As internet connections get faster and more stable all over the world, there might be ways of making exchanges much easier. That said, however, there is something to be said about being in the same room.
Hello, it's Tony Howell, and I am thrilled to welcome you to Conversations with Changemakers.
On this episode, we speak with global changemaker, Lea Salonga. An ambassador for the United Nations, Lea has sung for six Philippine presidents, three American presidents, and two members of British royalty. From her award-sweeping performance as Kim in Miss Saigon, to voicing two of the most empowered Disney princesses in song, she's an icon of music, theatre, television, film, print, and web.
Most recently, Lea was on Broadway in the Tony winning revival of Once on This Island, but she also revealed some of America's untold stories in the new musical Allegiance. In addition to being the very first Asian woman to win a Tony Award, Lea was the first Asian performer to play both Eponine and Fantine in Les Misérables.
Also appearing in the 10th and 25th Anniversary Concerts, but beyond her status as a Broadway and West End royal, the Walt Disney Company bestowed her with the honorary title, Disney Legend. She sold more than 19 million albums and continues to sell out concerts all over the world.
But the secret beneath her powerful voice: she has the most beautiful human heart. Thank you, Lea and Josh, so much for this interview. I do need to let you know, we dealt with a little bit of audio challenges, but we did our absolute best and it is still worth your time. Enjoy.
Lea Salonga, thank you so much for being on the podcast. Welcome.
Oh, thank you for having me. I love technology and what we can do now with it. I mean, you're halfway around the world. If I dug right now from my house, I would totally bump into you. If I just went through the center of the earth, I would totally come out on the other side and you'd be there.
I wish. And I was like, almost your neighbor not too long ago. And now the world is crazy, but here we are. I want to ask you, you just released a new song and it's super cool because you've integrated social media and video, and that's a cool thing. So, can you tell us a little bit about the backstory of ”Dream Again?”
Sure. I'm going to have to keep giving this man credit for it - my manager, the very lovely and intelligent and fantastic Josh Pultz. And we're really good friends, as well as having a working relationship.
He just sends me a text message out of the blue and he says, you know what, I'm going to commission a song to be written by a couple of our friends and we're going to self-release it, self-produce it. And it will be something that kind of reflects our state of mind during this whole pandemic thing. And hopefully, it'll give people a boost, and some inspiration, and will benefit The Actors Fund. Are you game? And I'm like, yeah, of course I am. And so that kind of got the ball rolling.
And we started having meetings with Daniel Edmonds, who was in Australia, and Blair Bodine, who was in…I think she's in Nashville. I could be wrong, but she's in the United States. We had a couple of Zoom meetings to kind of get ideas as to what direction we wanted to go. And it's a very transparent song. We wanted to share the reality of the situation and how a lot of people are feeling, and it's reflected in the lyric.
But also, there is a message of hope - that there is so much, still, to look forward to. And that although we are in this not great situation right now - I think that's the understatement of the year - we will arrive at a great situation in the future. And so we should still be making plans, still dreaming, and looking forward to even the simplest of things that we may have taken for granted pre-COVID.
It seems to be getting quite a good response from people. It made it to the Top 10 of the iTunes Charts here in the Philippines very quickly after it was released. So I'm really happy. And I'm just happy that people seem to be digging the song and loving the message. And yeah - that's really more than what I could have hoped for.
I love it because you're like Broadway's Beyoncé. You, like, dropped a visual song. And for our listeners, I'm going to include the video in the link. There's going to be this massive resource link that goes alongside this episode, so if you want to watch that, listen to it, or buy the song, make sure that you click on our resource link and also check out the #LSDreamAgain to see everyone's contributions.
So Lea, I know that you had so many other plans for 2020.
I did. I actually did. I had a full touring schedule. It was going to start in Hawaii in the US, and I was going to make my way to the east, and then make my way back to the west, and then come home in time for my daughter's birthday. And I also had other performances scheduled in March. I was able to fulfill one commitment, which was a two-night stint in Dubai at the Dubai Opera. So I was able to do that, but we were already starting to get really paranoid as far as hand sanitizer use.
