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'10 and 10' with Gerald Santos and Composer-Director Rommel Ramilo

2020 Aliw and BWW Philippines awardees Santos and Ramilo talk Miss Saigon, the pandemic, awards, movies, virtual shows, and a new original Filipino musical in the works.

'10 and 10' with Gerald Santos and Composer-Director Rommel Ramilo
Rommel Ramilo and Gerald Santos

Manila, Philippines - We recently sat down with "Miss Saigon" alum Gerald Santos and his award-winning composer-writer-director-manager Rommel Ramilo to talk about their wins at the 2020 Aliw and BWW Philippines Awards, recent and upcoming works, finding the creative oasis and breaking new grounds on the virtual platform, and more. Dubbed '10 and 10,' here are the excerpts of the conversations that focus on 10 questions that matter to each of them.

10 with Gerald Santos

Vince Vicentuan: After your stint in the UK and international touring production of "Miss Saigon" as Thuy, how has your career been?

Gerald Santos: I'm thrilled and thankful that projects poured in left and right after my UK stint, and I haven't stopped working since. I had my homecoming concert, I did "Sweeney Todd" here in [Manila at] Solaire and in Singapore, had a concert at the Resorts World Manila before the end of 2019, and then [in] 2020, I did a short rerun of "San Pedro Calungsod" [The Musical], which we're very fortunate to have finished before the nation-wide lockdown was implemented. Even during the lockdown, I got to do [the] virtual concert "The Great Shift."

VV: How has your experience in "Miss Saigon" helped you transition back to the singing career you once left in the Philippines?

GS: I would say that I [was] fortunate my transition back here in the Philippines went smoothly. We know how big 'Miss Saigon' is here in the country, so it opened a lot of doors and windows of opportunities for me. But not vocally, though. It's still a challenge for me to this day to transition back to my original singing style (ballads, melodic singing) because of doing Thuy for two years. I guess it's only natural for our body or even our vocal chord to adapt to what it is required to do. I'm sure months from now, I'll be able to get my voice back to its original shape. I need to form new muscle memories for it.

'10 and 10' with Gerald Santos and Composer-Director Rommel Ramilo
Gerald Santos plays Thuy in 'Miss Saigon' UK.

VV: You have been an independent artist for quite some time now. How's the life of an independent artist?

GS: The life of an indie artist is fulfilling but at the same time challenging. I've been an independent artist for 11 years now. I'm proud that I went this route because if not, I wouldn't [have been] able to get the opportunities I got these past few years, especially the" Miss Saigon" stint! I'm grateful that I have a solid team to support me and make things somehow manageable despite the struggles along the way.

VV: You have won several awards this year from Aliw and BroadwayWorld Philippines for "San Pedro Calungsod: The Musical" and your first-ever virtual concert, "The Great Shift." How important are these awards to you as an independent artist?

GS: Those awards - Aliw: Best Musical Rerun (Calungsod), Best Major Concert Male, Best Online Performer (The Great Shift), and Entertainer of the Year; BWW: Performer of the Decade - are priceless. [They're] the fruit of my and my team's labor! As an independent artist, you sometimes, actually, most of the time, don't get paid well, or the monetary aspect is set aside, forgetting that you still have yourself and your family to feed (laughs). So those awards are very good compensation for a year's hard work! [These are] an affirmation and recognition that you matter, that you are doing a great job.

VV: You had collaborated with your manager Rommel Ramilo for the music of "Calungsod." How was the process of writing music and also performing your own material on stage?

GS: The process of composing a song for me has always been fun. With "Calungsod," it was a big challenge because I never thought [that] I would be composing for a musical! But that was the perfect opportunity for me to let out the Disney geek in me (laughs). Disney music has always been an inspiration for me, and [Calungsod] was intended for elementary and high school students, so I think it's the perfect feel and vibe of music to put onto those lyrics.

VV: It seems like the pandemic has brought you some great blessings. Tell us about the movie project you are making.

GS: I'm doing "Mamasapano." [In] "Mamasapano," I play the role of Christopher Lalan, the lone survivor [in the] SAF 44 [massacre]. I'm just grateful to Borracho Film Productions for entrusting me with this role. It's such an honor.

'10 and 10' with Gerald Santos and Composer-Director Rommel Ramilo
Paulina Yeung and Gerald Santos in "I WILL: The
Musical"

VV: You have a new musical in the works. What's your participation in this new musical?

GS: Yes! It's "I WILL: The Musical." It's about the life of Doc Willie Ong, a famous and inspiring Filipino social media doctor who has devoted his life and profession to serving the poor via his YouTube channel. I will play the young Doc Willie in the musical.

VV: Can you tell us more about this new musical and this role?

GS: The play will tackle depression, mental health, bullying, and even our current situation with the pandemic. It's also a tribute to all our frontliners. It's a timely musical to stage in this time of crisis. What makes it even more exciting is that it's a reunion of sorts for me and two of my "Sweeney Todd" (Manila and Singapore) co-stars! Director Rommel, I understand, will talk more about that later. I don't want to steal the thunder from him (laughs).

VV: You seem to be playing the roles of men with great faith. What do you want to tell audiences with these roles?

GS: I want to inspire audiences by essaying these roles. And I hope I have been giving justice to them so that [these roles] would somehow radiate off stage and inspire all the people that will see and watch [these shows].

VV: How important is faith in this time of the pandemic?

