As the 1 year anniversary of the West End revival of Miss Saigon hastily approaches, and a new cast begins rehearsals in preparation, I decided to take a trip down to the Prince Edward Theatre to get a word with one of the show's stars - Jon Jon Briones.
He recently earned an Olivier Award nomination for 'Best Actor in a Musical' for his performance as The Engineer and the show itself also earned a nod for 'Best Musical Revival.' I was ushered into his dressing room to find a humidifier already pumping mist into the air, as Jon Jon emerged in his Miss Saigon-labelled tracksuit. This man has an utterly calming presence and is ever the gentleman, relaxed and yet completely present and alert. The company manager later told me that he often gets nervous before interviews for fear of not being understood properly. If he was nervous, he certainly showed his acting talent by masking it here, as he spoke with crystal clarity and an air of humility to match.
I was intrigued to hear Jon Jon's thoughts about the continuing success of Miss Saigon, how he originally created the colourful character of The Engineer, as well as what it was like performing in front of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at last year's Royal Variety Performance. I was also keen to know if he felt Asian actors were still under-represented in the West End and how the future for the Asian acting community might fare.
"It's like the show has a magic," he says about the current incarnation of Miss Saigon, "Even in 1989, when it first opened, the music was ahead of its time. It's not like any other musical you've ever seen. It's talking about serious subject matter. Obviously, the love story is there, but the backdrop is war and unfortunately we are still surrounded by wars everywhere. People are still being displaced and families are still being torn apart."
Jon Jon also credits the brand new set as a good reason to re-visit the show and has been astounded with recent audience reactions. "Even kids who were not born yet when it first opened - and even when it closed - have totally embraced the storytelling they witness before them on the stage. It is wonderful to see how much the show transcends generations."
He has played The Engineer now in the West End premiere of Miss Saigon, in Germany, on an Asian tour, on a UK tour, in his native Philippines and now once again in the West End revival, yet it is a role that he still relishes. When asked if he would like the opportunity to play a different role in the musical, even with colour-blind casting, he replies: "That is an interesting idea, but I am so fortunate to play The Engineer, I don't think I could part with him. He is such an amazing character to play every evening. He'll do just fine for me."
In terms of his inspiration for building the character, he tells me: "It's always good to steal... in acting!" (He quickly adds and laughs at the thought of him encouraging criminal activity), "and who better to steal from than Jonathan Pryce, who originated the role in the West End? That man can act!" He goes on, however, to describe how his own upbringing influenced his own interpretation: "Growing up in a very poor part of the Philippines, I was constantly confronted with people who struggled through life - people who were completely desperate. As an actor, these first-hand experiences have proven to be vital in getting the character's desperation across to the audience every night."
Fast forward about forty years later and we see a true 'rags-to-riches' story play out, as Jon Jon finds himself performing alongside his fellow cast members before the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at last year's Royal Variety Performance. Not many actors can say they have writhed around in a sexual manner on top of a car bonnet in front of royalty, after all. He recalls: "We weren't sure what we were going to do. There were certain people there before that performance who kept asking if we could tone certain parts of it down or change the words here and there in order to make it more 'royal-friendly.' But we had to stay true to the show. I had never performed in a starring role in front of royalty before, so it was such a tremendous evening for me."
He goes on to divulge a conversation he had with Prince William afterwards: "I was quite nervous because I wasn't sure if we were allowed to talk to them or if we had to wait to be spoken to, but luckily Prince William started a conversation with me. I told him that I had had the good fortune to be in the presence of his mother with the original London cast of Miss Saigon. Princess Diana had watched the show and talked to the cast afterwards and told us that, after watching what the Vietnamese children had to endure, she was so grateful that her two little ones were safely tucked up in bed. I think William was quite moved by that. It was a special moment."
Jon Jon was also a big fan of the National Theatre's recent production of Here Lies Love, set in his home country of the Philippines under the rule of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, which earned Olivier Award nominations for 'Best New Musical,' 'Outstanding Achievement in Music' (for David Byrne & Fatboy Slim), and 'Best Theatre Choreographer' (for Annie-B Parsons). Both Here Lies Love and Miss Saigon seem like exceptions to the rule in a West End with so few Asian parts on offer. "I want to encourage more and more Asians to take up acting and take chances. There is such a wealth of talent out there in the Asian community, but they have to be given the opportunity. Too often they can be overlooked and this is where we need the support of producers and directors."
He wonders how the future will look for Asian actors, but takes encouragement from shows like Here Lies Love, which are at the forefront of musical theatre evolution, as well as classic shows like the current Broadway revival of The King and I, that are given the chance to be showcased on both sides of the Atlantic.
In closing, Jon Jon heartily encouraged anyone who has not yet seen Miss Saigon in its current re-imagining to head down to the Prince Edward Theatre to see him "scheming for his life" eight shows a week and then took his leave to visit the physiotherapist. "If I'm working, I'm in pain," he confesses, "But man, it is worth it!"
There's no rest for the wicked... And we all know how wicked The Engineer can be!