BWW Phils. Interview: Lea Salonga Talks About ‘Suites by Sondheim’

Lea Salonga sits down with
and talks about Suites by Sondheim, her concert at
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center; photo by
Oliver Oliveros
By Oliver Oliveros for

"You better be smart singing Sondheim." - Lea Salonga

New York, November 6, 2011 -- It's always been a pleasure to interview Filipino Pride and Tony Award-winning actress Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon, Les Miserables) in person, especially when the rare opportunity to meet and sit down with her in a rehearsal studio or at a theater in New York comes along. During our past interviews, she had always imbibed a unique blend of a Manileño-meets-New Yorker attitude: one that's warm and friendly, and doesn't mind braving a subway ride just to hop her way from one interview to another.

Although it's been more exciting to personally conduct a tape recorded interview with Salonga, there had been instances that I needed to engage in online interviews with her especially on reporting breaking news. I remember I had to break the news on her special participation in Concertus Inc. and Lunchbox Theatrical Productions' first international touring production of Cats in Manila two years ago, and her very recent judging stint at the 2011 Ms. Universe Pageant in São Paulo, Brazil. During those two instances, we're at two opposite ends of the world; so we had to exchange messages on Facebook and email (Thank, God for Facebook and email!), and wait for the green light to spill the beans.

But then again, nothing beats the real thing: meeting your interview subject in the flesh.'s (BWW) Richard Ridge and I, on two different occasions, have recently caught up with Salonga to talk about her newest project in the city: Suites by Sondheim, a tribute concert to Stephen Sondheim, an American musical theater legend who had penned musicals such as Sweeney Todd and West Side Story. The show will feature Filipino-American Broadway actors, and singers in a one-night-only performance at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center tomorrow, November 7 at 7:30 p.m. Speaking of Sondheim, how difficult is it to sing his songs? [Sondheim's infamously known for his uncanny ability to create beautiful yet tricky melodies and inhumanely wordy lyrics.]

Lea Salonga: "The thing about Sondheim is that it does get very cerebral. You do need a faculty with words and a love for the lyrics to not just pull it off, but to have an appreciation for it. I, as a younger person, [her first Sondheim show was playing the Witch in Into the Woods in Singapore in 1994]  and Sondheim versus being a little older and having lived a little bit of life and then looking at Sondheim again, I think one requires a certain amount of living in order to appreciate Sondheim, and I think there's a lot of life in a lot of what he writes."

She added, "You can do the music, you can sing the lyrics, but it's not as full as after having just lived a little bit. Victor Lirio [the concert's co-producer and director] is making me sing 'Not a Day Goes By' [a stirring solo number from Sondheim's musical "Merrily We Roll Along"] and if I had looked at that at the age of 22, I would've been a little like, "What is that about?" whereas being 40. So the reaction's much more visceral, much more immediate, and there isn't as much thinking involved."

"You better be smart singing Sondheim." So, how's your concert going to be any different from past, numerous tribute concerts to Sondheim?

Lea Salonga: "The cool part about this concert is that, I think almost every conceivable Filipino-American or Filipino that has performed on Broadway in recent history is going to be a part of this. It's certainly historic, if nothing else. Not this many Filipino performers in one place will get to perform this material that is just classic and intelligent; and interestingly, it falls on the anniversary of my solo show at Carnegie Hall with Diversity Theater six years ago."

Joining Salonga at the concert are equally accomplished Filipino-American theater performers that will include Adam Jacobs (Les MiserablesLion King), Jose Llana (WonderlandFlower Drum Song), Paolo Montalban (Pacific OverturesCinderellaJoan Almedilla (Miss SaigonLes Miserables), Alan Ariano (Miss SaigonThe Encounter), Emy Baysic (Miss SaigonMamma Mia), Angel Desai (Company), Rona Figueroa (Miss SaigonLes Miserables), Lydia Gaston (The King and I, Miss Saigon), Deedee Magno Hall (WickedMiss Saigon), Orville Mendoza (Pacific OverturesMiss Saigon), Emily Morales (South Pacific); Jennifer Paz (Miss Saigon, Les Miserables), and Diane Phelan (South PacificWest Side Story), among others. Broadway composer Robert Lopez, who's Filipino American, will be honored with the Award of Excellence for his Tony Award-winning compositions for hit Broadway musicals Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon.

The Philippine Development Foundation USA (PhilDev), a non-profit organization that supports community and entrepreneurship programs in the Philippines, will be the concert's sole beneficiary.

As of this writing, I was told that the Alice Tully Hall Box Office has released additional 50 tickets at $150. The show's nearly sold out. So, if you're in New York and you're a Salonga or a Sondheim fan, make sure you'll get in. will catch up again with Salonga at the concert tomorrow night; expect for more related news and features.

Oliver Oliveros is regional site editor, author, and photographer at You may follow him on

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