The 11th Philstage Gawad Buhay Awards marked two sister theater companies’ joint anniversary celebrations in 2019.
On its 10th year, 9 Works Theatrical bagged five awards, including Outstanding Original Book and Outstanding Musical-Original or Translation/Adaptation, both for “Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!”
On its fifth year, The Sandbox Collective picked up eight trophies for “Himala, Isang Musikal,” including Outstanding Production for Existing Material, Outstanding Stage Direction, and Outstanding Ensemble Performance in the musical categories.
9 Works is known for its more popular Broadway and West End shows, and Sandbox’s plays appeal to an audience that likes to veer off the conventional path.
What ties them? Managing director and executive producer Santi Santamaria says, “You always have to be interesting and unpredictable for the audience to latch on to your shows. There is a bigger theater audience now than when we started 10 years ago, and their tastes vary from time to time. Being able to adapt to these changes is the key.”
Desire to be different
That desire to be different was burning from the moment Santamaria, with artistic director Robbie Guevara, put up 9 Works in 2009. Two years prior, both had dared each other to create a show compelling enough to lure the clueless Starbucks crowd before them. Guevara says, “We would always reimagine our shows.”
The initial seasons of 9 Works had well-known titles such as “Rent,” “They’re Playing Our Song,” “The Wedding Singer,” “Grease” and “Sweet Charity.” Such popular material was given a cutting-edge treatment.
In time the choices veered into more unfamiliar terrain, while staying within safe commercial boundaries: “American Idiot,” the rock opera for the millennials; the gender-bending “La Cage aux Folles”; the satirical “50 Shades! The Musical Parody”; and “Tick, Tick… Boom!,” which was the sad, short, sweet autobiography of Jonathan Larson, the award-winning playwright of “Rent.”
Under Guevara’s direction, each production pushed the envelope and raised the standards.
Santamaria still smiles a bit at the recollection of Guevara finally agreeing to do their “first Disney musical”—which turned out to be the highly kinetic “Newsies,” with its complex dance moves enlivening a feel-good, Depression-era story.
He remembers telling Guevara: “Of all the Disney shows there are, you had to pick that one!”
Guevara himself admits that among their productions, the tale of how newspaper delivery boys rallied against the establishment was his toughest to date: “The dancing, that set, and dealing with Disney’s eagle eyes on everything!”
Then there was last year’s “APO” musical—the jukebox musical inspired by legendary Filipino music trio APO Hiking Society—which took more than seven years and 33 script revisions to make.
This original musical, written in Filipino, deviated from the tried-and-tested formula.
Sandbox itself was born because the 9 Works leadership wanted to venture even further into riskier territory, far from the mainstream.
One of the company’s board directors, Toff de Venecia, watches 30-40 shows in New York and London every year, and tells his friends about the trailblazers.
Santamaria says, “We felt that there was just plenty of interesting materials that can still be mounted. They were edgier and experimental.”
“Lungs” and “Every Brilliant Thing” were exposés on how the “woke” young people of today struggle to find meaning in a complicated world, with the latter production peeling layers off the psyche of a person suffering mental health.
“No Filter,” a series of monologues penned by Manila writers, brought the subject closer to home.
Then there was the critically acclaimed “Himala,” which breathed new life into the classic story of a barrio lass who claims to have seen the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Putting up another company was also a strategic move to preserve 9 Works’ identity, while offering the crowd an alternative.
As things turned out, says Santamaria, “9 Works also created a brand-new audience of its own.”
Maintaining that audience means constant collaboration with the groups’ many heads. Aside from Santamaria, De Venecia and Guevara, pitching in are Mio Infante, associate artistic director; Anna Santamaria, Santi’s other half who runs operations; and public relations head Jonjon Martin (who was also the APO musical’s dramaturge).
Guevara admits the Filipino audience is fickle and demanding.
He reveals plans: “We definitely plan to come out with more original musicals—at least two are in the pipeline. Producing at least one original a year and rerunning the successful ones alongside one or two Broadway or West End shows would be ideal.”
With unpredictability now in the company’s DNA, Guevara gives credit to the APO Hiking Society: “I love what I learned from Danny Javier, Jim Paredes and Boboy Garovillo. Surprise and delight. Shock and awe. That’s my mantra now.” —CONTRIBUTED