Backstory: I am a proud show pony

By Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
June 19, 2013 | 8:31 pm

TOKYO—Backstage in conversation with Sierra Boggess, one of my costars in the “4Stars” concert (series in Tokyo and Osaka, with Sierra, Ramin Karimloo, and Yu Shirota), the term “show pony” came up. The term was coined by her “Love Never Dies” director, Jack O’Brien, to describe certain people.

There are horses that are perfectly happy eating the grass on a meadow. Others need to run in races. Then there are show ponies. To quote Jack speaking to Sierra, “All you need is a little food and off you go!”

A show pony is one that responds to the calling of the ring, coming alive when the lights hit and the music starts. That’s exactly what happens with performers … actors and singers who come alive once an overture begins to play.

Sierra and I arrived in Tokyo on June 10 (Ramin had been in the city a week, spending quality time with his wife Amanda and their sons Jaden and Hadley; and Yu had just returned from Kyoto, fresh from shooting a made-for-TV movie). Thankfully, we weren’t yet required to do anything related to the show.

Concert duties

Our concert duties started the next day with a rehearsal in a studio, where we reunited with Daniel Kutner (director), Fred Lassen (musical director and conductor), Yukichi Hattori (choreographer), and the Umegei staff. Despite our very jet-lagged state, we were able to run through the entire concert without many stops. We were rewarded with a day off on Wednesday in preparation for our orchestra rehearsal at the theater on Thursday.

The orchestra played precisely as expected—everything with almost machine-like accuracy. However, you could tell that, behind all the precision were human beings who could feel the music coursing through their veins, playing with passion and humanity. Two of my favorite musicians are the bleach blonde concertmaster who really commands that string section, and the über cute percussionist … looks like a demure, petite Japanese doll. She rocks every instrument she plays.

Bentley of mics

Right by the monitor console were our microphones, beautifully presented in a wooden box, labeled with our names. When I picked up my mic to sing our first song, I completely geeked out! I was holding a Neumann KK105S capsule attached onto a Sennheiser 5000 series wireless body. This is the Bentley of microphones … the most awesome tool of my trade. And there were three of them. We rehearsed with the mics we’d be using for the concert to give our sound designer information on our voices.

Friday, June 14 was the day for our technical rehearsals, to see what the show would feel like in costume. We had fittings early in the day, followed by adjustments made on site. We checked our shoes … quick changes … make-up and hair… and we had a run through to finish off the day. Saturday the 15th was opening night. We had our final dress rehearsal (with cameras and members of the press present) in the afternoon, and then a little rest at night.

The evening of the 15th was different. I don’t know, but there’s something that clicks in my brain when I know that rehearsals are officially over and performances are about to begin. The adrenaline starts pumping, my body starts feeling a buzz, and it’s as if I had just gulped 10 cups of coffee. Japanese lyrics are going through my head at rapid speeds, and a hint of paranoia starts coursing through my veins. Whatever calm was present in me is no longer there, replaced by very aggressive butterflies.

I hear the calls coming over the PA system. This is your 30-minute call. Then 20, then 15 … my dresser comes in to help me, as all my costumes zip up the back … 10… 5. At that last call, I get up and head over to the stage area.

I grab my microphone and take one last sip of water. The stage manager tells me to stand by. Once I hear the music play, I hear my heart beating just that much faster, and feel my hands start to sweat. My cue comes, and off I go, making my first steps on stage. Then the lights hit me, and I’m a different human being, thriving at the sight of the audience in their seats. I know I’m meant to be here. I love being here. There is no other place I’d rather be.

I am a show pony. And proud of it.

‘The Voice’

On behalf of my fellow coaches, as well as the staff and crew of “The Voice of the Philippines,” allow me to say “Thank you!” to everyone who tuned in last weekend! I was able to catch the episodes, thanks to TFC, and they were so much fun!

Right now, our teams are barely formed, what with either one or two team members per coach thus far: I’ve got Darryl Shy, Tau Muhammad and Chien Berbaña; Bamboo has Deb Victa; Apl has Thor Dulay and Corazon de la Cruz; and finally Sarah has Junji Arias. It’s all shaping up, you guys!

So … who are the next team members on their way? Find out this Saturday at 9 p.m. and Sunday at 8:15 p.m. See you all then!

Backstory: Forbidden Pleasures

By Lea Salonga
June 6, 2012
Philippine Daily Inquirer 

Last week I did insert a “more on that later” when I mentioned my brief appearance in “Forbidden Broadway” a couple of weekends ago … however, I had run on and on with the rest of the article that I neglected to slip “more” in. Allow me now to make up for my egregious oversight.

The invitation came many weeks before the actual performance night. Bernice Aspillaga (a jack of all trades whose skills range from road manager for The Dawn to stage manager for many Atlantis productions to “Voice of God” announcer for many Manila theater performances) asked on behalf of director Joel Trinidad if I’d be interested in doing one song for the show.

Legend in NYC

You must understand … “Forbidden Broadway” is kind of a legend in New York City. It has spoofed artists and shows of renown (even “Miss Saigon” got spoofed … one memorable line written was, “Who will be playing Miss Saigon, Lea Salonga can’t go on”) for quite a few years. No one was spared. Certainly not the likes of Patti Lupone, Liza Minnelli, Cameron Mackintosh, Stephen Sondheim, Rita Moreno and Barbra Streisand, or classic shows like “Annie” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”

You’d think that because of all this very public ribbing, the people being spoofed would get all sorts of pikon as a result. Truth is, not really. At a recent Boublil-Schonberg concert, I spoke with Alain Boublil’s wife, Marie Zamora. I told her about a friend’s performance of a “Les Miz” send-up on the show’s opening night in Manila, and she asked, “The one that spoofed ‘Bring Him Home’?” Before I even said yes, she was belly-laughing so hard that tears were streaming down her face, while trying to sing the spoof lyrics.

At first I was asked to do the send-up of “On My Own,” titled “On My Phone.” I felt a bit hesitant, as I knew I would be racked with guilt for toying with anything that had to do with “Les Miz.” One, I was still working closely with Alain and Claude-Michel; and two, I don’t think my brain would be able to handle the lyrics! I knew that the real ones would creep into the joke, and that keeping a straight face would be next to impossible. I had expressed my concerns to Joel, so he assigned me another song. It would be “Defying Subtlety,” spoof of “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked.” I immediately said yes. This would probably be the only time I’d ever get to do anything remotely related to playing the show for real, so I took the opportunity.

Simple, effective

We set a rehearsal for the Tuesday before my Friday night performance. Joel and I met up in Makati, along with Bernice and pianist Dingdong Fiel (whose sense of humor matched those of the actors playing in the show, as well as his piano playing skill … he’s got to have extra fingers on his hands or something!). The staging would be simple, but very effective. OJ Mariano would shine a small green light on my face, which would be my cue to starting singing. Lorenz Martinez would then enter, push a trunk in front of me, and I’d have to climb upon it and finish the song there. Simple!

The challenge for me would be how to not laugh out loud while OJ and Lorenz were doing their flying monkey schtick. Those two men are incredibly funny, besides being wonderful singers, and are so committed to whatever they do. According to Joel, it took Caisa Borromeo (the young actress who sang “Defying Subtlety” every night) a full week to get over the comedy of it all before she could sing it without breaking. I’d have loved to hear her sing this; her voice is incredible.

