20 March 2017
Last weekend, I was in Manila with my good friend/younger brother, Tomas. We went to see the musicals, Fun Home and Wicked. Personally, this is something I have always dreamed of. My Bucket List is full of Broadway and West End musicals I’d love to see before I die. My love for musicals started when I was very young. I wasn’t even in Kindergarten yet when I was introduced to the musicals- Annie, The Sound of Music, and The King and I. They were my favorites when I was small. I knew all the songs from those musicals. While my brothers loved to watch Tom and Jerry and other cartoons, I preferred musicals. Fast forward to a few years later, we were already residing in MSU Campus, I was 9 years old and in 4th Grade, when my dad rented The Making of Miss Saigon. This was during the era of the Betamax and we used to go down to Iligan to rent films from Po Video. When I saw that documentary, I was instantly drawn to Miss Saigon and I couldn’t watch it enough. I remember that my dad had to renew the rental because I wanted to keep on watching it. I was in love all over again with musicals. It was a good thing that my parents were huge fans of musicals, too, so, at my young age, I could ask about Broadway and West End and all those wonderful musicals that ran there.
When I was about 12, during a vacation in Manila, I would go with my aunt to her office because I didn’t want to be left home alone. I stayed at the office the whole day and, of course, I’d get bored and just spent the time sleeping or writing whatever I could think of. One day, Mommy Minda, another aunt who went to the same office, found out that I loved musicals and that I loved singing along with them. She was so amused because I knew so much about Miss Saigon and other famous Broadway musicals. Now, Mommy Minda actually spent some time in the US and was actually able to watch a number of shows on Broadway. The next day, she brought her Sony Walkman Cassette Player (remember those?) and the cassette tapes she got from her visits to Broadway. She had Cats, The West Side Story, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and, of course, Miss Saigon. Oh, how excited I was! From that day on until it was time for me to go back home, all I did was listen to those tapes. There wasn’t a moment of boredom and I was absolutely smitten.
And, from then on, every time I went to Manila for vacation, those tapes were ready for me. That went on for years until I’d saved enough money to finally buy my own copies of Miss Saigon, Evita, Les Miserables, and The Phantom of the Opera. In cassette tape format. CDs were too expensive at that time and, well, it wasn’t until a few years later that I got my first CD player (my HS graduation gift from my parents) and Discman (thanks to my aunt who went to the States and got me one for a present). Hehe:-)
I never stopped listening to songs from musicals and reading about them. I followed the Tony Awards year after year. Of course, it became easier with the Internet and YouTube. I also found out more about Filipino musicals. The very first cassette tape I bought of an original Filipino musical was the Gary Granada-penned Sino Ka Ba, Jose Rizal?, which I really enjoyed. This was the original studio recording featuring Gary Granada, Noel Cabangon, Bayang Barrios, and Lani Misalucha. It was so good and I really wanted to see it performed on stage, but there was never really a chance. Same thing with Rak of Aegis and Caredivas. But, maybe one day, I will be able to. :-)
Locally, I am a huge fan of our very own MSU-Sining Kambayoka Ensemble and MSU-Sining Pananadem. Both troupes would sometimes perform stage plays and musicals and we also have the MSU-Darangen Cultural Troupe, which I also love, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them do plays or musicals, or any singing at all. MSU-IIT has the renowned Iligan Performing Arts Guild (IPAG) and I am one of this guild’s biggest fans. Dances, stage plays, musicals—name it, they perform it! I always try to go down to Iligan to see their performances whenever my schedule permits it. I’m just really a sucker for stage plays and musicals.
