From Broadway star to Disney heroine: How Lea Salonga became both Princess Jasmine and Mulan

The singer and stage actor from Manila talks about growing up onstage ahead of her return to Dubai this week

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 07:  Actress Lea Salonga performs at Feinstein's/54 Below Press Preview at Feinstein's on April 7, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)
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When Lea Salonga steps on to the Dubai Opera stage tonight, it will be with the grace of a seasoned talent.

The soprano, 49, performs a pair of shows on Thursday and Friday, March 5 and 6, which will showcase songs from her near-four-decade career.

There will be selections of show tunes, a few arias, Disney classics and, judging by a London show last year, maybe a cover of One Direction's Story of My Life, but it will all be done with the experience of a star who grew up treading the boards.

One aspect Dubai crowds will surely look forward to is Salonga's renditions of songs from Miss Saigon. After all, it was the role of Kim that catapulted her from a little-known singer from the Philippines to a West End and Broadway star.

With the production recently celebrating its 30th anniversary, Salonga recalls the experience as nothing short of life-changing.

Being a full-time performer, she states, was not part of her plan.

She recalled making an agreement with her parents as a teenager: to be allowed to sing and dance as long her school grades didn't slip.

Already recognised as a burgeoning talent in Manila – Salonga sang in local events and lead roles in locally staged productions of The King and I, Annie and Fiddler on the Roof – she maintained her end of the bargain by being a diligent high-school pupil with aspirations of becoming a doctor.

As it turned out, it was a failed prognosis.

Salonga’s career trajectory went off the charts in 1988, when English stage impresario Cameron Mackintosh rolled into town looking for a starlet.

Unable to find a talented South-East Asian singer in Europe for the role of the hostess Kim in his upcoming West End production of Miss Saigon, Mackintosh and his team travelled to the Philippines for auditions.

A university student at the time and still plugged in to Manila's stage scene, Salonga recalls attending the audition as a way to satisfy her curiosity. "I mean, here was this personality coming to Manila for these auditions and I just wanted to try and see what that experience was like. I had no expectations at the time," Salonga tells The National.

“But my parents always gave me this hard work ethic. So I gave it my best shot and they kept calling me back for more auditions.”

While confident of her ability, Salonga recalls being totally surprised when she landed the role. This meant an abrupt end to her studies and her first trip to London for intensive rehearsals and back-to-back performances.

A new deal with her parents was immediately forged: her mother went along with her. Looking back at those months, based in a small apartment in London, Salonga says family support was paramount.

“I was young and everything was moving fast,” she says. “There were a lot of rehearsals and basically a lot of stress. So having her there with me and providing me with support and guidance was so important.”

It also resulted in some uncomfortable discussions. With her character Kim falling in love – and eventually despair – with American soldier Chris (played by British stage actor Simon Bowman), Salonga needed to muster up emotions that were foreign to her then.

“I was only 18 at the time, so I never experienced anything like the love that Kim had or that kind of affection,” she says, followed by a quiet chuckle.

“So I had to speak to my mum about that and ask her some questions about it. It was also tough for her talk about it with me. All I can say she tried her best.”

Fortunately, director Nicholas Hytner filled in any gaps with clear and precise instructions.

"We didn't even need to talk about it," Salonga says. "He would say 'stand here and do this' and then 'go here and do that'. It was great, so it all worked out in the end." Salonga went on to win Olivier and Tony awards for the role in both the West End and Broadway productions.

It also introduced her to the Disney team, who went on to cast her as the singing voices for two landmark animated productions, 1992's Aladdin, as Princess Jasmine, and the title singing role for the 1996 film Mulan.

While Salonga has been rightfully hailed for her breathtaking performance of Aladdin's signature song A Whole New World. It remains the first and only Disney song to win a Grammy Award – for Song of the Year in 1994 – and she gives all the credit to the Disney crew.

"The reason they are so amazing is that they have, in a way, created their own world," she says. "It's a world that has its own language and songs. So when you are singing a Disney song, you are just following a long and proud tradition."

With Salonga's two dates at Dubai Opera coming on the back of a sold-out show at the venue in 2017, she hopes this weekend's shows will strengthen her enduring relationship with UAE audiences.

“It is a warm and lovely crowd,” she says. “It is always a place that I look forward to coming back to because I enjoy the experience so much.”

Lea Salonga performs tonight and tomorrow at Dubai Opera, Downtown Dubai. Concerts start at 8pm. Tickets begin at Dh250 and are available at www.dubaiopera.com

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