GS: Faith is the only thing we can hold on to nowadays. We are clueless about what's going to happen next. That can overwhelm us sometimes. But faith gives us confidence that everything will be all right. We are fighting an invisible entity. Faith is our strongest weapon. The pandemic has made us realize a lot of things: [One of them is] that money is nothing without your relationship with God and your family. Money cannot buy you your life if you get afflicted with coronavirus.

'10 and 10' with Gerald Santos and Composer-Director Rommel Ramilo
The cast of 'San Pedro Calungsod, The Musical'

10 with Rommel Ramilo

VV: Your very own group Prinstar Music Philippines was quite successful in last year's award-giving bodies. What does this mean to you?

Rommel Ramilo: It means [that] we are on the right track! Producing and creating quality shows quenches our artistic thirst, especially in the time of the pandemic. These awards are both validation and encouragement to continue what we are doing. I feel truly honored and blessed to be awarded the BWW Stage Director of the Decade and the Aliw Best Musical Rerun this year for my work in Calungsod. I feel like a David amid the Goliaths.

VV: How do you manage your time being Gerald's manager while writing, composing, and directing original musicals?

RR: I really don't know. But when you are passionate about every task that you do, everything becomes enjoyable somehow. I think [that] I have mastered the art of multi-tasking.

VV: How do you see Philippine independent theater groups with little financial support in the next 10 years?

RR: Independent theater groups will not only survive [but] they will also thrive! Innovative ideas usually come from these independent groups, not because they intend to, but because they have to. Do not ever underestimate the indie spirit. It is the theater's lifeline.

'10 and 10' with Gerald Santos and Composer-Director Rommel Ramilo
Ramilo rehearses the cast of 'San Pedro Calungsod,
The Musical.'

VV: The pandemic seems to have worked in your favor with a new original musical you're currently writing, composing, and directing. How was the creative process like, given the limitations of the times?

RR: This pandemic has given me so much latitude in terms of my creative process. I am enjoying every minute of it. This pandemic has given me the perfect backdrop to accomplish a big thing, which I could not have done [somehow] under normal circumstances.

VV: How does "I WILL: The Musical" differ from Calungsod as far as plot and score are concerned?

RR: The plots are different from each other though both are biopic musicals. But it's much easier to do something like "Calungsod," where the characters are just reimagined. The artistic license is much broader. When you are doing a musical about a living person, you are limited within the boundaries of facts provided by your subject itself. How do you make it a viable material for a musical that will appeal to a wide audience is the greatest challenge [in creating] a musical about an iconic, living person.

Regarding the scores, I think [that] I have matured in this aspect. The score for "I WILL" is more focused, intertwined, more recurring, and melodic. "Calungsod" was my first venture into musicals, and I believe I was still groping in the dark in terms of [its] score.

VV: It was previously announced the musical would be filmed and streamed online. Your previous virtual work "Gerald Santos: The Great Shift'" concert was also honored at the Aliw and BWW Philippines Awards just recently. I think we should start calling you now the "virtual entertainment producer-director of the decade." What can you say about this new entertainment platform?

RR: Wow! I would love to be remembered as such (laughs out loud)! Seriously, the present online platform is extremely challenging. First, our country does not have the strongest internet signal on earth. Second, most Filipinos are both unfamiliar and very impatient when it comes to purchasing tickets online. Third, our people would rather spend their 500 pesos on buying the essentials like food. Fourth, very few risk-takers would produce quality shows. They are bound to lose more money as producers if they want visually enticing shows. We, as entertainers, have very limited options. It's either swim or sink; adapt or die, evolve or get extinct.

VV: Tell us more about your latest musical.

'10 and 10' with Gerald Santos and Composer-Director Rommel Ramilo
Santos, Ima Castro, Jett Pangan, and
Robert Sena lead the cast of
"I WILL: The Musical."

RR: "I WILL: The Musical" is about the inspiring story of a great social media influencer who has guided many Filipinos on their medical concerns. Doc Willie Ong is your larger-than-life character, and yet [he's] so real and within our reach. [The musical] tells how he overcame the many challenges in his life and used them to achieve his lifelong mission: serving the people. It also tells the beautiful love story between Doc Willie and his wife, Dr. Liza Ong. I think this is the first time that a musical will focus on our healthcare workers. It's a tribute to [them]! Also, we have theater veterans in the cast: Robert Sena, Jett Pangan, Ima Castro, Paulina Yeung, and some of the country's exciting young talents. It's a dream cast for me, and I am very excited to work with this bunch of world-class talents!

VV: Will we be seeing more and bigger work from you and your team in the years to come?

RR: Yes! I have one epic material in [the] can, but I would [rather] talk about it after "I WILL: The Musical." I also have [another] upcoming original musical, which I am also excited about. It will be my first musical in Filipino [language].

VV: With the kind of work and challenges you have as an independent producer-director, what do you want audiences to remember you for?

RR: I want to be remembered for my works: heartwarming and straightforward. I have this penchant [for] simplifying things so that the ordinary mind would understand [them]. I am an advocate of the "the simpler, the better" school of thought. I am a straightforward storyteller. While I do use a lot of symbolism, parallelism, and other creative tools in my storytelling, I digest the story into its tiniest bits, discard the non-essentials, and keep the core so I can translate it [into] its simplest form. That way, people would understand my story better.

VV: What will you tell producers and artists battling all kinds of difficulties in the present time?

RR: Keep on creating! Keep on producing! This, too, shall pass!

Photos: Japs Ramiscal, "Miss Saigon" UK, ALW Film Production, Erickson Dela Cruz, Oliver Oliveros


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