Lea Salonga Talks Return to Broadway in 'Once on This Island' (Exclusive)

Lea Salonga
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The longtime star of Broadway talks to ET about stepping into a supporting role on stage.

When Lea Salonga was 20 years old, making her Broadway debut as Kim in the 1991 production of Miss Saigon, not once did she ever think she’d star in Once on This Island, which was playing right down the street. At the time, both musicals were premiering on Broadway.

Now, 26 years later, the two celebrated shows are back on Broadway. Miss Saigon is nearing the end of a limited engagement at the Broadway Theatre, where it performed its original run, while Once on This Island just opened in December at the Circle in the Square Theatre. And once again, Salonga is at the center of it all.

This time, she’s playing Erzulie, one of four gods (including Glee’s Alex Newell) who lead a peasant girl named Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore) on a journey to the other side of her Antilles island nation after falling for a wealthy boy, in the Michael Arden-directed revival of Once on This Island. “It’s so beautiful and it makes me so happy to do,” Salonga tells ET about being part of this reincarnation.

A longtime star of the Broadway stage, having performed in Flower Drum Song, Les Misérables and most recently Allegiance with George Takei, Salonga takes great pride in this role, as it is the first time she’s portraying a Filipino woman. “I’ve been Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese American, French, but never Filipino,” she says. Born in Manila, Philippines, the actress became a child star of the stage and screen before finding success in the United States with Miss Saigon and as the singing voice of Jasmine in Aladdin.

In the new production of Once on This Island, Erzulie is first seen dressed as an aid relief worker in a white uniform. “That’s what makes this special for me. I am representing so many Filipino medical practitioners who find themselves flung to the four winds.” Salonga even gets to speak her native language during the pre-show where the cast cleans up a ravaged set, not all that dissimilar to the areas affected by recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, before she transforms into the Goddess of Love.

The production also marks the first time Salonga is a supporting player in a Broadway musical, which aside from Kilgore’s role as Ti Moune, is largely an ensemble piece. “It’s really cool being kind of a lynch pin character. There are people that come and go, but when they come there is an impact that is still felt, even if you’re not on stage the whole time,” she says of taking the smaller part because it “sounded really exciting.”

While she had never seen a production of Once on This Island until she was asked to assist friends with a version in the Philippines, Salonga says “it stayed etched in my head, so when it came time to learn this show it wasn’t as difficult as if I’d never heard it. It would have been very hard if I was learning this without prior knowledge of the show because these vocal arrangements are crazy.”

Salonga is also enjoying playing something of role model to Kilgore, who at 18 years old is learning how to embrace the newfound fame of being onstage. “I know what it’s like to navigate through all the craziness; making your Broadway debut and handling the leading role being the center of a production. She and I have that in common.” Similar to the way Salonga was discovered for Miss Saigon, Kilgore’s talents were also scouted out from a worldwide search. Salonga’s advice to the young actress was “to not think of it as a huge thing [and] to break it up into smaller pieces. Kind of like when I have to cut a steak for my daughter.”

Lea Salonga (center) in 'Once on This Island' - Joan Marcus

Less than a week after opening night, Salonga is celebrating another exciting milestone in career with the release of her new album, Bahaghari (which means rainbow in Filipino), featuring songs representative of her native country’s three different cultural regions and its many languages. “To preserve some of this music has been an adventure and labor of love [to] finally acquaint myself with songs I would hear in passing and never knew the meaning of.” The goal for the album is for it to become a resource for kids to be inspired by these languages though song.

With the album release and Broadway happening at the same time, it’s hard for Salonga to look ahead at what’s next on her plate, besides spending the holidays with her family in town. She admits she’d love to perform in productions of Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music, both Stephen Sondheim shows. “The older I get, the more delicious his shows are becoming.”

As for making a cameo in the live-action version of Aladdin, Salonga suggests that chapter is behind her. “What I have been able to do and continue to do as part of the film cast has been a magical thing, and I don’t think I need to be part of the new one,” she concludes.