Meet the local players of ‘Chicago’
The Filipinos are a talented race that excels in many fields around the world. But while there are endless stories to tell about a Filipino doctor’s gift of empathy, a Filipino engineer’s aptitude for accuracy, or a Filipino call center agent’s ability to alter dictions, the Filipino’s inherent musicality almost always trumps the rest of its peoples’ valuable attributes.
Unsurprisingly so, there is always an overflowing sense of national pride when a Filipino—whether part or a hundred percent—makes it to the grand finals of American Idol; and more especially when a homegrown talent lands a part in an international production.
Today, The Sunday Times Magazine gives the country another reason to feel proud of some of its best musicians, who, even here at home are about to get their share of the international limelight.
Since 2012, British theater company Lunchbox Theatrical Productions has not only brought the world’s most loved stage musicals to Manila, but has also enjoyed the experience of working with Filipino musical talents.
Aware of the abundance of such musically inclined individuals in these shores, the company has always commissioned Filipino musicians to comprise part of its orchestra since first coming out with Mamma! Mia in 2012. In the years that followed, they also did the same for the successful runs of Phantom of the Opera also in 2012, and Wicked earlier this year.
Officially considered a “Lunchbox tradition” two years later, the practice of commissioning local musicians for their traveling productions continues with the highly anticipated Philippine premiere of Broadway hit Chicago in December.
Concertus Manila, the local production partner of Lunchbox, excitedly announced on Thursday that 12 out of the 16 musicians of Chicago’s orchestra will be comprised of Filipinos. Of the said number, three will be on woodwinds; two on trumpets; another two on trombone; one on the tuba; another on the upright bass, one on violin; a single artist on banjo, mandolin and ukulele; and the final Filipino musician assigned to be deputy pianist.
The roster were chosen by no less than Chicago’s musical director Robert Billing who went through online video auditions from over 50 local performers.
In selecting the most talented of the pack, Billing said in a press statement, “We chose the musicians for the Chicago orchestra based mainly on [the applicant’s]training and experience. While it is important for a musician to have a strong classical training, it is also important that they understand the jazz styles used in the show. Those musicians that we have selected, I believe, demonstrated an understanding of these styles.”
He added, more importantly, “It is very important for us to use local musicians for our production because they will help us bring the experience of this wonderful show to the people of Manila.”
Following the official announcement, The Sunday Times Magazine sat down with three of the newest Filipino musical prides—trombonist Francois Mendoza, classic guitarist Lester Demetillo, and pianist Joseph Tolentino—who openly shared their joys and fears on being part of a Broadway classic as Chicago.
Young and promising
Twenty-three-year-old Francois Mendoza, who will be one of two trombonists in the orchestra, feels honored to play the music of Chicago.
“I think it will be an exciting experience, but at the same time, nakakakaba rin [it’s also nerve-wracking],” he confessed.
Just like all the hopefuls who auditioned, Mendoza sent three videos of his music, one of which was his version of the popular “Trombology” by the Two Bone Big Band. Uncertain how he fared, he was surprised when he soon received a call that he passed.
“I felt extremely surprised. Bumilis ang tibok ng puso ko [my heart started beating faster],” Mendoza laughed.
Beneath his excitement, however, the young musician was unable to hide the pressure of playing for an international production of such a grand scale.
“It will be my first time to take part in smething this big and I’m afraid to make mistakes,” he related. “I hope I deliver what is expected of me and I promise to be focused in order to do my best.”
A graduate of the University of Santo Tomas-Conservatory of Music, Mendoza began playing the trombone at age nine. The young boy’s trombone belonged to his father who was a member of a marching band in Morong, Rizal.
“When I was young, I loved looking at the trombone because it was very shiny, and eventually, I started playing with it,” he recalled. “When I turned 11, I began joining the annual National Youth Summer Camp, and nagtutuloy-tuloy na hanggang sa pumasok ako sa [I just kept going until I was accepted to] the UST Conservatory.”
After Chicago, Mendoza will return to his home orchestra with the ABS-CBN Philharmonic. He is currently part of the network’s two-night Disney concert dubbed “Tale as Old as Time,” which is set to conclude tonight at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).
With so much a still ahead of him, The Sunday Times Magazine asked Mendoza what he dreams to accomplish in his musical career. The promising trombonist humbly replied, “I really don’t have any solid plans. All I want to do is to master playing the trombone and welcome very opportunity that will come my way.”
