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Q&A: Lea Salonga of ‘Once On This Island’

Category Actor Spotlight

|by Matthew Wexler |

Salonga stars as Erzulie, the Goddess of Love

It was 1989 when London audiences first discovered Lea Salonga, then an unknown who was chosen to star in Miss Saigon. Salonga went on to win the Oliver Award for her performance, and later, the Tony Award for recreating the role on Broadway.

Nearly 30 years later, Salonga is back on Broadway for the sixth time in the much-anticipated revival of Once On This Island, a fantastical musical about a young peasant girl who falls in love with a wealthy boy. With music and lyrics by the Tony Award-winning duo of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Anastasia, Ragtime), the story of unrequited love echoes Salonga’s first foray into musical theater, though Once On This Island’s otherworldly Caribbean plot relies on the appearance of several powerful gods.

Salonga portrays Erzulie, the Goddess of Love. For anyone who has seen Salonga on stage or in concert, or listened to one of her many albums (including the recent release of “Blurred Lines,” which was recorded live during her sold-out run last year at Feinstein’s/54 Below), it’s perfect casting. The international star imbues love in each of her ventures, whether it’s onstage, serving as a judge on The Voice of the Philippines (similar to the hit NBC version) or raising her beautiful daughter Nicole with husband Rob Chien. 

Lea Salonga stars in 'Once On This Island' (Photo: Raymund Isaac)

Lea Salonga stars in 'Once On This Island' (Photo: Raymund Isaac)

It’s been 27 years since Once On This Island was seen on Broadway. In what ways do you think the production is relevant for today’s audiences?
Lea Salonga: Well, first of all, Hailey Kilgore (who plays Ti Moune) is gangbusters and incredibly talented. Just you wait –things are going to happen for her. She’s really an incredible find.

We’ve also had quite a few hurricanes blow through the U.S. and the Caribbean this year, which is the framework for Once On This Island’s story. There’s a message that people need to move forward and rebuild, but it isn’t just about brick and mortar. It’s about filling your heart with love and hope. These are powerful forces to help move forward after a tragedy.

What about your character (Erzulie, Goddess of Love) resonates with you at this point in your career?
Lea Salonga: Everyone has a bit of fairy godmother in him or her! The gods act as the forces that push Ti Moune forward on this journey. It becomes a contest between two gods, Ezrulie and Papa Ge, Demon of Death (played by Merle Dandridge), to see which one of us is stronger. It’s a story that rings true and could happen in my country given the gap between rich and poor when you dream that big.

How has it been working with a young director like Michael Arden and what is he bringing to the artistic process to elevate the storytelling?
Lea Salonga: I saw his revival of Spring Awakening and had never seen it before. I was floored by the vision and moments that were so emotional and focused. I received a phone call from Michael, asking if I’d be interested in playing this role. I said of course I’d love to do it, and knew that if it didn’t happen there would be another show in our future.

I’ve been traditionally cast in terms of my voice, but Michael has made some incredible choices like Merle as Papa Ge and Alex Newell in the role of Asaka, Mother of the Earth, singing in the original key!

This production is playing at Circle in the Square – an unusual venue compared to most Broadway theaters because the audience surrounds the action. How has that impacted your onstage experience?
Lea Salonga: It’s a perfect venue for Once On This Island and feels like you’re hearing a great story around a large campfire. As gods, we’re situated very close to the audience (at arm’s length) throughout the action and get to watch the story unfold, too.

Dane Laffrey did a fantastic job with the scenic design. Tony Award winner Clint Ramos (Eclipsed) has created our costumes, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer have designed lights and Peter Hylenski has done the sound design. Together, they bring a crystal clear, razor-sharp clarity to an already well-loved story. 

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