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  • Dan Albert S. de Padua

Once on This Island of Manhattan

Call it my post-graduate short course in musical theater. I was in New York City for a two-week intensive survey to try to determine what shows can be produced in Manila, what cannot, which musicals will make money, which ones might flop, and ultimately what plays have roles that will still hold some challenge for Mr. Nyoy Volante.

The oft-repeated remark that ‘it’s tough work but someone’s got to do it’ implies ironically that my job is easy, possibly even loads of fun. Granted, it is more enjoyable than preparing tax returns or carrying stones to the pyramids but, believe me, it is exhausting work. We had meetings every day, sometimes two or three, with producers, rights holders, licensors and creatives (as a non-creative, I skipped these). The people we met with were all very nice, but for a Myers Briggs-certified introvert like me meeting a bunch of people for the first time was stressful to the point of being physically painful. My muscles, despite being enveloped in fat, ached terribly from the daily tension, not to mention the lack of restful sleep due to the logging of many hours on airplanes, also known as jet log.

Then, there’s going to the theater. We saw a show almost every day, sometimes two in a day. We watched plays about pies, about the trials and tribulations of high school life, and about groups of people finding themselves in unexpected places. About women from the lower classes learning about the rich, about falling in love. The stories dealt with universal themes even as they were set in a bewildering array of locations—Chicago, Newfoundland, Bet Hatikva, St. Petersburg, Paris, London, the French Antilles and Bikini Bottom. Think of all the accents! Some of the shows were difficult to sit through. (Could have been the jet log again.) But many were beautifully staged, fresh, important and profoundly moving. I saw so many musicals that I got to a point where whenever I had a significant thought or felt a strong emotion I wanted to break into song.

I (heart) New York. I do. I really do. But it’s not an easy city to be in. It was so damned cold I wondered why the hell the city’s founders decided to settle there. Why couldn’t the world capital of musical theater have been established in Orlando? It was supposed to be springtime with glorious bursts of color everywhere, but just last Monday it snowed. The real New Yorkers were all bundled up in black. My light blue jacket just screamed Tourist! It reinforced the oppressive feeling that everyone in the city was better than me. After all, if they can make it there, they can make it anywhere, right? OK, maybe the homeless guy sleeping on the subway car was not better than me, but then again maybe he was not lost and riding on the wrong train like I was.

I exaggerate a little bit, of course. It wasn’t all that bad. In fact, I’d like to think it was similar to my public service project a couple of years ago when I spent a few weeks trying out all the crispy pata restaurants around Metro Manila in order to save other people from having to do it. I gained some weight and had a cholesterol scare but became a much-needed resource person on crispy pata. I was a man who ate for others. What a hero. To this day whenever I bump into a friend or relative I haven’t seen for a while, the first question is: So, what’s the best crispy pata?

What is the best musical on Broadway these days? I’m not crazy enough to answer that question after only two weeks. Besides, less than a year ago I was like the vast majority of Filipinos who would rather watch a basketball game or binge-watch a TV series than watch a play. Let’s just say instead that you’re visiting New York City from Manila for a few days and can only see one show. What should you watch? Most definitely “Once On This Island”. Theater in the round. Creative costumes. A sure-fire hit story. Haunting, driving music. Memorable performances. And our very own Lea Salonga. She plays the goddess of love who with a flick of her hand can bowl over men and with a tap on a shoulder, change the course of human events. In truth, she is a goddess who with the purity of her voice and the joy in her acting will make you fall in love with Theater.

Worth all the trouble.


Catch the Atlantis productions of SIDE SHOW and WAITRESS. Soon!

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