MANILA -- With around 200 performances since it was first staged in 1996, "Magnificat" is regarded as one of the country's most successful religious musicals.
"It has also been staged in big, big venues like the Araneta Coliseum and Cuneta Astrodome. It has been toured in schools, gymnasiums, even gardens and churches. Now, we're doing it at the Music Museum. It's smaller than Araneta but we run for three weekends," noted Sherwin Sozon of the Lyric Opera of the Philippines (LyrOpera), producer of the latest run of "Magnificat."
"We're used to doing opera and this is also the first time we're doing a musical," he told ABS-CBN News recently.
"Magnificat," which opened last Friday, September 27, and runs all weekends until October 12, tells the story of Jesus Christ through the eyes of Mary. With libretto by Nestor U. Torre and music by National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab, the sung-through musical can be enjoyed by everyone. That is, even if you're not Roman Catholic or a Marian devotee.
Directing "Magnificat" this time is Laurice Guillen, who just about six weeks ago, was busy with the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival, as president of Cinemalaya Foundation, Inc., the organization behind the festival.
"Well, I knew this months ago, even before this year's Cinemalaya and I've been familiar with 'Magnificat' a long time ago. The preparation took a lot longer. We had rehearsals muna with music and so on," she told ABS-CBN News ahead of last Friday's opening.
"This is a bigger a challenge, this is harder than 'Carmen,'" she added, referring to George Bizet's opera she directed in 2012 and 2013, also for LyrOpera. Her daughter, Ana Feleo, played the titular role and earned rave reviews from critics.
In "Magnificat," Feleo, also one of the founding board members of LyrOpera, plays Mary, alternating with Pinky Marquez.
For mother and daughter, it's like destiny or a call from above, as Guillen and Feleo are Marian devotees too.
"As you can see, it's a personal thing," Guillen said. "Pero, this is medyo mahirap talaga. This is harder than 'Carmen."
Inspired by music, libretto
She confessed directing films is much easier than doing a musical or a straight play. She explained that in films, you can always re-shoot if there are scenes you're not satisfied with. But in musical theater, she said once it has started, she has no control over it anymore.
"It's out of your hands. Well there might be adjustments that I'd see and I'd give them something to work on for the following weekends but not change the form of the play," she said.
"The play is is different because the element is taken on piece by piece. We have blocking, movement, choreography and all of these things. In the film setup, when you schedule a scene all the elements are ready. Mas taxing ang theater," she added.
Despite that, she found satisfaction in the work of two veterans in the field.
"I find the music of Mr. C very inspired, same ang libretto ni Nestor Torre. I wonder sometimes kasi he gave us only the minus one for us to work on and not the score. Because if we have the score, we can do an orchestra, in a bigger scale production. The CCP perhaps," she said, her eyes twinkling.
Mr. C is the nickname of Cayabyab used by colleagues, his students and friends.
Asked if she has plans of directing more plays, she said: "Ako naman, kung ano i-alok sa akin, kung ano dumating, why not?"
She remembered the last plays she directed was back in the 1970s while still a college student at the Ateneo de Manila University. She didn't enumerate the titles but she recalled they were Western plays.
"I was taking my electives in Theater Arts for my graduate programs and it was Rolando Tinio who was our professor. Also sina (Salvador) Badong Bernal. I had projects sa chamber music and there were few other plays, not major plays, but they were for Ateneo theater then," she saud.
After college, she established a career in directing and acting for films. She considers "Carmen" and "Magnificat" as her major directorial jobs in theater.
Sozon told ABS-CBN News when they were planning what to do for their 8th season this year, they were thinking of another piece. "But it was so hard to get," he said, not mentioning the title.
Someone suggeste 'Magnificat,' "and everyone agreed."
Cayabyab said everything's OK with him. Only Torre's approval was needed. Torre was sick so Sozon and some members of LyrOpera wasted no time in finding the whereabouts of the veteran writer. Sozon, Feleo and their team found Torre at a house in Marikina City where he's recuperating.
"I was planning to stay for an hour to talk to him, kumustahan, find out how he has been but he was really weak. So in just 10 minutes, he said yes 'agad' because he needed to rest," Sozon said.
"I asked him where to get the copy and he said, 'Kunin n'yo na lang kay Andy.' That was it. We invited him to the rehearsals and the premiere but he's really weak," Sozon added.
Andy is actor Andy Bais, who has been serving Torre's assistant for years.
Sozon found out that although 'Magnificat' was written around 1992 to 1993 by Torre, it took three years before Cayabyab was able to finish the music and lyrics. Sometime in 1996, the "world premiere" was staged in Pinky Marquez's living room.
Feleo recalled she was only 14 or 15 at the time. She and younger sister Ina were in charge of collating the script and all the "paper works."
