Movie: The Greatest Showman

"The Greatest Showman"

“The Greatest Showman” is a bold and original musical that celebrates the birth of show business and the sense of wonder we feel when dreams come to life. Inspired by the ambition and imagination of P.T. Barnum, “The Greatest Showman” tells the story of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a mesmerizing spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.

Ever since I saw the teaser for The Greatest Showman, I knew I wanted to watch the film. I love musicals, and it has been so long since a proper movie musical was made, so I knew this was a film I’m going to want to watch in a theater.

And I was not disappointed.

I guess it helped that my expectations were managed. The film came out last year in the United States, and the reviews were less than phenomenal. People didn’t like the fact that The Greatest Showman glossed over the less-than-desirable characteristics of P.T. Barnum. Some thought the film was shoddily edited, and certain story threads were dropped and picked up willy-nilly. And a lot people said it just wasn’t that good. They were all correct.

The Greatest Showman wasn’t good, because it was something else. It was… transcendent.

Don’t get me wrong; the film could use a lot more fixing. Especially when it comes to how the story is told.

The film suffers from having to follow two separate threads from the moment Zac Efron’s character is introduced. Suddenly, on top of the P.T. Barnum main storyline that wanted to deal with inclusivity, acceptance, humility, and contentment–you also had to follow an interracial romance that was completely separate from the already-full Barnum plate.

The characters’ emotions don’t have a linear development; they provide what the script wants to happen, rather than the script following what the characters are feeling. And as such, there are a lot of character development that are waylaid because the film would rather barrel through the plot lines it wants to hit.

There are a thousand and one things you can point out where the film was lacking. Mostly in the storyline, in the character progression, and even in the directing. But there are just as many things to love about the film–mostly because of the cast and their passion for the film they made.

Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, and Keala Settle are truly exceptional in The Greatest Showman. The life they bring to the characters fill out what is lacking in their characters’ emotional development. Zac Efron and Michelle Williams complement their respective partners exceptionally, providing grace and elegance to the turmoil that is the conflict of the film.

The characters breathe because the actors behind them are giving them life. And because of their portrayals, you don’t notice until after the film has ended that said characters aren’t really fully-formed. The cast–all of them, not just the ones I enumerated–are the ones informing the audience of who their characters are; Not the story, nor their decisions in the story, but their acting.

I would also say it’s the cast that brings the songs to life. They inject their vulnerabilities into the songs, making them something more than just the words that accompany the melody. Listen to the dozens of “This Is Me” covers on YouTube, and then listen to Keala Settle’s version. The mix of fear, of uncertainty, and of strength she imbues the song elevates it into an anthem. So much so that you don’t notice how the emotional reprise within the song is abruptly cut short just so the song could go back to being a call to arms.

And then there’s Zac Efron and Zendaya’s “Rewrite the Stars.” There is restraint in the way the sing the song, a restraint that becomes heartbreaking when you see how it is directed on screen. And I mean that in a good way.

If you watch the film, you can see how director Michael Gracey pours love into his staging of the musical numbers. His direction heightens the emotions of the songs that pepper the movie musical. If only he had done the same for the transition scenes, the ones in between the singing.

But there’s not point in focusing on what might have been. The film is made. It is out in theaters. And if you’re looking for a reason to watch The Greatest Showman, watch it for the passion–of the cast, of the director, the choreographers, the costume designers, the production designers, and everyone else involved in the project.

Let their passion inspire you to dream, to accept, and to come alive.

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Book: Song of Spider-Man

"Song of Spider-Man"

As one can imagine, writing a Broadway musical has its challenges. But it turns out there are challenges one can’t imagine when collaborating with two rock legends and a superstar director to stage the biggest, most expensive production in theater history.

Song of Spider-Man is playwright Glen Berger’s story of a theatrical dream–or nightmare–come true. Renowned director Julie Taymor picked Berger to cowrite the book for a $25 million Spider-Man musical. Together–along with U2’s Bono and Edge–they would shape a work that was technically daring and emotionally profound, with a story fueled by the hero’s quest for love–and the villains’ quest for revenge. Or at least, that’s what they’d hoped for.

