PROVO — If the name Lea Salonga is not immediately recognized, the characters she has played in much-lauded productions will be very familiar:
Jasmine in “Aladdin.” Cinderella in “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” Mei-Li in “Flower Drum Song.” Fa-Mulan in “Mulan.” Tuptim in “The King and I.” Eponine in the 10th-anniversary and Fantine in the 25th-anniversary production of “Les Miserables.” And Kim in “Miss Saigon,” for which, at age 17, she won every theater award on the planet.
She’s also released 26 albums (with her first as a child). To promote her recent CD, Salonga has launched a worldwide tour that will include two dates at BYU’s de Jong Concert Hall, her first performances in Utah. The Deseret News interviewed Salonga by phone from a Los Angeles hotel room while preparing for her travels that will extend into the new year.
While surrounded by helpful relatives and supervising her 5-year-old daughter getting dressed for the day (“The blue bow is fine,” she calls out), Salonga was witty, self-deprecating, informative and, ultimately, completely charming.
“The Journey So Far” CD, taped live at New York’s prestigious Cafe Carlyle cabaret venue, is “very personal, touching on my life as well as my career.
“I’ve been calling it a truncated resume of my life with music,” she says. “It features Disney music and there’s musical theater. There’s Filipino music, because that’s where I’m originally from. And there are also some standards. Some mash-ups that were clever. A lot of good stuff that I’ve never done before that I got to try out there.”
Reviewing her performance, the New York Times said, “Salonga’s bright, metallically edged voice is a shiny all-purpose instrument that confidently establishes its dominion over whatever musical setting surrounds it.”
“I do try to avoid reading reviews,” she says. “But sometimes when one comes out, like from the New York Times, then it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is crazy good.’ My mother and I read that review together, and it just incredible.”
Salonga explains her concert selections will include songs from “Journey So Far” along with “a few other things. I incorporate some pop into the mix. I try to keep the concerts light and fun.”
But she is somehow able to interweave the light and fun with dramatic tragedy — because there will be songs from “the dead girls,” as Salonga calls her famous roles with a laugh. “In ‘Miss Saigon,’ Kim dies on stage, and the same is true for the women I play in ‘Les Miz.’ I tell people, ‘Yes, I play the dead girls.’”
Speaking of her roles in the landmark, longest-running musical, Salonga says “Fantine and Eponine are both very, very special roles. One of them was right for me to do in my 20s and the other one I did in my mid-30s. And you don’t really get Fantine until you’ve lived and experienced, even if you can sing the songs. I believe that you don’t understood parenthood until you have become a parent. You don’t really know love until you’ve had a child.
“When I got to play Fantine, many years later after playing Eponine, it wrenched me dry. After the death, I’m just gone. Those couple of minutes when I’m lying down with my eyes closed, it’s just such a relief that the part is over. I’m always in tears.”
Like “Les Miz,” Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg composed “Miss Saigon,” and uber-producer Cameron Mackintosh conducted an exhaustive talent search for the lead role. Salonga, then a premed student with musical theater experience as a child in the Philippines, was chosen from more than 1,200 candidates to play the Vietnamese orphan in the searing update of “Madame Butterfly.”
Salonga’s rave reviews for her Broadway debut included unparalleled acclaim from the all-important New York Times. “The actress keeps sentimentality at bay by slowly revealing the steely determination beneath the gorgeous voice and radiant girlish features,” gushed the Times’ Frank Rick, who, as the “Butcher of Broadway,” is not known for effusive reviews.
“I find myself drawn to the music of Boublil and SchÖnberg. The bits of music have become so familiar and to a point ubiquitous. The fact that both ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘On My Own’ are on ‘Glee’ shows that the material has taken on a life of its own. It’s become very magical, for lack of another word.”
But her next major production, “Allegiance,” is a work by first-time Broadway composer Jay Kuo that is planned for the Broadway 2012-13 season. The show had “a very successful workshop” staging, Salonga explains, that was produced by San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, which has sent many shows on to Broadway.
“Allegiance” is set during the Japanese-American internment of World War II, and Salonga feels a connection to the story. Relatives of her husband, Robert Chien, were relocated from their California homes just after Pearl Harbor.
“I want to stay on with ‘Allegiance’ as long as I possibly can," she said. "I really enjoy the music, the cast and the creators of the show. I feel incredibly fortunate to be cast as one of the leads.”
Salonga is passionate about the transformative power of music and believes words sung to music take on a power all their own.
“When I speak it’s pretty ordinary, but when I sing it feels different,” she says. “Singing is something special, something totally unique. I’m able to able to convey emotions and give messages that I’m otherwise unable to give spoken. It transcends all other forms of communication.”
If you goComment on this story
What: Lea Salonga in Concert
Where: de Jong Concert Hall, BYU Harris Fine Arts Center
When: Sept. 2 and 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: 801-422-4322 or byuarts.com/tickets