I mean, Josh - who was also there in Dubai - every time I would say hello to somebody or meet someone, once they were far enough away, out came the spray bottle. He's like, give me your hands, give me your hands right now. And so I would just reach my hands out to him, and he would just spray them. And we would all just be hand washing like crazy.
And people out in the audience were already starting to wear masks, and that actually gave me some measure of relief because I didn't want to be responsible if, say, somebody got sick because they came to my show. I didn't want that burden on me. It would've been a bit much for me to handle. And everything else that was supposed to follow just got canceled. I think there was a Hong Kong concert. I think there was Singapore. There was a whole bunch of stuff that I had on my calendar that I was really looking forward to.
However, there are other things that happened. Norm Lewis, the mayor of Broadway, told me something when we were working on a show or a concert. He's like, “You want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.” Of course, when he told me that - I mean, he has this twinkle in his eye and he's just a naughty person anyway - it made me laugh. And now we are in this situation, and I think about that thing that he said. Every time I think about him, that's the exact quote that pops into my mind.
I'm like, dang, God must be laughing a lot right now. Because everybody's plans for the year were seriously derailed. I think if anybody was really, really super busy, all of a sudden they have time to sleep. I'm trying to look at the silver lining in all of this. And I got really good at baking sourdough, so that's kind of what I've been up to. I got busy doing something else.
Yeah. Well, in researching you, I found it interesting connecting the dots. And for those that don't know the full Lea Salonga story, you made your stage debut at seven, but then you were making TV at the age of nine. And now, with a big birthday on the horizon, I'm like, girl, you've been a content creator for decades.
For a lot of years, yeah. I started doing musical theater at seven. I turned seven in rehearsal. So I was six when I auditioned for The King and I. And then turned seven with a whole company singing happy birthday to me at the end of the rehearsal of that day. I still remember it. Then I was in Annie when I was nine, so that included television appearances. And then I started making records at around 9 or 10, and that included more TV experience. Then I started hosting my own TV show when I was about 12.
And then I started making movies when I was 10 only because - there's a funny story to go with this. There was an offer for me to do a film, and I would be part of a cast of other children. There would be five of us, and we would all be playing siblings. And I'm friends, actually, with a couple of them still today. And I went to the artistic director of this repertory company that I was actively working with and I asked her, “so, I have this offer to do this movie” - and I'm 10 asking her this - “should I do it?” And she's like, “why not give it a try, you might like it. And if you don't like it, then don't do another one.”
It was a bit of a culture shock for me. Just because I had gotten so used to the rigors and the discipline of doing theatre, that when they say that you should be there at 6 o'clock to start rehearsals, that actually means 5:30.
And so the call time for this movie on my first day - I can't forget this - on my first day was, I think, 7 o'clock in the morning. So my mom and I arrive at the location and I have a book to keep myself from getting bored. She grabs the book from her things and then she gives it to me. It's like 7 o'clock, nobody's there. 8 o'clock rolls around, still nobody's there. People only start showing up at around 9, 10. The lead star of the film comes in at about 11. So that was a bit of a shock. And so I promised myself that I wouldn't put myself through that again because I was 10, and I didn't have the kind of patience that I possess now. So I think now I'm a little more understanding of the process, I guess. But even then, it was a bit much for me at the time, and I was also in school full-time. So that was tough.
As a parent today, and also in a pandemic, two things I want to poke in through that experience is, one, do you see any throughline, any lesson from creating TV episodes to creating new music for the artist right now that is quarantined or stuck where they are? What can you share in terms of creating effective content?
Oh, to be honest, I think everybody ended up in the same boat. This was something that I didn't know I could do or was capable of doing. And the cool thing about so many people starting off at the same level during this pandemic, it's like, okay, what are we each going to do? What do we have at our fingertips at the moment that we'll be able to capture something? I mean, the YouTubers are far ahead as far as content creation. My daughter follows a bunch of them and it's like, the cameras are incredible, the lighting already is. And this is pre-COVID. And then COVID happens, and then all of a sudden so many of us have to start figuring out, okay, we're not able to do what we normally do for a living.
