Salonga was the first actress of Asian descent to play the roles of Éponine and Fantine in the musical Les Misérables on Broadway. She also portrayed Éponine and Fantine, respectively, in the musical's 10th and 25th anniversary concerts in London. She provided the singing voices of two official Disney Princesses: Jasmine in Aladdin (1992) and Fa Mulan in Mulan (1998). She was named a Disney Legend in 2011 for her work with The Walt Disney Company. Salonga starred as Mei-li in the 2002 Broadway version of Flower Drum Song. She has played numerous other stage, film and TV roles in the US, the Philippines and elsewhere. She has toured widely in the title role of Cinderella, among other roles, and as a concert artist. From 2015 to 2016, she returned to Broadway in Allegiance.
María Lea Carmen Imutan Salonga was born at Medical Center Manila in Ermita, Manila, to Feliciano Genuino Salonga, a naval Rear admiral and shipping company owner (1929–2016), and his wife, María Ligaya Alcantara, née Imutan. She spent the first six years of her childhood in Angeles City before moving to Manila. Her brother, Gerard Salonga, is a conductor.
She made her professional debut in 1978 at the age of seven in the musical The King and I with Repertory Philippines. She played the title role in Annie in 1980 and appeared in other productions such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, The Rose T, The Goodbye Girl (1982), Paper Moon (1983) and The Fantasticks (1988). In 1981, she recorded her first album, Small Voice, which was certified gold in the Philippines. In 1985, she and her brother took part in the eighth Metro Manila Popular Music Festival as the interpreters for the song entry titled "Musika, Lata, Sipol at La La La" which was composed by Tess Concepcion.
During the 1980s, Salonga also had several television projects through GMA Radio Television Arts where she worked as a child actor and teen idol. After the success of her first album, from 1983 to 1985, she hosted her own musical television show, Love, Lea, and was a member of the cast of German Moreno's teen variety show That's Entertainment. She acted in films, which included the family-oriented Tropang Bulilit, Like Father, Like Son, Ninja Kids, Captain Barbell and Pik Pak Boom. As a young performer, Salonga received a Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) award nomination for Best Child Actress, and three Aliw Awards for best child performer in 1980, 1981 and 1982. She released her second album, Lea, in 1988.
She also opened for, and performed with, international acts such as Menudo and Stevie Wonder in their concerts in Manila in 1985 and in 1988, respectively.
She finished her secondary education in 1988 at the O. B. Montessori Center in Greenhills, San Juan, Metro Manila, where she was a Bergamo 1 Student and an active participant in school productions. She also attended the University of the Philippines College of Music's extension program aimed at training musically talented children in music and stage movement. A college freshman studying biology at the Ateneo de Manila University when she auditioned for Miss Saigon, she intended to have a medical career. Later, in between jobs in New York, she took two courses at Fordham University's Lincoln Center.
In 1989 Salonga was selected to play Kim in the debut production of the musical Miss Saigon in London. Unable to find a strong enough East Asian actress/singer in the United Kingdom, the producers scoured many countries looking for the lead. For her audition, the then 17-year-old Salonga chose to sing Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's "On My Own" from Les Misérables and was later asked to sing "Sun and Moon", impressing the audition panel. Salonga has sometimes credited "On My Own" as the starting point of her international career. She competed for the role with childhood friend and fellow Repertory Philippines performer Monique Wilson. Salonga won the lead role, while Wilson was named her understudy and given the role of the bar girl Mimi.
For her performance as Kim, Salonga won the 1990 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical. When Miss Saigon opened on Broadway in 1991, she again played the role of Kim, winning the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Theatre World Awards and becoming the first woman of Asian descent to win a Tony Award. In 1993 and 1996, she returned to play Kim on Broadway. In 1999, she was invited back to London to close the West End production, and in 2001, at the age of 29 and after finishing the Manila run of the musical, Salonga returned to Broadway to close that production.
In 1990, Salonga performed in a homecoming concert in Manila entitled A Miss Called Lea. She also received a Presidential Award of Merit from President Corazon Aquino. In 1991, she was named as one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People. In 1992, she performed the singing voice of Princess Jasmine in Disney's animated film Aladdin.
In 1993, Salonga played the role of Éponine in the Broadway production of Les Misérables. She performed the song "A Whole New World" from Aladdin with Brad Kane at the 65th Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles, where the song won an Oscar, having already won a Golden Globe Award. That same year, she released her self-titled international debut album with Atlantic Records, which had modest sales in the US but went platinum in the Philippines and sold 3 million copies worldwide. In 1994, Salonga played in various musical theatre productions in the Philippines and Singapore, such as Sandy in Grease, Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and the Witch in Into the Woods.
