Saturday, January 21, 2012

BWW Phils. Interview: PRISCILLA's J. Elaine Marcos Talks Ping-Pong Balls, Pink Boas & More

TV, film, and Broadway actress J. Elaine Marcos
By Oliver Oliveros, BroadwayWorld.com

New York, January 18, 2012 – TV, film, and Broadway actress J. Elaine Marcos can’t shy away from the fact that she’s a distant relative of the Marcoses, the Philippines’ most controversial political clan. Apart from the obvious last name and broadly similar facial features as Imee Marcos, the current governor of the northern province of Ilocos Norte, J. Elaine even made a cameo appearance as Imee’s mom, Imelda Marcos, the Philippines’ former first lady, in the Broadway musical comedy The Wedding Singer five years ago. Nonetheless, the Marcoses (and Filipinos around the world) should pay attention to this petite, brown-skinned, talented actress – J. Elaine happens to be carrying an impressive Broadway resume that includes Miss Saigon, Flower Drum Song, Wonderful Town, Sweet Charity, again The Wedding Singer, A Chorus Line, and her latest assignment, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, where she does a show-stealing turn as Cynthia, a feisty Filipina mail-order bride who performs the late ‘70s hit single “Pop Muzik” (interspersed with lyrics in Filipino, e.g. “isa, dalawa, tatlo, I’m rapping in Filipino”) while blowing out ping-pong balls into the audience.

“Comedy, first of all, is something I absolutely love. If there’s one thing that I really know very well, it’s this character [Cynthia]. I’ve said many times that Cynthia’s like my mom: Cynthia's over-the-topness – that kind of exaggerated persona – is what I love to do because I don’t ever really get to do that at all in my real life. When it comes to other comedies, I tend to do it completely subtle and dry. With Cynthia, I feel completely at home doing it. I don’t feel artificial,” J. Elaine tells BroadwayWorld.com in an exclusive one-on-one interview. “However, I’m not really good at ping-pong. But, I’m good at bowling; I’d go for the big balls,” she bursts out.

J. Elaine Marcos as Cynthia in Broadway's
Priscilla: Queen of the Desert;
photo by Joan Marcus
American singer, actress, and comedian Bette Midler brings the screen-to-stage adaptation of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert to Broadway, which opened at Palace Theatre (1564 Broadway) in March 2011 and recently announced performance schedules running through September 2012. The Tony Award-winning musical (Best Costume Design for Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner) tells the story of Bernadette (Tony Sheldon), Mitzi (Will Swenson), and Adam (Nick Adams) – three drag queens-cum-best friends who engage in their wildest road trip ever (driving the “Priscilla” bus across the Australian desert), where they meet J. Elaine’s Cynthia and husband to Cynthia, Bob (C. David Johnson), an Australian mechanic who eventually joins the drag queens’ expedition.

Except for Tony, who originated the role of Bernadette in Australia five years ago, J. Elaine, Will, Nick, C. David, and the rest of the original Broadway cast of Priscilla first performed their respective roles via the North American premiere of Priscilla in Toronto, six months prior to opening on Broadway. J. Elaine recalls, “The Canadians loved it. I’m not used to an audience getting up, dancing, pumping fists in the air, and wearing [pink] boas at the same time. Especially in the last show I was in, which was A Chorus Line, there wasn’t even an opportunity on that show at the very end for the audience to clap because we had this finale ["One"] which people think was our last number; but that was actually our bows. They were singing along with it; they were just sitting in their seats; but, they never had the opportunity to clap.”

In contrast, she adds, “I remember in Toronto, the first time we did the show, the cast was really shocked with the amount of enthusiasm coming back from the audience. I remember Tony saying, ‘I knew you guys would be amazed at the reception we’re getting; you would be getting it every night.’ And, it does feel good…The audience knows the show’s music, e.g. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Material Girl,” and “I Will Survive.” You just kind of let go and you don’t have to worry so much about the lyrics of the songs. In the finale, I’ll be looking at the audience and I’ll notice, literally, a random group of Filipinos would be waving at me and I'll be waving back at them."

Apparently, among Priscilla’s opening night audience in Canada was J. Elaine’s mom, her sole inspiration in creating the hilarious role of Cynthia. “My mom just laughed when she saw the show in Toronto. I would say that she definitely felt so honoured because everyone remembers Cynthia. I don’t think that she realized that the audience loves Cynthia because she’s kind of crazy though, “ J. Elaine bursts into loud laughter. “But, I’m glad that people have embraced Cynthia, in a sense, love her.”

J. Elaine Marcos rehearses for Priscilla: Queen of the Desert in Toronto;
photo by Racheal McCaig
An alumna of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) in New York City, J. Elaine first came to the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” in 1994. “I took a two-year program at AMDA – pretty much singing and acting all day for two years. Then, I kept on till I got to working on Broadway then TV and film (which includes appearances in NBC’s 30 Rock and Lipstick Jungle; and a feature role in Morning Glory, a comedy film with Rachel McAdams and Harrison Ford, among others).” Even though working on TV and film is more financially rewarding compared to working in a musical theater production, J. Elaine wouldn’t mind filming during the day and performing in the theater in the evening. “I love the theater because of the gut feeling of the live audience and the immediate reaction. It’s so fast. Doing a film is also wonderful; but let’s be honest, television and film pay much more. But I’m very grateful because [both TV and film] people recognize my work in Priscilla.”

Recently nominated as one of the Outstanding Filipino-Americans in New York, together with other Filipino actors who have been making a name for themselves on Broadway like MiG Ayesa (Rock of Ages) and T.V. Carpio (Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark), J. Elaine is so amazed with the strong bond among Filipino artists working in American theater. “We all know each other. They’re only a few of us, and we respect each other,” she says. “Miss Saigon was my Broadway debut (last one year and a half before it closed in 2001). That was the first time that I really was able to embrace my Filipino culture in a way. During dinner time, someone would bring [Filipino food] kare-kare or dinuguan. The dressing room smelled like food – our food. Miss Saigon really brought a lot of Filipinos together.”

Consequently, Filipino artists continue to conquer the bright lights of Times Square till this day: George Salazar and Ana Maria Perez de Tagle star in the first Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell; Catherine Ricafort stars as Ali in Broadway’s current 10th longest-running musical, Mamma Mia!; Bobby Lopez has been consistently winning Tony Awards for his original scores for musicals, for instance, his works for 2003’s hit musical Avenue Q and today’s hottest show in town, The Book of Mormon; and of course, J. Elaine never ceases in bringing the house down every night at Priscilla.

J. Elaine stresses that “in the workplace, we always make fun of stereotypes because we know our types: I know I’m short, Asian, Filipino. Another guy knows that he’s the tall, black guy. We look at the breakdowns: that’s what we see, and that’s what it is. But, we know we’re more than that. It’s not an issue amongst us. Thankfully, we know it takes a lot to get a job. In musical theater, they really put you into a wringer. They want to make sure you can sing, act, dance, and you can harmonize. Everyone made it through the wringer, so we’re more than just our types.”

“I’m going to stay with the Priscilla as long as it runs. Like I said, it feels like home. It’s a good thing!” she exclaims as BroadwayWorld.com wraps up the interview.

Priscilla: Queen of the Desert at Broadway’s Palace Theatre is currently offering winter season tickets starting at $43. You may purchase tickets at www.priscillaonbroadway.com.