We have to start creating something or finding some way of doing this, whether it's to generate revenue or for fundraising or what. I didn't own a ring light. I didn't own any lighting. I had my iPhone cameras, which are actually pretty good I've discovered. And now, how many months later - six months later - I've got lighting up the wazoo. My iPhone camera is much better. Even the selfie camera of the new one is incredible. And it just makes my life easier that I can use the front camera rather than the rear and having to guess what my framing is.
So yeah, it's just been an interesting experience. And there was quite a bit of a learning curve as far as figuring out, okay, is my lighting okay? And then I had to go into YouTube videos to try and learn as quickly as I could what to do in order to make sure that my sound was okay, what apps I need to start investing in and downloading, just so that I can do something that kind of resembles a professional broadcast. What can I do?
So I think I ended up in the same situation as so many other people. But I guess when you feel like it's something that you need to do, then it's something that you just kind of have to try and figure out. I think researching helps, whether it's sound, or lighting, or software, and also having a desire to create something. And a want. So I don't know what I'm going to start creating next. And I think it also helps that you have folks around you that are really understanding and supportive with that regard, because sometimes I'll need to record something at 2 o'clock in the morning in my living room while people are sleeping in my house.
And it's like the best time to do it, because then nobody's going to scream at me because everybody's out. Everyone's tucked in for the night, and I'm a night owl by nature anyway. So I get to do all of this stuff. I've learned how to use GarageBand. I'm still learning how to use Logic. I'm getting much better at using iMovie to marry a much cleaner sound plus video, so that it doesn't have this big old booming resonance thing which seems to happen when you're filming with your iPhone three feet away from you.
So there's stuff that I've been able to learn. As far as the artistic content, that's an individual thing. That is something that I think is on the creator, him or herself, to figure out, because that is something that's really personal. But yeah, I think no matter what your equipment is, whatever you have at hand, you'll be able to create something. You'll be able to make something that you'll be really proud of.
I love it. Well, I'm excited to create with you right now and I just have to ask, are you singing “Let It Go” at 2:00 AM in the morning?
No, that would be a little challenging. I would need a really good solid 30 to 45 minute warmup before even attempting to sing that song because the notes in there are crazy. When I first started singing it, I sing it in the Broadway show key which is Caissie Levy's key, not Idina Menzel’s key, because that's just a little much to do when doing it live. I tend to hit, I think it's a D6. It might be. But just to play around with it, I'll try to go towards the E if I'm feeling particularly strong and setting challenges for myself - because why not? It's a big sing. So I have to make sure that I'm very nicely warmed up and limber before attempting something like that at 2 o'clock in the morning, or any time of the day.
I just want you to wake up your family by singing “Let It Go.”
They sleep like logs. I don't think there's anything that could wake anybody up.
So you're an avid techie and a gamer and you spend a lot of time with screens and technology, so I want to ask you how you take care of yourself in terms of your digital wellness.
Sometimes it's not about what I see, but what I listen to, and it's almost like naturally I will put something on to serve as white noise. So it's something that my attention is there, but I'm doing something that's analog in nature. I'll be listening to maybe Coronavirus Daily care of NPR or something. And at the beginning of the pandemic, that's what I was doing. I was listening to podcasts. I was listening to people talking to one another, and either crocheting something or knitting or reading a book. These days I've been binging. And I'm not ashamed of this and I really shouldn't be - I've been binging a lot of BTS videos on YouTube. There is something that is just so happy about the content, that it just kind of lifts my spirits.
So I guess I try to also choose content that makes me happy. And I try not to put a screen that's too close to my face. I keep everything in a pretty good distance. Like when you watch TV, it's best that you're as far back as you possibly can while keeping all of the images on the screen very clear. And that's how I play video games. I have to be a good distance away from the TV.
And given all the information anyway - for example, I just finished Final Fantasy VII, the remake. I need to be a good distance away because there's so much information that I need to have access to, that if I'm too close, then I'm going to miss stuff at the edges, on the margins. And I can't do that, because there's going to be something that's probably going to kill my main character if I don't sit back. But the time goes by really, really fast.
