How Lav Diaz helped Piolo Pascual in 'Ibarra'

Totel V. de Jesus

Posted at Jun 08 2023 08:39 AM

Piolo Pascual takes his bow during the invitational preview of 'Ibarra.' Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News
Piolo Pascual takes his bow during the invitational preview of 'Ibarra.' Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

MANILA -- When Piolo Pascual agreed to do the four-hour musical film “Ang Panahon Ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil)” by Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, he didn’t realize the experience was something close to doing theater.

Diaz is known for shooting scenes with only one take. 

“Of course, there are rehearsals but once he says action, you have to give your all. [The experience] was close to a musical play,” Pascual told ABS-CBN News in a recent online conversation. 

Starting Thursday until June 18 at the GSIS Theater in Pasay City, the Philippines' ultimate heartthrob and favorite Kapamilya leading man plays the titular role in Tanghalang Una Obra’s musical play “Ibarra.”

Based on National Hero Jose Rizal’s novel “Noli Me Tangere,” the parallelism to Diaz’s rock opera is purely coincidental. Rizal wrote “Noli” as a call-to-arms against abusive Spanish colonizers with Ibarra and Elias leading the movement. “Season of the Devil” takes place during the martial-law era in the Philippines in the 1970s and has been described Diaz's "seething critique" against authoritarianism.

“Ibarra” the musical has been described as the reloaded version of “Kanser”. It can be recalled “Kanser,” earlier staged by Gantimpala Theater Foundation, is described the longest-running musical in contemporary Philippine theater history as it celebrates its 40th year. 

With libretto by Jomar Fleras, “Ibarra” is directed by Frannie Zamora, the same director of “Kanser”. 

Musical director and composer is Jed Balsamo, whose previous works were “Simoun” and “Crisostomo Ibarra” for Ballet Philippines in 2016. We asked Balsamo how Pascual, being an actor for film and television for decades, was able to adjust and finally become at home in musical theater. 

“Initially, Piolo probably had a different idea on how this musical is. But when he saw the song count for his character, 17 of the 36 songs and nearly 10 of those are really substantial solos and duets, and heard the demos, he probably asked himself what he got himself into. You know how I shape my melodies and they are not quite easy, even for those who can read notes or have good ears,” Balsamo told ABS-CBN News.

“But, he was determined to see this through. He was disciplined and hard-working especially with the vocal coaching with Camille and Pablo Molina and we could see the improvements. I think he was pleasantly surprised and became happy with the new sound that he never thought he could do.

“Of course, the cast and creative team were very supportive of him and that lessened his worries. The Philippine theater community has a new leading man and it should not be a surprise to see him in another musical or even a sarsuwela,” Balsamo added.

As for the changes he made from “Kanser,” Balsamo shared to ABS-CBN News that all 33 songs from "Kanser" have been retained. "Nagdagdag lang kami ng new songs, initially with a total of 37 songs but later on we removed one so, 36 na lang siya, and had to tweak the existing ones para ma-shift ang focus to ‘Ibarra’ and we changed the sequence of some songs. Also, the music is now performed by a live 13-piece ensemble from the Manila Symphony Orchestra.”

Choreography is by former BP artistic director Paul Alexander Morales, production design is by Mio Infante, and lighting design and technical direction are both by Dong Calingacion.

Pascual is joined by a powerhouse cast that includes opera singer Myramae Meneses as Maria Clara, Nicole Asensio as Sisa, Jeffrey Hildago and Kevin Posadas alternating as Elias, Floyd Tena and Joseph Billeza alternating as Padre Damaso. 

In an earlier interview, Pascual said it’s been a dream come true because in high school, he taught “Noli Me Tangere” during Filipino week. At the time, he also remembered seeing the play being staged at Far Eastern University.

For a good cause, “Ibarra” is also supporting the feeding programs of Rise Against Hunger Philippines.

Piolo Pascual with the cast at curtain call during the invitational preview of 'Ibarra.' Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News
Piolo Pascual with the cast at curtain call during the invitational preview of 'Ibarra.' Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

Here are excerpts of our recent online tete-a-tete with Pascual:

Q: Only few may know it but in college at UST, I read somewhere that you started in theater long before you acted in films. What year in college did you act in theater and the school plays you acted in?”

