Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Sitting amid a crowd of eager faces waiting to indulge in the songs of APO Hiking Society, I felt as if I stumbled into one of my dad’s college reunions. Baby boomers and Generation X-ers — united by their collective memories of life in the ‘70s and ‘80s — filled the audience watching “Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!” at the BGC Arts Center’s Globe Auditorium, making the few young ones like me stick out like confused kids oblivious to the inside jokes of their parents.
As the lights turned on and the cast came out with their flared pants, big collars, and groovy hairstyles, I thought, there it is: the faded photographs of my dad’s youth come to life.
“Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!” thrives on the nostalgia of those who lived through the yellow pages, the red telephones, the Love Buses, and the groundbreaking Original Pinoy Music (OPM) band that turned a generation’s joys and heartaches into iconic melodies. Tugging on the crowd’s tender memories of their youth, APO’s songs weave together the fictional stories of a barkada of amateur musicians facing the challenges that colored campus life in the mid-70s.
Butch, the suave ladies’ man, is paralyzed for the first time as he makes his move on his class crush. Rick, the group’s lyricist, struggles to find time for his girlfriend as he meets the demands of mastering his craft in songwriting. Stout and big-hearted Sonny is troubled by the reality of losing his sweetheart after she reveals her family’s plans to move to the United States. And Ray, a pre-med scholar, is burdened by pressure from his father to give up music and focus solely on establishing a career as a doctor.
The show opens with lighthearted banter among these friends, who are thrilled upon hearing of a songwriting contest with the glossy prize of ₱1,000. Determined to win, they spend the rest of the show writing the perfect song — struggling to transform their own personal dramas into poetry.
Juxtaposing the warmth and laughter radiating from the characters, a cold political landscape brings tension to their daily lives. They worry about meeting midnight curfew and speaking out critically on the government. Only three years after the declaration of martial law, the darkness of the Marcos era looms over and shades their conversations — subtly showing how the political inevitably ingrains into the personal.
A revitalized rerun
When the musical first launched last August 2018, tickets quickly sold out by the second weekend of showing. Audiences clamored for a rerun; and the show’s writer and director, Robbie Guevara, along with his partners, 9Works Theatrical and Globe Live, naturally gave in.
Guevara believes that this year’s run, which launched last Feb. 2 and ends on March 17, is even better than the first.
“Our goal every year is to come up with a show that’s better than the previous one,” says Guevara. “When people ask me, ‘What’s your best show?’ My answer is always, ‘The next one.’ So with a rerun, it has to be better: cast-wise, material wise, set-wise. You always have to grow.”
Apart from adding backdrop projections of green campuses reminiscent of the Ateneo de Manila University or the University of the Philippines, Guevara shares that another significant improvement from the inaugural run is the cast’s performance. Now that they are eased into their characters, the actors’ movements, singing, and delivery come off as more natural — as if the roles had been made just for them.
Molding characters and script
In fact, some of the musical’s characters were built on the personalities of the actors themselves. Guevara recalls wanting to make a special character for Afritz Blanche, the actor who played Sonny. Blown away by his powerful voice and humor when they first met, Guevara adjusted the script to accommodate his vibrant presence — adding subtle jokes that fit his wit. The process then became an organic development drawing from the strengths of the actors.
“That’s the beauty of theater: the actors will bring in something to the characters, and it will shape and reshape the characters in a different way,” says Guevara.
Nonetheless, writing the script was no easy task. Guevara shares that when he presented the show to Globe Live back in December 2017, he was on his 6th version of the script. Now, just over a year later, he’s on his 33rd version.
“Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!” is Guevara’s first shot at original scriptwriting. Prior to the musical, he had been directing Broadway musicals adapted in the local theater scene. Scriptwriting naturally came with its own distinct challenges and unexpected turns, as the story constantly evolved to add impact and realism to what initially began as pure comedy.
“The process is more challenging, but so much more fulfilling than doing a show that’s been done before,” Guevara shares on his latest milestone as a director.
Weaving the political into the personal
Veering away from making a “fluffy, popcorn musical,” Guevara admits the most difficult part of writing the script was incorporating the political aspects of the story, having been set in the midst of the Marcos dictatorship. He initially avoided bringing in the weight of politics, hoping to keep the show light as it centered on themes of love, friendship, and family.
“I didn’t want to put in martial law. I didn’t want it to be heavy. But then Danny (Javier) and Jim (Paredes) started attending the readings. And it was Danny, in particular, who said, ‘In 1975, you could not ignore martial law. When you woke up, it was there. Everywhere you went, it was there.’”
So amidst the romantic stories and songs, Guevara decided to inject the grit of the people who survived the turmoil of the times. The show takes a heavy, dramatic turn by the second half of the play as it weaves in harsh realities of martial law into the lives of the characters, most of whom come from an upper middle-class background. One particular story — that of Sonny’s girlfriend, Jane — is, in fact, based on the true and unnerving story of what Guevara’s family endured during the Marcos era.
“That’s why I didn’t want to tackle martial law — it was too personal. I grew up with that. I grew up with that hatred of what had happened. I didn’t know how people would receive it,” reveals Guevara.
Yet, it is precisely this interplay of the personal and the political that makes the show raw, real and relatable — both to the generation that endured the Marcos era and the generation of today, emerging with its own resistance against present forms of power and oppression.
“If we don’t learn from history, it will repeat itself. That’s one message I want to show the younger generation now. This happened. Nothing is fantasy. If we don’t curtail the powers of the government, they will abuse it. And it’s slowly getting there.”
While Guevara says the millennial generation was not his initial target audience for the show, he understood that the story had the power to affect them. He hopes that after watching the show, the youth reflects on its underlying truths and is moved to act. Ultimately, he believes the youth has the freedom to make judgments and choose how their future will turn out.
Enduring power of APO’s music
As vividly portrayed in the show, one way to unite and uplift the lives of people amidst personal and political struggle is through music.
From “Blue Jeans” to “Panalangin” to “When I Met You,” the expressive songs of APO dive straight into the depths of our experiences — singing the ecstasies of first loves, the pains of lost loves, the unbreakable ties of barkada, and ultimately, the bittersweet feeling of being young and alive. With their distinct OPM sound and clever lyrics evoking Filipino pop culture, APO’s music pierces right through the hearts of its listeners — bringing wide smiles to both parents and their children.
“The best compliment that I received from millennials, who knew zero APO songs, was that they made an APO playlist on Spotify. After watching the show, they fell in love with their songs,” Guevara says with pride.
“Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!” reminds us that the overwhelming impact of APO’s songs endures today. While the baby boomers and Generation X-ers can look back with laughter through their music, millennials are moved to contemplate how the past colors the present. The songs serve as entry points for millennials to learn from what our parents went through during a turbulent time. And how, united by our own common struggles, we can learn to sing our own tune.
“Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!” runs until March 17 at the BGC Arts Center’s Globe Auditorium. Tickets are available at www.ticketworld.com.ph.