Filipino-American Immigrants Take Center Stage in Masterful New Song Cycle; In-Depth Review and a Chat With Creator Paulo K. Tiról

The company (photo by Michael Kushner)

The company (photo by Michael Kushner)

  • Matthew Blank

Hey, people!  Put down the video games, log off Tinder for a minute and pay some attention to what I’m about to tell you.  I’m here to publicly declare that something truly remarkable was recently gifted to the canon of the modern musical, and I need to talk to you about it.  It took place over the course of two sold-out weekends in the nondescript downtown home of Access Theater, boasted a top-notch ensemble of musical theatre’s best talent and introduced what I am blatantly calling the finest new theatrical score since the last Leap Year. 

On This Side of the World is, to my mind, the quintessential musical for the Asian American.  Don’t give me any nonsense about Flower Drum Song, please.  You sound foolish when you do that. 

Written over the span of six years by Paulo K. Tiról, who himself emigrated from Manila in 2012, this song cycle tells the story of the Filipino immigrant to America.  Seems simple?  It’s not.

Over the course of nearly 20 songs, we meet a broad spectrum of people from all walks of life with one thing in common: they have left their home country, with all of the complexity and beauty it entails, to seek something new in the United States.  That something new might be a marriage, a job, an education, or simply the very idea that all of these things are conceptually possible in the land of the free and home of the Whopper.

In Which I Make It About Myself

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not Filipino.  I am half-Chinese and half-Caucasian and, at best, Filipino-adjacent.  This latter claim is owing to my childhood in the heavily Pinoy-populated byways of the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego’s Mira Mesa (“Manila Mesa”) neighborhood.  Having worked in and around the Broadway industry since age 20, I have collaborated with countless Filipino-American artists and taken several solo trips to Manila.  There was also one extremely blurry weekend in Cebu City about which I won’t go into detail.

In Which I Find My Way Back to the Topic

As such, I approach this piece and this material with a general sense of adopted understanding, the understanding of someone at least a step removed and not quite a part of the story.  And that, I think, is a major common thread to be found in all of the tales told in this ambitious, sly, heart-wrenching, often-hilarious, intensely personal theatrical composition.

What is home?  What is pride?  What is it to belong?  What is it to be Filipino?  What is it to be American?  What is it to be… a son, a wife, a Catholic, a success, an independent person, an immigrant, an inspiration, a disappointment? 

What is it to always be considered the “Other” by the general populace of your chosen country?  What is it to be then commodified for one’s perceived value as a caretaker, nanny, spouse, nurse, piece of arm candy or simply “a good Asian?”

The company (photo by Michael Kushner)

The company (photo by Michael Kushner)

Tiról’s creation, which I don’t hesitate to brand as a young masterpiece, touches on all of these questions.  They might not ever be answered in any definitive way, but such is the ambiguous nature of life, no?  What audiences do take away from this two-hour evening is the sense of having spent time with a roster of beautifully conflicted, brave, emotional souls with the experience of immigration very much in common.

What Is It About?

We meet the woman in the arranged “mail order” marriage who has unexpectedly developed feelings for her partner (“A Simple Transaction”).  We meet the man with the dying mother, in a race against time to try and afford a ticket back home (the haunting “Sunday Afternoon”).  We meet someone who has found love in the States, reminiscing on Christmases back home (a breathtakingly beautiful tune called “Lantern in the Window”).  We meet the young American first-generationers navigating their way through memories and recipes (“In This Kitchen”) and exploring the duplicity of parental influence (“My Mother Is an Immigrant”).

We meet a man counting his blessings as his boyfriend dozes on the long flight from Manila to NYC (“From a Letter…”).  We meet a nanny and a nurse, scraping by while leasing out the domestic skills that they would prefer to use on their own families (“Light of the Home”).  In a particularly fun number, we meet a privileged fashion student mourning the absence of her maid from back home (“Yaya,” an uproarious pop number right out of the Cyndi Lauper songbook). 

Jaygee Macapugay (photo by Michael Kushner)

Jaygee Macapugay (photo by Michael Kushner)

A big highlight for me (“Ay, Amerika!”) features Joanne Javien and Diane Phelan as a pair of “titas” engaging in some world class gossip at church.