Pascual: “Probaby ‘93 or ‘94, my first year in college in UST first semester I already did ‘Juan dela Cruz in New York City' and I also did ‘Sabado Sa Sams’ in 1998 if I’m not mistaken. So I’ve done a couple of plays but mostly in the production side but as an actor I only did two plays in Teatro Tomasino.”

Q: “Who were the directors, co-actors, among others you remember who were your contemporaries in UST and now are still in theater or perhaps in films and television?”

Pascual: “John Lapus was my director sa ‘Sabado Sa Sams’. Roxy Liquigan was my co-actor in ‘Juan Dela Cruz’ when I was in first year college, who’s in ABS-CBN right now. Eagle Riggs was part of Teatro Tomasino. There’s Dang Cruz. There’s a couple of them. Direk Wenn Deramas. So, if not for these guys I would not have been in ABS-CBN because they are the ones who actually encouraged me to audition for Star Circle when I was still in college. They’re still around but mostly doing production work.”

Q: After UST, may iba pa po bang professional theater companies you acted and what plays and musicals?

Pascual: “None po.”

Q: Sir, I saw the musical film you did with Lav Diaz, 'Season of the Devil' and from what I’ve read, si Sir Lav does only one take. Kindly tell us, nag-re-rehearsal po ba kayo noon before take? And would you say, this one is closest to musical theater, given that Bituin Escalante, Pinky Amador and Sir Bart Guingona were there.

Pascual: “It was fun. It was a good exercise. We shot in Malaysia because it was kind of socially controversial. But yeah we would rehearse before a scene because Lav is known to do one take so there were moments we laughed at each other ‘cause we kind of forget our lines and we would sing off-key but it’s mostly acapella. 

“So you do your [part] or whatever. It was a good exercise to begin with, especially with Bart, Pinky and Bito (Escalante) and once you’re in the scene, once you are doing it, you gotta give it your all because it’s just one take. It was close to a musical play.”

Q: While we’re on it, may future project po ba kayo kay Sir Lav? Or willing kayo to do another musical film with him directing?

Pascual: I’m open for anything as long as it’s a good concept, schedules are fixed early on. I’m always open to collaborate with Lav.

Q: Given that “Ibarra” is historical fiction, how relevant do you think is his story to be told to the younger generations?

Pascual: “The story of Ibarra, the story of ‘Noli Me Tangere’ per se, is as timely as the show ‘Maria Clara and Ibarra’ was relevant. People watched it and they had an interest, but people planned this before the show was airing. The first novel I actually liked was ‘Noli Me Tangere’ in high school and I don’t know if it’s still taught in schools but this is something we should know about, read about and it tells about our culture, it tells about our identity as Filipinos so it’s still relevant nowadays. It’s a nice way to embrace our identity as Filipinos. So we should know or read about Ibarra or read ‘Noli Me Tangere’ for that matter.”

Q: Is it OK sir what kind of preparation are you doing for “Ibarra” with regards your voice, stamina and all that. 

Pascual: “I get on the treadmill everyday while I’m rehearsing. I’m vocalizing to build my endurance and stamina. I blocked off all my dates just to focus on this and memorize and listen to the songs every day and just keep on rehearsing with everyone. Dig deep and know more about the character of Ibarra as I go along.”

Q: “A bit advanced but after doing ‘Ibarra’ would you be open to doing other musical theater productions? Like for example with PETA or Tanghalang Pilipino and others. Or like recently, Markki Stroem and Karylle had roles in the international tour of ‘The Sound of Music’ for their Manila stop, mga ganyang level po.”

Pascual: “I have so much respect for my craft. Art in general or whatever medium it may be. Be it for the stage, for film or television, as long as it’s a good concept with good story and my schedule is open.”

Q: Anything you want to add, Sir? Future projects?

Pascual: “A lot. After this I just wrapped a film – ‘The Ride,’ which is a suspense action – a father and son story. I did a series for Netlfix with Alessandra da Rossi. Then I’m doing ‘Mallari,’ which is a horror film. And then, there’s the socially relevant film, ‘Bangsamoro’. I did a special participation for ‘Gomburza,” which is a film [by Pepe Diokno]. A couple of tours here and there.”