Hear Direk Freddie Santos
Composer Louie Ocampo, a dear friend, called to say he wanted us to write a new song he would gift to his wife on their forthcoming wedding anniversary. His statement was simple: my only regret in life is not to have met you sooner in order to have loved you longer.
Call it shmarmy, I thought it was touching. And it was sooo Louie to think in those terms. His marriage to Jojo, former dancer and now top bank executive, has always been aglow with love. All their friends (and kids) will attest to this. So write the lyrics to the song, I did, and it was entitled To Love You Once Again. Louie surprised Jojo with it and I thought that was that.
Several months later, he called again, this time to tell me that a Filipino actor from Broadway, Jose Llana by name, was making a CD album and that Louie wanted him to record our song. Fine by me. I had never met this Jose fellow but I trusted Louie and next thing I know, To Love you Once Again was released as the album’s carrier single. This is how Jose recorded it:
Listen to Jose Llana
Louie told me later on he actually found Jose’s voice too tinny, and I suppose the public did, too, because the song didn’t become a hit. End of story. Well…not quite.
Months went by and a new mall, Market Market, was built on the southern edge of Manila. I had visited this place while it was under construction and on a night I was riding by, I saw that it had opened. I decided to take a look and as I approached the main entrance, I saw lots of draped and decorated cocktail tables both inside and outside the lobby. There was a buffet set-up on one side and several floral sprays by the door. It was the mall’s soft opening…and I was virtually gate-crashing.
Happily, I knew some of the executives from Ayala Malls (which runs the place) and I was instantly welcomed. This affair, meant for the tenants and advertisers, had a little program prepared. I was then introduced to the artist performing that night: Jose Llana.
Seems he was back. When he left a year before, it was to star in a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song with Lea Salonga. The show succeeded in the California try-outs but bombed on Broadway lasting no more than six months on the Great White Way. Jose’s producer in the States, Ernest Escaler, was also his manager in Manila and now Ernest had brought Jose back to do a big concert, at no less than the country’s largest ballroom, the Grand Ballroom of the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila.
I introduced myself to him as the one who wrote the lyrics to his carrier single, we chatted pleasantly enough and when he took to the stage, he pointed me out in the crowd before he sang the song. Charming, I thought, and called up Louie so he could hear Jose through my celphone. He sang okay, I left and thought that was the end of that. Again, I was wrong.
A week later, I decided to have dinner in Tagaytay City, a tourist enclave a couple of hours drive from Manila. Located in the mountains, this city is a dear favourite of many folks because of its cool weather and a popular hangout there was (and still is) Gourmet Cafe. Starting out as a one-hall diner, it later expanded into a restaurant and by the time of this story, had grown into a large two-storey house with function rooms and dining for over a hundred people.
It was located at the edge of a multi-hectare farm devoted to organically-grown vegetables and herbs which diners could easily buy by the bundles. It was also owned by Ernest Escaler (manager of Jose Llana).
The night I went, an acoustic group, Streamline, was performing (more on them in another blog). I thought they were terrific and hung out as long as I could, just enjoying myself. Then, next thing I knew, Streamline was asking people to come up and jam with them. First name they call? Jose Llana! Dude was several tables away seated with Ernest, I didn’t even realize it. And this time, I got hooked. This guy could really sing!
Later on, Streamline was brought to my table by their handler, Maricris Ramos, to be introduced to me. I knew Maricris because she sang back-up for several of my past concerts. Jose also joined us at the table. I was so thrilled with Streamline’s music I couldn’t stop talking. Gave them tips, suggested endless ideas, really yapped my head off. Well bred, the boys just nodded their heads and smiled.
I didn’t realize I was making some kind of impression on them, including Jose who was listening the whole time. Night ended, I went home, happy to bits at having “discovered” new, real talents. And I thought that was that. Hellooo!!
A few days later, Maricris called asking me if I would be interested in directing Jose’s ballroom concert, less than a month away! Barely knowing Jose, I was hesitant but he seemed excited at the idea and I took it from there.
My only guests would be Streamline, they seemed such cool dudes I was all game for that, and for a female touch, a vocal firecracker whom I had directed in several Trumpets productions a couple of years back and who had since made a name for herself on the concert stage, Bituin Escalante. Best of all, for Musical Director, I had the wonderful Mel Villena.
Streamline and Jose together, I had already seen and heard and I knew they had the makings of a strong musical “barkada” (gang). Bituin, on the other hand, was as showy a concert performer as could be imagined, R&B and soul and theatre lumped together, so I knew she and Jose would hit it off. (she was Michel Legrand’s guest singer during his Manila concert). As for Mel, he and I had worked together quite successfully on a number of shows in the past. On top of pop, he had a great feel for mainstream jazz and he could sit atop a big band sound like he was born in it. Considering Jose’s theatrical and New York background, I knew this would be a perfect musical match.
If anything, the one relationship I had doubts about was that between Jose and myself. I barely knew the guy and three weeks was not going to be enough time for me to explore his performance dimensions and write out a great script for him as well as direct him to bring about his best. So I did what I could. I revved it up.
Every chance I could get, I sat down with him…to talk, throw ideas, ask questions, gather opinions, voice out possibilities, and talk some more. We went through as much of his life as we could – from his family roots (Manila), growing up years (Springfield, Virginia), home meals (complete with Filipino condiments) to his schooling (Manhattan School of Music) , big Broadway breakthrough (at 20, he starred with Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I) , loves and passions (Music! Theater! Performance!), challenges (the Filipino language), political opinions (Go, Gay marriages!)…you name it, we went through it all.
And with every meeting, I realized more and more that I was working with a genuinely powerful talent…someone whose vocal capabilities were mighty and whose presence had an irresistible magnetism.
Neither did it hurt that he looked good, too.
Here’s an idea of how the show went.
1. Expect The Unexpected – From out of the blue…that saying is a cliché for one good reason: it just keeps on happening. Or at least, it seems like it does. How many projects have I diligently planned in as organized a manner as possible only to be surprised by a hiccup, a stumble or a twist? And yet, and I don’t even know why I’m stressing this, those projects turned out to be more successful than I could imagine.
2. Enjoy The Unexpected – When the unexpected does happen, embrace it. I have come to believe in the vitality of a Big Picture and there is nothing that comes your way that you will not be able to come to terms with. Jose Llana may have been a stranger to me, but concerts? That was VERY familiar ground so I simply started from there.
3. Do The Unexpected – In this case, I had to dig into the background of everyone to find out exactly what it is they had done before, what they were thinking of doing, and what would they not mind doing even if they hadn’t done it before? So I wrote a script that had Streamline act out scenes and have Jose talk about his fumbles and stumbles. I also directed him to perform like a pop star instead of a theatre artist. As usual, I overwrote the script so during the last two days prior to show, Jose and I were happily editing. Whatever was left behind, it was enough to bring the audience to its feet when Jose took his bows. Great experience, that.
N.B. I should add that whatever Bituin was wearing in the show, uh, that was my fault. On live it looked okay but I should have checked beforehand what it would look like on video. By the time she came out on stage, it was too late to change. Still kicking myself in the butt for it. Sorry, Bito. Mea maxima culpa.