Contributions of Filipinos to American Theater, Part 1: Broadway
October is Filipino American History Month! What better way to highlight the contribution of my people by talking about the industry I love. Filipinos have been migrating to America as early as 1587 (yes, we've been here that long). So it is no surprise that Filipino Americans have contributed quite a lot to various aspects of American life - including theater.
I originally set out to write one article on this topic, but after researching, I realized there is too much to mention. So let's break it down. Let's start with the great american art form - Broadway musicals.
Part 1: Broadway; and Why are there so many of us?
Since Lea Salonga's Tony Win in 1991 for her role as Kim in Miss Saigon (the first Asian actress, let alone the first Filipina to win in that category), a slew of Filipino performers can now be seen on Broadway. In an interview for Washington Post in 1990, Lea said, her performing on Broadway "would mean another chance for the Filipino to get a foot in the door, and hopefully push it open all the way." That is definitely what has happened.
Since then, 3 other Filipinos have won a Tony. Robert Lopez won Best Musical (Avenue Q in 2004) and Best Original Score (Book of Mormon in 2011). Did I mention he also has an Emmy, Grammy, and Oscar? Jhett Tolentino won Best Revival of a Play (A Raisin in the Sun in 2013) and Best Musical (Gentlemen's Guide in 2014) as a producer. And just this year, Clint Ramos won Best Costume Design for Eclipsed.
Onstage, throw a rock and your bound to hit a Filipino performer. To illustrate my point using mad research skills, here are the Pinoys* on Broadway right now: Adam Jacobs (Aladdin), Joshua dela Cruz (Aladdin), Angelo Soriano (Aladdin), Aaron J. Albano (Cats), Karla Garcia (Hamilton), Pia Hamilton (The Lion King), Ali Ewoldt (The Phantom of the Opera), Jolina Javier (The Phantom of the Opera), Gabby Gutierrez (School of Rock the Musical), and Jaygee Macapugay (School of Rock the Musical). And that's just this year. In the recent production of King and I, one source claimed 14 Filipinos in the cast with Jose Llana leading as the king of Siam. Another notable breakthrough is the casting of Ali Ewoldt as the first Asian actress to portray Christine in Phantom of the Opera.
And then we have Broadway Barkada. Founded in 2009 by Liz Casasola, Brian Jose, and Billy Bustamante; this barkada* serves as a family for Filipino musical performers in NYC. Most of the Broadway performers mentioned above are part of this community. They have two main productions each year. Lumipad, a dance concert showcasing Filipino/Asian choreographers and dancers, and So This is Love, an evening of love songs offered in honor of Valentine's Day. And... as I am writing this, they are at the White House performing for the Filipino American History Month. BREAK A LEG GUYS!
Now you may wonder, why are we so darn talented? On the day god was dividing the gift of music to his people, he was like, lets pour some more on these islands. Suffering brought by natural calamities, war and poverty is upon them. They're gonna need it.
I kid, in my sadistic Filipino humor that most of you won't get, but there is some truth to that. Music plays a big part in the resiliency of our people. Filipinos as a culture sing and dance as an everyday form of expression. It's a family reunion, the little kiddies will perform a production number. It's recess in school, you're buddy will pick up a guitar and a jam session with your barkada* will follow. Karaoke is a staple activity on every occasion, even funerals. Now whether we're all Broadway-caliber is debatable. But since performing is ingrained in our culture, the chances for talent to rise is high.
I would love to see a Filipino-centric musical on Broadway at some point. *ahem ahem* Robert Lopez. Here Lies Love, a disco-musical inspired by shoe-hoarding Imelda Marcos was on Off-Broadway recently. As much as I love seeing my kapwa-Pinoys on stage, the fact that it was an all-white creative team (except for costume design) bothers me a bit. However, progress is on it's way. There are plenty of players in the game. It's just a matter of time.
Check out Part 2: Legit Theater
*barkada - your group of friends; aka squad
*Pinoy - slang for Filipino