ENTERTAINMENT

‘It’s very freeing to be on this side of 40’ — Lea Salonga

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Lea Salonga talks about her new film, “Yellow Rose,” her role in “Sweeney Todd,” and her upcoming concert, “Perfect Ten.” Photo by PATRICK DIOKNO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When Lea Salonga was in London last month for a series of concerts in the UK, she found herself stopping by the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which had been home to her for some time, having been where “Miss Saigon” had opened in the West End in 1989.

“Walking around those streets that were so familiar to me years ago, it’s like, yeah, this is a living, breathing entity,” recalls the Tony and Olivier Award-winning actress and singer. The storefronts were different, the restaurants were different, there was even an Apple store. And then she saw that “Frozen,” a theater adaptation of the Disney musical, would be opening there the following year. Nostalgia can be powerful, Salonga explains, but she concludes: “Time does not stand still.”

In fact, it’s never stood still for Salonga, whose illustrious decades-long career has only made room for growth and experimentation. Such is the feature film “Yellow Rose,” which is about an undocumented Filipino girl in America who longs to make country music. This is Salonga’s first movie in quite some time and it has garnered acclaim in the independent film festival circuit. It co-stars Princess Punzalan, also making a return to film, and Eva Noblezada, who coincidentally had been nominated for a Tony in 2017, playing the Salonga-originated role of Kim in “Miss Saigon.”

“It’s a little weird, because the last film that I did was ‘Sana Maulit Muli’ with Aga Muhlach [when I was] 23, 24,” Salonga says, describing it as a love story that people really took to. “The role [in ‘Yellow Rose’] is completely different from that. And,” she adds with a laugh, “I didn’t have to speak Tagalog so my tongue didn’t have to twist.”

“I think I tend to take more risks vocally [now],” says Salonga. “I think my voice has stabilized to the point I can pretty much throw anything at it and it will be okay. Or at least I will attempt certain things with my voice and I know I’ll be okay.” Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

Another new role is Mrs. Lovett in the horror musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” with Jett Pangan in the title role, which will be staged in Manila and Singapore later this year.

“I was on the phone not long ago [with someone whose brain I wanted to pick],” Salonga says, “and towards the end of the conversation, she’s like, ‘Isn’t it so nice? It’s so nice when you get older, because all of a sudden, you’re [playing] these roles [that are more] interesting.’” It’s no longer about looking pretty — now it could be more complicated, darker, more grounded in reality. “It’s not Disney, that’s for sure,” she says of “Sweeney Todd.” “So it’s very freeing to be on this side of 40.”

Before stepping into someone else’s (probably blood-spattered) shoes, however, Salonga will be performing on Aug. 30 and 31 in “Perfect Ten,” a two-day concert at the Newport Performing Arts Theater which celebrates 10 years of Resorts World Manila. She will be joined by a number of handpicked guest performers, including theater actress Tanya Manalang and “The Voice Kids” finalist Esang de Torres.

There’s also theater actor Michael K. Lee, whom Salonga has known for almost 20 years and has worked with in “Allegiance” and “Playing Our Song.” “We closed out ‘Miss Saigon’ in New York,” Salonga says. “We both have families and we get to talk about that. I think our friendship has grown stronger over the years. He’s just someone who is supremely talented, and it’s just ridiculous. I wanted him to come and be able to reacquaint himself with Filipino audiences.”

In “Perfect Ten,” Salonga shares that she and her fellow performers will be “traversing genres,” from show tunes, to movie soundtracks, to pop. “We’re doing a lot of music for audiences that are familiar with what we do, so I think it will be a good showcase for the vocal talents that will be on stage.” Photo by KENNETH ABALLA

Salonga’s daughter Nicole Chien, who made her theater debut in 2017’s “Matilda the Musical,” will join her mother onstage as well. “This is something that she loves to do and her lola loves to watch her onstage, so, pagbigyan,” Salonga laughs.

“[Nicole] enjoys performing, but she also has other artistic pursuits,” she adds. “She draws and illustrates. Now, she’s starting to write stories. There’s something very creative in there, so I don’t want to lock her into just one art form.” She wants her daughter to continue to be open to everything. “That kid really has a mind of her own — all I can do is just love her and support her, [tell her,] ‘I love you no matter what you do.’”

While the lineup of songs for “Perfect Ten” hasn’t been finalized, Salonga shares that she and her fellow performers will be “traversing genres,” from show tunes, to movie soundtracks, to pop. “We’re doing a lot of music for audiences that are familiar with what we do, so I think it will be a good showcase for the vocal talents that will be on stage,” she says.

Now, she adds, “I think I tend to take more risks vocally. I think my voice has stabilized to the point I can pretty much throw anything at it and it will be okay. Or at least I will attempt certain things with my voice and I know I’ll be okay.”

Her biggest reinvention, though, if you ask her, has to be having cut off all her hair. “I think that’s as much as I did,” she says. “And it’s funny — it’s like, once I liberated myself of the hair and whatever notions people might have attached to it, I just felt more free.”