Are Locally Mounted Broadway Musicals in Manila a Waste?

BY GIBBS CADIZ
Dec 07, 2009

How does art determine and shape a country’s national character?

Oggs Cruz, one of the more intelligent and consistently insightful Filipino film critics online (his blog, Lessons From the School of Inattention, just won Best Entertainment Blog honors at the 2009 Philippine Blog Awards), has tried his hand at theater reviewing with a piece on Atlantis Productions' Spring Awakening.*

To put it mildly, he was disappointed by the show, finding it “lackluster” and “hugely inadequate”. Oggs writes that he saw the original Broadway production; it didn't seem to have struck him as particularly memorable, except for the “indubitable saving grace” of Duncan Sheik's music. His complaint against the local production, though, goes deeper than weak staging or musicality.

“My utter disappointment for the local staging is grounded not on the numerous bum notes that mutated Sheik's rousing melodies... but on the consequent wastage that these productions carry with them as they are negotiated, imported, mounted and publicized. My proposition seems to be an unfair one, especially for the thousands of theater lovers who crave for having a piece of Broadway or the West End in Metro Manila, but the proposition, under the understanding that we are a nation that is struggling with a cultural identity that is slowly but surely being dissipated by post-colonial imperialism, is sound.”

In other words, Oggs is asking: Given our porous sense of national character, is it worth devoting time, talent and resources to mounting foreign productions with their foreign stories, foreign accents and foreign sensibilities when... “There is so much talent in the Philippines, so much material that have remained unstaged or unwritten because of lack of attention or lack of funding”?

Given our porous sense of national character, is it worth devoting time, talent and resources to mounting foreign productions with their foreign stories, foreign accents and foreign sensibilities when... “There is so much talent in the Philippines, so much material that have remained unstaged or unwritten because of lack of attention or lack of funding”?

Oggs Cruz

He compares his frustrating Spring Awakening experience with his encounter with several original local productions that, "while flawed, are all products of an independent creative energy," citing Dulaang UP's Atang (a play on a Nationalist Artist for Theater, Tanghalang Ateneo's many attempts at a vernacular Shakespeare and also its musical Lam-ang (a pre-Hispanic epic poem of the Ilocano people), Tanghalang Pilipino's Zsazsa Zaturnnah (a play based on a graphic novel whose protagonist is a gay superhero), etc.

 

Then he throws down the gauntlet with this provocative observation:

“It is saddening, really. Directors become mere supervisors. Actors resort to mimicry. Undoubtedly, there is talent onstage and offstage but when the material fails to reach you because of an impenetrable sheen of cultural disconnect, you can't help but wish that these actors just break out of their obviously fake accents and manufactured gesture – and just interpret the characters the way they had lived their own experiences with sexual repression. Also, you wish that director Chari Arespacochaga had more guts to actually direct instead of getting directions via email, phone calls, or the strict stipulations of whatever licensing agreement that was signed between Atlantis Productions and the owners of Spring Awakening. You seriously wonder if there is artistry or any independent thought in the production. Or begin to doubt whatever notion of creative sincerity in the musical since this opulent drivel can never be representative of Philippine theater.”

Do you agree? Is Oggs on to something here – or is he simply extrapolating from this one particularly inadequate production? To flesh out the issue some more (note – NOT all of them raised by Oggs, but these questions should help further clarify it):

1. Is there no outlet, indeed, for genuine artistry or creative sincerity when we're talking of English-language plays or musicals that are mounted locally without benefit of adaptation or Filipinizing? Does that lead to plain “mimicry”? What is the value of staging – to name just some examples, Into The Woods (New Voice Company), Avenue Q (Atlantis), The Sound of Music (Repertory Philippines), High School Musical (Stages), Songs For a New World (9 Works Theatrical), Tick... Tick... Boom! (Ateneo BlueRep) – largely they are, with no localizing touches in language, character or setting?

2. Should all foreign material undergo transplantation to the Filipino milieu and culture for them to be able to effectively reach us and move us? For that matter, would doing English-language musicals qualify as a frivolous effort compared to, say, doing original Filipino productions?

3. How impenetrable is this “sheen of cultural disconnect,” and how does this render the decades-long efforts of such theater companies as Repertory Philippines, which has devoted itself to mounting only English-language works, and the large sector of Filipino artists, actors, directors, scenarists, etc. who have involved themselves mainly in productions of foreign language and origin?

4. Should Filipino artists cultivate a conscious preference for original Filipino theater over Broadway/West End imports? Does that make their work more “important”, more “valuable”? Or should talent, skill, professionalism, attitude (one's devotion to the art) supersede questions of whether a particular brand of theater is “more Filipino” than others?

5. Should every local production be held to the standard of being “representative of Philippine theater”? How should that benchmark be defined, and is it a reasonable aspiration to be expected from all our theater companies?

 

*Footnote: The review appears in the Oct. 31 print issue of the Philippine Free Press.


Gibbs Cadiz blogs at GIBBS CADDIZ