"We were just listening to the auditions done with Mr. C. They started rehearsing around 1995 to 1996. I was there ever since. Right from its conceptualization up to now, where I played Mary," Feleo said. It was only when she turned 18, when Cayabyab and Torre asked her to join the musical. She has since played various roles when it was toured all over the country in the following decades.
"That's why I consider Nestor Torre as my first theater teacher. I was asked to play Elizabeth and eventually almost all female roles, depending upon which run or date. I've even done Satan. I've played everything except Mary," Feleo recalled.
Feleo also acted in Torre's "Magsimula Ka," where she played the mother of Miguel, one of the lead characters. In Cayabyab's opera "Spoliarium: Juan Luna" she played Paz Pardo de Tavera-Luna.
Feleo is a soprano and has made a name as opera singer. She has performed here and abroad, though less publicized than the glitzy world of show business her famous parents are highly respected key players, almost like an institution.
"I've done operas, oratorios in music festivals. I've represented the country all over the world," she said. As for her younger sister who's embraced show business, she said before Ina plunged into acting for film and television, they were both members of Bayanihan Dance Company.
Now that it's the second time she's being directed by her mother after "Carmen," we asked Feleo if they're the type who talked about the musical while at the dinner table.
"'Pag sa bahay, iba. Well, we have the same languange. Masarap 'pag si mommy ang director. You know kaagad which points to hit. I like it when the director is very clear of what she wants. She allows you to make the role your own. Then the character becomes very human to you," she said.
"As to Mr. C's composition, they are beautiful music, very convincing music. The libretto of Nestor Torrre captures the sentiment. I am very privilege to be part of this production. There is so much unity. Even beyond rehearsals we care for each other," she added.
Feleo is very much into the character, and being a very religious person, a devoted Catholic, she sees every performance like a prayer in itself.
Acting as calling, blessing
"The more you get into the character, the more you know how unworthy you are. Her essence, purity and strength. At the same time, there is this, I can not explain it. You feel there is a calling, be part of God's salvation," she said.
"You feel unworthy of playing the role. I mean, rehearsing this every night, it's very painful even if I was marking my voice," Feleo added. Sometimes she gets too deep into the character, she gets carried away. "The pain of seeing your Son, the love of your life to save mankind. So she she has to be strong. She has to go through it, go with Christ and it's very painful.
"Mary is humble and a very strong mother, a very strong servant of God. She has a warrior's heart, tatayo at tatayo siya anuman ang kalooban ng Diyos," she said.
"We hope the audience can relate to the characters. They are not separated from the show," she added.
For the role of Jesus, Feleo asked her friend, actor and classical music singer Al Gatmaitan to audition and got accepted.
"Al and I have worked together in many concerts. Love ko 'yan. We both came from the UP College of Music. He's very easy to work with. He's very professional, very light. Hindi ma-drama because you don't have to feed each other's ego. He's very down to earth and very quiet. That's why he and I are very good friends," she said.
In theater circles, Gatmaitan is the most sought-after Jesus or just about any character related to saints and other Biblical character.
In the pre-Lenten presentation of "Martir Sa Golgota" by Tanghalang Sta. Ana or the Manila Mobile Theater, he has played Jesus consistently every year. "Well, at first I was cast as Judas," he said, laughing as he corrected himself. The play with songs was directed by Lou Veloso, who is also founding artistic director of Tanghalang Sta. Ana.
Most recent in June this year, Gatmaitan played the titular role in "Br. Benilde," an a capella musical based on the life of St. Benilde Romancon. The Layeta Bucoy-penned musical was staged to celebrate the 30th anniversary of De La Salle University-College of Saint Benilde.
"When I was still in the UP College of Music, I remember my first play was 'A Man Called Jesus.' I can't recall which theater group pero independent production ito. Of course, ako 'yung Jesus," he said, laughing again for remembering his roots.
So it's not a surprise if he was the first choice to play Jesus in "Magnificat," even during the planning stage.
"Knowing Mr. C ang music and Nestor Torre ang libretto, compare sa ibang ginawa ko, maganda 'yung songs. Melodious, madaling aralin. Once or twice mapakinggan, may recall kaagad. And sa text madaling maintindihan," he told ABS-CBN News.
Gatmaitan has no alternate. He'll be doing three to four shows per weekend until October 12.
Being directed by Guillen for the first time and in a musical play, Gatmaitan sees the experience as a blessing.
"Siya 'yung nagiging Mary (during the rehearsals) kasi parang family. Wino-workshop niya rin kami. She's very nurturing, motherly. She wants na ma-perfect ang mga scenes. Kaya nga lahat kami very thankful na sya yung director namin. Once in a lifetime lang to. Very patient siya with us," he said.
"Magnificat" runs all weekends until October 12 at the Music Museum in Greenhills.