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22 February 2024

Philippines’ Lea Salonga raves about her ‘Japan family’

By Choy Navarro

Even superstars have idols.

And, sometimes, they don’t just talk about stars whom they idolised when they were wide-eyed children growing up and nourishing their dreams of emulating those they looked up to and admired so much.

It could also be that they gush over the unbelievable talent of those they work with, even when they themselves are already big stars or even bigger and more popular than the ones they are raving about.

Such is the case with the Philippines’ Lea Salonga, who, despite being a world-class musical theatre actress and light lyric-soprano singer, has always been kind and generous with admiration towards her co-performers and fellow actors.

“It was bittersweet that our run had to end when it did,” Salonga, who catapulted into international stardom when she essayed the lead role of Kim in the 1990 musical ‘Miss Saigon’ at age 19, says of her recent work on ‘4Stars’ in Japan.

Salonga has since continued to conquer the world by winning the most coveted theatre awards in New York and London, and providing the singing voice to two Walt Disney princesses—Jasmine in ‘Aladdin’ (1992) and Fa Mulan in ‘Mulan’ (2004).

She was also the first Asian to play the roles of Éponine and Fantine in ‘Les Misérables’ on Broadway. In 2011, she was named a Disney Legend for her work with The Walt Disney Company. The Disney Legends programme is awarded annually to those who have made an extraordinary contribution to the company.

Writing on her regular column at the ‘Philippine Daily Inquirer’ on July 3, Salonga also says of her recent work in Japan: “I felt as though we didn’t have enough time together to perform our show, or even to explore Japan some more. There were many tears at our closing matinee at various points in the concert, as we knew we would miss each other very much.”

“However, I have a feeling that the four of us will get to this same show again … in another beautiful country that we’ll get to share,” she goes on. “So, to my crazy little family, this is not goodbye. I’ll see you all very soon. Arigato gazaimasu! [Thank you very much!]”

Salonga, who has been a singing and musical theatre star in the Philippines since she was seven years old, is referring to the American theatre actress and singer Sierra Boggess, the Iranian-born Canadian actor and singer Ramin Karimloo and the Japanese-Spanish actor Yu Shirota.

The four of them were recently in Japan, where they did ‘4Stars’, a series of concerts staged at Aoyama Theatre, in Tokyo, on June 15 to 23, and at Umeda Arts Theatre, in Osaka, on June 27 to 30. Included in their repertoires were songs from ‘Miss Saigon’, ‘Les Misérables’, ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘The Last Five Years’, among the other world’s most popular and successful musicals.

“It’s a given that Sierra is incredibly talented—exemplary training, perfect pitch, unobstructed delivery, emotional accessibility,” Salonga says of Boggess, who, on May 5, took home the award for Favorite Replacement at the Broadway.com Audience Choice Awards for her role as Christine Daae in the 25th anniversary celebration of ‘Phantom of the Opera’.

Salonga goes on, “It’s eye-opening being around her. She exudes an incredibly positive force, and makes any environment a much better place just because she’s in it. I can’t say that about a lot of people, but I can definitely say that about her.”

Of Karimloo, Salonga jestingly and fondly says she wants “to punch him in the throat” because his voice is a “mix of unrestrained passion and intense technical clarity” despite not having undergone formal training in his craft. “He’s truly a star,” she exclaims. “And a very lovely man.”

Describing Shirota as “the most famous of the ‘4Stars’ company”, him being a popular television star and recording artist in Japan, Salonga says that he is also “incredibly, surprisingly humble” and an “incredibly handsome man”. She adds that despite his towering figure (6-foot-3), Shirota is a “big kid at heart, his playfulness and joy very infectious”.

She says that Shirota has absorbed like sponge the advices that she, Boggess and Karimloo had given him in the three weeks that they were together in Japan. She says his development as a performer was pretty obvious, citing his rendering of the song ‘Isabel’ by Il Divo.

“When we opened the run, it was a great song sung well, but by the end, he had turned it into a tale of love and loss, dedicated to someone he loved,” says Salonga, who once admitted that she still has butterflies in her stomach before every performance, even after her ‘Miss Saigon’ fame. “Sierra and I were in tears in our final shows; we were barely able to recover to sing whatever we had coming next.”

Now 42, Salonga won the following awards for her works in world theatres during her younger days: Olivier, which is presented annually by the Society of London Theatre; Tony, given by the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League; Drama Desk (for Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway productions); Outer Critics (for achievements both in Broadway and Off-Broadway); and Theatre World (for New York City stage debut performance, either on Broadway or Off-Broadway).