Give Me the Facts

Staged in an intimate jewel of a black box theatre four stories above a Chinatown Chipotle, the utilitarian set necessarily consists of only balikbayan boxes and a few seats.  Noam Shapiro beautifully helms a six-person company of Asian Americans who all run the emotional gamut required by these stories while handling some deceptively difficult music seemingly with ease.  Lush harmonies and soaring vocals are on full display from the aforementioned Javien (Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Phelan (School of Rock), along with the silky tenor of relative newcomer Michael Protacio, the intensely charismatic Albert Guerzon (Mamma Mia!), the smooth baritone stylings of the dashing Kevin Schuering (King and I) and the exquisitely-voiced, always-enthralling Jaygee Macapugay (Here Lies Love).

Joanne Javien and Diane Phelan (photo by Michael Kushner)

Joanne Javien and Diane Phelan (photo by Michael Kushner)

What’s It Like, and Why Do I Love It?

There are inescapable shades of Jason Robert Brown, not just the all-too-easy comparison of Songs For a New World but also his 2005 solo album Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes and even a bit of The Last 5 Years.  A first-act standout number titled “Rice Queens” in particular strikes the ear as a brilliantly evolved continuation of “Shiksa Goddess.” 

The comparison doesn’t end there.  Composer Tiról, like JRB, is equally adept at lush, sweeping ballads as he is at quirky, punchy humor.  He can alternately crack you up and break your heart with a seemingly simple melodic changeup or turn-of-phrase.

Other shows that come immediately to mind include Closer Than Ever and a few very specific moments extremely reminiscent of In the Heights.

Without fanfare, these stories are inclusive, democratic, very queer-positive and undeniably real.

Michael Protacio (photo by Michael Kushner)

Michael Protacio (photo by Michael Kushner)

Why Is It Important, and How Is It Universal?

On This Side of the World is something wholly unique and completely its own animal.  Admittedly, I am stepping a bit gingerly with this review, not being Filipino or an immigrant myself.  However, the true beauty of this piece as I experienced it is in the potential universality of its themes.  Sure, there’s added value in being able to personally relate the specific cultural references to one’s own experience, but a well-crafted song cycle such as this need not dwell in its own exclusivity.  Indeed, audience members of all ages and backgrounds found moments to laugh, nod the head or shed a tear.

At heart, this ambitious creation is a love story; an ode to anyone who has ever left behind the safe and familiar in search of something more: a job, a relationship, a living situation, a country.  New worlds, after all, take the form of more than nations, and home is more a concept than a location. 

Kevin Schuering (photo by Michael Kushner

Kevin Schuering (photo by Michael Kushner

Let’s Dig a Bit Deeper, Shall We?

Refusing to gloss over the inevitable other side of the coin, the tales of On This Side of the World aren’t all sunshine, hope and happy memories.  For all of the food, family, love, community and self-effacing humor that earns a tickled smirk, the fact remains that struggle, oppression and generational trauma are undeniable elements of the Filipino identity.  With colonization, fascism and corruption never more than a stone’s throw away, one song stands out to strike that necessary balance of outrage and sentiment, nostalgia and disgust, speaking about the history and situation “back home.” 

To view the world with rose-tinted glasses is to do a disservice to those still hurting.  For, in fact, there is a reason you chose to leave at all. 

In the early Act One showstopper “Proud,” Guerzon sings:

When forgetting the murderous sins of the past

And rewriting the truth aren’t allowed,

Tell me how to be proud.

It’s hard to be proud.

Call me ungrateful, call me unkind.

Call me a traitor, try to change my mind.

Show me our history and art,

Our laughter and war,

Our landscapes and oceans.

Show me that pride in my country

Is more than romantic, rhetorical notions.

Devastatingly, and a relevant thought to audiences not just Filipino, is the following question which surely resonates with countless Americans since, well, let’s say 2016:

Is a country not something that one can outgrow?

Albert Guerzon (photo by Michael Kushner

Albert Guerzon (photo by Michael Kushner

Bring It Home, Baby

All of that being said, there is no denying that this is a musical “B.E.F.” (Best Enjoyed Filipino) and proudly so.  It is by, for and about the immigrant.  It endeavors to represent those who know that particular brand of optimism for the future and fear of the unknown.  In an era where the topic of immigration is unavoidably loaded with bias and political ideology, On This Side of the World stays grounded in the humanity of its stories and the poignancy of its messages.  May we all one day arrive back at a place where we collectively realize that, often, that is more than enough.

