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Filipino composer-lyricist’s musical opens to standing ovation in LA: ‘These are our stories!’

Paulo K. Tirol's story about the Pinoy immigrant experience in America resonates with multi-cultural audience

Paulo K. Tirol and Lea Salonga in a recent photo taken in an LA event for 'Here Lies Love,' the Broadway musical about Imelda Marcos and the Martial Law era. Salonga, who’s in the cast and the producing team of the Broadway musical, said: 'We are in a watershed for Filipino musical theater!.... Paulo Tirol’s 'On This Side of the World' opens at East West Players so that’s two Filipino musicals opening on both sides of the country!'

Jaygee Macapugay and Michael Protacio in the workshop production of ‘On This Side of the World’ at Access Theater in New York City, May 2019. (Photo by Michael Kuhsner)

Photos courtesy of Paulo K. Tirol

The musical about the lives of Filipino immigrants in the US, On This Side of the World (OTSOTW), with music and lyrics by Paulo Kalaw Tirol, premiered in Los Angeles May 14 to a full house and standing ovation at David Henry Hwang Theater. The Los Angeles Times did a photo shoot with Tirol and director Noam Shapiro yesterday morning, with an interview set this week.

One could palpably sense the thrill and pride in the voice of writer-editor Lorna Kalaw Tirol when she relayed in April how the younger of her two sons, Paulo, was deep in preparations for the mounting of the musical he penned, On This Side of the World (OTSOTW).

Directed by Noam Shapiro and presented by the East West Players (EWP), the largest and longest-running Asian-American theater in the US, OSOTW runs until June 4, 2023 at the David Henry Hwang Theater at 120 Judge John Aiso street, Los Angeles, California.

Noam Shapiro and Paulo K. Tirol work on ‘On This Side of the World’ while in residence at Rhinebeck Writers Retreat in upstate New York in July 2022. ‘On This Side of the World’ was one of eight shows selected from among 145 submissions for this prestigious residency.

Paulo first heard about the EWP a few years ago when an actor friend starred in EWP’s all-Asian production of Mamma Mia. Donna, the character Meryl Streep played in the movie, was portrayed as a Filipino who opened a taverna in Greece. He said, “Since then, EWP had been a dream home for On This Side of the World—both for what it stands for in Asian-American theater, but also because of the size and prevalence of the Filipino-American community in Los Angeles and broader southern California, and how integrated Filipino culture is into the culture of LA.”

He began writing OTSOTW long before he had heard from EWP, in 2013, while working on his MFA in musical theater writing at the New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. EWP found out about OTSOTW in 2020 when it was one of eight musicals chosen from 349 submissions for the National Alliance of Musical Theater’s prestigious Annual Festival of New Musicals.

According to Tirol, this festival is attended by producers and theater professionals nationwide as their way of “shopping” for new musical theater work. In 2020, it became a virtual festival because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When EWP saw his work in the festival, it reached out to get to know Tirol and the show. In November 2021, EWP told him that it wanted to develop the show through a workshop in 2022 and include the show in its 2023 season.

“I was thrilled,” the composer-lyricist said.

In 2020, ‘OTSOTW’ was one of eight musicals chosen from 349 submissions for the National Alliance of Musical Theater’s prestigious Annual Festival of New Musicals

Asked what his encounters with Filipinos in America, tourists and full-time residents, were like, and if these served as fodder for the making of OTSOTW, he replied, “I definitely borrowed stories of Pinoy friends and friends of friends in writing the songs. A friend shared how he was unable to say the line ‘I renounce allegiances to all other nations’ when he was sworn in as a US citizen. A Filipino-American actor friend told me he only got pigeonholed into certain roles on the stage and on screen. A Pinoy immigrant in church confided that she hasn’t applied for US citizenship because she was afraid she’d fail the exam, and her 14-year-old daughter exclaimed, ‘My mother is an immigrant!’ Friends whining about missing their yayas. And the many Filipino healthcare workers who care for families and homes not their own.”

