by Lea Salonga
Published on Inquirer.net
Early this year, the Inquirer’s Los Angeles correspondent Ruben Nepales wrote about a few of my colleagues in New York as they prepare for something very special on Nov. 7: a concert titled “PhilDev Celebrates Broadway: Suites by Sondheim” for the benefit of the Philippine Development Foundation.
It’s special for several reasons. First, the music is by Stephen Sondheim, famous for his witty, heady, clever and urbane musicals such as “A Little Night Music,” “Company,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Sunday in the Park with George,” as well as for writing the lyrics to “Gypsy” and “West Side Story.”
Second, every single artist who will perform on that stage is Filipino or Filipino-American—many of them toting some serious Broadway credits (for example, Jose Llana has performed in “The King and I,” “Spelling Bee” and “Flower Drum Song,” all on Broadway, and Adam Jacobs had his Broadway debut in the 2006 revival of “Les Miserables” and is the current Simba in “The Lion King”).
Third, our director is Victor Lirio, who has garnered rave reviews in the New York Times as artistic director of the Diverse City Theater Company. He also produced my Carnegie Hall debut in 2005.
Fourth, the concert will be held at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.
Yes, I’m very excited to be part of this event, as it falls on the same date and day of the week as my Carnegie Hall debut (Monday, Nov. 7), with one of my best friends directing and coproducing it, and with many of my friends performing, too. It’s also an incredible opportunity to dip my toes in Sondheim’s work—or should I say dive in, head first, praying as I watch my entire life flash before my eyes.
The prospect of performing Sondheim can be intimidating and, at times, terrifying. Sure, I’ve done one Sondheim musical in my lifetime, sung excerpts of yet another one, and performed pieces of his music in concert. It drove me crazy each time.
I have only the deepest admiration and respect for those who are able to navigate their way through and around Sondheim’s work while keeping their wits, and at the same time making the experience an emotional and visceral one for the audience.
I’ll point out Bernadette Peters’ heartbreaking turn as Desiree Armfeldt in the recent run of “A Little Night Music” on Broadway, where “Send In the Clowns” wasn’t just a pretty song, but more an ode to lost love and opportunity, which broke the the onlookers’ hearts.
Victor assigned all of our pieces for performance, which include “One Hand, One Heart” (“West Side Story”), “Another Hundred People” (“Company”), “Not While I’m Around” (“Sweeney Todd”), and “Send In the Clowns.”
I got “Send In the Clowns,” “What Can You Lose” (“Dick Tracy”), “Not a Day Goes By” (“Merrily We Roll Along”) and “Move On” (“Sunday in the Park with George”). My insides are officially going numb.
I’ve performed “Send In the Clowns” before in concert, and it turned me into mush. It also happens to be one of the favorites of my husband Rob’s late mom.
When I got my song assignments, I started checking out previous renditions on YouTube, going first through specific references that Victor had given me. However, I couldn’t get past “Not a Day Goes By”—specifically, Bernadette Peters’ performance of it. If I’m not mistaken, she sang this particular version soon after her husband Michael suddenly passed away. In her eyes, voice and face, you could clearly see (and watch) a life lived with her man, and the heartbreak over his death. Right after the final note, I started cursing Victor for assigning this song to me.
So, yes, I am officially intimidated.
But then I could just be over thinking things. It’s not just about being able to keep time, or stay in tune; it’s also about finding the right emotional place in which to reside, a truthful place in the heart from which I can authentically perform this music, and keep my head.
Maybe it’s just one of those moments when you’re face to face with your insecurities, thinking that there’s no possible way you could ever do what’s being asked of you—but you know you’ll try anyway.
To quote one Sondheim song: “Stop worrying where you’re going/ Move on / If you can know where you’re going / You’ve gone / Just keep moving on…”
And so I shall, with new, good, better and best friends with me. We will all dive in, head first, going into something truly special, together.
