Lea Salonga on life as Kim, Sonia, Eponine, wife & mom

10 THINGS - Bianca Gonzalez (The Philippine Star) - September 29, 2013 - 12:00am

It is safe to say no one has come close to the accomplishments of this woman who conquered the world with her voice. With over three decades of experience and international recognition to her name, she is truly in a league of her own. Here are 10 things you should know about Lea Salonga.

1. She believes that “every young person should live on their own before they get married.”

“I was 28, and my mom was living with me. I had to decide. You have to claim it, you can’t ask permission. After a gig in Singapore, she went home, I went to New York on my own, I packed her stuff in boxes and sent it home. I don’t think she liked me for a while for doing that,” Lea shares. “It was something I needed to do to carve out my own space.”

“You realize, ‘Oh, I have to do the laundry, clean the kitchen, make the bed, do my groceries.’ And when you have no one else to depend on to do even the most menial everyday tasks; you don’t take for granted then what your staff does for you because you know exactly what they are doing. It lends a different insight.”

She shares that she is most excited when she gets to go to New York. “I feel that is the city where I grew into myself as a grownup. I figured out more of who I am as a person, what I like and what I don’t like. My outspokenness really came out, my being very blunt. Not really braver but the less I cared about what other people thought.”

2. She felt out of place in the earlier years of her showbiz career.

“When I was in show business here, I always felt that I didn’t really fit into the mold that everyone else seemed to fit in. That I was a little different, and I didn’t know why. I couldn’t sing the way Regine (Velasquez) did at 16. I was doing films and there were love teams but I was, I don’t know, not in the way like, say, Lotlot (de Leon) was doing it,” Lea reveals. “When I headed over to the UK to work, I felt like… there were people who appreciated my voice, as is. My looks, as they were. And once audiences were applauding, and there were standing ovations at the end of shows, I think it was a realization that, ‘Oh, what I have is appreciated pala.’

“It’s interesting. What I do, I think, is appreciated here much more now. Singers are feeling like, ‘Oh, I don’t have to make birit pala.’”

3. She was a “Global Pinoy” when the term was not even invented yet, and there are others like her that she looks up to. The common trait she admires in them? Humility.

Apl de Ap: “I’m impressed with people like Apl because of his upbringing. Through life circumstance, choices, luck, opportunity, everything came together for him. It’s like, wow. And he is humble about it all despite an incredibly hectic, nonstop life. I asked him when it’s time for you to marry and, with absolute certainty, he said ‘She’s gonna be Filipino.’”

Dado Banatao: “He is such a huge deal in the Filipino community. And I think the great thing about him is he is always giving back. And he has remained humble about it all. He always thinks of home even if his family is based in California.

On Pinoys who live abroad but “forget” they are Pinoy: “It’s in your DNA to be a Filipino, how can you just turn your back on it? I can understand if you’ve had some traumatic experience in the Philippines that you want to detach yourself from your past and build a new life for yourself. I get that. But if you lived a pretty good life and you leave and then you choose to detach yourself just because you’re in America or the UK… it’s shameful to forget where you came from. It’s also hurtful.”

4. One of the most expensive “purchases” she’s made in her life is her brother Gerard’s tuition to Berklee College of Music.

Lea was 26 then. “I think I took the ate thing really seriously. In my upbringing — and my mom will also say this — my dad was not always around. So I think I felt the need whether consciously or unconsciously, to step up. And since I am doing well naman financially, okay this is going to go to him. What am I gonna spend it on? A Birkin or a Chanel? Those are things. And they will deteriorate over time. Things are temporary. But his education and investing in that, until the day he dies may ROI yun. As long as he continues to work in the music industry, continues to enhance the beauty of music, enriches the lives of the artists, the orchestras he gets to conduct, the concerts he gets to direct — come on, you can’t place a numerical value on that. An investment in education is always sulit.” Gerard graduated summa cum laude from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.

Another big investment she has made is her New York City apartment. “I still own it and when I am there I get the best sleep. My husband knows that! I know where the grocery is, what is open at 3 a.m., how to take the train, everything.”

5. On what she’s like as a mother and wife: “Conversations at home really have nothing to do with my job or my husband’s, its really focused on the home and Nicole.”

“The two of us as a team, we have to figure out the stuff for the house,” Lea says about her husband, Robert Chien. They are on the Paleo diet together, a discovery they made when Robert was looking for alternative medicines to treat asthma. “We took all the grains out, stayed with white rice, eat fruits and vegetables and grass-fed pasteurized meats and eggs. We read labels like anything! We are not strict with our daughter but she eats healthy.”

Lea shares that she sleeps in whenever she does not have to be up early for work (“I don’t do early morning wakeups!”) but she does pick up Nicole in the afternoon. On being a mom to a born performer: “I know a lot of parents are like, ‘Oh my God, that’s my child!’ But me, no. When she comes out, out comes the camera phone, you take a video. It’s a lot of fun! We rehearse her at home, make sure she is memorized. Paulit ulit, but not too much that she gets tired or she’s not excited anymore.”

6. The three most meaningful roles Lea has ever played:

1. Sonia, They’re Playing Our Song: “That one mattered because it was mirroring my life as it was happening. I consider that role a godsend. It was through that that I was able to work out my issues in life, my own relationship drama. Doing the show helped me realize what I was supposed to do. I will always look upon it with a lot of love.”

2. Kim, Miss Saigon: “Not so much for the role, but it’s about feeling appreciated for my own talent in another country. It’s unimaginable when you have those first audiences, it’s a different race of people, and they appreciate your work.”

