "I Dreamed a Dream" every night, what is your reaction to the Susan Boyle phenomenon?
Salonga: I'm really happy for her.… I think everybody knows now how her audition went where she was pretty much dismissed on the basis of her looks until she opened her mouth. And so at the end of the day, I think it gave a lot of performers much-needed inspiration. Here's somebody who they were ready to pretty much throw out until she started to sing. At the end of the day, talent does win out.

Question: Do you watch any of the singing competitions like "American Idol?"
Salonga: I used to watch "American Idol" regularly, [but] because I've been working and I've been traveling [and] the Olympics are on now, nope! My priorities are the Olympics that come only once every four years. [Laughs.]

Question: What sports do you like to follow in the Olympics?
Salonga: In Winter Olympics, I really like watching the snowboarding. The half-pipe is beautiful. There's an artistry that goes with creating those leaps and those jumps and how much control you actually have to have in order to do that great of a run. Shaun White was fantastic last night. Watching last night, I'm like, "Oh, my God! That's a lot of air!" And, I also love watching figure skating, of course. It's so pretty. Question: Now you're getting ready for the Carlyle gig. Have you performed in small clubs before?
Salonga: I may have done, but nothing like the Carlyle, I don't think. I was looking at a photograph of the room, and I don't remember performing in a room quite like that.

Question: What are your thoughts of playing a smaller venue rather than a concert stage?
Salonga: There is an intimacy that you can't achieve in a concert stage or in a music theatre venue. You're basically invading everybody else's personal space, especially those sitting in the front row closest to you. [Laughs] It's really nice, though, because you seem to not to have to work as hard to reach the back of the room. The back of the room is no more than 20 or 30 feet away from you. So you really can just concentrate on interpretation and melody and song and not have to physically exhaust yourself trying to get to the back of the house. It's a different type of energy that's required, and it's something I'm looking forward to. It's kind of like performing onstage versus performing on film. I think this is the happy medium between the two.

Question: Who is directing your show?
Salonga: Dan Kutner is directing, and Diana Basmajian is writing the show. I think there were just a whole lot of names being thrown out. I was asking for suggestions, and people were saying, "Try this person, try this person..." I spoke to both Dan and Diana, and I thought, "I can't decide between these two." So my manager was able to make it so that I got to work with both of them.

Question: Is the show going to be autobiographical?
Salonga: We're meeting today to figure all that out, how to sequence the songs and how to put everything together. I'm meeting with my musical director today and with Diana today to figure out how to piece all of these things together, what kind of a through-line we can establish with the repertoire that we have and see what each thing has to say and how to say it.

Lea Salonga in Les Mierables
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Will you be doing new songs?
Salonga: New, as in I've never done them before. Things like "My Romance" I've never done, things like "Let's Fall in Love." These are songs that I've never, ever done, in a concert or anywhere. We're doing one Marcy & Zina song, we're doing a couple of Filipino songs that I've done in concert. We're doing some songs that I've been doing in concert over and over again… some Rodgers and Hammerstein. I think we're running the gamut of classic musical theatre, contemporary, and there's cabaret and a little bit of Disney also. And, of course, there's Les Miz and Miss Saigon. I can't really shy away from doing that. It's kind of expected that I sing something from those shows, and the other thing is that I love singing stuff from those shows. Question: I think people want to hear them.
Salonga: And, I love to sing them, too. Far be it for me to say, "No we're not doing that!" [Laughs.]

Lea Salonga
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: How does performing in concert and cabaret compare to you with performing a role in a musical?
Salonga: The thing about a cabaret is that it's pretty much you that's up there. It's not a character, it's not you on a big concert stage, it's just you. You're naked emotionally up there. You don't have pyrotechnics. … I have a three-piece band [for the Carlyle]. You don't have all of the huge hullabaloo of arena concerts to support you. You don't have LCD screens. You don't have a big camera crane for those really great shots. It's you with three musicians and a room full of people, and it's basically just you. It's very transparent. I like to think that in a setting like that, you can really determine if an artist isn't hiding behind a lot of "stuff" versus just being real and honest and an artist. It's an interesting type of venue to perform in, because you really can't hide behind anything. Question: Who would you say are the performers or singers that either influenced you years ago or influence you now? Who do you listen to?
Salonga: I love listening to Ella Fitzgerald. I loved Julie Andrews growing up. I love listening to the Carpenters and Olivia Newton John and The Osmonds. I love Diana Krall. I like a lot of musical theatre, too. That kind of melodic storytelling style is the kind of stuff that I find that I connect to the most, where it's not just about repeating a hook or a lick or anything like that. You'd better be able to tell a story and interpret a lyric. It's something that I really love when I listen to Julie Andrews sing. When she's doing "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music," her voice would tell the story as much as the words would tell the story. I really found myself invested in her every time she opened her mouth. She was always just so lovely. I got to work with her many years ago [in the recording of The King and I], which was a thrill.

