BWW Interview: Christian Rey Marbella Talks MISS SAIGON
Christian Rey Marbella has recently taken over as The Engineer on the UK tour of Miss Saigon. This is his tenth year of being involved with the show and this UK tour marks his fifth production.
He has been in Miss Saigon in Manila, on the Asian tour, on the first UK tour, the second UK tour, and was the alternate Engineer in the West End revival in 2014. He has also performed in theatre in the US and his native Philippines.
How did you first become involved with theatre?
I was in a completely different world actually. I was planning to become a doctor. I just finished my pre-med when I learned about a big casting call for Miss Saigon in the Philippines, back in 2000. I heard about it and just wanted to try it out. Fate got in the way and before I knew it, I was already packing my stuff to do this and move around. Sometimes life does that to you and you can only plan so much.
What's the theatre scene like in the Philippines?
Back then, it's not really as big as you would think, like on Broadway or in the West End. Here, in London, theatre is part of the culture. Back home, we've been influenced, but we didn't have musical theatre courses or schools before.
Now, it's only starting. It's sort of like when I did it for the first time - it was more a hobby than anything else. It's wasn't going to be something to do professionally. It's very different.
Tell us about the casting process for Miss Saigon
I'd never really auditioned professionally, so I had no experience whatsoever. I didn't want to just let it pass. It was already in my country, so I didn't have to go anywhere else - except I come from a different island, so I did fly to the capital to audition.
I thought initially I'd come in and out. I'd sing or do something and know by the end of the day if I got in or not. It ended up being a month-long audition. We had probably eight or nine callbacks altogether before they finally decided, "Yeah we want you in".
It all happened so fast - I never really thought I would be doing this professionally! It's not really what I initially planned. But sometimes destiny gets in the way and before you know it, your life is changed.
This is the fifth production of Miss Saigon you've been involved with. Have they all been a bit different?
It's different in a sense. When I did it for the first time, it was the original. Certain aspects of it are very different. Then every production is different, because there's a new cast; the dynamics are going to be different and the energy people produce, the atmosphere.
In terms of sets, I've worked in many different versions of this show. There was the one-time-only set design specifically for the Manilla production, because we have a huge stage there and the original version would look really very small. Everything was an exact replica, like a full-scale helicopter. It was spectacular.
It's different every time, and in this version now, we've managed to focus on the story and the characters of the show more than anything else - more than a lavish set or anything like that. But our set works perfectly for the story.
What was it like going from the West End revival production to the tour?
People would always say, "It's not the West End show", but actually this is the revival show that we're taking on tour. I would say if not the same, it's better. I'm confident enough to say that!
We tweaked some stuff. It's not exactly the same; the choreography is a little bit different depending on the size of the venue. But if people saw the revival, they kind of know what to expect when they come to see it outside of London.
How would you describe The Engineer?
The Engineer is such a colourful character and he has so much depth and so much truth and honesty. It's the most interesting character in the show actually. I'm the one who can actually do some stuff on stage and at the same time break the fourth wall and be the narrator.
He's a seedy street rat, dirty, everything. It's all about survival for this man. He's got to do everything he has to do and exhaust himself to get what he wants. You have a love-hate relationship with him. You think he's annoying, but you also kind of understand where he's coming from. You'll be able to sympathise with him, even though he's bad. He can be quite manipulative. That's why he's called an engineer: he's engineering and instigating and making things happen, but it's all for his survival and for him to get what he wants.
But it's different strokes for different folks. What might work for them might not work for me, so it's a journey for me to find my Engineer, to make it distinct and very me. That is the biggest challenge.
I think I have managed to nail that one, or at least I hope so. The creative team have helped me really to find that. It's a process actually. We're very different in the sense that the story will always be the same, but the nuances are very different. I'm not trying to be different, but just my own take on the character definitely is different from those two or any other Engineers in the past.
Have you done any research about the Vietnam War?
Yes, it's important for me to have some idea of what really happened there. At the end of the day, it's not just about the character - you have to convey a message to the audience. You have to be as truthful and honest as possible.
It's important to have a little bit of background and the feel and the atmosphere, so you can actually portray a character and understand where he's coming from. We had a little bit of a workshop when we started. We watched some movies and documentaries about the Vietnam War that helped us really to understand what happened there, so that our story can be very clear.
This is your tenth year in Miss Saigon. Is it still fresh for you? What is it about it that makes you want to stay involved?
You know, I never really thought I would be involved in this show for ten years. It's not consecutive. I started with the ensemble when I got into the show the first time and I had been given the opportunity to learn different characters. In 2005, I played Thuy before I started covering The Engineer. In every production I do, there's always something new.
As an actor, you want new challenges in your career, so for me that was actually the reason why I stayed this long. But also I believe in the material. You wouldn't find any show that has so much depth in it and so much truth and honesty. Everyone can relate: those who are Millennials and who were born yesterday can actually get a feel with our story of what it was like in that war. People also can relate because there's a war happening right now. The story of Miss Saigon is happening and did happen.
Why do you think audiences still love it so much?
Because it has all the elements of an awesome musical. It has a good story, it has good music, it's sung-through. You won't find as many sung-through shows now. Like I said, it's all about truth and honesty. It's a tragic story, but at the same time there's so much truth in it for the audience. It's very informative and educational at the same time. It's irresistible.
Obviously, Miss Saigon is well known for employing a lot of Asian actors, but what's your perspective on the availability of Asian roles here in the UK?
Obviously, this is life-changing for a lot of Asian actors. Every aspiring Asian actor out there would love to get into a big-scale show like this. It has opened up a lot of opportunities for Asian actors and has put them on the map. We're grateful for this kind of show that we've been given the opportunity to be involved in.
It's still a bit of a struggle for Asian actors to be taken seriously. There's not a lot of material out there for us. It's slowly getting there. I hope for the UK that they're not just going to talk about it, but they're actually going to do something about it. That at the end of the day, it won't matter - Asian, black, or any minority - but who is playing a character.
Why do you think people should come and see Miss Saigon?
They should come and see it because it speaks so much about what's going on around the world. It speaks about universal love, survival, truth. Everyone can relate to it, not just those who have gone through a war. It's great for people to not just read it in books, but get the feel of it. And it's entertaining at the same time!
Any future dream roles?
There's a couple. I'd want to play Thenardier or even Valjean [in Les Miserables]. The first Asian Valjean! Or wear a mask and be the Phantom or one of the managers in Phantom of the Opera. There's lots out there. I'd love to be in Hamilton as well.
What advice do you have for aspiring actors?
I never really imagined I would be doing this professionally, but for those who went through musical theatre or performing arts school, you just have to believe in yourself and continue to invest in and hone your craft. Do your best and be passionate in everything you do.
It's going to be tough; it's not going to be easy for everyone. I know there's only a small percentage who will be able to make it, but it's about honouring your passion. Be in the moment. There's only so much you can plan, but you have to do the work and be clever enough to know what you need to do to get what you want. Do the training and invest in what's important.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson