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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

Change Of Pace
After fame as tragic heroine, Lea Salonga brushes up on her comic timing
BY JACINTHA STEPHENS Singapore


Lea Salonga in the smash hit Les Misérables
Joan Marcus - Singapore Repertory Theater
"I'm afraid, really afraid," says Lea Salonga. After a lifetime in theater, the actress-singer who won over audiences in Broadway and the West End has been getting an attack of stage fright. She is making her debut in a musical comedy - Neil Simon's They're Playing Our Song - and the prospect gives her the jitters. Having made her name in a series of tragic roles, most famously in Miss Saigon, she is "stretching some never-before-used muscles" in the current production by the Singapore Repertory Theater (SRT). What's more, her character doesn't die at the end.

The 29-year-old Philippine singer reckons she's lucky to be appearing with Adrian Pang, the lead in the hit Singapore movie Forever Fever. "I've got a wonderful partner," Salonga says. "Adrian is more at home with comedy than I am."

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• A Spirited Response Malaysia's AIDS activists woo Muslim clerics

Theater: Change Of Pace
After fame as tragic heroine, Lea Salonga brushes up on her comic timing

Books: Japan's Stellar Poet
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Cinema: Singapore's Gang of Five
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The two performers have worked together before in a previous SRT musical, Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods. This time Salonga plays a feisty New York lyricist who is hired to help Pang's harassed composer. Both actors have received good reviews as the couple whose romantic entanglements drive the plot, but 33-year-old Pang's effortless delivery and sense of comic timing truly lifts the show.

Comedy is harder work for Salonga. All the same, she says, she's having a great time and "learning a lot." Steep learning curves have been the norm since 1989 when she made her London debut in Miss Saigon. She was just 19 and hasn't looked back. The long-running hit propelled her on to Broadway, where she reprised her role as Kim, the Vietnamese girl who falls for an American soldier.

Although the star has appeared in other hit shows such as Les Misérables, her most memorable roles have been Asian. So is it a breakthrough for someone like her to play a New Yorker? Not quite. "If we're able to do more of this kind of work on Broadway or in the West End, then perhaps stereotypes will be broken," she says. "It's a hope that I have; a hope that many other [Asian-born] actors share." At least efforts such as the Singapore company's are "proving that we can handle roles usually meant for other ethnic types."

The 300-seat Jubilee Theater at the Raffles Hotel is "cozy" compared to the enormous venues that Salonga is accustomed to. But at a cost of $600,000, the Neil Simon play is the SRT's most ambitious to date. Getting everything into the compact stage has been something of a feat for artistic director Tony Petito. Simon's script calls for at least five set changes which involve computer graphics, a revolving stage, an actual car and an orchestra. "Moreover the audience gets a chance to hear Lea up close and personal," Petito says. And that is attracting fans from as far away as Germany.

Not that the fresh-faced Salonga minds where she appears. It's all the same to her, whether in entertainment capitals such as London and New York or in a wannabe regional arts hub like Singapore. There's nothing quite like that rush of adrenaline through the body a few minutes before the curtain goes up, she says. Besides, where else can she play a "neurotic ex-smoker, perennially late lyricist?"

People go to the theater to be entertained, to be moved or to see their favorite performers, she points out. In that sense, all audiences are alike. "Applause, laughter and tears don't need to be translated and compared. I am perfectly happy wherever it comes from," she says. And she'll go wherever there is good work.

The familiarity - and financial security - that marathon shows bring, allows her to relax and explore the complexities of her character. While newer performers were "getting manic," figuring out costume changes and sets or dealing with critics, she could really focus. But it's tough trying to keep the songs and lyrics fresh night after night, Salonga says. (Miss Saigon, for example, played over 3,000 performances on Broadway and has grossed more than $265 million.) Which is why invitations to sing in animated Disney features such as Aladdin and Mulan are particularly welcome. "It's the coolest thing," Salonga says. "Like achieving immortality in a unique way because the films are never dated, and will be enjoyed by people of all generations." In between, the New York-based Salonga has managed to host her own television show in Manila and cut several albums with top Philippine producer Ryan Cayabyab - mostly songs about heartbreak and falling in love.

But theater is where her heart is. "I love performing," Salonga says. In fact, she's been addicted to the limelight since age six when a cousin active in the Repertory Philippines persuaded her mother to allow her to audition for a part in The King And I. (Salonga sang from the Sound of Music and recited her Girl Scout's pledge, she recalls.) But next year, she plans to take a break from the stage. "I'll be going back to school in spring," she says. The Salongas, like so many Asian families, stress the importance of an education, so her university degree is "long overdue." It shouldn't be too difficult to catch up, though. What's another sharp learning curve?

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