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#PinoyPride: Joanna Ampil to usher New Year countdown via ‘CATS’ in Singapore |

Arts and Culture

#PinoyPride: Joanna Ampil to usher New Year countdown via ‘CATS’ in Singapore

Deni Rose M. Afinidad-Bernardo -
#PinoyPride: Joanna Ampil to usher New Year countdown via âCATSâ in Singapore
Joanna Ampil as Grizabella in 'CATS,' which runs in Singapore until January 5.
Zeus Martinez Photography

MANILA, Philippines — "It was worth everything to hear [Ampil's] rendition of the classic number,” The Edge Singapore reported of Filipina singer-actress Joanna Ampil’s performance of the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic “Memory” in the hit Broadway musical “CATS.”

Following a successful run in The Theatre at Solaire in Manila from November to December, Joanna and the rest of the cast will welcome the New Year with a big meow in Singapore through a countdown performance at the Marina Bay Sands.

Joanna continues to raise Filipinos’ flag in Singapore after Lea Salonga and Jett Pangan became the first Filipinos and artists to play “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in The Lion City from November 28 to December 8, in time for the 40th anniversary of the Stephen Sondheim musical.

Prior to performing “CATS” in the former British colony, Ampil has already performed for Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and royal family.

In an exclusive interview with before flying to Singapore, the multi-awarded singer-actress got candid about Lea, Nicole Scherzinger, Jennifer Hudson, life after “Ang Larawan,” and how she gets by playing the feline Grizabella, even if she’s actually allergic to cats.

How did you land in the role of Grizabella?

Joanna: "It was going back to 2013 when I heard about the audition and I was in Manila at that time. And I found out that they’re going to have auditions for the entire cast, so I contacted my agent and said I wanted to audition for the role of Grizabella. So, I flew to London and they got me an audition. I worked through the musical supervisor and the musical director. And then I auditioned for the actual creative team and then the day after, they told me that I got the part."

Has it always been your dream to play Grizabella?

"Yes, it has always been my dream. I was 17 when I first saw the show and I said it to myself I wanted to play that part.”

Who was the Grizabella then?

"It was a woman called Lindsey Danvers, who’s a friend of mine as well. She was amazing! There’s something about her in the character that is so endearing that made me want to do it. And that’s what I’m trying to do when I perform Grizabella, hopefully, that I would have to open hearts as well, inspire other people."

Who are the other Grizabellas you’ve seen so far?

"Ito pa lang, s’ya lang, actually. I’ve seen, of course, in video clips like si Elaine Paige, o si Betty Buckley."

How about Lea?

"No, I haven’t seen her play the part. I was away when she was playing it at CCP."

But has she said anything to you or congratulated you for playing the part?

"She just said about the review of Vincent, she said, ‘Yun oh!’ (laughs), ‘yun ang sinabi n’ya."

But are you not going to ask tips?

"No, because we have directors who do that to us. It’s not a thing that we usually do. Usually, we talk to the director or musical director if we need help with the characters. It doesn’t really work that way for us."

What did the directors see in you that made you get the role?

"I don’t know. She always said that Grizabella always has that vulnerability and availability, which I guess, is what she saw in me. And I guess, the way I sing it. She has that certain sound that she wants to hear with the Grizabellas. Because you have to sing it from the chest but with a very, very light sound at the start but still having that strength. So, she would give you lots of inputs na gusto n’yang marinig dun sa role that you just have to execute."

What makes your ‘Memory’ different from the ones you’ve seen or others out there?

"I don’t know. What I do is just do what they’d ask me to do, ‘yung mga inputs nila, and just try to do it that way. It’s different kasi when you’re in the show context eh. When it’s in the show context, you have an entire story to think about, instead of just the song itself."

How long did you prepare and what were your preparations for the character?

"We rehearsed for four weeks. Actually, three weeks for me because I was late. We basically just talked about the story of the show. She had the entire background of each character. I recorded that. Each cat has three words. My three words are ‘hurt, proud and indomitable.’ ‘Yun ‘yung keywords of Grizabella. So, that’s what you have to think about when you’re performing. She gives a background to each character and it’s up to you to layer it up. So, that’s how we did it and then we watched lots of clips of ‘CATS.’

The dance routine took a little longer for me because it’s not really my forte to dance. But I wanted to challenge myself, so I wanted to include myself in the entire dance number at the start of the show. That took a little while. Mas matagal ‘yun for me. ‘Yun ‘yung pinaghirapan ko talaga kasi ‘yung pinakamahirap gawin ‘yung sayaw."

