Tuesday, 23rd April 2024

Tuesday, 23rd April 2024

On her own: How this Les Miserables star overcame rejection to perform at the West End

03 Apr 2024

In 2021, Ms Nathania Ong became the first Singaporean actress to play Eponine in Cameron Mackintosh’s famous musical. The role propelled her to stardom, capping years of Drama classes, auditions, and perseverance.

With her face smudged in “dirt”, wearing a red beret and long beige overcoat, Ms Nathania Ong strode on stage in London and sang the heart-wrenching strains:

“On my own
Pretending he’s beside me
All alone
I walk with him ’til morning…”

As she reached the chorus, her voice hit a crescendo and the audience responded with not only thunderous applause but also a standing ovation.

The thrill was sweet and intense – and unfathomable just a few years ago for the 25-year-old actress, who first stepped into the limelight as Eponine in the musical Les Miserables in 2021.

Ms Ong in an off-stage moment as street urchin Eponine in the West End production of Les Miserables.

For Ms Ong, singing her melancholic solo about unrequited love inevitably brushed up against her own memories of being spurned. Just six years before, at age 19, she was rejected by all the drama schools that she applied to in the United Kingdom.Today, she is the first Singaporean to play the scrappy and strong-willed character in one of the longest running West End musicals – following in the footsteps of musical greats such as Lea Salonga, whom some reviewers compare her to.

Long has the stage called to her.

But illustrious as these early achievements were, her road to curtain-rise was far from straightforward. 

First Act: Singing, cheerleading… back to singing

The talent was obvious. Vocal coach Babes Conde who heard her sing at a party as a five-year-old, said she had perfect pitch. In the same year, she sang Kit Chan’s Home in front of the late President SR Nathan for Total Defence Day celebrations. 

Eight years later, performing before an audience of 27,000, she led a choir in singing the national anthem for the closing ceremony of the Youth Olympic Games. 

Her father was the family’s vocal coach. He used to sit her down to practise songs line by line, sometimes spending up to an hour on a single line.

“He’s a dentist by profession, and an incredibly detailed person by nature,” she says of Mr Kevin Ong, who used to be a member of vocal group Acapella, which placed third in the 1982 edition of Singapore’s popular SBC Talentime contest. “He taught me that this is the standard you have to work at if you want to be good at something you love.”

The adventurous performer in her opened her up to pursued other interests, and she got waylaid. “In primary school, I tried everything… until I fell in love with competitive cheerleading,” she reveals.

At 14, she threw her lot in with the tough and athletic world of cheerleading, even joining two teams to stretch her potential.

But all the tossing and leaping in the world couldn’t silence that soft voice in her head that told her she had to sing. “During that period, there was a part of me that longed to step back onto the stage,” she recalls. “I think the moment I realised I wanted to (pursue the arts) was when I took a break from it.” 

As a teenager, Ms Ong was always comfortable on stage and in song. She found her groove in musical theatre when she took up a Drama elective at junior college.

The opportunity came when she entered Anglo-Chinese Junior College. When she saw that Drama was offered as an elective, she signed up. There, she learnt to view a performance from different perspectives, not just as an actor. There was analysis of the theatre text, and for written portions of the course, she had to think about how she would stage a play – how she would use lighting, set architecture, and sound to influence the performance. 

The elective also trained individual skills – hers was in musical theatre. It added the dimension of acting to her talent in singing. One of the songs she tackled, Candide’s Glitter And Be Gay, was a relatively tough act but the challenge thrilled her (read on for how this paid off). 

“It gifted me the experience of performing. It made me rediscover my love for it.”

Second Act: Sitting on the balcony crying

With her passion for the stage rekindled, she turned her attention to transforming an aptitude into a career.

There was nowhere better than London, one of the theatre capitals of the world. In 2017, fresh out of junior college, Ms Ong confidently booked a trip there – after submitting applications to five drama schools in Britain.

She was ready to wow the institutions during her auditions, but got pummelled instead. “I got ‘no’s pretty much on the spot,” she admits to the repeated blows to her ego. “Within the first week, I was sitting on my friend’s balcony crying, with three weeks left to do absolutely nothing.”

But in time, she got up and dusted herself off. 

“As an actor, you are made up of your experiences. How you improve as an actor is to build up these experiences – to go and consume life,” she says of how the rejections ended up spurring her on. 

When she returned to Singapore, she picked up where she left off, and enrolled at LASALLE College of the Arts, a move recommended by her Drama teacher in junior college.

Entering LASALLE connected her to a vibrant community of fellow actors and dreamers, which was invigorating; she didn’t feel so alone about wanting to sing and act on stage for a living. “We were all investing in (acting), instead of treating it like a hobby.” Her training, positivity and patience were going to pay off.

Third Act: The West End comes calling

Her best friend heard that Mountview Academy, a leading drama school in London, was holding auditions. She egged her on to put aside the setbacks of the past and take part.

“I was incredibly daunted,” says Ms Ong. Every year, Mountview receives around 1,500 applications for under 40 vacancies for its BA course in Musical Theatre. Still, it was all or nothing. She flew to London – again – and attended the audition. She would sing Glitter And Be Gay, the same song she mastered at ACJC. This time, she got through.

Mountview opened a whole new world of possibilities. In her third year, she secured an acting agent and burst onto London’s theatre scene with her debut role as teenage gossip Jenna Rolan in high-school sci-fi musical Be More Chill.

After that, she landed the role of Eponine in the UK and Ireland tour of Les Miserables.

Nine months into the gig, she received an unexpected call. “They cut my contract early so that they could bring me into the West End,” she says, sounding still thrilled at the coup of snagging a contract to perform on the theatre stretch that shouts “big time”.

This catapulted her into the social media spotlight. “She is serving,” commented one user on a BBC clip on TikTok of her singing Eponine’s anthem On My Own. In Gen-Z slang, to “serve” means to show up in an impressive way.

For the next year, Ms Ong poured her heart into playing Eponine on the West End stage. She performed eight shows a week at the Sondheim Theatre, a feat she says she could sustain because of her love for the craft.

“You have to love what you do, and I really love what I do.”

Ms Ong at the curtain call for Les Miserables.

Success is…embracing life’s twists and turns

With the conclusion of her West End run, she set her sights closer to home.

In October 2023, she played Cinderella in Pangdemonium’s Into The Woods – her local theatre debut. In December, she put on a solo concert for The Business Times’ Budding Artists Fund, which aims to make the arts accessible for underprivileged youth.

What’s next for Singapore’s theatre darling? She shared in a previous interview with Channel NewsAsia that she keeps an open mind, auditioning for whatever roles come her way. But she is also not writing off a break from acting to recharge, refuel, and perhaps nurture other interests – like travelling the world.

“In anyone’s life, there’s never a clear trajectory, even if you’ve been gunning for something since you were young,” she says. “I think there’s something really exciting about a life that isn’t straightforward and isn’t exactly what you expect.”

For more inspiring stories on Singaporeans making waves in the arts, check out:

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