Lea Salonga is a name we all know, famous for originating or revolutionising many characters that musical theatre fans love. Whether our familiarity with Salonga is through Kim, Eponine, Fantine, Princess Jasmine, Mulan, or a multitude of other popular theatre characters, she has made her way into our homes and hearts over the years and will soon be bringing her voice to Australia to wow in a series of concerts at the Sydney Opera House and Melbourne’s Hamer Hall. In the first of two interview pieces with Salonga, we discuss mentorship, inspiring people through characters, and what it is about Australian culture that makes for such great audiences and performers.
The characters you are most known for playing throughout your career are all hugely influential to young girls or women in theatre. Auditioning to play Kim all those years ago, could you ever have guessed that you would become a source of inspiration to so many people?
No, I don’t think that’s something you anticipate! […] You just think about doing the best work that you can, you think about putting your nose down to the grindstone and grinding it out, and hoping that people enjoy your work and find satisfaction from it, and that it leads to more work. That’s it. That’s how I think about it. All of the stuff that’s come as a result of it are just wonderful surprises, and even though there are things I did not anticipate, there are things that I take very seriously knowing that they’re there, and knowing that they’ve been sources of inspiration for other young women… It’s really great to hear that and that people decide to become performers because of what they’ve seen or heard. I mean there’s not a whole lot of people doing [theatre], so the more that we have, the more storytellers that we are able to find that can tell a good story as well as sing and act well… There’s a whole lot that goes into musical theatre, it’s not just looking pretty or singing pretty or acting well, there’s a whole lot more to it. It’s being able to be part of an ensemble, to tell whatever story you’ve been enlisted to tell.
One thing that I admire you for is your willingness to mentor and pass on knowledge to new artists – singing ‘Movie In My Mind’ with Rachelle Ann Go at the end of the Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary, I remember the look of elation and pride on your face when she belted a particular spectacular phrase. What goes through your mind when you see people you have mentored or passed the baton to succeeding like that?
It makes me feel incredibly happy! It makes me feel happy that it doesn’t end with me, that it just keeps on going and that there are more people that continue to do this, to put out good work and who themselves become role models and sources of inspirations for young women who want to follow in their footsteps… It’s just incredibly gratifying to see that happening, and it just makes me feel so proud it! There’s a lot to go around here, so… To share just multiplies the pleasure and multiplies how wonderful it all is. I mean I can’t keep this all to myself, that would not be right!
What do you think makes a good mentor, or a person worthy of being looked up to? What do you actively do to make sure you continue to inspire people, and what can your fans do to emanate your kind attitude?
I think, one, there has to be enough self-awareness that you are being watched. It’s knowing that you’re being watched, and I’m conscious of that constantly. I am cognisant that there is always a pair of eyes on me whenever I’m in public or on stage, and wherever I choose to conduct my life. I think every celebrity needs to recognise that and whether or not they want to be role models, unwittingly, that’s what happens and they are being looked upon. When you’re in public, how you conduct yourself, especially amongst impressionable young people, it is really important that you conduct yourself in a way that would make your parents proud. For me, I try to live my life as honestly as I can, while being mindful that there are eyes on me. I try to be as careful as I can when I speak to young people, especially young children. […] I do have my private moments and they remain very private, but when I’m in public I try to conduct myself in a way that my mom wouldn’t want to hit me upside the head, let’s put it that way. I think what ultimately makes a good role model is when you take your life experience and cull all that is good from it and share that with other people.
Should audience members of your Aussie concerts be preparing or refreshing their memories on any particular pieces of yours before they attend?
Yes! That’s happening. It’s always gonna happen, we always make sure we have an extra microphone prepared and lyrics for ‘A Whole New World’, because I’ve had people come up on stage shaking! I did a concert in Vegas years ago, my husband was sitting all the way in the back of the orchestra, and after the concert he came backstage and says, “Hon, the guy that sang with you, you gave him the paper, we were all the way in the back and we could see this guy SHAKING!” We were laughing about it, he was just so nervous, you know? I’ve also had people who come to the concert in full costume as Aladdin and sing with me, and the orchestra then is dying, the conductor is dying, all of us are just totally floored, and are like, ohmigod! My band members are trying to keep it together while they’re reading the notes and playing… We all just have such a good time. We have people that can’t sing but do it anyway, so it’s fun. It’s a mixed bag, we never know what we are going to get from show to show. I’ve been doing it now since my daughter was in my womb, so we’ve been doing it for ten years. It’s always fun.
Performers generally agree that Filipino audiences are in a league of their own – what sort of reaction are you expecting from Australian audiences in comparison? What feedback do you need from your Australian concerts to consider them a success?
I just want audiences to sit back and enjoy the music and enjoy the show, and that’s really it. The Australian fans that I’ve encountered so far have just been soooo hospitable and wonderful and warm… It must be the weather, the beaches, the food! I don’t know what it is but there is something I notice about Australian people. I’ve had Australian leading men, I’ve worked with Australian sound designers and producers and a lot of other Australian actors… The thing that I notice is how down to earth everyone in Australia is, and not just down to earth as in humility, but down to earth realists. You’re very real people, there’s no BS… If you’re going to give a compliment you give a compliment sincerely, it never feels like you’re kissing someone’s derriere, it always feels so real. What is it about Australia? It could be that you’re very outdoorsy, very physically active, that probably comes into play as well, because the dancers, my god! And the actors, you’re just ridiculous, talented, real, realists and a salt of the earth people… That’s the opinion I have. You’ve got a lot of good people over there. Incredible performers and incredible art schools, when I hear somebody came from VCASS or WAAPA, my god, your training is just off the chain! It’s not just Cate Blanchett or Hugh Jackman or Heath Ledger, it’s not just those people that have risen to the top in Hollywood, every ensemble member I see in a show is equally as committed to the show as everybody else in the company. I told this to Cameron Mackintosh as well – I’ve seen Mary Poppins in another country, I saw it in Melbourne and I told him the Melbourne company was the best.
Why should audiences come and see your concerts?
If you’re a fan of my voice, please come. If you love musical theatre in any way shape or form, please come. If you love Disney movies, please come, and if you don’t mind seeing a chick with a pixie haircut being backed by a massive orchestra, please come! I promise a night of music and stories, and I promise it will not be boring.
Tickets for Salonga’s Sydney and Melbourne engagements are on sale now. AussieTheatre will bring you the second part of our interview in which we discuss cultural representation on stage, Hamilton, Allegiance and Donald Trump’s presidency at a later date.