Interview: "Suites by Sondheim" Brings Filipino Talent and Artistry to the Forefront of the American Stage
Article published on PhilDev.org.
VICTOR LIRIO—Filipino American actor, director, founder of Diverse City Theater Company, and producer of Lea Salonga's sold-out and critically-acclaimed Carnegie Hall concert debut in 2005—is creating a historic show that will feature leading Filipino American Broadway stars led by Tony Award winner Lea Salonga. Entitled PhilDev Celebrates Broadway: Suites by Sondheim, the concert event marks the first time Filipino American musical theater artists will converge and share the same stage at the famed Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center in New York City to celebrate the works of iconic American lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim. This benefit gala performance is being produced to benefit the programs of PhilDev.
“Given the repertoire of material that Victor Lirio has assembled and the stars (yes, they are stars) he's been able to enlist for this very special concert, I think the audience can expect nothing less than excellence."
- Lea Salonga
Here he shares his philosophies, passions, and plans.
Please share something about yourself: growing up in the Philippines, moving to NY, your passions, your career course and your work/life philosophy.
I was born in the Philippines. My family moved to the US when I was 11. I moved to New York just out of high school because I was drawn to its artistic culture, and to pursue my dreams.
My best friends would say that I am a foodie and a "winophile." But by trade, I am an actor, director, and theater producer. I am passionate about two things: my work as an artist and giving back to my community. Like many actors, I’ve had to support myself in the past working jobs under the "flattering" fluorescent lights. I was, at one point in my life, in the advertising world. It was during this time when I met who-would-be the biggest supporters and patrons of my work as an artist, Ralph and Calla Guild. Without them, I would not have had the opportunity to live, explore, and expand my creative life. I was able to start Diverse City Theater because of them.
My driving principle about life and work is simple: to have an open mind and insatiable curiosity about life and people; to listen. Whether I am acting or directing, my job is to tell stories about the human experience. Whenever I’m lucky enough to be gifted with very interesting material to work on, the challenge is always asking the question: Am I enough of a human being to breathe life into this extraordinary character, to live in this extraordinarily imagined world? You can learn the technique of acting. But ultimately, an actor’s instrument is his heart. You have to fill that skill with flesh and blood. Every play that I’ve worked on challenged a different part of me as a creative artist because the plays were so different and each asked of me to explore a deeper side of me that I, more often than not, do not have the courage to do. To me, the most interesting part of the work is the process: asking a hundred questions, building the history of the relationships, and investigating the world and circumstance beyond the literal language. I’ve been lucky to have been mentored by, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant interpreters of dramatic literature—an actor and director herself—Deborah Hedwall. She was taught by the masters, Uta Hagen and Sanford Meisner.
As I get older though, I've become more compelled to get involved in important social causes such as helping raise the global profile of my Filipino culture, diaspora philanthropy, LGBT-related issues, the environment, and children's causes. I am particularly passionate about two organizations: PhilDev and GLSEN, both of which have been compassionate about the causes I care about.
What do you love about theater/producing performances?
What I love about my work in the theater is the process. What I love about the theater is the extraordinary stories and human experiences that are being told. The impact is immediate. You are in the moment with the actors. You get to share a visceral experience with them as moments happen, events unravel, and characters evolve. You literally breathe in the same air with them. Also, as an actor/director/producer, I get to interpret or share with the audiences my perspective on an array of characters, life situations, and interesting relationships.
What inspired you to create this concert?
I was Chair of programming at last year’s gala in San Francisco. I produced and directed a concert of excerpts from the musical, Long Season, written by Chay Yew with original music by Filipino composer, Fabian Obispo. It was based on the labor movement during the early 1920s led by a Filipino writer and revolutionary, Carlos Bulosan, in Ketchikan, Alaska. The music was very much inspired by Sondheim
This year, I wanted to do something that has never been done before. I have been immersing myself in the magnificent worlds of Shakespeare, Stoppard, and Sondheim in the past few years. Their works are rarely expressed by Filipino-American artists. In addition, we wanted to produce an event that is uniquely New York--a theatrical musical event.