Like a blur

Come Friday night at RCBC, I was escorted backstage. I hung out in the ladies’ dressing room with Caisa and Liesl Batucan, the actress who would complete the foursome (she’d be responsible for channeling Liza, Barbra, and Chita Rivera, all effectively). She and I had first worked together in “My Fair Lady” many moons ago, and I loved her performance as Carrie Pipperidge in Rep’s production of “Carousel,” which was Gerard’s debut as an orchestra conductor. We caught up on each other’s lives and work, and I got to know Caisa a little better beyond her stage performances. At about 6:45 p.m., it came time for sound check (everyone wore a body microphone). The show started at about 8:10 p.m. For the duration of the first act leading up to my song, I stayed in the production room on stage left trying to calm my nerves, going through the lyrics of the song over and over again, staving away Stephen Schwartz’s original words from my head.

At a predetermined cue, I put on my cape and witch’s hat, grabbed my broom and headed to my backstage standby spot. When it was time, I headed to center stage and sang the number. It went like a blur that just went so fast that before I knew it, it was over. OJ led me backstage to the sanctuary of stage right, and I could still feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins. Now that was one heck of a stage rush, and I was so happy to do it. My mom, Rob and Nic were in the audience, and we all then sat together for Act 2.

I sure hope that Upstart Productions decides to repeat this show a few more times or brings it out on the road to give more people the chance to watch it. “Forbidden Broadway” is incredibly funny. Sure, it roasts some classic Broadway workhorses like marshmallows at a campfire, but does so with reverence and plenty of love.

I wonder now if anything homegrown could be spoofed in this manner without anyone getting pikon.

Shameless plug

The Philippine Opera Company presents “Ang Bagong Harana,” a show that showcases many of the best offerings by composers such as Nicanor Abelardo, Ryan Cayabyab, Willy Cruz, Antonio Molina, Levi Celerio, Ernani Cuenco, Constancio De Guzman and Felipe de Leon. Directed by Floy Quintos, this is a musical journey that every Filipino must take.

“Ang Bagong Harana” runs at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at the RCBC Plaza from June 6 to 9 at 8 p.m., and on June 9 and 10 at 3:30 p.m. Call Ticketworld, 8919999; or POC, 8817168 or 0917-5224183.

Backstory: Lady Gaga, a gift from God

By Lea Salonga
May 30, 2012
Philippine Daily Inquirer

This last week has been a peaceful one, work-wise, save for one brief appearance in “Forbidden Broadway” (more on that later), and watching “The Sound of Music” (congratulations, everyone, for a successful run). With the goings-on in the entertainment scene (Lady Gaga’s Manila concert, for example), it has given me time to think.

One adage I like using is this one, attributed to Voltaire: “I disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend your right to say it.” In a secular society, that should hold true, whether or not we wholeheartedly agree, or vehemently oppose whatever has been placed before us. I like applying this adage to the arts.

The funny thing about art is that it’s in the “eye of the beholder,” if I’m to quote from another adage. How something strikes us artistically differs in so many ways. Whether it’s a painting, live performance or sound recording, one person could regard it as high-brow while another could dismiss it as a failed attempt at art. You just never know. Art is subjective.

Which brings me to the more controversial art forms that have found their way into the public consciousness. Yes, you could say that I’m speaking of Lady Gaga, but I’m also speaking of anyone whose artistic output has caused outrage (I recall a particular art show at the CCP where the protest against one piece caused the closing of the entire exhibition … I never got to see the exhibit, so I can’t comment on the piece’s merits or demerits).

Interpretation is a funny thing when it comes to art. As we’ve seen in the recent protests against Lady Gaga, there was music she wrote with an accompanying music video that sent enough people into a large enough frenzy to protest her concerts. Her song “Judas” was called anti-Christian and demonic, and the artist herself was labeled a Satanist with ties to the Illuminati.

I wasn’t going to jump on any bandwagon before doing a little research, and so I looked up the song and searched online for the video (I wouldn’t have, if the media attention hadn’t reached such fever pitch).

After watching the video, reading the lyrics, and finding interviews of Lady Gaga talking about “Judas,” I came to interpret the song as a metaphor for people who seem to always find themselves attracted to what is clearly not good for them.

I’ve found myself in that position before, so I can relate to what she was singing about. And finding myself in something another person created, the art then became very—intensely—personal.

What any of you think of her is truly your own business. You can love her or hate her. You can enjoy the music, but not go for the meat dress or the futuristic shoes. And yes, you can even choose to protest her work if you don’t agree with it, so long as it doesn’t stop anyone else from enjoying her art.

Let’s not stifle artists and their creativity, and their inalienable right to express themselves. We are a proud country of artists, and I’d like to think that, in being so, we welcome others from around the world to share in our joy and our enjoyment of all things beautiful, however each of us defines the word.

Thank you, Mother Monster, for visiting the country, and for doing what you do, especially your efforts for the LGBT community, antibullying and AIDS awareness. For all that, you are a gift from God, a true Christian in every sense of the word.

And now, Philpop

Does anyone remember the Metro Manila Popular Music Festival (Metropop)? Launched in 1978, it was the songwriting competition that ushered in a golden age of original Pilipino music, or what we call OPM. It was this competition that launched the careers of many composers and lyricists, or at least cemented their foothold in the industry.

Ryan Cayabyab began his career with the Metropop, penning the seminal “I love OPM” anthem—“Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika.” Jose Mari Chan and Dero (formerly Nonong) Pedero achieved success at this competition, with Chan’s “Hahanapin Ko” and Pedero’s “Isang Mundo, Isang Awit” and “Narito Ako.”

Freddie Aguilar’s “Anak” landed in the finals and, though it failed to win, went on to become the biggest-selling song in Philippine music history. It is also the only Pinoy song, so far, to become a global hit, recorded in dozens of languages worldwide.

Now, this same opportunity is being offered by the Philippine Pop Music Festival (Philpop).

Over 3,000 entries were submitted from around the Philippines as well as from Pinoys in the UK, France, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. From these entries, 14 finalists have been chosen. On July 14, these brand-new songs will be heard, and their composers revealed. Congratulations!

It is a very exciting time for OPM.

The top winner in Philpop will receive P1 million in cash, and two runners-up will receive P500,000 and P250,000. A people’s choice award will be given to the most popular entry as decided by text votes.

Philpop is jointly mounted by Maynilad, Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. and Smart. Major sponsors are Meralco, Resorts World Manila and TV5. Other sponsors are Metro Pacific Investments Corp., Sun Cellular, First Pacific Leadership Academy, Metro Pacific Tollways Corp. and Philex Mining Corp. For updates on the results, visit Philpop.com.ph. 

Backstory: Why Disneyland is special

By Lea Salonga
May 23, 2012
Philippine Daily Inquirer

 Ah, yes, my daughter has turned 6 years old. Instead of having a party, Rob and I decided to take Nicole to the happiest place on earth: Disneyland, on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.

I’ve written about Disneyland quite a few times before, but each time we visit, it grows even more magical for us. Perhaps seeing it all through our daughter’s eyes is what makes it extra special.

She loved the Winnie the Pooh ride that took her through the Hundred Acre Wood, as well as Philharmagic that gave her a 3D view of some of Disney’s more famous music.

