Of stages and screens

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“It takes a lot of heart and integrity to be a singer. It must be rough to be compared to somebody who just got in the business and is forced to sing.” – Nanette Inventor, who was paid to “ghost-sing” for another actor.


On a rain-soaked night in July, Lea Salonga held the attention of a crowd that packed the Rigodon Ballroom of The Peninsula Manila. The event, a dinner honoring a watch she designed for Philip Stein was intimate considering that Ms. Salonga has, in the past, filled up Carnegie Hall’s main auditorium, a 2,804-seat theater in New York. She’s performed on Broadway and the West End, at the O2 arena in London, and now, she’s on your television screen every Saturday and Sunday as a mentor on The Voice Philippines, a reality singing competition. The same week she performed in The Peninsula Manila, Ms. Salonga’s digitally restored and remastered 1995 movie Sana Maulit Muli hit the big screen again.

“On screen, you’re basically in close-up for a lot of it” she said. “In a movie theater, you’re 40 feet tall. Your face, from chin to forehead, is about 30-something feet. Every single thought that passes through your mind is captured by the camera. Whereas on stage, to the farthest one, you’re not even a Barbie doll.” 

When it comes to singing, Ms. Salonga uses the techniques she learned in theater whether she’s on stage or on screen. “Everything is locked in a certain way so that when a note comes out, it comes out buttressed and perfectly strong and supported—but the sound is different,” she explained. “The classical sound has a different tone to it. The pop sound has a different tone to it. But the cushioning is the same—so that I don’t die and survive eight shows a week.”

She offered Lady Gaga as an example of a pop star with classical roots. In preparation for her now-famous Oscars performance, where she sang songs from The Sound of Music, Gaga trained rigorously for six months. “This woman is the real thing. She’s definitely an artist,” Ms. Salonga said.   

A few weeks later, Ms. Salonga turned to Twitter to take on a brewing controversy involving singer Rhap Salazar, who slammed non-singers fond of lip-syncing on television. “I hate seeing artists lip-syncing on TV,” he tweeted. The online community reacted by saying that Mr. Salazar was an arrogant has-been. Ms. Salonga ran to his defense, tweeting: “In an ideal world, albums would only be released by actual living and breathing singers. Period. But we don’t live in an ideal world.”


Veteran actress Nanette Inventor, best known as the comedic force behind Doña Buding, is well aware of what Ms. Salonga is talking about: in her earlier years, Ms. Inventor was once was paid to “ghost-sing” for actress Alma Moreno. As Ms. Moreno was lip-syncing on stage, Ms. Inventor was singing on the sidelines.

“It takes a lot of heart and integrity to be a singer. It must be rough to be compared to somebody who just got in the business and is forced to sing. But then before you know it, [that somebody] has CDs while the other is suffering for his art even if he naturally has the talent,” she said. “Well, that’s showbiz.” 

Before Ms. Inventor was lured into show business, she was, in the 1970s, an alto in the University of the Philippines Concert Chorus (UPCC). Today, in between tapings for movies and teleseryes, she does musical shows around the world. In 2012, as part of the UPCC’s concert tour in the United States, she wedged her stand-up comedy in between solo song numbers. In 2013, she created a new character, Nanette Na-foolish, a play on the name Janet Napoles (allegedly the brains behind the pork barrel scam), for her 2013 stand-up show in Bonifacio Global City.

Throughout a career spanning decades, Ms. Inventor has mastered the art of making people laugh, whether at a live performance, a television show, or a movie. “There’s a different kind of discipline when you’re on-screen, because your audience is a camera. Whereas onstage, your connection with the audience is direct,” she said. “The discipline comes from the actor, and the audience reacts immediately. When the audience does not laugh in the first five minutes, you change your script.”

As part of the star-studded cast of Ang Larawan—a movie adaptation of the musical based on Nick Joaquin’s three-act English play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino—the comedienne shares scenes with actors like Noel Trinidad. “When you’re with someone in front of a camera, you have to be sensitive to the other person. Your ensemble acting is very, very important because you throw your energy back to the camera, and then, the audience.” 

Larawan’s cast is loaded with theater talent. There’s Joanna Ampil, who has performed in several West End productions (Miss Saigon, Jesus Christ Superstar, Avenue Q) and played the role of Fantine in Les Misérables in London. Ang Larawan is Ms. Ampil’s first movie and what a debut it is: She plays Candida under the watchful eye of Celeste Legaspi, who essayed the role in the original musical and is now co-producing the film. Acting for the camera is “a scaled down version of acting,” Ms. Ampil said, “in the sense that the movements are far smaller and less conspicuous than they are onstage.” Everything, she added, is in the eyes. “But apart from that, it’s the same satisfaction.”   


If Ms. Ampil is going from stage to screen,  director and screenwriter Floy Quintos is making the opposite move from screen to stage. In the 1990s, Mr. Quintos wrote the screenplays for Ishmael Bernal’s Wating (1994), Peque Gallaga and Rory Quintos’ Darna! Ang Pagbabalik (1994), and Mario O’Hara’s Manananggal in Manila (1997). Now, his name is often seen on posters of campus theater productions. In 2013 alone, three of his works were brought to life by Tanghalang Ateneo (TA) and Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas (DUP): Antigone’s Rex, an adaptation that combines Oedipus Rex and Antigone; Bonifacio Seen Through the Eyes of the Literati, excerpts of plays on the National Hero; and Mahabharata, an adaptation of ancient India’s longest Sanskrit epic.

Mr. Quintos had a similar change of heart in his choice of musical productions. He spent the early 2000s directing pop concerts for the likes of Kuh Ledesma, Ai-ai delas Alas, and Martin Nievera—“pop concert to death” as Mr. Quintos put it. Then he moved to directing UP-trained sopranos Kay Balajadia and Camille Lopez-Molina in Trial by Jury, a production mounted by the UP Lawyers’ Circle. “When I hit my 40s, I was like, let’s try something new. Why don’t I just help classically trained singers?” he said. “I never thought, in my wildest dreams, that I would direct an opera. And suddenly, now, I’ve directed six,” he said. Aside from Trial by Jury, he’s also done Eugene Onegin, La Boheme, San Andres B, Rigoletto, and Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini. “As a director, I have an obligation to help bring their talents to the public,” he continued. “At a certain age, I guess we become more discriminating of what we’re doing.”