An MT Society: That Big Broadway Revival
Shows are indefinite. It is a universal truth that no matter how challenging, successful, or simply amazing a production is, it is no exception to the heartbreaking possibility of coming to a close. I guess part of the reason why is anchored to the fact that the world of theater constantly changes along with those undertaken by the human mind, having been created and (largely) influenced by highly critical artists and audiences alike. Musical theater, much like all other art fields, is created from the demands of human belief; therefore, how a society perceives life (which is something that is never static) will tend to affect the life on stage. But every once in a while, when a particular show that has already faced an untimely exit proves to still be of worth in a changing society, we somehow allow it to make a comeback.
And after a lot of reflection, I have come to realize that the state of Philippine musical theater somehow stands on a similar stage: struggling (yet striving) to keep afloat from all the drastic changes that take place in our society. Just to make it clear, all you’re about to read is simply based on personal observation.
I was born and raised in the capital of the Philippines (Manila), a country considered “poor” in terms of economic power, but one with such a rich and vibrant artistic past—particularly of music and theater. I grew up with this knowledge from the pages of history textbooks and recounted stories but never fully understood what they meant until I reached a certain level of awareness after entering an arts high school. From what I heard, back in those days (and I mean way back in the 19th and early 20th century), theaters were alive and bright with various Zarzuelas, Vaudeville shows and other forms of musical and theatrical entertainment that people enjoy watching. In comparison to the environment I grew up in (where show tunes are hardly ever heard), theater was a part of their everyday life. Of course, during those times (the period of war and revolution) it was the only source of entertainment, so one could argue that they had no choice but to love it—but I just don’t think that was the case.
As recounted by my grandparents, Philippine musical theater back in the day was also used as revolutionary material that preached of freedom, apart from its lighthearted entertainment value. See, back then during the WWII wartime in the country, where colonizers (with their foreign tongues) occupied the Philippine islands, one of the most effective ways for the revolutionaries to gather more followers for their cause was through sly and subtle stage entertainment. Because of the element of comedy, even opposing soldiers tended to watch these shows but did so without really understanding the underlying messages in the dialogues, for they were almost always written in the Filipino native languages. I remember listening to my grandmothers singing songs from their favorite Zarzuelas and feel myself bathing in awe. But what amazed me most was hearing that musical theater (and art in general) throve in an environment that was as chaotic and unstable as in those times. This led me believe that our society—one that has chosen to value the stage and all its purpose amidst the war—cannot possibly lose interest in the art, no matter the difficulty it may face.
But what I’ve heard of in stories frustrated me because of what I actually witnessed in real life: for the past decade or so, some theaters and stages here in Manila are being left to fend for their own, futilely fighting off nature’s spells of destruction, while those that did survive and are well-maintained are graced with so little an audience than it should. Since the movement against the highly-controversial Marcos (a president turned dictator) reign in the country – a regime with much emphasis on propagating the arts, though was put out of power for all the right reasons – the attention given to the arts had gradually degraded (I know this for a fact, having studied in a government art school that would always have to defend a school budget as compared to public science high schools). This insufficient support from the government to the art has made it become less accessible for mass audiences to enjoy. With this being said, musical theater somewhat became “exclusive” for the small fraction of elites in the country as well as the theater practitioners, themselves.
I believe that musical theater here in the Philippines is seriously underrated that I feel the constant fear of it being labeled “irrelevant.” And the saddest thing about it is knowing that it might just be the way it’s supposed to be! Art is always—and would always be—the least priority of a developing country. But should this continue, Filipino artists (actors, musicians, composers, writers, and everyone else involved in the theater industry) would be faced with the constant fear of losing not only a living, but in its most severe form, their passion. And without these artists, who would live to remind the people of why we exist in the first place?
Imagine a country so well-organized, practical and functional that it almost loses its authenticity; a place without the “luxury” of music, singing and dancing. Imagine a world where there is no space to remind you the ideas and principles you fight for and the things that still need fixing. Imagine a world with no stage to bring life to your dreams.
I guess one could say that I might be taking a huge leap here by attributing the social and economic issues of a country to the state of the art, but I think that the way our society views our reasons of existence is partly causing the problem. For one thing, majority of the community tend to look only at the impracticalities of musical theater and immediately labels it as a “luxury” and something we can live without. Hence by focusing on its cost we gradually devalue its relevance. And what we don’t realize is that we get so caught up in being practical that we start to view ourselves above the art and no longer as humans in need of it.
Thankfully, not all musicals stop for just a bump on the road.
The journey to the stage lights continues as the musical theater community strives to once again get their melodies out there because, while our society continues to question the importance of music, drama, and all that jazz, musical theater has been in rehearsals, preparing for its grand comeback. In the most recent years, shows are being put up that reach a growing audience with each day. Original local works are now being integrated in the mainstream media, which allows a larger audience to relate to and access them. With big musicals coming to the country left and right, like Wicked and Chicago (and a number of others to come), along with new and fresh local materials such as hit jukebox musical Rak of Aegis, and period musical Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini (The Last Work of Apolinario Mabini) — both of which are in the Filipino language — among many others, people are once again starting to realize the importance (or at least the joy) of singin’ in the rain. I know it’s still a long way away from the glory that MT once knew (because there are still a heck lot of audiences to be convinced) but this time around, I’m hoping that this revival can last for a longer run. While we’re at this, I’m also hoping that the theater community here in the Philippines along with those elected in power would never stop to make the effort of making MT a personal right to be accessible to all.
Art will always find a way back to the lives of the people in whatever way, no matter what the circumstances. If there’s one thing I’m grateful for, it’s that I get to be a part of this renaissance. It strengthens my belief that musical theater is more than just the costumes and the antics; it’s the reflection of the realities in our society all embedded in one production. And as long as we can remember that, I think this production is definitely worth a Tony.