Hey, Madame Producers! Girlie Rodis and Celeste Legaspi's Musicat

Hey, Madame Producers!
By Walter Ang
March 22, 2014
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Rodis and Legaspi
Following the Edsa People Power Revolution in February 1986, the theater industry underwent changes. The Cultural Center of the Philippines saw the exit of Bulwagang Gantimpala (now Gantimpala Theater) and Teatro Pilipino from the complex, and the birth of CCP's resident theater company Tanghalang Pilipino. Gantimpala and TP are still alive and kicking.

In the private sector, a trailblazing theater entity was also born. Though it has effectively gone into semi-retirement, it seems poised for a big comeback.

Talent manager Girlie Rodis and singer-actress Celeste Legaspi remembers that after Edsa, "the euphoria was there"-and so they rode the wave to found Musical Theatre Philippines (Musicat).

The tandem went on to produce seven musicals-"Katy!" (1988), "Kenkoy Loves  Rosing" (1992), "Alikabok" (1995), "Sino Ka Ba, Jose Rizal?" (1996), "Larawan, The Musical" (1997), "Fire Water Woman" (1999), and "Saranggola ni Pepe" (2008)-that invariably showcased top-flight Filipino talent.

Unique undertaking
At the time, as Inquirer Theater editor Gibbs Cadiz noted in his blog, "Musicat was a unique undertaking in that it was the only local theater company exclusively dedicated to commissioning and mounting original Filipino musicals."

Newer and younger audiences may have never heard of these productions before, but "Katy!" generated acclaim anew last year in a restaging by Spotlight Artists Centre, while "Sino Ka Ba" was mounted by Gantimpala Theater from 2011 to 2012.

Legaspi had been headlining concerts in the years leading up to 1986 and had been a member of Tinio's Teatro Pilipino. She was known for adding theatrical elements to her shows. She did a bit where Max Alvarado and Dencio Padilla came out on stage and exchanged gunfire with Fernando Poe Jr. on a video screen.

"Interactive! It was a hit with audiences at the time," she recalls.

She also sang duets with herself via video. "Ginaya ako ni Barbra!" she laughs, referring to Barbra Streisand, who would make the set piece a staple in her latter-day concerts.

Legaspi and Rodis, who until now serves as Legaspi's manager and producer, jumped off from this inherent sense of the theatrical into full-fledged musical-theater production with "Katy!"

It had Mitch Valdes as the titular "Bodabil Queen" Katy dela Cruz, and Legaspi as her fictional foil Olivia, with music by Ryan Cayabyab, libretto by Jose Javier Reyes and direction by Nestor Torre.

"We also had Bernardo Bernardo as Tatay, Marco Sison as Peping, Gigi Posadas as Mary Walter, the late Tenten Muñoz as young Katy," says Rodis.

"We were able to invite Katy herself to come and watch. We arranged for her to arrive in a Rolls Royce, wearing a fancy gown by Ernest Santiago. It was always magical when she would come up the stage, looking regal and svelte at 83, wearing three-inch heels."

Rodis is also the manager of the likes of Joanna Ampil (currently starring as Grizabella in the European tour of "Cats"), Julia Abueva (presently in the West End rehearsing for "Miss Saigon" as a Kim alternate), Rachel Alejandro, Cris Villonco, Arthur Espiritu, Cara Manglapus and Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski.

But her major joy, she says, is producing original Filipino musicals. Or as Cadiz quoted her: "To this day I still don't own my house, but I own seven librettos!"

After "Katy!" came "Kenkoy Loves Rosing," based on the komiks by writer Romualdo Ramos and illustrator Tony Velasquez. It starred Regine Velasquez, Janno Gibbs and Nonie Buencamino. The music was by Bob Serrano (of the singing group Tux) and Archie Castillo, with libretto by Boy Noriega.

"Alikabok," meanwhile, inspired by Juan Luna's painting "La Bulaqueña," was about the Katipunera Bising Vallejo, played by Alejandro. Villonco alternated with Dianne de la Fuente in the title role in a restaging in 2002. The music was by Cayabyab, libretto by Noel Balmaceda with revisions by Legaspi's daughter Waya Gallardo for the restaging.

