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Interview: Tony Award Winner Lea Salonga

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Lea Salonga, best known as Miss Saigon, a titular role that won her the Tony, Olivier, Drama Desk, Outer Critics, and Theatre World Awards, returns to the Singapore stage in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s God of Carnage, which is set to run from November 6-25 2012.

God of Carnage, winner of Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Play, is a viciously funny and biting comedy that takes place in the aftermath of a playground fight between two schoolboys. Their parents decide to meet to “talk” it out. What starts as a polite discussion soon degenerates into verbal warfare with all four adults revealing their own issues and true colours.

Lea Salonga plays one of the mothers, and she took some time to answer some pertinent questions about the play, motherhood, and life.

In God of Carnage you play a parent, and you are a parent in real life as well. Did that help you in understanding and getting into the character and the play?

It certainly cut down my preparation time. There are insights that parents (or parental figures) have that people that have no children just do not. Your sense of what your priorities are, what you’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of your children, and what you’re not willing to give up to keep a sense of self intact. As for getting into the character, I just imagined something this terrible happening to my own child. I have a daughter that’s now learning playground politics and diplomacy. I wish her the best of luck.

In the play, your child is about 11 or 12 years old, but your real life daughter is only six. Have you had any playground or school incidents with your kid, that involved other kids and their parents, much like in the play?

She has come to me to say that there have been kids that have hurt her feelings, and that she isn’t friends with them anymore. Oh dear… welcome to life, my child. However, there hasn’t been anything violent [like] the circumstances of the play.

How did becoming a mother change you?

Emotions are now closer to the surface… and you know in your heart that you would absolutely kill for your child. Literally. No one had better dare mess with her. Both my husband and I are very protective.

You’ve won a whole lot of awards, including a Tony for your role in Miss Saigon. How did winning the Tony in particular change you or help you?

Ideally, it shouldn’t, and it hasn’t. Many actors that have won Tony Awards have said that it’s a nice thing to have, but it doesn’t guarantee work. It’s a reflection of the quality of work you’ve done in that particular season, but it isn’t a reflection on one’s career.

You’ve been performing since you were a child and you were a teenager when Miss Saigon and the Tony award came calling. Was your young age a help or hindrance when it came to handling the business and fame?

I think that it was helpful… I certainly was introduced to the business at a young age, so very little would faze or intimidate me once I hit my teens and early adulthood as far as work was concerned. I’m thankful that I had whatever experience I had when Miss Saigon came along.

We hear so much about young actors these days being embroiled in vices that fame freely brings (drugs, drink driving, etc.). How did you manage to escape this and remain “normal and stable”?

I had a very watchful mother. I also was in school full time, so I guess I wasn’t always around show business. I had a normal life outside of it. Early on, I learned that performing was my job, not my life.

You turned the big 4-0 last year. Does it excite you to venture into your 40s, or do you feel otherwise? What would you like to accomplish in this decade?

I’m enjoying my 40s very much, and will tell anyone pushing 40 to look forward to it. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

If you could go back in time as a 40-year-old and speak to the 20-year-old you, what advice would you give her?

Enjoy life some more while you have the energy. Once you hit your 30s and your 40s, taking care of your body takes more effort than it used to. Also, don’t rush into relationships… the right one won’t be along for a while.

People identify you as as a brilliant singer mostly. Do you also enjoy acting in films or shows where there are no songs to sing?

I enjoy acting, period. I think I enjoy it far more now than I ever used to. Perhaps living life contributes to that.

What do you love the best – musical theatre, films, TV shows, music concerts, or recording songs for your CD? Or perhaps there’s something else you love best?

I’d have to say musical theater is my first and greatest love. Everything else is a close second.

What drew you to God of Carnage?

When I saw it in New York, I thought it was very entertaining and funny. But working on it was just something different, so much more fulfilling. There is so much humor to be mined in these tragic circumstances.

What do you hope audiences take away from this play?

I hope it enlightens the audience to the baser instincts of being a human being, and just how thick a societal façade can be. Many of us, for the sake of civil society, put on a face that the world gets to see, while hiding the more unsavory aspects of who we are.

You perform all over the world; how do you stay connected to your husband and daughter when you’re away? Do they come with you?

It depends… when my husband and daughter need to be in Manila, they stay, and we keep in touch with iMessage, FaceTime or Skype. However, when my daughter’s out of school or when my travels take me far away for a very long time, we find a school for her to attend, and everyone comes along for the ride. My husband’s quite mobile now, which makes me very happy.

In God of Carnage, the couples end up arguing with each other. They say there are two types of people who argue – the confrontational argumentative type, and the opinionated passionate type. Are you either of these, or are you someone who avoids conflicts and arguments?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to speak up more quickly to air my side of things, but without being combative. There is much to achieve without things descending into a shouting match. That said, I can get passionate and quite opinionated on certain issues, be they social or political. I guess that’s all part and parcel of being human.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.