MANILA -- One could say it was only a matter of time.
The factors were all building up to it. The success of OPM-inspired musicals like the independently produced "Sa Wakas" and the Philippine Educational Theater Association’s "Rak of Aegis," inspired by the music of OPM rock bands Sugarfree and Aegis respectively, proved there is an audience hankering to see the soundtracks of their lives retold through the stage.
Both shows have been noted by media and reviewers as “landmark” productions, garnering awards and bridging theater and original Filipino music fans together. "Sa Wakas" witnessed its final run this year, while "Rak of Aegis" is slated for a sixth run beginning June 20.
Enter "Ang Huling El Bimbo," a musical inspired by the songs of the Eraserheads, perhaps the most successful band in Philippine music history. Since the ABBA spectacle "Mamma Mia!" made it big on Broadway, doing a Pinoy spin to it out of the most beloved songs of the '90s have been brewing in people’s minds. The question is: who will have the guts to actually write and produce this ambitious undertaking—and risk offending or disappointing a very devoted fandom?
Enter Dingdong Novenario.
Novenario has been an Eraserheads fan since high school. And musical theater was always his first love.
By day, he is an IT expert at the local branch of an international tech company. Despite graduating from the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering, the stage called to him on numerous occasions, and he answered back every time.
He started out as an actor, but also wrote one-act plays, specifically for the annual Virgin Labfest. One such work, "Kafatiran," is set in the Philippine Revolution and is a commentary on national memory. The acclaim it got granted him larger projects for the CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute.
This path eventually led him to producers Christine and Mark Manalang, who are known for adapting the productions "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Annie" locally, and creating theater pieces out of "Noli Me Tangere" and the komiks drama "Bituin Walang Ningning." The couple asked Novenario to pen his first full-length play. Which just happens to be a musical, too.
The play is not exactly based on what the song sings about: the narrative of a young boy’s love for the girl who taught him how to dance, and how this love persisted well beyond the girl’s tragic and unexpected death. Novenario’s narrative centers around a group of friends as they grow up in a transitory period of technology: their childhood happening in an era long before social media, their adulthood taking place in the age of public status updates.
The playwright acknowledges the cross-generational elements in the band’s music. Scrolling through social media, he sees a mix of old and new fans talking about the Eraserheads, some with nostalgia, others with newfound appreciation, fans approaching middle age and fans just breaking into the world of adulthood. “A lot of their songs are about growing up, realizations [while] growing up.” For Novenario, these themes make the weight of the musical’s story.
He acknowledges the good fortune of being tapped to write the play. “I hope I do the band justice.”
How did he manage to squeeze in the writing into his full-time IT work? The Manalangs were “makulit in a good way,” Novenario confesses. Novenario made it a point to devote time to writing.
Deadlines helped too, and the fact that he is a big Eraserheads fan and did not want to botch such a project. Dexter Santos’s entry as director also opened a creative dialogue with the writer, adding new sensibilities and tones to the story.
The play has undergone drastic changes since its first iteration in 2016. The challenge, Novenario shares, was to create a story that could incorporate the songs without sounding contrived. Musicals are a challenging genre to write, to begin with. But that he didn’t have to write the songs anymore made the work easier, but not by much. The first version of the story was quite different from what it is today: occurring in a fantastical setting with elements of portals and magic.
The musical boasts of a whopping 30 to 40 Eraserheads songs in its narrative. Some are adapted as back-and-forth dialogues between characters, the popular ones are full-blown production numbers, and the more obscure tracks are mixed and mashed up. Suffice to say there’s a lot of Easter eggs for devoted fans.
“Someone’s gotta do it, so might as well,” says Novenario about this weight of taking on the most loved Filipino rock band of all time. “People have been looking for it. I’m just lucky enough to do it. Kung di niyo magustuhan, gawa kayo ulit, produce kayo ulit.”
"Ang Huling El Bimbo" premieres July 20 at the Newport Performing Arts Theater, Resorts World Manila. -- With additional reports by Marie Francia