Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo is not a household name hereabouts, and that's a shame. This theater actress happens to be one of the most accomplished, most versatile performers Philippine theater has ever produced, with a glittering resume that can easily surpass those of actresses of her generation on Broadway or the West End. How many of them, for one, can claim to have played Liesl of "The Sound of Music" as a 17-year-old and, 26 years later, Maria Von Trapp herself (in Rep's ongoing revival of the Rodgers-Hammerstein musical at Onstage Greenbelt 1)?
In between those generational bookends have been some of the greatest female roles in musical theater: Maria in "West Side Story," Luisa in "The Fantasticks," Johanna in "Sweeney Todd," Eva Peron in "Evita," Genevieve in "The Baker's Wife," Tuptim in "The King And I," Guinevere in "Camelot," Fantine in "Les Miserables," Fosca in "Passion," the Witch in "Into the Woods," Aldonza/Dulcinea in "Man of La Mancha."
For such breadth and virtuosity and for the unfailing grace with which she continues to inform her art, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo is truly the "First Lady of Philippine Musical Theater."
You’ve done some of the biggest female roles in Broadway musicals. Do you still have a dream role? Yeah, a lot! I wanna do Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd,” Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” when I’m much older, Dot in “Sunday in the Park With George”... Plenty!
Now you’re doing Maria Von Trapp. How was it like rehearsing with 21 kids? Before Monique [Wilson] arrived, I was the only one playing Maria. I was rehearsing the songs 4 times a night, I was going crazy, it was coming out of my ears! And I couldn’t “mark” it, since they’re inexperienced kids, and when I “mark” my singing, they tend to hold back, their voices also become soft, because they’re copying me. So kailangan performance level kami always sa rehearsals! One time, we were rehearsing leapfrogging, and the kids couldn’t get it so we had to do it over and over. I was leapfrogging for hours, and I’m 43 years old! (Laughter)
How do you maintain your voice with that? Oh, with great difficulty. We have no life when we’re doing a show. My friends never invite me out, because they know I won’t go. The daily rehearsals and vocalizing are for our stamina and strength.
With live performance kasi, you’re not at your best everyday. You might have had a fantastic show last night but then you wake up the next morning a little mabigat. The trick is not to let the audience know that. I did "La Mancha" several times last year while feverish, and you just have to do it. I also sprained my ankle on opening night, so I was limping on stage. But it worked for the character!
I’m curious--how are you able to sing even when you’re sick? When you’ve learned your technique kasi--breathing, placement, a certain way of vocalizing--even when you have a sore throat, you can sing above it. You may not sound your best, but you’ll survive the show. It’s easy to sing with colds, but it’s difficult to speak with colds.
This all goes back, I suppose, to the kind of training you had with Bibot Amador. Yes. Those were the days! During our time isang set lang kami, we had no understudy or alternates. So kahit na burning with fever--I mean, Tita Baby [Barredo], how many times did she perform with bronchitis? In "The King and I," she collapsed on stage right after curtain call. Junix [Inocian] did "Sweeney Todd" in crutches. He fell down the stairs during rehearsal and opened the show in a cast. Walang alternate e! (Laughter)
Si Lea [Salonga] din, kinagat na ‘yan ng aso during the dress rehearsal for "Annie," pero kanta pa rin while crying, she didn’t stop!
And if you really have no more voice, sige, speak your song na lang. I had to do one performance of ‘The Fantasticks’ where I had to speak all my songs, because I had no voice.
Aside from Bibot Amador and Baby Barredo, who are the people you admire? I admire different people for different reasons--most of them my peers. I admire Monique for what she’s done with New Voice Company, Audie Gemora and Bart Guingona who have gone on and put up their own theater companies, Jaime del Mundo for what he’s done for himself as a director, Lea for what she’s accomplished internationally...
Foreign--I look up to Stephen Sondheim, my favorite composer. I will never allow a Sondheim musical to be staged here without me being a part of it! (Laughter) My idols are Patti Lupone and Marin Mazzie and Bernadette Peters.
What do you consider your most memorable role in nearly three decades of performing? I loved my role as Fosca in “Passion.” The acting there was very difficult for me, I couldn’t be happy backstage because of the character! (Laughter).
Vocally, my most challenging roles were “Evita” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” where I played the White Witch in the second and third runs. I also loved playing Guinevere in “Camelot,” and my role in “The Last Five Years,” which was a struggle because I had no acting partner for long stretches of the play... Diana Morales in “A Chorus Line,” because I also had to dance, and Aurora in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” also a singing-dancing-acting part.