Best in the field
If Mendoza is a young and promising trombonist, guitarist Lester Demetillo of the University of the Philippines-College of Music is considered one of the best in his field. Not only is he known in musical circles as “an exceptional classical guitarist,” he is also the only professional banjo player in Philippines today.
“I’ve been into classical guitar music for almost 40 years. I’ve been with the University of the Philippines-College of Music as a teacher of classical guitar for the longest time,” Demetillo shared.
Asked to comment in being touted as the sole professional Filipino banjo player in the country, the musician effacingly dismissed the attribution and proposed that there may be others who play in lesser known public places and local concerts or productions.
What he knows for sure is that he simply loves the unique string instrument, and has done so since high school when he was into bluegrass music. This particular musical genre originated in the United States and lists the five-string banjo as one of its main instruments.
As the years passed, Demetillo went on to play the tenor banjo, and would go onstage whenever the CCP asked him to perform.
Asked to describe the banjo’s unique sound and his attraction to the instrument, he related, “It’s so ‘twangy’ and so loud because of its built-in resonator. You can really hear the instrument even without amplification.”
Demetillo is naturally thrilled for the opportunity to showcase his favorite instrument in an international production as it is not often that the banjo is needed in musicals.
Moreover, just like the young Mendoza, the classical guitar professor knows that playing for Chicago will be a big challenge in terms of shifting from classical music to jazz.
“It’s a different type of music from what I play every day,” he acknowledged. “And it’s always a challenge to do these things, especially with new instrument combinations. It’s a different discipline that I am willing and excited to explore.”
Indeed, Demetillo will experience something unique in Chicago because it is one of the few musicals that places the orchestra on the stage with the show’s actors, rather than separated in the pit. In one scene, in fact, Roxie Hart, the musical’s lead character, will even interact with the conductor and one musician.
At this juncture in his career, the noted guitarist is grateful to be part of the foreign musical. He enthused, “A musician will always be happy to be given an assignment of any kind. This is one of them, and it’s a major production. It will be another challenge and another a feather on my cap.”
Besides the banjo, Demetillo will also play the mandolin and ukulele for Chicago.
Joseph Tolentino, 28, has been playing the piano for 14 years or exactly half of young his life. A graduate of UST’s Conservatory of Music, he trained under Dr. Raul Sunico no less, the college’s dean and president of the CCP.
As for working with Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Tolentino can already be called a “regular” having been part of the orchestras for the company’s last two major shows in Manila, the Phantom of the Opera and Wicked.
Nevertheless, he is still keyed up for Chicago because just like the previous musicals, he knows he will bring with him valuable lessons from this experience all over again.
He shared, “The main reason why I like joining foreign productions is that there are so many things I can learn and take back with me to the local theater.” Tolentino is currently a musical director, conductor, composer and arranger for Manila-based 9 Works Theatrical Company.
The multi-tasking artist further pointed out that his Chicago experience—and subsequent learning—will surely be different from Phantom and Wicked, since the former is a traveling show from New York, while the other two are Australian productions.
“I can use their techniques to help me conduct my next project,” he enthused as he informed The Sunday Times Magazine that right after his stint at Chicago, he will immediately work on his company’s restaging of Grease.
“We first ran Grease in November 2013,” Tolentino continued. “Currently, I’m also the musical director of our ongoing production, The Last 5 Years, starring Nikki Gil.”|
Talking again about Chicago, Tolentino humbly revealed that he did not actually audition for the orchestra. There were no announcements for piano auditions so he was surprised when he received a call from the company with an invitation to join the show.
A deputy pianist, according to the musical prodigy, is someone who could take the role of an orchestra pianist in case of emergencies. Besides this, he has also been tasked to help his fellow Filipino musicians transition into a smooth working relationship with the foreigners in the orchestra.
Just as proud of the Filipino talent as the rest of the nation is, Tolentino sums up the inclusion of his peers in Chicago as “proof that Filipinos can really do it.”
“As a Filipino musician, there is a sense of pride knowing that foreign musical directors trust our talents and capabilities, and that they don’t look down at us,” he ended.
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Produced by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, David Atkins Enterpresises, and Concertus Manila, Chicago will run for a limited season beginning December 3 at The Theater at Solaire Resort and Casino.