I have been fortunate enough to have seen a few world-renowned Broadway and West End musicals here in the Philippines. First of which was Miss Saigon back in 2000. That was my SSEAYP year and when we came back to the country in December, we were treated by then presidential son, Jayvee Ejercito, to front row seats in the Manila performance of the well-loved musical. It was an experience I will never forget. It was my first real taste of a Broadway/West End musical. You can imagine how happy I was! My excitement was beyond description! I remember that as soon as news came out about the Manila production of Miss Saigon, I couldn’t keep still. I wanted more than anything to go watch it. In fact, on our way to our Pre-Departure Training for SSEAYP earlier that year, I sang I Still Believe in the bus that took us to Tagaytay. I introduced myself as a huge fan of Miss Saigon and since they were coming to Manila that year, I wanted to sing a song from the musical. This meant that, very early in our friendship, my batchmates already knew how crazy I was about Miss Saigon. So, when we found out that we had free tickets to the show, we were all so excited but most of them were more excited for me than for themselves. Haha! :-)
When we were finally there, as soon as the show started, I was already having such a difficult time keeping it together! I was trying my best to not sing out loud. I was mouthing the songs as if I were some sort of coach to the actors. All the actors were truly remarkable and the dance routines were the best! From the time I saw The Making of Miss Saigon when I was a kid, it had been a dream of mine to see Lea Salonga and Monique Wislon in a musical. But, the show we watched had Cezarah Campos as Kim. I admit I was disappointed at first because I wanted it to be Lea Salonga so badly. But, as soon as the show started, I totally forgot my disappointment. Ces Campos didn’t disappoint. She was so good that I just forgot that I wanted to see someone else play her role. Will Chase was Chris, Robert Sena was Thuy, Leo Valdez was the Engineer, Isay Alvarez was Gigi, Ronn K. Smith was John, and Lisa Kapps was Ellen. They were all amazing!
I knew the story from beginning to end, I knew all the songs, but watching it in person was different. All the emotions and feelings were intensified a thousandfold. Listening to the cassette tapes and the CDs later had me crying every single time, so imagine what watching the musical in person did to me. I was bawling my eyes out. That part where Thuy wanted to take Kim and she had no choice but to show him his little boy, Tam, and Thuy went berserk and wanted to kill the little boy, I was about ready to shield the mother and son! When Kim shot Thuy and killed him, it felt to me like I was the one who shot him. And, when Thuy’s ghost appeared before Kim, I was so scared. I could feel Kim’s suffering as though it were mine. When she swore to give her life so her son could have his chance at the good life, I realized how parents, especially mothers, were really capable of the ultimate sacrifice if it meant happiness and a chance at success for their children. They’d give up anything and everything for their children. It’s the truest and most unconditional kind of love that exists in this world. When Kim pulled the trigger, even if I already knew this would happen from the very beginning, a little shriek of pain and surprise escaped my lips. I was still crying when the lights came on and up until we were giving the actors a standing ovation. It was a beautiful experience. And, I promised myself I’d have more of it.
In 2010 and 2012, the musicals, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, were brought to Manila respectively. Wicked and Chicago, too, in 2014. Singin’ in the Rain and La Soiree were both in Manila in 2015. I could only sigh when I read blogs and other social media posts as well as news articles about these shows. It broke my heart that I couldn’t go watch them. Manila was so near yet so far, as they say. My schedule didn’t permit it and I didn’t have enough extra money to spend. After all, it wasn’t just the tickets that I had to pay for, I still had airplane tickets to think of. But, I hated feeling that way. And, as fate would have it, Les Miserables came to Manila last year. I knew I couldn’t miss it. And, I wasn’t willing to miss it. So, I started saving for it. I asked my friend, Tita Pie, to purchase tickets to the show for me and Tomas, who by then also decided he had to watch it, so that we couldn’t back out or anything.
Same as my Miss Saigon experience, finally watching Les Miz in person was so different from just listening to tapes and CDs, watching videos or watching the movies. By this time, I’d had the Les Miz movies and both the 10th Dream Cast Anniversary Concert and the 25th Anniversary Concert in my collection and had them on repeat over the years. Of course I’d read the original novel, too. I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew the songs by heart and I knew who were going to die and when. But, watching the musical on stage felt like it was my first time seeing it. From the time Jean Valjean appeared, I couldn’t hold back my tears. I was so overwhelmed. Not just by the fact that I was finally watching Les Miz in person, but because of poor Valjean’s story.
