Jon Jon Briones: ‘I didn’t even know who Cameron Mackintosh was’
“I can write my life story with Miss Saigon as its foundation,” says Jon Jon Briones, the 49-year-old actor for whom that show has occupied the foremost and ever-continuing part of his professional acting career. He was part of its original London cast, imported from his native Philippines to give the ensemble authenticity, and has since appeared in the show in Germany (where he met his American wife, who was playing Ellen at the time), on a UK national tour, and now headlining the London revival at the Prince Edward Theatre, and getting the ultimate accolade of receiving an Olivier award nomination for his efforts.
He is playing the Engineer – the wheeler-dealer fixer of the show, who seeks to use Kim as his passport to escaping Saigon for a new life in America. And in a sense, Briones’ life has followed a similar trajectory. Not that he’s a wheeler-dealer, I hasten to add, but that Miss Saigon did indeed provide him with his passport away from the Philippines – and, in an added twist, as a young man he actually trained as an electrical engineer himself.
“I was studying electrical engineering in Manila, but I’d already been involved in theatre doing small things. A friend of mine was the facilitator for the auditions when Cameron Mackintosh came to Manila to look for people to appear in the show, and he asked me to come and work with him and help him out.”
That star search famously yielded Lea Salonga, who would become an international star for playing the original Kim both in the West End and subsequently on Broadway. “I didn’t even know who Cameron Mackintosh was”, he laughs now, “but after a while, I thought maybe I should audition as well. When I gave Cameron my resume, he thought it was a joke.”
In fact, he got a job in the London ensemble, and says now: “That was my very big break. I call it my first lottery ticket.” It meant giving up his degree. “I’d done five years and was about to graduate, so you can imagine my father’s reaction when I told him I wasn’t going to complete it but go to London. He was really disappointed.”
It awoke a lot of feeling about the Asian community which strengthened the resolve to bring forward Asian actors
But the show came to define his life in new and unexpected ways. Born into a poor family who lived in the slums of Manila, they had sent him to a convent by way of getting him a decent education, where he sang in the choir in lieu of paying fees. He discovered theatre by accident after he left, and one of his first paid jobs was in a revue of Broadway songs called The Great White Way in 1985. Just four years later, he was in the West End, being directed by Nicholas Hytner and watching Jonathan Pryce create the role of the Engineer.
“I was fortunate enough to watch many of the scenes being rehearsed with him. And it was such an unknown journey. I remember one time Nick Hytner gathering everyone together and asking for help, when he didn’t know what to do with the American Dream number. He didn’t want the show to become too like a musical. I’d never heard of directors asking for help like that – in the Philippines, the director is God and they don’t do that.”
He credits it as a life-changing experience, but also one that ended up changing the casting, too, of Asian roles in musicals. “A Caucasian actor playing that part now is unthinkable, which is good, but I think it happened for a reason, and it awoke a lot of feeling about the Asian community which strengthened the resolve to bring forward Asian actors.”
Of Pryce, he now says: “He was probably not right for the part, but he left a lasting legacy, because his performance as the Engineer patterned the role and all subsequent ones followed it from that. He gave us a blueprint of what to do with the role and how far you can go with it.”
When the show went to Broadway for the first time, there was a heavily orchestrated campaign by Asian American actors against Pryce reprising his performance there, but when Mackintosh threatened to cancel the production entirely, Pryce was allowed to do so.
Asian American playwright David Henry Hwang wrote a play about that controversy called Yellow Face, which transferred to the National’s Temporary Theatre after being staged at north London’s Park Theatre. Today, Briones says: “Thank God we’ve moved on from ‘yellowface’ today, but there’s still a lot to be done.” (Intriguingly, given his front row seat on the whole evolution of the show and Pryce’s role in it, he has since appeared in a production of Yellow Face himself in Los Angeles. “There are characters based on Pryce and Cameron, so the actors were asking me a lot of questions about them during rehearsals,” he says. “It was a blessing – I was able to see both sides of it”).
Today, he offers this perspective on the cultural choices and opportunities that Asian actors have had to fight for: “The Asian community was trying to say that since childhood we’ve been watching actors representing our culture, but without seeing people who looked like us doing so. At the same time, I’ve never seen people of colour do other roles, either. How many shows are there already with predominantly Caucasian casts? The cry is to let us have the opportunity to tell our stories and other stories as well, not just about being an Asian but also an English person or an American person.”
In 2012, Briones was involved in the development of a new American musical called Allegiance at San Diego’s Old Globe that, he says, “I was very proud of”. It told the story of Asian-Americans being rounded up and put in internment camps in the Second World War, after Pearl Harbour, over fears of them being spies. It is being scheduled for a Broadway premiere later this year, and assuming it makes it, it will be the first musical for a decade to have featured a predominantly Asian cast there.
Briones himself has spent the largest part of the last couple of decades living in America himself, first in New York from 1997 to 2002 before he got another call from Mackintosh to do a UK tour of Miss Saigon in 2004 – “It’s the show that keeps giving” – and both his children, now aged 16 and 10, were born in the UK.
They are the children of Miss Saigon, since Briones met their mother, too, while appearing in the show in Stuttgart, Germany. “After a while she said she wanted to go back home, but I was a bit sceptical: I was a little afraid of America. It’s so big that it’s going to eat you up, I feared.”
After returning from the UK tour of Miss Saigon, the family relocated to Los Angeles, where Briones now concentrated on TV and movies. “I also did a lot of work in 99-seat theatres – I liked it, because it broke the monotony of going to sets.”
A couple of years ago, he had a crisis himself: “I almost gave up acting. Only LA actors will understand this, but after an audition you’ll be in your car screaming your lungs out if it doesn’t go well. I was questioning God – ‘What do you want for me?’ and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll quit.’”
But then Mackintosh called again. “He asked me to audition for Miss Saigon again for his new West End production. He always wants to make sure you can still do it – and that you want to do it. And at the audition, he was throwing me things left and right; he was testing me to see if I could deliver something new.”
This time he was creating the part for a brand-new take on the show. “The main request from Cameron was to make it grittier, to get to his desperation and want to get out of Saigon. We show what ends he’ll go to to make that happen.”
Mackintosh, too, is famously relentless in his own determination to make things happen. “Cameron and his crew know what works now – it has been done so many times, he knows what works and doesn’t work and what needs to be tried. The process is quite scary, because he’s always there – he can immediately say tweak this, tweak that, which saves time.”
Among the productions Briones has done has also been one in the Philippines itself, back in 2000. “Since the majority of Asian actors in the show have come from the Philippines, they think it’s a Filipino musical there now. They think they own Miss Saigon.”
But more recently Here Lies Love was premiered Off-Broadway and came to the National last year to open the Dorfman Theatre – that’s actually set in the Philippines. “That show was amazing,” Briones says. “I grew up with the Marcoses, and protested [against] them. So to see that story onstage, and performed by people like me at the front centre of the show, was wonderful.”