Lea and Gerard Salonga on Being Famous, Sibling Rivalry, and a Life Filled with Music
August 4, 2018
An afternoon with siblings Lea and Gerard Salonga leads to stories about their past, where they are now, and where they’re going. Only a few days after finishing her Broadway run as Erzulie in Once On This Island, Lea Salonga is back on the makeup chair. This time, it is with her brother Gerard for a sibling cover shoot. The pair is no stranger to sharing the limelight, with Gerard conducting many of Lea’s solo concerts. Just like how it has always been, Mommy Ligaya Salonga is seated nearby, giving instructions and questioning Lea’s outfits for the shoot. Between outfit changes and camera setups, a pleasant afternoon of candid and random conversations took place.
Lea Was Always Famous
“Lea hit fame when I was only six,” says Gerard. “So I do not really know a life with her not being famous.” For Gerard, there was no transition from a not-popular Lea to a popular Lea. Popular Lea was just normal for him. “But she was a pretty normal kid despite all that,” he says. “More than being an ate, she was like a third parent. A really doting older sister.”
Because of this, sibling rivalry was never an issue, both on and off stage. Sharing the stage happened much later in Lea’s career. “I missed the Miss Saigon premier because I had to take the college entrance exams.” Gerard took his formal studies in musical directing and conducting much later. By then, Lea’s career had already propelled up after Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, and singing as popular Disney characters in Aladdin and Mulan.
From Musical Directing to Conducting
“A friend of mine from Hong Kong asked me, ‘How do you see yourself now, as an arranger or conductor?’ For a very long time, I thought of myself as an arranger. So I replied, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Let me simplify it for you,’ he said. ‘Where do you make more money now?’ Ok, conductor then!” Gerard recalls with a laugh.
The first time Gerard conducted an orchestra was for Repertory Philippines’ Carousel in 1996, the year he started at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The pit orchestra in musical theater is much smaller than a symphony orchestra, so Gerard figured it was a good thing to try. By the time the show was running, “The musicians were telling me they could sense I had a command of the orchestra despite it being my first time. That’s an unteachable trait. In school, they teach you history, technique, etc. But the ability to pull out a performance from an orchestra, that’s unteachable.”
In 2008, the Hong Kong Philharmonic invited Lea to sing and Gerard to conduct. “After one rehearsal, the artistic administrator of the orchestra invited me to come back and conduct again. That’s when you know if things are going well—if after one rehearsal, the orchestra you’re conducting invites you back. And after that, they kept inviting me back.”
Child Rivals & Disappointments
Lea speaks highly of the training instilled by theater company Atlantis of Bobby Garcia. “Atlantis knows how to curate their child actors. I personally like how Bobby directs and the values he instills. He tells everyone to take care of the children as if they were their own. You need to be supportive and care for them. He tells the children, ‘I don’t want you to be rivals. I don’t want you to compete with each other. We all need to work together for the show.’ It’s always for the show.”
It’s not just about the talent. Lea believes that when the spirit of competition is too intense, it’s not good for the children. She admits having seen it very often. Parents tell their children, “Why don’t you do it like this kid?”
“Thankfully, my mom shielded me from that when I was a child actor. For me, it was always, ‘You do YOUR best.’ You cannot compare yourself to others because there will always be someone better than you. There are people you’re better than. The only thing you can do is your own best, and hope that’s enough.”
Lea looks at disappointments and letdowns as apart of the job. There are aches and pains working in a repetitive eight-show work week. Actors lose their voice. Actors cannot always be at their best in every show. “You need to know when to be gentle on yourself,” she says. “And also, when to brush things away and wake up fresh the next day. I have learned to let things go and not dwell.”
Unwavering Faith in a Higher Power
Faith is something Lea acknowledges and does not dismiss the fact that her long-standing career is something to be thankful for. “My path is pretty unique. It started at a really young age. The fact that I’m still here 40 years later, that doesn’t happen to a lot of people.”
Those who know Lea are aware she speaks her mind when it comes to issues that greatly affect her—politics, rudeness of an audience in the theater, social media etiquette, and others. Religion is one of them. “There will always be some things about organized religion that I will question. God gave me a brain, I will use it. I will question. I will criticize. That is my right,” she says strongly.
“However, as far as my spirituality, my faith and beliefs in a higher power are concerned, those are unwavering. For me, it seems as if my entire career has been plotted. And it’s not just my mom plotting it. It seems like in so many junctures of my career, I was told to go here, and not there.” She regards all that as plans that were providential, which all fell into place because of the one up there.
A Mama’s Boy
From the beginning, Mommy Ligaya kept a close watch on Lea’s growing career, becoming almost as popular as her daughter as spectators saw her in every Lea show, concert, event and public appearance. What the public did not realize was that Mommy Ligaya did not favor one child over the other. “I am a mama’s boy,” admits Gerard. “We are extremely close. My mom and I are very similar and we like the same things. On the flip side, we also know how to push each other’s buttons,” he says with a laugh. “We know exactly the right thing to say to set the other one off, although we don’t do that on purpose.”
As Lea continues with her hair and makeup, Mommy Ligaya and Gerard are heard arguing in the hallway. “There they go again!” she says with a laugh.
“We can’t have a discussion without arguing,” admits Gerard. “It’s the way we arrive at the best possible answer. It could be as simple as where we’ll eat. Turn right or turn left. Everything! But whatever comes out of it, it’s the right one for sure.” With regards to his sibling, “Lea and I don’t argue like that. We have much more civilized discussions. We know when to defer to each other,” he says.
Our Best Moments are Personal and Professional
Because Lea and Gerard work together so much, they refer to moments on stage as experiences that are as much personal to them as they are professional. “It’s because we’re together,” they say. “Meaningful moments to us when we are on stage are also very meaningful to us in a personal way. We do not draw a line between work and personal life.”
Moments between Lea and Gerard on stage are some of their best experiences, and some of their worst experiences. “During a concert in Bangkok, Lea had no voice the night before, but she had to do it anyway,” recalls Gerard. “Nothing came out when she talked, but it came out when she sang. I was so scared. As her brother, I was scared. Her voice is her instrument. As her musical director, I was also scared. I cut some songs and made the orchestra play more instrumental parts so she could rest.” The show went on, and it was great. Lea sounded great.
It is clear that both Lea and Gerard live a life of music. It is no longer a career. It is not work. Simply put, it is a musical life. A life with music.
Read the full cover story of Lea and Gerard Salonga in Lifestyle Asia’s August 2018 Edition, titled the Generations Issue. Run to the nearest bookstore for your print copy or download the FLIP100 app for a digital version.
Shot on location at the Cultural Center of the Philippines
BTS Photography by Kieran Punay
Styled by John Lozano