BWW Interview: Menchu Lauchengco Yulo Talks Rodgers and Hammerstein, Her Career & More at San Beda College
Manila, Philippines--There was once this covert society on a mission. One known only to adoring fans and admiring colleagues whose simple oath of indoctrination states:
"We vow to do everything in our power to keep this sacred electoral committee of adoring fans and admiring colleagues a secret. Our main objective: to advance and advocate the "oh so many, many, many reasons why the title First Lady of Philippine Musical Theater should go to our very own Hepburn-esque theater stunner, Menchu Lauchengco Yulo."
Then again, any grain of truth to the Dan Brown-esque secret society above may only ring true for religious followers of fan fiction. But on the brighter side, the title is real, the accolades genuine, and Menchu - well, she's more real than most First Ladies can ever hope to be.
Menchu - Schoolmarm for an Afternoon
No amount of rehearsals and technical run-throughs can ever make a mere mortal braced enough--or ready enough--to receive the 10-volt shock when this writer realizes just how real the Menchu-magnetism is and how invigorating her natural charisma can get.
Menchu might as well be the poster girl for vintage Hollywood refinement--her sleek faded jeans and elbow-length sleeved white collared shirt seemingly engineered on purpose to subtly tone down her underrated magnetism. Giving out quick, loving kisses and hugs to millennial fans left and right, she makes her way onto the set of "Schmooze Sessions for the Scarlet Spotlight," the first in a series of annual educational talk shows produced for Theater Arts students of the Communication & Media Studies Department of San Beda College Alabang.
"I really don't remember," she says in a semi-frown, as she puts her memory to full jog cycle, recalling the details of when and how she first heard the lengthy title First Lady of Philippine Musical Theater attached to her equally lengthy seven-syllable name.
"I think it started when I did Jadis in the Trumpets production of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,' It was the first time I did a production outside of Repertory Philippines. This was in the '90s," she continues in a dimpled, girl-next-door grin.
The Girl Who Auditioned Alone--with a Reluctant 12-Year-Old Chaperone
Menchu, AKA Menchuly on Twitter, is a heavenly shoo-in for the most coveted of ingénue roles, and justifiably so, as she has taken on quite a number of the great ladies of theater throughout her career. Like most of the greats, with equally superfluous last names, Menchu never ceases to shock fans every time she confesses to never really intending on pursuing a career in theater. She then sends aftershocks when she further reveals that her very initiation into the world of the performing arts can be described best as a mere by-product of an adventurous, reluctant "tweener singer's" natural curiosity.
Just how reluctant was the tweener, you might ask?
"I wanted to be Luisa (in "Sound of Music") because Luisa didn't sing. I was a nervous wreck because I never asked for it!" she exclaims, her voice half-rising to an excited pitch as she injects a tidbit of history from her "Sound of Music" days as Leizl.
"I'm not going to sing onstage! I've never sang in my life!" she goes on, recalling her mental anguish upon realizing that the fancy-sounding word "auditioning" meant having to sing in front of a group of stern-looking adults whose primary role is to play jury to a young girl's yet to be tested singing pipes.
"I had no idea what I was thinking, I had no idea what an audition was! I thought it would be fun because I knew the movie ("King and I")," she says laughing, animatedly reliving the jitters that rocked her core that very first audition. An audition that would snowball into a wildly reciprocal, passionate love affair with the theater stage, spanning over four decades, with her gracefully filling out multiple job descriptions to wild critical recognition.
"This ("King and I") was the musical that got me into theater, remember this was the one I auditioned for and I didn't get in!" she perks up in bright-eyed embarrassment, sharing her debut into the musical world of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and how she practically had to drag younger brother Raymond Lauchengco (who was cast as Anna's son, Louis) to be her reluctant chaperone to that fateful audition.
"I went full circle when I finally played Anna in 2014," she continues.
"In February we leave for Singapore and we're going to do 'King and I' there until March," talking about 2016 and gushing on about how blessed serendipity always seems to manifest its wonders through the special, romantic connection she has with the timeless music of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
"In 'Sound of Music,' I started as Leizl then I went to Maria; In 'Sweeney Todd,' I started as Joanna in 1981 and then I went to Mrs. Lovett; In 'Into the Woods,' I started as the Witch then I became The Baker's Wife; In 'King and I,' I started as Tuptim then I played Anna, and now I'm going to do Lady Tiang when we take it to Singapore," going over a quick mental list of time-tested musicals that she has practically grown up in.
"You know you're old when you've done the same musical twice," she adds, laughing.
Introducing Rodgers and Hammerstein to the Millennials-Concert Style
There is an undeniable eloquence to the triage of firsts that are at the forefront of this ground-breaking production--the First Lady of Philippine Musical Theater directing the very first Philippine-produced Broadway musical concert adaptation from a legendary duo of musical theater innovators.
