Jon Jon Briones and His Daughter, Isa Briones, Are Showing Off Their Filipino Roots Onstage in Hadestown | Playbill

Special Features Jon Jon Briones and His Daughter, Isa Briones, Are Showing Off Their Filipino Roots Onstage in Hadestown

The two are starring in the long-running Broadway musical, adding some Tagalog (and a tarot deck) to the show.

Jon Jon Briones and Isa Briones in Hadestown Evan Zimmerman

In the Briones family, storytelling is the family business.

With Olivier nominee Jon Jon Briones as patriarch and talent manager Megan Johnson Briones as matriarch, both of their children (Isa and Teo) have continued the family's artistic legacy. After extensive work as children, Teo Briones is now a rising star in the horror genre, and Isa Briones is a familiar face on stage and screen.

"Honestly, as a family, we always ask if there is a role for any of the other family members. We're always trying to get each other into our projects," Isa Briones laughs, nestled in a densely decorated corner of her home before a two-show day in Hadestown. On the same Zoom call, her father looks on with an ever present smile. Together, the pair are now starring in Hadestown on Broadway–Jon Jon is playing the great god Hermes and Isa, the tragic heroine Eurydice. They will be in the show together until June 30.

"We both saw the show separately," shares Jon Jon, adding that he's close friends with original cast members Eva Noblezada (who he co-starred with in Miss Saigon) and Reeve Carney. "I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking, 'Oh, I've never seen a musical like this before.' There's something so unique about it, the type of storytelling, the type of inclusivity that the storytelling has...I was sobbing and gasping even though I knew how it ended. It was so impactful." 

With seemingly boundless energy accompanied by a serrated tenor, Jon Jon infuses fresh intention into the guiding hand of Hermes, carrying pieces of his own life while playing the herald of the gods. 

For nearly 30 years, Jon Jon was closely associated with the Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby Jr. musical Miss Saigon, working his way up from the ensemble to the splashy leading role of the Engineer, for which he picked up numerous accolades on both sides of the Atlantic. While both Hermes and the Engineer serve as fourth-wall shattering narrators for audiences of both productions, the roles couldn't be more different in how they call upon his ability to connect.

Jon Jon Briones and company of Hadestown Evan Zimmerman

"In Saigon, they are always expecting you," Jon Jon explains, referring to the way the audience interacts with his fourth wall breaks. "They're waiting for you to do something. You're not really conversing with them. You're telling them in a very aggressive way, 'This is what I want. This is what I'm going to do and go to hell.' In this show, they're receiving. What is so beautiful about the beginning of it, is that I ask permission. I ask the permission of my co-performers, 'Are we all right? Are we ready? Yes.' And then the audience, 'Are you ready to do this?' Because they are part of it. And that's beautiful."

Born and raised in the Philippines, Jon Jon has incorporated numerous aspects of his heritage into the role, from the Filipino sun cufflinks he wears to the Tagalog ad libs he has sprinkled in throughout the show (including a particularly touching moment in the second act where he refers to Orpheus as anak, the genderless term for one's child).

As Eurydice, Isa is also proudly displaying her Filipino pride, with scraps of traditional Filipino fabric stitched onto the lapel of her overcoat and her own tattoos on full display, including her own Filipino sun. While learning the blocking, both Briones discovered that original Eurydice, Eva Noblezada, had sneakily embedded another piece of Filipino heritage into the show itself.

"At the end of the show, we do the traditional mano po, which is a blessing you do with elders, and that actually existed before us. I'm pretty sure it existed because of Eva," Isa details. "Eva is also Filipino, and I remember seeing her do that with [original Hermes André De Shields], but a lot of people didn't realize that she was doing that because it's a Filipino blessing. It just was built into the show, and when we came in and said," Isa points as Jon Jon stifles a laugh. "It's the mano po!"

That moment, of a daughter publicly honoring her father while receiving his blessing, is one of several deeply emotional moments for the pair onstage.

