Up until theatres closed for the foreseeable future, Joaquin Pedro Valdes was part of the Ensemble of The King and I UK and International Tour along with being first cover for the role of Lun Tha. In 2018, Joaquin joined the cast of Miss Saigon for their UK and International Tour and, the previous year, was part of the Manila premieres of Matilda the Musical as Mr. Wormwood and Kinky Boots as Standby Charlie Price. Joaquin was a member of boy band 17:28 in the early 2000s and they recently reunited to record special versions of their hit singles SUKOB NA and COME BREATHE ME. Last week, we caught up with Joaquin about his time in The King and I, touring with Miss Saigon and reuniting with the rest of 17:28.
Can you tell us about your time touring the UK and Internationally as Ensemble in The King and I?
An absolute dream! Ask me just a year ago if I would ever be able to breathe the same air as Broadway and West End legends like Annalene Beechy, Jose Llana, Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe I’d tell you to “shut up!”. But life has a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it. Our UK and International Touring cast was exactly that – a delicious mix of UK and International Talent. We had cast members from all around the world – Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Nepal, Philippines, United States, Ireland, Amsterdam, Scotland and England. I’m honestly sure I missed out on some countries, it’s quite difficult to count but it was truly a gorgeous mixed bag of cultures and experiences. So, touring the country and experiencing new places with this group was really quite memorable.
I know they say it’s usually an exception to the rule, but it was really nice to see the entire touring cast and crew get along really well.
You covered numerous roles on the tour, what were they like to play?
I only got to go on for my First Cover which was Lun Tha. I know I might be a little biased, but I think We Kiss In A Shadow and I Have Dreamed are two of the most beautiful love songs ever to be written by Rodgers and Hammerstein and ever to be written in history full stop. I remember as a kid, destroying our Betamax copy of the Yul Brynner film. I grew quite frustrated as a Musical Theatre kid with a pre-puberty voice not being able to copy the gorgeous baritone of Carlos Rivas. As soon as my voice changed, it was one of those roles that I’d wish would come my way. And it did!
Just to be able to sing these songs the way it was originally written on the page, with a full orchestra, and within a Tony Award-winning revival was a LOT to take in. It helps that we were led and guided so carefully by our musical directors Steve Ridley and Malcolm Forbes-Peckham. I do remember the first time I went on. It was in Tokyo, Japan and I was on stage with Kelli O’Hara, Ken Watanabe and Takao Osawa. There’s always that one second right before you go on where you just leave everything you know and rehearsed and memorised in your head at the wings, and step on that stage allowing your soul to takeover. I do not remember much of the actual show, save for that curtain call when Kelli O’Hara gave my hand a tight little squeeze during the bows. It was all I needed to know that I wasn’t dreaming.
I was Second Cover for The Kralahome, Captain Orton and Edward Ramsay. Although I never went on save for the cover run, it was an absolute joy rehearsing these characters. I was particularly having fun playing around with Captain Orton and Edward since it was my first time to cover a role that was traditionally white. Philip Bulcock, who was our principal for these roles, is an incredible actor, and it was fantastic observing him throughout the process. Philip and I have become great friends and I still go to him for loads of acting and professional advice.
What did you know about the production before being cast?
I was still in the Philippines when this was revived on Broadway. It went on to win numerous Tony Awards particularly ones for Kelli O’Hara, Catherine Zuber, Ruthie Ann Miles and Best Revival. I honestly felt relieved that there was space and room again in this age to investigate a classic and one that put Asian culture and actors at the fore. There are really only two shows with Asian stories that have survived the test of time – The King and I and Miss Saigon. So, it was exciting to see this in its new form. I’ve only known of Bartlett Sher’s impeccable work revisiting classics and reinvigorating new discourse in seemingly tried texts from afar, so when I learned that he was at the helm of the revival, it excited me to know that there was going to be new ideas presented.
Little did I know that I was eventually going to be in the “room where it happens.”
How was it being part of the cast of Miss Saigon?
It was everything and nothing I thought it would be. I think being part of Miss Saigon is in the DNA of every Filipino musical theatre performer. I was five years old when Lea Salonga and the rest of the historic “first batch” of Filipino actors went to the West End to be part of what was then Cameron Mackintosh’s brand new musical from the Boublil-Schönberg genius tandem. When the show snowballed into the gargantuan epic that it is now, Filipino theatre actors finally felt that they had a place in the international scene too. In 2017, I visited Broadway for the first time ever with my wife and the very first show we watched was the revival starring Eva Noblezada and Rachelle Anne Go (another Filipino!). It was poetic to see the show that I had long dreamed about in the city that I had long dreamed about. I remember telling my wife “I can be that guy that rides the bike across the stage!”. Eerily, that was exactly the track I had in the show! When I got the email and call from my agent saying I had been cast in the 2018-2019 UK tour of the 2014 revival, it was unreal. I didn’t know that the Universe allowed me to dream that big.
