Thursday, November 11, 2010

Vincent De Jesus writes DragonTales, a new Asian musical

MANILA, Philippines--Vincent De Jesus seems to have perfected the art of multi-tasking. In between hosting a television game show, scoring movies and soaps, this prolific composer, librettist, musical scorer and musical director for theater, television and film manages to compose/arrange and co-write an original English musical about mythical Asian dragons.

The production, titled “DragonTales,” started out as a dream project of a group of Singaporean producers who wanted to develop and produce an original musical for the Asian market. Their partner from Manila, Jack Yabut, introduced a network of theater artists from PETA (including De Jesus) and other artists from various theater companies--and what was originally a Singaporean production later became a collaboration between Singaporean and Filipino artists.

As the co-writer, composer, arranger, musical director and lyricist of the production, De Jesus was given the huge task of combining Asian-inspired musical motifs, Filipino musical theater aesthetics and contemporary pop-jazz progressions that would reflect the over-all sense of the play.

“For the past 27 years, I mostly did original Filipino plays. Writing the libretto and composing the music for an all-original Asian-inspired English musical is something very refreshing... and extremely challenging,” he says.

“'DragonTales' is an original musical. Naturally it’s a work in progress. The process was difficult at first but, just like always, I found myself I falling in love with the material. As part of the creative team, you have to fall in love with the material. You have to be a stakeholder; otherwise you’ll end up doing it just because you have to. And there’s no fun in doing things half-heartedly, much more doing it just for the money.”

Although it is not his first time to work with different nationalities with varying cultures, De Jesus is happy at “healthy exchange of ideas” that emerged. “We found ways to agree, compromise and innovate... to never stop pushing the envelope. We are always brutally honest. And we laugh a lot. It’s important to have fun while creating,” he says.

Working with Singaporean artists, director Jeremiah Choy as well as choreographer and actor Gani Karim, allowed De Jesus to appreciate the different ideas and points of view exchanged during production meetings and rehearsals. He adds, “Our differences make things much more interesting. I love diversity. It would be a boring world if everyone was the same.”

But the real challenge for him was to create an Asian-inspired musical that somehow blurs the lines of typical identification as a Filipino, Singaporean, Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai or Chinese work, and to be able to interlace these rich and varied Asian cultures into one.

“When one hears the term Asian-inspired musical, one would probably expect to hear a sitar, a kubing or the gamelan in the musical arrangements. Instead, I used the piano to simulate the percussive quality of the gamelan and the pizzicato cello as a substitute for bamboo kulitong. I used the violin a lot because it sounds like the soft wailing of the summer wind. I tried to see instruments not for the names they were called but for the sounds they produced, the emotion they represented.”

De Jesus had to bear in mind that “DragonTales” will be touring around Asia, in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. “This play is a great vehicle to unearth the true Asian values amidst globalization--self-sacrifice, moderation, word of honor, dignity, humility, love for family, and resilience.”

As the musical’s composer, it has also been a challenge to have a balance of grandness and tranquility to give the play a feel of introspection. “Jeremiah doesn’t want it to sound ‘only’ Asian or ‘very’ Western. He wanted to capture the essence of Asia while utilizing instruments in an orchestra. It’s an interesting take and I was immediately convinced.”

To arrive at this, De Jesus explored timeless Filipino kundiman melodic progressions and combined Western and Eastern influences to come up with a unique flavor that would surely make audiences recall the tunes and themes used throughout the play.

He says, “Mark Twain once said that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet, but in this musical we will try to incorporate and harness what the West has to offer--lush orchestration and rich vocal harmony combined with Asia’s seemingly simple yet complex musicality.”

De Jesus also made sure the music is more introspective rather than fill it with musical gimmickry. “'DragonTales' is not your typical loud production, heavy on dance numbers and showstoppers. It is not about being presentational, or should we say grand but cold, but more inward-looking. It’s very honest. There is truth behind the songs. For what is a song without truth? It’s like a person without a soul. ”

“DragonTales” will run only for two weeks in the Philippines, but De Jesus is hopeful that people will support this groundbreaking project as well as other original Filipino and Asian musicals in general.

“It is not in our culture to buy freshly cut flowers to put in our living rooms everyday. Filipinos would rather buy artificial flowers. But nothing beats real flowers. That is how I would describe the theater. It’s real, it’s alive. Live musical theater is probably the most magical experience an audience can ever have.”

“DragonTales” is showing at the PETA Theater Center on the following dates: November 27, 28, December 4 and 5 at 10:00am, November 26, 27, 28, December 3, 4, and 5 at 3:00pm, November 26 and December 3 at 7:30 p.m. For advance reservations and bookings, contact “DragonTales” Marketing at (63-2) 881-0984, 0917-5562718 or 0915-2957550 or

[Text by Darcy Esguerra]

PLUS: Spilling the Vince--our 2007 podcast with the ZsaZsa Zaturnnah composer-lyricist-musical director-actor, on how he came up with the score, plus his struggles as a theater artist, getting bamboozled by certain show-biz people, working with Mother Lily, how he snagged his bebe, and so much more. Priceless interview.

Part 1 is here, part 2 here. Don't laugh too hard, baka makabag!

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