Nanette Inventor pursues a lifelong dream.
WORDS POLA ESGUERRA DEL MONTE | PHOTOGRAPHY EDRIC CHEN
Trumpets sounded as the London Symphony Choir blasted from portable speakers connected to a CD player. As if on cue, a pajama-wearing Nanette Inventor burst into the room, joining the invisible chorus — her rich alto voice penetrating every corner of an air-conditioned basement one summer morning in June. She was vocalizing for a show later that night.
To most Filipinos, her name is Nanette Inventor: the veteran comedian and actress who breathed life into Doña Leonila Evaporada Viuda de Ford or Doña Buding, the gauche nouveau riche character on the she made famous on the 1980s Sunday show Penthouse Live. Three decades later, the Snapchat-ogling set recognizes her as James Reid’s loving grandma, Lola Pachang. Yuppies, meanwhile, know her as Nanay Edith, who served as both comic relief and source of wisdom for Popoy and Basha in the 2007 drama One More Chance. Occasionally, on YouTube, she is the viral Nanette Nafoolish, Vagigi Reyes and Leila Dilemma, or at least until the hot topic stays on the trending list. But before anything else, she is Agnes Inventor. And Agnes Inventor has always, always loved to sing.
Before showbiz stardom, Ms. Inventor was an alto member of the University of the Philippines Concert Chorus (UPCC), going on tour in the United States and Europe with batches 1974 and 1978, performing a repertoire of classical, pop and Broadway, accompanied by theatrical choreography. She continued singing after graduation, moonlighting as a professional backup singer for Basil Valdez, Celeste Legaspi, and Leah Navarro, under the tutelage of Ryan Cayabyab. That’s how she was discovered by director Fritz Ynfante.
Upon being recommended by actress Tessie Tomas, a 28-year-old Nanette auditioned for the role of Doña Buding when Cynthia Patag, the first choice, figured in an accident.
The rest is history. Although she continued singing — interpreting “Salamat, Salamat Musika,” which won the grand prize at the 7th Metro Manila Popular Musical Festival; and becoming the first Filipina to sing at the prestigious Carnegie Hall, alongside the APO Hiking Society — it was her humor that always stuck. In her solo stand-up acts, Ms. Inventor married her comedy with music, earning her the title “The Funny Lady of Songs.”
When UPCC celebrated its golden anniversary in 2012, she counted herself in the US leg of the tour, joining a group of teens and 20-somethings through 36-hour interstate Greyhound bus rides, midnight flights, and endless road trips to daily concerts for three months. She joined the choir again for this year for its Tour of the Americas, starting in New York in June and concluding in Florida in July. Though she could easily check-in a five-star hotel or hire a private chauffeur, she insisted on staying in the same host houses as the rest of the choir members, breathing the same air and eating the same food that they did, treating them to burgers and pizzas: her ritual after a show.
“This,” she said, after introducing the UPCC to rapturous applause at its first show in New York, “was my first taste of showbiz.”
The night before the concert, “Tita Nanette,” as she lets junior choir members call her, was the last to sleep. She was finishing her script under the light of a single lamp, polishing her punchlines until 3 a.m. It’s all part of her rigorous approach to performing. Vocalization for a 7 p.m. show begins right after breakfast. Her CDs of spiritual and classical music play endlessly in the background as she sings and reviews her script. Having been trained in classical singing, she is a firm believer that the classical placement is best for the voice — probably the reason why she can still sing after all these years. And while she is fond of joking around, vocal health is a serious matter.
Joking, meanwhile, is natural. “I was born doing it,” she says. “In my family, I grew up having lunch or dinner during Sunday. We’re all there at the table. My late dad, a judge; and my mom, an ex-teacher. They’re both self-made and didn’t spend on education because they finished studies without paying for tuition because siguro matalino sila,” she continued, as if suggesting that the two were potentially sharp critics. “Every lunch time or dinner time, tuwing Sunday, matirang matibay, magtawanan tayo. Oh yeah! Pero it so happens lagi ako nananalo. So nasanay ako sa mga joke na yan. It’s just there na.”
She has a bunch of “minus one” accompaniment CDs, whose songs she alternates depending on the audience and depending on her mood. For this tour, she usually opened with the 1936 Benny Goodman hit “The Glory of Love,” complete with choreography and gags.
