Lea Salonga enjoys every opportunity to mentor and impart her wisdom to the young blood. The Pinay theater icon gets to do that again as star judge, alongside Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Michael Bublé, in the all-digital international singing competition from Kumu, Sing For The Stars.

Kumu has established itself as a “social network for musicians, by musicians,” according to Anand Roy, senior vice-president for Strategy and International Affairs. With Sing For The Stars, the social entertainment app is bringing things to a whole new level and introducing a “revolutionary” way to discover future music stars in the Philippines and across the globe.

This is what we know so far: The Kumu Music Team and Warner Music Philippines have selected 15 performers to be part of the show. The Top 11 will be moving on to the final leg of the competition, while the remaining four will duke it out to secure their last chance to enter the finals. The second runner-up will win $2,000, while the first runner-up takes home $4,000 in cash. The champion will take home a whopping cash prize of $10,000, a one-year recording contract with Warner Music, and a mini-concert inside the Kumu app, plus a one-on-one coaching session from Michael Bublé.

Lea Salonga is a star judge, alongside Grammywinning singersongwriter Michael Bublé, in the all-digital international singing competition, Kumu’s Sing For The Stars.

For Lea, a winning contender is a good storyteller. “Technical ability and the way you convey emotion have equal weight, to me,” she said during a recent mediacon.

The singer-actress made it clear though that while she expects to see one person emerging victorious at the end of the competition, she believes contests are not the all-important part in a musical journey.

She stressed: “Sometimes, there are artists that take a little bit more time to ripen. And sometimes the bigger star is not even the winner of a competition. That has happened. We’ve seen it before. And so, we might discover someone that may not make it to the absolute very, very end, but again, in that five-year period, all of a sudden, it’s like, oh my gosh, you’re doing stuff that you didn’t do during the competition, and now it’s like kaboom, career has just exploded.”

Lea performs with 15-year-old daughter Nicole Chien at a virtual event

Lea’s Instagram

Lea’s own career exploded after she landed the title role in the West End and Broadway musical Miss Saigon over 30 years ago. To recall, it made the then-teenager Lea an international stage sensation, scoring every possible recognition that could be won for her performance — the Olivier, Tony, Drama Desk, etc. Her audition tape has found resurgence online with YouTubers creating reaction videos out of it.

What usually goes through her mind whenever she chances upon her decades-old audition tape? Lea told The STAR: “I haven’t seen a lot of them, but my mother (Ligaya) has! I think she’s thrilled and entertained when she runs into a YouTube video of a vocal coach reacting to my performances. It makes her happy.

“As for what goes through my mind when I happen to watch a snippet of that audition? ‘Oh God, that little kid had no idea what she was in for, and what a ride this still is.’”

Obviously, the times have changed so much since then. Today, social media plays a role in finding and auditioning artists.

Asked whether the virtual aspect diminishes the magic of a live audition, she said with the pandemic still ongoing, the online audition process “is going to be one that a lot of, say, casting processes will opt for to keep everyone safe.”

“I mean, I’m currently filming a TV show. And that’s how I auditioned, I had to do a self tape, I had to send it to the casting director. I was in Manila auditioning for a show that films in New York. So I was thankful for technology,” she said.

“Well, 10 years ago, I don’t think this would have been possible. But that said, for something like musical theater, which is very specific, and which is an in-person type of a medium, that’s probably where an in-person audition might be more beneficial. But there is a place for both. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other. It’s just that, as a matter of necessity, sometimes we have to do the online thing.”

Thanks to the online thing, Lea also discovered the artist du jour — BTS. During the presscon, she had just watched the K-pop group’s Permission To Dance on Stage – Seoul virtual concert. “The concert itself was so fantastic. They all have such incredible physical stamina. I got exhausted watching it because it was like dancing and non-stop everything,” Lea gushed.

“I was just so happy. And I found them during the pandemic, and they’ve just brought so much joy to the world. And as an Asian artist, it makes me feel extremely proud that they have achieved such a high level of success and then over the course of the pandemic, even more so because of people being stuck at home and trying to find ways to be happy and to be joyful, and kaboom! Here they are.”

Following the presscon, The STAR had an e-mail Q&A with Lea, where she shared her thoughts on live concerts slowly returning: “I’m cautiously optimistic. And since this virus is still around, although not at the same levels as in the beginning, we can’t let our guard down. Let’s continue to take care of ourselves and the people around us, especially in concert venues when social distancing isn’t always possible.” Read more excerpts from the interview below:

Why is Sing For The Stars called a revolutionary talent search?

“It’s happening via Kumu! Normally, a singing competition happens with all personnel in the same room. To have it happen in this way is quite different, and I’m actually amazed it didn’t happen sooner (sooner as in within the first year of the pandemic).”

What kind of artists are you searching for on Sing For The Stars? What’s your gauge for differentiating the “star” from a great singing voice?

“I’m not limiting my ear to genre or vocal type. It’s all about finding that special singer who captures the audience from the first note. For me, it happens when I don’t even try to think of something to say as far as a comment or critique. I just shut my brain off and steep myself in the performance. That’s when I can say to myself, oh wow, I think we just saw a star being born.”

You’ve repeatedly served as a competition judge, but what continues to be the most challenging part for you each time?

“Saying goodbye. That’s never easy because you know how hard the singer worked to get to that point. So no, it’s never easy telling someone that this might not be the right place for them at this moment. Maybe, for a future moment, things will change, but not for this one.”

So many artists are dreaming of following in your footsteps, to become the “next Lea Salonga.” What do you hope Sing For The Stars contestants will learn from your success story?

“First, everyone needs to stop trying to be the next someone. Please, I’d rather you try to be the first YOU! Second, any success story will have hard work… literal blood, sweat and tears… a strong support system is key to keeping your head about you, as this industry is crazy and could eat you alive if you aren’t careful. Know who you can trust.”

You’ve been known for your willingness to share your knowledge to emerging talents. What goes through your mind when you see people you have mentored or given advice to are succeeding?

“It makes me feel extremely proud! I just hope to have left a little something long-lasting for them to keep.”

You’re also filming a TV show right now, how is the experience so far (that is safe to say)?

“We can share the title! I’m doing a show for HBO Max, the reboot of Pretty Little Liars. I play one of the moms of the liars. As for what is safe to say, only that there are a bunch of us from the world of musical theater, which means someone randomly breaks into song during shooting lulls. I’ve been so fortunate that I’m working with some wonderful people who happen to be fantastic human beings, too. Oh, I recently fangirled out loud when one actor I worked with, Eric Johnson, revealed that he was the voice of one of my favorite characters on Assassin’s Creed, Valhalla, one of my favorite video games. Totally screamed!”

By the way, how did you discover BTS and become an A.R.M.Y.?

“I found BTS during the pandemic, right when Dynamite was released. I’m not a huge follower of K-pop, so even this happening was such a surprise. Their stage presence, charm, dancing, and their chemistry with one another is so fascinating and fun to watch (and Jungkook’s intonation is so good, and V’s voice sounds like the most comforting hug, and RM always seems to know what to say). Through it, I discovered that other friends were also following them, and that I made a couple of new friends to fangirl with!”

During the pandemic, we also got to see your daughter Nicole performing with you at a virtual event. What have you been telling her about the craft and the industry? And would you be open for her to join a singing contest?

“I tell her the truth. I don’t make it sound like a bed of roses. She’s learned the hard way how tough this can be (she did a musical for Atlantis Productions a few years ago) so she understands that this is a commitment, not a hobby. As for her joining a singing tilt, I’d have to say no. And she’s automatically disqualified anyway when I happen to be a judge!”

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