But when charismatic producer Tony Adams died suddenly, the show began to lose its footing. Soon the budget was ballooning, financing was evaporating, and producers were jumping ship or getting demoted. And then came the injuries. And then came word-of-mouth about the show itself. What followed was a pageant of foul-ups, falling-outs, ever-more-harrowing mishaps, and a whole lot of malfunctioning spider legs. This “circus-rock-and-roll-drama,” with its $65 million price tag, had become more of a spectacle than its creators ever wished for. During the show’s unprecedented seven months of previews, the company’s struggles to reach opening night inspired breathless tabloid coverage and garnered international notoriety.

Through it all, Berger observed the chaos with his signature mix of big ambition and self-deprecating humor. Song of Spider-Man records the journey of this cast and crew as a hilarious memoir about friendship, collaboration, the foibles of hubris, and the power of art to remind us that we’re alive.

This book was highly-recommended by a friend, and after having read it–I can see why.

Glen Berger takes us on the journey Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark began–from the moment he stepped on as the musical’s co-writer. As the book’s blurb already mentioned, we bear witness to everything the musical goes through– But, ultimately, we become privy to all the heart that was poured into the project by all the people involved.

Living in the Philippines, everything I knew about the Spider-Man musical fiasco, I learned online; and thus, I had taken everything with a grain of salt. After all, a musical that had a high rate of injuries couldn’t have been allowed to continue as long as Turn Off The Dark did. Right? So it was eye-opening to see just how much the online news got right… and how little was exaggerated, at least, as told by the memoir’s author.

But what happened behind the scenes weren’t just a series of unfortunate events. What really draws you in, if you choose to read this memoir, is the love that can be found in the words that Berger writes. Even at his lowest point, Berger shows the love he had–maybe still has–for the project and all the people who were involved in it.

What pushes you to read page after page is how much humor Berger puts into every paragraph, every chapter, even as the world they are building within the narrative is collapsing. It’s like that comic strip of the dog in a burning house. The one that doesn’t do anything, until the last box where he says “this is fine.”

The book recounts the events of a train wreck–and makes you like reading about it.

But what the book ultimately sells isn’t the insider story of how a promising musical became a spectacular failure; but rather how, against all odds, we will still risk everything for a shot at brilliance. At success. At an art that straddles the fine line between profitability and meaning. And the lesson that not everyone will make it, but it doesn’t mean we stop trying. Even when we fail over and over again.

The Song of Spider-Man is a must read for everyone who ever dreamed. The behind-the-scenes shenanigans and gossip that the book makes known to its readers are just icing on the cake.

Theater: Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical

"Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical"

Being a maid is tough enough, but when Mely lands a job under a group of superheroes, she steps up to the unique challenge for the sake of her family. Based on Carlo Vergara’s one-act play and graphic novel of the same title, Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady the Musical revolves around Mely and Viva’s sibling relationship, made complicated by an unsettling past and a budding romance, all in the context of an ongoing war between the superhero and supervillain teams. The musical takes us through the journey of the characters as each tries to find his/her place in the world.

I’m torn.

On the one hand, I liked the musical enough that I want people to watch it.

On the other hand, I really want to break it down and remake it into something else. Something that’s the same, but also very different.

I actually wrote a very lengthy piece about the things I didn’t like about the musical, before I erased the whole thing. Because I wasn’t talking about the musical I watched anymore. I was already molding it into becoming a different animal altogether. I was turning it into something that was mine. And it’s not.

Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical is the truest form of a Carlo Vergara child that we will get… for now. And it is special child. Unique. Beautiful to many, and to its creator–but not to me.

And it pains me to say that. Because I really, really wanted to like Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical. Well, I really, really wanted to like it more than I do.

I don’t.

I’m not going to segregate my reactions from bad to good, because there really isn’t anything bad about the musical. But there’s a lot of good in here that I feel was wasted. Which is why I’m not one-hundred-percent raving about the musical.

And here they are:

Nena Babushka and the love triangle that had an imaginary angle. I loved Nena’s character. I loved how tragic her love was for Leading Man. (And I loved the innocence that actress Giannina Ocampo brought to her character’s affections.) Unfortunately, because Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady is really a story about Mely and her sister Viva, the love triangle between Mely, Leading Man, and Nena wasn’t explored. And this is one of the reasons why I am torn.

