Meet the Pinay starring in Broadway's 'Annie'

Posted at 05/28/2013 7:34 PM | Updated as of 05/31/2013 6:35 PM
J. Elaine Marcos in "Annie"

NEW YORK -- Filipina Broadway-actress J. Elaine Marcos stars alongside Emmy Award-winning actress Jane Lynch, more known as Coach Sue Sylvester on the TV hit "Glee," in the glorious revival of the hit musical "Annie" on Broadway this season.

Marcos plays the wacky secondary antagonist Lily St. Regis (portrayed by Bernadette Peters in the 1982 movie version) who connives with Lynch’s Miss Hannigan, the hard-drinking, grumpy orphanage head. Both are part of the musical’s evil-thinking trio who attempts to kidnap Annie and swindle her tycoon foster parent Daddy Warbucks to get rich instantly.

Their brassy, high-kickin’ number, “Easy Street” brings down the house at every performance at the Palace Theater across Times Square.

Marcos is remotely related to the family of former Philippine President although she hasn’t met any of them yet. In fact, she was chosen to play the cameo role of Imelda Marcos in the stage version of “The Wedding Singer” in 2006.

Two years ago, she played another Filipina role in the campy musical “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” as Cynthia, the mail-order bride who effortlessly upstages the drag queen leads when she performs the infamous “pop-the-ping-pong-ball” routine in a man’s club. Both Broadway roles hold the distinction of having speaking and singing lines in the Filipino language.

In this exclusive interview, Marcos talks about discovering her “funny bone,” her thoughts on past stage roles and the non-traditional process of casting on Broadway.

Q: Most of the latest roles you've done on Broadway have comedic leanings. How early did you discover this "comedienne" part of you?

A: I loved watching comedies as a kid. Plus my Dad loves to laugh. He isn't the best person to deliver a joke, mind you, (sorry Dad) because sometimes it takes him too long to get to the punch line, but he loves telling jokes. I wanted to do the same thing. It just seemed like so much fun.

I think I realized I had a funny bone in me when I would do presentations in school and get a good grade just because the presentation was somewhat comedic. I even ran for student council and became student council president. I didn't care so much about the politics, I just wanted a reason to do a silly presentation in front of my whole high school.

Q: I'm assuming you prefer this to drama? If given a choice, which dramatic role would you love to play?

A: I would love to just try playing Kim in “Miss Saigon” ...for maybe a week.

As an actor, I'd love to be able to tap into those serious emotions. I think it would be wonderful to use them in a dramatic setting. But I know I wouldn't last doing that show for a long time. Since I normally get somewhat bored doing the same thing over and over again, I could see myself trying to infuse some type of comedy in that very dramatic show and it wouldn't work. Especially at the very end when she uses a gun, I could just see myself using a fake gun that shot confetti instead. Funny, yes, but inappropriate.

Q: Sony’s Columbia Pictures announced plans of a 2014 “Annie” film remake with 9-year old African-American Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis playing the title role, which is traditionally portrayed as a freckle-faced redhead. Lily St. Regis, as well, has always been stereotyped as a "blonde bombshell" but keeping up with the color blind casting trend, the director cast a petite Asian for this 2013 revival.

A: There was a great feeling that I had but it was very intimidating going into an audition room with “Annie” director James Lapine (three-time Tony Award-winning writer of “Into The Woods,” “Falsettos” and “Passion”). My big goal is to make them laugh since I knew that James and all the creative team heard the same sides over and over and over. So I decided to use what I got: fun characters and inappropriate accents.

I ended up doing the whole scene they gave me in a character I created that has an Asian accent. Then the scene lead straight into singing “Easy Street,” so I decided that I should probably continue this character into the song. There was also a bit of a dance break so I did some random kicks, some horrific tap moves, some over-the-top hip hop grooves and perhaps some Gangnam Style-steps and anything else I felt like in the moment.

After that was done, I knew I had big fun and did exactly what I wanted to do, which was to make them laugh.

Q: How cool is it working with the great Jane Lynch started?

Clarke Thorell (Rooster), Jane Lynch (Miss Hannigan), J. Elaine Marcos (Lily St. Regis) in "Annie." Photo by Joan Marcus

A: Sharing the stage with Jane every night is always an "OMG!! I love my job" moment. It’s been a week since she joined the cast and it has been AWESOME. She is "hilarious" and "mean " in such a loving and likable yet scary way.

Jane is such a pro, too. First day of rehearsal, she was on point. Harmonies, dance moves, staging; she knew her stuff really fast. I love playing the role because that's exactly what we do on stage together. Play.

Q: After more than three decades since it was first staged, how does the audience of today relate to this revival of "Annie"? Is it as it was from the original staging?

A: Audiences are very appreciative and moved by the revival. The staging and some of the scenes are revised but the heart of the show is still the same. You have these little girls who steal the show and Sandy, the dog, who then steals the show from the girls, and add up Mr. Anthony Warlow who steals your heart when he sings. I also think adults who grew up seeing the show bring their little ones to the show so that they can watch their child experience “Annie” for the first time.

Q: Which female comedic musical role do dream of playing?

A: If " Finding Nemo" became a musical on Broadway, I would LOVE to play Dory.”

Q: You once played Imelda Marcos very briefly in a musical. Her life story is now being played to rave reviews off Broadway (“Here Lies Love). How do you feel about this?

A: When I tell people my last name is Marcos, they always ask me "how many pairs of shoes do I have?" So I am glad that people can see who Imelda is, beyond the "shoes." I haven't had a chance to see it yet but my brother-from-another-Filipino-mother Jose Llana plays Ferdinand Marcos so I'll be there soon... to give him notes.

Q: How did Filipinos react to the Filipina mail-order bride role of Cynthia in the stage musical version of "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"?

A: Filipinos LOVED hearing Cynthia speaking in Tagalog and watching her do her “ping-pong ball” number. I know I loved playing that role. She's pretty much an homage to all our moms or aunties who get a little wild a crazy after having a drink or two...or six. I think we can all relate to Cynthia when she gets a little carried away at the bar and people are cheering her on, then she ends up embarrassing her friends by doing something silly. We can all relate to that ...right? Or is that just me?

How much of me is still Filipino?? I don't think you ever lose it. Well, I did have knee surgery years ago and received a new ACL in my knee so maybe I'm only 98% Filipino and the other 2% is questionable.

Q: In the highly competitive casting world of Broadway, is being Asian, or Filipino to be exact, more of an asset or a liability?

A: Non-traditional casting is everywhere on Broadway and casting directors love being able to break out of the traditional mold if they find the right talent. I've never felt like I was never "accepted" as a performer. Not that I've never been rejected or been told "no" but there are so many factors involved in the casting process. Do I fit the director's idea of the character? Do I physically look like the type they want? Can I vocally hit the notes that are required? Do I possibly remind the casting director of a girl who was mean to her in high school? There are so many factors involved.

When I audition I bring my talent, my passion, my professional attitude, and my positive spirit and it just so happens that it comes in a lovely Filipino package. I think you have to think of yourself as an asset being whoever you are. There is no way to succeed in this business if you even think for a moment "being Asian is a liability."

I didn't book Lily St. Regis in Annie because I WAS or WASN'T Filipino. I am sure it had more to do with other things than "being Asian." I actually think not having self-respect or self-love is a liability.

J. Elaine Marcos (far left in green) and the cast of "Annie" at curtain call. Photo by Walter McBride provided by author

“Annie” the musical is on an open-ended run at the Palace Theater on Broadway at 47th Street, NYC.