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The foreign invasion

There are always two sides to a coin, or a story for that matter. Let me tell you one about this resurfacing phenomenon in the business of live entertainment called the foreign musical. But first, a little preamble...

In recent years, the theater community has found great success and renewed energy in companies that have been sprouting up left and right and putting themselves out there to mount quality shows, whether original or foreign adaptations. 9 Works Theatrical brought us The Wedding Singer, Sweet Charity and the three-pronged restaging of Rent, Upstart Productions produced the original musical Breakups and Breakdowns and the campus touring production of Much Ado About Nothing, and CTE Productions found incredible success in Defending the Caveman and Love, Loss, and What I Wore. All three theater outfits have enjoyed relative success using local theater performers, and have joined the elite circle of Repertory Philippines, Atlantis Productions, Trumpets, Stages, New Voice Company, and other proponents of western musical theater in bringing the best of what Broadway and the West End has to offer to our local shores.

Through their valiant efforts, theater outfits have been able to contribute to the homogeny of choices for the theatergoing crowd — thus legitimately expanding the market, what with Rep paving the way for young audiences to appreciate the theater via its Children’s Theater, and Atlantis bringing to fore recent Tony-winners and smash hits from the Big Apple like Spring Awakening, Spelling Bee, and Avenue Q that appeal to younger audiences. Subsequently, these companies have developed what was once an exclusive, elusive, and limited hodgepodge of theater buffs in the persona of loyal ticket buyers into a larger and more encompassing market. More importantly, theater companies have been able to educate, entertain, and activate the community with the art and gift of live theater, enabling local artists and other talents whether on-scene or behind-the-scenes with platforms to showcase their talent, and harnessing their inherent potential to be truly world-class.

Truth to tell and contrary to popular belief, the industry is as alive as ever with more and more patrons turning to the theater as a respectable alternative to live concerts, the club scene, and watching movies. It’s even gotten to a point where there is a renewed appreciation for theater from the media sector and the blogger community, and corporations who are becoming more and more supportive of the arts. There has also been renewed fervor within aspiring theater actors and big-time showbiz personalities to try their hand at theater — the usual entry point being summer workshops and collegiate theater organizations like the Ateneo Blue Repertory.

With this phenomenon however comes renewed interest on the part of foreign entities to penetrate our still developing market via spectacles that are transcendent of the financial capacity of local theater companies in so far as rights acquisition and production value is concerned. Their shows are able to convey exactly how shows are imagined on Broadway and The West End in terms of aesthetic and production value, which presupposes the unfortunate truth about local counterparts — though the talent is overflowing, up to par, and oftentimes better, the production value is not able to parry that of Broadway’s due to financial restraints and the lack of backing from the government and corporations in general. At the end of the day, companies have to sacrifice integral parts of the production just to break even or make minimal profit, less they lose money and stop producing shows at all.

Enter: the foreign musical. In recent memory, some of the foreign acts that have flown overseas to perform in our local theaters have been Miss Saigon with a predominantly Filipino cast, Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai, Cats which was recently headlined by international star Lea Salonga being the only Filipina in the cast, Cinderella which saw Salonga and the likes of theater veterans Lorenz Martinez and Shiela Valderrama-Martinez joining the in the esteemed company of performers from Broadway Asia, The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, an all-Australian musical revue of Webber’s timeless hits, and coming this year and early next are the Off-Broadway sensation Stomp and the international hit Mamma Mia.

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Personally, I’m all for greater choices for Filipino audiences, taking away from the argument that we should prioritize Filipino talent in casting these shows. There is meat to the matter that spectacles like Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai and Stomp are wont to harness talent that is unique to the skill sets and disciplines employed by foreign companies or troupes that champion them. These imports have trained all their lives — which is not something that we can brag of the majority of our Filipino performers within those particular genres. For other shows like Miss Saigon, racial divide is a salient feature of the production, as exemplified via the mix of both Caucasian and Asian performers. Likewise, the caliber of dancing that a musical like Cats presupposes is something that would need the subsistence of triple-threats, a rare breed in today’s theater industry because of a lack of training and the alleged futility of a sustainable career in the theater, which is still very much a thankless profession. Pay is close to nil, the theater performer is taken for granted (the recent proof being the Skyflakes issue in Cinemalaya), and quite frankly, there is an absence of avenues and safeguards that would protect the local performer.

My bone of contention however rests with certain shows, which utilize an all-foreign cast when the Filipino is all too capable of filling the role, thereby taking away opportunities for our local talent to grow and be showcased to its full capacity. I respect that it is the producers’ call in casting actors for their shows as it is ultimately their investment that ought to be recuperated. But what alarms me even more is that ticket prices of foreign counterparts are substantially higher than local shows yet people are determined to pay incredible amounts to see them yet not be as willing to pay for locally produced counterparts. The same goes for live concerts in general where the Filipino would pay tens thousands of pesos to see a foreign act but never for a local artist, despite the same amount of effort and entertainment value that the latter breathes into their showcase. I can only attest to this staunch colonial mentality, which I myself am guilty of, that is prevalent among Filipinos today.

It’s true. The machinery by which these foreign entities operate is a far cry from what local theater outfits can afford. And it’s probably not so much the fault of foreign entities trying to infiltrate our local theater industry. They sensed a market and they were more than generous enough to invest, which is very admirable and beneficial to our economy. But the lack of safeguards supported by palpable legislation as it is done on Broadway with the Equity, by which touring productions are required by law to hire local performers, or at the very least, have a percentage of the production to be locally hired, largely translates to missed opportunity for the public sector to capitalize on the strengths and outlets enabled to us by foreign outfits.

I can’t help but bring it back to what I recently learned, after attending a talk about the state of OPM in the country and the music community’s changing landscape. Angeli Valenciano mentioned that the music industry should start thinking tourism-wise in order to further advance or preserve the potency of its continuing legacy. She believed that the greatest export of the Philippines is still its local talent, and I agree. Look at Charice, Lea Salonga, and even lesser known counterparts in T.V. Carpio, Maya Barredo, and Jose Llana who are representing for the country in theaters abroad.

Again, I am all for choices. After all, foreign imports are something that Filipino audiences, who are not able to afford or find the time to fly to Broadway or the West End for, deserve and should be able to watch. I for one will patronize foreign imports despite my biases but remain resolute never to scrimp on my budget and time for locally-produced counterparts. But I feel that there is an irregularity here that is worth investigating. It’s high time we stopped taking the amazing Filipino talent for granted, and take a more proactive stance in harnessing a resource that can seriously put us on the map. Our talents for boxing, basketball, billiards and others sports is a definitive resource. Our talent for singing, dancing, and acting? Likewise. I will always believe that if we could pay for our national debt with talent alone, we would’ve been in the black so many years back.

At the cusp of change, it’s eat or be eaten.

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