She also enjoyed The Golden Mickeys, an awards show-type presentation featuring some of Disney’s heroes and romantic figures, and The Festival of the Lion King, which is about the legend of King Simba, complete with fire jugglers and ballet dancing flying birds.

Nicole wasn’t too hot on the Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups ride, and Rob avoided it altogether. However, I—along with Disneyland musical director Rony Fortich and our friend Natalie Lewis (a horn player for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra)—gave the cups a spin.

We weren’t able to ride any of the outdoor rides; there were thunderstorm warnings, so everything we did was either roofed or indoors. But the weather cleared up enough in the evening, which was when a glorious outdoor show would begin.

Our little group assembled on Main Street, far enough away from Sleeping Beauty’s Castle to get a good view of what was to come: Fireworks!

For about 15 minutes, fireworks blazed and danced above the castle, illuminating the night sky. It was the perfect way to end a fun-filled day.

Happy birthday, little princess!

Food capital

Since Hong Kong is one of the world’s foremost food capitals (for us anyway), we couldn’t leave without sampling some its cuisine. One restaurant is a place we frequently visit, while the other is a new one that, after some Rob-initiated Internet research, we decided to try.

Tasting menu

ye Shanghai (yes, the ye is lowercase) has been one of our favorites since 2008. Although great for dimsum, it also boasts more upscale fare.

If you’re undecided with what to try, check out one of their tasting menus. You get a sampling of some popular items, just enough to satisfy your palate. This is what we ended up doing and were so happy for it. For Nicole though, we ordered crispy noodles with minced pork.

Best ramen

Ippudo HK is one of the two Hong Kong branches of a Japanese ramen restaurant, which has spread from Fukuoka to the rest of the world (with branches in New York City, Seoul and Singapore).

Thankfully this branch was only a five-minute walk from our hotel. We picked something slightly spicy and wholly flavorful, with medium-firm noodles, flavorful tonkotsu pork broth, slices of pork loin and sliced mushrooms.

Without question, this was the best bowl of ramen I’ve ever had. I can look forward to visits to Singapore later this year, and New York City early next year, so for sure I’ll go to Ippudo then!

Shameless plug

Woo hoo, I’ll be in “Forbidden Broadway”! I won’t say which spoof I’ll be doing, but I’m very excited. Guest performers for this show’s final weekend are yours truly, Aiza Seguerra, Nyoy Volante and Rachel Alejandro. Congratulations to Upstart for a great run.

Atlantis Productions will start its run of one of the most awesome shows to even come to Broadway, “Rock of Ages.” It will also soon be released as a feature film starring Tom Cruise, Julianne Hough, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Malin Akerman and Diego Bonita as Drew.

The Manila production of the stage musical will star Nyoy Volante, Vina Morales, MiG Ayesa, Aiza Seguerra, Jamie Wilson, Jett Pangan, Biboy Reyes and Jinky Llamanzares. Chari Arespacochaga directs.

It opens June 15 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium of RCBC Plaza, Makati.

Backstory: When the universe throws you a lemon

By Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
May 16, 2012

This is being written aboard a PAL flight from Tokyo to Manila by an exhausted, sleep-deprived but very grateful passenger. Despite the slight snafus of the day, it has all turned out great.

I am on my way home after doing concerts at The Town Hall and Troy Music Hall in New York and the National Arts Centre in Canada. It’s been nearly two months since I last tread Philippine soil.

As eventful as my stay overseas was—cuddling with good friends, having dinners with new couples, witnessing heartbreaks, creating new spaces, clearing out junk, spending time with family (they’re everywhere), and singing aplenty—the next thing I’m looking forward to is lie in bed for a few days with my husband and daughter, who turned 6 on Wednesday.

My travel day began quietly enough. I hopped into a cab and headed for the Ottawa Airport. Checking in for the flight went without incident, with a very hospitable young lady from the Delta Airlines counter helping me. Security clearance was quick and painless. Even the wait was peaceful, as was the short flight to and disembarkation in Detroit, and the lovely walk to the gate to get on the flight to Narita.

But after boarding and settling into my seat, the head flight attendant and the captain started making announcements about the state of the plane. At first, we were that told the air-conditioning cart needed to be replaced. Later, we heard that a leaky fuel line and the auxiliary power unit had to be fixed before we could take off. The delay lasted more than one hour. This became a cause for concern.

Nearly everyone had a connecting flight to catch, whether it was to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei, Bangkok or Manila. Although the pilot said he would try to make up for the lost time, it was not to be.

The plane touched down at 7 p.m. Tokyo time, after many of the connecting flights had already departed. Just before landing, the captain instructed us to speak to the gate agent for details on our new connecting flights, what would happen with our baggage, and in which hotel we’d be staying.

For a while, it looked like chaos would rule. One lady lamented that she wouldn’t be able to see her daughter off to Berlin from Bangkok; another stressed that her family that had rented a van and driven from Bataan to meet her, and now they have to find a place to spend the night, as well as scrounge up van rental money for another day. Everyone was tired.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. The very patient ground staff was able to attend to all passengers. We were all bused to our hotels without incident. A couple of young women actually made friends in all the hubbub, and went on to find an authentic ramen restaurant.

I got very little sleep; I was paranoid that my alarm clock wouldn’t go off or that I’d miss the bus, so I caught up with my family via FaceTime, took a long, hot shower, ordered some amazing tonkatsu from room service, and watched TV.

At 7 a.m. we all boarded the bus back to the airport and checked into this PAL flight. Peace and quiet at last, and here we are, headed for home.

The point of my seemingly insignificant story is that the universe will, at various points of your life, throw you a lemon or two—maybe even a crateful. You can choose to either whine and moan or make the best of the situation. Two people found an opportunity for adventure; a few others bonded with total strangers. There were more smiles shared than scowls. It’s a day like today that renews my faith in mankind.

Shameless plug

To Upstart Productions’ “Forbidden Broadway,” a hearty congratulations on a well-received opening weekend, especially to director Joel Trinidad and cast members Liesl Batucan, Caisa Borromeo, OJ Mariano and Lorenz Martinez. This long-running hit spoofs many beloved Broadway musicals such as “Les Misérables,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Wicked.”

There will be guest appearances in the coming two weekends by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, Aiza Seguerra, Nyoy Volante, Cherie Gil and yours truly, among others. Catch it at the RCBC Theater until May 27.

Backstory: A charming Ricky Martin as Che

By Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
May 9, 2012

Thursday last week I headed to the Marquis Theatre on Broadway to see the Tony-nominated revival production of “Evita.” I was with one of the producers, Adam Blanshay, who I previously met when he was working on the Broadway production of “Billy Elliot.” He had so graciously asked me to come see his newest show, and I said yes.

I was excited for three good reasons. First, it was one of the first musicals I ever saw in London’s West End. I was only 10; it was life-changing. I wanted to be that girl on center stage swathed in gossamer fabric and dripping in diamonds. I kind of got my wish, except that I wore a Vietnamese native dress and was housed in a different theater.

Second, I would be seeing Ricky Martin as Che onstage. It had been so long since I last watched him sing—in a Manila concert that was part of a promotional trip.

Third, I had another friend in the show, Max von Essen. We were both in the cast of “Les Miserables” (I played Fantine, he portrayed Enjolras), and invested together in another Broadway show, “Rock of Ages.” We had gone in for the same reason: We knew it would be fun.

