Lea Salonga reflects on Jasmine, Mulan ahead of ‘Broadway in the Park’ at Wolf Trap

Hear our full chat on my podcast “Beyond the Fame with Jason Fraley.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Lea Salonga at Wolf Trap's 'Broadway in the Park' (Part 1)

Wolf Trap is hosting its third annual “Broadway in the Park” concert this Friday, June 16, at 8 p.m. in Virginia.

Lea Salonga, the singing voice of Jasmine in “Aladdin” and Mulan in “Mulan,” will join Tony nominee Megan Hilty of “Wicked” and “9 to 5: The Musical” and local actors from Signature Theatre, including Phillip Attmore, Austin Colby, Felicia Curry, Katie Mariko Murray, Kevin McAllister, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Nova Payton and Bobby Smith.

“When I was asked to come and be a part of it, it was like, ‘Wow, this is going to be a lot of fun,'” Salonga told WTOP. “D.C. is always a city that I enjoy visiting and I think this is going to be a really good time … whenever I do concerts, I try to make sure that there’s a nice mix of material that people are familiar with, but also material that people might not be familiar with … you’re just all going to have to wait and see what’s going to happen.”

Born in Manila in the Phillipines in 1971, Salonga began singing at family parties when her cousin urged her to audition for a production of “The King and I.” This started her illustrious stage career at the young age of 7.

“When you’re a kid and you can sing, you’re gonna have a mom like mine, who will volunteer for you to sing at family parties,” Salonga said. “One of my cousins who was very active in musical theater told my mother to bring me to these auditions for ‘The King & I.’ … It wasn’t one of those life-changing events like, ‘Oh my God, this was it,’ it was like, OK, it was nice, it was fun, I didn’t feel afraid … I don’t recall it being a lightning and thunder event.”

It wasn’t a moment of epiphany, but she enjoyed it enough to continue acting in local productions of “Annie,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Goodbye Girl” and “Paper Moon.” She also started acting in Filipino movies at age 10, becoming dubbed the “Shirley Temple of the Philippines.”

“It was a kiddie movie; if I were to translate it, it would translate as ‘Kids Troop,'” Salonga said. “I was around kids that were really good at turning on the water works on cue. It was something that I was taken aback by. I was like, ‘How are they doing this?’ … They were very skilled at it and I was like, ‘These kids are amazing.’ They were great actors, so I’m sure they could see things that I hadn’t yet learned at that point.”

In 1981, she recorded her first album “Small Voice,” which was certified gold in the Philippines and enabled her to record a second album called “Lea” (1988). As a teenager, she even got to open for Stevie Wonder in Manila.

“It was my mom who was producing those records,” Salonga said. “She would take orders from the owners of these music stores … the supply was in the trunk of her station wagon, the Mommy Mobile of the day, if you will. The next thing she knew, the stores started calling her back saying, ‘Could you please refill?’ Turns out there were parents looking for something to play for their kids.”

At age 18, she originated the role of Kim in “Miss Saigon” (1989), playing a bargirl at a brothel during the Vietnam War. After winning the Olivier Award on the West End, the show moved to Broadway, where she won the Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in a Musical in 1991, making her the first actress of Asian descent to win a Tony.

“The very first Asian, as far as I know, to ever win a Tony is B.D. Wong for Best Featured Actor in ‘M. Butterfly,'” Salonga said. “The second Asian, as far as I know, to win a Tony is costume designer Willa Kim, who won for ‘The Will Rogers Follies,’ so she was the first woman to win a Tony Award … I know it happened because we both got our Tonys the same night … I’m the first Asian actress to win a Tony Award, so we have to keep qualifying it.”

In 1992, she got her most iconic role by providing the singing voice of Princess Jasmine in Disney’s animated classic “Aladdin” (1992). While the spoken scenes were voiced by Linda Larkin and Scott Weinger, it was Salonga and Brad Kane who sang the Oscar-winning song “A Whole New World,” arguably the greatest Disney song ever.

“We had to be in an isolation booth so our vocals wouldn’t bleed into the orchestral mix,” Salonga said. “We were doing all this together in the morning, then the orchestra leaves and we are left in the studio to focus on the vocal performance. So yeah, he was singing ‘Don’t you dare close your eyes,’ because we were in two isolation situations, but we could still see each other through the glass and do this performance together but separated.”

The result was a globe-trotting magic carpet ride with beautiful Disney animation.

“We see the genesis of two people falling in love,” Salonga said. “There is always so much hope that goes along with that, especially in a Disney movie. Clearly their attraction has been established earlier in the film, but then you see all of this wonderment and beauty. They’re flying through the sky to different parts of the whole world. They’re sitting on a rooftop in China, they see the nose of the Sphinx fall down … the setting is so romantic.”

She and Kane even performed “A Whole New World” at the Oscars where it won Best Original Song. It also later won a Grammy for the end credits version by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle.

“It was a fork lift with a carpet on it that was our magic carpet for the evening,” Salonga said. “On stage, they created this marketplace with fire breathers, snake charmers, a woman dancing with a snake around her neck … my mom was sitting out in the audience. I was backstage … Placido Domingo was back there, Sheila E. was back there, the late great Natalie Cole was singing [Whitney Houston’s] music from ‘The Bodyguard,’ it was crazy.”

In 1993, she became the first Filipino artist to sign with an international record label, Atlantic Records, before returning to Disney to provide the singing voice of Mulan in “Mulan” (1998). While the character’s spoken voice was performed by Ming-Na Wen, it was Salonga who sang the iconic song “Reflection.”

“That song in particular is powerful because, before representation was even a thing or the word that it is right now, that movie was doing it,” Salonga said. “For a lot of Asian girls who as of that moment didn’t have a Disney Princess or a heroine that they could consider their own, here she arrived. Many of the voice cast was also of Asian descent … it was this massive Asian cast that got to be a part of it.”

In addition to being named a Disney legend in 2011, Salonga also became the first Asian-Pacific actress to play the roles of Eponine and Fantine in “Les Miserables” on Broadway. She also performed in the 2002 Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song” and the 2017 Broadway revival of “Once on this Island.”

Along the way, she has performed for six Philippine presidents and four U.S. presidents (George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Joe Biden), as well as Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth. She has also starred on TV in “ER,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” (Max) and “Little Demon” (FX and Hulu).

“I’m currently part of the producing team and cast of a musical opening on Broadway soon called ‘Here Lies Love,'” Salonga said. “After playing all of these roles on stage, I finally get to play someone of Filipino descent on Broadway. The entire cast is Filipino. Here I am so many years after making my Broadway debut at the Broadway Theatre in ‘Miss Saigon,’ now here is this show in the Broadway Theatre … it’s been quite the adventure.”

Find more information on the concert here.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Lea Salonga at Wolf Trap's 'Broadway in the Park' (Part 2)

Hear our full chat on my podcast “Beyond the Fame with Jason Fraley.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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