Joanna Ampil joins Stages' 'West Side Story'

We hear you, Joanna 
By Walter Ang
September 2008 issue
Metro Magazine

If Joanna Ampil had a corporate job, she reckons she'd be a workaholic. But because she is an accomplished musical theater actress who's been based in London's West End for the past sixteen years, she describes herself as a "rehearsal-holic."

"I don't want to waste time," she says. "I really look forward to rehearsing, I love it." After flying to Manila, she went straight to rehearsals the following day for her homecoming musical in the Philippines: Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's "West Side Story" produced by Stages, a theater company headed by Audie Gemora.

Joanna comes full circle by being able to finally work with Audie, the actor who inspired her to pursue a life on stage. She had seen him perform in a musical when she was younger. "I remember the way he was dancing. He was so free. That was a turning point for me, I wanted to get into theater," she says. There was no looking back for Joanna after she auditioned for the London production of "Miss Saigon" in 1993.

She had only turned eighteen when she started her run in the lead role of Kim for the famed Cameron Mackintosh-produced musical. After that came an impressive list of roles. She was Mimi in "Rent." She was handpicked by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to play Mary Magdalene in "Jesus Christ Superstar." She was Eponine in "Les Miserables." She actually graduated from the Eponine role to the Fantine role before Lea Salonga did.

Down-to-earth With credentials like that, you would think Joanna would be every bit a prima dona. The petite and charming actress is quick to dispel this notion. "I don't want my fellow cast members to be intimidated just because I've performed in London nor because I'm playing a lead role in this musical. I make sure I talk to everyone, after all, I'm just like everybody else," she says.

When Metro interviewed her, she was worried about, of all things, having onion-breath after a meal and schemed around with her manager Girlie Rodis on where she could sneak off to brush her teeth, giggling and all. Unassuming and earnest, it's easy to see why Joanna is so endearing and why she really is, as she claims, just like the rest of us.

But of course, definitely unlike the rest of us, she's got a great set of pipes. It is surprising to know, therefore, that Joanna's never had any formal training in singing. "I have a maternal aunt who made me listen to songs on the radio and explain the lyrics to me," she says. "So you could say she was my first singing teacher."

Joanna's parents realized their little girl loved to sing and supported her all the way. "I used to do shows in our living room," Joanna says. "My teachers in school were also very encouraging. I joined school shows and local contests."

Life leads the way Now, local audiences will finally have a chance to see why Joanna has been attracting rave reviews halfway across the world. Joanna admits that Kim was really her dream role and all the roles that came after where really bonuses. However, when she found out about the Manila staging of West Side Story, she made plans to become part of it just so she could play the lead role of Maria.

She's using rehearsal time to thresh out her characterization for her role. "Maria falls in love and her whole world starts revolving around that man. It's a challenge to get into that mode because I'm a very independent woman. I won't just drop everything for a man," Joanna says. "I focus on what I want to do in life and I work hard for it."

Her independence also plays out in the way she schedules for the future. "I'm such a gypsy. I don't like being tied down. I like being everywhere," she says. So peripatetic is her outlook in life that, save for a trip to visit her family in US this Christmas after 16 years of not being with them during the holidays, she still has no plans for after the run of the show. "I never, ever plan my life. I never even knew I would be able to perform in Manila. I just found out about the show through the internet," she says. "This way, everything's a surprise. This way, life's an adventure."