Live things: the magic of forty years of Lea Salonga

The evening rush hour can be particularly bad along C5 these days, and on one of those days, when you need to break the tedium (and physical strain) of inching slowly towards your destination, you end looking at the billboards. One of them has Lea Salonga on, and while I couldn’t remember what else was on it, it helpfully noted that she’s been in the business for forty years.

Forty years! I couldn’t help but do the math. She is younger than my mother. Lea was seven – and my mother was thirteen – when she made her professional debut in 1978. By the time she hit her tenth anniversary in the business she was already a veteran of stage and screen – and already had two albums under her belt. By the time I was born, in 1989, she was on the verge of the biggest breakthrough of her career, when she was chosen to originate the role of Kim in the West End musical Miss Saigon.

Growing up, Lea was like this mythical creature, her every endeavor followed with a certain reverence you don’t see applied on most other Filipino celebrities, certainly not in this day and age. And why not? She won the Olivier for Miss Saigon – the top prize for performances in the West End. When it transferred to Broadway, she also won a Tony – the first Asian woman to do so. She would redefine the role of Éponine on Les Misérables. She would perform the pivotal song on the Disney film Aladdin. Perhaps that’s also made her a bit more immune to the irreverence – perhaps scorn – we offer to other Filipino artists. It’s like she could never do wrong. Maybe it’s the perspective now, of how people from a more “high culture” background are not allowed to “sell out”. Maybe it was a different time then. But we all still love watching Sana Maulit Muli, her film with Aga Muhlach. We follow her every word in her stints as mentor on The Voice of the Philippines and its spin-offs. These days we deploy #pinoypride to also mock our tendency to latch on to anybody with even the slightest Filipino heritage that makes it relatively big internationally; on the other hand, there’s a genuine thrill with seeing Lea succeed in the world’s largest stages. This is the lady my parents saw grow up on That’s Entertainment. They may have said she always had it in her.

Even now we still talk about her. Lea may have settled down a bit, shuttling between New York and Manila, but she remains a high benchmark for Filipino artists all over. In recent months Shalla and I have begun talking about how she performed her key songs on stage. You know the Internet. YouTube allows people to compare every one who sang “On My Own”. Most likely they’ll conclude Lea interpreted that song better than anybody else. Spotify now has her concerts and cast recordings for everyone to listen to. We must have driven with “Sun and Moon” in the background.

We both hoped to have the chance to watch Lea on stage. Tickets to her 40th anniversary concerts – held this past weekend at the Philippine International Convention Center – were sold out months in advance, and we resolved to just wait for the next one. Suddenly, with two days to spare, my father got tickets from a friend. He couldn’t watch, so my mother, my sister and I would watch. I couldn’t bring my girlfriend, as she had work, and this all felt so last-minute.

 

 

“I will not be doing my discography,” Lea said as she began the concert – thirty minutes later than planned, because traffic in Manila is just so terrible now. “There’s Google for that.”

Yeah, that is true, I said to myself. How else would I have been able to convince myself that I can go to this concert?

But then, you don’t really expect Lea to just go through her career’s highlights. As she said, it’s well-trod territory. She described the concert as an intimate gathering where she reflects on her forty years in the business, both through the songs she’s associated with and the songs she loves. It’s not at all a bad thing. Shalla and I once listened to a concert recording and the best part, for me, were the stories she was telling in between the songs. That’s not to say I wasn’t looking forward to her singing – oh, heck, why wouldn’t I? Her performances in concerts may be different from her performances in musicals – a case of the different demands imposed by the material, I must clarify – but the way she interprets songs is a sight to behold.

Admittedly that meant me being a little apprehensive as to how I should watch this concert. It’s been ten years since I watched a musical, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an orchestra live. Also, this is Lea Salonga, a mythical figure. Not everybody gets to see her. You have to be in your best behavior. I was uncomfortable in my seat – I’m tall and there’s little leg room, and I just didn’t think I should slouch. But then, Lea makes you feel comfortable. Perhaps it is the intimate setting, at least relatively: the PICC Plenary Hall housed 4,000 spectators, and while we’re all here in our best outfits, Lea commanded the stage, made us feel a bit more relaxed. I never expected her to encourage us to take photos and videos of her performances because, in her words, “it’s a concert”. Like, do you do that to Lea?

