“When I left I kinda promised myself that I wasn’t going to come back ’til I’m a somebody.”
It only took Jhett Tolentino 14 years to make good on that promise, and then some.
Born and raised in Iloilo, the future 3-time Tony Award winner moved to New York to seek greener pastures, initially going to Broadway shows because he didn’t have friends and family around.
“I found theater because I love the idea that you get in, lights out, all my worries are gone. They entertain me, we laugh, cry, think.”
He started to blog about his experiences watching these productions and before long, the press took notice and he found himself invited to Broadway events.
This paved the way for him to meet people, build relationships, and eventually start producing shows for the stage. His Broadway debut, a straight play called Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike starring Sigourney Weaver would also bring him his first Tony. Now, he has 3 under his belt, he’s met and worked with some of the world’s biggest stars and he’s even a Tony and Grammy voter. For someone who has achieved so much, what’s next? What is there left to do?
For Jhett, it was time to go back home.
“I feel like I’ve peaked on Broadway.” he says when asked why he’s back and why now.
“After meeting the big stars, it seems like I don’t have anything else to achieve for myself personally. My coming here was to find out if it’s viable to branch out because it seems like there was a strong calling for me that I have to do something for my hometown, for my homeland.”
From November 2015 to January 2016 he was in town getting a feel for the local theater scene. He laments that we don’t have theater venues that can pass for a Broadway house, but charge exorbitant theater rentals despite poor venue maintenance.
“Here, the way I see it, performance art is an expense, not an industry.”
As for the talent? He’s optimisitic. “Oh my god, there’s talent, but some of them lack control, lack technicality, and dramaturgy.” These candid observations as well as artists coming to him for help on making it on Broadway led him to see what can be done for the industry.
It’s hard out there for Filipino actors to break into Broadway, not for lack of talent, but for means and opportunity. “Between the visas and the equity, it’s tough, but still, I wanted to help out.”
He wants to share what he’s learned on Broadway to enrich the theater scene we have here. He’s raring to leverage his relationships there, his references, and his reputation for producing quality Broadway shows in service of Philippine theater and the paying public.
“I always put the quality of the show up high,” he says. “On Broadway, when people see my name on a certain show, it’s a stamp of quality because that’s just what I live for.”
He’s ready to bring that same quality in our shores and give audiences an experience that is well worth their time. “My philosophy is, if you want to bother me with three hours of my life, it better be worth it.”
“It’s precious time out of their lives when they come to see your show.”
He has started Jhett Tolentino Productions and has partnered up with people who share his vision and, indeed, sentiments. He tells us that approaching his friends for this endeavor have been fruitful.
“So far, I have never gotten a no. It’s like synergy, everything just lined up. It must be a sign.”
Currently, there are 60-something theater companies all over the country, but Jhett’s productions would differ in a distinct way. “I would prioritize my shows to be directed by the Americans on Broadway.”
Filipino producer. Filipino talent. Broadway directors.
He is adamant on importing Broadway directors for an important reason: “I may not be able to take the Filipinos to Broadway, but I can bring the Broadway training here.”
We might see TV and theater personalities take on roles with Broadway directors taking the helm– all part of his audience development strategy. Shows will also run from Tuesdays through Sundays, just like how Broadway does it.
“I don’t care if nobody comes, as long as it is as it should be. I don’t do ‘Pwede na iyan.’ You owe it to the paying public. You can’t cut short anything.”
Aside from shows, he’s also planning to bring in Broadway stars to do concerts and cabarets. He’ll fly in directors, scene designers, lighting designers, and other professionals on Broadway to do master classes here.
“On Broadway, being a triple threat is a thing of the past. You have to be a quadruple, quintuple threat. There are 15k equity members in Manhattan alone, and how many Broadway theaters? Forty. Do you know what they do during the daytime? Sales. Macy’s. Hotels. Restaurants. That’s what they do, and then work at night or do auditions. There’s no ego. Even Tony winners still do vocal lessons. They do not stop going the extra mile. You have to continue. Take tap lessons, take ballet lessons, improv classes, on-camera classes— everything. You cannot stop.”