“They say love is sweeter the second time around,” she would begin during the instrumental. “I say, love is sweeter when your husband is not around!” At this point, Ms. Inventor would have the audience under her spell. And under her spell she would keep them, through a sequence of spiels and songs: a setlist of rhythm and blues, ballads, and OPM hits. One of her more popular numbers is her own composition. “ABAKADA” is a medley of word association, a portion of which goes:
“A! Ang pasko ay sumapit / Ba! Bagong taon ay magbagong buhay / Ka! …hit hindi pasko ay magbigayan / Da! Dashing through the snow / E! En a one-horse open sleigh…”
She claims the idea came to her one night, while she was staring at the ceiling. Ordinary people stare at the ceiling and count imaginary sheep. Nanette Inventor, clearly, is not an ordinary person.
At the Philippine Independence Day Parade in New York, a big celebration that gathers more than 100,000 people on Madison Avenue, young Filipino celebrities were all kept away from nosy fans by bodyguards the size of John Cena. Meanwhile, the veteran actress Ms. Inventor walked with the UPCC toward the Flatiron Building, carrying her costumes (“I am not a matinee idol”). And despite going more than 24 hours without sleep because of jet lag, she greeted the Filipino fans she met along the way, fulfilling every single request for a photo even if it kept her from catching a quick nap.
A month after the UPCC tour in the United States, Ms. Inventor back to her daily grind, shooting teleseryes on weekdays and singing in her church choir on Sundays. A new chapter in her life as a performer is also about to unfold with a singing stint with the AMP Big Band. “It has always been my dream and it is going to be fulfilled though it took a long time,” she said. “I have been very patient.” She’s waited 33 years to give “serious” singing a shot.
A concert with the jazz band Asosasyon ng Musikong Pilipino — or AMP Big Band — led by Mel Villena is her new project. Unlike her previous spiel-song-spiel gigs, the concert will consist entirely of songs, though she is aware that she probably won’t be able to keep herself from cracking a joke or two. “Force of habit,” she says. “I am so excited and I am so nervous,” she continues, barely catching her breath. “I’m very, very sure they will leave me be. I may still give a punchline in the middle of my singing as long as I feel great.”
The concert, she added, is a culmination of everything that she has gone through in her career — singer, comedian, actress. It is to comedy that she owes her fame. Being a comedian gave her a name — it has endeared her to the masses. Acting has given her a chance to experiment with different roles. Touring with a choir exposed her to a different audiences. She’s ready for the casino-going crowds. They’ll need a lot of laughter, she quips, “especially when they’ve lost.”
Her setlist is coming together. “Waray waray hindi tatakas,” she sings. “Waray waray… waray ka na pera, Dong.” She will also be pulling songs by Frank Sinatra and a Nat King Cole.
American singer and comedian Bette Midler, who slayed the same kinds of audiences in her shows in Las Vegas, is an inspiration. “But it is not copying her or anything,” Ms. Inventor quickly adds. “Bette Midler jokes, then sings seriously, then jokes. For me, it’s sing, joke in between, not really sing seriously, sing seriously, then joke inside the song, one serious number wherein I will not joke at all — those really very quiet songs.”
Singer, comedian — which label does she prefer? “I cannot choose. Everything should be there. When I perform, everything will be there,” she replies. “Well, the reason I’m probably still here, doing comedy for 33 years is because for you to have good comedy, you have to have very good rhythm,” she says, “And that requires music, a musical mind. It requires a certain kind of rhythm when you do comedy. You go to the punchline, there’s timing they say, and you cannot exist in music without the proper time. Just like comedy.”
The writer, an alumna of the University of the Philippines Concert Chorus, was Ms. Inventor’s roommate on the choir’s recent tour.
Catch Nanette Inventor and other veteran entertainers in “Forever Young,” a fund-raising for the benefit of colleagues in the industry who are in financial crisis, on Oct. 7 at the SM Cinema Theater. The fulfilment of a dream, Ms. Inventor’s concert with the AMP Big Band will be on Oct. 19 at the Eclipse Lounge of Solaire Resort and Casino. For updates, follow her on Facebook: /donyabudazz.