Though it has always fought to survive, Philippine theater has gone way beyond survival mode the past three decades. As it has doggedly shed light on the stark realities, stories and aspirations of Filipino society, along the way—and just as important—it has developed a bigger and more engaged audience, resulting in the diverse, vibrant scene we see today.
1. Evita (1986, Repertory Philippines). Why “Evita”? Because of the historical quirk that, for the longest time, with Imelda Marcos around, the musical could not be performed anywhere in the country, because the then all-powerful First Lady felt Eva Peron’s controversial life story too closely echoed her own. But, in the wake of the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution, Rep was finally able to mount “Evita” (Baby Barredo and Joy Virata alternated in the role)—further confirming that democracy was, indeed, back in the country.
2. Bongbong at Kris (Bulwagang Gantimpala, 1987). Written just months after the end of the Marcos era, Bienvenido Noriega’s funny, pointed satire imagined the scions of the most consequential feuding families in Philippine history—Bongbong Marcos and Kris Aquino—falling in love a la Romeo and Juliet in 1991, when rebel leader Marcos Jr. kidnaps superstar Aquino to force her president mother to allow the Marcos family back into the Philippines. Noriega characterized his play as a “Romansa’t Komedya sa Pelikula’t Politika”—highlighting the uniquely intertwined worlds of politics, celebrity and pop culture at the heart of Pinoy society.
3. Dalagang Bukid (1987, Tanghalang Pilipino). The collapse of the old order ushered in new configurations at Imelda’s old playground, the Cultural Center of the Philippines. The erstwhile resident theater companies, Rolando Tinio’s Teatro Pilipino and Tony Espejo’s Bulwagang Gantimpala, were eased out, replaced by a new company—Tanghalang Pilipino, with Nonon Padilla as artistic director. TP’s inaugural show was a revival of the sarsuwela “Dalagang Bukid,” which reminded the public about pioneering sarsuwela queen Atang de la Rama, also the Philippines’ first film actress; that year, she would be conferred the National Artist Award for Theater.
4. Macli-ing Dulag (1988, Peta). Malou Jacob’s play shone a light on the excesses of Marcos’ martial law and paid tribute to the heroism of the Cordillera peoples in their struggle to preserve their domains and culture, specifically through the story of Kalinga leader Macli-ing Dulag (played by Nanding Josef, under Soxy Topacio’s direction), who was slain for his opposition to the Chico River Dam Project.
5. Katy! (1988, Musical Theatre Philippines). The work of a raft of top-flight talent—music by Ryan Cayabyab, libretto by Jose Javier Reyes, direction by Nestor Torre, and lead performances by Mitch Valdes, Celeste Legaspi, Marco Sison and Bernardo Bernardo—“Katy!” celebrated the life and legacy of bodabil queen Katy de la Cruz. The show, hailed by then Inquirer columnist (later editor in chief) Letty Jimenez Magsanoc as having created “the prototype for the Filipino musical,” birthed the now-classic anthem “Minsan ang Minahal ay Ako.”
6. Twelfth Night/Ikalabindalawang Gabi (1992, Teatro Pilipino). Shortly before Rolando Tinio was to open his Filipino translation of “Twelfth Night,” his wife and muse, the revered actress Ella Luansing—who was slated to play Viola—died in a car accident. Tinio, instead of canceling the performances, reconfigured Shakespeare’s comedy into a haunting elegy for his wife. It also marked the final curtain call for Teatro Pilipino, the company Tinio had founded and nurtured for 17 years with an incomparable repertoire of original translations/adaptations of classic world drama for Filipino audiences.
7. M. Butterfly (1990, Dulaang UP). David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning play made its Philippine premiere via a much-buzzed-about staging by Tony Mabesa. Starring Behn Cervantes as the French diplomat Gallimard and R.S. Francisco as the opera singer Song Liling, “M. Butterfly” became a certified blockbuster for Dulaang UP, both critically lauded and extensively toured around the country.
8. Ang Memorandum (1990, Tanghalang Pilipino). Vaclav Havel’s satire of the bureaucracy, translated into Filipino by Orlando Nadres, was staged by Nonon Padilla in 1990—with no less than the world-renowned Czech playwright, dissident and by then president of his country in the audience, as part of his official visit to the country.
9. Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo (1991, Peta). The 1976 Lupita Kashiwahara film, touching on the US bases and pervasive American influence, was transformed by Peta into a play that marked the theater debut of the movie’s original star, Nora Aunor—at about the same time that the Philippine Senate was deliberating on and making the historic vote to kick out the American military presence in the country.
10. Kung Paano Ko Pinatay si Diana Ross (1991, Peta). Rody Vera’s Palanca-winning play explored, in harrowing and revelatory ways, his evolving Filipino gay identity via a semi-autobiographical story he described in his notes as “halos din maging isang pangugumpisal”—an exercise in confessional honesty that, in a period still bereft of thoughtful gay representation in the public consciousness, helped stir the conversation on issues of gender, patriarchy and social prejudice.
11. DH (1992, Peta). Nora Aunor’s second collaboration with Peta tackled another burning issue of the day—the oppressive conditions experienced by many Filipino domestic helpers abroad as a consequence of the country’s labor export policy. Conrado de Quiros was moved to wax eloquent afterward: “They don’t give awards for plays, but [Nora] will have all the awards she needs in the warmth she gives to the lonely, the balm she gives to the wounded, and the hope she gives to the grieving.”
12. Hard Times (1993, Actor’s Actors Inc.). A Charles Dickens adaptation, AAI’s first production, directed by Jaime del Mundo, just had four actors—Robbie Guevara, Gina Wilson, Mylene Rosal and Bart Guingona—playing 16 characters. It’s hardly remembered now, but where would the likes of Red Turnip Theater and similar companies be today without the template set by Guingona and co.—the boutique theater company, as it were, specializing in “serious,” idea-driven, nonmusical plays? The banquet of such fare today is thanks to AAI’s beginnings.
13. Les Miserables (1993, Repertory Philippines). In gratitude for the gold mine of fully-formed talent he was able to poach from the Philippines, mostly from Rep, Cameron Mackintosh gave special permission for the country’s premiere English-language theater company to mount an all-Filipino “Les Miserables.” It was a colossal undertaking, but Rep more than delivered with a show, directed by Bibot Amador, that was hailed as a milestone in Philippine professional theater for its unstinting production values and performances by the industry’s cream of the crop, among them Cocoy Laurel, Michael Williams, Audie Gemora, Menchu Lauchengco Yulo, Jaime Blanch, Jon Jon Briones (now the Engineer in “Miss Saigon” on Broadway).
14. St. Louis Loves Dem Filipinos (1993, Dulaang UP). Floy Quintos’ provocative look at a largely forgotten but illuminating moment in Philippine history—the display of a number of Filipino tribes people at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, to show Americans their government’s supposed civilizing ways in their new colony in faraway Asia—was a heavyweight production from its subject matter to its sprawling cast, which included such luminaries as Joel Lamangan, Ronnie Lazaro, Amiel Leonardia, the late Rolando Tinio, Mario O’Hara, Ogie Juliano et al., under Tony Mabesa’s direction. The play was remade into a musical in 2005.
15. Ang Paglalakbay ni Radiya Mangandiri: Isang Pilipinong Ramayana (1993, Peta). “Ang Paglalakbay ni Radiya Mangandiri,” subtitled “Isang Pilipinong Ramayana,” was based on an old Maranao version of the Indian epic. Peta’s production of it underlined the Philippines’ ancient cultural connections to the Asian heartland. According to scholar and playwright Nicanor Tiongson, “Through imaginative use of ethnic movements and music, Peta’s ‘Mangandiri’ succeeded in raising crucial questions about the nature and direction of leadership, seven years after the fall of the Philippine Lawana (the Marcos dictatorship) in 1986.”
16. Noli Me Tangere, The Musical (1995, Tanghalang Pilino). A new Filipino musical mainstay was born when Ryan Cayabyab and Bienvenido Lumbera, now National Artist for Literature, teamed up to retell Rizal’s novel in musical fashion. Nonon Padilla’s original production, starring Audie Gemora and John Arcilla alternating as Ibarra, and Monique Wilson as Maria Clara, has spawned a number of revivals through the years, and was also toured in Japan and Malaysia.
