Ms. 'Les Miz'

What -- beyond pure pipes, ethereal presence, onstage magnetism, delicate beauty and a global fan base -- could possibly lend this lady any luster?

Never mind. It's rhetorical, obvious and on display tonight when Lea Salonga goes into concert mode in her Las Vegas debut at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Movie fans recognize her velvety vocals as those of Princess Jasmine in "Aladdin" and Fa Mulan in "Mulan." Concertgoers collect her CDs. Soap fans recall her stint on "As the World Turns." Above all, theater aficionados appreciate the Tony winner's indelible performances in landmark Broadway musicals. Most notably, she originated the role of Kim, the Vietnamese woman abandoned by her American lover in "Miss Saigon," and did twin turns in "Les Miserables," first as doomed street waif Eponine, later as the tragic Fantine. (How else to describe a character forced to sell her hair and teeth and resort to prostitution?)

In a midnight call from Manila, the Filipina star fielded a few questions:

Question: What's your concert repertoire?

Answer: People look for something from "Miss Saigon" or "Les Miz," so I really can't remove that. It's a part of me. Everything else remains in flux.

Q: Which musical most challenged you?

A: The obvious answer would seem to be "Miss Saigon," because of the length, the amount of stage time and physical stamina it required. But when you're playing Kim, there is the luxury of time for a really nice story arc. You see her go from a 17-year-old all the way to her death.

But the hardest was Fantine in "Les Miz." You've only got 25 minutes to make an impression. She's on near the beginning, you pick up her story in the middle and only see snippets of what she's gone through. I told myself, when I sing "I Dreamed a Dream," I'd better make sure this character isn't forgotten, because a lot of what Jean Valjean does, his selflessness and compassion and love he has for (Fantine's daughter) Cosette, stems from Fantine.

Q: Why did you want to return as another character?

A: I was driven to do this role. Some nights I came home and couldn't sleep because of this character. You try not to take your work home, but sometimes the work won't leave you alone. This woman had some demons.

Q: Was it an odd feeling to return as Fantine after playing Eponine?

A: I would get some backstage ribbing, all good-natured. I tried to detach myself, because it's a different set of pipes, a different brain controlling the character. And there was one moment, after that role (of Fantine) is done, when I get dressed and become a boy on the barricades. During "One Day More," everybody is assembled onstage and there's counterpoint going on with all the principal characters singing. Well, it was a Saturday night, I was so exhausted, it was the first week doing it, I was fighting jet lag and I had a new baby, so I think my body just went into automatic. I started singing the Eponine part, and I'm like, "OK, I can't be doing this." I made sure it didn't happen again. The actress who was playing Eponine came to me and said, "You can sing it anytime," which was really sweet.

Q: Fantine dies, Eponine dies, Kim dies in "Miss Saigon." Doesn't it seem like you've made a specialty out of playing tragic characters?

A: I do very well on Broadway when my character dies.

Q: After you'd left "Miss Saigon," they brought you back again to boost ticket sales. Was that flattering?

A: Incredibly flattering. (Producer) Cameron (Mackintosh) would always ask, "Would you ever think of coming back?" And every year, my answer was no. I had to stay away from the show. I had some great memories, but I also had some bad ones -- I had to go on vocal rest for three weeks because my vocal cords were shot, and there was a lot of pressure during awards season -- so I wanted to get rid of the bad stuff and retain the good stuff before I could play that role again. But Cameron is a very charming man, and he has an interesting way of getting actors to do something for him. And it turned out to be a lot of fun. Being 27 then, I played that part with a better sense of self and with better technique.

Q: What's the hardest lesson you've learned in the theater?

A: That it's not always going to be fun, especially in a long run when you're doing something eight times a week. And you're never going to get it right 100 percent of the time. My leading man in (Rodgers and Hammerstein's) "Cinderella" told me: "I've come to know you so well that I know when you're hitting your mark, and when it's just work." He could look into my eyes onstage and already tell what the show is going to be like from that point on. Nobody ever told me that before, but I know it to be true. This work demands a lot of my brain, a lot of my body and some days my body goes, "You just have to do it the best you can." But it's not always going to be the best show you're capable of.

Q: What kind of encounters have you had with fans?

A: I've had a few people cry when they met me, that was really sweet.

Q: Who would inspire a similar reaction from you?

A: If I ever met Barbra Streisand, I'd kiss her feet.

Q: Any future Broadway plans?

A: I just finished a tour of "Cinderella" in Asia, so I'm not looking to do another musical anytime soon. I don't have the desire to be someone else for two and a half hours. It's very taxing and can sometimes drive you crazy when the run is quite long. But ask me again in a year -- I might be itching to do one.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ or 702-383-0256.