Whenever people talk about Filipinos on Broadway, they usually think of Lea Salonga in her epoch-making role as Kim in Cameron Mackintosh’s Miss Saigon. But we ought to take pride in another countryman who has taken the Great White Way by storm. Indeed, Iloilo-born theatrical producer Jhett Tolentino has made waves both on and off Broadway numerous times, earning him many citations in the theatrical world, including two Tony Awards and this year’s Grammy Award for his run in The Colour Purple as Best Musical Theatre Album.
To date, Tolentino can easily boast a total of 13 awards, including two Lucille Lortel Awards and several citations from the Drama Desk, Drama League, and the Outer Critics Circle. In 2016, he came home to the Philippines to accept his award as one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) honoured by no less than President Rodrigo Duterte.
His initial claim to fame came in 2013 as part of the team that successfully transitioned the offbeat comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike from an off-Broadway favourite into a Broadway success.
“My Broadway debut was with Vanya… which starred Sigourney Weaver,” Tolentino recalls. “I first saw the play at the Lincoln Centre’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in November 2012 and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I am proud to say that we opened in March 2013 and won the Tony for Best Play in June of the same year.”
Tolentino’s success is a far cry from his childhood in an underprivileged district of Iloilo City.The youngest of four children, a life in theatre was the farthest thing from his mind while he was growing up. His primary goal was to help his family and give them a better life. He considered a degree in Tourism at the University of Iloilo, but opted instead for a bachelor’s degree in accountancy, leading to his first job as a general bookkeeper. He moved to the United States in 2002, taking on a diverse array of jobs to make ends meet, including babysitting and a stint as a nursing assistant.
“My humble beginnings drive me to achieve excellence in anything that I do,” he says staunchly. “Every time I get an award, I always think of it as recognition for having done a great job—but that was the past; the work is done. Time to push on, create, or look for the next big thing.”
He first got into the habit of watching plays as a way to relax when he moved to the East Coast in 2004. “Going to the theatre is part of being a New Yorker,” he explains. “I started going, but not religiously as it’s an expensive hobby. [Later,] I met fellow theatre-goers and we’d see shows together; then we’d have postshow discussions amongst ourselves at a bar or restaurant. I was very opinionated; most of them encouraged me to blog my reviews, so I did.”
By 2009, Tolentino was being invited to attend opening night performances as well as previews, workshops, readings, and even rehearsals. He met various professionals who worked on- and off-stage, some of whom he’d even panned in his blog. It was at this point in his life that he was made to face a challenge that he recognised as his opportunity to get into the industry himself.
“A few people advised me to check out producing; to put my money where my mouth is,” he says. “Well, I didn’t have that kind of money—and still don’t, really—but my boss at the time, who also read my blog, offered to partner with me. Between 2013 and 2015, we produced 12 Broadway productions and five off- Broadway shows; we have also won three Tony Awards and a Grammy.”
On With the Show
For Tolentino, producing is always a group effort. Everyone involved in staging a show contributes to its success.
His very first project was a theatrical adaptation of Chaim Potok’s 1972 Künstlerroman novel My Name is Asher Lev. “I chose to be part of the team because the material was so powerful,” he says. “It was about fighting and accepting who you are even if it goes against your beliefs.” The play won the Best New Off- Broadway Play Award from the Outer Critics Circle in 2013, beating 400 other productions. The rest, as the adage goes, is history.
For all his success, however, Tolentino admits that he still faces numerous challenges. Getting funding for mounting productions continues to be one of them, and here, he notes that his race and his relatively junior status in the industry are counted against him.
“As a young producer of colour, my experience is that most investors would rather go with producers they are comfortable with,” he says. “[But] I operate on my credibility. Knowing my background, that’s all I have. I travel a lot to network and introduce the investment opportunities to whomever is interested. No matter how tough, I just think of how much it means to represent us.”
This representation isn’t just about Tolentino touting the merits of a production to investors, but also his support for Filipino talents on the North American stage as well as presenting plays with a uniquely Filipino slant, a roster that includes Here Lies Love, a musical take on the life of former First Lady Imelda Marcos.
Today, Tolentino continues to move from strength to strength. The award-winning producer is now a member of the judging committee for the Tony Awards. He has also written the documentary, Life is What You Make It, chronicling his life from the slums of Iloilo to the Big Apple.
Yet, he is a paragon of humility, and cites his mother who, alas, did not live long enough to see his success, as an inspiration. Likewise, he encourages those seeking their way to the top to stay grounded and to have an open mind.
“Never look down on anyone; be inclusive,” he says. “At the end of the day, I measure success not by how much I have in the bank, or where I live, or what brands I use, but by the positive impact I have created for other people.”