Rep’s “A Christmas Carol” is but the latest chapter in the uniquely intertwined careers of Audie Gemora and Michael Williams
IT’S NOT FARFETCHED TO believe that Audie Gemora and Michael Williams--fast friends, theater colleagues and alternating Scrooges in Rep’s forthcoming musical “A Christmas Carol”--shared the same DNA in a past life.
Their careers on stage are a good gauge. Consider: Gemora joined Repertory Philippines in 1978 in “A Chorus Line.” From there, he quickly established himself as one of the company’s fresh “triple threats”--actors who could sing, dance and act, and be dependable mainstays in season after season of Rep’s trademark musical comedies and light dramas.
By the time Michael Williams joined Rep in 1984, with a small part in “Woman of the Year,” Gemora had gone to New York for a breather.
The following year, Rep restaged “A Chorus Line.” Williams was part of the cast, and, as Gemora remembers it, he got letters from colleagues about this new kid he didn’t know “who reminds them so much of me.”
Williams himself recalls, “When I was rehearsing ‘A Chorus Line,’ Menchu (Lauchengco-Yulo) and Juno (Henares) were laughing and telling me I was like Audie!”
When Gemora came back and resumed his Rep career, he and Williams would be thrown together in a few plays, though never in the same role.
Then, in 1988, together with co-actors Nonie Buencamino and Gina Wilson, the two did something unthinkable: They leapt fences and joined Nonon Padilla’s production of “Florante at Laura” for CCP’s resident theater company, Tanghalang Pilipino.
This was still a time when local theater companies were enclaves unto themselves, each grimly territorial of its own niche in a very small industry.
Rep had its own audience, repertoire and actors—all quite distinct from those of Peta, TP, Gantimpala Theater or Rolando Tinio’s Teatro Filipino. Crossing over from one company to the other wasn’t only highly unusual, it was frowned upon.
Gemora and Williams’ audacious move earned them the ire of the late Bibot Amador, Rep’s legendary founder and artistic director. After “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Gemora would not act in a Rep production again until his return to the fold as Inspector Javert in “Les Miserables” in 1993.
His alternate in the role: Michael Williams.
It was the first time for the two actors to share a role, and it came by accident. Gemora had reached rapprochement with Rep by saying yes to doing Javert. But since he was touring Japan that year as Simoun in Ryan Cayabyab’s musical version of “El Filibusterismo,” again under TP and Padilla, he couldn’t do the run full-time.
He urged Williams, back in the country after “Miss Saigon” in London, to alternate with him. The role called for a bass-baritone--Gemora’s range. Williams, a lyric tenor (he’s now a high baritone), was hesitant, but Gemora was sure he could do it.
These days, more people remember Williams’ triumphant turn in that “Les Mis.” It wasn’t for lack of trying on Gemora’s part. He was able to perform the role when he came back, but barely. “Nagka-dengue ako, so Michael did most of the run,” he recalls.
From “Les Mis,” it became almost axiomatic for Rep to turn to the two actors when it needed heavy-hitters to share male musical parts.
There was Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” (1996); Don Quixote/Alonzo Quijana in “Man of La Mancha” (2005); Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” (2006); and now Scrooge in “The Christmas Carol” (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens), which opens Nov. 14 at Onstage Greenbelt 1.
Despite the inevitable comparisons arising from such tight association, Williams and Gemora say they aren’t bothered.
“We’ve paid our dues; people know who we are by now,” says Gemora. “We don’t have to ‘prove’ ourselves anymore, so there’s really no competition between us.”
Through years of familiarity with each other’s skills and habits, they’ve arrived at a mutually helpful working style in rehearsals--essentially filling in for each other whenever one can’t make it. They don’t even consciously try to make each other’s interpretation different.
“Why reinvent the wheel?” says Williams. “If he’s doing something good and truthful, why veer away from that just to be different?”
“Besides,” says Gemora, “Tita Baby [Barredo, Rep’s artistic director and ‘A Christmas Carol’ director] tells us, You will never attack the role the same way, because you’re two different people.”
As to why they seem to have become each other’s doppelganger onstage, “I think it’s because we’re two of the most senior actors around,” he adds. “We’re the most experienced, at least in musical theater. We have roughly the same background.”
Even their offstage preoccupations appear to run on parallel tracks. Both have found fulfillment in sharing their skills with a younger generation of theater aspirants.
Gemora’s years away from Rep allowed him the time to form his own theater company, Trumpets, which staged the original musicals “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “The Little Mermaid.” Now he’s running a talent management firm, Stages, which also mounts musicals now and then (“High School Musical” in 2007; the recent “West Side Story” this year).
Williams, meanwhile, aside from work in non-Rep productions like New Voice Company’s “Into the Woods” and the Philippine Opera Company’s “Master Class” (he directed both the 2006 and 2008 stagings), is at the helm of a new community theater initiative in the Alabang area called Theater Down South.
“It’s a different joy that I feel teaching kids,” says Williams. “This year alone, I handled some 200 children!”
Gemora agrees. “At this point, I also find more joy training kids. And in giving somebody like Menchu her break as a director [in ‘West Side Story’], rather than just hogging the limelight.”
So what makes them decide to leave all that and act again?
“Because Tita Baby asked me, and it’s always like a coming home for me,” says Gemora. “We have a very young cast in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and I think she puts veterans like us there so these kids can learn from us.”
“Going back is giving back,” agrees Williams.
Sounds like they’re not quitting the stage--or their long-running face-off--any time soon. High-five, brother.
Rep’s “A Christmas Carol” runs Nov. 14-Dec. 14 at Onstage Greenbelt 1, Ayala Malls, Makati City. Call 8870710 or 8919999 for ticket inquiries.
[Photos: Jojit Lorenzo]