MANILA -- If you Google the name of singer-theater actor OJ Mariano, most likely the first few links will give you The CompanY. That's because he has been with the country's premier vocal group since 2015 and despite being active in the theater industry, it's The CompanY where he's always associated with.
But that may change in a couple of days as more feature stories and reviews about Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company" will be published and uploaded. Here, Mariano is playing the lead character named Bobby, who he describes "the perpetual bachelor." It will be staged by Upstart Productions starting Friday, September 13, until September 22, at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater in Taguig City.
Sondheim wrote the lyrics and music while playwright George Furth wrote the libretto. "Company" had its world premiere in Broadway in 1970, or about nine years before the 40-year-old Mariano was born.
"Yes, this is my first major lead role in a musical in English. 'Yung ako lang talaga ang central character," Mariano ABS-CBN News during a rehearsal break a few days ago. "And I think this is the most challenging role for me in my entire career in theater."
It's almost meta, bordering on the profoundly surreal. The vocal group got its name as tribute to Sondheim's musical comedy. As Upstrart Productions' founder Joel Trinidad would like to simplify the scenario: “Our company is producing 'Company,' whose company includes two people from The CompanY. Not confusing at all.”
Besides Mariano, Trinidad was referring to Sweet Plantado-Tiongson, a more senior member of The CompanY, who plays Sarah, one of Bobby’s married friends in "Company." Plantado-Tiongson's past roles include Kapitana Mary Jane in the ongoing smash hit "Rak of Aegis" by the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA). Mariano was also part of this musical in many of its-300 plus runs, playing Tatay Kiel, the former boyfriend of Mary Jane.
In all aspects of his life, one can say Mariano has always been in good company. He knew he could trust them and that no one among these friends will tell the media the real Mariano they know, the person beyond the limelight.
Or so he thought.
"My dearest OJ is one shy person. You may not believe me because you’d see him perform but his real self is 'l-don’t-want-any-attention-I’m-too-shy-you-may-leave-me-alone-k-thanks-bye!'
"So you can imagine his stress when I convinced him to celebrate his 40th birthday via a party! He’s also a cry-baby! Iyakin man!" Plantado-Tiongson said in a follow-up interview.
"He’s been a member of “The CompanY” for almost five years and so far I’m glad I asked him to audition. He’s been a big help to the group both vocally and performance wise. Throughout those five years, we’ve shared our lives both personal and professional. Always looking out for each other, having each other’s back.
"OJ and I are believers and allies of each other.. mutual admiration.. 'kakampi and katuwang,'" she added.
"He was my anchor when I did 'Rak of Aegis.' He helped me find and mold my character with his character and from the reviews we got, we did a good job!" Plantado-Tiongson said.
For the seventh re-staging of "Rak of Aegis," which is still ongoing at the PETA-Phinma Theater until September 29, they begged off to be part of the run and have ventured into doing other roles.
Plantado-Tiongson revealed she was the one who pushed Mariano to go to the reading and audition for “Company.”
"He was hesitant because the musical and songs are not familiar to him but I told him to go because it’s beautiful. He was asked to read for Bobby, got it and I couldn’t be prouder!" she said.
Since the rehearsals up to the musical's opening this Friday the 13th, everything seemed to be working out well.
"When we both got in, we promised each other we’d see each other through this process... we still do. He’s actually my 'Bobby' in real life... Like my character Sarah, I’m protective of him and wants him to be wise and commit to his choices," she said.
UNDERRATED FIRST-RATE ACTOR
Why Mariano didn't even want to audition for the role of Bobby is because he felt it's something big for him since he's used to playing supporting roles.
"I had hesitations kasi I knew from the very beginning, it's such a big role," he told this writer.
"I told (director) Topper (Fabregas) I was interested and he told me to go. Pagdating ko sa call back, I didn't see anybody who is auditioning for the role of Bobby. So when I was reading na, I asked Topper, 'Is there anybody else'?"
"Topper said, 'Wala naman. Well, you're here..."
As it turned out, Fabregas has decided there's nobody else for the role of Bobby.
