In her native country of the Philippines, Lea Salonga has long been recognized for her accomplishments in the entertainment business. But it wasn't until she assumed the role of Kim in the hit Broadway musical Miss Saigon that she received the same kind of recognition here in the States. "I was doing TV work, theatre work, and some film work in the Philippines when I left. I was 17 when I auditioned for Miss Saigon," recalled Salonga during a rehearsal break for the current production of Flower Drum Song at the Mark Taper Forum. "I really grew up doing that show. I pretty much knew, almost a year into Miss Saigon, that I was going to be a performer, that I was going to be singing and acting." Her efforts in Miss Saigon earned Salonga the Laurence Olivier, Drama Desk, Outer Critics, and Tony awards. The performance also opened many doors. She has since appeared in numerous musicals, including They're Playing Our Song (as Sonia Walski), Les Misérables (Eponine), Grease (Sandy), Into the Woods (the Witch), My Fair Lady (Eliza Doolittle), The Fantasticks, The Sound of Music, and Annie.
Salonga made her professional debut at the age of 7 in Repertory Philippines' production of The King and I, after tagging along with a cousin to the open auditions. "My first cousin was very active in a theatre group in the Philippines. She told my mom about these auditions for The King and I because they needed a lot of children for the show. So I went in and auditioned. I sang 'Do Re Mi,' which was the only song I knew by heart, and I also recited my Girl Scouts oath," recalled Salonga.
By the age of 10 Salonga had begun her recording career with her first album, Small Voice, which became a gold record. Her most recent recordings in the Philippines include two solo albums: Lea… In Love, which has since gone quintuple platinum, and By Heart, recorded at her Homecoming Concert in the Philippines. Salonga has only released one pop album in the U.S. "It didn't do as well as I would've liked," she said. Although she wouldn't mind giving her stateside recording career another go, she's focusing on her acting for the time being.
Surprisingly, Salonga has never taken any formal vocal training. "I took some voice lessons here and there as a teenager but nothing too serious. I started taking it more seriously when I was in Miss Saigon. I needed to improve my technique in order to survive doing that show as many time a week as I was doing it. It's not an easy show to sing, so I needed all the help I could get."
During her performance in the New York production of Miss Saigon her voice caught the ear of a Disney studio representative. "One night there was a note at the stage door from an Aladdin casting director who was looking for me. So I told my agent and an appointment was set up for me to come in. I sang 'Part of Your World' from The Little Mermaid and then starting making a demo a few days after for the song 'A Whole New World.' It was a lot of fun." Salonga also provided the singing voice for Fa Mulan/Fa Pin in another Disney animated film, Mulan.
Although Salonga enjoys working in musical theatre, eventually she would like to branch out into other media she has not yet thoroughly explored. "I'd love to do just straight theatre. I'd love to do film and television, too." For now, Salonga will continue in musical theatre. She has returned to the stage to put her signature singing and acting abilities to work in a new version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song. The musical's book is adapted by David Henry Hwang from the Oscar Hammerstein II and Joseph Fields script. Salonga plays Mei-Li, the young refugee from Communist China who moves to Chinatown, San Francisco, seeking a better life. There, while questioning her own identity, Mei-Li witnesses a struggle within her new community between the older generation's determination to hold onto traditional beliefs and the younger generation's desire to assimilate.
Said Salonga, "Mei-Li starts the process of assimilation into American culture, and then she takes a look at what's going on around her and questions it. At the end of the day, she arrives at her destination on her own terms, the way she wants to. It's a wonderful journey to play. Whatever project I'm doing seems to help me through my own life journey, helps me through a life decision of some kind. I'm not sure how Flower Drum Song applies to my life, but I guess it's about finding one's self in a very new environment, coming to terms with assimilating, and not doing it by anyone else's rules but my own."