So I try to mix it up with an analog activity, whatever that might be. Or, if the screen is on, I'm not looking at it. I'm just listening to it so that I don't constantly have a screen in front of me. I have to give myself a break.
I want to ask here, too– because I believe in the power of social and technology and all the things for making us more connected and more together. But we also know that there are bad actors all over the internet. My ask for you is, when you decide to raise your voice on social about social justice issues or equality, as a public figure, what is your strategy for that? How do you try to make an impact?
I try to be subtle, but sometimes there are wires that do get crossed, even if my intent is one thing. And even though I will try to word something so that I am not misunderstood, I get understood anyway. So I just try to be as careful and as fully-intentioned as possible when I put something out on social media, so that there's no ambiguity, no misunderstanding. No sense of, okay, exactly what does she mean when she writes this?
And I try to use positive examples if I'm, say, going to write a post about other things. I try to use something else to lead into my questions. And then I just let people just try to answer, and see if I can glean any information from people's responses.
But yeah, there's always going to be an expletive, expletive, expletive person out there, whose sole reason for living seems to be giving people a hard time, or just being on the attack, which I really don't understand. I mean, this is a tough world already, and I don't get why there are people who just want to spread negativity. It's not about being critical. Critical is one thing. But the ad hominem-times-100 attack is what I don't understand.
So I try to be as good an example as I can be, even if I'm about to interact with someone whose views may not necessarily jive with my own. I have to try and keep it as classy and as non-judgmental as I can, as difficult as it can be.
I figure that if I try to use as much logic and reason as possible, while still passionately trying to defend my own views, then maybe we won't have to come to an agreement right now, but the other person engaging with me should know that they can safely share their views and not get insulted. I'm not going to go down to that level. I mean, why?
At the very least there has to be respect between myself and whoever's reading my stuff. I don't want to insult anybody's intelligence. And so the strategy, I guess, is to try to be as transparent as possible, to always word things as simply and as directly as I can. And to time things for when I'm not so heated in the head. Sometimes, though, I can't help that and I get myself in trouble.
Yeah, I hear you. And I want to highlight that when you post something on Instagram or Twitter, it gets reported. People pick it up, and they embed it, and they report on it. So with that in mind, you're carefully choosing your words. And I also want to highlight here that you have a syndicated column that runs. So when you are crafting words, crafting your communications, your messages, any other insights there of how you decide what to share?
I try to make a decision on what I write. If I'm going to write an article, I try to make sure that I do enough research. For example, when I'm crafting Backstory, which is the name of my column which I write for a paper here in Manila, I try to start it off with information, and then in the last couple of paragraphs it’s the “and now this is my point.” For example, the last article I wrote was about “Dynamite” by BTS, which has been number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for two weeks in a row, and basically just exploded... like dynamite. So I wrote an article about them, but there was another reason why I wrote it.
I started off, of course, with them and “here's the information of the group.” This is what's going on. These are the stats for 2020. And now this is my point. My point was this: there was not just a little bit, but there was quite a good amount of racism against Asians and Asian Americans because of this pandemic. There were so many accusations against the people of my part of the world - that we brought the virus into the United States, spreading the virus all over the world. And so there has just been this anti-Asian backlash.
There have been a couple of campaigns that were set up because of it. There's the Racism is a Virus one, and there's the Fight The Virus. There were a couple of campaigns. The response then of what is arguably the biggest K-pop boy band in the world was to release a single whose sole purpose was to put positive vibes like crazy out into the universe and make people happy. I'm like, that is the total embodiment of Michelle Obama's quote of "when they go low, we go high."
The first thing that hit me was, oh my God, this song is so much fun. This is like song-of-the-summer contender. And then the more I listen to it, the more I'm like, oh my God, it's subversive in a good way.
It's almost as if you're representing every single Asian person on the planet saying, you can kick us down if you want, but we're going to still respond with positivity and good vibes and making people happy, and trying to comfort and cheer on this world in this time of COVID-19. It's so classy. I still can't get over how classy it is. And as an Asian person, I couldn't be more proud.
