From The Straits Times    |

A soot-faced girl steps into the light, clad in a dirty, oversized trench coat, a red baker boy hat perched atop her head. She looks into the crowd with sad, imploring eyes, and then sings the haunting first verse of the famed Claude-Michel Schonberg tune, On My Own.

By now, you may have seen the buzz on social media, or even watched Nathania Ong’s rousing performance in the flesh as Eponine, the tragic heroine of Les Miserables on London’s West End. In the past year, the Singaporean actor has captured the hearts of audiences with her portrayal of a character who perhaps most famously encapsulates the heartbreak of unrequited love.

Following a year-long season with the renowned musical, the London-based West End star is back in Singapore for another acclaimed production: Into the Woods, a retelling of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales reimagined by playwright James Lapine and legendary composer Stephen Sondheim.

Local media outlets in Singapore lapped up her breakthrough performance in Les Miserables with enthusiastic fervour. However, Nathania had already caught the attention of local theatre production company Pangdemonium in 2021 – months before she made her debut on West End in Be More Chill, a sci-fi musical about a social outcast who swallows a tiny supercomputer to become more popular and impress his high school crush.

“It’s actually a really funny story. Tracie and Adrian Pang’s son, Zachary, was a fellow student at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London, the same school I attended. When I was in my final year of my Bachelor’s programme, I performed Candide, which is this big operetta with a soprano role. He watched it and told them, ‘Hey, there’s another Singaporean here. She’s pretty good. You should watch out for her,’” shares Nathania, who then sent some of her showcase materials to Pangdemonium through an industry liaison in school.

It wasn’t until 2022, during a UK-Ireland tour of Les Miserables in Salford, that she received a request for an audition tape. “They suddenly asked if I could send a tape and I said, ‘Sure!’ Then, three months later, they offered me the role of Cinderella in Into the Woods. [The offer] had been over a year in advance, which is incredibly kind of them,” she says.

One could say the stars were aligned for the young ingenue, who had two major roles in the bag in the two years since graduating from school. But luck has little to do with how Nathania is carving a promising career both in Singapore and London.

Wool and cashmere pullover, Ferragamo, Wool blend miniskirt, Versace. Calfskin thigh-high boots, Emporio Armani. Platinum plated bronze grandidierite ring, Fumu at Yumumu

Not giving up

Just a few years ago, she was struggling to kick-start her journey in theatre – fresh off graduating from Anglo-Chinese Junior College with an elective in Theatre Studies and Drama, Nathania flew to the UK to audition for a specialisation in musical theatre. She was rejected by all five drama schools that she applied to, an experience that was extremely hard to bear for the then 18-year-old.

Nathania reveals that she was at one of her lowest points then – she was mired in dejection and disappointment: “After the week [of receiving the rejections], and I just sat there [in my friend’s London apartment], living in my rejection. I think [what made it hard] was also because I was in a place that was unfamiliar to me.”

It was also getting financially unsustainable for her to remain in London, and so Nathania returned to Singapore after two weeks. Despite the setbacks, she had her heart set on her dream of pursuing a career in theatre. Nathania enrolled in a three-year degree course in Musical Theatre at Lasalle College of the Arts. A year into the programme, an opportunity to apply to Mountview, a drama school that had designed the curriculum for the UK’s first specialist three-year musical theatre training, came up.

“The school was holding auditions in Singapore. I was discussing this with a friend, expressing my concerns about the financial aspect, and the commitment it would require. She asked me, ‘Aren’t you going to apply?’ I responded, ‘How can I? I don’t have the financial means [to study in the UK], and I’m not sure if I want to leave Singapore.’

“My best friend pointed out that going overseas, especially one that has a larger industry [for the arts], could offer more opportunities.”

With encouragement from her friend, Nathania decided that she had nothing to lose by giving it a shot. She applied to Mountview on the very date of the application closure. “It was the perfect timing. To my surprise, I got through and was accepted. Mountview is one of the top musical theatre schools in the UK, alongside ArtsEd. The competition was fierce – there were around 2,000 applicants vying for just 38 spots, but I didn’t want to pass up such an incredible opportunity,” she says.

