MANILA, Philippines - Lea Salonga will be back on the theater stage via the rerun of the critically-acclaimed musical Fun Home.
She will be joined by the same cast in the initial run last year, including American actor Eric Kunze, with whom she first worked in Les Miserables many years ago when they were both 21 years old.
Fun Home in Manila is produced by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group and directed by Bobby Garcia. The rerun on March 10 to 19 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza in Makati is the response to the theater crowd’s clamor for a repeat. It’s just going to be 12 performances, however, so Lea hopes people won’t wait for the last minute to purchase their tickets.
Fun Home is based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir of the same title, featuring music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. It was the most awarded musical in 2015, collecting five Tonys, the Best Musical included.
Lea was introduced to Fun Home when direk Bobby asked her to watch it on Broadway and if she would consider playing the role of the mother, Helen Bechdel.
“I went to see it and saw Judy Kuhn playing Helen. Our paths as artists have crossed multiple times. We were nominated in the same category at the Olivier’s. We worked on the same stage during the 10th anniversary of Les Miserablés. She replaced me on Les Miz after I left as Fantine, and I’ve always been such a huge fan of hers.”
Apart from her admiration for the female lead, the material held an attraction for her because “there is just something about the show that is probably more real, raw and immediate and given I think the dialogue about the LGBT community going on in the US, and seeing this show, where it’s like no one is a caricature, where nothing is exaggerated.”
She added, “These are real people that we have to play and I think there’s an attraction to playing somebody that actually existed.”
Fun Home proved to be quite the emotional release for her. Lea shared, “I guess, growing up in a — well, dysfunctional is probably a strong word to use — but yes, a somewhat dysfunctional family background, it was very cathartic to play that and to be able to just do that every single night!”
“Oh my gosh! I’ve been waiting for my whole career to do something like this and it doesn’t come often — roles like that,” she continued. “I identify myself primarily as a singer, so to have the opportunity to really just work hard as an actor and let the singing be secondary to that, it’s just so fulfilling.”
Asked how she was able to relate more to her character as a woman betrayed, Lea said she didn’t have to look far for inspiration. She drew upon the experiences of women close to her going through similar situations.
There are also examples furnished by society. “I mean in this country, there’s no shortage of philandering husbands. I mean there are lotharios who are very public about their 70-plus children. It’s a very dysfunctional (situation) and you have the long-suffering wives who are very public personas. So, one doesn’t need to go very far to find characters.”
She also stressed that infidelity and cheating spouses are thematic staples of Philippine TV and movies. “Mass media — film and television — they portray infidelity in what? Once in every other teleserye? Why is every other teleserye about a cheating spouse? So, there’s that.”
Lea clarified though that Fun Home presents another angle to the issue. “It’s extremely heartbreaking to play a woman who feels there’s no way out. I mean this woman is Catholic, she feels trapped in this relationship and obviously the husband was not treating her very well. Thank goodness, you’re a nice man (laughs)!” she said, turning to co-star Eric during the interview.
There was a mother and son who came to watch the show and left a “hill of tissue in their seats” from all the crying, Lea revealed. She saw it herself afterwards and it was explained to her, who these people were.
“I can’t remember their names now but I think Days and Days was sung,” narrated Lea, referring to the song that New York Times called cri de coeur (the cry from the heart) in a glowing review, “the son turns to his mom — because apparently she was verbally and physically abused by the husband — ‘Mom, you don’t have to give away your days anymore.’ It made us cry to hear about that.”
“I think a lot of the audiences saw a lot of themselves in what was happening on stage so they were experiencing catharsis, also,” Lea said.
Meanwhile, the singer/actress brought her Fun Home experience to her latest concert Songs from the Stage wherein daughter Nicole Beverly Chien performed Ring of Keys from the musical.
It’s not hard to notice that Lea’s unica hija is following in her footsteps. But the singer-actress was quick to note that Nicole’s priority is school. She also believes that her daughter is a little different from her in that “she considers herself as someone who acts, an actor who can sing. I’m a singer who can act. I’m primarily a vocalist.
“I think she’s able to channel her emotions far more focused than I could at that age. I think she’d have better access to her emotions and being able to channel that. We’ll see how that plays out but first things first, you’re in fourth grade, you’re in school, enjoy running around with your friends.”
She also doesn’t see herself portraying mother-daughter roles with Nicole in the future. “We gotta have some boundaries. It’s one thing for us to do a concert because the dynamics is the same, but to play mother and daughter? That’s a little too much.”
Nevertheless, if and when Nicole is allowed to finally pursue performing, Lea wouldn’t be doing a Mommy Ligaya because “my mom and I are just very different people. So, I don’t know if I’d be that same kind of theater mom.”
She added, “But there are certain rules to follow, and I would have to follow those rules. You have to be supportive of your child; you must love the work as much as your child does; you must be supportive not only of your own child but every other child in a production.”
When a veteran entertainment editor suggested to Lea that her mom Ligaya could put up a “school for stage mothers,” Lea said, “We were just talking about it, Bobby and I.”
“We’re now seeing stage parents who either don’t have a clue or are a little too pushy with other parents or with other children that they become the ones you don’t want around. Let’s start on the right foot before it gets crazy. I got lucky!”
Indeed, showbiz parents can learn a thing or two from Mommy Ligaya.
“There’s a lot that they could learn from her for raising a child that grew up to be an adult with a pretty level head because ultimately that’s what you want. You don’t want the child star that ended up on the wrong side of the track or deep into drugs or destroying themselves,” Lea said. “I think people will take her seriously. She did alright! I think she did OK (laughs). She raised us well.”
Completing her fun home in the real sense of the word is husband Rob Chien. The hubby cropped up during her chat with the press last Wednesday when co-star Eric was talking about meeting fellow Americans enjoying and extending their stay in the Philippines.
“My husband’s American. We moved here in 2005. He doesn’t see himself living back in the United States,” Lea shared.
“He loves the people, the climate, he has made so many wonderful friends. He has built a life here. He can speak functional Tagalog, his conjugation needs support (but) I don’t have to translate too much,” she said of Rob who has his own Twitter account, wherein he makes hilarious posts (tagging Lea at times) and interacts with followers in Filipino. “(The Twitter) is for real. He has many fans. At the (recent) concert, he has his own line for autographs (laughs)! He loves it here. As far as he’s concerned, he considers this home.”