Spending years using his considerable talents to enrich Broadway, it’s time to set his sights on the Motherland. His vision doesn’t just include the local theater industry and local theater enthusiasts, he can see great things for the Philippines by way of theater.
Unlike the current trend of touring local productions in neighboring countries, priority is to let Filipinos outside of Manila experience our thriving theater scene firsthand.
“I want to build audience development. It has to be here. We need more. We need new breed, and to do that is to produce alternative theater.”
Taking his productions all over the Philippines is a big part of his plan.
He also wants to prioritize Filipino talent with all the touring companies that come here.
“I’ve told my Australian counterparts that they have to ease out coming in. I’m not ashamed telling it to their faces. I feel for the Filipino talent missing out on the opportunity. How often does Les Miserables or Miss Saigon come in and all the cast are foreign? What about the Filipino artists? By the time [these shows] come back, they’ve missed out on the opportunity. I understand why they boycott the shows. I feel for them.”
He drafted a bill that makes sure displacement fees are enacted, that foreign acts pay fees per performance, and that they prioritize local artists when they come in. He’s currently in talks with lawmakers, working with those who are hungry for bills they could champion.
He clamors for more government involvement in the arts such as subsidy for licensing and a mandate for schools to include theater shows in their curriculums.
“There’s so much more than the teleseryes. In my 30s, my creative mind just started to blossom and I was like, ‘Oh what could it have been had I an outlet, if there was something artistic in my time’. There was nothing, especially in the provinces. The government has to do its part, not just the private sector.”
If Jhett had his way, tourists won’t just be flying in for the beaches. He sees an end goal that could help boost not only theater, but adjacent industries.
“I’m all for tourists coming here, spending in our restaurants, spending at our hotels, spending in our country.” Eventually, it won’t just be Manila getting a piece of the pie. “I want to bring tourism especially in the provinces like Iloilo where we have so many infrastructures.”
Right now, theater enthusiasts in this part of the world flock to Australia or Singapore for theater. He’s looking to change that.
“I want to be able to beat Australia, and we can. Why can’t the Japanese, Singaporeans, Koreans, Thai, Hong Kong, Chinese, or Australians come here and see our shows?”
“I want the Philippines to be the performance hub of Asia.” he states plainly. “Why would they fly all the way to New York? Why can’t it be done here in Asia?”
He’s aware that he gives off a sense of coming in and changing the place. “My vision is so ambitious, and I would say at the point of being radical,” but he insists that his aim is not to radicalize but to share what he knows and what he has learned on Broadway.
“If we want to be the premiere hub of Asia for Entertainment, for the performing arts, for theater, a lot has to give in.”
This feels like much ado about Manila and the Philippines, but for Jhett this is the right step forward.
“After meeting all the very important people in the industry, after having worked with them, I don’t have a personal achievement that I have to set myself for. I’ve done it. So to me, it’s about giving back. Nation-building. For the Filipino.”
There’s a lot to be done, but Jhett is taking on the challenge with the same tenacity that has made him a multi-award winner. He lives by a particular mantra–“If a task has once begun, never leave it till it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.”–and a firm belief that anything is possible. Afterall, he’s a prime example.
“I was born, raised, and educated from the slums and went on to being the 2nd Filipino-born Tony awardee. You can’t tell me that something is impossible, because I’m an example of proving the impossible.”
He tells us another story that shows that he might just be the man to bring this massive undertaking to reality,
“I was a freshman in Iloilo and there was a quiz in our social studies class in 1991. The question was, ‘Who was the first Filipino to win a Tony?’ and, full circle 22 years later, I would be the second. Going up to the Tony stage when Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was read as the Best Play, that’s all I could think about. A boy from the slums! Can you believe that?”