From the very beginning with your breakout in Miss Saigon, you are a part of what I would say as an international arts exchange. And even right now, you and I are collaborating from two different parts of the world. And with social media, with the internet, I see this as maybe the next phase: that Broadway has celebrities from all around the world and vice versa. These Broadway people fly overseas and do shows. Do you feel like that's where we're headed in terms of international arts collaborations?
That would be fantastic. Yeah, that actually would be an interesting way of thinking about it. I seem to have that kind of career where I tend to fly everywhere and do performances, and this is on the basis of my reputation, the quality of the work that I've done, the amount of work that I've done, the type of work that I do. And I think the world is getting smaller. And this is a time when I think technology can be a part of that, because if, say, artists such as myself are able to create content and collaborate with artist A, artist B, artist C, or do arts festivals from our respective countries, there might be something to this.
I mean, if anything, everybody's forced to turn to technology in order to get themselves out there. Even after COVID there might be something to this, as internet connections get faster and more stable all over the world. There might be ways of making exchanges much easier, and that said, however, there is something to be said about being in the same room as other artists and audience members. There's an energy, there's an electricity, there is an exchange that you can't see, but you can absolutely feel when you're up on the stage. You just feel the energy of so many pairs of eyes looking at you and absorbing what you're singing or what you're saying, or the stories that you're sharing with everybody.
I don't know if the virtual world can offer that same feeling. I mean, we can always imagine it, but it's not the same as being in the same room. So post-COVID, I'm hoping that maybe exchanges will happen more often, once it's safe to travel again, because I do really enjoy being in a room with other people when I perform. Even if it's a small crowd, if it's a bigger crowd, that doesn't matter. It's just something that I feed off of when I'm on an actual stage with actual musicians and an actual audience.
I'm sure that there are a lot of performers that feel the same, but yeah, international exchanges. That means a lot of travel, but it's travel that I would not mind undertaking, and I will not take traveling on planes for granted ever again because I might cry the next plane ride I take. I just might cry.
You've traveled a lot. Let's highlight that you've been a part of massive global hits and then done your own sold-out concerts for years. So speaking of traveling, for those of us that haven't traveled as much as you, what are some of your favorite places in the entire world?
I've fallen in love with Niseko in Japan. I've been there a couple of times over the winter. Even though I broke my leg skiing the first time. The second time I didn't go skiing, I just enjoyed the food and the weather and just the peace and quiet.
There was one day when I opted to just stay in the house we were renting and everybody else headed off to the slopes. I'm like, I'm just going to stay here and read a book and watch the snow outside as it gently falls onto this balcony right here. It was like, this is paradise right now for me. I was so happy. The light was really soft and there really was gently falling snow. I'm like, why do I feel like I'm in a postcard? It was just a lovely way to spend an afternoon. So, Niseko in Japan.
I also like Tokyo. I also like Osaka. I just like Japan, period. In Europe I toured with Il Divo in 2014, and I ended up going to some cities in Eastern Europe that I thought were gorgeous. So I'd been to Ljubljana, and Zagreb, and Bratislava - just places that I didn't think I would ever get to. And then I find out that they're charming and beautiful and the food is absolutely magnificent, and at the time, not very expensive to travel to. So I definitely want to hit those places again.
I always love going to London, and New York is always going to be my– it doesn't feel like a vacation when I go to New York. It feels like I'm going home. So it'll always probably be my favorite city in the whole world. I also love going to Singapore and Hong Kong. One reason is how efficient their public transport is. It's ridiculously efficient and reliable.
Australia– I love going to Melbourne. I love going to Sydney. The first time I actually went for work, for performing. I was booked to perform at the Town Hall. Josh, Larry Yurman, my musical director, and I went to the Sydney Opera House on a private tour. And we were at the very, very back looking down onto the stage of the opera house, and I just whispered to myself, I just said, “one day, I'm going to perform here.” And Josh heard me and he said, “I'm going to start making phone calls,” with a smile on his face.
And fast forward, I think a year later, I was on stage at the opera house and I couldn't believe it. It was like magic. I can't believe I'm here. And it was with the Sydney Symphony and my brother was conducting. It was just such a magnificent experience being there, and I only have the best memories of performing in that place. So there's always going to be magic with Australia, for me. And I have a whole bunch of friends from Sydney and Melbourne. The restaurant scene in Melbourne is fantastic. Always good eating over there.