As already established, I loved Nena’s character. But if her story wasn’t really going anywhere, why include it in the first place?

Then, there’s the Kayumanggilas and Senyor Blangko–the scene stealers.

As the musical’s main villains, I know we were supposed to root against them. But from the moment they were first introduced, I couldn’t help but cheer whenever they would come on stage. They were just so much more fun than our protagonists. And, from the looks of it, the actors were having more fun too.

And Domi Espejo as Senyor Blangko was just… exceptional. As was Vince Lim as the adamant villain Henyotik.

This was a problem.

Because I was rooting for the villains. Even when I knew what they were doing was wrong and misguided. Even when they were doing despicable things. I prefered them because they were more fun.

This brings me to Viva. We got Kim Molina in the role and she was, quite simply, the star of the show. She carried the musical, and I don’t think she was supposed to. At least, I don’t think she was supposed to carry it alone.

But her character is the only one to actually take the hero’s journey. And although her character is the ditziest and easiest to manipulate–she’s also the only one you don’t want to hit in the head with a frying pan. Because you will feel for her. You will understand her.

And, as the curtains figuratively draw to a close, I wonder–did Carlo Vergara rewrite the premise of his one-act play to make the villain a hero?

I feel bad for Frenchie Dy, our Leading Lady, Mely, because she gave her heart and soul to the role–but her scenes were cheap change compared to the gravitas given to the Viva character.

Now, at the end of it all, can you see why I’m torn?

I can list down so many things I wanted the musical to do right, and to change–but I can’t bring myself to say that it was bad. Because it wasn’t.

It’s just a work in progress.

Which is why I want to urge everyone to watch the musical, to support it–and to speak their mind about it. Because I want it restaged. And next time, I want it to be better than it is now.

Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical continues its weekend run until June 7.

Book: Hold Me Closer

"Hold Me Closer"

Watch out, ex-boyfriends, and get out of the way, homophobic coaches. Tiny Cooper has something to say–and he’s going to say it in a song.

Filled with honestly, humor, and ‘big, lively, belty’ musical numbers, Hold Me Closer is the no-holds-barred (and many-bars-held) entirety of the beloved musical first introduced in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the award-winning bestseller by John Green and David Levithan.

Tiny Cooper is finally taking center stage…and the world will never be the same again.

What in the world did I just put down?

Hold Me Closer: the Tiny Cooper Story spins off from one of the few John Green novels I could stand: Will Grayson, Will Grayson–and I credit David Levithan for this. So when I found out that Levithan was releasing a book based on the most entertaining character off the Will Grayson book, I thought it would be a fun read. I wish I could say I was right.

I wasn’t wrong, let’s be clear. Hold Me Closer is not in any way a bad book. It is entertaining. But it’s definitely not the book I was expecting from David Levithan. Then again, I wasn’t expecting Every You, Every Me either–so it’s not like this was unprecedented. But unlike Every You, Every Me, I can’t fathom why Levithan would write this book. It’s not experimental. It’s not ground-breaking.

Hold Me Closer brings nothing new to the table, and I feel like I wasted the five hours I spent reading it.

The book isn’t actually a book in the most traditional sense. It is a book–for a musical Tiny Cooper wrote in the Will Grayson, Will Grayson book. But it’s not a new story. Its Tiny Cooper’s life told with songs. And we’ve already had a glimpse of Tiny Cooper’s life in the aforementioned book. The worst part is how this book ends before the source book does. So there really is nothing new in Hold Me Closer.

I guess that’s the risk of doing something like this: publishing a plot device, and pushing it to stand on its own. You have to rely on readers’ nostalgia and good will. But you know what else you can do? Give something new. In the source book, we only get glimpses of Hold Me Closer. So it shouldn’t have been hard to do. But the spin-off didn’t spin. It just took parts of the source book we already know and put it to song. And dialogue. And stage direction.

Hold Me Closer is entertaining. I’ll still give it that. But at the end of the day, for a book to be good, there has to be substance. Which I didn’t see or feel while reading this book. I guess I’ll just have to be grateful that the book wasn’t longer.