2006 hit

This “Evita” was the same production that took the West End by storm in 2006, directed by Michael Grandage and choreographed by Rob Ashford. It won an Olivier Award for its star, Elena Roger, who reprises the role of Eva Peron here, making her Broadway debut.

The sets were really beautiful, very different from the West End set that I saw. The choreography, much of which presented different takes on the Argentine tango, was wonderful. (I particularly loved “The Art of the Possible” and “Dangerous Game” numbers.)

As for the performances, I purposely ignored all the reviews in the papers so I could enjoy the show.

Ricky was charming! He essayed Che with a wry grin and a twinkle in his eye—a very different portrayal from the original production (where Che seemed to have been based on the real-life Guevara).

Abundant charm

Ricky’s Che is an everyman, making observations and commentary on the goings-on dramatized by the show. He weaves in and out of the action, and carries himself with abundant charm and stage presence.

I first saw Elena Roger in London two years ago as Fosca at the Donmar Warehouse production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion.” I fell in love with her portrayal, so I waited with much anticipation for her to play Evita.

She did not disappoint. Although her singing voice is very different from Elaine Paige’s and Patti Lupone’s (the original West End and Broadway Evitas, respectively), Elena infused her Eva with authentic fire (Elena is Argentine herself). Her acting, particularly in the final scenes, was heartbreaking to watch. It was most certainly an auspicious Broadway debut.

Michael Cerveris as Juan Peron has been nominated at the 2012 Tony Awards for his performance, and it’s easy to see why. Although he portrays Peron as a tough political and military figure, it’s him watching his wife suffer and eventually die from ovarian cancer that’s most moving.

His reprise of “You Must Love Me,” although brief, has a slight desperation of a man knowing how lost he will now become, without his wife.

After the show we headed backstage to meet and greet the cast. I first met Elena, and I gushed over her performance. I then headed to Ricky’s room (my purpose was to retrieve my purse which I thought was in there; he stopped me from behaving like a headless chicken, asked to say hello, and gave me a huge hug).

Once there, I found Michael and geeked out over his “Tommy,” the first show of his that I saw; Max, whose normally applause-less solo was greeted by my single yelp; and Ricky’s longtime assistant Jose Vega, who was the Menudo’s choreographer and wardrobe stylist back in the day.

The thing that struck me most on this night was the moment when Ricky and I looked at one another. We are both now in our 40s, we have children of our own, and we found ourselves flashing back to early adolescence when he was a member of the boy band Menudo, and I was its opening act.

I saw a man now fulfilled and happy with his life, a man who glowed now that the walls that obscured his light had finally come down. I saw a man who is positively happy. I don’t think anyone could’ve wished for anything better for this man who is deserving of all the good this universe has to offer.

It was a magical “night of a thousand stars”… and this one shone brighter than all the others.

Backstory: Bright lights, big city

By Lea Salonga
May 2, 2012
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The past few days have been very cold here in Manhattan. Winter has decided, belatedly, to make a comeback, which meant taking out my winter coat and scarf, and shopping successfully for cute booties.

If there’s anything winter is good for, it’s spending time indoors, and my favorite indoor activity in New York City is to sit in a dark theater and watch some wonderful shows.

I’ve been fortunate, as there are quite a few good new shows that have opened this season. There is an abundance of both plays and musicals on the Great White Way, and audiences are all the better for it.

‘Peter and the Starcatcher’

This wasn’t the first show that I saw, but it is certainly one of the more brilliant pieces I know. Playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, the show is the back story of the boy that would become Peter Pan, the pirate that would become Captain Hook (and how he actually loses his hand), how the Lost Boys came to be and what Star Stuff is. (It’s not fairy dust!)

Christian Borle (“Smash”) is all kinds of brilliant in this play. His physicality, comic timing, and complete commitment to his portrayal of the pirate Black Stache sent everyone in the audience into fits of heavy laughter. Adam Chanler-Berat (“Next to Normal”) as Peter Pan and Celia Keenan-Bolger (“Les Miserables,” “Merrily We Roll Along”), along with a motley crew of actors, reenact the events that would create one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature.

The actors do just about everything in this amazing show and I would recommend it to anyone thinking of something really extraordinary to watch. No big sets, no technological wonders, no complicated costumes. Only a dozen or so talented actors on a stage, creating something magical.

‘End of the Rainbow’

This show has gotten so much buzz over here, thanks to Tracie Bennett’s performance as Judy Garland in the last months of her life. The play takes place in London, 1969, in Garland’s hotel suite at the Ritz and at the Talk of the Town nightclub, where she is scheduled to hold a five-week run of performances.

At the beginning, Judy’s new fiancé Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphry) is resolute in keeping Judy free from drugs and alcohol. However, he and Garland’s pianist Anthony (Michael Cumpsty) find that over the run, she starts to deteriorate, and the only solution that gets her back on stage is the same formula that kept her performing throughout most of her career: taking pills and washing them down with alcohol.

Bennett captures Garland’s essence, down to her signature vibrato. Her frenetic energy, hyper-sexualization and ever present foul mouth are heartbreaking, despite the entire audience knowing exactly what would follow. The performance vignettes at Talk of the Town are unpredictable, just like she was. From blindingly brilliant to slurring words, Garland can’t remember what song she’s about to sing, misses lyrics and starts to break down. When she sings “Over the Rainbow” at the very end of the show, the audience is shattered. I was an absolute mess before the curtain call.

‘Newsies’

Based on the Disney movie of the same name (remember a teenage Christian Bale in the role of Jack Kelly?), “Newsies” is a showcase of energetic male singing and dancing, and a leading man oozing with charm, sensitivity and a great singing voice.

Set in New York City in 1899, “Newsies” is about newsboys that are not treated well by their employer, the newspaper The World. They are poor, starving and neglected, and depend only on whatever income they can get from selling the paper on the street. When the newspaper’s price goes up, the boys are directly affected and they decide to go on strike.

Jeremy Jordan plays Jack Kelly on the Broadway stage. He’s a great singer for sure, but he’s also an emotive actor, engaging us from start to finish. All the other newsies are equally talented, including four male dancers from “So You Think You Can Dance.” The dancing was ridiculous (great) and the music by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, infectious and catchy. We were on our feet!

Shameless Plug

I’ve got a concert tomorrow night, May 4, at Town Hall here in New York, and May 5 in Troy, NY. Hope to see you there! 

Backstory: Unexpected Wonders

By: Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
April 25, 2012

I had the most interesting and fun weekend. I spent Saturday in concert at one of the most breathtakingly beautiful performance spaces that I’ve ever had the pleasure of singing in; and Sunday enjoying the evening in one of the entertainment capitals of the world. These two venues are only a couple of hours apart by car, but worlds away from one another as far as what the eye can see.

Natural splendor

When I first visited the state of Utah for my concerts in the city of Provo, I met with the faculty of the theater department at Brigham Young University. They told me about a performance space called the Tuacahn Amphitheater, located in Ivins, Utah. They described the red rocks, tall and majestic, that create a natural acoustic wonder. I nodded and said, “OK” quite a few times, without realizing just how amazing this venue would be.

On Saturday afternoon, I had a sound check scheduled at the amphitheater. My cousin Lou, along with friends Ida and Fletcher, headed there together. From the moment we left our hotel, there was red rock to be seen everywhere, but as we got closer to the venue, that’s when I couldn’t help but take photos.