And the greatest compliment you’ve received from an audience member? When we did “Passion,” Rep received a letter from a woman who said she was on the verge of killing herself, until she saw me as Fosca and she was able to relate to the character and it helped her overcome what she was going through. I’ve kept that letter to this day.
Would you consider doing a Filipino-language play? Absolutely! Actually I was asked to do “Troyanas” by Herbie Go of Tanghalang Pilipino. Unfortunately, I was doing something else at that time, so our schedules didn’t match. I would love to do a Filipino play.
Your eldest daughter, Nicole, is playing Liesl, your old role, in “The Sound of Music.” How do you feel about that? My children have always loved theater because they grew up in it. But because school is so demanding, they couldn’t really join, except school plays. Now that she’s graduated from high school, tamang-tama! When she auditioned for Liesl and got in, it was like history repeating itself!
You also played Ellen in the Manila run of “Miss Saigon,” right? Yes, I was a cover. I got to play Ellen 13 times, whenever the actress playing Ellen was not available.
Why weren’t you part of the first batch of “Miss Saigon” players, with Monique, Lea, Junix and Michael [Williams] there? I had actually come in during the very first auditions, when nobody else knew what “Miss Saigon” was about. At that point in my life, I had just gotten married and had Nicole, my first baby. I was out of theater for a while. It was my husband who read the article and said why don’t I try. So I went, and since I was totally clueless about “Miss Saigon” as everybody else was, would you believe I sang “The Sound of Music!” (Laughter)
It was totally the wrong song, but I remember very clearly that (composer) Claude Michel Schonberg stood up and went to the piano and started playing notes. He would make me hit some notes, then look at me and then make me sing again. Then they’d all talk in French and then look at me, and then talk again. I was getting very insecure at this point! (Laughter) Then they said “thank you,” and I never heard from them again after that. So I didn’t make it. I kinda felt bad, but when “Miss Saigon” opened here and I got a chance to be in it, I was happy.
Can you imagine yourself doing anything else other than theater? No! My getting into theater was purely accidental--a friend dragged me to an audition and I didn’t know what the hell Repertory was--but I ended up loving it. And I never really wanted to play lead, but I got thrust into it. Now, when I think about it, if I didn’t end up in theater, would I be doing an office job? I can’t think of myself doing that, so I really believe if it’s your destiny, it will find you.
Baby Barredo used to be called the "First Lady of Philippine Musical Theater," and now it’s you. Does that give you comfort? It makes me very happy because I do work very hard. I’ve never accepted a role and given only 50 percent, and I’m very honored that I've been able to do all my roles.
When I gave my resume to the "Miss Saigon" people, they were saying, "You did this? And this?" Because abroad you can’t say you’ve done Guinevere and then go on and say you’ve done Evita. Those are two different vocal ranges!
I remember when I auditioned for the "Les Miz" concert version here, I had done Fantine by then. But when I went to audition, Dulce was there, and she sang "I Dreamed a Dream." Now, how do you compete with Dulce, right? So right then and there I said to Mr. Schonberg, "Sir, could I audition for Cosette?" He said, "But you did Fantine. You realize Cosette is a high C." "Yes sir, I know that." He couldn’t think of me being able to hit a high C when I had belted "I Dreamed a Dream!" Then I sang Cosette, and he hired me on the spot.
That’s the kind of training Rep gave me! Now, when people say, "Mench, why don’t you have a concert?," I say, but I don’t know what my voice is! (Laughter)
I look back at all these challenges and I feel very fulfilled. I just do my job, I’ve not really looked for titles and such. So when people say I’ve become the "First Lady of Musical Theater" here, I say thank you. I take a lot of pride in that, since theater is not recognized as much in our country and what people say about me is just about the best trophy I can ever get. It means a lot, because I did--I do--work my ass off.
In Bart Guingona's restaging of "Once On This Island" last year and early this year, Ms. Lauchengco-Yulo played the role of Erzulie, the goddess of love watching over the tragic lovers Ti Moune (Raki Vega) and Daniel (Jeffrey Hidalgo, then Gian Magdangal). Here is an unreleased recording of Ms. Lauchengco-Yulo singing the score's most enchanting song, "Part of the Human Heart." ("Her sensuous take on Erzulie's anthem was a true highlight," I said in my review.)
And a photo gallery of some of her stage incarnations:
["Once on This Island" photo: Gian Magdangal]