Show and tell… Lea Salonga.Photo: Danny Kaan
Lea Salonga, musical theater icon and two-time Disney princess, is walking through the lobby of the Theater Royal on London’s Drury Lane when stage and screen legend Rita Moreno emerges from the audience.
Salonga, the first female Asian artist to win a Tony and one of the youngest to take home an Olivier after portraying Kim in Miss Saigon at the age of 18 in 1989, throws her arms open to Moreno, the first Latina winning an Oscar. The couple embrace before saying goodbye. Just last week, Salonga says, they drank champagne after Moreno saw her in Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, down the road from the Gielgud.
Later, Michael Ball comes along, calls Salonga “syrup” and hugs her as she reminisces about playing Éponine to his Marius in Les Misérables in the 1990s: “I died in his arms,” she smiles. This summer, 35 years after the opening of Miss Saigon, Salonga returns to Drury Lane for her UK tour, Stage, Screen & Everything in Between.
But despite all the show business friends, lofty billing and a voice instantly recognizable from Disney classics like Princess Jasmine’s A Whole New World and Mulan’s Reflection, Salonga is an extremely unassuming star.
“This was our first stop from the airport,” she recalls of arriving in London after producer Cameron Mackintosh invited her to leave domestic stardom and a “normal” upbringing in the Philippines and come to the West End. “Our suitcases were buried in the van, so our company manager went to Laura Ashley with my mother and grabbed a few things. I had no make-up, was very jetlagged and had pictures taken outside the stage door that appeared in the newspapers.
International fame followed. Salonga, now 52, diminutive with a pixie cut, reflects on how different it felt walking into Drury Lane: ‘I wasn’t very aware of what this theater was, what it meant, who had been here before. It was the start of many things. When I first came on, I was a pre-med student in college and I thought, ‘After my time on the show, I’m going to go back home and get [my studies].’” It was a visit to church, during Miss Saigon’s run, where the priest talked about “gifts” to which she realized, “No, that’s not happening.”
I was a pre-med in college when Miss Saigon started. I thought: after my time on the show, I’ll go back home and continue my studies
Salonga felt comfortable performing from a young age. “It always felt safe,” she says of the stage. “It never felt like a space to be afraid of. Even when I had a personal problem, it always felt like a relief to be on stage in a different character for a few hours.” She made her professional debut at the age of seven in The King and I, recorded her first album at the age of ten and in 1988, at the age of seventeen, she opened for Stevie Wonder. That same year she was sent by the singers’ union to meet Mackintosh. “Cameron asked me, ‘What audience have you performed for?’ I thought, ‘Well, I just opened for 10,000 people.’ They wanted to know if I was intimidated by the prospect of 2,500. I had answered their question.”
Being cast as Kim – the lead in the story of cross-cultural love during the Vietnam War – in the West End and then on Broadway was a huge moment for representation in theatre. However, the show faced accusations of racism that, despite its success, never really went away. The bad press initially centered around the casting of white English actor Jonathan Pryce, who wore facial prosthetics and makeup to change his skin color in order to pass as the show’s half-Vietnamese villain. When the film transferred to Broadway, the US Actors’ Equity Association tried to block Salonga from reprising her role, preferring Asian-American performers. Mackintosh claimed he could not find a satisfactory replacement, but it took an arbitrator’s ruling against the union before Salonga was allowed to keep the role.
She repaid Mackintosh’s loyalty with a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical and their partnership continued when he chose her to play Eponine two years later, restoring a role still played by women of color in the West End.
“I don’t think either of us realized how powerful and far-reaching that decision would be. It wasn’t until much later that I heard other young women say, “Me looking like you made me realize I could do what you do.” So if that became one of those touchstone moments that helped move the needle, then I’m glad I got to be even a small part of it. I have a pay it forward attitude of, ‘Okay, I did it, who’s going to work on it now?’
When Disney called and invited her to sing as Jasmine, Disney’s first princess of color, in Aladdin in 1992 and then the Chinese warrior Mulan in 1998, she moved the needle again. Although these women did not share Salonga’s Filipino heritage, the fact that they were Asian at all was indicative of a changing landscape in the entertainment industry. Salonga is proud of their legacy: “When you see little girls of every race, color and creed dressing up as Mulan or Jasmine for Halloween, you think, ‘Oh my God.’ It hits you that those two minutes of singing in this film had a lasting impact and influence.
I still pinch myself that I was on the production team of a Broadway show with an entire cast of people of Filipino descent
A Whole New World won an Oscar – Salonga performed at the ceremony – and a Golden Globe, but if she had to choose only one, would it be Jasmine or Mulan? “Mulan. It’s the one where I look at the screen and say, ‘She looks like me, I look like her.’”
It is Disney that most people know her from. “It goes so far compared to musical theater,” she says. But her stage performances touch on almost every musical in the canon; she was a judge on the reality show The Voice of the Philippines and co-produced and performed Here Lies Love, Imelda Marcos’ dance-pop musical created by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, for five weeks last summer. an all-Filipino cast. “I still pinch myself that I was on the production team. When I was cast in Miss Saigon, I never thought I would see that in my lifetime – an entire cast of a Broadway show made up of people of Filipino descent.
In 2021, Salonga and her child Nic – who shares their mother’s musical talent – moved to New York, a decision motivated by a desire to “make this life less crazy” for her child. “I’m raising a queer 17-year-old and it’s not the easiest thing because they’re trying to understand what this means, so I’m trying to expand my own understanding,” she says. “I wanted them to be in a place that you as a human being can navigate and figure out where you can fit in without always feeling like there’s a monkey on your back.”
It’s personal experiences like this that push Salonga to choose what she platforms online, highlighting queer causes, anti-Asian racism and domestic violence to 1 million Instagram followers and 5 million on X.
“I have had family members who were abused by their husbands. I heard my mother say, “What happened to you?” and she said, “I bumped a fist.” When you grow up and hear those stories… I feel the need to bring attention to it.
“In 2016 with [Trump’s] election I felt like so many people were given permission to hate others, especially people of color from a part of the world that I am involved with. I’m lucky that no one has ever yelled profanities at me or spit at me, but walking around New York City felt like an exercise in hyper-awareness. It’s exhausting to get back to the safety of your apartment and feel like it was an ordeal, even though nothing happens to you.”
Her tour, which visits eight venues, including one night at Drury Lane, is “a dream come true”. “We’ll definitely have Sondheim, some pop music, Disney, Miss Saigon, especially here, but it might not be the music I sang,” she says. “I remember doing the show and being jealous of other people and their music. Now, more than thirty years later, I can pick and choose.”
After three decades, the industry also looks different: “There are more people of color behind the scenes, where we need to be: directors, producers. At the higher echelons, I don’t know how far we’ve come, because the positions of really great power are still largely held by white people. With producers like Clint Ramos [with whom she worked on Here Lies Love] and writers like Lin-Manuel Miranda; for him to continue to push needles in his own way and for all these people of color, people like Rita Morena who we met, who also pushed needles…’
Salonga ends in a story Moreno told about the night she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for West Side Story, and her friends, outside the awards ceremony, shouting, “She did it!” because they saw themselves in her.
Surely the same applied to Kim, Eponine, Jasmine and Mulan? “Yes, I think that’s what it was: ‘It’s possible.’”
Leah Salreadyonga: stage, screen and everything in between is on tour from June 21 to July 1; tour starts Wolverhampton.