Of course, other people will have other opinions about the book too. Let’s check some of them out in the following links:
Caught Read H&nded
BookieMonster
The Young Folks

Theater: Manhid

"Manhid"

What price is our freedom? MANHID is set in an alternate present day Philippines where the EDSA revolution failed; this musical features heroes and villains with superpowers, and a people sick with Kamanhiran (Apathy).

I want to heap accolades for Manhid. Mostly because it’s rock opera musical accompanied by ballet. Also because it creates superheroes out of characters from Filipino epics. And because of its history of being conceived by Aureaus Solito, with music from Eraserheads. The whole thing screams epic. And it is epic.

Unfortunately, so was its running time.

This is my biggest bone to pick with Ballet Philippines’ production of Manhid. It was trying to match the length of an epic, complete with side stories and interludes–turning it into a hodgepodge musical confused on whether it wants to speak out against injustice, or if it’s a juxtaposition of two love stories set against the backdrop of a revolution. In a time where short-form social media is king, you would’ve thought the creative forces of Manhid would’ve taken one look at the script and realized that at more than two-hours long, the musical was just too long. And too long not because characters are being developed, and are being loved. It was too long because each now plot twist needed explanation. Each new plot twist needed a backing musical number that tells instead of shows what the story wants to say.

Manhid is a gem–but one that needs to be polished. Just because this is how it was written more than two decades ago doesn’t mean you have to hold the true to the book. Stories like that of Manhid is supposed to reflect the times. And while most of the musical is still relevant today, important devices are visibly outdated now. Like, for example, lead character Bantugan’s job as a writer for a local tabloid. Decked out in a white sleeveless zip-up with headphones and a wrist-mounted computer, Bantugan’s entire personality screams techno-savvy individual. So why is he working as a reporter for a tabloid? No, I’m not looking down on tabloids, but they’ve been passe for some years now. Broadsheets are the new tabloids, and their online presence is way more visible now than ever before. Broadsheets online are the new mass-friendly tabloids with their clickbait headlines. If Ballet Philippines could update Bantugan’s look, why couldn’t they have updated his devices too? You’re not changing the musical, just the way the audience can relate to the characters.

Which, to be quite honest, was a hard thing to do. One, because there were too many characters. Two, because we get thrust into the story of Manhid with barely a brief of what world we’re about to enter. We get a spoken word introduction, and suddenly our lead characters are singing and dancing on stage and we have no idea what’s going on. It wasn’t until halfway through the second song before I realized that factions were being formed, that good guys were being hunted down by bad guys. And I only realized this because lead character Lam-Ang tells supporting character Dilim that the government attacked the club she was working at because they wanted to get to her.

Had the world been established better in the opening number, we wouldn’t have needed the clunky dialogue between Lam-Ang and Dilim. We would’ve just squirmed in our seats as we awaited their fate. As the villains closed in to the heroes. Instead, we scratched our heads at the action unfolding in front of us. The ministry of humanity was enjoying a show when a woman suddenly shows up to disrupt the peace. A fight ensues. And then the woman takes the lead singer of the show. If the dialogue didn’t say that Lam-Ang was saving Dilim, you can spin this off as an insurgent attack on the safety of the government.

And that could’ve been played with. But, obviously, the creative forces wanted people to relate to the insurgents. They want us to feel. Not to be numb. Hence the show’s main title and theme. But how can you care about heroes you know nothing about? Superman started with a destroyed planet. Spider-man had a dead Uncle Ben. Zsazsa Zaturnnah had a love interest whose safety was being threatened by colorful dominatrix aliens. We care about their fight because we know what they’re fighting for. In Manhid, we learn about our lead character’s fight as the first act wraps up. And that is the only time we see actual motivation from our heroes. When, during a musical number on how there came to be super-powered human beings, they fall in love with each other.

I don’t know how important the love story is to the main story arc. I know it’s important for one of the characters, for Allunsina, who you can say is the audience surrogate. But in the grand scheme of things, the love story of Bantugan and Lam-Ang felt shoe-horned. It felt like the creative forces just wanted to give heft to something that just wasn’t working out.

