Christian Bautista: An unchained melody

Audie Gemora (The Philippine Star) - May 9, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Truth be told, I was caught by surprise when I learned that Christian Bautista got the lead role in Atlantis’ production of Ghost, The Musical. Not that I doubt his tal- ent. I didn’t know he even auditioned! Ce- lebrities risk getting a bad rap if and when they audition for a part and fail to get it. As one of his managers at Stages, I would have wanted to at least send feelers to my friends at Atlantis, get a heads up before sending him to try out. But Christian went on his own.

It was director Bobby Garcia who called personally to inform me that he wanted to cast Christian as Sam Wheat, the protagonist in the story. According to him, Christian turned in a real good audi- tion. Bobby, in his typical off-beat charm, reminded me that should we accept the offer, there was to be no star treatment, Christian could not miss rehearsals with- out prior notice and the pay would be the- ater rates. Doing theater is a three-month commitment. That would mean oppor- tunity lost. But Christian, with a glint in his eye and much excitement in his voice, reasoned, “I love the music. The role will really challenge me as an actor.” That was all I needed to hear. I often tell talents that one can become an artista overnight but it takes so much more to be an artist. The difference is where one is focused — the fame or the craft.

The first time I saw Christian on stage was during a recital of a Musical Theater class at Trumpets Playshop in the summer of 2003. At that time, Stages had ventured into casting talents for commercials. Play- shop, the country’s leading multimedia summer workshop, was a great place to discover talents. It wasn’t difficult to spot this lanky youngster who not only had model looks but also sang rather well. A rare find! Then talent scout David Cosico, whom I had tasked to recruit potential models, quickly signed him up with Stag- es. It didn’t take long before Christian got booked for TV commercials. Some might remember him playing basketball in a soda TVC or in a hilarious gum ad where he sticks his head inside a cabinet. His modeling career was off to a good start.

But the desire to do theater remained in the young man’s heart. When an opportu- nity to audition for the Trumpets produc- tion of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe came that same year, Christian went for it. Never mind that all he got was a slot in the ensemble playing a ghoul (under heavy monster make-up). His rather humble start paid off. Shortly after the musical’s run, he and two other chorus members organized a three-way birthday concert. It was there he caught the eye of co-actor Carlo Orosa, who heard him sing You’re Still You and was convinced Christian, who then supported long curly locks, could be groomed as the local Josh Groban. Carlo then suggested we manage Christian’s pop career and there began Stages’ foray into artist management.

We entered Christian in a singing contest, ABS-CBN’s Star in a Million, where he quickly became a household name. Although he did not win, he made enough waves to clinch a recording deal, which catapulted him to stardom with the hit song The Way You Look At Me. He, then, became known as the “Romantic Balladeer.” His debonair looks, a string of hit songs and strong fan base paved the way for him to clinch his first acting role on ABS-CBN’s Kampanerang Kuba, where he received lackluster reviews. This became a source of frustration for him. He was not satisfied being an accomplished singer and hitmaker. He wanted to master acting.

Management’s solution was to bring him back to the very place we first found him — on stage. And what better vehicle to challenge his acting chops than the modern-day Romeo and Juliet musical West Side Story. Playing opposite West End star Joanna Ampil and singer-actress Kar- ylle (who alternated as Maria), Christian fit the role of the lovelorn Tony to a T. He was tall, dark and handsome. His expres-sive baritone soared. More importantly, he got his taste of a meaty role. A love affair with musical theater had begun. No mat- ter how busy Christian got, his celebrity extending to neighboring Asian countries as “Asia’s Pop Idol,” he would always make time for the theater eager to learn more about the acting craft.

His tandem with Karyle also flourished so that they continued to work with each other. In 2011, both were cast opposite each other in an international TV series titled The Kitchen Musical. They spent over three months taping in Singapore. The experience of working with a foreign production team and cast further honed Christian’s acting and dancing. A self-con- fessed non-dancer, sheer determination got him to do the right moves.

So much so that Ballet Philippines had no problems casting him as Rama to Karylle’s Sita in its revival of the ballet musical Rama Hari, staged at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 2012. The two were appropriately regal as the Ramayana legends and breathed new life to Ryan Cayabyab’s beautiful songs. The couple was again reunited in Resorts World’s production of Cinderella last year. By then, Christian had become the quintessential romantic lead.

I was thrilled to know that for Ghost, The Musical, Christian’s love interest would be Cris Villonco, one of the finest actresses of her generation. Would the pair be able to hold their own to Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore who originated the iconic roles? There was certainly a lot of chemistry at their pictorial. So much so I began teasing the two to date. “Make me kilig!” I would constantly remind her. Cris gamely gave me updates on the growing rapport between them at rehearsals.

By opening night, that rapport had gone on high gear. As soon as Christian sang the first few bars of Unchained Melody, the audi- ence was drawn into the world of Sam and Molly. And as they battled between life and death for their love, the men in the audience fought back tears while the women pulled out their tissues.

I must say Christian has finally acquit- ted himself as an actor. As the cast took their bows, I remembered the unassuming young man I first saw on stage 10 years ago. He has come a long way. Christian has transformed from a neophyte to the country’s Romantic Balladeer to Asia’s Pop Idol to musical theater’s premiere leading man. I can rest assured the artist in him will continue to evolve, like an unchained melody.

For a hauntingly good time in the the- ater, catch Ghost, T he Musical.

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