The concert was, indeed, her reflecting on her forty years so far. She may not have sung everything you’d expect her to sing – “On My Own” was merely on the introduction to the whole concert, performed by the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Gerard Salonga – but the song choices, a mix of musical numbers and pop tunes, reflect both her mindsets of the time and her perspectives now. I’ll admit I may have pulled out my phone in a scramble to look up some of the showtunes, particularly the ones Shalla and I have never discussed. “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me as she talked about her first date with her now husband Robert Chien? You felt her initial apprehension, and then you felt the kilig in the room.

If anything, the structure of the concert felt a bit scattershot – we began with ruminations on “gratitude”, “love” and “family”, only for that to fall away by the second half. But nobody really seemed to care. Lea’s charisma and command of the stage meant you hung on to her every word. Also, again, this is a rare opportunity. You lap it all up.

 

 

I did expect special guests during the concert, and Lea’s entourage also showed her continuing impact on today’s performers. Esang de Torres, aka It’s Showtime‘s “mini Lea Salonga”, went on to participate in The Voice Kids (she naturally chose Lea as her mentor) and most recently played the lead role in the Manila run of Matilda the Musical; what have I been doing with my life? Not that I ever aspired to work in theater, but in her time on stage she showed the discipline and confidence I only hoped to have at age 11. (Also, that is a hard song, because you have to delivery fast and keep a British accent.) Also representing the younger end is Lea’s daughter, Nicole Chien, who herself has dabbled in stage, most recently on Matilda, albeit with an endearingly gawky demeanor. It was a treat seeing mother and daughter sing “Shy” from Once Upon A Mattress.

Mark Bautista was on board to perform “A Whole New World” with Lea, as well as a medley of Hotdog hits, in tribute to Rene Garcia, the band’s leader who passed away this year – and whose music Lea grew up with. We tend to forget that he has transitioned to musical theater after years of pop performances, and I ended up reflecting on what we expect of our singers. If you do the Sunday variety show grind, you’re expected to deliver big moments week in, week out, and I’m one of millions, I’m sure, who’s grown tired of that style. We don’t expect Lea to go big even if we know she is capable; why do we demand a different standard for other performers, especially those who do most of their work on screen? Mark seemed nervous – understandably, because you don’t always perform with Lea Salonga – but it was like rediscovering his capability to go small when it matters. If we could only see more of that on television.

The biggest treat, however, was having Simon Bowman on stage. Yes, Simon Bowman, he who originated Chris on Miss Saigon at the West End – for the first time in the Philippines, as it turns out. The crowd was a bit reserved with the mobile phones up until Lea introduced him to stage. The room realized the significance of the occasion. Now, I have never had the chance to watch Miss Saigon – I was ten, I think, during the Manila run – but it was good to see the chemistry that has endured thirty years (and one I’ve only heard on the 25th anniversary cast recording, another one we listened to on long drives). There was this magic in seeing the two perform “Sun and Moon” and “The Last Night of the World” together – effortless, respectful, and one you can just get lost in. And then there were the stories, too, particularly that familiar one of how Simon made Lea – who was apprehensive in part because of her lack of romantic experience prior to bagging the role of Kim – feel comfortable.

That reunion may have risked overshadowing everything else, but in the end everything all went back to the occasion at hand. The overarching theme of Lea’s concert were in the words that began and ended the affair: “I am not done with my changes.” Forty years, as she pointed out, is a long time, and it has been quite a journey (if you’ll forgive the pun). At any time along the way she could have become irrelevant, but still, here she is, one of the most celebrated and respected names in Filipino music, still an inspiration to performers not just in musical theater. I was totally okay with a retrospective, but Lea isn’t willing to rest on her laurels, still – there was a nod to the thriving state of Philippine theater, thanks to a performance from the musical version of the Nora Aunor classic Himala. It’s not so much a battle to remain relevant but a continued pursuit of the new and great. We’ve allowed Lea that for the past forty years. I hope we could allow the same for everybody else, especially those who really do have something to offer. [NB]

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