MANILA – Jhett Tolentino made his mark on Broadway as a three-time Tony Award-winning producer, and now he has a theater company here to give back to his homeland.
Tolentino put up his namesake company, Jhett Tolentino Productions Inc., with the vision of making Broadway more accessible to Filipinos. It all started during a homecoming last year, when his artist friends sought his help to enter New York’s theater scene.
“When I returned home, they heard about me and said, ‘Hey, can you help us go to Broadway?’ So I tried to help two actors from here and it’s just impossible, with the visas and the union. It’s possible, but they have to put in the work,” he told ABS-CBN News.
“And then I thought, those shows that come here internationally, they mostly cast foreigners. They would usually cast one or two [Filipinos] but they’re missing out on the roles they’ve always wanted to play since they were kids,” he added. “So I put myself in their position and said, ‘Okay, what can I do for them?’ So in August, I came back… I stayed here and I called some of the locals who are my friends and said, ‘Do you want to be a partner in this?’”
Tolentino was able to find partners who shared his goal of “enhancing the Filipino artist.” The idea, he said, is to bring in Broadway stars to perform in the country at more affordable rates for local audiences, and allow Filipino talents to learn from them through workshops and seminars.
“Not everybody can go to New York. I don’t even know how I do it, with 20- to 22-hour flights each time. If I can bring the Broadway experience here, it would be easier for everyone… Someone from Broadway can come here and share the wisdom, experience and training to our local artists,” he said. “It’s a very expensive thing to do [from our end] but I always believe that once you build the airport, the airplanes will come.”
But he was quick to add: “We just want to add on to what’s already established here. I’m not trying to bypass the greats that have been established here. I won’t be here if not for them. I’m just an addition.”
BROADWAY MEETS OPM
Tolentino is hoping to bring in the Broadway comedy play “The Velocity of Autumn” next year as the first play under this theater company, but the award-winning producer said that will have to wait because of venue constraints.
“I have to get hold of what’s available. It’s very tough but I’m slowly meeting with other private sectors if they can build something,” he said. “There are some that are coming in… but it’s not going to happen in the next month or next year. It’s for long-term.”
In the meantime, Tolentino is introducing a Christmas concert merging Broadway anthems, holiday tunes and some original Pilipino music.
Titled “A Very Broadway Christmas in Manila,” the concert will be held at the newly opened BGC Arts Center in Taguig City on December 11, and at the Central Philippine University’s Rose Memorial Hall in Iloilo City on December 17.
It will star Andrew Keenan-Bolger, whose Broadway credits include “Tuck Everlasting,” “Newsies,” “Seussical,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “A Christmas Carol.”
Tolentino expressed optimism about his first project in the country: “The concept of ‘A Very Broadway Christmas in Manila’ is Andrew’s experiences on the road… It’s his first time in Asia so it’s going to be big. The Philippines will be talked about on Broadway and West End.”
Tanya Manalang, who recently appeared in “Rak of Aegis” and the London revival of “Miss Saigon – 25th Anniversary,” is a guest artist on the show.
But perhaps what is most interesting about “A Very Broadway Christmas in Manila” is the fact that Tolentino made Keenan-Bolger sing three OPM Christmas songs – “Pasko na Naman,” “Sana Ngayong Pasko” and “Kumukutikutitap” – to endear him to the Filipino crowd.
“I’m letting Andrew study Tagalog songs, the tongue-twister ones. He’s begging off with a particular one. I said, ‘Listen, why would I give you an easier song?’” he said in jest. “I want to endear him to the community. It’s for him to relate to the people.”
After the Christmas concert, Tolentino is hoping to bring in other Broadway stars to the Philippines such as Jeremy Jordan, Ali Ewoldt and Darren Criss.
“As long as everything goes well,” he said.
‘THE TALENT IS THERE’
Tolentino admitted that he has not seen a lot of plays here in Manila, but noted that the local theater scene is brimming with talent.
“What I’m happy about the theater industry here is that the talent is there. Terrific talents,” he said.
When asked what needs to be improved, he replied: “I’ve seen almost 1,700 shows on Broadway so I can already tell who had the right training and who needs more. Those who have been to West End, that’s proper training. Those who haven’t, probably they can be refined in technique and control.”
“But again, basically the talent is there,” he said. “Eventually, it will be refined.”