But, to be fair, as the first act wraps up, so does my complaints. Acts two and three had better pacing, and it also had a better grip on showing instead of telling. It also has a better love story between hero Urduja and the villain Radya Indarapata. It was still incredibly long, but time starts to fly faster because the story is now succeeding in absorbing the audience. I mean, there were still times when a break on stage becomes jarring, but overall, the last two thirds of the musical was more phenomenal than its beginning.

Ballet Philippines found a stellar cast to bring to life the characters of Manhid. I’m not completely sold on Lam-Ang, but I have to blame the material more than the actress. Bantugan’s vocals kept getting overpowered by the band, but he was serviceable. Apolaki’s forced conyo accent was funny, and I hope that that was intentional. And Dilim’s voice? Wow. The actors that shone the brightest though was Urduja’s, with vulnerability lacing her every word, even as she shows how strong her powers are; Radya Indarapata’s gray moral compass was conveyed majestically, and was most heartbreaking in his final moments; and Mamalahim-ma. There’s nothing I can say about Mamalahim-ma that will do justice to the power she brings on stage–which is an irony since she’s the only lead actor without an actual power.

And then there’s Allunsina. Played by Gold Villar with a fun abandon, Allunsina captures attention immediately even during the less-than-wonderful first act. I don’t know if some of her lines were just ad-lib, but everything out of her mouth feels natural, feels true to her character, and even at her most scathing, she was the most relatable and lovable in the cast of characters. Probably because her character felt the most true.

Allunsina is the star of Manhid.

Now, I could continue to go on and go on about Manhid, but the bottom line is this: it’s a great musical. It is. It just didn’t live up to the hype, and to my expectations.

But I have to commend Ballet Philippines (and Tanghalang Pilipino) for taking a risk in bringing back this rock opera musical. I hope next time they do, they don’t just update the costume, I wish they’d update the material too.

Theater: F(r)iction, A New Musical

"F(r)iction"

“It’s the stories we believe that make us who we are”. Life is full of twists and turns, dead ends and blank spaces. “Friction: A New Musical” follows the journey of a brilliant upcoming writer who finds help from a stranger that challenges his whole concept of reality.

It’s never easy giving birth to new material, and it’s never easy to hear what other people have to say about your work when they see it. Which is why I want to commend the creative minds behind Friction for venturing out with a new musical after the diamond-in-the-rough production of Toilet, the Musical.

Unlike Toilet, Friction knows and celebrates its limits. And, most importantly for me, it doesn’t feel overcrowded. Not with just three actors on stage.

Red Concepcion is serviceable in the lead role. He takes on his character with gusto, but I felt certain hesitations in scenes where I needed to see him more vulnerable. Gabriella Pangilinan, as the girlfriend, is a little better. In the entirety of the first act, I felt for her, and I empathized with her. And then we get to the second act. As she confronts the lead character, we see her pull back a little. I didn’t feel the rage that I was expecting her to feel, nor the despair at her realization of what was going on.

The one actor I can’t say anything bad about is Fred Lo. I liked how he gave two distinct voices to the two character he plays. There is strength in the way he voices the psychiatrist that’s supposed to help our lead character write, and there is a palpable uncertainty in the way he voices the stranger. I don’t know if it was a directorial decision, if so, good on director Toff de Venecia for having that sight because not every director would have an actor do that–not for any theater production with a short run like Friction.

And that brings me to the direction; Friction was staged at Saint Benilde’s black box theater–a small space that director de Venecia utilizes really well, along with the sparse furnishings. The entrances and exits of the actors tell as much of the story as the dialogue, and if there is one thing I would wish for this production, it’s just enough budget to allow for Gabriella’s wardrobe to reflect the passage of time that her movements are supposed to invoke.

Now, let’s talk about the story–

Friction feels like a study on how writers’ work. I don’t know if that was the intent, I didn’t ask, but it sure felt like one. Especially in the first act when we’re not entirely sure what the musical is about yet. Truth be told, the first act felt formulaic. You can see clearly where the story was going, and you can even draw comparisons to Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom. I’m still on the fence if that’s a good thing. Friction just doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

Until the second act begins.

