LEA SALONGA RELIVES HELEN BECHDEL IN A COMING-OF-AGE ROLE
by Pablo A. Tariman
On this early Friday evening encounter with commuters getting used to bad traffic, Lea Salonga speaks of a role like no other in her 37-year stint as singing actress.
“Indeed this is far, far so different from my previous singing roles,” said she as she defines her character as Helen Bechdel in the musical, “Fun Home,” which to her is a musical like no other.
To be sure, this latest assignment is a far cry from Grizabella (Cats), Eliza Doolittle (My Fair Lady) and Kim (Miss Saigon), among others.
One way or the other, Lea thinks the role came at a perfect time when she has evolved as a person and as an artist and can connect with characters with varying episodes on marriage and motherhood.
Lea Salonga who plays Helen Bechdel admits a thoroughly challenging role as she portrays a life that is incredibly real. “I can relate to my character because she is a former actress and now that I am a mother myself, I didn’t have to imagine how mothers connect to their children. I live it every day.”
Helen Bechdel — who died in 2013 — was active in theater during her high school years playing the role of the second Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca, and playing the lead in The Heiress. She also did a summer internship at Tufts Arena Theater in Boston, followed by a one-year apprenticeship at the Cleveland Playhouse. She met her husband, Bruce A. Bechdel, when they were both performing in a college production of The Taming of the Shrew.
The Bechdel family life became public knowledge when their daughter, Alison Bechdel, wrote a graphic memoir detailing her discovery that her father — previously stationed in Germany with the US Army – was in fact a closet gay.
While the main protagonist in the musical is a lesbian, the musical is not about being gay. She stressed that the musical is more about growing up and coming to terms with a dysfunctional family that looked normal on the outside.
Said Lea: “There is a lot family member can learn from ‘Fun Home.’ The characters are recognizable. They could be your own parents, your uncles, your friends, your neighbors. The musical is a lesson in acceptance and forgiveness and will allow you to reflect the different chapters in your own life.”
The first time the actress saw “Fun Home” on Broadway, she was immediately stunned. “Everyone in the theater was in tears at the curtain call. I don’t recall a musical having that kind of effect. No big dance numbers, no large cast. Just a story about a family and its unique brand of dysfunction so specific, we all could find something to relate to.”
Described as a “beautiful heartbreaker of a musical” and “achingly beautiful,” the musical will see actor Cris Villonco playing the role of Alison Bechdel. She pointed out playing the part was a tough challenge as it is based on a famous personality still alive. “But I’ve seen characters like her in New York when I was still studying. I would say it was an education. This role will allow me to relive life that I can only do in theater.”
On the other hand, Lea admits marriage and motherhood enabled her to get a more profound outlook on people leading both ordinary and extraordinary lives.
For one, motherhood allowed her to open her heart into the wider range of the human condition and gave her deeper appreciation and understanding for all kinds of relationships.
Indeed, it is a big character transformation from “Annie” to “Fun Home” which one way or the other will likely re-enforce her stature as an actress.
Lea is an actress who can come to terms with her age (45) and enjoying every minute of it. “I can feel I still am very far from considering retirement. At my age now, I find that I can still get better and hasn’t reached the end of the road. I guess, God is not through with me yet. I love the theater but I am also enjoying motherhood to the hilt. I travel a lot but I have time to play Candy Crush with my daughter, hug her and smell her as often as I can. How do I describe my phase as a person and artist now? The outlook is broader, the perception deeper and of course I have fewer but truer friends.”
The musical is the most awarded and acclaimed musical of 2015, winning five Tony awards including best musical. It is based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir, “Fun Home” with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron.
(“Fun Home” directed by Bobby Garcia and starring Tony-Award winner, Lea Salonga opposite Broadway actor Eric Kunze opened last November 10 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium and will run until November 27 on weekdays, 3pm & 8pm on weekends. For tickets, call TicketWorld at 8919999).