How the ‘90s teen drama ‘Tabing Ilog’ was reinvented as a musical

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“Tabing Ilog: The Musical” is ABS-CBN’s first foray in theater production. It is led by an ensemble of young theater actors and TV newcomers. Photo from TEATRO KAPAMILYA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The ‘90s teen drama “Tabing Ilog,” which aired from 1999 to 2003 every Sunday afternoon on ABS-CBN, is a strange piece of local pop culture. It’s a TV show that wouldn’t have been made today.

So it makes sense that ABS-CBN’s newly-formed theater arm, Teatro Kapamilya, is staging a musical theater adaptation of the supposedly iconic youth show.

“Tabing Ilog: The Musical” starts its run this week until April 26 at the ABS-CBN Dolphy Theater at the ABS-CBN compound in Quezon City.

The musical is ABS-CBN’s first foray in theater production. According to Raymund Dizon, the business unit head of Star Hunt and head of the “Tabing Ilog: The Musical,” the network has long been planning to enter the field of theater production. The network, after all, has the resources to do so. It will also serve as the debut of talents they acquired via their Star Hunt audition search.

“It’s actually a training ground for our new artists. We wanted the discipline of theater na ma-imbibe nung mga younger actors natin,” Dizon said.

The musical adaptation of the ‘90s youth drama is poised to serve as a “training ground” for the network’s newer talents. Photo by JL JAVIER

Ian Pangilinan plays Rovic, the role originally played by John Lloyd Cruz in the TV show. Photo by JL JAVIER

Krystal Kane portrays the character of Jerry Ricafort, formerly played by Mylene Dizon. Photo by JL JAVIER

The original plan was for Teatro Kapamilya to produce a straight play, but Laurenti Dyogi, the network’s head of TV production, suggested doing a stage musical instead and including experienced talents from the theater scene.

During one of the meetings for the project, someone floated the idea of adapting “Tabing Ilog” into a musical.

For years, there have been rumors that ABS-CBN is planning a TV remake of “Tabing Ilog.” The people behind the musical adaptation are open about this, too. But Dizon served as an executive producer for the ‘90s teen show, so the suggestion may have come at the right time. Hence, “Tabing Ilog: The Musical” was born.

Teatro Kapamilya hired some of the best talents from theater and film to create “Tabing Ilog: The Musical” from the ground up: Topper Fabregas (a theater veteran who also recently starred in the 2019 Cinema One Originals film “Sila-Sila”) is directing, acclaimed composer and lyricist Vincent de Jesus wrote the music for the show, while film director-writer Jade Castro wrote the book.

Creating the show was a challenge. “Tabing Ilog” ran for over four years with more than 200 episodes, so making a straight adaptation was difficult.

People today may remember “Tabing Ilog” as the TV show that kickstarted the careers of its original young adult cast, namely: John Lloyd Cruz, Patrick Garcia, Paolo Contis, Baron Geisler, Paula Peralejo, Kaye Abad, Desiree del Valle, and Jodi Sta. Maria. But they weren’t nameless stars at the time. Garcia was a critically-acclaimed actor even before “Tabing Ilog,” with his roles in the movies “Madrasta” and “Batang PX.” Cruz and Geisler had starred in a number of teen movies. Contis was a child actor, a household name who starred in TV hits such as the original “Mara Clara” and the Aga Muhlach-led sitcom “Oki Doki Dok.” Abad was also a child actress who, like many stars during the time, began her career via the ‘90s children’s comedy variety show “Ang TV.” Most, if not all, of the show’s original cast became big stars in show business, but it can be argued that this is only because the network tapped promising talents instead of literal showbiz newbies.

If “Tabing Ilog” is considered as iconic today, it is because of its cast. And that’s only in hindsight. The TV show itself, minus the nostalgia and its cast, could be considered as generic TV fare. It was very much a product of its time, a reaction to TV trends and fads that came before it.

“Tabing Ilog” may seem like a version of the popular American teen drama “Dawson’s Creek,” which premiered in 1998 (it aired locally on Studio 23, ABS-CBN’s UHF channel). The similarities are surface-level, if only because the youth drama genre in local TV actually predated “Dawson’s Creek.” “Tabing Ilog” and “Dawson’s Creek” are both youth dramas, and their titles both reference to bodies of water (which, in turn, refers to the setting of the show). If “Tabing Ilog” premiered on TV today, it might have inspired think pieces decrying the bankruptcy of creativity in local media. We’ve seen this type of behavior recently, when critics noted the alleged similarities of shows like “Alyas Robin Hood” and “Victor Magtanggol” to certain American TV shows and movies (“Green Arrow” and “Thor” in the case of the aforementioned GMA shows). But the ‘90s was a different time, when local media often unofficially borrowed concepts and themes from US pop culture.