Question: You're also scheduled to star in Cats in Manila later this year. Is Grizabella a role that you had wanted to play?
Salonga: It's a role that I never thought of. I never thought about it, I guess, because one, I thought Cats would never come to Manila; and two, Cats has already stopped running in New York, so what are my chances of getting into that show? [Laughs.] When the plans were being made to bring Cats to the Philippines, I got asked out of the blue. I thought, "Wow, I never thought about that role before. This should be good."

Question: When do you go into rehearsals for that?
Salonga: I head to Australia at the end of May, and then I come back to Manila after that's done. We begin tech at the beginning of July. I have a couple weeks of rehearsal and then the tech period begins.

Question: What's happening in Australia?
Salonga: That's where the [Cats] rehearsals are. The cast is there and the director's there. It's much easier to bring just one person into Australia for the rehearsal rather than bring everybody to the Philippines to rehearse. I've never been to Australia, so it actually would work out well for me.

Question: How has it been combining motherhood and working?
Salonga: It's work. [Laughs]. Whenever I'm away for an extended period of time like I am now, I really miss my daughter and I miss my husband. I miss living in my house where it's sunny and warm the whole year. But I do love the winter. I think because it's a novelty for me right now I'm really enjoying walking and seeing the snow. It's like, "Oh, it's snow!" But I'll get tired of this in a week. [Laughs]. I'll be like, "Yeah, bring on the spring now." And then I'll be hating the spring because of hay fever, and then I'll be asking to bring the winter back. Question: How old is your daughter now?
Salonga: She's three-and-a-half. She'll be four in May. I will definitely be in Manila for her birthday, because Mommy has to plan her birthday.

Question: Do you think that having a child has enriched your performances?
Salonga: Absolutely. I think every actor who is a parent, any performer who has a child, would say that the experience definitely enriches not just their lives ... but performance. There's so much more to pull from. Singing "I Dreamed a Dream" when you have a child and when you have actually gone through a lot of life — there's so much to pull from, and the song becomes much more colorful and layered. It's not just about a pretty song and being loud at a certain part of the song. It's thinking and having these memories and being able to color a song in a certain way and being able to color it one day this way and another day that way. I would definitely advise anyone who intends to become an actor to really live life fully. It only enriches your performances as an actor, and it's just much more fun.

[Show times will be Tuesday-Saturday evenings at 8:45 PM with additional Saturday shows at 10:45 PM. There is a $75-$85 cover charge, $45 at the bar. The Café Carlyle is located within The Carlyle Hotel (35 East 76th Street at Madison Avenue). For reservations call (212) 744-1600. For more information visit www.thecarlyle.com.]

As some of the most phenomenal artists of the musical theatre got the chance to strut their stuff during the original London, Broadway, Canadian and German productions of Sunset Boulevard, there was one voice I kept hearing in my mind sing that Andrew Lloyd Webber score. As those productions closed, I figured my chance to hear that singular voice belt out "With One Look" or "As If We Never Said Goodbye" had vanished. So, when I heard the news earlier this week that the great Florence Lacey would finally have the opportunity to play the deluded, former silent-screen star Norma Desmond, I was, quite frankly, elated and quickly e-mailed my friend Tod, who shares my affection for Lacey, whose performances in Hello, Dolly! and Les Miserables have thrilled us both equally; in fact, Tod left me this voicemail: "That news is so exciting, I think you are probably making it up!" Thankfully, the news is true, and Lacey, an original, fierce Evita (hunt down her cast recording of Evita), will step into the role of Desmond Dec. 7, 2010-Feb. 13, 2011, at the Signature Theatre Company in Arlington, VA. Signature's artistic director Eric Schaeffer will direct the Tony Award-winning musical. See you in Virgina — I can hardly wait to hear Lacey's "With one look, I'll be meeeeeeeeeee" or "I've come hoooooooome at last"!

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

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