Back in the US in 1995, Salonga played the role of Geri Riordan, an 18-year-old adopted Vietnamese American child in the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie Redwood Curtain, which starred John Lithgow and Jeff Daniels. She then flew back to the Philippines to star with Filipino matinée idol Aga Muhlach in the critically acclaimed film Sana Maulit Muli, which gave her a second Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) award nomination, this time for Best Actress. She played the role of Éponine in the 10th anniversary production of Les Mis called Les Misérables: The Dream Cast in Concert at London's Royal Albert Hall.
In 1996, Salonga was in Les Misérables once again as Éponine in the London production of the musical, then continued on to perform the role in the musical's US national tour. In the Philippines in 1999, and again in 2000, she played Sonia Walsk in They're Playing Our Song.
From 1997 to 2000, Salonga did recordings and concerts in the Philippines and another engagement in London, in addition to a few returns to Miss Saigon in London and on Broadway. In 1997, she released I'd Like to Teach The World to Sing (recordings from her childhood days) to gold sales in the Philippines. That recording was followed by Lea... In Love in 1998 and By Heart in 2000, with both albums reaching multiple platinum status in the Philippines. In 1998, she again lent her voice to a major Disney animated film, singing the title character in Mulan, also providing the character's singing voice in the 2004 sequel, Mulan II. At the age of 28, Salonga moved to New York City, purchasing her own apartment (which she still owns up to at least 2013). She participated in the 1998 tribute concert to Sir Cameron Mackintosh in London called "Hey Mr. Producer: The Musical World of Cameron MacKintosh", where she did numbers from several of his musicals. She also performed in four concerts: The Homecoming Concert, The Millennium Concert, The Best of Manila and Songs from the Screen – the last two being benefit shows. Salonga returned to Manila in Miss Saigon, staged at the Cultural Center of the Philippines at the end of 2000.
After a last stint in Miss Saigon for its closing on Broadway in 2001, Salonga recreated the role of Lien Hughes originally played by Ming-Na Wen in the soap opera As the World Turns. After completing her contract that year, she was asked to return to the role in 2003. She guested on Russell Watson's The Voice concert, narrated for the television special My America: A Poetry Atlas of the United States, and appeared on the Christmas episode of the TV medical drama ER, playing a patient with lymphoma.
In 2002, Salonga returned to Broadway to play the leading role of Mei-li, a Chinese immigrant in a reinterpretation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song opposite Jose Llana. This was after the reinvented musical had a run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 2001 with Salonga playing the role and in 2002 winning Lead Actress in a Musical from the Los Angeles theatre Ovation Awards. The Salonga-led Broadway revival cast album was nominated for a 2004 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. Salonga's performance was received positively by theatre critics in New York, and she received a nomination for Distinguished Performance from the Drama League, among other honors. Between the 2001 Los Angeles and 2002 Broadway productions of Flower Drum Song, she performed in a non-musical theatrical production for the first time, playing the role of Catherine in the stage play Proof in Manila. This was followed by a major concert, The Broadway Concert, at the Philippine International Convention Center. She also sang at the 56th Tony Awards with Harry Connick, Jr., Peter Gallagher and Michele Lee in a number paying tribute to Richard Rodgers.
In 2003 to 2004, Salonga did her first "all-Filipino" concerts in Manila called Songs from Home, which later won her an Aliw Award as Entertainer of the Year. In 2003, she performed in several concerts at the Mohegan Sun hotel in Connecticut. This was followed by a Christmas concert in the Philippines, called Home for Christmas, and performances at the Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center in Marlton, New Jersey, in 2004. Later in 2004, she played Lizzie in the Manila production of the musical Baby, which earned her another nomination from the Aliw Awards.
In 2005, Salonga gave her first US concert tour. Later that year, she performed to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall for the benefit of Diverse City Theater Company. The same year, she received the Golden Artist Award at the 53rd FAMAS Awards in honor of her international achievements, performed during the grand opening of Hong Kong's Disneyland and recorded two songs on Daniel Rodriguez's album In the Presence. She also did voice work for Disney's English dub of Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro as Mrs. Kusakabe. Salonga wrote the foreword to Linda Marquart's "The Right Way to Sing" (2005). In 2006, at the 15th Asian Games in Doha, Qatar, Salonga concluded the closing ceremony with the song "Triumph of the One" before an audience of 50,000 people at the Khalifa Stadium.
