Lea Salonga
(© Edwin Santiago)
Lea Salonga
(© Edwin Santiago)
Lea Salonga may have recently moved back to her native Philippines, but the Tony Award-winning star has definitely not retired from the business or forgotten her fans. Not long after heading back to Manila, she went out on the road in an international tour of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Cinderella -- one that was an overwhelming success. "It's amazing how popular Broadway shows are outside of Broadway," she notes. "Over seven months, we did five cities in mainland China, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, and Seoul -- and we did the show in English everywhere -- and the audiences were just huge."

Salonga has also embarked on a new U.S. concert tour, which will play Reno, Nevada on May 24 and Los Angeles on May 30, along with a host of stops this fall in other areas of the country, including Tarrytown, New York. The concert will feature selections from her 2007 recording Inspired, along with her many hits. (See www.leasalonga.com for details.)

Not surprisingly, though, she'd love to return to Broadway, where her triumphs have included Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, and Flower Drum Song, but family obligations may mean deferring that dream for a little bit. "My luck's in New York. When I'm there, something good happens," she says. "I want to come back, but I think it will be best when my daughter, Nicole, is a bit older. She just turned three."

It can be hard to believe Salonga has a three-year-old child or that she's 38 years old herself, since she still looks the same as she did in 1991 when People magazine chose her as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the world. "I'm blessed," she says. "I'm Asian, but the youth gene runs in my family. Many people assume my mother is my sister! I'm also in a great business, doing what I love to do. It doesn't feel like work, so there's little stress. Travel can be drudgery, but that's a fact of life in today's world."

After being based in Los Angeles for many years, Salonga moved back home because of her husband, Robert Chien, whom she married in 2004. "He's the head of a media company," she explains. "He came home one day and said, 'Guess what, honey? We're going to the Philippines.' He was selected to oversee a joint venture. It was quite a surprise, especially when he said he didn't know how long we were going to be here. Initially, I was adamant about not returning. Our lives were in L.A., and my career was based in the U.S. I had concert commitments. I'd settled in and was acclimated to life there. Plus I am an impatient person, especially when it comes to traffic and services, so life here is a major change from L.A. But this is home, and I'm enjoying myself. My mother's here and she is enjoying time with her granddaughter."

Salonga credits her mother, Ligaya, for guiding her down the right career and life paths. "Mother never heard the word 'impossible.' She shaped my determination to succeed at what I wanted to do and helped turn me into a strong-willed person," says Salonga. "I believed in my heart of hearts that I had talent, and I was ready to go for it, but Mom kept telling me, 'You've got to make sure you really have it.'" Moreover, when Salonga began making records as a child, her mother was told, "Forget about it. They won't sell." Still, Ligaya went from music store to music store and peddled her daughter's first single. "Before we knew it, orders were coming in -- more than we ever imagined," says Salonga, who released her first solo album, Small Voice, at age 10.

At age 7, Salonga made her stage debut in The King and I, which was followed by roles in a number of local productions of Broadway musicals, and she later hosted her own national variety TV show, Love, Lea. Still, she briefly attended college, taking pre-med courses and considering a career as a dermatologist. "My parents stressed the importance of education," says Salonga. "Mom told me it was something no one could take away, that it would shape the way I look at things. But I also learned that intelligence wasn't everything. If you want to succeed, preparation and perseverance are just as important."

While Salonga wouldn't change her last two decades of worldwide fame, she admits it has come with a price. "It took one thing I prize away: my privacy. I'm easily recognizable here, and people stare. It's uncomfortable; but as I've gotten older, I'm better with it, and I know not to go places where my safety is threatened," she says. "I have to admit I quite enjoyed the anonymity of L.A., where I was being recognized for my work, but still having my privacy respected."