Juan de la Cruz Goes to the Theater in America

If you want to find out the who’s who in the Filipino theater world in the US today, the new book, Barangay to Broadway: Filipino American Theater History by Walter Ang, is the resource you need.

One wouldn’t think there was enough material on the subject to fill a book.  But author Ang, a free-lance writer, does a creditable job of compiling the material in what is probably the first comprehensive book on Filipinos in American theater.  

Walter Ang, with the new book, available in hardcover, paperback and ebook formats (Photo by Jason Estrada).

Walter Ang, with the new book, available in hardcover, paperback and ebook formats (Photo by Jason Estrada).

The story Mr. Ang tells, on the surface,  is not new.  Previous waves of immigrants to the New World “Land of Opportunity” immersed themselves in their own theater lore when they first settled in the US.  The two groups that quickly come to mind are the Irish and the European Jews.   

The Irish, of course, as part of their Anglo-Saxon heritage, or tutelage, too, are quite steeped in  live-theatre tradition.  Theirs is the world of George Bernard Shaw, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde, to name a few. 

On the other hand, the European Jews established a thriving Yiddish theatre tradition in the teeming tenements of New York’s Lower East Side.  From that world came the likes of Fanny Brice, George Burns, 95 percent  of the writers (Arthur Miller, Richard Rodgers-Hart-Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Lerner and Loewe, Jerry Herman, Bernstein, Sondheim, Schwartz, Neil Simon, etc.)— who made the Golden Age of the American theater and musicals as we know it today (yes, including Fiddler on the Roof). 

Like their Filipino counterparts, they tell the same story: the struggle to cling on to memories and mores of the old country, or define a new persona in assimilating with the ways of the newly adopted land.

The slight difference is that Filipinos are the non-European stepchildren of mother America.  Whereas the Irish and the Jews, the Italians and the Germans, came from the same European milieu that begat the USA, Filipinos come from a culture that was “transferred from Spain” (a 2nd-rate European power in Anglo-Saxon eyes); and “the little Brown brothers,” of course, were considered pliable savages on the level of the Native American-Indians.

Nowhere was this view more manifest than in the Filipino presence at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis 1904 when the Republican Teddy Roosevelt administration drafted more than a thousand Filipinos (from their then-new colony halfway around the world) to populate a huge Igorot “village” at the Fair.  It was a big deal—comprising 47 acres, a living anthropological exhibit of the new “savage” frontier the new 20th century that white America faced, having already subjugated the native American tribes on the home continent.  

Strangely, just recently I was reading another very detailed report on the “pensionados” sent to the US starting in 1903.  (My interest in the “pensionado” story was rekindled recently because my paternal grandfather was with the class of 1904; and after the Teddy Roosevelt administration also had coerced the International Olympic Committee to shift the 1904 Olympic Games originally awarded to  Chicago, to St. Louis, which was staging the Louisiana Purchase Expo, I was quite vicariously thrilled to imagine that my grandfather was there in St. Louis in 1904, and might have attended an Olympic event or two – hence, accounting for my strange interest in the Olympics. But I digress.)

There are a few things missed in Walter Ang’s otherwise complete edition, which I would like to see in an updated version):

1.     A slightly more detailed biography of the author.  Ang had gone to great, painstaking detail in listing the backgrounds, educational bio-data, etc., of nearly all the subjects mentioned in the book, however, he sells himself short in not sharing a little more of  his own qualifications with the reader.

2.     Perhaps a few photographs?  Even just visually, it would break the monotony of all run-on text.

3.     Since Katy de la Cruz and bodabil is mentioned, producer, impresario Steve Parker (and actress Shirley MacLaine’s husband) packaged “Philippine Festival,” a Vegas show featuring extant popular artists from Manila (among them, the same Katy de la Cruz returned to Las Vegas, Pilita Corrales, the Reycard Duet, Bobby Gonzales, etc.).  I believe the 1961 Philippine Festival in Las Vegas was a milestone in the annals of Filipino- American talent showcases in the US.  OK, it wasn’t “straight, proscenium, narrative, dramatic” fare, nevertheless, it provided steady employment for 75 Manila-based talents (enough to populate another small “Igorot village” exhibit) for many months and had them earning in US dollars no less.

4.     If the book is to be a complete compendium of Filipino-American talent finding their moment in the greater sun of the larger American entertainment umbrella, there are a few names that were overlooked.  One needing special mention is Victoria Mallory.

In the original Broadway production of A Little Night Music in 1973, the role of Anne Egerman, the young, virginal bride (played by Lesley-Anne Down in the 1976 film version) was played by Victoria Mallory.  Her real name was Vicky Morales, so Filipino on her father’s side but she was very mestiza.  (Mallory’s story somehow reminded me of another Fil-Am Victoria’s story, that of Vicky Manalo Draves, the double-gold Olympic medalist in diving in London 1948.   Manalo, because “passing for white” was the ticket in international sports as well and even if in name only, was also forced to go with her American husband’s name, Draves.  But again, that’s another story for another day.)

Mallory/Morales, while playing in Night Music, met fellow actor Mark Lambert who played her stepson in the musical.  In a case of art imitating real life, Mallory and Lambert became an item and soon got became one.  They produced a daughter named Ramona.  Meanwhile, Victoria went on to other stage and TV roles, like The Young and the Restless, Santa Barbara, until she was struck down by pancreatic cancer in 1984, while daughter Ramona followed her parents’ career footsteps, also becoming an actress. 