17. Angels in America (1995, New Voice Company). The Asian premiere of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece—a “gay fantasia” on the Reagan years, as the playwright called it—happened in Manila courtesy of the bold and fresh theater-making of Monique Wilson’s New Voice Company. The detailed Americana and often explicit nature of “Angels”—or even its length—didn’t deter New Voice’s young actors; a one-off schedule saw the company performing Part 1 and Part 2 of the play consecutively at the Music Museum, with only a break in between—truly a groundbreaking seven hours in Manila theater.
18. 1896 (1996, Peta). Peta’s thundering musical production (music by Lucien Letaba, libretto by Charley de la Paz), staged in the run-up to the Philippine centennial celebrations in 1998 and rerun a number of times after, starred Rody Vera as Andres Bonifacio, Ariel Rivera as Emilio Jacinto and Bodjie Pascua as Emilio Aguinaldo. It was, in the words of political commentator Manuel L. Quezon III, “the highlight of the Centennial celebrations and a musical I wish would be constantly performed.”
19. Ang Larawan (1997, Musical Theatre Philippines). Rolando Tinio’s swan song was this play—a musical version of Nick Joaquin’s “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” generally regarded as the most important Filipino play, now set to Ryan Cayabyab’s soaring, melancholy melodies, with translation and direction duties by Tinio himself. Celeste Legaspi played Candida, Zsa Zsa Padilla was Paula and Ricky Davao was Tony Javier; also in the cast were Hajji Alejandro, Louie Reyes, Fides Cuyugan-Asencio, Armida Siguion-Reyna, Dawn Zulueta … Tinio died a few days before “Larawan’s” opening, making this essential musical his last masterwork.
20. Rama at Sita (1999, SK Productions). An independent production, “Rama at Sita” is still remembered by many theatergoers as the most lavish theater production they have ever seen. The musical, which combined the Cayabyab-Lumbera libretto from Ballet Philippines’ “Rama, Hari” with new music by Danny Tan, Roy Iglesias and Dodjie Simon, spared no expense, from its opulent costumes and sets (at one point, a full-size elephant ambled its way to the stage carrying a resplendent Rama, played by Ariel Rivera) to its star-studded cast that included Lani Misalucha, Raymond Lauchengco, Robert Seña, Jaya, Nonie Buencamino, Franco Laurel, Pinky Marquez.
21. Rent (1999, New Voice Company). Monique Wilson’s New Voice Company electrified Manila audiences when it staged Jonathan Larson’s triumphant musical, directed by Bobby Garcia, at the Music Museum in the dying days of the last century—the closing months of 1999, when the world was welcoming a new millennium, and “Rent,” meanwhile, seemed to be speaking to young audiences with a new voice. Bituin Escalante, Ricci Chan, JM Rodriguez and Michael de Mesa (who, before this, was known more as a film actor) were among the original cast’s breakout actors. The show would have several more Manila iterations over the years.
22. Miss Saigon Manila (2000). Ten years after the Filipino invasion of London’s West End led by Lea Salonga’s star turn in “Miss Saigon”—and the ensuing international opportunities that seminal door opening would offer several generations of other Filipino artists—the Boublil-Schonberg musical that started it all finally played in the Philippines, with the original Kim herself reprising her iconic role.
23. Luna, An Aswang Romance (2000, Gilda Cordero Fernando). Produced by literary and arts doyenne Gilda Cordero Fernando, “Luna” was another Palanca-winning play by Rody Vera that, as directed by Anton Juan, became a conversation-piece production melding together Cordero-Fernando’s lifelong pursuits: theater, literature, fashion (specifically Filipiniana), Pinoy melodrama and mythology. As she wryly recalled in her Inquirer column: “For director I wanted Anton Juan, the only one I could imagine to be devilish enough to give it fangs … It was an unforgettable piece and won an award as well. I was its producer again, and lost my pants as well.”
24. The Vagina Monologues (2001, New Voice Company). Wilson once again blazed a trail when she brought Eve Ensler’s taboo-breaking “The Vagina Monologues” into the country. At first, audiences and venues alike tiptoed around the play’s frank talk on women’s sexuality and identity, but, in time, Wilson’s strategy of inviting diverse groups of well-known women from theater, film and other fields to perform the play would be embraced, the public readings themselves becoming high-profile advocacy events for women and community empowerment.
