Bidyo’s Filipino American Hall of Fame: Lea Salonga

Lea Salonga is the eighth honoree of Bidyo’s new show, Filipino American Hall of Fame and the eighth episode airs this Friday, October 7th!  Bidyo is a new YouTube channel created by FilAm Creative.  Bidyo’s mission is to produce and promote content from emerging Filipino American talent.  Subscribe to the Bidyo Channel here:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7-cvvEYApGwFOO337gUZuQ     

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I place Lea Salonga as the preeminent Filipino American entertainer in the modern era.  There was no one else like her before her when it comes to Filipinos and Filipino Americans breaking out into the mainstream.  And, since her early beginnings as a child star in the Philippines, her small voice skyrocketed her career into international stardom.  She also represents my introduction to the culture of the Philippines growing up.

I may have been 13 or 14 years old when my father decided to uproot the family from my birthplace of Chicago, Illinois USA to the Philippines in 1980.  My siblings and I were both excited yet unsure what this new environment would bring us.  We never learned and spoke Tagalog during our developmental years so, already there was a language barrier. Such a culture shock.  In order to connect with new people, language is key.  It was the ultimate social experiment!  Thanks, Dad!

I can’t speak about how my siblings were able to adjust, but I found turning to entertainment and media — watching Pinoy television with my extended family in Batangas, reading Pilipino newspapers in a hotel lobby in Makati and listening to Filipino songs on the radio while inside a crowded jeepney in “rush hour” Cubao — as ways to understand my parents’ homeland as well as its people and lifestyles…rather than to just simply relating to people.  Go figure.

Other than my late grandfather who introduced me to wrestling (when he and I used to listened to the play-by-play matches from his transistor radio at his chicken shed in the backyard every evening), I was introduced to a child actress who only spoke English in a late afternoon / early evening serial drama on television my late grandmother was religiously watching.  I would join her after having merienda.

I don’t remember the title because it was in Tagalog (and for some reason, I’m unable to locate it during my online research this past week).  Lea was the breakout star in this soap opera because the show was about her character in a Dallas-type family.  Sure, I still watched Eat Bulaga!, John en Marsha, Student Canteen, GMA Supershow, Iskul Bukol, etc. – entertained and laughed at jokes I didn’t understand.  But, I continued watching Lea’s TV serial.   A few months later in 1981, her new song was playing on the radio.  I still have the vinyl 45-inch record single.  The song was “I Am But A Small Voice (Akoy Muting Tinig)”.

After a year, my Dad decided to move us back to the USA in good ol’…. Los Angeles.  So, another year of adjustment and we relinquished everything we absorbed about the Philippines.  At that time, there was no internet and cable television was not available or affordable to all homes.  Our only connection to the Philippines were watching a full hour block of one variety show and one news program Monday thru Friday from 4:30pm to 5:30pm in the afternoon, and one half hour long variety show from 1:00pm to 1:30pm every Saturday afternoon on KSCI Channel 18.  So, that was it.  We continued on with our lives and immersed ourselves into Los Angeles.

Flash forward a few years later.  My sister and I were studying at the same college.  One night, we went to a party and one of my sister’s friends happen to mention that her friend Monique was preparing for a lead role for a new play.  This was the first time I heard about Miss Saigon.  Little did I know Lea Salonga was also going for the same part.  Wait, what?

At age 18, Lea originated the lead role of Kim in the musical Miss Saigon, first in the West End and then on Broadway, winning the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Theatre World Awards, and becoming the first Asian woman AND the first Filipina to ever to win the prestigious Tony Award.  I’m pretty sure every Filipino around the world was watching this historical moment.  

I never saw Miss Saigon and even Les Misérables.  Every time I was in New York, both shows were always sold out.  Even the one other time she performed Miss Saigon in the Philippines, also sold out.  I thought I would never see her perform because I thought she’d only do theatre.  I was wrong.  She branched out towards other areas of performance.

In respect to Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle’s released 1992 Billboard chart topper, Lea Salonga and Brad Kane sang “A Whole New World” in the animated film, Aladdin (she was the singing voice of Jasmine).  They also performed the song at the 65th Annual Academy Awards where the song won an Oscar, having already won a Golden Globe Award.

Also in 1992, Lea released her self-titled American album debut through Atlantic Records.  Filipino fans around the world brought the album to multi-platinum sales.  I went thru a Lea Salonga resurgence and purchased her earlier albums released in the Philippines at the local Filipino Mom & Pop stores in LA – just to listen to her vocal journey between “I Am But A Small Voice (Akoy Muting Tinig)” to the album’s released single, “We Could Be In Love,” a duet with Brad Kane of Aladdin.

And, in 1995, Lea made her American film debut in Redwood Curtain. I recorded the movie onto a blank professional VHS tape my workplace provided me.  The film is based on the 1993 Broadway play of the same name by playwright Lanford Wilson.  The TV movie stars Jeff Daniels, Debra Monk, Catherine Hicks and John Lithgow.

In 1998, Lea provided the singing voice of Fa Mulan in her second animated Disney film most notably for the song “Reflection”.  The single from the Mulan soundtrack is Christina Aguilera’s rendition (and became her debut single that jumpstarted her career).  Below is Lea Salonga’s original version from the film.

I’d like to think Lea’s first appearance on an American television show was on NBC’s ER in 2001 in the episode “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”.  I also would like to think that the character she played on ER named Amparo was a Filipino American character…and her first time playing one of her ethnicity.  But, I don’t know.  I mean, when I lived in the Philippines that one entire year, it was at my late grandparents’ home in Amparo Village in Quezon City…

On January 10th of this year at the 73rd Golden Globe Awards, Rachel Bloom won for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series, Comedy or Musical, for her show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on the CW.  While speaking to reporters, she “dropped a tidbit that Broadway star Lea Salonga will be a guest star in an upcoming episode” [link].  That episode was the series’ first season finale, “Paula Needs To Get Over Josh!” where Lea played Aunt Myrna.  She also sang “One Indescribable Instant” at Jayma Chan-Epstein’s (Tess Paras) [link] wedding reception and thru the end montage between Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) and Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III).

Lea Salonga has credited “On My Own” as the starting point of her international career.  “‘On My Own’ from ‘Les Miz’ probably would be, like, the one song that pretty much just changed my life for the rest of it. And for the better,” Salonga says in the 2012 TV series The Song That Changed My Life. “That was the song that I decided to sing for my audition for ‘Miss Saigon.’ It was the song that, when I first heard it, I just burst into tears.”

I find no better way to end this blog than with this amazing impromptu performance.

NOTE:  I finally saw Lea Salonga perform live in person at the 20th Festival of Philippine Arts & Culture event in San Pedro on September 10, 2011.  Circle closed.

Written by Edwin Santos (10/7/16)

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