As the story progressed, my crying also progressed! Haha! I was crying at every scene. Well, I guess Les Miserables is bound to make you feel miserable in some parts at least, right? All the characters were unforgettable. There’s Valjean who was imprisoned for something so petty and later on decided to disappear and re-appear as a new man and protector of Cossette, a little girl he saved from the hands of an abusive couple, the Thenardiers. The Thenardiers, who were cruel and abusive had no other means to live than by being the thieves and con artists that they were. There’s Fantine, a good woman who was left with no choice but to be a prostitute just so she could send money for her little girl, Cossette. She was that proverbial mother who would do anything for her child. There’s Eponine, the girl who was in love with her friend, Marius, who in turn was in love with Cossette. She was just waiting and hoping to be noticed by the boy she loved only on her own. She even tried to betray her own folks to protect Marius and Cossette. Marius and the other young revolutionaries, led by Enjolras, who wanted change in their country, but who all perished, except Marius, at the hands of the authorities. Marius, who had a heart full of love and was suffering from both young, sweet love and idealistic love for country. As he went back to their favorite meeting place only to be welcomed by empty chairs at empty tables and sang his farewell, he just lost it and that was one of the best performances in the musical. Javert, who spent almost his whole life tracking down the criminal Valjean but, in the end, realized the latter was a good man after all. He devoted his whole life to his work-- trying to capture the other man; he was actually just doing his job. And, when he realized he couldn’t send the man who save d him to prison, he decided to end his life. He lived for his job and, if he couldn't do his job, there was nothing more to live for. It was his character that I cried so much for. Well, aside from Valjean, Fantine, and Eponine, that is.
By the end of the show, I was a wreck! I cried so much! So many things were running through my mind. One thing that struck me was that the characters are familiar to us because they’re bits and parts of ourselves. They are us, we are them. These stories and musicals tug at our hearts because we somehow know exactly how the characters feel at certain times because we, ourselves, have been in similar situations. We have dreamt of the same things, we have fought for the same things, we have wanted the same things. And, somehow, we still do. We are all Les Miserables, in one way or another or at certain parts of our lives.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this entry, Tomas and I were in Manila last weekend to watch Fun Home and Wicked. We’d been talking about wanting to go see Wicked, but we weren’t a hundred percent sure we could because there’s this other event in April that we were saving money for. What did me in, though, was when I checked the schedule and found that there was one weekend we could catch both Fun Home and Wicked. Because I’d decided that I was going to watch Fun Home no matter what and we’d been talking about watching Wicked ever since we saw Les Miz and we were given those Wicked promo leaflets, we thought that was a sign. That was the universe telling us to watch both. So, we bought our tickets immediately so that, again, there was no turning back! So, no April event for us! Uh-oh!
Well, Wicked was wicked! It was great! The women who played Elphaba and Galinda were really good. Carly Anderson, who played Galinda, was reminiscent of Kristin Chenoweth. I guess whoever would play Galinda had to somehow be like Kristin Chenoweth, after all she is the original Galinda. I just thought that Carly Anderson was much more similar to Kristin Chenoweth than Jacqueline Hughes was like Idina Menzel, the original Elphaba. Anyway, both Anderson and Hughes were unlimited in talent. Being compared to the original actors who played the roles may be unfair but, in this case, I only compare them because they were really that good. It’s not easy to live up to the original actors, especially when these actors gave such iconic performances. Steven Pinder as The Wizard and Doctor Dillamond, Kim Ismay as Madame Morrible, Bradley Jaden as Fiyero, Iddon Jones as Boq, and Emily Shaw as Nessarose were all as wickedly talented, too!
