The Force is Strong with Lea (Salonga, not Skywalker)
Lea Salonga is no stranger to firsts. She was the first female casted as the lead role of Kim in the original London production of Miss Saigon. She was the Asian female casted to play the role of Eponine in the musical Les Miserables. And she was the first Asian woman selected to be the singing voices of not one, but two Disney princesses in the animated films Aladdin and Mulan.
On Friday, July 11, Lea Salonga added another first under her belt, becoming the first Filipina artist to headline at the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
For those of you wondering what the big whoop is about the Walt Disney Concert Hall, take into consideration these facts about the venue:
- It was designed by Frank Gehry – one of the world’s most renowned architects
- The acoustics were engineered by Yasuhisa Toyota – one of, if not, the best acoustic engineers on the planet.
- The damn thing cost almost $300 million to make
- It is the premiere destination for an indoor music performance in the city of Los Angeles
Not only was Lea the solo headline performer at this world class concert hall, her one-night-only performance was a sold out show.
How it came together
Long story short, the Walt Disney Concert Hall folks wanted to diversify their programming (i.e. reach out to people that aren’t just older white folks) so they came up a program called Global Pop at the Music Center. They approached two Filipino American community members, Joel Jacinto and Winston Emano, to help evaluate the feasibility of Filipino acts appropriate for the venue and for the Global Pop series. Global Pop at the Music Center decided to reach out to two international acts, Lea Salonga and some Korean pop group called… ahem, let’s just end this sentence like The Rock and say IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT THEIR NAME IS! This article is about Lea Salonga!
The new Global Pop program was financially backed by The Blue Ribbon which is a group founded by Dorothy Chandler and is comprised of women leaders that support the Los Angeles Music Center’s programs. Despite all of the support shown by members of the Los Angeles Music Center and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, there were some that had their doubts about how strong the turn out would be from the Filipino American community.
Even with a short period to promote the show and scarce media advertising, the show was officially sold out days before the performance date.
Based on the crowd I saw that night, it is safe to say that at least 70% (if not more) of the paying audience was Filipino.
The actual show
I lucked out and was able to score two tickets the day before the show (much thanks to Joel Jacinto and SIPA). My wife and I were pretty excited because not only were we going to see Lea Salonga do a solo concert for the first time, we were finally going to see a performance inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall. And for the majority of the people there that night, it was their first time to set foot inside the venue. People were excited to hear Lea’s voice and were eager to see the inside of the much talked about concert hall.
The doors to the auditorium opened at 8:00 p.m. and people slowly filed in as they looked in awe at the artfully designed room lined with beautiful curved birch wood panels. As I looked onto the stage, I saw empty seats for an orchestra complete with a string section, grand piano, and classical percussion instruments. The words that entered my head were “First Rate”. It was a perfect combination – a world class venue, with world class acoustics, headlined by a world class vocalist. It was only fitting that Lea’s voice would be accompanied by an orchestra for this concert.
When the lights dimmed, the crowd was already applauding. They were ready to see the best Filipina vocalist in the world take over the stage and simply own it. The voice over announcer greeted the crowd with the standard “Good evening,” but when the announcer also greeted the audience in Tagalog, they cheered with a sense of pride.
Lea Salonga took the stage and filled the concert hall with her signature voice. She let the crowd know that the selection of songs she chose were songs that she loved to sing. The first partial standing ovation she received was after her second song of the evening where she performed “I Dreamed a Dream” by the character Fantine from Les Miserables. She sang it with so much passion and elegance. Combined with the instrumentation, the lighting, and the incredible sound quality of the concert hall, it was truly a moving experience. To put it bluntly, after she finished the song, I basically said “Holy f-ck that was incredible!”
She continued to feed the crowd a balanced diet of life stories and fan favorite songs. It was nice to see that beloved Tagalog songs such as “Bakit Labis Kitang Mahal” and “Sana Maulit Muli” were being paid tribute by Lea in her one night concert and the die hard OPM fans enjoyed every note. And of course, the Broadway fans gushed over “On My Own” from Les Miserables and “I’d Give My Life for You” from Miss Saigon.
It was expected that Lea would perform something from Miss Saigon but what wasn’t expected was to hear Lea sing the comedic song “Taylor the Latte Boy” made famous by Kristin Chenowith. Also unexpected was hearing Lea go beyond Broadway tunes and OPM to sing a stripped down version of the jazz standard “Someone to Watch Over Me”.
The highlight of the night was when Lea wanted to sing the duet “A Whole New World” from the Disney animated film Aladdin. She said that she was a Princess Jasmine with no Prince Aladdin (or Prince Ali, mighty is he). An enthusiastic fan named Cliff jumped up raising his hand high saying “Right here!” Lea then called him on stage to sing the duet. Nobody knew if Cliff could sing and this move by Lea could mess the show up real bad if this guy got on stage and screwed up the song Sanjaya Malakar style. The orchestra played the first few notes and Cliff sang the first few lyrics… “I can show you the world…” Cliff nailed every note and the crowd went nuts! Not only did this guy know how to sing, the dude harmonized the chorus perfectly with Lea which made the crowd erupt even more. The ending result was a big standing ovation for the brave volunteer.
The show ended after three encore numbers, each followed by a standing ovation. People left the concert hall buzzing with excitement and pride because they know the just saw something groundbreaking. The event was more than just a Lea Salonga concert, it was a celebration of being Filipino.
Thank you Lea Salonga and everyone involved for putting this great event together. It’s something I’ll never forget.
A few thoughts
We need more of this. Our community needs more of this quality production value. For too long, we have been dealt mediocre events slapped together by money hungry promoters with no sense of how to put on a proper show. We have had to settle for low rate Filipino expos in convention centers with third rate stages and some acts who have no business performing in front of an audience. We get handed flyers and get mass emails for events charging a ridiculous amount of money for performers that people either don’t know or have forgotten about.
And when someone has tried in the past to deliver something of this caliber, it was usually with a ridiculous price tag. Let’s get real here, would any of you pay more than $150 to see Martin Nievera or Gary V. singing to recorded audio at a fricken hotel ballroom??!?! (I know some of you out there did it so SUCKS TO BE YOU!)
I am glad to see that it was primarily the Filipino community of Southern California that supported this event by buying tickets and selling out the concert hall. It means that we want more of this. And when I say more of this, I mean more first rate, properly produced shows of performers we WANT to see at a true performance venue.
To all of you “producers” and “promoters” out there, here’s my request: Give us something worth seeing! Our audiences are tired of the same rehashed sh*t. This last concert proved that we are willing to pay top dollar as long as you deliver a show worth the price of admission.