Ricky Lee enjoys writing for theater and dreams of making a rock musical

Totel V. de Jesus

Posted at May 01 2018 08:39 PM | Updated as of May 02 2018 06:57 AM

Ricky Lee at home with his books in his personal library where he also holds scriptwriting workshops. Photo credit to Grace Tagum Orbon

MANILA -- It’s an understatement to say that Ricky Lee is among the busiest writers today. 

With 170 produced screenplays and counting, he’s the most prolific among our contemporary award-winning scriptwriters for the past 40 years. He has written three best-selling novels in Filipino. On Sundays, he conducts scriptwriting workshops—now for Batch 18—to aspiring and established filmmakers at his home. 

But somewhere in between, he has managed to squeeze in writing plays. His recent work, “Binondo: A Tsinoy Musical,” co-written with two young playwrights, Gershom Chua and Eljay Castro Deldoc, will be staged at The Theatre at the Solaire starting June 29. Technically, it follows Disney’s “The Lion King,” a tough act to follow for a local original musical. 

“Enjoy ako sa theater kasi pwede akong maging talky. Mahilig kasi akong maglaro ng salita,” he told ABS-CBN News in an exclusive interview. “Sa pelikula nalilimitahan ako kasi iba ang medium ng pelikula. Hindi pwedeng i-verbalize. Basically sa theater ang magdadala 'yung dialogue... so napagbibigyan ko 'yung hilig na maging talky. Mas marami akong masabi sa theater na hindi ko masasabi sa pelikula.”

But over the years, he has only written about six stage plays, starting with “Pitik Bulag Sa Buwan ng Pebrero,” which is about OFWs. This was staged at the Manila Film Center on June 23 to 25, 1989. The same year, he also wrote an adaptation of the 1975 Hollywood blockbuster, “Dog Day Afternoon.” Titled “Balisawsaw Pusong Ligaw,” it was directed by Joel Lamangan for Gantimpala Theater. 

This was followed in 1992 with “DH (Domestic Helper),” with Nora Aunor in the lead. “DH” even toured in the United States and Europe. “Madalas akong gumawa noon ng plays about OFWs. Pamilyar kasi sa akin ang subject,” he said.

Ten-year gap

It took him more than a decade, or about 12 years, to write again for the theater. In 2004, he finished two plays. One was “Penis Talks/All About men,” his answer to Eve Ensler’s massive hit, “Vagina Monologues”; and the other with Vincent de Jesus, “HImala the Musical” for Tanghalang Pilipino. The following year, he wrote the sequel “Penis Talks/All About Men 2.” 

After another 10 years, he wrote “Kabesang Tales: Isang Rap en Roll Musical” (2015). But Lee said it is just pure coincidence why there’s always a decade-long gap. “I got busy lang,” he said. 

Ricky Lee tours universities and colleges all over the country to give lectures and workshops. Photo credit to Kurt Zubieta

In a country where full-time playwrights are as rare as Rody Vera or a unicorn, one can say Lee has been busy earning a living. His day jobs are various stints for television and film, two financially fulfilling siblings of theater. 

From the mid-'90s up to the following decade, he was creative consultant for Star Cinema and creative manager for ABS-CBN’s hit telenovelas, such as “Sana’y Wala Nang Wakas,” “Vietnam Rose,” “Sa Piling Mo,” Maging Sino Ka Man,” “Ysabella,” “Lobo,” “Kahit Isang Saglit,” “Only You,” “Dahil May Isang Ikaw,” “Immortal,” “Magkaribal,” and “The Greatest Love,” to name a few. He was also headwriter for “Maalaala Mo Kaya” and “Recuerdo de Amor.”

He has since retired and nowadays, he trains young writers by holding occasional workshops at ABC-CBN. 

Creative process

On writing, Lee said if an idea comes to him, he knows it at once if it is for a play, a novel or a screenplay. “Noong naisip ko 'yung kwento ng ‘Pitik Bulag’ alam kong pang-teyatro talaga sya,” he said. 

With “Binondo”, he broke the pattern of a decade-long gap. Here, he teams up with Joel Lamangan (director), Von de Guzman (music) and Douglas Nierras (choreography). The germ of the story came from producer Rebecca Shangkuan Chuaunsu, who said in another interview that it’s based on real people. Lee wrote it with Deldoc and Chua, both members of his Batch 15 scriptwriting workshop. 

They fleshed out Chuaunsu’s idea and shared in writing the scenes and songs. Chua, being familiar with Chinese traditions in Binondo, also served like a dramaturg.

Simpy put, “Binondo” is about a love triangle that involves a Filipina night club singer, a Chinese scholar based in Beijing and a Filipino-Chinese businessman based in Binondo. It starts during Martial Law, a very familiar terrain for Lee and Lamangan, and ends in the mid-'80s during the EDSA People Power Revolution.

Nowadays, Lee admitted he’s more at home in writing novels than screenplays and stage plays. And he’s not into rushing things. In 10 years, he’s able to produce three novels. The first was “Para Kay B (O Kung Paano Dinevastate ng Pag-ibig ang 4 out of 5 sa Atin) in 2008, followed by “Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata” in 2011 and the recently launched “Bahay ni Marta.” In between he also wrote a collection of short stories titled “Kung Alam N'yo Lang: Mga Kuwentong Pambata Para sa mga Hindi na Bata,” published in 2016.

Ricky Lee during one of the many lectures-book-signing sessions he holds all over the country. Photo credit to Kurt Zubieta

“Pero at the back of my mind, noong una pa, panahong ng ‘Jesus Christ Supertar’ dream ko gumawa ng rock musical. At lagi ko 'yang sinasabi sa mga tao. Hindi ko pa magawa-gawa. So nandun pa rin yung dream na ‘yun. Gumawa ng rock musical.”

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is rock opera that debut on Broadway in 1971 about the final days of Jesus Christ, with music written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. 

When it became an international sensation, the Philippines was under the Martial Law and Lee was among those imprisoned and tortured for fighting the Marcos dictatorship. 

“Basta ang alam ko noon gusto kong political siya. Pero 'di ko na maalala. Sa tagal,” he said. 

But then again, even after “Binondo,” writing his dream rock musical has to be postponed. 

“Ang dami kong naka line up na gusto kong tapusin muna. The fourth novel, ‘Trip to Quiapo 2’, a couple of films. Then siguro 'yung rock musical na.”

We asked him if he considered having his own life’s story as subject, considering he’s in his early '70s and has led—in street parlance—a “rakenrol” life. 

“My life?” he said, laughing. “Ilang beses nang nag-attempt na gawing pelikula, like with Marilou (Diaz Abaya) and Regal (Films) one time. Last minute nagkaka-cold feet ako at umaatras.”

Another 10 years of preparation? Lee simply answered with his signature, self-deprecating laughter.