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Lea Salonga; much more than a 'Disney Legend'

Tony Award winner performs in Indy
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Posted at 11:10 AM, Apr 29, 2022

INDIANAPOLIS — You may know the voice from the time you were belting out "A Whole New World" alongside one of her animated personas. But Lea Salonga has been a fixture of the stage ever since she was the age of most of those youngsters who sing along with her in two of Disney's iconic films.

Now in her.... well, we'll redact how many decades she has been performing; the woman who has done just about everything when it comes to singing on stage and screen makes a long awaited and somewhat delayed return to Indy this weekend, performing with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

It's Salonga's fourth appearance with the ISO and first since 2013, but the Friday and Saturday shows at Hilbert Circle Theatre were supposed to happen long before now. "It was something that we had set in 2020 to do with the symphony, but postponement after postponement, and now here we are."

Like the rest of the entertainment world, the pandemic not only delayed a return trip to Indy for Lea. It meant the end - temporarily - of her career, and those of all the other talent and supporting players who bring live music to the public. "I was in the Philippines (where Salonga was born and grew up), where I think the strictest lockdowns in the world were being imposed. Some of us either came out of it really depressed or with an invigorated sense of humor — I think mine was the latter."

Salonga was a pre-med student in the Philippines - her life as a child star of the stage in her home country possibly on hold. Then, as a 17-year-old, she got to audition for a new musical premiering at London's West End. "Miss Saigon" was not only a massive hit, Salonga became one of the youngest winners of Britain's Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. When "Miss Saigon" moved to Broadway, Salonga would become the first Asian woman to take home a Tony Award.

She later starred in multiple stage productions, including "Les Miserables" and Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" on Broadway. But her voice became a favorite of children around the world when in 1992, she was chosen as the singing voice of Princess Jasmine in "Aladdin", a role she says was not in the original script.

"The primary voice acting part was already completed when they made the 11th hour decision to create a song for this character," Salonga said, noting that her vocal timbre closely matched that of actor Linda Larkin, who voiced Jasmine's speaking parts. "I think it's just a matter of the directors if.. in their mind's eye this is the right person to sort of match what they already had, that person would get hired. I was the lucky duck that got hired."

"A Whole New World", sung by Salonga and Brad Kane - the singing voice for the character Aladdin - became the defining song of the picture. A cover of the Alan Menken/Tim Rice ballad by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle would go on to become a number one hit single. Salonga was later chosen to sing for the lead character Fa Mulan in Disney's "Mulan", and she was named an official Disney Legend by the company in 2011.

"An Evening with Lea Salonga" with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra runs through Saturday at Hilbert Circle Theatre. Click here for information and tickets.