"They were pioneers," says Menchu, reflecting on how far ahead of their time Rodgers and Hammerstein were in terms of their collaborative works on musicals.
"Many composers like Sondheim were influenced by Hammerstein. In fact, Hammerstein was like a father to Sondheim. Their music and lyrics would capture era, emotion, location etc.," she continues.
"In 'South Pacific' for instance, you can almost hear the waves in the song 'Bali Hai'!" she shares excitedly.
"They were very brave about doing this show," she continues, making sure to point out how the themes that were considered controversially heavy when the classic musical first hit the spotlight over half a century ago are still the very same elements that make the show even more relevant today.
"It's really about racial discrimination," Menchu explains, "The song 'You've Got to be Taught' was almost removed when it was first staged in the '60s because of the text. But when they showed it to James Michener, whose book the musical was based on, he pointed out that that song was the essence of the show. So it stayed," she emphasizes.
"South Pacific in Concert" is presented as one of the highlights of Resorts World Manila's sixth anniversary and is expected to break down barriers of theatrical performances that are often set by limited-to-type casting requirements.
"If Filipino audiences enjoy this concept, it will open up doors to do musicals that are difficult to cast or stage, but we can still enjoy the music," she explains.
"It's definitely a challenge, a little more complex than a concert, yet it's not really the actual show," Menchu shares, "It's somewhere in-between," she adds.
Revelations, Roles and Inspired Reveries
Menchu has run the colorful gamut of perhaps the choicest roles for women leads in the musical theater industry--from Anna to Maria, to Fantine to Diana, Ellen to Evita--when asked what other roles she is itching to get her hands on, she wastes no breath launching into a quick rundown of more mature leading lady roles.
"I would love to do Mama Rose in Gypsy; I would love to do Norma Desmond, you know, age-appropriate roles," she reveals.
"I'm a Stephen Sondheim girl, so any Stephen Sondheim musical that comes up in Manila I've to be a part of because I'm a big fan," and for a brief moment you see a rare glimpse of Menchu in fangirl mode.
And what of Princess Ariel getting dual citizenship?
"I would love to translate [Mars Ravelo's] 'Dyesebel' into a 'Little Mermaid' version. I was actually toying around with that because of all these musicals coming up - 'What if we had a 'Little Mermaid' version in the Philippines and we called it 'Dyesebel'?' But I don't know how much work 'Dyesebel' is, I'd have to look into the comics and see," she excitedly reveals, and who are we question the possibilities? Given Menchu's immaculate track record of unplanned, uncharted success, it does makes one wonder how much bigger the results of these revelations can get, especially now that she is working on the blueprint.
"She's Me Pal" and No We're Not Talking Meryl Streep in 'Ironweed'
The huge projection screen behind Menchu flickers for a few seconds, a little later, an iPhone-framed video image appears onscreen, featuring one of the most recognizable faces--and voices-- in the local and international theater industry.
Lea Salonga who has been a close friend and admirer of Menchu's since the Tony Award-winning actress was eight years old was in her signature high spirits, gamely obliging BroadwayWorld.com's request for a special video message for the "awesome" Menchu.
Lea (who returns to Broadway this fall as Kei Kimura in "Allegiance," with co-stars George Takei and Telly Leung) launches into a surprisingly detailed, off-the-bat analysis of how Menchu expertly takes on multiple roles in the theater industry as a gifted actress and director.
"Her laughter is very hearty and generous. She's one of the funniest, nicest, most animated people I've the good fortune of knowing and I've known her a long time," Lea continues, going into colorful personal anecdotes that describe their friendship.
"Because she gives with her heart and because she has such a huge heart, all of that spills over into her work," she continues as an amused Menchu looks on.
"You guys watching, spending time with her, breathing the same air as her, you'd better consider yourselves incredibly fortunate because she's truly royalty in theater... All joking aside, she's definitely the First Lady of Philippine Musical Theater, and she is somebody looked up to, and she is someone beloved. Everyone that knows her, we all count our blessings that we know her," Lea adds in closing.
"Schmooze Sessions under the Scarlett Spotlight" was presented by the Theater Arts Org 2015 for the Communication and Media Studies Department of San Beda College Alabang, in cooperation with Theater Fans Manila, 96.3 EasyRock, California Pizza Kitchen, Alabang Town Center, Concertus Manila, Designer Blooms, St. Girard's Printing Press and BroadwayWorld.com.
"South Pacific in Concert" features Joanna Ampil (Nellie Forbush), Jon Meer Vera Perez (Emile de Becque), Mark Bautista (Lt. Joseph Cable), Ima Castro (Bloody Mary), Ana Andres (Liat), Michael Williams, Hans Eckstein, Cara Barredo, Caisa Borromeo, Giannina Ocampo, Kakki Teodoro, Red Nuestro, Red Concepcion and Raymund Concepcion.
"South Pacific in Concert" closes at Newport Performing Arts Theatre at Resorts World Manila today, September 19, at 8 p.m.