In 2007, Salonga released her first studio album in seven years called Inspired, which was certified platinum in the Philippines She received the Order of Lakandula, with the rank of Commander (Komandante), from Philippine president Arroyo in recognition of using her talents to benefit Philippine society and foster cultural exchange. She has also received the Congressional Medal of Achievement from the House of Representatives of the Philippines. She returned to Broadway for another stint in the musical Les Misérables, this time as Fantine. Her rejoining the show boosted the musical's ticket sales. President Arroyo watched Salonga in this role, together with Filipino Americans Adam Jacobs as Marius and Ali Ewoldt as Cosette. Salonga received rave reviews and made it again to the short list of Broadway.com's Audience Award favorites as Best Replacement. During her tenure on Broadway that season, she appeared in Broadway on Broadway 2007 and Stars in the Alley 2007, spoke at the Broadway Artists Alliance Summer Intensives, guested on the Broadway musical 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and participated in Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS' 12th Annual Nothing Like a Dame event to benefit the women's health initiative of The Actors Fund. Right after doing Les Misérables, she performed in two events: at the US Military Academy Band's concert in West Point where she sang four songs and an encore and in her own concert at the Tarrytown Music Hall in New York. She was then busy with other concerts and musical events, including a Christmas presentation in Manila.
In 2008, Salonga gave concerts in the Philippines California, Hawaii, Hong Kong and Guam, and she played the title role in Broadway Asia Entertainment's international tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella.
On 3 July 2008, Salonga became a columnist in the Philippine Daily Inquirer with her column "Backstory" (Entertainment section), "Introducing: Lea Salonga, writer". Since then she has written numerous columns for the Inquirer. She performed in "Global Pop" at the Music Center on July 11, 2008. It was presented by The Blue Ribbon a group founded by Dorothy Chandler in 1968. Salonga gave a concert on July 11 at Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall. That same year she received a special citation from Awit Awards, the Philippines' version of Grammys.
From late July 2008 to mid-2009, Salonga played the title role in the 30-week Asian tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, which premiered in Manila. Salonga performed a series of concerts in North America in 2009 and was also asked to dance the Filipino novelty dances "Ocho-ocho" and "Spaghetti". The same year, Salonga advertised the Avon Products line of anti-aging skin care products Anew Rejuvenate in the Philippines. In June 2009, she sang at the 95th Anniversary Special of the Iglesia Ni Cristo. Salonga sang Patriotic song "Bayan Ko" at the Requiem Mass for former President Corazon Aquino at Manila Cathedral. Salonga celebrated 20 years of Miss Saigon by performing in concerts called "Lea Salonga...Your Songs", at the Philippine International Convention Center Plenary Hall on December 11 and 12, 2009. Her brother, Gerard, was musical director.
From July to August 2010, Salonga played the role of Grizabella in the Manila run of the Asia-Pacific tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. In October, she played Fantine during the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables, fifteen years after appearing in the 10th Anniversary as Eponine. The same year, she served as a celebrity judge for Avon Voices, Avon's first ever global, online singing talent search for women and songwriting competition for men and women.
Salonga was honored as a Disney Legend on August 19, 2011. She was one of the judges in the 60th Miss Universe 2011 Beauty Pageant in São Paulo, Brazil on 12 September 2011. Salonga, along with Darren Criss, sang "A Whole New World" to its composer, Alan Menken, as Menken was named the winner of the 2011 Maestro Award at the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference on October 24, 2011.
Salonga performed in a six-concert series titled "The Magic of Broadway and Disney Favorites" in 2012 with the Palm Beach Pops. She starred in the first production of Allegiance, at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego from September to October 2012. Salonga starred in the Philippine production of the comedy God of Carnage from July 2012 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Manila. She took on the same role at the DBS Arts Centre in Singapore, in November 2012. Salonga joined the Candlelight Processional at Epcot in Walt Disney World as narrator on December 14 to 16, retelling the Christmas story accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra and a mass choir.
On January 30, 2013, Salonga took part on the 2013 season of Lincoln Center's American Songbook concert series at the Allen Room. In the Philippines, Salonga provided the theme song for TV5's reality singing competition Kanta Pilipinas which premiered on February 8. On February 18, Salonga, Tyne Daly and Norm Lewis starred in a concert performance of Ragtime at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. Salonga played Mother. Salonga headlined a concert series, “4 Stars One World of Broadway Musicals,” in Tokyo from June 15–23, and in Osaka from June 27–30. She performed with, Ramin Karimloo, Sierra Boggess, and Yu Shirota.
She was one of the four coaches, together with apl.de.ap, Sarah Geronimo and Bamboo Manalac for the ABS-CBN program, The Voice of the Philippines, which premiered on June 15, 2013. In December 2013, Salonga began a concert tour in the Philippines titled "Lea Salonga: Playlist" that celebrated her 35 years in show business. The concert series was extended to January 2014. Salonga wrote a book, Playlist: A Celebration of 35 Years, which she used as a souvenir program for the concerts and sells on her website.
