In the 1960s, Fr. Reuter (or Fr. Jim as he was called by friends) was co-producer of a landmark drama on Philippine television, the “Santa Zita and Mary Rose” show, a sort of “Touched by an Angel” soap opera, written and aired for Filipino household help. He also authored a newspaper column in the Philippine Star for some 20 years. Besides being an activist priest, the blue-eyed Jesuit was also a very sosyal (socially connected) fixture on the Manila scene; and I say that in a most positive manner.
But to me, Fr. Jim was always the Mr. Broadway-man-of-the-cloth who brought the popular American art form of musical theater from New York/New Jersey (he was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey) to new “American-wannabe” children half a world away. And again, I say that in the best possible way, with no apologies.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of my acquaintance with this versatile transplant to the Philippine scene who passed away three years ago. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the release of “The Sound of Music (SOM),” only the most successful Hollywood movie musical of all time—and many Positively Filipino readers have fond memories of growing up with it. Thus, it is no mere coincidence that this year also strikes a personal anniversary chord with my memory of Fr. Jim.
I first met Fr. Reuter when we had him over for lunch at home sometime in mid-1965. He was our guest courtesy of my first cousin, Lolita, who had known Fr. Jim from her earlier school days at Assumption Convent on Herran, when she acted in a drama or two under his stage direction.
I was near the end of my teenage years with the stage-acting bug still quite viral in me, and cousin Lolita was about to work with Fr. Jim again in Assumption’s staging of “My Fair Lady” to inaugurate their new auditorium at the San Lorenzo campus. So I thought maybe, I too could be a part of “My Fair Lady” on a Manila stage, since Fr. Jim would be looking for males to appear in the show of the girls-only school. The lunch was a thinly disguised “audition.”
Fr. Jim had broken a taboo in Manila’s private Catholic schools’ traditional dramatic efforts with the 1964 “Sound Of Music.” The private Catholic schools in the Philippines cast their stage offerings relying on their single-gender student bodies. As a matter of fact, the very same “Sound Of Music” was staged by the rather liberal Maryknoll College (now Miriam) three years before St. Paul’s production, with an all- female cast drawn entirely from Maryknoll’s student roster.
Also, “loveless” or “minimal-touching” plays like “My Fair Lady” or “The Sound of Music” were the ideal choices to stage; but no “Romeo and Juliets,” “La Bohemes” or much less anything like “Hair,” which features nudity. Musically too, Fr. Jim staged these mid-1960 musicals an extra notch above your usual high school-level dramatics by having the Manila Symphony Orchestra play from actual Broadway orchestrations.
In any case, what I remember most about that lunch with Fr. Jim was that (1) it turned into a private (audience of one) audition for me. Fr. Jim asked me to sing “On the Street Where You Live” (otherwise known as The Stalker’s Ballad.) I gamely tried, but I was unsure and pitch-deaf back then; (2) I also had a chance to play for the man had just come off directing the wildly successful staging of “The Sound of Music” at St. Paul’s, the Julie Andrews soundtrack of SOM.
The Hollywood film of SOM had yet to be released in Manila then, but an aunt in the U.S. had sent me an advance copy of the soundtrack. I thought it was probably the first recording of the SOM film soundtrack available in the Philippines; I was thus so proud to be able to share it with the man who had staged a sparkling production that was the talk of social Manila for months. If I couldn’t get into his “My Fair Lady” cast on account of singing perhaps I could get in on some sort of archival talent?
So I did end up getting cast in the chorus, which turned out to be one of the more socially eye-opening experiences of my life. I finally found out what this renowned musical based on a Shavian classic was all about backwards and forwards. I also got to rub shoulders with the children of some of Manila’s elite families. Indulge me a little with some name-dropping here--Lagdameo, Floirendo, Cacho, Ortigas, Delgado, Ledesma, etc. The young ones were also working out their juvenile acting bugs or “kinks” as I was. Up until then, I hadn’t realized that a vibrant, sizeable, upper-class mestizo community still inhabited Manila, although a lot of it behind high walls.
The strangest thing about that 1965 production of “My Fair Lady” is that the sumptuous film had already been released in Manila a few months before, and yet the “live” staging was another phenomenal success with extended performances; and at pretty steep ticket prices too. It totally reversed the wisdom that once the film comes out, interest in the stage version would evaporate quickly. It was as if Manilans could not have enough of the story of the misogynistic professor and the scrappy flower-seller.
All of this happened under the watchful eagle eye of Assumption’s Mother Superior-terror, Mother Esperanza (Cu-unjeing) or Sor “Espie.” Nonetheless, it turned out to be a wonderful experience of my coming-about years, thanks to Fr. Jim. So much so that when the call to arms for his next production at St. Paul’s in 1966 came around, I responded. And that was “Brigadoon,” the classic musical, again by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe where I made some new friends -- Baby Barredo and the Gallaga brothers.