I thought I knew the show, but being a part of the process really opened me up to things I couldn’t have imagined. What I really needed to adjust to was the extremely world-class standard, quality and expectation. Yes, it was a dream come true, but it was extremely hard work. It felt like the best possible training ground to really pay my dues if I wanted to continue a profession in this craft and in this capacity. Just to be supervised and directed by our creative team was training I couldn’t afford in my lifetime. I grew up as an actor, as a co-actor, as a professional and as a human being tremendously.
What was it like covering the roles of The Engineer and Thuy and how was it rehearsing as these characters?
The bespoke and hands-on direction we got from Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy and Tom O’Brien really made us feel involved and considered. The attention to detail to both of these characters in this version of the show is immense. There are layers upon layers of subtext and context that make these characters more human than merely villainous. Thuy suffers from not having enough “stage time” to really spoon-feed his plight to the audience, so the Creative Team was very particular about creating an extremely real and three dimensional human who was also a victim of war and ideology. Working with them was like watching a sculptor chip away at a piece of stone to really fine tune nuances and subtleties that flesh the character out.
The Engineer is a behemoth of a character. I remember JP telling me that he was wanting to see a version of The Engineer that felt natural to my physicality. I loved the individuality in portraying him. What is sexy, scheming and slithering for one actor isn’t necessarily the same for another. When I was in the process of creating my Engineer, I found myself unpacking a lot of darkness I didn’t realise I was carrying all along. It’s a necessary evil so to speak – I can’t drop a dark and grim punchline like “Selling Your Mom Is Wrench / Perfume Can Cover A Stench” if I didn’t find it funny myself. So I had to go there.
It was nice to be in constant rehearsal and exploration with these characters. There’s always so much to unearth and discover. The sound, the physicality, the text and the invisible thinking are in constant play.
What drew you to the musical and how was it performing for the final time?
Any time there is a casting call in Manila for Miss Saigon, the line for the audition would always go around the block. People would turn up in the thousands. I was there in 2016 when they first were casting for the first year of the UK Tour. I had been on and off theatre at this point since I was juggling an advertising career that paid the bills so I could occasionally do what I really loved – theatre. I thought if I got in Miss Saigon it would be my golden ticket out of a job I wasn’t crazy about. I made it all the way to the callbacks and then didn’t get cast for the 2017 contract. After going through a depression and regrouping, I decided to leave my Ad Man job and pursue my first love – with or without Saigon. 2017 was my “Eat, Pray, Love” year just diving back into theatre (I did four productions that year), did a pilgrimage to The Great White Way, and began applying to drama schools in the UK. I had gotten a place for a really prestigious school, and was preparing my documents to pursue that, but the Universe had alternative plans. I got into Miss Saigon 2018 and the rest is history.
Our last show in England was at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford, and the last show of the tour was in Cologne, Germany. I remember Richard Jones, our associate choreographer, giving us a little pep talk (one of many from our bosses that we welcomed) in Bradford telling us that it was possibly the last time this amazing show was going to be performed in the UK in a very long time if not ever. Things got real. I was overcome with a great sense of purpose, honour and fulfilment.
What a thing it is to be a part of history.
You were part of Matilda the Musical as Mr. Wormwood, what was the audience response like to the show?
The Manila premiere of Matilda was absolutely fun. It was the first time a professional production of the show was to premiere separately from the original RSC staging. So the designs, the sets and the special effects were all original. Plus, it was a full-Filipino cast. The response was tremendous! The audience loved it. It was my first time to really play a “villain” with such a physical and tonal comedy to him. Our director Bobby Garcia has a knack for identifying an actor’s potential and pushing him to the limit. It was a role that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen myself playing but Bobby saw something I didn’t.
The real stars of the show were the children. It was such a great energy and environment for all of us. There was a responsibility we adults felt we carried to ensure that the children had a professional and positive experience to the whole process. Most of the theatre veterans I shared the stage with started out as young children in the theatre, so we were extra careful to give the kids an enriching and unforgettable experience so they grew up loving the craft as much as we do.
The UK touring cast eventually went to Manila recently for a short-lived but well-received run. The best compliment I got was from some people who had seen the incredible Stephen Jubber as Mr. Wormwood. They said he reminded them of my Mr. Wormwood back in 2017. I must have done something right!
With Kinky Boots opening in Manila in 2017, how was the experience as Standby Charlie Price?
I absolutely love this show and this role. I originally auditioned for Charlie Price but was then offered Mr. Wormwood for later in the year, but because of unforeseen circumstances, they called me in last minute to learn the track as a Standby. I had to learn the track in a week. It was intense and really fun! Some of my favourite songs to belt out to! It has a great message of identity and acceptance. That’s a message we can never overstate.
I bumped into THE Billy Porter in New York while watching a show and introduced myself. He told me he’d heard of the Manila version and was so tickled at the fact we kept “I’m Your Coco Butter Bitch” in the show. Why wouldn’t we?
If there’s anything to really say about this show it’s you haven’t lived until you’ve seen our Filipino Angels!
You played Spike in Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike, how was this?
Bonkers! I was alongside Manila’s Theatre ROYALTY in the top bill of the show which was super cool. But mostly, the rehearsals were just as riotous as the show itself. The director pretty much allowed me to throw everyone off every time, and it added so much spontaneity and surprise for each show. It was hella cold in the theatre since I was mostly naked. We had Jhett Tolentino, one of the original Tony winning producers of the original Broadway production, come watch the show a couple of times and he loved it enough to keep coming back. It was great affirmation to perform the piece for someone who was directly involved in the original production. We don’t get opportunities like that often so it was a treat.