Shout out to Josh for making that happen.
Yes! And Vancouver, Canada. It's always a great place. I have a lot of family in Kelowna, British Columbia, as well as in the city of Vancouver. So I love Vancouver because I have personal connections with the city. A lot of places I love going to. I don't think I could name them all today.
I know it's a tricky question, “pick your favorites.” Well, question for you now is, you've been fortunate to travel for a lot of your life. But I know a lot of the listeners may find themselves in a predicament where they have to make a hard career decision and maybe balance what their family or what their partner thinks might be best. So in those moments, in your life and in your career, how have you guided your own decisions of what to say yes and what to say no to?
Well, the cool thing is that Josh only brings things to the table if he feels these are opportunities that are really important for whatever reason - whether they're advancements in career, or just cool things to be a part of because of what I've been able to do - and will immediately say no if it's not going to be worth the time and the travel. Because it's hard being away from home. And travel can be hard from the Philippines, going to London, or New York.
And I always need three days to recover when I travel. That's a hard and fast rule. It's like, give me three days to get over jet lag, to get my body closer to this time zone, because it's hard. Jet lag is a beast. No matter how I try to prepare for it, it knocks me sideways. And sometimes I will be on stage, just almost in this hallucinating state. I'm like, okay, what's going on? What is the next song? What are the lyrics? And I feel like I have to work doubly hard. I try not to show the audience that's happening, but it's happening, and all the coffee and every Starbucks branch all over the world could not help me.
So, it has to be something worth it. And so what ends up happening is that I get to see so many members of my family as I travel. That makes it worth it. When I go to California, when I go to LA, I get to see my cousins, I get to see aunts, and uncles. So it becomes a personal trip as well as a work trip. If I go to Seattle, I'll see a whole other bunch of friends and family. If I head to New York, then I have a bunch of my best friends over there. So, when I know that there's going to be a personal connection that's going to catch me, it's a pretty easy yes. Then it doesn't feel like I'm so far removed from home. That home kind of is always there everywhere I go.
But yeah, being away from my family in Manila, it's tough. It can be tough. And we also figure out that we schedule tours and things - like the US tours - for when my daughter can actually travel with me so that she's not separated from me for too long of a time. She doesn't like it when I travel.
Not only the separation, but she worries. She's like, are you going to be okay? Are you going to be safe on stage? I think she's just very aware of the world in the sense that there are bad people out there, and there are bad people that might try to hurt me. So she worries about stuff like that, also.
And it's a big burden for say a 12 or 13-year-old to try and handle. She's 14 now. Even if she's right beside me and I'm about to go on stage and she's in the dressing room - like, “okay, it's time for me to get out there” - she's like, “are you going to be okay?” And I said, “why?” “Just are you going to be okay? Will you be okay?” And I say, “of course, I'm going to be fine.” “Do you promise?” I said, “yes. What could possibly happen?”
For me, the stage is the safest place to be. And I'd like to think that everybody that walks into a theater to watch me sing wants to be there, and will want to keep me safe too.
In case someone missed that, I want to highlight that when you're on stage, your daughter is often backstage. Your brother is behind you conducting the show.
Yeah, depends on where we are. I mean, in the US, he doesn't come. I have the amazing Larry Yurman who backs me up, or Jeff Harris. But in Asia and in Australia, for the most part it's been my brother, Gerard.
Love it. And so let's highlight– you're biologically a big sister, a mother, but in your career, you've always been a leading lady and a mom on stage, and what I hear around the industry, is a little bit of a nurturer backstage.
So I want to hear from Lea Salonga - and I know this is a tough question - but do you have any tips, whether you're playing the leading lady, or a stage mom, or actually have kids? What motherly maternal advice can you pass on?
Merle Dandridge calls me “mom” and I'm now trying to figure out why. I think the only thing that one can do is just to be a good listener, and not try to hog the spotlight for yourself. Whether I'm a leading lady in a show, I'm looked at as one of the seniors in a production. Like on Once On This Island - I was one of the older cast members. I mean, it's funny, in my Broadway career, I've been one of the youngest in a show, and now I tend to be one of the older ones.
