An international musical theatre star from the Philippines, Joanna Ampil made her iconic West End debut aged 17 when she was cast as Kim in Miss Saigon at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. She later reprised her acclaimed performance for the musical’s Australian premiere in Sydney as well as for the show’s UK Tour.
Her subsequent West End credits include playing Christmas Eve in Avenue Q (Noel Coward), Fantine and Éponine in Les Miserables (Queens/Palace) and Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar (Lyceum).
Joanna’s theatrical career has also seen her play Jasmine in Aladdin (Gordon Craig/Dublin), Sheila in Hair (Gate Theatre), Mimi in Rent (European Tour/Arena Xanten), Heidi in I Sing (Union), Maria in West Side Story (Manila) and Maria in The Sound Of Music (Manila). Most recently she dazzled audiences around the UK as Grizabella in Cats.
She is currently starring in the UK Tour of West End Women. The theatrical concert sees Joanna take to the stage alongside Kerry Ellis and Ria Jones. Together the leading ladies celebrate their careers, performing iconic songs from some of the most successful musicals in history.
I recently spoke to Joanna about why she’s so excited to be working with Kerry and Ria, which songs she’s particularly looking forward to singing in West End Women, Miss Saigon memories and why she was so honoured to receive a letter from Gillian Lynne during her stint in Cats…
How did your involvement in West End Women come about?
Well I just got a phone call from my agent asking if I would be interested in taking part in the show. I was familiar with the guys’ version – West End Men – so straight away I was like, “Oh my god yes! I would love to be one of the pioneers for the women one!” Then I found out I would be working with Kerry Ellis and Ria Jones who I both admire. How could I say no to that?! I was very happy that they asked me.
|Joanna in Les Mis|
Have you worked with Kerry or Ria before?
Yes, I’ve actually worked with both of them. Ria was my Fantine when I was Éponine in Les Mis and I had worked with Kerry when I did a gig at the Royal Albert Hall, we were in one dressing room. I know her also from Miss Saigon because she came into the show when I left and then she took over from me as Fantine a few years back. It’s great to be finally working with them properly!
What has the atmosphere been like in rehearsals? You must be having fun!
It’s been great! We started with the trios and all the stuff we’re doing with the company. I have loved working with Kerry on our duet which is ‘For Good’ from Wicked, it’s just one of my favourite songs. ‘Seasons Of Love’ is great too, we’re all very, very excited. I’m quite nervous because I have to be up to the same standard as Kerry and Ria [laughs]!
I’m sure you won’t have any problems there! What do you think people can expect from the evening?
It’s going to be a really lovely evening. It’s basically all the songs that we’ve done from the shows we’ve been a part of. I absolutely love our ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ trio. It really is quite beautiful and will be a highlight. We also have Rory [Taylor] and choirs, it’s very exciting! Kerry and Ria are both so funny and humorous; I’m learning a lot from them in terms of doing concerts in the UK because they’ve done loads whereas I’ve done mine in Manila which is completely different. It’s not very formal – it’s going to be quite anecdotal. We are going to be talking about experiences that we’ve had in shows that we’ve been part of so that’s going to be interesting because it will give people a glimpse into what happens backstage.
How do you find performing as yourself compared to performing as a character?
Ahh… terrifying! When I’m myself it’s a lot of pressure. It took me a while, I started doing concerts properly in 2009 and I have to say I’ve never felt so much pressure. I think it is because you’re not hiding behind a mask – you have to be yourself. For so many years I was a character and then finally I was dressing myself and being me, just naked in front of everyone… not literally of course [laughs]! It’s nerve-wracking because you don’t know what the audience are going to be like. People have been very supportive and welcoming so luckily it hasn’t been a problem.
Most recently you starred in the UK Tour of Cats so you must be familiar with most of the different regional audiences. Can you actually notice the difference when you’re performing in different cities around the UK?
Yes, you can! I loved it because I got to know England much better. I particularly enjoyed the experience in the north of England, the audiences are so enthusiastic and are out there to have a good time.
Joanna in Cats
Having played so many iconic roles, what was it like to step into Grizabella’s shoes?
It was on my bucket list to play that part so I finally got to do it. It’s quite fulfilling! It was just such a bonus because before Grizabella I was quite happy will all the roles I had done, so adding that onto my CV is the real icing on the cake.
Well you were my first Grizabella and totally blew me away!
Thank you! Where did you see it?
"Miss Saigon was my first West End show – I didn’t know what I was getting myself into!"