During the actual sound check, I took in the incredible view. I couldn’t focus on the task at hand in the manner that I am accustomed, but I don’t think anyone in the band held it against me. We all felt this was one really cool place. Hearing a natural echo after a big note was just mind-blowing. The only word I can use to describe how we felt is, “Wow.” During the show, after the show and on the drive away, all I could say was that. Wow.

Vegas strip

The next day, our little group drove to Las Vegas. Yes, the hotels and casinos lining the strip were a far cry from Tuacahn, but a welcome sight nonetheless. My agenda for the day had nothing to do with performing; I was here to relax, eat, drink and see a show.

I didn’t have much time to get settled, as my entertainment evening would begin in earnest not an hour later. My tour guide would be my friend and former “Cinderella” leading man Peter Saide. He had prepared everything and all I would do was roll with it.

First, we paid a visit to a local production of “Cinderella” that was having its last performance in nearby Henderson, Nevada. Thanks to director Louisa and her assistant Armi for letting us say hello! Next on our agenda was a show called “Jubilee,” a follies-style revue with leggy dancers and splendiferous costumes. I remember seeing a similar show the first time I was in Vegas.

Nowadays, the entertainment on the strip consists of stand-up comedians, singers, and theatrical productions like “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Jersey Boys,” and “Blue Man Group,” plus Cirque du Soleil shows like “O” and “Mystere.” I am told that “Jubilee,” a revue, is a novelty in Vegas. This translates to: “Will not close.” I think the fact that many of the dancers are topless adds to the show’s appeal. There is a non-topless version that plays once a week.

The production value is incredibly high. I can’t remember how many times I gawked—at a gorgeous headpiece, a nifty piece of scenery, the glittering costumes, the high kicks, a really great solo, the amazing interim acts (a balancing duet, a pyramid juggler, and an aerialist). Yes, I admit, the show is quite dated, down to the backing track orchestrations and vocal arrangements. But there is a charm to how everything is put together—Gershwin, Porter, even Sondheim—and that made me smile.

To be quite honest, it is easy to forget that the girls on stage are topless. I did like, though, that the girls were “natural,” meaning, no breast augmentations. I was told that anyone who has breast implants need not apply for a slot, as the show is a celebration of the natural woman.

Later we had dinner at Tao, at the Palazzo. The restaurant is a work of art, with beautiful pieces hanging on the walls and the ceiling. The food was very, very good.

Now I’m back in the Big Apple. I am appearing in Scott Alan’s concert on April 30 at Birdland and in solo concerts on May 4 at Town Hall and May 5 in Troy, New York. What’s on my agenda here besides work? I’m hell-bent on seeing as many Broadway shows as I can, and spending time with friends. I am one lucky girl.

Backstory: Song changes life of homeless man

By Lea Salonga
The Philippine Daily Inquirer
April 18, 2012 

In November 2005, at the end of my Carnegie Hall debut show, I asked the audience if there was anyone who wanted to be my Aladdin and sing “A Whole New World” with me.

Daniel Berlin, a young student at Amda (American Music and Dramatic Academy) quickly raised his hand. I asked him to come up on stage.

The experiment was a success. The audience’s reaction was amazing. Daniel was a pretty good singer and the rousing finale was a tremendous success. Since then, asking someone to sing as my Aladdin at the end of the show has become a trademark of my solo concerts.

Brave souls

Over the years, people from all walks of life have joined me in singing “A Whole New World.” The brave souls come up mostly by themselves, but there have been a few times when more than one person has volunteered.

It’s a fun challenge divvying up what is meant to be a duet into a song sang by four or five people.

I remember once in Bangkok, four young men—three Filipino and one Thai—ran down the aisles toward the stage! It took me by surprise, but it was sweet to have four Aladdins up there with me.

In 2009, at a two-night concert in Manila, we tweaked the formula and chose instead the two young men who would sing with me: Christopher Yu, who sang on the first night; and Rocky Christopher Aquino, who sang the following night. They were chosen from videotaped auditions, and they were both wonderful!

In the Bacolod leg of that concert, a young Gawad Kalinga volunteer was sent on stage by his friends, but he ended up not singing.

In Las Vegas, a guy named Mike came up, and was so visibly nervous that my husband, who was sitting at the back of the theater, could see the lyric sheet shaking in Mike’s hands!

In Hong Kong, a gondolier from the Venetian Hotel in Macau (Chris Vaughn) and a Disneyland performer (Ariel Reonal) sang with me. But the biggest screams in Hong Kong came when a young man called Wong Cho Lam came on stage.

Imagine that

It was a matinee performance with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, and a voice from the balcony said he wanted to sing. I called him to come down. It didn’t take him long to reach the stage.

I asked his name, and was startled when the entire audience started roaring. I had no idea who Wong Cho Lam was, so I was a mite puzzled. His voice was lovely though, and he was very handsome, and I thought that was that. But after the song, when he went down the stage, a lady from the audience shouted, “He’s a huge star here!”

To put that in perspective, imagine yourself on stage asking for a duet partner and John Lloyd Cruz bolts up, runs toward you and leaps onto the stage, ignoring the stairs.

In Seattle, only a few nights ago, an ebullient actor named Clinton, who said he had played Jafar at a dinner theater production of “Aladdin,” came up to sing.  No other man had ever shown such enthusiasm before.

But as humorous as the stories generally are, there was one not long ago that was poignant and really touched me.

Tugging at heartstrings

It was the end of my concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall some time back, and a young man by the name of Cliff Plummer had come up to sing with me. Last weekend, he came back up and volunteered again. Before we started to sing however, he asked to share his story with the audience.

During that Disney Hall show, he said he was actually homeless, and a young lady who would later become his roommate had provided him with the means to see the concert. Since that show, his life had turned completely around.

He recounted that that duet served as an inspiration for him to change his life. He got his act together, and now teaches middle school in Southern California. And he was no longer homeless. He also informed us that he had even directed a production of “Aladdin” there.

His story touched everyone in the audience; I was so moved that I didn’t have very much to say the rest of the evening (and I’m normally hardly at a loss for words).

I’m sure there will be many more Aladdins to sing with, and I’m hoping there will be more interesting stories to tell. Until then, remembering these anecdotes will keep a smile on my face.

Break legs

To the cast and crew of “Jekyll and Hyde” on your last weekend, have a fantastic end to the run! Congratulations to you all, most especially to director Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, on the glowing reviews and standing ovations. Bravo!

Backstory: Singing in high heels aboard a cruise ship

By Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
April 11, 2012 

I found myself the recipient of an interesting invitation: the chance to sing the songs of composer Stephen Schwartz on the maiden voyage of the newest addition to the Disney Cruise Lines’ family of ships, the Disney Fantasy.

I wasn’t really a big fan of cruises. A few years ago, Rob, Nicole and I, plus members of Rob’s family, took a cruise around Hawaii. The experience wasn’t a lovely one, what with rude passengers, less than stellar food fare, and seasickness and diarrhea going around (one by one, members of our family got sick).

However, since it was Disney this time, I expected a better experience.

I was working in the West Palm Beach/Boca Raton area of Florida in the days leading up to our boarding the ship, so we weren’t able to stay for the full seven-day cruise. But despite the abbreviated time onboard, we had a wonderful time.

The day after our final concert at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts with the Palm Beach Pops, we headed off to the Boca Raton airport to board a jet headed for Mahahual, Mexico.