What is your vision for the concert?
Stephen Sondheim is a story teller. He is a prolific lyricist as well as a musical genius. In my opinion, he should be canonized. There is only one other theater icon, besides Sondheim, who is constantly revived and re-investigated: Shakespeare. Both of their works are timeless. The lyrics in Sondheim’s music—for example, Finishing the Hat from Sunday in the Park with George, Send in the Clowns or The Miller’s Son from A Little Night Music, and Being Alive from Company—are like Shakespeare soliloquies. So, one must pay attention to not just the music, but the language as well. The exciting challenge in presenting a pastiche of Sondheim music in a concert setting is contextualizing the material, giving them both lyrical and narrative form. But, I have an amazing cast to work with. I’m very excited!
How do you feel about this concert?
I am thrilled, excited, and a little overwhelmed. We have a lot of music to prepare, arrange, and orchestrate. We are writing original arrangements to a few of Sondheim's songs. Plus, it is daunting to direct Sondheim’s work. My process is, first and foremost, honor his work from each of these shows, what is on the page. Then, explore the deepest, most interesting, and most fun expression of the material. Seriously, I wish I could dive into his brain and swim in it. We are in such great hands with our brilliant music director, Tom Myron. He is a gifted musician, arranger, composer, and orchestrator. I am so lucky to be collaborating with an artist of his caliber.
How did you cast the concert?
Sondheim’s world, characters, and music are some of the greatest in the musical theater canon. You’d want to do them all. So before casting, I worked on the program first. I wanted to present a program that will highlight some of Sondheim’s iconic pieces, present his diverse musical styles as they evolved in the past 50 years (we have selections from his very first musical, Saturday Night, which was written in 1953, I think), and, more importantly, material that illuminates the universality of the human spirit.
Once the program was crafted, casting was the easy part, actually. For example, I’ve always thought that Lea Salonga would make a magnificent Dot in Sunday in the Park with George. Similarly, Jose Llana is the perfect Bobby and Jen Paz as Marta in Company. For years I’ve envisioned Rona Figueroa singing The Miller’s Son from A Little Night Music; either Ali Ewoldt or Diane Phelan as Anne in A Little Night Music; Adam Jacobs as George in Sunday … George; Joan Almedilla as Faye in Anyone Can Whistle; Paolo Montalban as Gene in Saturday Night, Orville Mendoza as The Baker in Into the Woods, etc. As I said, I’ve worked with many of these amazing actors before either as an actor or in a directing capacity. And over the years, I’ve been privileged to be witness to their expansive work. So it’s a combination of track record and instinct.
The Filipino talent in theater is immense. I am very thrilled because I also get to work with some of them for the first time. Spiderman’s Arachne, T.V. Carpio, Mamma Mia’s Ali, Christine Ricafort, and the Tony winning revival of Company’s Marta, the magnificent Angel Desai, all have confirmed to be part of the concert as well. So it is going to be quite a coup in November for us! There is no other Asian culture (that I know of) that can boast this large of an ensemble of world-class talents.
Sondheim’s works have been a tremendous influence in the theater culture. It also has immeasurably inspired many Filipino-American artists. And, it is rare to be given the opportunity to breathe life into his work. Especially as a non-white artist. And I want to share our perspective, our expression of some of his masterpieces. Except for the West Side Story music (because the exquisite Ali Ewoldt is playing the part of Maria now), all the songs from our program will be sung by Filipino-American voices for the first time.
What will the audiences expect from the show?
A very entertaining, moving, fun repertoire performed by the world-class talents offered by the Filipino-American theater community. They are going to have a blast! And they are going to come out of Alice Tully Hall cheering and rejoicing. And if you are Pinoy, you’ll be beaming with pride.
actor | theater director | life, wine and food enthusiast. i play with words and worlds.