Lea Salonga is on a high.
The Filipino singer — best known for her stage breakout in ‘Miss Saigon’ 30 years ago, as well as her emotive vocal performances that powered Jasmine in Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ (1992) and the titular character in ‘Mulan’ (1998) — may be moved to happy tears by the upcoming live-action remake of ‘Mulan’, and said her whole week was made when Korean film ‘Parasite’ made history at the Oscars this year.
Ahead of her March 5 and March 6 performances at Dubai Opera this week, we spoke to Salonga about being homesick, her biggest fan Catriona Gray and why Hollywood’s move toward culturally accurate casting makes her “really happy”.
You sold out the Dubai Opera two years ago and you’re back again. What can people expect from your show this time around?
I think much of the same. There’s a lot of musical theatre. A lot of pop. When I look at the repertoire, it’s a really nice mix of different music from different shows.
Fans have those big favourite tracks from you. But is there one song that’s close to your heart when you’re performing?
I think every song, the minute I open my mouth to sing, it makes a lot of sense, and it’s something that I find myself falling in love with. One favourite now is ‘Drops of Jupiter’ by Train. I really do love the song and what inspired its creation. I could relate to it.
What part of the song do you relate to?
I read somewhere that [lead singer Patrick Monahan] wrote the song after his mother had passed away from cancer. Every tour stop, he would find a phone booth in every single city, just to talk to her — this was not in a time of cell phones.
Wow. I had never actually heard the story behind the song, thank you for sharing that.
I did a little bit of research and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’ There are women in my life that have had breast cancer and I’m also kind of a spokesperson, or ambassador, for a local breast cancer support group. So to sing that song, it makes absolute sense to me.
What does it feel like to perform to a large Filipino audience outside of the Philippines here in the UAE?
It’s sort of like being in the Philippines. When the crowd is comprised mostly of Filipinos [abroad], and someone from home comes to perform, there’s a homesickness factor that feeds into their responses to the music and to the performer. It’s different when I’m performing for a home crowd, when I’m in the Philippines, because it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re all at home.’ Versus all of us being away and feeling tethered to home. Let’s all be home homesick together and do some music. It’s very emotional!
You’re the singing voice of Jasmine in ‘Aladdin’, and ‘Mulan’. Both movies are getting live action remakes now, where Disney has put an emphasis on culturally accurate casting...
That makes me really happy. There are people who are just decidedly purist about the material and say, ‘We don’t need the live-action versions of this!’ Maybe in one sense, they’re probably right, because it’s already been made, so why do it again? But in another sense, Aladdin is Middle Eastern, it’s set in a little fictional Iraqi town with a very, very large palace. In the animation, there were very few actual Middle Easterners that worked in it. To contrast that to the live-action version of ‘Aladdin’, where you have someone British but of Indian descent playing Jasmine, and a Canadian of Egyptian descent [as Aladdin], you have everyone who is actually the right ethnic mix for that movie.
So, in the greater scheme of things, it is [about] seeing yourself reflected on screen, which is why the new live-action version of Mulan is the one I’m really waiting for, as an Asian person. Mulan was already correct pretty much at the time [it was made], because you had Ming-Na Wen speaking for her, and you had me singing for her. But to see an actual, flesh-and-blood human being that looks like you up on the screen, doing these heroic things? I get really emotional just thinking about it. Seeing how much of a badass she will be, I cannot wait. It’s going to feel like Christmas morning when I walk into the theatre. I’m going to need somebody to hold me and I’m going to need a few tissue boxes, because it’s like: I was part of that. I was part of it.
In Hollywood, we’re seeing a general move towards representation; we’ve had ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ recently, and then ‘Parasite’ making history at the Oscars…
Oh my gosh, that made my night. That made my entire week. I hadn’t seen the movie yet, but just seeing that it’s a Korean film, unapologetically Korean, with a Korean director, Korean actors, Korean production, no one trying to fit a mould that isn’t authentic, and taking an Oscar for being itself.
It probably wasn’t made with the Oscars in mind — it just won because it’s that good.
When Bong Joon-ho was up on stage, he said it really best: the most personal is the most creative, which Martin Scorsese had said. If you make films of your story, of things that resonate with you, of things that really speak to you, to your sensibility, your politics and your sense of justice, if you make things that absolutely are personal, then people are gonna find something within that that will resonate with them completely. And it will absolutely be creative, because you know the subject matter really, really well. And you have something to say.
You haven’t seen the film yet?
So, I downloaded the movie legally, I bought it off of iTunes. I’m going to watch it and I’m going to feel so elated for that entire crew being nothing but themselves and taking away these prizes. It really says something to everybody else in the world, who aspires to make movies and tell stories.
On another note: Miss Universe Catriona Gray spoke about you recently, calling you her idol and saying her dream is to be on stage with you. Thoughts?
Yeah, apparently she’s a big fan! [laughs] Oh, she’s so adorable. She’s so sweet. And that’s such a sweet thing to say. The woman who was judged the most beautiful woman on the planet had those things to say. We haven’t met each other, but we travel in a lot of the same circles. So, I’m sure that our paths will cross and I’m sure we’ll be able to figure something out, because I’ve heard her sing and she is quite good!
Finally, you were only 18 when you originated your role in Miss Saigon. What is the thing you remember most from that time?
The opening night, and the entire audition process leading up to doing the show; I was 17 at those auditions. I remember the opening night that happened in London and how huge it was, and that you needed escalators to get from one party floor to another. It was massive. It was massive! But I do remember it being a ton of fun.
Don’t miss it!
Tickets to see Lea Salonga on March 5 start from Dh350. Her March 6 concert is sold out.