If you're a fan of musical theater like me, surely you still have vivid memories of "Rama at Sita." That musical, staged at the UP Theater in 1999, is not easily forgotten, since no local theater production before or since has matched its incredible lavishness and opulence.
"Rama at Sita" spared no expense to snag a staggering array of top-flight talent, from its performers (Ariel Rivera, Lani Misalucha, Jaya, Robert Sena, Raymond Lauchengco, Chiqui Pineda, Nonie Buencamino, Michael Williams, Franco Laurel, Pinky Marquez, Eugene Villaluz, Mon David, John Arcilla, Carlo Orosa, Bimbo Cerrudo et al) to its behind-the-scenes creative movers (set designer and director Leo Rialp, costume designer Patis Tesoro, choreographer Agnes Locsin, sound and lights by Willy Munji and Gerry Fernandez, respectively).
The music and lyrics were a combination of new work penned by Danny Tan, Roy Iglesias and Dodjie Simon, and excerpts from "Rama Hari," the 1980 pop ballet by Alice Reyes that featured the music of Ryan Cayabyab and libretto by now-National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera.
"Rama at Sita," like its inspiration "Rama Hari," retold in song and dance the Indian epic "Ramayana." The fabled, one-time run of "Rama Hari" offered three of that decade's signature talents: a stunning Kuh Ledesma in the role of Sita, Basil Valdez as Rama and Leo Valdez as the villain Ravana. Ms. Ledesma was then on the cusp of superstardom following her stint as lead singer of the popular showband Music & Magic. Soon she'd explode with her first big hit, "Dito Ba," and the rest would be history.
"Rama Hari's" most famous song is "Magbalik Ka Na, Mahal," a song forever associated with Ms. Ledesma. Ryan Cayabyab's enchanting melody, vivified by the poetic yearning of Bienvenido Lumbera's words, made for an instant classic. Mr. Lumbera's lyrics are, in fact, some of the great wonder of "Rama Hari." In "Awit ng Pagsinta," sung to mark the union of Rama at Sita, the experience of love so great that it crosses over from the ecstatic to the ineffable is rendered in highly charged verses:
Init ng hininga, darang sa pandama
Tumatagos sa kaluluwa
Ang pansamantala'y naging walang hanggan
Bango ng champaca, awit ng pagsinta
Nalimbag sa alaala
Ingatan mo sana at nang magkabunga
Ingatan mo, ingatan mo sana!
I was too young to see "Rama Hari," but I saw "Rama at Sita" three times, even if it meant shredding my meager budget to afford the tickets. The spectacle was unforgettable, the music-making fantastic, heightened this time by Danny Tan's own melodic wizardry (his best contribution, to my mind, is "Sana'y Siya na Nga," a song as sacred as it is lovely). Not even "Miss Saigon" Manila came close to the jaw-dropping pageantry that "Rama at Sita" unveiled for Filipino audiences in 1999.
Here's the point to why I'm babbling about all these.
One, by special arrangement with Mickey Munoz of ABS-CBN, I've been given permission to post here a video clip of Kuh, Basil and Leo singing excerpts from "Rama Hari" during the birthday tribute concert to Ryan Cayabyab at the CCP in October 2004.
"Only one other Cayabyab musical, 'Rama Hari,' was featured in the program," I said in my review then. "But this one was distinguished by the appearance of [Basil] Valdez, Kuh Ledesma and Leo Valdez in the roles they had originated. Needless to say, seeing these three musical institutions in one number was a thrill." (AD 92 provided the backup vocals, while the fabulous set design was by Gino Gonzales.)
This marks the first time this video will appear on either YouTube or a blog. If you like the video, help me thank, in your comments, Mr. Munoz and ABS-CBN for the privilege.
Two, I've an even bigger surprise in store for readers of this blog relating to "Rama at Sita." The musical, I've been told, will never be restaged again. But there are other ways of letting you in on the sights and sounds of this landmark piece of Philippine theater, and the producers of "Rama at Sita" are only too happy to share the magic. It'll be something exclusive to this corner, so stand by!
For now, do enjoy this teaser.
[video copyright © ABS-CBN; "Rama Hari" poster image from KuhLedesma.net]