LOS ANGELES—Lea Salonga’s BFF of 20 years and “gay of honor” at her wedding to Robert Chien, Victor Lirio, directs her in a show that runs for three weeks at New York’s landmark cabaret, Café Carlyle.
Victor, who produced Lea’s 2005 Carnegie Hall concert and directed her in two Lincoln Center engagements (Alice Tully Hall and The Allen Room), said via e-mail that the show, “Back to Before,” is “going to be more private, as if Lea invited you into her living room, and she’s sharing her life stories and embarrassing moments.”
He added that in Lea’s third stint at the Café Carlyle, she will pay tribute to New York (where she lived for several years), memorable female characters in the American musical theater, and the last century’s iconic female voices—from Billie Holiday to Barbra Streisand.
Larry Yurman serves as the musical director in Lea’s latest collaboration with Victor, who is the artistic director of New York’s Diverse City Theater Company, as well as an actor. Lea’s show runs from May 21 to June 8, Tuesday to Friday at 8:45 p.m., and Saturday at 8:45 p.m. and 10:45 p.m. Ticket info at 212-744-1600, or www.thecarlyle.com. Excerpts of our interview with Victor:
If you can cite just one show or performance of Lea that floored you the most, which one is it?
I have to say that rehearsing and exploring “Send in the Clowns” with Lea, for the Sondheim concert, was perhaps my most riveting experience.
I remember it vividly. It was just Lea, our rehearsal pianist, stage manager, associate producer and me in a small room. She was in rehearsal clothes, emotionally vulnerable under harsh fluorescent lighting.
The depth and complexity to which she took the song was arresting. Vocally, this song doesn’t ask much from a singer. But, as a storytelling piece, it’s extremely difficult. Lea brought the nuance. The room fell silent after she finished.
That said, her Kim in “Miss Saigon,” circa 2001, when she closed the show on Broadway, floored me. I thought the storytelling and journey of Lea’s Kim 10 years later was even more expansive, particularly when Kim became a mother in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon and was living the harsh reality of being a prostitute, yet with unrelenting hope that was heartbreakingly naive.
Lea embodied the many versions of Kim, who navigated difficult life circumstances with maturity and gravitas.
What inspired you and Lea to come up with the show’s concept?
It came up instinctively at the end of our sitzprobe for Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” concert this past January (which I also directed). It was a brief discussion, and we built the show from there.
In what ways will this show be different from Lea’s previous cabaret shows?
There will be more revelations of Lea as a person—not the actor, not the celebrity. A deeper insight into her life expressed through poignant and funny narratives that accompany each song, and less about her “greatest hits” and triumphs.
Which female character in the American musical theater canon would you like Lea to portray? And which songs (from that canon) that Lea hasn’t sung yet would you like her to sing?
It would be Fosca in “Passion” and Dot in “Sunday in the Park with George.” And, obviously, I would like to direct these productions. I’m a Sondheim geek. For the Sondheim concert, I gave Lea the big songs, such as “Send in the Clowns” and “Not A Day Goes By” (for which she screamed at me, accompanied by curses via e-mails, because they’re difficult pieces). I also gave her the Dot song, “Move On,” which was the 11 o’clock number of the concert.
And guess what? For the Carlyle concert, she will be singing Fosca’s songs in “Passion.”
What has your friendship with Lea taught you about loyalty and how to keep relationships last?
In our 20 years of friendship, we have gone through many important life events—marriages, coming out, personal crises, etc. We have worked hard and played just as hard together. Personally, my most important role was ‘gay of honor’ at her wedding. Pamilya na ang turingan namin. It has taught me unconditional friendship. I am a crazy individual, and I came with lots of “growing pains.” But, what kept our friendship long-lasting is honesty, respect and owning up to who you are—the good and the bad.
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