Four years ago, Hamilton: An American Musical made its off-Broadway debut, causing a sensation among audiences and critics alike. The musical set the life of US founding father Alexander Hamilton to a very modern soundtrack of hip-hop, soul, and R&B, and prompted people to take another look at the American statesman, reframing historical figures people thought they knew in a way that made them appear badass, exciting, contemporary, even cool.
But long before the seeds of Hamilton came to life in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mind, Joy Virata of Repertory Philippines had already pulled off a similar feat: in 1998, to celebrate the centennial of the country’s independence, the first ever staging of Miong, with book and lyrics by Virata, was unveiled. The ambitious musical dramatizing the life of the country’s first president was three hours long and featured a cast of 50 directed by the late Zenaida Amador, with additional lyrics by Freddie Santos and music by Ian Monsod.
This year marks another milestone—the sesquicentennial of Emilio Aguinaldo’s birth—and Miong is once again being mounted, this time at the Onstage Theater in Greenbelt, Makati. Virata is now at the helm, with a leaner cast of 30 and a condensed running time, clocking in at just under two hours long. “It’s just as relevant today because, aren’t we all fighting still?” Virata remarks with a shrug. “In one of the songs, it says, ‘Let not self-esteem and pride break a nation.’ Let’s think of each other, think of the good of the whole country and not just ourselves”—a timely message for Filipino audiences in what also happens to be an election year.
Another update: the title role of Miong is played by The Voice of the Philippines alum Tim Pavino, filling in the huge, impressive shoes of Rem Zamora and Robert Seña before him. No small feat, considering this is Pavino’s first leading role and also his Repertory Philippines debut. “It’s a big deal for me; coming into this, I didn’t know what I was capable of,” he says, slightly breathless and still on a high moments after tonight’s performance has wrapped. “This show brought out, I think, the best and the worst in me. I couldn’t have asked for a better cast to be a part of and to debut my first lead role. And with Rep—I’m very honored.”
Virata is just as pleased with how Pavino has acquitted himself and brought the character to life. “Tim was magnificent. He was so good,” she enthuses. “He was so easy to direct. He listened, he was open, he created, he followed directions… and of course, he has a magnificent voice.”
It would be impossible, however, to discuss Miong without touching upon the controversy surrounding this polarizing historical figure. In the 2015 movie Heneral Luna, Aguinaldo’s actions lead to the brutal execution of Antonio Luna, the film’s protagonist. There is also the hotly contested belief that Aguinaldo engineered the death of his political rival, Katipunan founder Andres Bonifacio, who appears in the musical as well.
Virata wants to emphasize, however, that in the telling of Miong, she has stuck to historical, well-documented truths that no amount of dramatization can change. “It’s history, from history books. Everything came from history books,” she states. (Full disclosure: Virata is the wife of Cesar Virata, a grandnephew and descendant of Emilio Aguinaldo himself.)
“Aguinaldo did declare independence for our country, which we celebrate. He did have the flag designed and made, which we still use. He commissioned the national anthem, which we still sing. So I don’t understand this hatred, I really don’t. Is it because millennials only watch movies? I don’t know… but if they do read history a bit, maybe they won’t feel as vehement as they seem.”
As for the idea that this could be our very own Hamilton, encouraging a new generation of audiences to take a second look at our country’s founding fathers: “I saw Hamilton—beautiful staging, beautiful music, beautiful voices, beautiful acting… now if only I could have understood it,” Virata admits with a laugh. In creating Miong, she took inspiration from a range of classic Broadway musicals, including Les Misérables, Evita, and Camelot. She also borrowed from the rhythmic patterns of Balagtasan, the Filipino poetic art. “That’s why it’s all in rhyme, just as Hamiton is based on rap.”
But if there is any Hamilton effect that Virata would like to replicate, it is a renewed interest in Philippine history and an openness to how fascinating it can be. “If you want an entertaining evening, Miong is a musical, and it’s entertaining. If you know history, or at least you think you do, then that’s okay. But this is entertainment, and if you like theater… well, this is not a movie.”
Miong runs at Greenbelt 1’s Onstage Theater until March 10. For tickets and inquiries, contact Repertory Philippines at 451-1474 or Ticketworld at 891-9999. Go to repertoryphilippines.ph, ticketworld.com.ph, or follow @repertoryphilippines on Facebook and Instagram.