Jaygee Macapugay and Michael Protacio (photo by Michael Kushner

Jaygee Macapugay and Michael Protacio (photo by Michael Kushner

On This Side of the World is at once delightfully simple and unspeakably complex in what it accomplishes and aspires to.  If taste and justice prevail, it should well prove itself to be a seminal work in the ever-developing story of the American musical.

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On This Side Of the World ended its sold-out world premiere engagement May 12 at the Access Theater.

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What follows is a brief chat with composer Tiról.

Tell me what the experience of finally seeing your work fully staged, with a top notch cast.

tirol.jpg

It's unbelievable. It's my first show, I'm an unknown writer, and we were working with a really modest budget. And yet these actors -- with their Broadway, off-Broadway, and touring credits, and their insane levels of talent and professionalism -- said YES, and were fully invested in the project from start to finish, out of sheer love for the piece and for the team. I watched all of the 12 performances, each time my mind blown that my music sounded so good, that my text was conveyed so eloquently, and that I'd been given the chance to cross paths with such performers who are as generous and gracious as they are talented.  

I should say that it was also pretty unbelievable that the piece get staged at all! This time last year, only half the songs were written, and this production was nowhere in the cards. But I met Noam in June 2018, and it was his confidence in the piece that pushed me to finish it, and his vision and drive that led to an artistic residency at Access Theater, which in turn led to this production. And, again, I'm just really grateful.

What is next for the musical?

Especially after the overwhelming response we got from this run, Noam and I would really love for more people to experience OTSOTW. That means a longer run at a larger NYC theatre; regional runs, particularly in cities like SF and LA (and maybe even cities outside the US) with huge Filipino populations; and we've also talked about a cast album. It will be a matter of finding theatres, producers, and sponsors who are interested in mounting the show -- which, in turn, will be a function of buzz and audience demand. That's what Noam and I will be working on next.

What did you find to be the most challenging part of this process?

For me, personally, it was actually finishing the piece. Like I mentioned, only around half of the song cycle -- nine of 17 songs, to be precise -- were written when I met Noam in June 2018. Then we got the six-month artist residency. In the first four months of that residency, I wrote two songs and had no idea how I'd ever finish the cycle in time for the February reading. Noam was open to presenting only parts of the song cycle, and I thought he would give up, but somehow I churned out six songs -- including some of the most complicated ones -- in January 2019. It's true, nothing makes a writer productive like a deadline.

And what was ultimately the most fulfilling aspect?

There came a point in rehearsals and production when I realized, this has become much bigger than what I created -- it's now a creation of a whole team. Every rehearsal, I was excited to see what people would discover and reveal about the piece -- whether it was Noam, our MD Ian, our choreographer Matt, one of our six actors, or our designers. It was an incredibly fulfilling feeling -- and a surprising one, for one as detail-oriented as myself -- to relinquish control of the piece, having sown the seeds, and allow it to grow organically in the hands of everyone on the team. What made this especially fulfilling, I think, was that though not everyone was Filipino, everyone took part in telling the Filipino immigrant story with tremendous passion, care, and respect. As I've said on a FB post, I had never felt happier to be an artist in musical theatre, more welcome than I did with the OTSOTW team, and more proud to be Filipino.

Anything you found particularly surprising?  And how was the audience reaction?

The audience response to OTSOTW was astounding, better than I ever dared imagine. The laughter, the tears, the standing ovations every show, the sold-out run, the buzz on social media, the reviews, the things audience members would say about being seen and heard, about being able to relate, about catharsis. And that includes Filipinos and first- and second-generation Filipinos, as well as immigrants and members of immigrant families of other backgrounds, and people farther removed from the immigrant experience.

Even members of cast have said that this was one of their favorite productions ever -- which is something, considering the productions some of them have been in. I guess it's my writers' skepticism, but when people told me over the months since the reading that OTSOTW was something extraordinary and special, I thought they were just being nice; but now, I'm finally believing it.

What has the reaction been from those back home? Do you think the show would play well in Manila?

I was actually never involved with the theatre scene in Manila, but there has been buzz over there as well, since we've been featured in some Philippine publications, and social media does have global reach. I hope to bring OTSOTW to Manila eventually -- but the thing with Manila is, people will pay upwards of $120 to see the touring companies of The Lion King, Phantom, Wicked, and Cats, but will not be as eager to see new work.

So, my goal is to be able to say OTSOTW was a success in NYC and around the US to get Manila audiences excited about it, and then bring the show there.

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For more on the composer and upcoming news on the production, visit www.paulophonic.com