“Matatapang na babae.” That was how “Ang Larawan” musical director Ryan Cayabyab described the triumvirate of Celeste Legaspi, Rachel Alejandro and Girlie Rodis who, in the four-and-a-half years it took to make the musical drama “Ang Larawan,” had the courage to see through to the end their cinematic passion project.
Indeed, besides the very warm reception at the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) and the inclusion, finally, at the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) of the musical drama based on National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin’s three-act play, “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” “Ang Larawan’s” triumph is its completion in the hands of three female first-time movie producers.
What’s notable is how little of “Ang Larawan” seems a product of greenhorn filmmaking, starting with a screenplay—
edited by Legaspi’s daughter and fellow performance artist Waya Gallardo—that reveres the source material, National Artist for Theater Rolando Tinio’s libretto for the musical version of Joaquin’s play, down to the rich, beautiful rendering of Cayabyab’s music and scoring, as interpreted by the 42-piece ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra.
Neither Legaspi, who imposed on the set a “no ad-lib” rule (“because this is the work of a National Artist”), nor director Loy Arcenas, whose decision not to have the script entirely sung-through trimmed the material to a more digestible two hours (the stage musical lasted three hours), would claim to have stumbled upon a formula for creating good Filipino musicals on their first try. They just seemed to relish the challenge to do something new.
“If you settle for a formula, you’ll get into trouble,” said Arcenas, an award-winning Broadway production designer who also has two other indie films, “Niño” and REquieme!,” under his belt.
Legaspi said it took roughly eight months to assemble the cast and establish schedules for rehearsals and recordings. It was important as well to give parts to cast members of the ’90s theater musical adaptation, among them Ricky Davao, Zsa Zsa Padilla and Mikee Cojuangco.
“Ang Larawan” is the first film made by Legaspi and Rodis’ company, Culturtain Musicat Productions Inc. Built on the idea of merging culture with entertainment, Culturtain owns the rights to other original Filipino stage musicals and could thus produce more heritage films should “Ang Larawan” earn a decent profit.
“Always looking for the money” was perhaps Legaspi’s most demanding task for “Ang Larawan,” though she wore multiple hats—that of producer, actress and vocal coach for recording.
“We would be shooting in Taal, but the next day Girlie and I would have to go [meet investors],” she recalled. The 12 investors would eventually include Resorts World Manila and businesswoman-movie producer Lily Monteverde, the latter not just investing funds but also lending one of her homes as rehearsal space for an entire year.
Reviewing “Ang Larawan” for Variety magazine after the musical’s TIFF debut, Australian film critic Richard Kuipers wrote: “…this impeccably performed and crisply photographed tuner zips along nicely toward its highly emotional and tremendously satisfying finale. Clearly made with the utmost love and care, ‘The Portrait’ is beautifully decorated and top-notch in every technical detail.”
That warm validation elates the producers, who hope their countrymen will also follow suit.
Said Legaspi: “I considered it a responsibility for us, when Nick Joaquin, Rolando Tinio and Ryan Cayabyab gave us these beautiful things to work with; it is our responsibility to have a lot more people hear it and derive knowledge and inspiration from it—that our country is really worth something.”