‘Lucky lady’

A waiting van (along with Disney World representative Patty Kalber) then drove us to Costa Maya, the Fantasy’s current port of call. Once our luggage was brought on to the ship and we had all checked into our stateroom, we headed for a quick lunch at Cabanas (the ship’s buffet restaurant) before rehearsals with Stephen himself.

The concert would be an evening of his music, with a couple of my Disney songs thrown in.

Rehearsals began with Stephen acquainting us with some of his songs from “Pippin,” “Wicked,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Pocahontas,” among others. His wife Carol then treated us to a rendition of “In Just No Time at All” from “Pippin.”

Then it was my turn to have a run-through with “Colors of the Wind” (“Pocahontas”), “That’s How You Know” (“Enchanted”) and “Someday” (“Hunchback of Notre Dame”), plus “Reflection” (“Mulan”) and “A Whole New World” (“Aladdin”).

Finally—and this was thrilling for me on very many levels —we got to rehearse “Defying Gravity” (from “Wicked”). It was a version that I was used to singing in concert, one specially made for solo performances. We did one pass, and that was enough.

I couldn’t help but talk about it on Twitter. Even if I never ever get to play Elphaba in “Wicked,” I consider myself a very lucky lady to have sung the song with Stephen playing it.

Backstage thrill

The next day was a busy one. We did a 2:30 p.m. sound check, and then we had to be back at the theater for two performances—one at 6:15 and another at 8:30. I thought that I wouldn’t be all that steady on my feet in my higher than high heels, but the seas were calm. Whatever the captain did to keep things peaceful most assuredly worked!

After our first show, Disney Animation honcho John Lasseter and his wife Nancy went backstage to see us. Rob was probably more thrilled than I was, and understandably so. John is one of the pioneers of Pixar, having directed “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” and “Cars,” among others, and served as executive producer of many more animated films. He is a very sweet man, and gave us generous hugs. According to Stephen, John is also a very gracious host to visitors of his winery in Northern California.

Little vacation

It wasn’t until the shows were done that we were able to enjoy a little vacation. We got off the ship at Castaway Cay for a little beach time (until the weather turned cool and cloudy, which prompted us to return onboard). We also whooshed down the Aqua Duck (a water slide on the ship), and watched “Beauty and the Beast” by the pool as my daughter swam and made new friends.

Rob and I were likewise able to partake of the amazing cuisine at Remy (named after the lead character in the movie “Ratatouille”). The dishes were sublime, and we were fortunate to have both head chefs in the kitchen preparing all the delicious food.

I was also able to take in a couple of shows over our stay—“Wishes” and “Believe,” both of which I enjoyed. I’m sad I missed “Aladdin” —it would’ve been fun to see it.

The seas were a little rough that evening, which made packing a bit of a challenge. But overall I was glad to have taken the cruise.

To the staff of the Disney Fantasy (including over 250 of its Filipino members), thank you for making us feel so welcome and for taking such good care of us! We will definitely return with the rest of our family, and this time, we shall stay for the full week.

Backstory: Orchestral Heaven

By Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
April 4, 2012

My most recent gigs have been orchestral productions. That is, my accompanying band has been an orchestra—be it small, medium or large.

(Speaking of which, I’d like to convey hearty cheers to all involved with the creation of the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra. Hugs to Mickey Muñoz and Gerard Salonga, two of my favorite people, who will be at the helm of this endeavor!)

To be accompanied by a large group of musicians is always heavenly. There’s something to be said about 65 human beings performing as one cohesive unit. To the mix, add a singer or two who can tune in to this living, breathing being, and it’s a pleasure that cannot be put into words. Only the music can truly express what happens. It’s an experience that seals my belief in the Almighty.

Over the last few days, I’ve been fortunate to be performing with Bob Lappin and the Palm Beach Pops Orchestra. The program consists of Disney and Broadway favorites, as it is the orchestra’s mission to preserve the Great American Songbook. You can’t get more American than animated films and musical theater, and I’m only too happy to perform these songs.

After those few lovely rest days in Miami, my friend Victor Lirio drove Nicole and me up to Boca Raton, our home base for next week’s work. I’ve been given a rental car so I can drive myself to and from performances and around the area. I don’t mind, since I don’t get to drive a lot in Manila (my nerves can’t handle it).

Picking solos

We began rehearsing the day after settling in. We are using the Eissey Campus Theater as rehearsal room (the acoustics are impressive). David Burnham, my partner for this performance, and I arrived at the Eissey (pronounced “ee-see”) early Wednesday afternoon.

Maestro Bob was already rehearsing the overture, as well as pieces he would be playing on the piano. First singer up was neither David nor me, but a beautiful 13-year-old named Olivia Schiappa, who would sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in all performances.

David and I went through a breadth of material to see how each song would sound with the orchestra. My brother had sent along a bunch of charts (the musicians and Bob kept complimenting his arrangements, as well as the clean and crystal-clear copy work) ranging from jazz to Broadway fare to Disney selections. There was so much to choose from!

We ended up selecting the following solos for me: “I’d Give My Life for You”; a Streisand medley; “I Dreamed a Dream”; “Colors of the Wind”; “Reflection”; “When October Goes”; and two duets with David—“A Whole New World” and “As Long As You’re Mine.”

David’s solo selections were great, too: “I Am What I Am”; “When You Wish Upon a Star”; “Out There”; “You’re Just Too Good to Be True”; “Bring Him Home” ;“It’s Alright with Me”; and “This is the Moment.”

As I write, we have performed four shows—three at the Kaye Auditorium on the Florida Atlantic University campus, and one at the Eissey Campus Theater. We have two more at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts on West Palm Beach. By the time you read this, I will be on holiday with my family to celebrate the Easter weekend.

Wonderful time

It’s been really wonderful thus far working with Maestro Bob (whose self-deprecating humor and abundant charm make him an audience favorite here in South Florida) and with these incredible musicians, many of whom have been with the Pops since its inception 20 years ago. I’ve been having a really wonderful time. The audiences have been incredibly generous and the staff at the Pops have taken great care of us. I do hope for a return engagement. This really was fun.  Oh, wait, hang on, this is fun; I’m not through yet!

On that thought, I hope that the ABS-CBN Philharmonic becomes a huge success. It’s important to keep orchestras like this (and the arts in general) alive and thriving in our country. We claim to be a nation of artists; it seems we breed them as naturally as we breathe. Let us take care of this one natural and national resource that promises constantly to create something beautiful. A world without art is a colorless world.

Mabuhay ang mga musiko natin! Ang ating mundo’y hindi magiging buo kung wala kayo. 

Backstory: On the road again

By Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
March 28, 2012 

I’m writing this at a friend’s apartment—in a darkened room, while my daughter Nicole sleeps by my side. We’re in Miami enjoying some quiet time before work begins anew.

The weather has been nothing short of perfect, and from the apartment’s balcony we are able to see much of the ocean.

This trip started with a show, and what a show it was.

Stop one

Stop one was Dallas, Texas, for “Do You Hear the People Sing,” a concert that celebrates the music and lyrics of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, creators of “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon.” We performed this show with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (under the baton of Maestro Jack Everly) only a few months ago, so getting back into the swing of things was not at all difficult.

We performed at the American Airlines Center, home of the Dallas Mavericks (basketball) and the Dallas Stars (ice hockey). The venue seats around 17,000 people at capacity, but because of the stage orientation and the type of concert show we were doing, a lot of the seats were “killed.” That said the audience seemed to fill the place right up to the nosebleed section.