Doing “Brigadoon” was great fun, especially because we guys wore kilts a-flying and even did the Highland Sword Dance with Tina Santos. (I forget what clan my tartan was—but it certainly wasn’t the Assumption one). This one had “mists of the highlands,” some of the most gorgeous music written by Frederick Loewe (“Almost Like Being in Love,” “Heather on the Hill,” etc.) and again, with the sharp Manila Symphony Orchestra in accompaniment. We even had an authentic Scotsman or two, care of the British Embassy, in full Highland regalia playing the bagpipes outside the Fleur-de-Lis auditorium on Herran Street.
Because of the high quality of those (college) productions, I pinpoint Fr. Jim as the man singularly responsible for popularizing the "live" Broadway musical in the Philippines until the likes of other companies like Repertory Philippines, Julie Borromeo's Dance Theater Arts Philippines, etc., came along.
Tout Manille could count itself lucky that this man of the cloth pursued his passion for live performing arts and raised performance standards to the point that when London producer Cameron Macintosh was at a dead-end in finding his heroine for “Miss Saigon” in 1985, he and the “Les Miserables” composers found the raw talent they were looking for, including a whole pipeline of Kims and Engineers, etc., in our dear, old Manila.
That turned out to be a lucky break for Manila's struggling live theater actors who were then thrown into the London-West End spotlight without going through the traditional from-the-ranks grind. In a way, because of the Philippines's shared cultural heritage with the United States, Manila very quickly became an early Asian outpost for the Broadway musical and a breeding ground for future Lea Salongas, Cynthia Onrubias and Ana Maria Perez de Tagles. (As of this writing, Jose Llana is taking over the role of the Siamese king in Lincoln Center’s highly acclaimed revival of “The King And I” in New York.)
Of course, more nationalistic elements will charge that “the Broadway musical is another vestige of ‘colonial mentality’ handicapping the Filipino spirit” If so, then guilty as charged. However, this is also what made Manila a rather cosmopolitan city and contemporary Filipinos more international. Like it or not, we partake of the larger body of global, cultural oeuvre; and in that regard, of the Anglo-Saxon stream of popular culture. Is it such a bad thing that the Philippines is NOT just stuck in that insular, Aeta/Badjao/Katipunero mindset?
In a way, Lea Salonga, Joanna Ampil, Cocoy Laurel, etc., were the vanguard of our OFWs. Recently, Korea and Singapore have also embraced the American musical format and contracted western-trained Manila talent (i.e., stage director Bobby Garcia, etc.) to stage Broadway musicals for them on their Seoul and Singapore stages.
A quick Youtube bio-pic on Fr. James B. Reuter’s life and times:
During martial law, the Marcos administration tried to quell Fr. Jim – 76 accusations were lodged against him, but that still didn’t stop him when push came to shove in February 1986. With others in the anti-Marcos movement, Fr. Jim was on the frontlines of the People Power upsurge, manning Radio Veritas (or Radyo Bandido), the lone civilian radio station still broadcasting while the others were shut down. Together with June Keithley and others, the rebel radio station exhorted the Catholic citizenry to join and protect the clergy in civil disobedience against the dictatorship.
Years later, Fr. Jim recalled with a laugh: “My heart belongs to the Philippines. In fact, I’m more of a Filipino than an American. I even applied for a Filipino citizenship (during the martial law years), but I was denied on grounds of being an ‘undesirable alien.’” But he was finally granted honorary Filipino citizenship by the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2006, during Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s tenure.
One final Fr. Jim memory. During “My Fair Lady’s” run at the Assumption San Lorenzo campus, the ballroom scene boasted a rare, honest-to-goodness chandelier any Phantom of the Opera would gladly have done a haunting for. The chandelier in question turned out to be one “lent” by Malacañang Palace. Because Gloria Macapagal (pre-Arroyo) was in college at that time, and her father was the sitting resident of Malacañang, Mother Espie was able to borrow a brilliant chandelier from the Palace to be the main golpe de gulat (knockout) feature of the Ballroom set.
The “loan” happened in September-October. When the fateful election of November 1965 came and the Ilocano challenger ousted the older Macapagal from Malacañang, an incognito truck pulled up to the Assumption gate one evening, quietly picked up the lonely chandelier and rolled away silently in the night—headed back to Malacañang.
Today, some 50 years later and with Fr. Jim having made his final curtain call three years ago, I can just see him at the Pearly Gates encouraging the cherubim in the front row to sing a little more pianissimo so as not to drown out the seraphim in the top row.
Myles Garcia is a retired San Francisco Bay Area-based author/writer. His proudest work to date is the book "Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies" which begat the Plaridel Award-winning article (Honorable Mention), "Ten Best Kept-Secrets of Olympic Ceremonies" (this publication, January 15, 2014). Myles has also written for the Journal of the ISOH (International Society of Olympic Historians) of which he is also a member. Presently, Myles is also stretching his wings as a playwright, finishing a play, "Love, Art and Murder" which he would eventually like to see produced on Broadway.
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