"It can be overwhelming, because there's so much feeling," Jon Jon explains, immediately choking up as Isa playfully waves away his sentiment. After a moment, he continues on, his voice resonantly thick. "There is so much emotion, so much pride. I cannot believe that this person right in front of me, in the middle of the stage, came from me. I'm filled with gratitude and love and pride because of how she handles herself. In the middle of a scene, I just shake my head sometimes. Every moment she has, it's a wow moment for me. And when I introduce her for the first time, 'There was one more soul on this road,' coming out of that empty big door. 'Girl, come on in from the cold.' She comes barging in! I can't not go, 'Yeah, that's her. That's my daughter.'"

While Hadestown marks Isa's Broadway debut, she is no stranger to the stage. At 19, she became a member of Hamilton's first national tour, playing Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds, as well as understudied Eliza Hamilton. Recent years, however, have pulled her toward the screen side of her career (including popular roles on Star Trek: Picard and Goosebumps), leaving her to rethink her approach to stage work.

Isa Briones and company of Hadestown Evan Zimmerman

"When I toured with Hamilton, I was 19, which was not like so long ago, but so much has happened since then. I feel younger now than I did then. I was often the youngest in the room, and I felt like I had to pretend I was older to not be the kid. Like, 'I'm not gonna have fun. I'm gonna be serious'. And now I feel like I've come a little more into being where I am. I can be young, and no one's looking at me thinking, 'Oh my gosh, she's so immature'." Isa sighs before plucking a pencil from the surface in front of her to absentmindedly fiddle with. "It's been very validating and very special for me, mentally, to come back to theatre with this show." 

With a refreshingly clear voice that brings to mind crisp morning dew, Isa cuts through the baggage that can come with taking on a role five years into a run. In her hands, Eurydice is alight with fresh intrigue, bringing new depths of color to the previously established character relationships. While Hermes' focus will always remain on Orpheus, both Jon Jon and Isa have found a tender understanding between Hermes and Eurydice. 

"Look, I love this show. But also, it's hard," Isa confesses. "It's hard to do eight shows a week. And there are some days when I feel crazy or out of it. Because I'm a human being, and day to day, you feel different things. But there are moments, that I have found, when I can ground myself by looking at my dad. Using him as my rock is so helpful, and it also helps that it is actually my dad, who has been my rock for my whole life." As Isa continues on, Jon Jon bows his head. "Anytime he talks about me [in the show], it's loaded. It's interesting, because you're listening to the story in her head of who she is, this idea that, 'Eurydice was a hungry young girl, a runaway from everywhere she'd ever been.' When I look at my dad saying these things, there's something about the connection we have, and what we know about each other...We've seen each other's lives up close. And when he starts introducing 'All I've Ever Known,' and he says, 'Eurydice was a young girl, but she'd seen how the world was.'"

Jon Jon's head swings up, his eyes alight as he exclaims, "I still can't look at you!" 

The pair take a moment to settle before Isa continues on. "I think if we looked at each other when he said that, we would start crying. It's kind of meta. He's saying these words as acting, but also, we know each other's lives more than anyone else on that stage or in that room, and we know how deep those words go. And that's a very special, very once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Isa Briones, Jon Jon Briones, Jordan Fisher and company of Hadestown Evan Zimmerman

Backstage, the duo have vastly different pre and post show routines: while Jon Jon has crafted a multi-hour warm-up ("I'm not 25 anymore!"), Isa makes an effort to spend a brief personal moment with as much of the company as possible, traversing the multiple floors of the theatre's backstage space to read tarot for everyone she can. 

"Whenever I'm doing a show, I bring tarot cards and oracle cards," she explains. "I like to go to every dressing room, and give everyone an oracle card every few days, as something for everyone to think about and keep by their station. And then I'll come in, and I'll spray some palo santo...It's just something that helps me connect with everyone in the show, gives me a second to say hi to people before we start. And it brings me a lot of joy to give someone a card. That's a moment that I get to share with them."

While Jon Jon is not necessarily a diviner ("She puts the tarot near me"), Isa finds particular personal inspiration in the first card of the Major Arcana: The Fool.

"Whenever I get The Fool, I am very happy," Isa laughs. "There's something very magical about it, because that's the beginning. It means you're at the beginning of a journey. And I also have so many different decks, and I love how different the depiction of The Fool is every time. In one of my favorite decks, it isn't even called The Fool. It's called Potential. And I love that."

Photos: Jon Jon Briones and Isa Briones in Hadestown

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