|As Fantine in Les Miserables|
She is to the West End what Lea Salonga is to Broadway. Theater actor and singer Joanna Ampil was 17 when she was whisked off to do Kim in the London production of Miss Saigon. Over the years, she’s made a name for herself, playing Mimi in Rent, Eponine and Fantine in Les Miserables. She was even handpicked by British composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to do Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar.
But for two months, Pinoy audiences who have only heard her her sing in the 1995 recording of Miss Saigon will finally get to see her perform live as Maria in the Stages-produced West Side Story, opposite Christian Bautista as Tony. It’s the first time that she’s performing for a Pinoy audience, and yes, she admits to still getting the jitters on opening night.
In this interview, Joanna talks about her experiences in London, what she misses the most about the Philippines, how she looks forward to experiencing Pinoy-style Christmas, and what she had to give up to give back to her kababayan back home.
It’s your first time to do a musical in the Philippines. What made you decide to do it?
It’s always been my passion to be in West Side Story. It’s my favorite musical, and I saw it in London a few years ago and the part really appealed to me.
What did you have to give up in London to come home to the Philippines to do this show?
I have an agent in London, and I asked him not to put me up for anything in the next six months because I really want to concentrate on this, and I think it’s really important to do this for my fellow Filipinos. I feel complete to be able to do something for them. It’s important that I’m here and not distracted with anything.
What are the differences between West End and Philippine theater?
We have longer hours over there. Here its approximately 4 to 5 hours. I know we’re not as rich as West End or Broadway, so we have to use whatever resources are available to us here, and I think it’s a good thing because it makes us more creative and imaginative.
What are the good things you’ve seen in West End theater that you’d like to be replicated in Philippine productions?
I guess it’s the professionalism–being on time all the time. The Filipino way is being late a lot, so I try to come early to show people they have to be early. So far everyone’s been good. I couldn’t complain. Of course, there have been instances when people were late and you don’t know who’s gonna turn up or what time. Hopefully people learn to communicate, especially because there’s a lot of texting going on in the country.
You’re a veteran of several opening nights. Do you still get the jitters when you open a show?
Absolutely. I do a lot of breathing and I pray. And I do certain exercises and meditate.
Since you’re doing many shows, how do you take care of your voice?
It’s a skill you have to develop because in the West End we do eight shows a week. Here, for West Side Story, we do only weekends, and less pa for me because there’s Karylle who’ll also be doing the show. I make sure I don’t go out very late. I drink a lot of water. Everything that a singer does. You just have to be very disciplined if singing is your passion.
What is your advice to Pinoys who want to make it in musical theater?
Persevere and stick to your passion and your dreams. And never ever take anything personally.
Many Filipinos who have performed abroad say the Filipino audience is very hard to please. What can you say about this?
That actually makes us perfectionists and I think am that way too. I am pretty hard to please, and I totally understand why.
How do you keep yourself busy in between shows?
I try to keep myself busy by training and exercising. It’s important that you keep your stamina when you’re doing shows. I did kickboxing in London for a few months before coming over. I know it’s not very ladlylike, but it’s what I wanted to do. Also some dancing.
What music do you dig?
Pop and R&B. My favorite performers are musical theater performers, but before I left the Philippines, I was very much influenced by the likes of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
What music player do you own and what are your top 10 favorite songs?
I have an 80G iPod. My top 10 . . . I love Puff Daddy’s “Come with Me” because the beat is a bit fast and I can exercise to it. I also have a lot of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston songs in it. I also like Chaka Khan. There’s a lot of ’80s songs in there.
You’ve been away for 16 years. What do you miss the most about the Philippines?
The food and the hospitality of Pinoys. And people wanting to pamper you all the time. I love that.