How different is it being a stage actor in the Philippines opposed to the UK?
Extremely different. Even if I’ve been a professional stage actor since I was eleven, Philippine theatre is still an infant compared to the UK. The UK theatre industry and practice dates back to even before the mediaeval era. The support it gets from the public and private sector to stage, mount, tour and create new shows for artistic and commercial pursuits is massive. The Philippines isn’t quite there yet. The talent is immense and unmistakable, but it is still wanting in training, development, funding and infrastructure. While it has a very rich history, especially during the Spanish colonisation and American occupation, it is still in the early process of finding its true cultural identity. Sadly, commerce plays a factor so theatrical runs are not as long and sustainable yet. A show in Manila would be lucky to have around twenty/twenty-five shows total. So, you can just imagine how I felt when I hit my 100th show milestone.
I know it’s cheesy but my wife sends me a “break a leg” message every day before a show tallying how many I’ve done internationally. Before COVID-19 stopped the world, I had done 487 shows total. It might not be a big deal to most, but it’s massive for a Filipino dreamer like me.
What’s your favourite aspect of touring?
My favourite thing to do is geek out on research prior to visiting a city. Knowing that we only have a couple of weeks in each venue, I’d try to maximise my time. I’m a huge history and culture nut, so it was almost imperative to check out the art scene and do some historical tours and whatnot. It also helped that we closely worked with local backstage crew, dressers and FOH so we usually get first hand tips on what not to miss out on while we’re there. This was especially true for our stint in Zurich, Switzerland and Tokyo, Japan! We used all the help we could get getting around a new city with a different language. And all that gorgeous food.
Touring has brought me and my wife to cities we never would have dreamed of going to! We really got to see the best of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. And to really live there for a while. I love booking digs near the theatre and just walking to and from work and home. It gives me room to be silent in my thoughts and keep dreaming.
Had you always wanted a theatre career and how did you get into it?
As far back as five years old, my family would always put up these elaborate shows for Christmas. By virtue of being the youngest with no other responsibility (nor talent) other than to look cute, they’d put me as a prop to get the cheapest laugh and applause amongst our captive audience – our friends and relatives. HAHA. But my family has always loved the musicals. The Sound of Music, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon would always be playing in the Betamax player or the record player. My brothers and sisters are also all quite musically inclined so we were dubbed as the “Valdes Family Singers”. I distinctly remember my brother and my sister constantly singing Sun and Moon or my cousins dancing to Jellicle Cats. It was always around. It was hard not to love it.
My first ever professional show was for a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. They needed kids in the ensemble, and I had taken a few summer stock workshops with the company. That was 1995, I was eleven years old, I got bit by the bug, and I never stopped.
You have experience in directing and filmmaking, can you tell us more about this?
I finished in University as a Film Major and directed my first film in 2009 and my first full feature film in 2010. I had spent a few years studying to be an Architect, but realised halfway through that I really was more of an artist and storyteller. There was a general fear from my family to pursue a career in theatre since they felt this wasn’t as lucrative as they’d want it to be, so I went for the next best thing – filmmaking. I loved telling stories and I loved visual art and photography. I eventually built a name for myself directing commercials, music videos and short films, but the advertising world, while lucrative financially, was really soul-draining.
Every so often, when I could afford it, and as a form of “holiday” to avoid the burn out, I’d go back to the stage and do some theatre. The stage was a place for me to get my soul back. Eventually I wanted theatre to be my vocation and not my escape.
Film and filmmaking is still an absolute passion of mine. This lockdown actually forced me to visit my voice as a filmmaker again. Having to do loads of self-tapes, video collaborations and vlogs, something was awakened again. And with us approaching the new norm, it’s also a real chance to merge two disciplines I love. Theatre and filmmaking.
What do you enjoy doing away from acting?
To be completely honest, BREAD. I just found this intense, disturbing and scary obsession with making real yeast-free bread. I love the philosophy of it, the spirituality of it and the simplicity of it. It’s literally just water, earth and air. It’s utter magic. Sourdough bread is the bedrock of civilisation and dates back earlier than metal! It’s mind-blowing. I think it started out because we aren’t allowed to have pets in the house we live in, so I decided to cultivate a sourdough starter. There’s no more turning back. It’s just so poetic.
We understand you were part of boy band 17:28, what was it like being part of the group and how has it been reuniting for the new versions of SUKOB NA and COME BREATHE ME?
The group was formed back in 2002 (eighteen years ago!!!) for us theatre kids who were approaching that awkward age where we were too old to play kid roles but too young to play leading men roles. So we did the whole thing, sing, dance, record, write etc. It was a very fun time with questionable fashion choices. But we reunited recently to do our two “hit” singles SUKOB NA and COME BREATHE ME. These were the two songs that pretty much put us on the radio map in Manila. It was nostalgic to revisit these songs again to see the immense reaction of the fans that we had back then.
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