July 7, 2018, marks the world premiere of Emma the Musical, an original Filipino musical in English, at the Myer Horowitz Theatre. Set on the cusp of the Japanese occupation of 1942, it is a story of perseverance, faith and resilience of the Filipino spirit, in peace or in war, and regardless of any sacrifice.
Under my artistic direction, with choreography by Jojo Lucila, music by Erica Cawagas and script by Chie Floresca, the musical is headlined by a zealous cast: Cameron Gamez, Carlos Gamo, Cassandra Baltazar, Catherine Lelis, Danielle Yu, Gerald Penaco, Hannah Adamson, Hans Casana, James Velasco, Jeannine Naboye, Jimmy Buena, Jo-ann Aguilar, Joshua Zoleta, Julius Ylagan, Lauren Lizada, Maicah Macatangay, Mark Laraya, Marjorie Galido, Raphael Tolentino, Riana Torre, Simonette Brigola, and Veronica Knodel.
When I accepted the artistic directorship of the musical, the production had been in rehearsals for 3 months already. Admittedly, I was reluctant in working with a group that I did not personally select and cast. And so on my first rehearsal day, I drilled down the value of commitment, perseverance and respect for the art. In other words, they were given the hard line talk to prepare them for hard work and being pushed beyond their comfort zones. And boy, did they deliver and face challenges head on. Now on the homestretch of the production timeline, I can truly say that it is a privilege to know and work with each one of them.
The cast is a mixture of seasoned performers, emerging artists and newbies. Some intend to make a career in the performing arts, and some are just testing the waters. One of the young members of the cast was so serious that she handed me her resume on day 1. They have varying reasons why they joined the musical - from the hilarious anecdote of being hardballed by a relative, to the lofty objective of pushing Filipino stories. They live full lives apart from the musical but manage to come together as a family for rehearsals. Let's hear directly from some of the cast members about their production experience and thoughts:
Riana: Sharing some of the history of the Philippines through a musical was very appealing as I love music and history. Emma has helped me better connect to history as there is this dissociation at times when you just read about history in a textbook. The most difficult part in this production is knowing that while I may play this as a part, this was a real experience that countless people underwent. It makes my chest ache and we have cried many times during rehearsal as even a taste of the pain that people had to bear during this time, and the courage they had to exhibit in the face of death is something that absolutely floors me. I don't know how one could have survived through these conditions, but they did.
Danielle [who plays the title role]: Knowing that it was an original Filipino musical based on true events made me that much more interested to mold and shape the story and portray it to its truest potential. Many of Emma's family and friends will be sitting in the audience reminiscing about her experiences, and we need to give justice to their stories.
Maicah: I've created new friendships and amazing memories with the cast. I'm very thankful to experience all of it. In portraying my role, I did find some similarities with my character, like our optimism and fighting for what we believe in. After this production, I plan to start composing and writing songs again.
Jimmy: I joined Emma because I would like to share my talent that God bestowed upon me. The people involved in the musical are my second family. It has been my desire to be part of a musical may it be local or international, and I will continue my passion in singing may it be off or on stage.
And why should people watch Emma? In Riana's words, the show moves you on a rollercoaster ride and has all the elements of a great story with love, action, loss, and bravery all wrapped in one beautiful musical. And Julius states it succinctly: I would say that this story, could be any of us, obviously not exactly the same, but listening to our grandparents on their bed telling us how they survived a war, how they found love, how they went through pain, and how in the end all of that made them even stronger as human beings. When people watch Emma, they are going to learn so many different things about the Filipino culture that they may or may not already know, but if there's one thing I really want people to take away and learn from this musical, it's this: it's to fight for what you love.
When you watch Emma, you will not only see a snippet in time of Philippine history, but you will witness the performers' own stories on overcoming challenges, extending personal boundaries in the commitment to bring to life someone else's dreams, and in the process, fulfilling their own. Don't miss this opportunity of youthful enthusiasm and artistic energy!
Emma the Musical is presented by the Filipino Canadian Saranay Association. Tickets are available through Ticketfly or message the Emma the Musical FB page, or any of the production team.