Metallic cloque midi dress, Simone Rocha at Dover Street Market. Gloves, stylist’s own

Chasing her dreams

Nathania moved to the UK in 2018 – then Covid-19 struck during her second year of studies. Social distancing and pandemic restrictions dealt a hard blow to the performing arts industry globally, and students were not spared either.

“A lot of my classmates struggled with the idea that we wouldn’t have an industry to go into once we graduated, because there was nothing going on. Agents weren’t really signing people on because they were worried about the future. They were like, ‘Well, we already have full books and we have no work for actors. So why would we sign on more people?’ There was a lot of that pressure, that fear that you would be unsuccessful,” she says.

There is no self pity when recounting the emotional roller coaster of the past few years, however. Nathania does not hesitate in pointing out the little wins with wry humour, such as becoming “really good at self-taping, just because you had to”.

She adds: “I think with every low point, there’s the smallest light that you can find, even if it’s just like, ‘Hey, this piece of mochi tastes really nice.’ And that’s what gets me through the day.”

The hard-won success of her breakthroughs with Les Miserables and Into the Woods is just a start: Nathania is not slowing down, even after Into the Woods ends its run on Nov 12. She has a concert, Spirit of Giving: Nathania Ong – A Musical Homecoming – happening on Dec 20 at the Esplanade Concert Hall, that she’s headlining in collaboration with The Business Times Budding Artists Fund (BT BAF) and the Singapore Performing Arts Academy, to raise funds for disadvantaged children and youths who are pursuing their passion in the arts.

The concert is also a platform for rising young musicians and singers to showcase their talents, which they will do in the pre-show. “I’d love to give back to the community after everything I’ve experienced,” she shares. “Also, I hope to inspire aspiring theatre artists to pursue their passion, because I feel incredibly blessed with everything I’ve accomplished.”

It could be said that with the BT BAF, Nathania is returning to where it all started for her: performing for the community. At the age of five, she sang the National Day ballad, Home, with her elder sister at a Total Defence Day event in 2004 with the late President S.R. Nathan in the audience. The experience, which she describes as “an adrenaline rush”, inspired a love of the stage – a spark that has led Nathania to participate in various talent shows and singing competitions.

Wool polka-dot pullover, Versace. Jersey midi skirt, & Other Stories. Oversized hat, Frederick Lee Couture

“I just knew that I loved performing then, but I was only four or five years old, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet. So I just lived my life like a normal kid. When I was in Primary 4 and studying in Methodist Girls’ School, I placed first in the school’s talent show. And I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that was so much fun. I really enjoyed that, and I want to do it as much as I can,’” she says.

Growing up, Nathania – the youngest of four sisters – performed with her dad at church concerts. Dr Kevin Ong, who runs a dental clinic in Orchard Road, is instrumental in moulding her talent. The former member of a church a cappella group, who is a fan of American soul singers James Ingram and Luther Vandross, would often analyse their vocals and incorporate their techniques into his own style of singing.

“I’m really inspired by my dad because he has one of the most amazing voices that I’ve ever heard – he doesn’t sing for his patients, but if you ask him, he might!” she quips. “He’s an incredibly detailed and meticulous man. When I was a child, he would coach me for all of my talent shows every single night. We would spend almost an hour on each line of the song, and he would just point out, ‘Okay, let’s explore choices. How can you change this? How can you make that interesting? What is it that makes that line good?’”

And while her sisters “all sing really, really well”, Nathania is the only one making a career in the arts. “The rest of them have lovely, nice and stable jobs. They’re all creative, but I think I was the only one who was deeply impassioned to try and pursue this. I’m really close to all of them. They’ve been really supportive of me in all of my endeavours.”

Rounding up her close-knit family is her mum, Jenny Ong, who makes it a point to drive Nathania to her rehearsals whenever she can, despite keeping a busy schedule being a homemaker and helping her husband with the day-to-day operations of the clinic.

“[My mum] doesn’t sing, but she’s always been my pillar of support. I used to perform a lot as a child, and she’d help doll me up and do my makeup. She has her hands full with running a household – it was not an easy task with four kids. Even though we’re now adults, we are still always busy for some reason,” she says.

Top and skirt, Rabanne x H&M. Gloves, Roger Vivier. Boot, Emporio Armani

With Into the Woods and the upcoming BT BAF concert, Nathania admits that she hasn’t had time for herself in the past few months. Her role as Cinderella in Lapine’s Into the Woods is markedly different from what you might expect for a character widely associated with the Disney cartoon. For one, (spoiler alert) there is no “happily ever after”… and no, Cinderella does not end up with her prince in the end.