"Sino Ka Ba, Jose Rizal?" starred Ogie Alcasid, Mikee Cojuangco, Alejandro and Sam Concepcion (as the young Jose Rizal), with music and libretto by Legaspi's husband Nonoy Gallardo. It was based on Leon Ma. Guerrero's "The First Filipino," a biography of Rizal, with additional lyrics by Rene Villanueva.

Then there was "Larawan," based on National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin's play "A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino." Tinio, also eventually declared a National Artist (for Theater and Literature), served as both director and translator/librettist (he died a few days before the musical's premiere).

"Larawan" starred Legaspi and Zsa Zsa Padilla (Rachel Alejandro took over in the second run) as the Marasigan sisters, along with Roeder Camañag as Bitoy and Ricky Davao as Tony Javier. The chorus consisted of Fides Cuyugan-Asencio, Armida Siguion-Reyna, Nomer Son, Robert Natividad and Gamaliel Viray-all boldface names in Philippine opera.

"Ryan was worried that Rolando wouldn't like his music, and was overjoyed when Rolando said he was very happy with it. When I first heard the music with Rolando's libretto, I said to Girlie, `This will be our masterpiece,'" recalls Legaspi.

Another Joaquin play-the English-language "Tatarin: A Witches' Sabbath in Three Acts," his adaptation of his own short story "The Summer Solstice"-became the musical "Fire Water Woman." It showcased Jenine Desiderio, Michael Williams and Carla Martinez, plus the music of Louie Ocampo, lyrics by Tats Rejante-Manahan and book by Manahan and Bart Guingona.

"We dared premiere at CCP's Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino at the same time the touring production of 'Miss Saigon' was showing in Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo! It's heartening to note that we were completely sold out. Leo Valdez and Lea Salonga (playing the Engineer and Kim) would visit us while we were rehearsing," recounts Legaspi.

Waning interest
But in 2007, the partners decided to close down Musicat.

"We ran into some unscrupulous provincial producers who did not pay us. I certainly felt tired of it all," says Legaspi.

"We realized sadly that although our passion for creating and producing original musicals was strong and sure, the audience that had patronized [our productions] was no longer interested," adds Rodis.

But you can't really keep a pair of passionate, driven women down for too long. Musicat resurfaced in 2008 when it staged "Saranggola ni Pepe" for the National Theater Festival (libretto by Waya Gallardo and music by Nonoy Gallardo).

Its discography is now being rediscovered and restaged more frequently. Aside from Spotlight Artists Centre and Gantimpala Theater, even foreign groups have been licensing productions from Musicat. The Banyuhay Cultural Arts Guild in Doha, Qatar, staged "Alikabok" a few years ago and is planning to stage "Kenkoy Loves Rosing" this year.

"They have empathy with Kenkoy because we turned his character into an OFW," say Legaspi.
"It's faster to license from us now with the Internet," says Rodis. She's even uploaded videos of "Larawan" (the full musical) and excerpts of "Katy!" on YouTube for the whole world to watch.

"I'm hopeful that audiences are eager to watch Filipino musicals again. Last year's restaging of 'Katy!' was a revelation and inspiration," she says.

Musicat has not only resurfaced, it is evolving, says Legaspi. "We're looking forward to other different undertakings while maximizing our properties. We're making a film version of `Larawan.' It's exciting and a totally new challenge."

"Larawan is my favorite musical," says Rodis. "It needs to be seen by our youth, to remind them that there was a time when art flourished and our senators were statesmen. That's why it's the first of our musicals that we are turning into a film."

Both Legaspi and Rodis are judges in the first-ever English musical playwriting competition open to Filipinos 18 years old and above, amateurs and published writers alike. The winner will win P1 million. The competition is organized by Ignacio B. Gimenez Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated in part to supporting the promotion of Filipino arts and culture.

