Lea Salonga has the makings of a major gay icon. Not only has the Broadway star wowed audiences around the globe with her performances in just about every musical theater gem from Annie to Flower Drum Song, she has also provided the singing voice for two Disney princesses — Jasmine in Aladdin and the title character in Mulan. In addition, she has triumphed over traditional casting barriers by becoming the first Asian actress to play the roles of Éponine and Fantine in Les Misérables on Broadway.
Having grown up in the theater — she made her professional debut at the age of 7 —Salonga has been working with gay folks for as long as she can remember and has been very vocal in her support for LGBT equality, both here and in her native Philippines.
Her new live album, The Journey So Far, takes the listener on a
wonderful musical tour of her professional and personal life, from her
beginnings as a young girl with a big voice who recorded her first album
at 10 to mass recognition for her role as Kim in the original London
and New York productions of Miss Saigon.
The Advocate: The Journey So Far is a really fun record with some incredible music. What came first — the song list or the show’s narrative structure?
Lea Salonga: The music always comes first and then we build around that. After selecting songs, the script is written, and whatever doesn’t fit in the flow gets thrown out or put on the back burner for another show. “Poker Face” was thrown around for both my cabaret stints but never got in. Maybe next time! It’s fun to sing it.
On the album you do a funny impersonation of Eartha Kitt. Who are your favorite gay icons?
I love Barbra Streisand. Given the number of impersonators that are doing her on a regular basis, I don’t know that you can get gayer than that!
You were an enthusiastic tweeter after the marriage equality victory in New York. What was your first exposure to LGBT people?
I was about 6 years old and working on my first show. Both the musical director and director were gay. Plus I have a [gay] half-brother — who’s far more feminine than I could ever hope to be — an uncle, an aunt, and a few cousins, so I don’t remember ever having a prejudice against LGBT people. They were always just regular people. “Gay” didn’t even enter the conversation until I was old enough to understand what that meant.
As a wife and mother, what’s your response to people who fear that same-sex marriage will destroy traditional marriage?
Oh, please ... I think straight people are doing a fine job of it already! Gay people pose no threat whatsoever. I mean, let’s think about it: There are blended families, interracial families, single parents — not to mention the dysfunction we see on reality TV. I actually think gay families will lean toward the more conservative and traditional. Talk about irony.
Has your 5-year-old daughter met any same-sex couples? And if so, has that sparked any interesting discussions about family?
I don’t know that she understands what being gay means yet. All she knows is that she has a lot of fabulous aunts and uncles, and she’s raised to think of them only as family or friends, period. But once she starts asking what the word “gay” is, of course we’ll tell her in the most simple and straightforward way we know how.
One your tweets said, “I soberly remember that I’m from a place where some people are more equal than others.” While tolerance for LGBT folks in the Philippines has improved over the years, the country still has no specific LGBT antidiscrimination laws. What are your thoughts on that and do you see that changing over time?
The Philippines is a very Catholic country, and Catholicism is very explicit about being gay. I know friends that have left the fold because of the prejudices against them. They are not any less prayerful but certainly not churchgoing. Gay adoptions seem to be tolerated and not looked down upon, but gay marriage? It’ll be a very long time before it’s made into law. We’re already having trouble with the Reproductive Health/Responsible Parenthood Bill being passed, which would allow free contraception for poorer couples that cannot afford it and offer emergency obstetric care for expectant mothers.
Since gay people in the Philippines have been able to serve openly in the military since 2009 and it hasn’t destroyed the country, what were your thoughts on the endless debate over “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the U.S.?
My belief is that it takes a special kind of human being to feel the calling to serve one’s country. No one should have to be discriminated against or hide their identity in order to serve. So it’s very silly. If someone serving chooses to keep his or her sexuality under wraps, let that be their personal decision, not something mandated by the government.
People of color seem to be on both sides of the fence when it comes to equating the struggle for racial equality with LGBT equality. What parallels do you see between the two?
Well, every marginalized or discriminated group of people goes through their own unimaginable struggle for equality and recognition. Many years ago interracial marriage was frowned upon, but now it has become commonplace. I think gay marriage will get to that point too.
I have to ask: How cool is it to be a Disney princess?
You have no idea! This year a bunch of Disney princesses — or rather, actresses that have lent their voices for Disney princesses — all received Disney Legend Awards and received exclusive collector’s edition Barbie dolls of the characters we voiced. I got the cool deal, because I did two.
What’s on your iPod these days?
Ella Fitzgerald, Maroon 5, Eric Benét, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, and a bunch of other things.
Last question: Is it true you’ve been approached to play Charice’s mother on Glee?
Uh, nope! That isn’t true. That said, I wouldn’t mind playing Darren Criss’s mom. I mean, he is half-Filipino, so that wouldn’t be a stretch. Plus he’s adorable. And he’s rocking the bow ties!