MANILA, DECEMBER 31, 2011 (STAR) [PHOTO - Lea Salonga with mom Ligaya and daughter Nicole… ] FUNFARE By Ricardo F. Lo - That’s what Funfare’s Big Apple correspondent Edmund Silvestre is asking.

My answer is yes, yes, yes!

Said Edmund, “One of the most revered theater performers in the world, Lea has been bringing honor and pride to the Filipino race, not just with her exceptional talent, but with her untainted public image as well.”

Again, I agree.

After winning the international hunt for the lead role in the Vietnam War-inspired musical drama Miss Saigon, Lea received the highest honors for excellence the world of theater can bestow on an artist: Broadway’s Tony Award and West End’s Laurence Olivier Award.

From then on, the theater world began to notice Filipino talents.

… and with Miss Saigon producer Cameron Mackintosh

Lea even managed to break racial barriers and opened doors wider for Filipino and other Asian theater actors when she was cast in Caucasian roles (Eponine and Fantine) in the French revolution musical Les Miserables.

She has performed at the Oscars as well as in front of global leaders and dignitaries, starred in a movie (Red Curtain) with John Lithgow and Jeff Daniels, appeared in an American soap (As The World Turns), sang in the most prestigious venues across the earth, joined Susan Sarandon, Celine Dion and Italian actor Raoul Bova as Goodwill Ambassadors of the United Nations to fight world hunger, and even sat as a judge in the Miss Universe Pageant.

Just recently, Walt Disney honored her with the Disney Legend Award for her contributions to Disney’s legacy as the singing voice of Princess Jasmine from the animated film Aladdin and Fa Mulan in Mulan and Mulan II, all produced by Disney.

“So,” concluded Edmund who recently interviewed Lea in New York for Funfare, “like many others I believe that Lea, even only at 40 which is the new 30 as scientists today redefine age is already ripe for the Philippines’ highest and most coveted recognition for an artist, the National Artist Award.”

I second the motion.

Lea has always been an inspiration to numerous talents both wannabes and veterans who consider her a role model, both as an artist and as a person. And her unparalleled achievements as an accomplished theater diva even injected new life and interest in Philippine theater.

But you’ll be surprised to learn that Lea herself believes she’s not deserving of the National Artist honor not yet, at least - saying she has not done really “significant” to push for the interest of Philippine arts.

“Of course, I don’t want it to be given to somebody who’s dead that they can’t appreciate and enjoy the award, but at the same time I don’t feel worthy of the honor and I would probably say, you know what, wait until I actually make a real contribution to the country before you consider me,” she humbly told Funfare at the recent Avon Voices singing competition in New York City (reported in this corner a few issues ago) where she served as a judge alongside Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas and Natasha Bedingfield, among others.

Lea said that she’s not yet in the league of artists like F. Sionil Jose, the late Salvador Bernal or Alice Reyes, “who have contributed so much” to the development of Philippine arts and thus deserve to be conferred membership in the Order of National Artists.

(Aside from the title and prestige, a National Artist receives a monthly pension, medical and life insurance, arrangements for a state funeral, a place of honor at national state functions, and recognition at cultural events.)

Among Lea’s landmark performances are those in (from left) Miss Saigon as Kim… Les Miserables as Fantine… Cats as Grizabella… and in Flower Drum Song.

“A lot of what I do, I sing a lot of western music, I’ve done a lot of western musicals,” Lea pointed out, “but I can’t really say that I’ve made any significant cultural contribution or impact to the advancement of Filipino arts,” adding, “(Zeneida) Bibot Amador (the late founder and artistic director of Repertory Philippines) should actually have gotten it. Even though she was staging mostly western plays and musicals, it’s because of the number of people that came out of Repertory Philippines and have made a mark for themselves. “

It was in Repertory Philippines that producer Cameron Mackintosh found many of the principal characters for Miss Saigon like Lea, Monique Wilson, Cocoy Laurel, Isay Alvarez, Junix Inocian, Pinky Amador, Michael Williams and even Leo Valdez (a non-Repertory member).

“That’s Bibot’s great contribution, among many other things, to Philippine arts. And don’t forget that she had groomed not just a lot of actors, but also a lot of directors who are now grooming actors the same way that she did.”

More than two decades after taking the Great White Way and the West End by storm, Lea, now a wife (to Rob Chien) and mother (to Nicole), continues to sing and act on stage and topbill concerts and musicals all over the world, while reaping honors and citations from different organizations and award-giving bodies.

Yes, Edmund, Lea has nothing more to prove in her field that even Walt Disney one of the largest media conglomerates in the world -already recognized her as a legend.

… and with fellow UN Ambassadors of Goodwill Susan Sarandon and Raoul Bova

And, as Edmund observed, the sad thing is that the Philippines is taking its precious time to put on a pedestal a genuine national treasure worthy of the highest emulation, however young she may be.

By the way, nominations for National Artist of the Philippines are based on a broad criteria, as set forth by the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, to wit (as enumerated by Edmund):

• Living artists who have been Filipino citizens for the last 10 years prior to nomination as well as those who have died after the establishment of the award in 1972 but were Filipino citizens at the time of their death;

• Artists who have helped build a Filipino sense of nationhood through the content and form of their works;

With John Lithgow and Jeff Daniels in the teleplay Redwood Curtain…

• Artists who have distinguished themselves by pioneering in a mode of creative expression or style, making an impact on succeeding generations of artists;

• Artists who have created a significant body of works and/or have consistently displayed excellence in the practice of their art form, enriching artistic expression or style; and

• Artists who enjoy broad acceptance through prestigious national and/or international recognition, awards in prestigious national and/or international events, critical acclaim and/or reviews of their works, and/or respect and esteem from peers within an artistic discipline.

[With John Lithgow and Jeff Daniels in the teleplay Redwood Curtain…]

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