Rehearsals had taken place at Woodrow Wilson High School just outside the city center. Our conductor, Kevin Stites, (with whom I had worked on “Les Miz” on Broadway in 2007) spent two days with all of us—Terrence Mann, Stephanie J. Block, Peter Lockyer, Marie Zamora, myself, and a new addition to the performers’ lineup, Brian Stokes Mitchell.

We tightened group numbers (especially those that Stokes would be in), reviewed a few old songs, and ran through spiels. Nicole, who was with me, was given permission to “participate” by performing an interpretative dance while some numbers were sung.

Show day was very exciting. When we arrived, the seats on the arena floor hadn’t been placed yet. Neither was the orchestra fully set up.

YouTube proof

Our microphones worked though, so we used the time to run through our cues, one right after another without singing (it was early, and we weren’t caffeinated yet). A few caramel and black tea lattes, as well as some coffee later, it was time for an actual run-through with the Dallas Pops Orchestra. That went very smoothly. (The show was wonderful, as a few clips on YouTube will prove.)

Afterwards, it was time to see my family—first cousins Vernon Dye and Maria Ruwaldt, along with Maria’s husband Gary and their children Samantha and Brian, plus other guests, were at the hotel bar. It was great catching up.

Next morning Nicole and I headed off to Miami.

Tomorrow we’re off to Boca Raton, where rehearsals for concerts with the Palm Beach Pops begin. The shows run today (March 29) until April 3. I will be singing with David Burnham.

I am thankful that before leaving on this trip I was invigorated by having seen some amazing local shows—Repertory Philippines’ “Jekyll & Hyde” and Atlantis Productions’ “In the Heights” with the show’s creator, Tony Award-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I was also in the special concert, “The Legends and The Classics.” My reserves are now full, as is my heart.

Right now as I lie in bed with my daughter by my side, I feel incredibly blessed.

Backstory: ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ a must-see

By Lea Salonga
Philippine Daily Inquirer
March 22, 2012 

Monday night last week, I headed to OnStage Greenbelt to see an early technical rehearsal of Repertory Philippines’ production of “Jekyll & Hyde.”

The show was in its developmental stage. Costumes were incomplete and not yet distressed; not everyone was using makeup; wigs were being evaluated; lighting needed to be focused and properly cued; entrances and exits for the cast were not refined and finalized; the scoring and tempo of certain songs needed to be tightened; and other music concerns needed to be addressed as well. But the potential was decidedly there.

Brilliant as Jekyll

In this technical run, Jett Pangan played the role of Dr. Henry Jekyll who, after an experiment gone wrong, becomes the homicidal and psychopathic Edward Hyde. Michael Williams, who alternates in the role with Jett, had done a run-through earlier in the day and, unsurprisingly, had gone home to rest.

The vocal demands of playing Jekyll/Hyde would probably equal that of Jean Valjean in “Les Miz,” complicated by a split personality disorder!

Underscoring the performances were the huddled voices of director Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and her assistant director Rem Zamora, as they exchanged comments over the wig of one actor (he no longer uses it), how John Batalla’s lighting design turned out to be gorgeous, and how another costume did not look quite right.

What seemed to be firmly in place were the following: Jett’s Hyde was brilliant. I look forward to his transformation in order to see Hyde in all his primal, sensual and ultimately homicidal rage. Cris Villonco as Emma Carew combined strength and sweetness (I could listen to her all day).

Kalila Aguilos debuts with Rep as the not-so-maidenish Lucy Harris, who has the unenviable task of singing the songs created for Linda Eder, which would stretch any female singer’s vocal chords to breaking point. Junix Inocian in his comeback appearance as Gabriel John Utterson, exudes regal poise and carriage. He cuts a dashing figure in those period costumes, at ease from years of wearing a variety of them on the London stage.

The strength and quality of the principal actors are impressive, and aside from the thespians mentioned above, the cast includes stars from many past Repertory productions, such as Liza Infante-Robinson, Cara Barredo and Topper Fabregas.

But as strong as the principal cast already is, it is the ensemble, with stalwarts Reuben Uy, Red Nuestro, Mayen Bustamante-Cadd, Jack Salud, Steve Cadd, Oliver Usison, Jamie Wilson, Jamie Inocian, Naths Everett, and James Stacey, that truly shines—providing mood, emotion, background action, and dazzling stellar vocals.

Tribute to Repertory

“Jekyll & Hyde” had an auspicious opening on Friday, we heard, capped with a huge standing ovation for its cast and production team, signaling the start of what should be a great run. Rep also celebrated its 45th anniversary on that opening weekend.

That special gala performance on March 17 (with Michael playing Jekyll) was followed by a special tribute to one of Rep’s founders, Baby Barredo.

We were told that Raymond Lauchengco, Audie Gemora, Miguel Faustmann and Leo Martinez serenaded Baby one by one, while the male ensemble went down on their knees as their voices soared into glorious song, in what seemed like a chorus of a hundred people!

The late cofounder Zenaida Amador must have been present in the room, by Baby’s side, looking with wonder at the numerous lives they had touched with their training and their faith, old and new talents, now standing before them on the stage.

To everyone at Repertory Philippines, I wish you a happy 45th birthday. I was unable to spend it with you that night, but I celebrated in the one way that felt most appropriate—doing what I love and was trained well to do, on the night that two of my most significant mentors, Bibot and Baby, were celebrated. In doing so, I hope that I made them proud.

Two-night stand

“The Legends and the Classics” concert was presented at the CCP on March 17 and 18. Facebook and Twitter have since been abuzz with many messages, both to and from the artists, dancers, orchestra, artistic and production staff, family and friends, and the audience.

The full-fledged concert combined three different performance art practitioners in one show: a concert pianist (Cecile Licad), a classical ballerina (Lisa Macuja-Elizalde) and a musical theater actress (yours truly). It grew from the kernel of an idea proposed three years ago by lawyer Katrina Legarda to ballet dancer Lisa Macuja-Elizalde. The two share a bond of grief over the loss of Katrina’s sister Terry and Lisa’s brother Jerry in the same car accident many years ago; at the time, both Terry and Jerry were working at Rep.

No one ever thought this would fly, but it did—in fact it soared! Congratulations to everyone!

Backstory: With Cecile, Lisa in weekend shows

By Lea Salonga
The Philippine Daily Inquirer
March  14, 2012

It’s Tuesday morning and over the past few days I’ve been running my brother’s medley demos on my music player whenever I can. Our first rehearsal for “The Legends and the Classics” is tomorrow. I know we’ll only be in practice mode; still I want to show up prepared.

The concert is this Saturday and Sunday. I’ve met Cecile Licad and Lisa Macuja, spent significant amounts of time with them, mostly laughing. The atmosphere has been relaxed thus far; no one has unfurled a music sheet, lyric sheet or choreography layout. At least, not with each other. Our interactions have largely been social.

I know the monsters (the good kind) will appear, as we each unleash the crazy (also the good kind) on one another, and on the people we’ll work with.

Fingers on fire

It must have been on television that I first witnessed Cecile play. She would have been in her early 20s (she’s turning 51 this year). I could see the intensity in her eyes, gazing alternately at the conductor and on the keyboards. She was wearing something that looked Filipino, and her hair was pulled up in a twist or a bun. I don’t remember the camera focusing on her fingers.