I think a piece of maternal advice is always just listen, and sometimes listen and be still. Be still and listen, and read the room around you, and try to figure out - without even saying very much - just try to be as empathetic as you can be to whoever you're working with.
Another piece of advice would be, try not to always impose your will immediately. Sometimes it's worth stopping and just listening, giving your brain the time to figure things out before coming up with a response. Sometimes taking one's time is far more efficient than trying to rush through anything. That might be the best piece of advice I can give - don't rush and really take your time.
Thank you for that. Let's transition to The Voice. The Voice– she's in the red chair. So any particular stories or lessons that you can pass on to us from that show?
We've done a few iterations of The Voice here. We have the regular season, which is just adults, called The Voice of the Philippines, then we have The Voice Kids. And then we just finished The Voice Teens. The Voice Kids seems to be the most popular version that we've done here in the Philippines because kids are so emotionally transparent. You know exactly what they're thinking, and you know what's going on because adults can hide, put on a brave face, or just put on a face. And teens are kind of in that inbetween.
So kids, I think, are really fun to work with. And access to their emotions - it's just so easy. And coming from a musical theater background, it's fun to work with young people like that. The experiences I've had on the show have just been interesting. The first year I think all of us were really feeling our way around. Not always knowing what could possibly happen next. And then as each year went on, we just kept on learning more and more and more.
What I love about it is the format, and that at the end of the day, this will always hold true: that talent should always come first. It's great to have a good face. It's great to have charm and personality, but it should be talent that is the first thing that gets your foot in the door. And those things become really, really obvious right away. So we really would turn our chairs because there was this thing in the gut that we felt was worth turning for.
And then later on, you discover, okay, this person doesn't have this much patience or this person doesn't seem so driven, or this person is going to be a challenge for whatever reason. But we have worked with so many incredibly talented young people on that show. Just ridiculous. And I feel so lucky that I say, “yes.” It's one of the best decisions I've made in my career - to say yes to doing the show because of the realization that there is just so much talent out there that doesn't always get discovered.
So I feel that with The Voice we've given so many talented people a shot, what they do with that shot is a whole other thing, but at least we were there to kind of provide one helpful hand in getting a career started.
Well, speaking of being lucky and having so much talent, I'm honored to have this conversation with you. And for our listener - for people who have “the voice” - you have over 28 records, recordings, and 19 million in sales. For the listener who's itching to put something out, what would you say is your recording advice for the single, the EP, the next album?
As far as recording, as far as the engineering side of it, this is one of those “try and keep trying” and “keep trying until you figure out what works for you.” I'm lucky in that I was able to have some equipment. I invested in a little bit of recording equipment here at home. I have a really good microphone that I used actually for Dream Again, and for a few other things when I need to record vocals.
Find a place that kind of absorbs sound. I recorded in my bathroom closet with the microphone, surrounded on three sides by pillows and clothing. I just try to replicate the recording studio experience as much as I can. Turned off my air conditioning, which means my closet turns into a sauna, which is not comfortable.
I try to be efficient when I'm recording - try to do things quickly. And as far as actual writing of song, I'm not a songwriter at all, so there's going to be advice that will be better coming from actual songwriters and creators of that sort. Try to learn industry standard recording software if you are able to make that investment, because post-COVID, it's a worthwhile investment to make anyway. If you have a great song, put it out there, and you just have no idea the kind of response that people are going to make. It just all of a sudden might be something that a lot of people will really dig.
What new songs, such as “Dream Again,” or what new projects, like Once on This Island or Allegiance– what does it take to get a “yaass” from Lea?
If it moves my spirit - if it moves me in the most basic of ways - in ways that my brain can't explain but my spirit can, that's going to get an absolute “yaass” from me.
So the “yaass” is, for example, of things that I've watched - say, on Netflix or Prime or YouTube or whatever - I will give a “yaass” to the Umbrella Academy, and The Boys, RuPaul's Drag Race, and All Stars, and Secret Celebrity Drag Race. I was “yaassing” for, I don't know, how many months straight - for how many weeks straight - with every single episode, because a lot of those things would just take my mind off of what's happening in the world.
