Created by: Carlo Vergara
Music & Lyrics and Musical Direction by: Vincent de Jesus
Directed by: Chris Martinez
Produced by: Dalanghita Productions
Last year, I saw Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady, a one-act play about a maid working for superheroes, and loved it to bits. Brilliant comedic timing, excellent pacing. Now the one-act play has been expanded to a three-hour-long musical, currently running at Onstage Greenbelt. (It’s first run was in the PETA Theater in Quezon City.)
It is a tremendous achievement in production design, and exhibits economical use of stage space. There are a LOT of scene changes, but each one is made convincing on a bare stage, with the lights, rotating platform and vertical mesh doors used to great effect.
I loved loved loved the music and lyrics. The opening number (Paulit-ulit/Paulit-ulit na lang/Ganyan ang gulong ng buhay/ng isang damit/Di nagbabago, paulit-ulit/Tuwing nalalabhan naluluma ito’t kumukupas/Parang ako) gave me chills, and I knew I was in for something special. (Just listening to the snippet on SoundCloud is making me want to watch it again! Kudos to Vincent de Jesus.)
I also loved the performances. I was especially blown away by Mely (Frenchie Dy) and Viva (Natasha Cabrera), and adored Senyor Blangko (Nar Cabico, definitely a scene-stealing performance) and the Computer (Kakki Teodoro).
I will watch this musical again, if given the chance, but I think the story can still be tightened. I found myself shifting in my seat several times, not bored but mostly confused by what the story is trying to tell me. Where are we going with this? The musical tackles bravery and identity, important themes for sure, but there is an equally important social commentary that got lost in the shuffle.
(Spoilers! Read only if you’ve seen the musical.)
Mely works as a maid for Fuwerza Filipinas, which has foreign members who speak in English with an American accent. At one point, a member makes an allusion to Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah (also written by Leading Lady‘s creator, Carlo Vergara) and Madre de Dios quips, “Is she native? If she is a native, then it’s pointless, isn’t it?” We cannot rely on our own, is what the story is saying. Decades after achieving our independence, we still rely on foreign help.
Another group, the Kayumanggilas, reacts to this. The fact that the country looks up to these fair-skinned, English-speaking “heroes” doesn’t sit well with them. A legitimate concern! Senyor Blangko (and there is dissonance here as well; the leader of the Kayumanggilas has a Spanish name, and blanco in fact means “white”) sings Balat ko ay maitim, ilong ko ay sarat/Ang talino at gilas ko ay hindi pa ba sapat? which is a very powerful message. I was intrigued, but that intrigue turned to confusion as slowly, the Kayumanggilas were revealed as the villain. In the fight, only Fuwerza Filipinas is given a chance to sing and mourn their dead. The Kayumanggilas are reduced to fame-hungry, power-hungry clowns. When they die, no one sings a mournful song.
Perhaps what the story is saying is, a true hero doesn’t seek payment for heroic acts. Fuwerza Filipinas, presumably a state-sanctioned group, will be a hero for the country, sure, but give us designer clothes, and for the love of God give us a maid! The Kayumanggilas wants the same. Fame, and what they see as their rightful place. Okay. Got it. BUT, why reduce the latter group to a bunch of buffoons? In the end, Fuwerza Filipinas looks more, well, heroic, more deserving of our pity. When the Kayumanggilas members die, I guess we are just supposed to laugh?
This difference in register bothered me, and it made me distance myself from the second half of the musical. Leading Lady talks about bravery of various scales, but it is more successful when it talks about small acts of courage and sacrifice: finding a job, supporting loved ones, forgiving the unforgivable, giving up on love or jumping headlong into it. The social commentary I didn’t find as strong. A tighter pace, a clearer focus, would have led to a stronger, more resonant story.