A good challenge has always defined the career of international stage actress Joanna Ampil from the very beginning. In the early ‘90s, with no experience in theater or even a school play, she auditioned for “Miss Saigon” as a 17-year-old after falling in love with a local performance of “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
“It was my first musical and it had Audie Gemora in the lead,” recalled the girl who would eventually become Kim in the West End. “I enjoyed it so much and said to myself I want to do this. I didn’t know how but I want to do this.”
At that time, after finding a treasure of talents in Manila led by the original Kim, Lea Salonga, Cameron Mackintosh’s Saigon team held another round of auditions in the capital to reinforce their cast. Someone told Ampil about it and she took on the challenge with nothing but her talent for singing.
“The most experience I had performing was in a school program—not even in a school production—but I think my inexperience was what got me into Saigon because I noticed how its original director Nicholas Hytner was looking at me all the time. I guess it was my rawness they were looking for.”
From there, she went straight to London and played the lead of the award-winning musical from 1993 to 1995, snagging role after role on the stages of “Jesus Christ Superstar” as Mary Magdalene, “Avenue Q” as Christmas Eve; and “Les Miserables” as Eponine and Fantine.
Back home, her career begun to blossom in between her breaks performing at the West End as she bagged roles for Maria in “The Sound of Music,” “West Side Story,” and “The Bridges of Madison Country” with Migs Ayesa, among others.
She counts as her biggest feats, besides landing the role of Kim as a theater greenhorn, are singing “I Dreamed A Dream” for Queen Elizabeth 2nd and several other members of the British Royal Family in attendance; reprising the role of Kim in Miss Saigon’s Australian premiere; as well as being chosen for two West End cast recordings, namely Jesus Christ Superstar as Mary Magdalene and the “Miss Saigon: Complete Symphonic Recording” as Kim.
Currently busy with the original London company’s world tour four “Cats” as Grizabella—who sings the musical’s most famous song, “Memory”—Ampil found herself taking on another major challenge about a year ago in the Philippines. She was offered the role of Paula in the movie adaptation of the Filipino classic “Ang Larawan.” The musical is an adaptation of the late National Artist Nick Joaquin’s acclaimed play “Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino” with a libretto by National Artist for Theater Rolando Tinio and music by professor-composer Ryan Cayabyab.
“I accepted the role because who wouldn’t want to be in something created by two national artists and another one who is sure to be a national artist in the near future?” Ampil said referring to Cayabyab, whom she said led the movie’s cast in a yearlong rehearsal.
“But I have to admit doing ‘Larawan’ was so difficult what with singing its language that is a very deep kind of Tagalog that I almost gave up if it weren’t for Tita Girlie Rodis [one of the movie’s producers]pushing me on.”
Besides the singing, Ampil also had to work with a cast that albeit unquestionably talented all come from different performing backgrounds. Her co-lead is recording artist Rachel Alejandro as Paula’s sister Candida, and their brother Tony is portrayed by TV and movie actor Paulo Avelino for a start.
How did it all work out on the set, The Manila Times asked?
“It was an honor for me to see different veterans on the one set—the likes of Menchu Yulo, Nonie Buencamino, Celeste Legaspi, Dulce, Zsazsa Padilla and Ogie Alcasid to name a few. Some are theater stalwarts, the others from mainstream showbiz and music, but they’re all the best and it’s human nature to feel you’re going to be judged. But it all worked out given our different backgrounds because as long as you have truth in your performance, it will come out. Sa mata naman ‘yon nanggagaling. As for me, coming from theater, the camera becomes my audience,” Ampil eloquently explained.
Now back on tour for “Cats” in Eastern Europe after this Tuesday interview, Ampil hopes to return to Manila in December to help promote the showing of “Ang Larawan,” which will be distributed by Star Cinema.
“We are hoping it will be an entry in the Metro Manila Film Festival so that’s another challenge,” she ended with a chuckle.