And my spirit was just so happy. And just the resilience of the final couple of episodes of RuPaul’s Drags Race, when everybody had to do everything from home, because the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing at the time. And doing the whole close-up lip sync thing, like, oh my gosh, this is so intense. And it just made me feel so inspired; that the runway is gone, they were robbed of the full experience of doing this in a larger theater, but these beautiful drag queens - and, of course, Mama Ru - they were making the best out of a bad situation, and doing something that made so many people around the world happy.
I just felt so full by watching their example. So that's the kind of stuff that will get a yes, a “yaass” from me during this pandemic. It's listening to great music. It can be anything. It doesn't have to specifically be something. I mean, watching, also, An American in Paris on BroadwayHD. My daughter got hooked on She Loves Me. It's things like that that are really going to make me just jump up and down and be happy.
Now, I know you have a big work anniversary and a big birthday coming up in February. So can you forecast - where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I don't know, hopefully not stuck at home. Hopefully, I'll have been able to get out and be back on stage with musicians performing. I mean, it's hard to say. 10 years ago, whoever thought that this is where we would be? There have been these memes that’ve been circulating, something to the effect of, “I bet you 10 years ago when someone asked you ‘where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ this was not it.” I don't think any of us saw ourselves in this situation at all.
But 10 years from now, I think we'll be living in a somewhat COVID-free world. Hopefully, we're not in the midst of another global pandemic. Hopefully, the world has advanced in kindness and empathy. Technological advances are one thing, but if it's at the cost of your humanity? Then I don’t know. I'm hoping that people will, by then, have taken a really long, hard look at how they treat other people, especially those who are marginalized. And I just want to be living in a much kinder world in 10 years.
I have a mantra: “Honor your past.” And hopefully, we have some of that. I want to remind our listener that they can find all kinds of goodies, videos, audio recordings - everything - photos with a link, with this episode, and then “design your future.” But I recently had this epiphany, that it's not just about you, it's about us. So my final question for you is, if you could use your Disney magic as the Disney Legend that you are, and you could “design our future,” and you answered this a little bit, but what would the world look like if Lea could wave her magic wand?
Gay marriage would be legal everywhere, in every country in the world. No exception. I'm not going to wish for flying cars. It feels like so many accidents are just waiting to happen. I guess, greater understanding between people. I mean, if I could wave my magic wand, that's really all that I would ask for - that gay marriage was legal everywhere, and that everybody was just kinder to one another and more understanding and more empathetic of where other people came from, because there is a lot more that unites us than divides us, I believe.
And that's something that I'm certainly telling myself as we are currently living in a very divisive world, where people have kind of drawn their lines in the sand and have firmly placed themselves - stuck their feet in the ground and are not budging, nevermind if they're wrong. I would like a much more kind world - kind to oneself, as well as kind to other people. A kinder world where people just treated each other much better. That's what I'd like to see.
So there you go. As Lea said, technological advances are one thing, but if it's at the cost of your humanity, then, I don't know. Being in the same room would be ideal - sharing that energy artist-to-artist, and with you as an audience. But unfortunately, we can't do that.
If you enjoyed this episode and this conversation, I would invite you to subscribe, check out the past interviews, and if you're up for it, leave a review. Lea and I would both love to hear your response to this conversation. So if you want to share your favorite moment, your favorite takeaway, take a screenshot and tag @MsLeaSalonga and @TonyHowell to make sure that we see it.
To watch and listen to Lea's new anthem, “Dream Again,” including the visuals of inspiring messages from people all around the world, click the link below this episode. And if you enjoy the song, consider purchasing it. You'll support The Actors Fund for everyone in entertainment. In addition to the song and a donation link, there's a special CNN feature on Lea Salonga, and you're going to find a treasure trove of photos, videos, and music, if you're like me, a big Lea Salonga fan.
Thank you so much for listening. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, and now please go out there and use your work to change the world. Maybe you and I can have a conversation about it very soon.