Nathania Ong’s very first performance was in front of former Singapore president S.R. Nathan in 2004. Then merely five years old, she sang Kit Chan’s Home with her sister for Total Defence Day, and the thrill of being on stage sparked her passion for performing. She’s come a long way since then. The stages she stands on are bigger now, and the audiences larger, but if there’s one thing that has remained the same, it’s her intrinsic love for performance.
For eight shows a week, Ong plays Eponine in Les Misérables, the longest-running musical on the West End in London. Ragged but feisty, independent but selfless, Eponine is arguably one of musical theatre’s most beloved characters—and for female performers, one of the most coveted roles. Before joining the West End production, Ong also starred as Eponine in the Les Misérables UK and Ireland tour, and prior to that, she made her West End debut as school gossip Jenna Rolan in the sci-fi musical Be More Chill.
It’s been a whirlwind couple of years for Ong, but the road that led her to where she is now has not been an easy one. Determined as she was, Ong had to learn to face something that all actors inevitably go through: rejection. After taking up Theatre Studies and Drama in junior college, she flew to the UK to audition for drama schools, only to get rejected by all but one—a course that did not offer the full-time practical curriculum that she was looking for.
Instead, she chose to pursue acting at Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore, where she stayed for a year. “I tried to hone my acting, but I had somewhat given up on that dream,” she concedes, “The experience of getting rejected from all those schools in the UK was a little bit too much. It was an expensive mistake for me.”
“I’m so glad it paid off, because it could have been a very different story for me”
Eventually, she worked up the willpower to apply to a programme in the UK again. Flying there for the final stages of her audition proved to be a financial challenge. Working three part-time jobs concurrently to pay for her trip, she fought for a place in Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts’ specialist musical theatre training programme—a highly sought-after spot she eventually got.
She admits: “I don’t think I would have been as satisfied with getting to this point if I didn’t struggle like that. It’s been a long journey to get here, and I’m not done yet. I’m going to do more.”
What has playing Eponine been like?
It started out quite daunting. During the initial rehearsal process, there were a lot of different directions because everyone was trying to execute their vision while also encouraging me to make the character my own. But after those initial rehearsal periods, it’s been fantastic. I’ve managed to find my own version of Eponine and how I want her story to be told. Touring was great. I got to see so many different parts of the UK. And now that I’m in London, I get to stay in one place without having to be uprooted.
What do you enjoy most about being a part of this show, playing this character?
The thrill. I try to make my show different every night. The thing I’ve learned as an actor is that you are given blocking and parameters, and it’s your job to make your performance as dangerous as you can. You can make the weirdest choices, as long as it’s logical and within the character. I get full liberty to play around every night and to build this character’s journey—to live her life, to love the people she loves and fight for what she fights for.
What has been your most memorable experience as a performer so far?
My first performance of the Les Misérables tour. It was at the peak of COVID-19, so I’d resigned myself to the fact that no one was going to visit me, and I was alright with it. But my mum flew over from Singapore. At that time, I hadn’t seen her in about two years and it would’ve been very hard for her to fly back because of the pandemic. She surprised me at the stage door, and I had literally no idea. I just burst into tears, I was a mess. It was press night, so Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of the show, was there. I brought my mum to meet him, and we were both a bit starstruck talking to him. It was like one of those incredible moments you dream about as a kid and never expect to happen—and then it actually does.
“The theatres in Singapore are gorgeous, they just need to be filled”
What are your thoughts on arts education in Singapore?
Lasalle gave me fantastic exposure to the arts in Singapore, and I got to be around so many like-minded people who worked so hard in order to be able to pursue the arts for a living. Everyone was always putting in their 110 percent. For theatre specifically, Singapore was really good at building the body, and because of that, I’m more experimental and bold in my movements and performance choices now. I do think arts education in Singapore needs more funds, and would benefit from more stability. When I was studying there, there were a few changes in staffing and curriculum, so we sometimes lacked that continuity.
What do you hope to see from the Singapore theatre scene in the future?
I’d love to see a bigger industry in Singapore, and that goes hand-in-hand with greater demand for the arts. Not just for international companies flying in to perform, but also for the local theatre companies. The talent is absolutely there. There have been some incredible Singaporean shows that have been brought over internationally and have done really well, but you just don’t hear about them as much. There’s so much potential. The theatres in Singapore are gorgeous, they just need to be filled.
“I love being an Asian performer. It’s not always the easiest thing to be in this industry, but I can’t dissociate myself from my race”
As an Asian performer, what has been your experience with racial diversity and representation in the international theatre scene?
We’ve come leaps and bounds in terms of diversity and representation, beyond what I ever thought would be possible. The first step is always the hardest. For an actor of colour, that’s booking the first job. For a show, that’s casting the first actor of colour. I’m quite fortunate because Lea Salonga, who was the first Asian person to play Eponine, showed people that a Southeast Asian actor can perform this role. But I think casting directors still like to play it safe. Many shows have specific roles they like to cast people of colour in. For Les Misérables, Eponine tends to be played by a person of colour, whereas Cosette tends to be played by a white actor, so I think there’s definitely still a ways to go.
I will say that this year has been quite exciting for Asian performers, with Asian-centric shows like Totoro and Allegiance coming to the West End, which is amazing because it’s giving us a platform to perform. But beyond that, I want to see more Asian actors being cast in roles that aren’t Asian-specific. I love being an Asian performer. It’s not always the easiest thing to be in this industry, but I can’t dissociate myself from my race. All I want is to do good work and be seen for what I’m putting out rather than the colour of my skin, and I hope that one day we can truly see colour-blind casting.
What is your ultimate goal as a performer?
To have fun. I don’t think anyone gets into this industry thinking they’re going to be a famous movie star. There’s an understanding that you’re going to really struggle for a while. So for me, it’s really about focusing on my craft and having fun while doing it. And it’s about exploring and bringing as many characters to life as I possibly can, to the best of my abilities. That’s my ultimate goal.