In case Friction gets staged again, I will refrain from spoiling what actually happens.

The second act takes a foreshadowed twist into a direction that is expectedly unexpected. Because it’s well plotted, the twist doesn’t feel out of the blue, but it definitely gives the musical new life wherein the audience is taken to the edge of their seats. You will want to know what happens next because everything is up in the air, because nothing is safe, because there are people involved who will get hurt… And, let’s admit it, for a story to be good, there has to be something that needs to be at risk somewhere–something that the characters and the audience are supposed to care about. And Friction delivers in how it wraps up its story.

I like how it ended. I don’t love it because the writers went the Nicholas Sparks route during the denouement… But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. My dislike for the Nicholas Sparks way of dealing with problems is a personal preference. It works for most people. So I don’t hate it. Let’s settle with like. Especially since I don’t regret watching the musical, and I didn’t feel the need to tear it to pieces after watching.

Friction is a good musical. Solid and dependable. And a good follow-up to Toilet, the Musical, which I hope will still see the light of day in the future–with a better script.

Theater: Toilet, the Musical

"Toilet, the Musical"

The play begins with the janitor finding graffiti on the bathroom wall. It seems that someone has had thoughts of taking their own life. The show then progresses to introduce the different characters, and one by one, their darkest secrets are revealed, but the identity of the bathroom vandal remains a mystery.

As final exams draw near, crazy things start to happen. More graffiti start to show up and just like that, our 8 characters are thrown into a swirling vortex of drama and insecurity, flushing them down into hopelessness and despair. And all of this happens in the unlikeliest place: the public toilet.

Toilet is an original musical that is being staged by Ateneo Blue Repertory, and watching it was figuratively a trippy journey to the past–and for my friends and I, a literal trip as well because it was being staged in the Ateneo Exhibit Hall–the home of our own staged original plays back in 2006.

But we’re not here to talk about the past. Or my friends and I. We’re here to discuss Toilet. And what went on in it. So here we go:

I think Toilet shows a lot of promise–it just doesn’t always deliver. Story-wise, the musical plays it safe with teen angst in a high school setting. Unfortunately, due to an overpopulation of characters, you can barely follow the story. In the first act, anyway. The second act is cleaner, and has a better handle on what the story is supposed to be about: suicide.

Yes, the synopsis says there’s a suicide. The janitor character begins the musical by saying that it’s a story that deals with an unexpected suicide. But watching the first act, it is never clear that suicide was even in the cards. And I blame it all on overpopulation.

Toilet has eight main characters. Eight. Most of them are underdeveloped stereotypes straining to break free of their mold. One of them successfully does so, the others don’t. And when your musical is about the unmasking of these stereotypes to show the real person underneath, and you fail to take these characters out of their formulas, then the musical sort of fails, right?

Fortunately for Toilet, the music (and the second act) saves it. The musical is not a failure. It just has a lot of stuff to work out. Maybe for when they decide to stage it again.

Before I continue, I would like to make a disclaimer. I’m an adult. I’ve been in a work force for almost eight years now, and most of the problems raised in Toilet are stuff I never had to face because my high school was… Well, I studied in a Chinese school. When something offends us, we look away. So that’s probably one reason why I can’t relate to the sexually-active students of Toilet.

Most of the student feedback I’ve seen online are positive. So I guess the generation now can relate better to the material. But I believe in grounding. This is a term my friend used when we were discussing the musical after watching it. Grounding–making things real, or making it feel real for the audience. Wicked does this wonderfully. So does Zsazsa Zaturnnah Ze Muzikal. And those are musicals based on fantastical universes. What grounded them was the fact that they had heart.

Toilet needs to find its heart.

And the time to workshop the whole musical before they stage it again.

Because, really, when you watch the musical, you will see the potential. You will see that there is a gem underneath the overpopulated stage. And I’m not just saying this because Ateneo Blue Repertory gambled with an original production, although I really want to congratulate them on doing so.

Toilet is a diamond that’s yet to be mined. I hope more people watch it so Ateneo Blue Repertory will risk staging it again. With revisions, of course. You, of course, are encouraged to make your own mind up–so catch the production at the Ateneo Exhibit Hall weekends until March 1.