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Being Lea Salonga

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The fact that the concert was sold out way, way before means people did not need any convincing to part ways with their hard-earned money to watch Lea Salonga perform. The reason? It’s Lea Salonga.

“So, what are we doing here?” Lea quipped during the press conference held recently to promote ‘Lea Salonga – The 40th Anniversary Concert’ at the PICC Plenary Hall on 19 and 20 October.

“And people were still calling my mom (Ligaya) for tickets. It’s a good problem,” she relates to the members of the media.

Perhaps another reason? It’s her 40th year in show business. Lea’s career has spanned seven presidents since 1978. Her voice has been etched on vinyl records and cassettes, to today’s MP3, iTunes and Spotify. This concert is going to be like the landing of the first American astronaut on the moon. One would not miss this for the world.

“It’s a milestone anniversary,’ Lea says. ‘Not very many people get to celebrate 40 years in this business and be able to fully perform at the level that I’m currently performing.”

And she credits this longevity to her conscious drive for excellence, not perfection, as most Filipinos may think.

“There is really no such thing a perfection, but there is such a thing as excellence and that is what I go for. Perfect does not really exist because however great a performance went, I will always think at the back of my mind that it could have been better,” she explains about what appears to be the core message of her career.

She adds: “It has to kind of always be that elusive, always an ideal to strive for, just beyond your reach, but excellence means putting your whole self into it even if you miss a few things here and there and that’s fine — that’s part of being human and makes you less of a robot. Excellent but not perfect is fine.”

And that golden voice is still there when she opened the program with her specially-arranged rendition of “Take on Me” by Aha. If the song were any indication, she continues to reinvent herself to this day, even when her place in the industry is already secure and beyond question. “This song is just for today. The next time I will be singing this is perhaps in a karaoke bar,” laughs Lea, whose concert will be directed by Bobby Garcia, with the musical direction by Gerard Salonga and featuring the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra.

LEA Salonga will always be known for her breakout role as Kim in “Miss Saigon”, both in the West End and on Broadway, which earned her a grand slam in theater with the Laurence Olivier Award in London, Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Theater World Awards.

The song and the singer

For Lea, the song and the singer are on even footing. And she explains the process that goes into excellence.

“It’s how to technically navigate and emotionally how to navigate through the song. What kind of story you’re trying to tell through the song and who do you want to sing this song to. It just can’t be ‘where are my lyrics, where’s my melody and you’re done.’ It can’t be like that,” she shares.

“To pass on a hint when you are choosing a song, pick a song where you can place yourself in whatever fictional story you create. It does not have to be a perfect vocal. Once your heart’s in the song, you open your mouth and you know exactly what you are singing.
Something magical happens.”

Lea says technique is the secret sauce behind giving out her best in every performance.

“There is such a thing as vocal marking where the physical mechanism is not always at full tilt. You can’t always gun your car. If you can always gun it, you know you’ll flood the gas pedal for the entire drive. So you’re driving from here to Baguio, you can’t floor it for the entire trip or you’ll destroy your car,” she analyzes.

“So in the same way, I can’t…physically cause it’s just impossible and exhausting, but I think the passion and the consistency is not always in the physical effort…You can’t fake the heart, you know, and audiences can feel if you’re there, if you’re in it, if your being and your spirit is in the performance. So I think performers who stand the test of time are not always the most perfect vocalists, but you feel what they are trying to convey.”

Theater luminary

When she was serenading the media and other guests with that iconic ‘80s song, one couldn’t help but think that her voice had not changed at all. Discipline is the key, but that does not mean living a boring life.

“I do enjoy my life, I eat what I like, I drink. But there has to be discipline with the bouts of hedonism that you sometimes can enjoy. If I have rehearsals or a show, alright I can’t be eating this, I can’t be drinking this, I can’t be staying out late, I need a vocal rest, I can’t be out with my friends even if it’s just in a restaurant. I need to be careful and disciplined on how I live my life,” she answers.

For sure, we know what to expect from the Broadway legend, and that is a night of excellence unparalleled in the industry until now. The same excellence as shown by her role as Princess Ying Yaowalak in The King and I, as the adorable red-head Annie, as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady; as delightful host and entertainer in her own TV show, Love Lea.

Of course, she will always be known for her breakout role as Kim in Miss Saigon, both in the West End and on Broadway, which earned her a grand slam in theater with the Laurence Olivier Award in London, Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Theater World Awards on Broadway.

And there’s no stopping Lea, who just recently conquered Broadway with her critically acclaimed performance as Erzulie, the Goddess of Love, in the new production of Once on This Island.

But there are definitely others like her, many Filipinos who are conquering the international theater scene and are not content with the joys of being accepted locally.

“The quality of the theater here is rivaling the theater that you would see in New York, London or Australia. I mean, obviously, there are budgetary constraints and production design is not always going to be the most bombastic or expensive. But as far as the quality of the performances and the kind of heart that you get, you can get it here and there’s so many performers from here that are gaining so much success abroad because of the quality of their performances,” Lea relates and rattles off with pride the names Red Concepcion, who is cast as The Engineer in Miss Saigon, and Rachelle Anne Go, who plays Elizabeth Shuyler Hamilton in the West End production Hamilton.

Obviously, whether she admits it or not, Lea had blazed a trail as a pioneer in unchartered territory when she made it happen in Miss Saigon. If there’s a fork on the road somewhere that she made the right turn, this is where that decision led her.

“I don’t think that I will be in this exact spot if anything had been different. If the steps I took to get here changed in any way. I mean, who knows? And l Iove my life exactly where it is, the people that I’ve met both in my career and just my life. It’s like when you a take a different route to somewhere, the things that you see or experienced on that journey will make who you are in the end. Perhaps the destination will be the same, but it won’t feel the same, won’t feel as sweet or won’t be as appreciated. I am happy and content with how everything is happening now my life now.”

And perhaps Filipinos might also want to thank her mom.

“That’s kind of pretty obvious. It’s because of her unwavering belief in what I can do, and then what my brother can do. So I don’t think that we could be the kind of artists that we are, and, as my brother will joke around, you gotta thank mom for incessant nagging. It’s because of that we are who we are. It’s the nonstop reminders to do things and even though you’re just so inis already, but you know that she’s right and so it’s because of that — it’s the diligence and the discipline and all of that and it’s all coming from a place of love.”

The show is co-presented by East West Bank and the Philippine Airport Ground Support Solutions, Inc. (PAGSS). It is in partnership with Facial Care Centre, Ethan Allen, Tumi, Philippine Airlines and The Manila Peninsula, with CNN Philippines as exclusive media partner.

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