I think it was Milton Keynes…
I loved playing in Milton Keynes because that was the time we got to rehearse with our legend Gillian Lynne! She came into rehearsals and properly directed us. It was so amazing and I will never forget Milton Keynes because she gave me a letter after the show congratulating me and telling me that she was very happy with my performance. I had to laminate it [laughs]! I’m not even going to mention what she put in there because it would sound like I was bragging. She was so complimentary and it’s just like ‘wow’ – it almost tops everything that you’ve worked hard for. Getting that from a legend who you really admire is quite something.
I also obviously have to mention Miss Saigon because it recently celebrated its 25th anniversary!
I know! Kerry and I have been rehearsing ‘I Still Believe’ and I’ve been working on ‘The Movie In My Mind’ with Ria and it’s just remembering the words first of all! I haven’t sung them in many years, but automatically I started standing the way Kim would stand and then the words just flood back to your memory. It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s how it was!’ Kerry and I were trying to get the words right, we got there in the end [laughs].
|Joanna in Miss Saigon|
Miss Saigon was such an important part of your life. It was your first West End show, the first time you had been abroad and the first time you were away from all your family!
Well I had my mum with me! I was considered a minor at that time because I was only seventeen so I had my mum with me for the first year. I have lots of beautiful memories. Miss Saigon was my first West End show – I didn’t know what I was getting myself into! I just knew I wanted to be part of it. I had never had any acting lessons and it was my first job so it really was the foundation and training for me. Working with Nicholas Hytner is another experience I will never forget. He’s so huge and is a director I will always look up to. I always make so many fantastic friends in these shows that I’ve done, Miss Saigon was a community – there were so many Filipinos and now it’s happening again to these young ones who are doing it now.
You know what they’re going through!
Exactly. I know that it’s such a treat for them to be a part of this amazing show.
It’s a very exciting time for you at the moment. As well as touring with West End Women I know you’ve been back in the Philippines working on your first movie-musical. Tell me more!
Well it’s in my native tongue! I feel really lucky to be doing this musical movie because it’s a lot of firsts for me. I’ve never done a movie before and have never sung a musical in my native tongue. We are rehearsing this early and it’s not going to be filmed until June of next year. I feel incredibly lucky because the director I’m working with is one I completely admire. He’s from New York – he’s Filipino, but has worked a lot in New York on so many shows and won awards. Going into rehearsals every day is like going to drama school because I’m learning so many things I never knew before. Movie is, of course, a completely different medium. Everything is toned down and you have to have a lot of back stories and have a lot going on in your eyes. It’s really like starting from zero.
And you’ve also just done a new album!
Yes! We’ll be doing another music video for the album when I get back so it’s all very exciting! Oh… and I’m doing The Bridges of Madison County when I go back! It’s the new Jason Robert Brown musical.
Oh my gosh!! I saw it on Broadway earlier this year! It’s my new favourite show – this is amazing news!
[laughs] Come to Manila! I’m doing Francesca and I believe they’re getting someone from Broadway to play the lead guy. It’s such a beautiful show and it’s such a shame that it has closed already in New York. I wish I had seen it! I will begin rehearsing in February for it to be staged in March. In the Philippines we only do a certain number of shows, it’s not like here. I was so excited when they asked me to do it! It’s going to be another challenge for me.
Ok, time for a horrible question. I’m sending you to a desert island and you can only take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
Hmmm… this is going to be tough! You’re putting me on the spot here! I cannot believe this – there are so many! I particularly love ‘Seasons of Love’ – it’s one of my favourites because so many people can relate to it. It’s so human. Gosh! I will probably take something from my favourite musical which is Mary Poppins. I love ‘Practically Perfect’. I know it’s not in the movie; it’s one of the new songs. I think it’s so special! Mary is my dream role. I know I’ll probably never play it, but it’s my dream part because it’s a role that doesn’t have to be defined by her romantic relationship with anyone. It’s so individual and I love that. What’s my other song? ‘Bring Him Home’! [laughs] There you go!
Finally, you have so much support behind you from all over the world. It must be so nice to have that support there regardless of what you’re working on and where you’re doing it?
It is very touching, it really is because people are still there. So many years have gone by and these people are still there supporting me and I am completely overwhelmed. This is why I’m still here and still doing what I do. It’s really for them more than anything! Well, apart from the fact that I enjoy it so much. It is for them… it’s a thank you!
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
West End Women tours the UK between Monday 17th November and Tuesday 2nd December 2014 (it plays the New Wimbledon Theatre on 27th November). Please visit www.westendwomen.co.uk for further information, tour dates and tickets.