It’s been a quarter of a century since Miss Saigon first opened on the West End, starring Lea Salonga, Jonathan Pryce and an unknown Filipino man named Jon Jon Briones in the ensemble. Now, the beloved musical is back, opening May 21 at the Prince Edward Theatre with Briones playing the leading role of the Engineer. An American citizen since 2010, the Manila-born Briones lives with his wife Megan and two children in Los Angeles, but had no hesitations about hopping the Atlantic when this offer came up. Broadway.com caught up with Briones find out whether, when it comes to a contemporary musical theater classic, you really can go home again.
You were in Miss Saigon when it first opened, so this must feel like deja vu!
Yes, I was there from the beginning, all of 22 years old, and it was my first time outside my country. Everything about the experience at the time was new. I had never before spoken English and there I was, living in my own apartment and earning money and appearing on the West End. I remember there were 15 of us who were brought over from the Philippines to be in the show, so we were a family, so to speak. Lea Salonga and I flew over on the same plane.
Was that a somewhat scary experience at the time?
[Laughs.] I’m sure you remember what you’re like in your early 20s! You think of yourself as fearless and indestructible. It helped that I wasn’t alone and that [producer] Cameron Mackintosh took such good care of us.
Miss Saigon went on very much to define your professional life.
It did! I ended up being the alternate with Leo Valdez in the role of the Engineer in the West End, on tour in Asia and in Germany, where I met my wife, Megan, who was playing Ellen at the time. This show has been very good to me, and it feels good to be back in it again.
On opening night at Drury Lane in 1989, did you have any idea what a phenomenon this musical would become?
That’s the beauty of this show: I’m not sure anyone realized how long it would last. And what we’ve seen in the years since is that what Miss Saigon is about is timeless—we’re still dealing on a daily basis with wars and courage and losing loved ones, so the material is in the spotlight as never before.
It must be fascinating for you playing The Engineer to have watched Jonathan Pryce originate that same role.
Jonathan basically provided a blueprint of the role for all the Engineers to follow. That’s not to say that I feel a need to copy Jonathan’s performance in any way, but I really love what he did and I feel privileged to have watched it take shape.
How would you say your Engineer differs in performance from his?
I believe my take on the character is darker than the usual. My view is that this is someone who will do anything to get what he wants, and I think you need to see the way his mind works. I hope, too, that the audience understands why he acts the way he does.
Of course there was a huge controversy at the time about a non-Asian performer playing an Asian role.
There was, but the way I see it, everything happens for a reason. Back then, I’m not sure there was enough trust in Asian actors that they could be given a lead role, so a lot of the Engineers that followed Jonathan began as covers and after a while it was, like, “Yeah, OK, we can give the role to them.” Suddenly there was a demand for Asian performers that there hadn’t been before, and it took everything that happened to help get it to this point.
Coincidentally, David Henry Hwang’s Face Value [a satiric piece prompted by the controversy] is playing in London at the same time your revival opens.
That is surprising, but perhaps just as surprising is that I was in Face Value myself in Los Angeles: I was the cover for the David Henry Hwang character and the father.
That must have been odd—to be in a show about a show you were in!
I just remember [the company] asking me a lot of questions: "What was the experience of Miss Saigon like?" and “Is this the right voice for Cameron?” It was interesting!
Everyone’s talking about Eva Noblezada, the American teen playing Kim, who is making her stage debut.
Not just England, but the world will love this girl. For Cameron to say to a 17-year-old, “You’re my Kim,” knowing what that entails and what the history of the part is, and for her to just go, “OK, I’m in” is really something. The thing about Eva is she’s not fazed by anything; she has—excuse me for saying this—cojones [laughs].
She’s following in some mighty impressive footsteps.
Lea [Salonga] was 17 at the time herself, and look what happened to her!
Do you and Lea keep in touch?
We do. I live in LA now, and every time she’s in town, and when she has time, we go to dinner. I love Lea: we did Allegiance at the Old Globe in San Diego together, and that was great. I’m so proud of her and what she’s become; and what’s especially nice is that she’s a great human being, as well.
For people who know Miss Saigon, is this production sufficiently fresh to warrant a return visit?
Absolutely. To make any show fresh, you have to have a brilliant mind, and our director Laurence Connor has that. He is a wonderful guiding force. This is an exciting new production, and I am just happy that Laurence is there to guide this journey for me.
What about the helicopter moment: Is that still there?
Let’s just say there’s some kind of effect that will happen; I think people would be very disappointed if it didn’t appear!