3. Eponine, Les Miserables: “Because that role was always traditionally cast as a Caucasian role. So when the time came and the offer came, I didn’t have to audition, and I was like.. this is the chance for me to prove that this non-traditional casting will work. This was a French lady in Paris in the 1800s. It’s like: Me? Really? I did what I could so that when I open my mouth and sing this role, you will believe that I am Eponine. That was my goal. Never mind the salary, it was smaller because the role is smaller. There’s a bigger reason why I was cast in this and I had to keep my eye on that. It meant so much that these big producers had faith in this little Asian woman to get away with it.”

The three shows that every non-theater-watching Pinoy must see: Avenue Q (“It is so funny, you’re taking something so beloved and you’re twisting it and it’s demented and it’s cute but it’s so wrong it’s right”); Wicked (“It’s very empowering for a lot of young girls, or for anyone who feels like they don’t fit in anywhere”); and Rock of Ages (“Musical theater is identified as a very LGBT, very gay art form, and this is the most testosterone-filled musical I have ever seen, another one that is so wrong that it’s right”).

7. The three most memorable people she has worked with:

1. Steven Schwartz: “He was the one who wrote Pippin, Godspell, Wicked, and he also wrote lyrics for Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame. I got to work with him on a Disney Cruise Ship and we were billed in the same show. So it’s like, I get to sing from the movie Enchanted, or Colors of the Wind, Defying Gravity, I get to sing all of these songs that are his! I go from artist to fan girl to artist; it’s like I had to pinch myself a lot of times! I’m singing and he is at the piano playing for me!  It was wild.”

2. George Takei: “Because of what he’s done for the Asian-American acting community. He was on Star Trek in the ‘60s, and he was in a role of importance! He is an active member of the LGBT community. On so many levels he is incredibly inspiring. I think the first time I met him was at his house, I had to rehearse for Allegiance. I remember posting on Facebook, “Guess what, guys? I am in Sulu’s house!” Then it turns out, he turned into a fanboy naman! ‘I saw you when you were in London in Miss Saigon, I loved your performance.’ Whaaaat? Really?!” Lea gushes.

3. Julie Andrews: “Because it’s friggin’ Julie Andrews! And for her to say, ‘Please just call me Julie.’ Whaaat? My brain was about to explode! I did this recording with her for The King And I and of course I saw her in The Sound of Music that I probably watched a million times, I know all the music and memorized the timber of her voice, and I am in a recording studio with you? And you know my name? It’s bizarre! I have to take pictures to prove that it was true!”

8. Known to be passionate and vocal about social issues, Lea shares her thoughts:

1. Reproductive Health Law: “For me, more than the contraception, which is the one thing people seem to be putting the microscope on which is nakakainis… Truthfully the best form of contraception is communication. Medication or a device without the knowledge of proper usage is worthless. It’s age-appropriate education, even within a Catholic school context you can naman. It’s knowing about your body and knowing the changes that occur and why they are happening. The sex education has to encompass all that, especially in the public school system. Education should also be between husbands and wives.”

2. LGBT rights: “I have a half-brother who is very, very, very gay, many cousins, best friends who are all members of the LGBT community and for me to not say anything would be hypocritical. There is a lot of prejudice. People think it is abnormal. No, it’s just another normal. There are so many shades of human being and there shouldn’t be a prejudice against anybody who is gay. It’s all about fighting for equal rights cause equal rights are human rights. They are human beings, treat them with respect.”

3. Corruption and the pork barrel issue: “For any country loving citizen, the list of where that money could have gone just enters your mind. I feel for the politicians who are spending it legitimately. Don’t judge them based on how much they spend, judge them on where it went and if it’s legitimate. I would vote for the senator who spent P100 million on legitimate projects, and not vote for the one who spent P20 million on his garage. For me the money is not to blame, it’s the greed, it’s the coveting of. I think it’s the easy access to it that needs to be looked at again. I am a little hesitant to say abolish the fund, because my instinct is to say may napupuntahan din. It’s the accountability, the responsibility.”

9. Lea Salonga in numbers:

50: Amount in pesos of her first talent fee at Repertory. “When you’re six, P50 is a lot of money.”

0: Percent rejection rate in auditions as a kid. “My batting average was pretty damn good, from age 6 to 12, everything I auditioned for, I got.”

20: Number of shows she has done. (She literally counted in front of me, enumerating every title one by one.) 298 was the most number of shows she did in the span of one year and three months, for Miss Saigon in the UK.

100: Average number of games across multiple platforms that she and husband Robert own.

2,000,000: Number of followers on Twitter on her account, @MsLeaSalonga, as of press time.

10. At 42, there isn’t any dream role she would like to play anymore or job she would like to do, but she sees herself performing for the rest of her life.

“What else? I don’t know. I think I’m good. I think I am good with however my life has turned out, I actually get to create dream roles now and I get to originate things,” she says. “I think I will always be performing, I don’t think I can take that away. Because I really just enjoy it. I like getting up to sing, I like the challenge of learning new material and singing it in front of an audience. I have really gotten the taste for coaching. I got a first taste of it with Beauty and the Beast, for KC (Concepcion) and Karel (Marquez). Parang it whet my appetite. So when they asked me to do The Voice, I said, yes, yes, yes, I absolutely want to be a part of it. You get to help shape an artist.”

* * *

A performer at age six who still keeps going and won’t stop achieving. A living icon who inspired many other artists to break barriers as well. With a mindset that ought to be a goal for all of us: “I actually cannot say that I have any regrets about anything I have selected or elected to do in my life. It’s a pretty darn good life, I really can’t complain.”

* * *

E-mail me at askiamsuperbianca@gmail.com or message me on Twitter @iamsuperbianca.








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