In contrast to Miss Saigon and Les Miz, I’d only seen a few parts of Wicked on video. I just recently got a copy of the Original Broadway Cast Recording, so there were but two songs I knew by heart- the famous Defying Gravity and the very touching For Good. I enjoyed the musical immensely! It was magical! The stage was so alive with colors and shapes! The dancing and singing were outstanding! To say that it made me laugh and cry is an understatement! Carly Anderson has perfect comic timing! Oh, and Bradley Jaden was super hot! Did I mention that? Hehe:-)
On a more serious note, watching Wicked made me think about what's happening in this country right now. You know, how some people, who are misunderstood, are seen as wicked. The Wizard wanted to take away the animals’ ability to speak because, to him and his loyal followers, that’s the only way to achieve unity and peace. Elphaba wanted to protect the animals. She was really good, but because the Press Secretary Madame Morrible spread terrible rumors, she was seen by the Ozians as wicked. Now, I don’t want to say who’s who here when it comes to Philippine politics. I’ll leave that to you. But, the role of the press is on point! *winks*
Also, when Elphaba and Galinda performed For Good, my tears started falling. Everyone in this world just needs that one friend who would understand him/her. Other people may think we are wicked, it doesn’t matter as long as there’s that one person who believes in us. And, it made me realize how one person can actually change everything for us. One person- one good friend- can change us forever.
Wicked the musical is made to suit children’s sensibilities, I think. Especially compared to Gregory Maguire’s novel on which it is based. This is why it’s very light and so much fun to watch. But, one can’t miss the hidden meaning or message. It is successful that way. There’s nothing like a story that’s light enough to make you laugh so hard and focus on the good things like friendships and relationships and, at the same time, make you think of politics and what’s wrong or what we’re missing in this world.
I first found out about Fun Home when it won as Best Musical in 2015 Tony Awards. My friend, Jhed, was in the States last year and they watched Fun Home in New York. He told us about it when he came back and it slipped my mind that it was actually that musical. After a few months, I found out that the musical was coming to Manila. I wanted so much to see it but, again, my schedule and lack of money came in the way! So, I had to let it go, but I was secretly praying and hoping that it would, by some miracle, have a re-run. God must have heard the desperation in my prayer that He actually granted it. Fun Home was going to have a limited repeat this month. I was ecstatic! I knew I couldn’t let it pass this time.
I’d read so much about the musical and seen so many YouTube videos of some of its parts and of interviews of Alison Bechdel, the author of the graphic novel on which the musical was based and whose autobiography the graphic novel actually was, of the original Broadway cast (Beth Malone, Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, Emily Skeggs, and Sydney Lucas), and of Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, the award-winning writers/creators of the musical. I’d also gotten my hands on a copy of the graphic novel. I’d watched a few videos of Alison Bechdel doing workshops and giving lectures, too. I also got myself the OST. I was hopelessly in love yet again! I listened and cried to the songs every night.
In February, I was finally decided on going to Manila for Fun Home. I wasn’t going to miss it for anything in the world. So, I talked to Tomas and told him that I was going even if I had to go by myself. I had to watch it! If you actually know me or have read enough from this blog, you probably know how obsessive I can be about things I love. And, at this point, I was absolutely obsessed with Fun Home. In fact, I don’t think I’d been as interested and excited about anything for quite some time.
The musical intrigued me like no other musical had. The story is something fresh and new. I have always loved father-daughter storylines, but this one was different. The main character, Alison, was a lesbian cartoonist and her father, Bruce, was a closeted gay high school teacher. Growing up, she never knew her father was gay. When she went away for college, she realized she was gay and she leapt out of the closet, wrote to her parents declaring she was a lesbian, and, after a few months, her father committed suicide. Her mother told her how she (mother) had always known and how she had to deal with it and handle things days and days and days. Her mother showed so much strength as she told her story. She had to deal with so much crap all her life, but she just couldn’t leave because, well, being a married woman, she had a responsibility. No matter how miserable it got, she had to stay. She suffered through it all in silence.
