Five questions with Lea Salonga of 'Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends'

The musical legend who originated the role of Kim in Miss Saigon is now appearing in the star-studded West End musical Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends.

Bev Hislop
Bev Hislop

Living legend Lea Salonga is known worldwide for originating many iconic musical roles. Kim in Miss Saigon. The singing voice of Princess Jasmine in Disney's animated Aladdin film. Erzulie in the first Broadway revival of Once on This Island.

Now, Salonga is leading a concert honoring another theatre icon: Stephen Sondheim, in Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends at the Gielgud Theatre. Through January 6, she, Bernadette Peters, and more stage stars perform some of the late composer's most famous musicals and songs. In honor of the occasion, she spoke with London Theatre about her own storied career.

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What makes Sondheim’s work so special to perform?

It’s not just the vocal dexterity and the challenge your brain gets – he seems to have a direct line into your heart and he uses his massive intelligence to create a bridge from the actor to the audience. It’s work of complexity, there’s nothing superficial about his stuff.

Is it true that you only found out you’d landed the lead in the original West End production of Miss Saigon after reading it in the Daily Mail?

I found my face on the Sunday Mail magazine and thought, ‘Oh, so this is happening!’ Because up until that moment, it was more: ‘You’re cast in the show, we just don’t know what role’ and then it started to get clarified little by little that it would be the lead. But I didn’t get absolute confirmation until I saw my face on that cover.

You’ve played in front of presidents and royalty, and opened for Stevie Wonder – do you ever get starstruck?

One night on stage I saw Sir Ian McKellen in the audience right in front of me! Later, I was having a major freak-out backstage and they were telling me to shut up. But it was SIR IAN MCKELLEN! When I first met Bernadette [Peters], I was starstruck – I couldn’t really talk to her. It’s folks like that who definitely make an impact – I think Julie Andrews when I first met her. It’s the long careers, it’s the excellence.

If you could jump into a time machine and relive a single night in one of your former roles, which would you choose?

Oh, Mrs Lovett (from Sweeney Todd)! But I get to do it here – granted, it’s less than 10 minutes long, but it’s a really nice section of the show. So, I really don’t need a time machine – I just need Cameron Mackintosh to decide: ‘You’re going to do the Sweeney section of Old Friends.’

What’s left on your professional bucket list?

I don’t know if there’s anything left on my list. I lucked out with a great kid, I have a wonderful family and a really cool job. I don’t think there’s anything more I can ask of my career – I’ve done what I wanted and I’m still getting to do what I want. I’m a really, really lucky bird!

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Photo credit: Lea Salonga in Stephen Sondheim's Old Friends. (Photo by Danny Kaan)

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