Filipino singer Lea Salonga will play a comedic but sinister seller of ghoulish meat pies in the Stephen Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.
“I seem to do well in musicals where I die,” Salonga, 48, tells media at a press conference on Monday.
She is referring to her breakout international role as the naive cabaret girl Kim in Miss Saigon, a tragedy about the aftermath of American presence in Vietnam.
Her performance won her multiple awards, including a Tony Award and a Laurence Olivier Award for best actress. She was also the first actress of Asian descent to play key tragic female roles in Les Miserables – Eponine in 1995 and Fantine in 2007.
She made her debut in Singapore in a 1994 production of Into The Woods, another Sondheim musical, presented by the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT).
She played the villain then, just as she does in Sweeney Todd, also presented here by SRT.
Sweeney Todd runs here from Nov 28 to Dec 8 at the Sands Theatre in Marina Bay Sands.
The musical is produced by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group from the Philippines. It initially opens at the Solaris Theatre in Manila in October – around Halloween which is, as Salonga points out, appropriate for a musical based on a 19th-century urban legend about a serial killer whose victims end up as meat pies.
Salonga’s character, Mrs Lovett, bakes the grisly pies and has a longstanding, unrequited crush on the demon barber.
At the same time, she says, the musical is more than the grisly bits. “It’s not about seeing blood or watching Sweeney Todd kill people. It’s about how dark certain people’s desires can be.”
The musical is directed by Atlantis founder Bobby Garcia and the titular role of demon barber is played by Filipino rock musician Jett Pangan.
SRT has collaborated with Atlantis for 20 years on productions, including a 1999 staging of the Neil Simon musical, They’re Playing Our Song, and a 2012 staging of the drama God Of Carnage, both starring Salonga.
The award-winning singer was scheduled for two shows at the Esplanade Concert Hall this February, but cancelled all her travel because of a leg injury.
The tibia fracture is still healing, though she no longer wears a brace and has returned to the gym to strengthen the leg. “Stairs are still a problem,” she says, adding that the concerts have been rescheduled for next year.
She is looking forward to being part of Sweeney Todd’s debut in Singapore and has seen several versions of the musical in different cities, including an immersive off-Broadway run by the Tooting Arts Club at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York.
Pies baked by a former White House pastry chef were served during the performance and Salonga bit into one with great gusto, though other members of the audience had lost their appetite.
“Of course they told you what was in the pies,” she says, laughing. “There was even a vegan option. I wanted the full experience so I had a can of soda and a meat pie and it came with truffled mashed potatoes. It was beautiful.”
Mrs Lovett is a role she can really sink her teeth into and she breaks into songs from the musical to demonstrate how the character goes from laughter to lies to lust.
“She’s broadly comedic, but also sinister and dark. Undesirable but also desirable,” Salonga says. “I would have been intimidated by this if I had done this even five years ago, but because I’ve lived a little bit now and I’ve seen things, there’s much to pull from.”
Neither her mum nor 13-year-old daughter are fans of the show, which Salonga agrees can be deeply disturbing. However, she adds, “yes, you’ve got grisly bits, but you’ve also got characters who appear and you can’t stop laughing”.
“There’s a really beautiful balance in the show as there has to be when you bake or cook something. It can’t be anything too over-the-top or people will not want to finish the dish.”
This article was originally published in The Straits Times.
Photo: Ng Sor Luan