It is also the story of Alison’s journey towards finding and accepting herself. The story is also her way of saying things that she never got to say to her father. For her, writing and drawing about her life was her way of trying to make sense of what happened. She wanted to know what’s true and dig deep into who and what and why and when until now gives way to then.
Watching Fun Home was cathartic for me. As is usual, I cried an ocean of tears. This time, though, it was somehow different. Fun Home is so precious! It’s so relatable. Their family life. Their secret struggles and problems. I mean, what family doesn’t have those, right? We may deal with different issues and struggles, but we all have them. Every household has a skeleton in the closet and each family member has to deal with it in his or her own way. This is how the musical resonates with everyone watching. We see ourselves in each of the characters. Also, it reminds us of how, as children, we were so oblivious to what went on around us and as we grow up, we realize that the small things that we took for granted are actually the ones that would make us understand the big things.
Bruce lived a sad life of secrets and, as a result, he became the angry, pretentious, perfectionist person that he was. Everything was fine so long as everything looked fine. Everything is balanced and serene, like chaos never happened if it's never seen. He became abusive to his poor wife who, on the other hand, was always in denial herself. In the end, they all suffered. It wasn’t his fault that he was gay, but he thought he made the right choice when he married Helen and eventually had a family with her. But, he only became miserable. It was not his wife’s fault, too, that she was swept off her feet by his sweet words and promises in the beginning. She thought she was doing the right thing when she chose to stick by him despite knowing the truth about what kind of man he was. She, too, became miserable. When she advised her daughter to never come back and not give her life away like she did, she was setting her daughter free and doing her the greatest favor of allowing her to fly.
Aren't we all like Bruce and Helen? We always try to do right by other people and forget ourselves in the process. We try to choose the easier path only to find ourselves lost and in the most difficult of situations. What's worse is we often take people with us in this dark place we create for ourselves. People we care about. People who care about us. And, in the end, we end up miserable and bitter. If only we knew early on the consequences of our choices. If only we knew how to remain truthful to ourselves. If only we were kinder to ourselves. If only we saw what we needed to see. If only we knew where to look. If only we chose to focus on the small things.
The Manila production was so good! My trip was so worth it! All the actors were perfect for the roles. Of course, my dream and bucket list item to see Lea Salonga perform in a musical was realized. And, she is even better than I ever imagined her to be. I can’t find the perfect word or phrase to describe her except that she is the Lea Salonga! The first Asian to ever win a Tony and a Laurence Olivier! She played Helen so well. When she sang Days and Days and Days, there wasn’t a single person who wasn’t crying. It was so powerful. The restraint she had as she was singing just made everyone cry and hurt all the more. She broke even the hardest of hearts. Her performance, though short, was haunting.
The kids who played Small Alison (Katie Bradshaw) and her siblings were so good, too. They literally put the fun in Fun Home, which is the shortened version of Funeral Home, the Bechdel family business. When they danced and sang Come to the Fun Home, it was difficult to not dance and sing with them. It was the most fun and happiest part of the play. It’s a very important part because it makes the musical a compleat experience. And, those kids were so talented! I loved them so much! When Small Alison sang Ring of Keys, she takes you to that definitive moment you find out that you are not alone. That despite whatever quirkiness or weirdness you have, there are actually people like you and you realize it’s not wrong to not be what everyone expects you to be. That moment when you recognize yourself in another person. And, Katie Bradshaw's performance was exquisite. Oh, and, Laurence Mossman, who played a bunch of male characters in the musical, wasn't going to be outdone. He did very well, too, especially in the special production number, Raincoat of Love.