“Well, I think everyone knows the story of Cinderella. She goes to the ball, loses a shoe, and marries her prince – that’s the main plot. But what’s really nice about Into the Woods is that it’s a merger of various stories and tales. At the end of Act One, everyone gets their happily ever after. Then, in Act Two, we see what happens afterwards.

“I’ve realised that Cinderella doesn’t want to be a princess. She just wants to have a good time, go to the ball, dance, and enjoy the food. She didn’t necessarily want a man, but she ended up with one. Later on, however, she starts to find that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” says Nathania.

Despite the reality check (that life – even for fairytale characters – doesn’t always pan out the way we want it to), Pangdemonium’s production has been billed as a family-friendly comedy. Nathania adds that the material is notoriously challenging due to its complexity in writing, especially when it comes to musical storytelling.

Preparing for any role, be it Eponine or Cinderella, not only involves a large amount of research and character analysis, it also requires one to tap into their own personal journey so as to make a character more real and human, she says.

“The roles that I’ve done so far are so fantastical that I won’t actually find myself in those exact same situations. What I’ve tried to do is find instances from my own experiences. With Eponine, there are moments when she wanted something her whole life, worked tirelessly for it, but then things just didn’t work out. I think everyone can relate to that feeling. Maybe not everyone has experienced unrequited love, but we’ve all had moments of being let down – of trying to achieve something and falling short [of our expectations or goals].

“But it doesn’t stop you from wanting those things,” she continues. “In my journey with Eponine, it was exactly that. I knew Marius [who is Eponine’s love interest] didn’t love me, and I knew he never would. But despite the pain, my objective became clear: I wanted to see him happy. Regardless of what happened, even though it hurt, I just wanted to witness his joy, because that’s what brings joy into my own life, you know?”

For Nathania, that’s her North Star: to bring truth and honesty to the character, because, as she puts it, that’s what theatre is about. “You watch a production not necessarily to see a version of yourself, but there are those moments when you can draw those parallels and go, ‘Oh, that really hit my heart.’ That’s what I aim for as an actor,” she says.

Silk blend jacket with oversized sleeves, Linaoth. Oversized plume hat, Frederick Lee Couture. Rhodium plated choker, Swarovski

The tough get stronger

It’s not all work and no play for Nathania during her time in Singapore, even though she had been rehearsing six days a week in the lead up to Into the Woods since returning in September. Once she gets the chance, she’ll plan a holiday either to Japan or Bali.

For now, she’ll be catching up on Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, a mobile multiplayer online battle arena game, in her spare time – “I’m always getting trash-talked because I’m not very good” – and of course, indulging in the food she’s missed in Singapore. Her favourite dishes? Black chai tow kway from Ghim Moh Market, and beef pepper rice from Pepper Lunch.

“I think for anyone who’s spent an extended period away from Singapore, the food you get here is unbeatable. The taste of home is just incomparable, you know? It’s really nice to be back, especially to see family. Well, family comes second to food at the moment. The food is definitely winning,” she laughs.

Currently, work takes precedence. Given the roller coaster of the past few years, it’s no surprise that Nathania is seizing the opportunities that her breakthrough on West End has offered her. She’s on a roll, and there is no stopping her momentum.

Nathania ponders the highs and lows of her journey thus far: “I’ve been surprised by how much more capable I am than I initially thought. When you achieve something after working so hard, you realise: ‘I did that, and I’m capable of so much more than I ever thought possible.’

“More than the successes, I want people to see me as a person with my own struggles. To pull myself out of my low points, I remember the saying: ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ I had a choice. I could sit there and be sad – and I was, for a while, when I was just starting out – but if you love what you do and believe it’s your calling, nothing on this earth can stop you.”

She adds: “And honestly, I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world, because regardless of all the difficulties, what I feel like I’ve achieved have made the highs so much more worth it. I’m not done yet. I’m still going to do more, I promise.”

Tickets to Spirit of Giving: Nathania Ong – A Musical Homecoming are now available through Sistic.

HAIR Grego
MAKEUP Lasalle Lee, using Chanel Beauty