Fast-forward to a couple of years ago, when I finally got the chance to watch her live. Gerard was conducting FILharmoniKA. That’s when I saw how fast her fingers flew, how much fire there was in her playing.

I met her very briefly after that concert, and she expressed an interest in the two of us working together someday. Well, here we are, just days from making that happen, and I couldn’t be more excited.

For all the honors she has won for herself and the country as a classical pianist, it’s her person that I have found most impressive. She may be a lady of few words, probably preferring to let her talent speak for itself (and it does), but when she does say something, you listen. Her words ring of humanity, truth, artistry, musicianship and humor, of how less-than-perfect can make a performance more perfect. She has also mastered the art of unleashing the perfectly timed expletive to make a point.

I don’t remember when I first met Lisa, perhaps when she watched a past concert of mine, and she brought her two children Missy and Mac backstage.

I’ve seen her perform only on TV and YouTube, and I just did an Art2Art interview with her which aired last Sunday. The longest time I’ve spent in the same room with her has been for our photo session and press con, so I got to know her as a human being first, and as a dancer second. Which is fortunate for me.

In how she speaks of her training, her mentors, her ballet company, her children, her husband, her family … of the arctic cold in Russia and dancing on scarred, cut-up feet… of a steroid shot just to be able to perform for the fans that have been waiting to see her… of an experimental surgery on one foot to hopefully guarantee a few more years on her feet dancing… and of the discipline it takes to maintain her ridiculously amazing body (I kid you not… it is such a thing of beauty that I kept shouting to her at the photo shoot, “You’re so annoying!”)—I could see such a high degree of passion, drive, love and commitment for this most exacting art form.

Just the same

I feel like the slacker among the three of us. I don’t spend eight hours a day practicing (except when working on a musical), or do a full class before a performance. Maybe it’s because my art form depends upon these two little tiny vocal chords. That said, I do get obsessed and driven when it’s time to learn something new, or try to get my voice to sing a little higher. My only driving thought throughout the day then becomes this one song, finding the right way to sing it, figuring out how and when to breathe in order to get that note just right, and releasing whatever iota of fear there might still be left in me. And then feeling satisfaction when I unleash it at a show, knowing I devoted a good chunk of time to it.

We are three very distinct personalities (I think I’m the most talkative, Lisa is the most poised, and Cecile the most reserved) practicing three very different art forms. But we’re all passionate about what we do, and devote what can seem like an inordinate amount of time to our disciplines. We are all surrounded by extremely supportive families, and are grateful for their presence. We all want for more years doing what it is we love, and hope that we’ve made the country proud.

The Legends and The Classics. March 17 (8 p.m.) and March 18 (6 p.m.) at the CCP Main Theater. Roxanne Lapus directs. Gerard Salonga is our musical director and conductor. Tickets are available at TicketWorld (www.ticketworld.com.ph) or call 891-9999.

Backstory: Happiness is watching ‘Peanuts’ gang onstage

By Lea Salonga
The Philippine Daily Inquirer
March 7, 2012

I don’t remember when my love affair with Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang began. Perhaps it’s when I got a Peanuts dictionary when I was 6, as that is my earliest recollection of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, Linus and the rest of this gaggle of preschooler cartoon characters.

I faithfully followed the comic strip in the papers as I grew up, watched the holiday specials on TV (I’ve since downloaded everything I could find on iTunes), even had a Peanuts screen saver on my computer.

Back when I was 10 and Gerard was around 7 or 8, we recorded the song “Happiness” for one of my early albums. The line “Happiness is having a sister” especially resonated with us.

Crabbiness personified

So it was such a wonderful evening at the theater to watch six members of the Peanuts gang come to life in the musical “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” The group – Charlie Brown (Robbie Guevara), Lucy (Carla Guevara-Laforteza), Linus (Franco Laurel), Sally (Sweet Plantado-Tiongson), Schroeder (Tonipet Gaba) and Snoopy (Lorenz Martinez) – personified their alter egos perfectly. I can’t say that I’ve seen a show more perfectly cast, and typecast!

The musical, directed by Michael Williams and choreographed by Deana Aquino, went at a nice pace. Seeing Charlie Brown dejected again and again (by a tree-eating kite, over a baseball game, and his own self-doubts and insecurity) was touching and very moving.

Sally (the role that won Kristin Chenoweth a Tony Award), could almost out-crab Lucy. Sally is feisty and outspoken for what she believes in, but is undone by her nemesis, her jumping rope. It’s amazing how this character can turn an inanimate object into one filled with life.Lucy is crabbiness personified. But she has a soft spot for Schroeder, the piano player whose existence seems to hinge on his hero, Ludwig van Beethoven. I remember one comic strip where Lucy smashes a Beethoven bust in a fit: Schroeder calmly grabs another one from a nearby Beethoven-bust-stacked closet and continues playing the piano.

My daughter Nicole related the most to Linus, the thumb-sucking boy whose intelligence matches his passion for his beloved blue blanket.

Finally, there is Snoopy – the hyper-imaginative beagle. This dog puts on a production number every suppertime, showing just how important mealtime is, much to the chagrin of his master, Charlie Brown.

I don’t think I’ve seen Robbie better than here. Not that I’ve found him less effective in other roles… but he lends an appropriate self-awareness and maturity to Charlie Brown.

Flirtation

We’ve all identified with this character at various points in our lives, especially when something doesn’t go well. We hold hope for him, and thus, for ourselves. Robbie captured that.

Carla is always wonderful, whatever she does, and this is no exception. It’s not her first time, either, to play a little girl (the last time was as Olive Ostrovsky in “Spelling Bee”), but certainly no one this cranky!

She was perfectly crabby, but never one-dimensional in her portrayal. Her flirtation with Schroeder was so much fun to watch, including the iconic pose of leaning against the piano, and her psychiatric session with Charlie Brown lent insight into her intelligence.

Franco as Linus was incredibly sweet, much like the actor. Always ready to spout some stroke of intellectual genius, thumb in mouth, but never, ever prepared to part with his blanket. It was fun watching Franco dance a pas de deux with the blanket, but I regret not hearing more of his singing voice, which is just so magical.

Revelation

Sweet as Sally was a revelation. I don’t think I’d seen her doing a principal role in theater – besides being one fifth of The CompanY – so this was such a treat. She can sing, dance and act with so much commitment. “My New Philosophy” was a highlight, especially with the line, “Why are you telling me?”

The arguments (over a substandard grade) with Sally’s teacher, Miss Othmar –and hearing that signature wah-wah reply – were too funny! The fact that Sally can back each argument is even funnier.

Tonipet was a lovely Schroeder – hunched over the piano, possessing such passion for music, even losing himself when conducting “Home on the Range,” oblivious that all his friends had left him alone with Snoopy.

I found that I lost Schroeder’s voice at times though, especially in his big number near the end of Act I. That aside, he was a perfect foil for Lucy in her less-than-sweet moments.

The scene-stealer award should go to Lorenz as Snoopy, however. I always knew he was talented, but I don’t think his gifts have been on full display as they are here. “Suppertime” was a great song and dance number, a true celebration of this special time of day, and him on the roof flying his Sopwith Camel made me laugh. Hard.

I’m sad that the run has ended, but here’s hoping for a rerun of this sweet, happy show. Congratulations!