Eric Kunze, who played Bruce, was great, of course! Being the Broadway star he is, one wouldn’t expect anything less. Just like Lea Salonga, he was larger than life. There are parts when you’re supposed to get annoyed with the character and he was so successful with that. But, what made his performance more meaningful was how he was able to still make the audience feel and understand his struggles as a closeted gay man. He had such a hard time his whole life, pretending to be someone he wasn’t. He was all heart and it was really impossible for our hearts to not go out to him. Eric Kunze's performance of Edges of the World had to be the most poignant moment in the musical. It was so beautifully sad. I had this urge to give either him or Lea Salonga's Helen or both a hug. And, assure them that it was alright. Their situation both as a couple and as individuals is never easy. When a story makes you understand and accept people who are way different from you and things you thought you’d never understand or accept, you know it’s special. That is what Fun Home is. That’s what it does.
Cris Villonco outdid herself in this musical. She really gave the character justice. She was really, really good. Although she played a lesbian, her role is the most relatable to everyone because she was the one walking down memory lane to understand what happened in her life. She was the one coming to terms with the tragedy that happened in her family. And, she really is just like everyone of us who is constantly in search of that something she might’ve missed that actually resulted in what and where she was. When she sang Telephone Wire with her father, where she wanted to tell him things she never had the chance to tell him, I just lost it! I was crying so hard that I was already having a hard time breathing. I had to cover my mouth because I was afraid I’d cry out loud! Especially when she sang, "Doesn’t matter what you say, just make the fear in his eyes go away…" It was so heartbreaking. The things that we’ve never told our loved ones who have gone ahead, oh, what we would give if only to have that one chance to tell them we understood and that it was okay. Just one last chance. :-(
And, last but not the least, my favorite in the musical was Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante. She played Medium Alison. I didn’t think it was possible, but her performance made me forget Lea Salonga. She was that good. She pulled it off so well, I swear! She was such a revelation. She was so on-point awkward and so funny. The awkwardness of Medium Alison was perfectly captured in her performance. Her Changing My Major couldn't have been done better. I truly, truly loved it! It brings you back to that moment you realized that you were in love for the first time. That time in your life when things finally made sense. That time in your life when you felt, for the first time, that you were complete. That time when you finally understand everything and, all of a sudden, everything just becomes clear. That special time in your life when you come to terms with who you are and you accept yourself wholly. The amazing thing is this part is when she (Alison) realizes that she’s indeed a lesbian and the audience realizes that it’s the same for everyone else. Whether your first experience of love was hetero or same-sex, it’s the same experience. Love awakens your spirit. It makes you excited about life. All you want and all you can think of to be with that special person. You become a changed person. You finally know what you want and what makes you happy. And, once you know that, you can never go wrong. Mikkie Volante's performance was such a breath of fresh air. She gives you all that! And, she really worked very well with Yanah Laurel, who was also really good and effortless as Joan.
As a whole, Fun Home was the most beautiful musical experience I’ve ever had! It was stripped off of spectacular effects and all those fancy things we see in many musicals, but that exactly is what makes it the best musical I’ve seen so far. It’s like seeing a person’s bare soul. It’s more about the feeling. It digs into your very capacity to understand, accept, and, most importantly, forgive. The way it touches your soul is something that cannot be said of all musicals. Also the fact that it tackles a very sensitive issue but makes it relatable is so special. It opens not just eyes but hearts to something that, most of the time, we refuse to talk about or even see/acknowledge. It makes us want to reach out to people in our lives whom we might’ve pushed and shut away. It gives us the strength to reach deep into that part of ourselves, that beautiful part that we have chosen to hide away from the sun. It gives us the courage to show the truest versions of ourselves out in the sun for everyone to see.
I want to congratulate everyone involved in Fun Home for such a great job! The actors, the staff and crew, the director, the writers, everyone! Thank you for giving us Fun Home! Thank you for giving so much of yourself in this musical! Thank you for giving us back a very important part of our humanity! Thank you for helping us find what we have lost! Thank you for showing us a way out of the dark! Thank you for reminding us of what we have forgotten! Thank you for showing us forgiveness and accepatnce! Oh, Fun Home, you are everything! Thank you, thank you!:-)