Sunday, February 24, 2008

Embarassing Joke

"Rest assured I was on the internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world."
-- Comic Book Guy, The Simpsons

San Beda High School used to have a play festival for third year students where we wrote and performed original material based on or inspired by "Noli Me Tangere." Our teachers raised our batch’s "Nolifest" to another level by integrating it with music classes; we had to write and perform full blown musicals. Two sections (mine included) attempted all-original music. The others cribbed from popular songs, changing the lyrics to fit their stories.

But enough of my nostalgia. It's a bad thing when a CCP “rock musical” written by a Palanca award winner, starring two of the better local theater actors, and with music supplied by one of the country's best bands reminds you of the high school musical you wrote over a weekend fifteen years ago. It's like three genius parents producing a retarded child.

But comparing "EJ: Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay Nina Evelio Javier at Edgar Jopson" to a retard is a disservice to developmentally-challenged children everywhere. It's not their fault they lost the genetic lottery, but everyone involved can be blamed (to a certain degree) for the sorry mess that is this musical.

Too much, too little

The problem stems from the dual task of telling the story of the EJs while incorporating The Dawn’s existing songs. It works for original stories tailor-fit for the music (“Mamma Mia” or “Across the Universe”) but fails in true-to-life stories.

Also, the fact that half of The Dawn’s hits are beer commercials with generic lyrics doesn’t help. “Salamat” is a great barkada song (anyone remember the commercial with the band on a pickup driving by the San Miguel billboard on Guadalupe bridge?) but doesn’t really fit, especially when you have the widows singing it in four-part harmony with the ghosts of the EJs before they (I swear I’m not making this up) GET PICKED UP BY AN ANGEL ON RAILS.

Shoehorning pedestrian lyrics to fit a play with so much stuff to discuss is just wrong. Original music (or lyrics, at least) would’ve reduced the cringe factor. As it was I buried my face in my hands (I wanted to weep) when the EJs were singing about their dreams for the country in tagalog (which, even at that, was awkward) and then rocking out to the chorus “Dreams are made for children / but now you do not see. / The answers you no longer find / what has happened to you / to you and me.”

Utang na loob, walang connect yung kanta sa istorya maliban sa salitang "dreams."

Bad storytelling, bad history

Trying to mesh the two EJs’ lives is in itself difficult, especially when you have no idea how they're supposed to mash up. The script is a jumble of events that happened in the lives of the titular characters without any direction or commentary. Like a high school history report done in sketch fashion.

What should’ve happened is a comparison and contrast of the directions their lives have taken, with one becoming a radical and the other remaining a reformist. Their discussion in heaven, or, lacking that, an omniscient narrator, would’ve been a perfect device to annotate this . Heck I’d have appreciated a version from the point of view of the wives.

But no, we get ALL of these conceits, plus additional narration from all the other important persons (like whoever's closest to the mike gets to narrate) leaving us with a confusing mess that is neither history nor proper storytelling.

[And don’t anybody make an excuse involving “experimental narrative devices” or post-modernism. “Doegeaters,” for all its flaws, did it in an entertaining fashion without confusing anyone. This one is just a mess.]

Bad music

I am a big fan of The Dawn. I’m probably one of the few people in the theater who is familiar with (I sang along) one of the ballads sung by Jopson. It was a B-side in the “Abot Kamay” album (the one with the psychedelic cover), an autographed cassette tape of which I still have.

But believe me when I say that the music sucks when used in a musical. C’mon, we’re used to Sondheim and “Rent” and “Avenue Q” and “Zsa-zsa Zaturnnah.” “Jesus Christ Superstar” had that funky riff as a theme throughout the show, what “EJ” had was an arpeggiated D-chord. It’s almost as bad as Louie Ocampo’s “Firewaterwoman.”

There was an attempt to fit the songs together when “Abot Kamay” and “Dreams” were merged, but that’s it. Neither song, though, was specifically assigned to a character as a theme, which is what you do in real musicals. And like its storytelling mode, the music was neither here nor there. It wasn’t dialogue punctuated by set pieces (like, say, “Avenue Q”) but it wasn’t a modern opera either (like Sondheim or Webber).

Just plain bad

Like a Disney movie the narrator character starts by telling the story but is conveniently forgotten in the end. This same narrator, without changing costume, also plays Ferdinand Marcos and Fabian Ver (among others, in a tank top), adding to the confusion. And we’re not even sure what the narrator is for, since he narrates only in the beginning. The rest of the show is spent watching the leads or playing random characters.

The whole thing is confused with too much unnecessary facts strewn around and too little development of plot or character. It fails even as a propaganda piece with its ambivalence towards the matter of reform or revolution. The message seems to be that of generic “pagbabago” instead of an insightful commentary on the national situation (then or now) and the EJs’ proposed solutions.

I was disappointed even before the curtains rose when (on a Saturday gala) they announced that neither of the two stars nor the band would be playing. After the curtain call I realized why.

I, too, would be ashamed to be part of this.

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