In 2014, she returned for the second season of The Voice of the Philippines and also joined the new Philippine version of The Voice Kids, on which she has appeared for three seasons, as of 2016. Salonga recorded a song called "Wished That I Could Call You" that was included in the charity compilation album Children In Need, released in March 2014. Also in 2014–15, she toured in Asia and North America with Il Divo. In mid-2015, she headlined her own concert series in Australasia. Salonga reprised her role as Kei Kimura in the 2015–16 Broadway production of Allegiance. Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times of her performance: "Her voice retains its plush beauty, and her culminating first act solo, "Higher" ... is perhaps the show’s musical highlight."
Salonga guest-starred on the April 18, 2016 season finale of the American television series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She played Helen Bechdel in the international premiere of Fun Home in November 2016 in Manila. A review in ABS-CBN News said that she "delivers a finely tuned performance, utilizing her prodigious stage presence to provide the cold and dark shadings to erstwhile peppy scenes with her subtle stares and held back emotions. ... [In] "Days by Days" ... she finally lets go of all the resentment and repressed anger of a woman stuck in a marriage built on a lie. Yet there is dignity in her breakdown ... Salonga pulls it off with such clarity, both musically and emotionally, that it's difficult not to be moved.
In 2016 she won two more Aliw Awards, one for Best Major Concert in a Foreign Venue and her second Entertainer of the Year award. Salonga is set to portray Erzulie in the 2017 Broadway revival of Once on This Island at Circle in the Square Theatre.
On January 10, 2004, Salonga married Robert Charles Chien, a Chinese-Japanese managing director of an entertainment software company in Los Angeles, California, whom she met while doing Flower Drum Song. They have a daughter, Nicole Beverly Chien, who was born in 2006, named after Salonga's late mother-in-law, Beverly. She is also an avid video game enthusiast, and has mentioned her love for the hobby in several of her print articles. She resides in the Philippines and the United States.
On October 15, 2010, Salonga was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Salonga has a soprano range from D3 to C6. She has been praised for control over her powerful vocals which can evoke a wide array of emotion and soundscapes. In her popular music releases, Salonga has sung "simple love songs", which is common in traditional Original Pilipino Music. In both Disney princess singing roles, Salonga showcases her head tones which reach up to F5. Salonga's breakout role as Kim in Miss Saigon utilized her voice from the top to the bottom.Small Voice (1981)
Lea Salonga (1993)
I'd Like to Teach The World to Sing (1997)
Lea... In Love (1998)
By Heart (1999)
Lea Salonga: The Christmas Album (2000)
Songs from The Screen (2001)
Lea Salonga: Your Songs (2009)
Miss Saigon (Original London Cast Recording) (1990)
Little Tramp (Studio Recording) (1992)
The King and I (Hollywood Studio Cast Recording) (1992)
Aladdin (Soundtrack Recording) (1992)
Mulan (Soundtrack Recording) (1998)
Making Tracks (Original Cast Recording) (2001)
Flower Drum Song (Revival Cast Recording) (2002)
Mulan II (Soundtrack Recording) (2005)
Dayo: Sa Mundo ng Elementalia (Soundtrack Recording) (2008)
Cinderella (Original International Tour Cast Recording) (2010)
Allegiance (Original Broadway Cast Recording) (2016)
Hey Mr. Producer: The Musical World of Cameron MacKintosh (1997)
Les Misérables: The Dream Cast in Concert (1995)
Lea Salonga Live Vol. 1 (2000)
Lea Salonga Live Vol. 2 (2000)
The Broadway Concert (2002)
Songs from Home: Live Concert Recording (2004)
Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary (2010)
The Journey So Far – Recorded Live at Cafe Carlyle (2011)
Live: Jazz at Lincoln Center (2016)
Blurred Lines (2017)
100% Lea Gives Her Best (2003)
The Ultimate OPM Collection (2007)
Disney Princess: The Ultimate Song Collection (2004), for the song "If You Can Dream" (sung with Susan Logan, Grey Griffin, Jodi Benson, Paige O'Hara and Judy Kuhn)
Disney Princess Enchanted Tales: Follow Your Dreams (2007), for the songs "Peacock Princess" (sung with Gilbert Gottfried) and "I've Got My Eyes On You"
Shelldon (2008), for the song "It's a Brand New Day"
Sofia the First (2014), for the songs "The Ride of Our Lives" (episode 12: "Two to Tangu") and "Stronger that You Know" (episode 36: "Princesses To The Rescue")