Before the world became obsessed with live-action Disney films, there were the original animated versions. Classics like Aladdin (1992) and Mulan (1998) helped define a period known as the Disney Renaissance—an era in which the studio’s films saw tremendous box office success.
But as popular as these films were, the public often overlooks the people whose voices gave them life. Sure, we know the A-listers who played the main characters: Robin Williams as Genie, Ming-Na Wen as Fa Mulan, Eddie Murphy as Mushu. But who sang the songs that every child of the ’90s remembers to this day? In the case of Aladdin and Mulan, we have Lea Solanga to thank. Find out what we know about the recording artist and what she’s up to today.
Who Is Lea Salonga?
Lea Salonga was born Maria Lea Carmen Imutan Salonga on February 22, 1971 in Manila, Philippines. She began her career in musical theater at the age of 7, starring in local productions including The King and I, Annie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. By 10, she had a certified gold record, Small Voice, in the Philippines.
Bu her first big break in the US came while she was a 17-year-old student at New York’s Fordham University. Although her original plan was to pursue a medical career, she auditioned for stage work between coursework. In 1991, she starred as the lead in the Broadway musical Miss Saigon. For her performance, she became the first Asian woman to win a Tony Award.
Salonga has gone on to an illustrious, multi-faceted career. She continued working on the Great White Way, appearing in the 1993 production of Les Misérables and 2002’s Flower Drum Song. On the small screen, she had a role on the soap opera As The World Turns. She currently serves as a coach for the Philippines’ version of The Voice (as well as its popular spin-offs The Voice Teens and The Voice Kids).
But you don’t have to be a Broadway buff to appreciate her vocal talent. In the 90s, Solanga reached a massive mainstream audience by becoming the memorable singing voice of two iconic Disney princesses.
Lea Salonga Is The Singing Voice of Jasmine From Aladdin
Salonga attracted the Disney team after her success with Miss Saigon. She promptly offered to be the singing voice of Jasmine in the animated film Aladdin—a move that took her career to new heights. The music from the album earned two Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, and three Grammys.
The signature single “A Whole New World,” sung by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle, won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. However, an alternative version was performed by Salonga and Brad Kane, who was the singing voice of Aladdin. Solanga is modest about her contribution to the production, giving most of the credit to the creative team at Disney.
“The reason [Disney is] so amazing is that they have, in a way, created their own world,” Solanga said in an interview with The National News. “It’s a world that has its own language and songs. So when you are singing a Disney song, you are just following a long and proud tradition.”
Solanga and Kane’s chemistry is nonetheless undeniable. For two artists who were not yet household names, their 1993 Academy Award performance was fabulous.
Lea Salonga Is Also The Singing Voice of Fa Mulan
Salonga was extended a second offer to work with Disney on the 1998 animated film Mulan. As the singing voice of the title character, she sang a song you may be familiar with: “Reflection.” An alternative version was recorded by Christina Aguilera and served as a breakthrough for her career.
The soundtrack peaked at No. 24 on the Billboard 200; it also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score.
“In terms of the voice, the orchestra would set the mood,” said Solanga in a behind-the-scenes interview. “And that sort of carries you off to another place. Once you’re singing with these 80 pieces that are all just somehow gelling together as one massive unit … people don’t understand the high that you get. It’s nirvana.”
Solanga recently reflected on how Mulan made her more aware of Asian representation in media.
“It really hit me that that is a character that I resemble,” she told NowThis. “And I mean, she’s an animated, hand-drawn character. But when there is someone that you know is from your community, representing you in such a wonderful, wonderful way. It paves the way, number one, for other artists from that community to also throw their hats into the ring. And two, it’s just incredibly inspiring to see one of your people doing something like that.”
What Is Lea Solanga Doing Today?
Solanga hopes to be more than a recognizable voice. She also wants to prove herself as an actor. In 2019, she starred in the musical drama Yellow Rose. The film follows Rose, an undocumented Filipino girl who dreams of leaving small-town Texas for a country music singing career. The New York Times noted that the tale was both “politically timely and personal.”
“I thought this could be a good way to ease back into movies again,” she said in an interview. “There seems to be some interest from home to do something like that, so this felt like, ‘You know, let me get my toes wet and let me get the process back in my body so I can understand what that’s like again.'”
Solanga also made a return to Broadway in 2017 playing Erzulie, the goddess of love, in a revival of Once On This Island.
As for what her future holds, she has a number of shows scheduled for 2021. Solanga is expected to perform at major venues in Honolulu, Vancouver, and Las Vegas.