How were you able to cope with the challenges?

"The singing is okay naman kasi it’s right up my street."

You didn’t adjust so much?

"No, because it’s my key, my range. And ‘Memory’ I’ve sang it in the past, so I kind of already have an idea. You know, it’s just about layering it up with all the layers from the inputs of the musical director, musical supervisor and the associate director."

How can you personally relate with Grizabella?

"I’ve experienced being bullied, I guess. So, there’s an element of being bullied in Grizabella. And also, I can be very proud also as a person. And I’ve been hurt as well, so yeah, I can relate to all those three words. It’s easy for me to get into it."

Is there a lot of bullying in the theater world?

"No, naman. I don’t really experience it, which is great, because (from) someone with color, you’d think you’d experience this, but it’s not eh. It’s so welcoming, which is so ironic because the world of Grizabella is she’s not welcomed nor she’s accepted in the tribe until the very end. In the UK, I feel like it’s my home. They welcomed me with open arms."

But you’ve been bullied where? In school?

"Yes, ‘yung mga tukso-tukso. Mga ganun lang. So petty (laughs)."

What makes ‘CATS’ relevant today especially among Filipinos?

"Well, it’s very entertaining. In this day and age, we always want to be entertained. Every day, we always want to escape, you know, an escapism. So I think, the world of ‘CATS’ is definitely an escapism. If you watch the show, it’s kind of like a fantasy. It’s a world like no other. We become voyeurs to the world of cats. So, that’s one way of looking at it, I suppose. That’s why it’s been on for so long, it’s been so successful. 

Hindi lang ‘yon eh. The human aspect also. People can relate to the characters even if they are cats. It’s really human beings playing cats, not really cats. These cats have personalities like human beings."

Are you a cat lady in real life? Do you love cats?

"I love cats! But I don’t have one yet, I’d love to own one. Because I’m allergic. I’m allergic to cats. One day, I will."

What kinds of cats would you like to have?

"The Abyssinian, the one that’s not so hairy. But marami pa rin s’yang hair, but yeah."

How about your costume and makeup? How did you learn to do it on your own?

"We were taught to do it. The makeup artist would do half of the face and then we would copy it. So, that’s how we learned to do it. At first, I used to do it for an hour and a half. Now it’s from 30 to 35 minutes, I think."

How long does it take you to remove it?

"Very quick lang. Two minutes, one minute. We just put this makeup remover and take it off."

How about the costumes, they came from London?

"Yes, all made in London. Those costumes are quite expensive actually because they have to dye them and then dry them up for weeks. Pero parang… it’s a fabric pen ‘yung ginamit. An artist would try to design it because each cat has his own look. First comes the lycra, I put this on first. Then, I change into this. This is the Grizabella lycra together with the corset then the coat and the faux fur boots."

How does the costume feel?


Very hot?

"It’s an air-conditiioned play, so it’s okay. It’s comfortable. But then I have to also wear harness for certain bits of the play. Pero it’s generally comfortable naman."

How much has changed in the costume? Is it the same one since the beginning?

"No, it’s completely different from Elaine Paige. Actually, Lea’s costume is completely different from this. This one is the new look based on Nicole Scherzinger. When they did it in London, they changed the design for Nicole. So, thank you, Nicole, so much better than the last one. The last one was like a dress na may corset and sequins. This one (her present costume) is more comfortable."

Have you ever met Nicole?

"No, I wasn’t at London at the time she was doing it."

So, this (costume) is the same design as hers?

"Yes, the same design."

And same makeup also?

"Yes, I think so. I think it’s the same makeup apart from some marking that they’ve updated."

How about the set? Is it the same set?

"Yes, it’s the same set since before… But ours is round, pang-tour talaga s’ya na set, but it looks exactly like the original. Only that the original goes around. Eto kasi naka-static lang."

Have you seen the trailers of the movie adaptation? What can you say about the film?

"I can’t really judge it based on the trailer. I have to see it kasi it’s so different from ours… This is what happened with ‘Les Mis’ (‘Les Miserables’) - we didn’t know how it’s going to be, but then again, it’s amazing. So, you really can’t tell… But I’ve always been a fan of Jennifer Hudson. I’m sure she’s done something amazing."

Do you think the movie would be helpful for the play?

