LOS ANGELES—We recently caught up with Lea Salonga, whose career is taking very interesting twists and turns. The Philippines’ pride answered our questions via e-mail on the latest developments in her ever-evolving career. She told us about a coming intimate show in New York in which she will pay tribute to Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and other female singing legends, and some of her impressions so far as a judge-coach of “The Voice of the Philippines.”
From May 21 to June 8, Lea will star in “Back to Before” at the famed Café Carlyle where Woody Allen and his jazz band, Ute Lemper, Judy Collins, John Pizzarelli and others regularly perform. In her third show at the legendary cabaret venue at the Carlyle Hotel, Lea and her friend, director Victor Lirio, promise something different. Aside from the special tribute to the iconic lady singers of the last century, Lea will include in her 75-minute set a section dedicated to original interpretation of songs by “resilient female characters in the American musical theater cannon.” That alone should be a treat, since Lea has one of the most beautiful soprano voices.
In a show that is being billed as “deeply personal,” Lea also revisits her life as a New Yorker through songs (the show’s original arrangements are by Larry Yurman). More information about the show, which runs Tuesday to Friday at 8:45 p.m. and Saturday at 8:45 p.m. and 10:45 p.m., is available at www.thecarlyle.com or 212-744-1600.
Excerpts from our e-mail interview:
What was your earliest memory of hearing a Barbra Streisand song? If you could sing only one Streisand piece in the show, what would that be and why?
Strangely enough, my first Streisand memory had nothing to do with Broadway, only with pop music. The first song of hers that I heard was “Evergreen,” as it enjoyed heavy airplay on the radio. The next was the theme song to the film “Eyes of Laura Mars” (starring Faye Dunaway). So her pop career made its way into my head before her musical theater repertoire did. As for what single piece of hers I’d love to do, I honestly don’t know. I’m discovering more and more obscure stuff that she’s performed; one of those might be the magic number.
If you had a chance to sing a duet with Streisand, which song would you like?
Oh goodness, I don’t know! Kahit ano, masaya na ako.
Among the great ladies you are paying tribute to, whose life and career fascinate you the most? And if you had a chance to live in any era that these singers lived in, which era would you pick?
Oh wow… that requires some serious thinking. It would be amazing to live in Ella Fitzgerald’s era, if only to see what she went through as an African-American woman singing the Gershwin repertoire and making a mark as a vocalist in her own inimitable style.
How do legendary singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday inspire you, personally and professionally?
Just that they were people who gained so much ground in an era of prejudice and bigotry. Remember when Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toe into a swimming pool, and the pool had to be drained and cleaned thoroughly? How these greats appeared on a stage, but entered a club through the back door. But they persevered. I admire that kind of tenacity.
Which song do you associate most with New York and why?
Anything written by Sondheim, the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hammerstein, and also Billy Joel, whose “New York State of Mind” makes me happy whenever I get to sing it.
What is the most significant “before” phase in your life and career—that is, before your life and career changed drastically?
That would be living a life of relative anonymity though I was already active and working as a performer. I wasn’t a huge star, and never thought I would ever be one (not that I cared). Then “Miss Saigon” came along and changed everything.
Which female character in the US musical theater canon do you dream of playing?
Right now, the one character I would love to play for real is Mother in “Ragtime.” I got a taste of it via that Avery Fisher Hall (Lincoln Center) concert last February, getting to sing such sublime material alongside some incredibly talented, illustrious and celebrated performers. I mean, at least 10 Tony winners/nominees. That’s a crazy number to have in one show. She’s important to me because of the transformation she goes through. It’s a subtle one but significant nonetheless and getting to sing “Back to Before” is a celebration of how far she’s come as a woman and as a human being.
What do you enjoy most about performing in a cozy, intimate venue? What are the challenges? How did you deal with folks who had one drink too many and talked loudly or behaved boisterously during your past stints?
One never has to try so hard in an intimate venue. It’s great when I’m feeling slightly under the weather. I could falsetto my way through a set and it would be perfectly all right. As for the challenges, there really aren’t any. And it’s always a lot of fun when people get rowdy during my set. I roll with it.
How do you keep yourself motivated, or engaged, after singing the same set night after night for weeks?
There’s always something new to discover in a song—a new life lesson or lyric reading—and bringing in one’s day can change the meaning of an entire set. I guess it’s something I’m just used to after having done eight-show weeks for years.
Which performer’s cafe, club or lounge act did you enjoy the most and why?
I haven’t seen enough to name one that I’ve enjoyed more than others. I’ve only seen Barb Jungr at the Carlyle. She was so spontaneous. Nothing seemed scripted but I know that there was a structure.
What has your friendship with Victor taught you about loyalty and making friendships last?
We’ve seen each other through so much during our long friendship. I think I went through more boyfriends than he did during one 10-year chunk. We keep it real with honesty, humor and kindness. And copious amounts of alcohol.
What have been the most surprising moments or highlights so far in your stint as one of the judge-coaches of “The Voice Philippines”?
The kindness of the contestants. You think that there’s going to be bitchiness from one side of the stage to the other, but nope, not with this bunch. Because we get kindness, we give it back, even with critiques. We keep it constructive because they deserve it. We never hit below the belt. That won’t help anyone.
What are you enjoying the most in your interaction with your fellow judge-coaches apl.de.ap, Sarah Geronimo and Bamboo Mañalac?
Everyone is, in their own way, really makulit. I think, though, that apl and I go at it the most because we’re seated beside each other. It’s like I gained a younger brother. I also love teasing Sarah; she’s so adorable.
Will you be watching Jose Llana in “Here Lies Love”?
I want to, I really, really want to.
(E-mail the columnist at email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)