In 2009, a poignant, possible historic “first” for Broadway or American theater records, occurred with Victoria Mallory’s lineage when A Little Night Music was revived on Broadway (with Catherine Zeta Jones as the star).  Ramona Mallory reprised the role of Anne 36 years after her mother, Victoria, played the original in 1973. 

In the original 1973 production of  A Little Night Music  on Broadway, Victoria Mallory, right, played Anne Egerman to her stepson, Henrik, a theology student. They later married in real life and begat . . .

In the original 1973 production of A Little Night Music on Broadway, Victoria Mallory, right, played Anne Egerman to her stepson, Henrik, a theology student. They later married in real life and begat . . .

Ramona Mallory, right, who reprised her mother’s role of Anne in the 2009 Catherine Zeta-Jones-headlined return of the musical on Broadway. Henrick, left, in 2009, was played by Hunter Ryan Herdlicks.

Ramona Mallory, right, who reprised her mother’s role of Anne in the 2009 Catherine Zeta-Jones-headlined return of the musical on Broadway. Henrick, left, in 2009, was played by Hunter Ryan Herdlicks.

Lately, there’s been a whole new slew of “Filipino-descent” actors making their mark on the stages of New York and London.  Aside from Eva Noblezada, the new Miss Saigon’s Kim, there is a quartet of new half-Filipina budding musical stars to watch for:  (1) Rachelle Ann Go, again like Salonga, a direct Manila import to the West End, was cast in the 2014 revival of Miss Saigon (as Gigi Van Tranh though); next, as Fantine also in London’s Les Miserables; and now in the London Hamilton: an American Musical. (2) Christene Allado ; (3)  Nicole Scherzinger (not a very Filipino name; it’s her German-American stepfather’s name.); and (4) Alysia Beltran, another San Francisco Bay Area native – enough names to fill the Hamilton casting pipeline for the next few years. 

And let’s not forget Vanessa Hudgens (another Fil-Am, who headlined the return of “Gigi” to the Broadway stage in 2015); and Ana Maria Perez de Tagle, Sylvia la Torre’s granddaughter.

On the distaff side, Conrad Ricamora (in the book, and whose rendition of I Have Dreamed from The King and I is, to me, the definitive rendition of that standard) now headlines Soft Power, the new original musical by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori; it workshopped on the West Coast, but in my personal opinion, needs a lot of work, to make it to the big-time on Broadway.   

In the period and scope covered by Ang’s book, there are two undertones running.  The larger, more obvious one is the experience of struggling to assimilate into the American landscape, or not.  This was most apparent in three of the four Filipino-American live stage productions I have personally seen in the SF Bay Area over the last few years. 

The other more oblique thread is that—the new immigrant experience undergone by many theater professionals covered in the book—was under-girded by the fact that many of these professionals surviving in the new land were “refugees” (asylum-seekers) fleeing or forced out by the repressive Marcos martial law regime.  Many had to escape for their lives in that turbulent period, yet they still found the time, energy and courage to express themselves in the alien setting in theater form. 

 Which brings me to Ang’s peculiar use of a non-hyphenated “Filipino American.”  Unless, you are portraying something fully assimilated, like the current sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, or even, Flower Drum Song, I guess Ang maintains that small distinction between the experience of the transplanted first generation Filipinos and the succeeding native-born generation who do qualify for the “Filipino-American” term.  

 Fortunately, despite the present divisive atmosphere of the Trump administration (somehow reminiscent of the Teddy Roosevelt days over a century ago), live theater companies, producers and casting directors nearly fully embrace color-blind casting for the live stage, thereby providing more opportunities for actors of color than in previous decades.  (Of course, it is different for film and TV because the more realistic paradigm of the big and small screens still differs from the more ephemeral nature of live theater.)   

So, Filipinos in the American theater landscape today are alive and well, and . . . struggling, along with countless, thousands of others and/or of the hyphenated types, hoping to find their places in the unreliable, brutal, rejection-heavy world of the theater. 

Barangay to Broadway is available on amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com in hardcover for $36.24; and in paperback, and on kobo for the ebook formats, it goes for $25.00.   Strangely, because there is no amazon.com service in the Philippines, the book (like two of my own titles) are not available in Manila—not unless you have relations or friends who can purchase the book for you in the US, Europe or Australia. 

Myles A. Garcia

Myles A. Garcia

Myles A. Garcia is a Correspondent and regular contributor to  www.positivelyfilipino.com. His newest book, “Of Adobe, Apple Pie, and Schnitzel With Noodles – An Anthology of Essays on the Filipino-American Experience and Some. . .”, features the best and brightest of the articles Myles has written thus far for this publication.  The book is presently available on amazon.com (Australia, USA, Canada, Europe, and the UK).  

Myles’ two other books are:  Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies (latest edition, 2016); and Thirty Years Later. . . Catching Up with the Marcos-Era Crimes published last year, also available from amazon.com.  

Myles is also a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) for whose Journal he has had two articles published; a third one on the story of the Rio 2016 cauldrons, will appear in this month’s issue -- not available on amazon.    

Finally, Myles has also completed his first full-length stage play, “23 Renoirs, 12 Picassos, . . . one Domenica”, which was given its first successful fully Staged Reading by the Playwright Center of San Francisco. The play is now available for professional production, and hopefully, a world premiere on the SF Bay Area stages.  

For any enquiries on the above: contact razor323@gmail.com  

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