25. King Lear (2001, World Theater Project). In an audacious case of gender-bending casting, director Anton Juan cast Repertory Philippines founder Zenaida “Bibot” Amador as Lear—perhaps the first female Lear in the world (Glenda Jackson tackled the part at the Old Vic in London just last year), and certainly in this country. One lifestyle editor would recall that “her portrayal stirred shock waves in the theater industry”—the good sort of shock, of course, with observers validating the unconventional but brilliant casting.
26. Himala, The Musical (2003, Tanghalang Pilipino). Ishmael Bernal’s cornerstone film about faith and superstition, starring Nora Aunor and written by Ricky Lee, was reimagined as a musical in 2003, with Lee himself collaborating with songwriter Vince de Jesus on the libretto. The result was a powerful musical production whose stature has only grown with time, acclaimed these days as a contemporary masterpiece. A 10th-anniversary concert version was staged in 2013; the full show will be restaged next year with an entirely new cast.
27. Kanjincho (2003, DUP). A Kabuki play by an all-Filipino cast? Dulaang UP’s Tony Mabesa attempted such an unprecedented undertaking in 2003, based on a Filipino translation by Jerry Respeto of the classic Japanese text “Kanjincho.” The cast—among them Neil Ryan Sese, Romnick Sarmenta, Lex Marcos and the Dulaang UP Ensemble—trained rigorously under two Kabuki experts, learning the performance elements and techniques of the age-old art form; student musicians also learned how to perform as a Kabuki musical ensemble with Japanese drums, flute, shamisen and vocals.
28. Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah (2006, TP). Beginning as a cult comic book and then transitioning into a wildly popular musical, “Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah”—directed by Chris Millado, with music and lyrics by Vince de Jesus and book adaptation by Chris Martinez—proved to be a joyous, unbridled celebration of Pinoy camp and kitsch, and would itself become an entry in local pop culture with its adaptation into a mainstream comedy movie. Several runs later, the beloved musical remains Tanghalang Pilipino’s biggest blockbuster.
29. Orosman at Zafira (2008, DUP). Dexter Santos, in his first directorial job for Dulaang UP, made a splashy debut with “Orosman at Zafira,” in which he completely reconfigured the Francisco Baltazar komedya into a galvanizingly danced and sung spectacle of warring tribes and mercurial lovers (Carol Bello provided the rousing neo-ethnic music). Any play in the city these days that features extensive storytelling choreography probably owes its inspiration to Santos’ movement-led body of work, especially “Orosman at Zafira.”
30. Sa Wakas (2013, Culture Shock Productions). A work by first-time theater producers, “Sa Wakas” was an enormous surprise hit in 2013, fuelled mainly by a distinct new congregation of theatergoers: millennials. Young people who grew up on the featured songbook of the pop-rock band Sugarfree, on John Lloyd Cruz-Bea Alonzo rom-coms and all the other trappings of the zeitgeist found their lives mirrored in the musical’s urban, buoyantly modern take on relationships and manners in the social-media era. So strong was the clamor for a rerun that “Sa Wakas” returned for an encore in January this year.
31. Rak of Aegis (2014, Peta). Peta struck gold with “Rak of Aegis,” an unlikely jukebox musical that—through “musical director Myke Salomon’s brilliant reworking of the Aegis songbook and a crackerjack cast responsible for what Lea Salonga has called ‘probably the best ensemble singing I’ve heard in a local musical in a very long time’” (as we wrote in our 2014 yearend theater roundup)—became the company’s most commercially successful production, a bona fide phenomenon that simply went on and on.
32. Virgin Labfest. Not a play, but an annual festival of “untried, untested and unstaged” one-act works that has become the prime driving force for the flowering of contemporary Filipino playwriting. Since 2005, over a hundred new plays by emerging and established playwrights have been staged, a development that has also propelled the growth of actors, directors, other allied creatives, and the theatergoing community itself. And the canon is now richer with stalwart works such as Nicolas Pichay’s “Isang Araw sa Karnabal,” Floy Quintos’ “Ang Kalungkutan ng Mga Reyna” and Layeta Bucoy’s “Doc Resurreccion: Gagamutin ang Bayan.”
(With inputs from Dennis Marasigan and Arturo Hilado.)