How Miss Saigon 'Snatched' Joanna from Becoming a Nun
- Ricky Lo () - March 28, 2010 - 12:00am

Besides Lea Salonga, unarguably the most well-known among them, other Filipino talents have played Kim, the principal female character in the megahit Cameron Mackintosh musical Miss Saigon (one of the longest-running musicals that was first mounted in London’s West End and wowed audiences around the world). Perhaps the “least known” is Joanna Ampil who said she didn’t have any acting experience at all before she flew to London as a “minor” (she was barely 17).

That was in 1993 when Joanna started her five-year off-and-on stint that brought her to Australia and on a national tour. After Miss Saigon, Joanna went on to play major roles in other musicals, including as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, as Eponine and then Fantine in Les Miserables and in Rent (during its European tour); and guestings in London sitcoms and other TV shows.

In 2004, Joanna was among those who performed before 50 dignitaries, including then France Pres. Jacques Chirac, Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Queen Elizabeth and other members of the British Royalty (Prince Charles et al) during the 100th anniversary celebration of the England-France relations.

Now based in London, Joanna has been coming and going in the early ‘90s to perform with Lea in the Repertory production of My Fair Lady. When Miss Saigon ended its run, upstaging My Fair Lady as the longest-running musical in West End, the cast performed a portion of My Fair Lady as a traditional tribute before the farewell show, with Joanna playing Eliza Doolittle. Last year, she played Maria (Natalie Wood in the movie version) in the Trumpets production of West Side Story at the Meralco Theater, with Christian Bautista playing the male lead Tony.

Joanna is back, this time to promote Try Love, her first locally-produced album (by Sony Music Entertainment).

She sat for a free-wheeling Conversation to reminisce on her Miss Saigon days and then some.

Did you say that you didn’t have any acting experience before Miss Saigon?

“None talaga. I was studying; I was in high school at St. Mary’s (Quezon City) where I studied since kindergarten. I was about to enter college to take up Journalism. But then, I was sidetracked into auditioning for Miss Saigon. My classmates saw the announcement in the papers. I told my mom about it and she accompanied me to the audition at the CCP. I borrowed a Miss Saigon CD from my friend and learned the songs sung by all the characters, all of which I didn’t know, including those sung by the Ellen character. I chose It’s Her or Me as my audition piece, which turned out to be an Ellen song. So they made me sing all the Kim songs.”

Why did you decide to stay in London? Was it for love?

“No, not at all. It was never because of any man. It was work.”

You were 17, too young to be living independently.

“I was considered a minor so my mom stayed with me during the first year. Then she came back to the Philippines when I turned 18. Learning to live alone was hard. My biggest enemy was loneliness. When you’re away from family it doesn’t matter how many friends you have, you still miss your family so much and friends you’ve grown up with.”

How did you cope with the loneliness, have a boyfriend?

“Nope. That’s not the only solution. More often than not, I was single. I was at my happiest when I was single kasi you are less insecure when you’re on your own, you don’t have to compromise. How else did I cope with loneliness? Prayers, lots of it. Meeting up with friends that I really trusted.”

Or making istambay at the Westminster Abbey?

(Laughs aloud) “Yes, how did you know that? I came to know most of the priests there. Living alone taught me many things. I took up kickboxing; I learned how to play the guitar but I don’t remember any of it now. And I made a lot of mistakes, too; I made wrong decisions.”

Such as what wrong decisions?

“You know...well, you make mistakes in life, such as in relationships. Yes, I had a few relationships with some members of the cast of Miss Saigon...yes, foreigners. And then I learned my lesson and had no more relationships with anyone.”

How was it performing before the Queen of England?

“Unforgettable! Oh, I was so nervous. I had to learn how to curtsy, how to address her. We were reminded not to speak to her if we were not spoken to. I sang I Dreamed a Dream. She and the other dignitaries were seated on the front row. I was trying to catch her eyes from the stage, I was trying to smile, but none of them smiled back.”

Aside from meeting the Queen, what were your other memorable encounters (with celebrity)?

“When I shared the stage with Judi Dench. She was doing All’s Well That Ends Well next door and she asked Cameron (Mackintosh) if she could join in one of the scenes in Miss Saigon. She dressed up like one of the madames. I was watching her and she was shaking...she was really nervous, for real! I was staring at her and it made her even more nervous! I couldn’t believe it! For a while, I lost my character because I was in awe. I was like, am I really standing next to her...onstage?”

Did you get nervous when you saw celebrities in the audience?

“Sometimes, yes...when I spotted them from the stage.

Performing “live” can be very demanding on your vocal cords. How do you take care of your voice?

“I’ve been okay with my voice. I can take cold drinks, I can eat ice-cream. I didn’t train my voice to be sensitive to cold drinks. I was onstage almost every day of the week so during my free time, I catch up on sleep. Lack of sleep is bad for your voice.”

What made you come back for My Fair Lady?

“It’s my dream role which I didn’t get in West End. I love the part and the show so much that I couldn’t let anything distract from my performance, not even my costumes which were uncomfortable.”

Any dream stage role?

“I know I would never get a chance to but I’d love to play Elfie in Dreamgirls (played by Jennifer Hudson in the movie version; she won a Best Supporting Oscar for it). Also, one of the characters in Wicked.”

Are you back for good?

“I’m here purposely to promote Try Love, the album I did for Sony Music.” (The 12 songs on the album are: Hurting Each Other, Healing, Follow Your Road, I’m Caught Between Goodbye and I Love You, If I Believed, Lately, Words Get in The Way, Don’t Have The Heart, I Only Live to Love You, Try Love, Maghihintay Sa’yo and The Last Time I Felt Like This, a duet with Ariel Rivera.) “Most of the songs are my personal choices and a few are those of my boyfriend. His name is Marc Vastenavondt. He’s half-British and half-Thai. We met during the run of Phantom of the Opera; we were introduced to each other by a common friend. He’s now in London playing an Italian tenor in Phantom. He hasn’t been to the Philippines yet. We’re meeting up in Bangkok soon.

Isn’t it hard to have a boyfriend from a different culture?

“No. I love it because I love learning about other cultures. We’ve been going steady for more than a year.”

No plans to settle down yet?

“Well, you know, I was married once (to a Filipino graphic designer), but it didn’t work. The marriage lasted for three and a half years. No, we didn’t have a child. The marriage was annulled; we were divorced.”

Do you and Marc have a theme song?

“Yes, we have but it’s not on the album. The song is Everything (by Michael Bublé). We’ve turned it into a duet.

There’s a plan to do a movie version of Miss Saigon. The producers might choose one of the Saigon “graduates” to play Kim.

“Oh, I might be too old for the Kim character (in her late teens in the musical). I was 17 when I first played Kim. I had my first kiss in the musical, onstage pa! I didn’t even have boobs then. Hahahaha!”

How different are you now from what you were during your St. Mary’s days?

“Very different. I wanted to be a nun then.”

No regrets?


So when are you going back to London?

“In May, tentatively.”

You and Marc must be missing each other?

“Well, we do. We have a breather. I’m kidding!”

I suppose Marc is faithful.

“I trust him and he trusts me.”

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