The IBGF Musical Writing competition deadline is June 30, 2014. Call 6400523, 0917-8629581, ignaciobgimenezfoundationinc@gmail.com or visit ibgfi.com or facebook.com/ignaciobgimenezfoundationinc.

To license Musicat musicals, call +639188380319 or e-mail gr.rodis@gmail.com.

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Lito Casaje, recovering from the Big C, directs 'No Exit'

Lito Casaje, recovering from the Big C, directs 'No Exit'
By Walter Ang
March 8, 2014
Philippine Daily Inquirer

"No Exit," by French playwright Jean-Paul Sartre, depicts three deceased characters in the afterlife, punished by being locked into a room together for eternity. It is the source of Sartre's often misinterpreted quote, "L'enfer, c'est les autres," or "Hell is other people."

The original title of the play, "Huis Clos," is the French equivalent of the legal term "in camera," referring to a private discussion behind closed doors. It was first performed at Theatre du Vieux-Colombier in 1944. English translations have also been performed under the titles "In Camera," "No Way Out," "Vicious Circle," "Behind Closed Doors" and "Dead End."

Annual celebration
Lito Casaje is directing a production of the play, presented by the French Embassy as part of the Francophonie Festival this March, an annual celebration of French language and culture.

A playwright, screenwriter, professor, actor and filmmaker, Casaje co-founded the theater company Dramatis Personae with the late playwright Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr. in 1989. He's been partnering with the French Embassy ever since.

"My first project with Alliance was in 1990, a twin bill of two French avant-garde plays, Jean Genet's 'The Maids' and Eugene Ionesco's `The Lesson,'" he says.

"I remember performing these plays while we faintly overheard machine guns firing with the then ongoing Honasan-led coup d'état  against the Cory government, since we were in Makati."

"No Exit" will mix music, movement, poetry, masks, voice-overs and film.

"I'd like this staging to be more contemporary, timeless, spaceless, oblique, allegorical and theatrical than just merely claustrophobic, wordy, linear, straight-laced, monochromatic and cerebral," says Casaje.

He aims to "physicalize the poetry of Sartre's lines, essaying them with a bit of the actor's/character's choreographed movements."

Thematically, however, "there is really nothing you can do to make the play's existentially dark, cynical and nihilistic message less cryptic and more hopeful," he notes.

"Directorially and consciously, after my redemptive experience from cancer, I was attempting to debunk this worldview through a somewhat hopeful light, through an epilogue perhaps, but can't."

Four-cycle protocol
Casaje had initially proposed this production in March 2013. A few months later, he was diagnosed with Burkitt-like lymphoma. "The last of my four-cycle chemotherapy protocol ended in October. After my lymphoma/inferno phase, I re-proposed it in November," he recounts.

"My oncologist, Dauline So-Kaw, told me I'm already in my maintenance phase of recovery. She still wants me to pursue maintenance chemo protocol, to be administered every three months for two years.

"I'm really struggling on working things out the alternative way, meaning the all-natural, all-fiber, all-organic health food way, all the way.

"It's darn difficult, a continuing struggle to a point where my favorite pastas and pizzas would still get in the awful way."

Casaje posits that "No Exit" is "Sartre's eloquent dramatization of his `no way out' philosophy, that being trapped into something or anything, whether it's our own doing or not, whether we like it or not, is an integral part of our lives."

"But who knows," says Casaje, "this staging is a work-in-progress. I might just succeed in anesthetizing even a tiny bit of the theme's existential pain after all. This is my first mounting of this play and I'm having a lot of fun."

Lighting design is by Ian Bautista, sound design and music by Jerry Garcia, choreography by Arvey Lopena.

"No Exit" runs March 14, 7:30 p.m., at Rajah Sulayman Theater, Fort Santiago. Free admission. To reserve seats, contact Dramatis Personae 0928-2070827 or 0906-4974025. The production is available for nationwide school and university tours and socio-civic fund-raising events.

Visit the French Embassy website www.ambafrance.ph.org.

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