The youth drama genre isn’t new to Philippine television in the late ‘90s. In 1995, GMA-7 premiered the Saturday teen-oriented show “T.G.I.S.” The show became popular, spawned several movie and TV spin-offs, and made the teen show drama genre a staple in weekend television for years to come.

Acclaimed composer and lyricist Vincent de Jesus wrote the music for the show. Photo by JL JAVIER

Theater veteran Topper Fabregas is directing the musical adaptation of "Tabing Ilog." Photo by JL JAVIER

Film director and writer Jade Castro wrote the book for the musical adaptation. Photo by JL JAVIER

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“Tabing Ilog” isn’t entirely unoriginal. It was among the very few shows that were set outside Metro Manila, hence its title. The show had love teams — its most memorable element, besides the titular river, is John Lloyd Cruz and Kaye Abad’s portrayal of the couple Rovic and Eds.

At its core, “Tabing Ilog” is about friendships and how the youth of that time navigated through adult issues using a point of view that’s more mature than the ones used by its contemporaries. Yet, apart from its setting, its catchy theme, and its core love team, non-fans of the show find it hard to pinpoint what the show was all about.

So how do you adapt a show like that into a formidable stage musical?

“We wanted to capture what the original TV show was about,” Castro says. But they also didn’t adapt to create a straight-up copy. So viewers of the musical will see the original characters, but, perhaps, not the exact same stories the show featured.

“We are using the same characters but we are going to imagine them in the present day,” he explains. As an example — though, he cautioned, it’s a bad example — it’s similar to what the US teen drama “Riverdale” did to the iconic characters from Archie Comics.

“If they imagine the characters of ‘Tabing Ilog’ in the present day, they won’t be 100 percent the same. In fact, it’s a good strategy. We’re not tampering with the old show. You can still love the old show. And then you also love this new one. They can be two entirely different things.”

So, if you’re a fan of the show, don’t expect the same story beats and arcs. In fact, the musical omitted Paula Peralejo’s character from the show and replaced it with a new one. Even the actual setting is different — the TV show was set in Laguna, while the musical’s setting is in Quezon.

What remains is “the essence of the show” which, for Castro, is friendship. “The spirit remains the same.”

“The love angle of the show is what people like to say they remember. But what really tied the show together was the friendship. Even the love stories, it’s hinged on what happens to the friendship when there’s a love story,” Castro says.

He adds: “Aside from friendship, the other theme is change. When change comes, what happens to your life? What happens to the friendship?”

Apart from directing a title that’s essentially a nostalgia brand for ABS-CBN, Fabregas said one of the challenges and rewards of doing “Tabing Ilog: The Musical” is working with its very young cast. Because the show is essentially a “training ground” for the network’s young talents, “Tabing Ilog: The Musical” has stars that are completely new to musical theater. Star Hunt talents Sky Quizon and Lou Yanong, MNL48 members Brei Binuya and Abby Trinidad, and former GMA-7 star Ellyson de Dios are among the stars who are part of the show. But the network also tapped actors who are already working in local theater, including Ian Pangilinan, Teetin Villanueva, Noel Comia, and Krystal Kane, among others. With more than 30 young stars as part of the show, “Tabing llog: The Musical” will feature a rotating cast to give everyone a chance to act onstage.

“Tabing Ilog: The Musical,” at least to the knowledge of the people behind the show, is the first local theater show that’s an adaptation of a local TV property. Filipino movies, discographies, books, and other pop culture properties have been adapted into stage shows in the past. With ABS-CBN’s involvement in theater, Fabregas hopes to see more TV shows-turned-theater musicals, to entice more people to support local theater.

“We just want people to fall in love with theater as much as we do. I hope they keep coming back and keep coming back,” he says. “I am tickled with the idea that people from TV are coming together with people from the theater and film and mixing us up and shaking us up into this big, sort of casserole. I find that so exciting. There’s something so fresh about it.”

“Tabing Ilog: The Musical” will run from March 7 to April 26 at the Dolphy Theater, ABS-CBN compound, Quezon City. Tickets are priced ₱1000, ₱1200, ₱1500 and ₱2500, and are available online at KTX.