The original one-act of Kung Papaano Ako Naging Leading Lady (KPNLL) by Carlo Vergara was a hit in the 2013 Virgin Labfest. Directed by Chris Martinez, Vergara’s storytelling was at its best, deploying the one-act as a form to tell the story of sibling rivalry between a maid Mely (Kiki Baento) and her sister Viva (Skyzx Labastilla), one that exists on banter that is hilarious because real to the times and to a very specific social class.
Layered with the fantasy that is a local team of superheroes saving this side of the world, the sisterhood levels-up to include notions of self-determination and becoming. That the sisters take opposing sides: Mely the good and Viva the evil, is of course part of the comedic twist.
Vergara ended the one-act with Mely declaring herself the new Leading Lady after Leading Man’s death. It was perfectly succinct, and one imagined what else could be done as a part two—if not a part three and four. There were after all other superheroes to talk about. I had not expected it to become a full-length musical.
A day after the press night, a friend sent me a text message asking if this version of KPNLL was worth seeing. He said he had heard that it was three hours long. He asked: Ano ‘yan, Tolstoy?
Successfully stretching the one-act
I expected the manner in which the narrative would be stretched, imbuing the characters of Mely (Bituin Escalante) and Viva (Kim Molina) with the backstories that would explain the rivalry, creating the context of a sick mother (May Bayot) who is hilariously painfully honest with her two daughters. It’s passive-aggressive Pilipinas-style: with a good dose of parinig and patutsada thrown in, karinyo-brutal like only we know how.
That Bayot is able to throw those punches is of course because of her timing; Escalante and Molina do not lack in timing either. In fact Escalante was surprisingly effective, making self-deprecation a fundamental part of Mely’s character here, which allows it to be as real as possible despite a superhero costume.
Viva’s involvement with the dark side is another expected way to stretch KPNLL into a full-length, and it is here that Vergara’s writing shines yet again. He creates the group of villains called Kayumanggilas, headed by Senyor Blangko (Nar Cabico), out to take the place of the superheroes Fuwerza Filipinas. Cabico is brilliant here, where he stood apart from every other superhero and villain on that stage because he knew that his character carries that part of the story that is fantastic and to some extent is unreal.
It is in the Kayumanggilas that one sees shades of Vergara, his creativity and wit, where one gets the sense that the music did justice to his words, and the tongue-in-cheek yabang of the villains is captured in song.
That is to say that the rest of the time one was searching for Vergara’s hand in the making of this musical. The sense of control, the unwavering focus on the genre and the task of bending it, the refusal to simply fall into the trap of the expected.
The musical killed KPNLL
In July 2013, I had said of KPNLL the one-act play: “This might be the best piece of fantasy on stage that I’ve seen in a while, and I am glad it is no musical, because it would remove from its realness, which is at its heart.”
This musical turn of KPNLL (musical direction, composition by Vince de Jesus, direction by Martinez) did not remove it from its realness; it turned this reality into the archetype of the melodrama. That is, a painfully long expected narrative about poverty, the search for purpose and identity, happening in too many ballads, sung with signature suffering as we expect it in this country. It was like watching a soap opera being sung in the most conventional ballads.
To say that the music did not do justice to this text would be an understatement. Because it also layered the text with a political incorrectness: a superhero song in celebration of getting a maid—complete with trampolines! No, really.
It was embarrassing. Also quite unthinking. The most beautiful part of the original KPNLL was that it did not feel the need to discuss political correctness, taking the position of the maid and her poverty to be a matter of fact, and empowering Mely and Viva because they had the words to speak about their self-determination.
In this musical, they are downtrodden and trapped in self-pity—and they sing ballads about it, too! Fuwerza Filipinas is not discussed as the untouchable, unknowable team of heroes—we see them jumping for joy at getting a maid after all—and this ruins its fantasy for no reason at all. It also imbues the villains with more reason for being, making one root for the bad guys over the good ones.
This is the thing: the music could’ve turned this text into a wonderfully new kind of musical. Maybe with some really well done Pinoy rakenrol, if not some punk—and funk!—thrown in. This would’ve imbued these characters with less self-pity, more anger and frustration—more chutzpah—the kind that the original KPNLL had.
Instead what one hears is akin to animated Disney musicals (Beauty And The Beast, Mulan), and what one sits through is three hours of a melodrama.
No, not Tolstoy. Also barely Vergara.