"I hope so. I’ve heard of a movie like ‘Phantom of the Opera’ where the musical became even more successful after the movie came out. I hope it’s going to be the same for the musical."

After ‘CATS,’ what can we look forward to from you?

"I’m filming ‘Call Me Tita’ in January, the second season. And I’ve got a few concerts in Asia. I’m doing the music of Stephen Schwartz in Tokyo, then I’m doing the music of Alain Boublil and Arnold Schoenberg in Australia."

How about another movie like ‘Ang Larawan’?

"Oh yeah, I’m waiting for that, too. It’s been so hard to top ‘Larawan,’ There have been movie offers, but my manager is so careful in choosing my next project when it comes to movies because of course, it has to be good because after ‘Larawan,’ people expect me to do something amazing again. So, he’s really trying to look for a really good material. Some offers we had to turn down. We’re still waiting for a suitable script. Hopefully it comes soon because I’m dying to do another movie."

So are you now into dabbling in between commercial and more artistic endeavors? Is it going to be a balance now ever since ‘Ang Larawan’?

"That’s more on the idea of my manager. Kasi ako, I’m more into doing those things, but s’yempre, he’s more into doing that for my career. Basically, that’s his job to give me a good one. Ako naman, just give me any project, I’ll do it. I’m quite happy to do it. But he’s like, ‘No, we have to be careful about our next move,' which I think is great."

What can you say about the future of Filipinos in theater?

"It’s really thriving! I don’t know if you’ve seen this musical called ‘Beautiful’ with a lot of young artists in it, amazing artists! It’s in good hands with them. Our new generation of actors, they’re very, very good, very, very well-trained. And of course, we’re more exposed to more musicals nowadays. It’s more accessible for us, so people are getting better and better. Our artists are getting better and better at a very early, very young age. So yeah, the competition is mas fierce. Mas fierce ang competition now. So if you want to get into this kind of business, better do your homework because you’re up against very, very good people."

Has it come to you to feel like your career is dawning like Grizabella?

"I think with every actor naman. That’s why you have to keep evolving. I mean, that’s not a problem for me. Nag-quota na ko, matagal na. So anything that comes my way this time around is a bonus. Because after Fantine I was kind of like done. And then so many other projects came after that, which is great. 

Pero talagang na-reach ko na ‘yung quota ko. I’m just very very lucky I think that I managed to get into movies, to get into TV. And I’m always grateful. I don’t take it for granted because I know for some people, they have to work so hard, they have to train so hard to be where they want to be. ‘Yung iba, naswertehan lang, ‘di ba? 
Pero ako, I want to keep on evolving and do what it takes to learn more or get into other things."

When off-duty, how do you enjoy life?

"I really enjoy life when I’m on duty, too. Off-duty, I try to chill. I try to relax my body because mahirap magkasakit sa job namin kasi you have to do eight shows a week and you have to be in top form every time. You can’t be very good for a particular audience and then the next day, you’re not. You have to be always good. And it takes a lot of discipline to get there… Especially, like I said, ang tight ng competition. You have to be in top shape all the time because people are watching. Social media is also fierce when it comes to people being bashed.

I try to make sure that I still enjoy my days off but I still don’t abuse. I don’t drink when I know I have to be on a show. And I don’t overdo things like ‘di ako magpupuyat, things like that."

Do you yoga?

"The show is enough exercise for me. Nagyoyoga ba ko? (Laughs) I would love to! Sometimes kasi walang time eh… I love swimming. I think it’s good for my singing."

What are your tips for those who want to be as successful as you are?

"Like what I said, you have to do your homework. If you want to this kind of job, you have to persevere and do what it takes to get there. Do research, do your work. Know exactly what you want – musical theater, street plays, whatever. Be ready to evolve because it goes so fast. So many people learn so many things now. 
I think preparation is key and rehearsal, practice. For example, if you’re going to an audition, you make sure you don’t leave any holes. Kailangan na-fill mo lahat ng holes para you won’t regret anything. For example, I didn’t get it maybe because I didn’t do it like this. Then maybe you should think ahead like what can I do to make sure that I’m not gonna regret this audition. 

And if you know that you’ve done your best, then you can forgive yourself and like, ‘Maybe, I’m just not right for the role or something.’ You just have to think back and be proactive. 

And be careful not to taint your reputation because that’s so important. Because even if you do so well, but your reputation is tainted, then people won’t like to hire you. It’s not the way you want to be remembered (for)."

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