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Lea Salonga Goes on a Journey

The Tony Award-winning star talks about her new cabaret show The Journey So Far at the Café Carlyle, playing poker backstage, and a possible return to Broadway.

Lea Salonga
(© Ronnie O. Salvacion)
It's been nearly 20 years since Lea Salonga burst onto the Broadway scene with her Tony Award-winning turn as Kim in the musical Miss Saigon -- and no one is more surprised than the performer herself. Since then, Salonga has returned to Broadway in shows like Les Miserables and David Henry Hwang's revisal of Flower Drum Song, released several albums, done extensive concert touring, and recently appeared in the Broadway Backwards benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and the The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. Now, she's up for a new challenge: her cabaret debut at the Café Carlyle in a show entitled The Journey So Far, which begins a three-week engagement on March 9. TheaterMania recently spoke with Salonga about the show and her career.

THEATERMANIA: What can we expect in regards to your song selection at the Carlyle?
LEA SALONGA: There's a little bit of Filipino stuff, there's definitely musical theater, and because I love "Taylor the Latte Boy" so much, there's something by songwriters Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich that's going to be performed. There will be some things I've done a lot in concert, but in a cabaret setting they'll be really sweet, as well. I'm really looking forward to it, as I've guested in another cabaret before, at the Upright in L.A. but never had my own. So, this is exciting for me.

TM: You mean doing a show in such an intimate setting?
LS: Yes. I did a benefit evening at the Philippine Center for the victims of Typhoon Ondoy, and that seats about 100 people, so I have a taste for what a cabaret would feel like, which is very intimate and very personal. You don't have to throw it all the way to the back of a 3,000-seat house, and you kind of feel like you're singing in someone's living room or bedroom.

TM: You're now living back in the Philippines again, right? How do you strike a balance between your professional commitments and life with your family at home?
LS: When I do travel, I try to do it in a big chunk, and then I'm home for a good long time. Then another big chunk, and then I'm home for a long time. Whenever possible, I bring my husband, my little girl, and her nannies with me, which is basically what I did last year on tour. My daughter came with me to Hawaii and Texas, to Toronto, and to California. So, it was really, really nice, as she gets to see Mommy do a little work, and she kind of picks up on it. I think she's heard "Taylor the Latte Boy" so many times she can probably sing it. It's pretty funny.

TM: The next big production you're scheduled for is playing Grizabella in a summer production of Cats in the Philippines. Are you looking forward to it?
LS: Yes, it's nice to be at home and be able to do the level of musical theater that I have done in London and New York. But having said that, there's really nothing like coming back to Broadway to do some work here, too. It's something that I really, really miss.

Lea Salonga at the afterparty
for Broadway Backwards
(©Tristan Fuge)
TM: Do you have any immediate or future plans for a return to Broadway?
LS: Truth be told, it's not up to me. If somebody had a bright idea, "Hey, Lea could do this! Why doesn't she replace this person for so many months," then I'll gladly come in and do something like that. I've got so many friends in the Broadway community. It makes me miss being up there, in a Broadway theater. I don't think a lot of performers miss doing eight shows a week, but when I'm in the run of a show and I'm doing that many performances, it's the camaraderie and the companionship with the cast members and the friends you make backstage that makes all the hard work worthwhile. A lot of us get to establish poker games backstage -- it's true! Over at Les Miz, it got pretty competitive. A lot of us remain in touch and whenever a bunch of us are in the same city, it's like, okay, we have to get together for a game. The show, in and of itself, as great as that is, becomes almost secondary to the personal stuff.

TM: If you did come back to Broadway, would you prefer to originate a role, or do you like the idea of replacing someone in an existing show?
LS: With the schedule I have to keep, what with me living in Manila, doing limited, three-month runs would work better. But a long run is possible as long as I'm able to bring my daughter with me, and my husband is able to come and visit. To answer your question on what my preference is, it's very different to originate a role, as you have to lay a lot of groundwork and really start from scratch, and half the time I feel I don't know what I'm doing! Replacing someone is a little easier, because someone has laid that groundwork for you, and you just have to fit yourself into a template. But having said that, you also have to make that fit you, and what your unique abilities are that you bring to the table.

TM: Your original run in Miss Saigon certainly let the world know what you're capable of doing! Was that a fun show to do?
LS: Actually, I think the thing I really enjoyed the most about having done the show was the ability to come back, seven years after I left the Broadway company. It was great getting to originate the role, and getting the awards associated with opening a show on Broadway, but it really became fun in 1999, when I returned to the production. I had a bit of trepidation, as my voice was not used to doing all those high notes, which is belted E-flats, Es, D-flats, and C-sharps screaming in someone's face. But I didn't feel the same pressure and stress as I had previously. I was healthy, stayed in shape, and I really, really enjoyed the run! And I thought, "Oh, my God. Why wasn't it this much fun seven years ago, when I opened?"

TM: Since you're so associated with that show, are you including any Miss Saigon songs in your club act at the Carlyle?
LS: I have a feeling that yes, there will be -- if not something that was established in the show, then maybe a song that got thrown out, which is kind of more interesting. I mean, you'll always be able to get a recording of me singing "I'll Give My Life for You" on iTunes.


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