"I worked with him many times that I know there's so much untapped resources. He's so much capable, and there's so much in store for the role," Fabregas told this writer as he took a breather after a run-through.
"He's also among the easiest to direct and among the nicest people in theater," Fabregas added.
Mariano couldn't recall the exact date but the said "audition" happened while he was doing the recent staging of "Ang Huling El Bimbo," where he played Emman, one of the male lead characters. Fabregas, incidentally, played young Anthony, one of the three male protagonists in the original run of the rock musical in 2018.
In fact, many of Mariano's co-actors in "Company" were also involved in "Ang Huling El Bimbo," like Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (as Amy), Michael Williams (as Larry), Maronne Cruz (as April), Ariel Reonal (as Peter) and Chino Veguillas (as David).
Also in the cast are Cathy Azanza-Dy, Nicky Triviño, Bianca Lopez, James Uy, Caisa Borromeo, Jill Peña, and Joel Trinidad.
Playing Bobby also brings out the comic side of Mariano.
"I've also been typecasted for serious roles. This is also a 180-degree turn from my character, being the central character. There's stress and pressure and it's a struggle but I am having fun," he said.
"This is one of the most ironic things I've done. I don't see myself as the ideal leading man. I always see myself as the supporting character. Ever since I tried theater, I always try to relate my own personality to the character and adjust it based on the text," he added.
He credits Fabregas for being a big help. "He told me to go against what you're used to. That's one of Topper's directorial cues."
Mariano's first lead role was Rama in Ballet Philippines "Rama Hari" in 2012. For that, he won a best actor trophy from Philstage's Gawad Buhay Awards in 2013.
Earlier than that, he recalled his very first major role in Filipino was Tunying Ibañez, the fictional friend of Jose Rizal in Dulaang UP's "Isang Panaginip Na Fili." Ibañez is an "illustrado" living a libertine's life in Paris and has become Rizal's constant companion as he writes "El Filibusterismo." Written and directed by Floy Quintos, it was staged in 2010. But even then, Mariano did not consider Tunying a lead role. He also had alternates, the now US-based actor Reuben Uy and Nazer Salcedo.
"So I think, yes, I consider Bobby as my first major lead role in a musical in English," he said. He also has no alternate.
In college, Mariano initally took up Public Health, a pre-med course in University of the Philippines (UP) Manila. "I had plans of taking up medicine," he said, chuckling. We can say the medical field's loss is the performing arts' gain.
He knew early on that his heart desired not the stiffness of a regular job, a career confined in bundy clocks. He transferred to UP Diliman, initially taking up Fine Arts major in visual communications. He then realized he wanted to sing for the rest of his life so he transferred again, just a few hundred steps from the Fine Arts building to the UP Conservatory of Music. He enrolled and majored in voice.
As fate would have it, in 2005, he joined the second season of ABS-CBN's talent search, "Star in a Million." He finished second runner up to pioneering bossa nova artist Nyco Maca and grand prize winner, Frenchie Dy.
Mariano also recorded solo albums under Star Music, besides other compilation projects in collaborations with other artists.
In February 2010, he played Tom Collins in the local staging of "Rent," which was 9 Works Theatricals' maiden production. It eventually had two more re-stagings and Mariano was part of them. "I consider myself a 9 Works baby," he said.
For this role, he won a BroadwayWorld Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. He became active in theater from then on and never left.
Rony Fortich, the musical director for "Company," has plenty of good words for Mariano.
"OJ is fantastic. I've known his works for many years now. He's an incredibly instinctive singer. I love how emotionally he takes the songs. Such a beautiful voice. When he sings, there's so much heart," Fortich said.
Mariano was regular guest in Fortich's series of one-man-shows with runs in Teatrino, the Little Theater at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and at the Music Museum.
We asked Fortich if he'd like to collaborate with Mariano in doing a solo album.
"I love working with him. He has such a generous heart. But for an album, as we all know, everything's on Spotify now. In as much as I want to see him doing an album, personally, I love that he's focused on doing theater because it reaches people in a different way," said Fortich.