The music-loving Tirol family (from left): Jo-Ed, Lorna, Vic and baby Paulo

But Tirol also had songs that came out of his own experience. He said, “Like how to explain the word kilig to non-Tagalog speakers; seeing a parol on my first Christmas Eve away from Manila; my reactions to Duterte’s decision to honor Marcos with a burial at Libingan ng mga Bayani; my husband’s and my interview with the Department of Homeland Security when we were applying for my US citizenship.”

His favorite part of turning people’s stories into songs for OTSOTW has been, he said,  “excavating psychology and emotion, finding universal themes to express through these vignettes so we end up with songs with multiple layers. The song Lantern in the Window is about seeing a parol in a house in the States but also about homesickness. A Simple Transaction, a song about a green-card marriage gone wrong, is about loneliness and the complexity of love. Rice Queens, in which a gay man sings about his experiences on gay dating apps as an Asian man, is about fetishization of Asian men but also the exoticization that westerners impose on Filipinos. In This Kitchen, in which a lola and her grandson prepare Sunday dinner for the family, is about memory.”

Paulo K. Tirol’s Lantern in the Window, with Diane Phelan singing

To him it has been “incredibly gratifying when Filipinos see the show and see themselves in it. Filipino-American actors, including those who have been on Broadway, have been thrilled to play characters fleshed out from their own lives. An older Filipino lady I had never met came up to me after one presentation and said to me, with tears in her eyes, ‘These are our stories!’”

Non-Filipinos have responded to the show, too. Tirol said, “When I started writing this show in 2013, I wanted it to be a show that spoke to people of all backgrounds, not just a Filipino inside joke. I’ve found that the show can now be enjoyed on three levels: it’s a show about Filipino culture; it’s a show about the immigrant experience; and it’s a show about universal human themes—love, belonging, identity, sacrifice—that just happen to be told through a Filipino immigrant frame.”

‘It’s a show about universal human themes—love, belonging, identity, sacrifice—that just happen to be told through a Filipino immigrant frame’

In the first five years he was writing OTSOTW, he wrote only eight songs, the process of which, for him, was “very slow, and it was because I was never sure anyone would be interested in seeing the show, producing the show, or collaborating with me on the show.” He tried to get the Asian American and Pacific Islander theater community in New York City interested, but nothing happened. He was initially discouraged.

Things changed in 2018. A song from OTSOTW called Light of the Home, about how women are the ilaw ng tahanan, was showcased at Joe’s Pub, a prominent cabaret venue in New York. A young director named Noam Shapiro happened to see it. He emailed Tirol soon after, wanting to know more about the show that Light of the Home was from. Tirol sent him more songs from the show. Shapiro responded “very thoughtfully,” he recalled, and asked to meet.

He continued, “We did meet for coffee, and after three hours of talking about what was important to us as artists and theater-makers, he said he wanted to help me finish and produce OTSOTW. Over the next few months, with Noam’s encouragement, guidance, and gentle push, I wrote around eight more songs. From there we developed the piece with Access Theater, Prospect Theater Co., the NAMT Festival of New Musicals, Catwalk Art Institute, and the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat, all leading up to our world premiere production with East West Players.”

For those who’ve seen some of the songs in YouTube like Ay, America!, one mistakes Tirol for being cute by using the name Maritess (code name for a gossipy person) for one character. He clarified, “I wrote Ay, Amerika! in 2014, so it pre-dates ‘Maritess’ becoming a part of modern Pinoy lingo! Since ‘Maritess’ emerged as part of the Pinoy lexicon a few years ago, I’d been worried that people would think I took it from there, so I’m grateful for this chance to clarify that.”

The song Ay, Amerika! by Paulo K. Tirol

We are among those who’ve worked or spent leisure time with the older Tirols, Lorna and editor Vicente. The mother has always been known to us as having a pure, innocent soprano. As for Vic, he was a collector of music CDs and attended concerts with Lorna. These influences may have rubbed off on Paulo.

‘Tatay was constantly playing music, at home, and in the car…One of my favorite things to do with Inay in the evenings was jam on the piano’

He recalled his childhood and adolescence: “Tatay was constantly playing music, at home, and in the car: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Henry Mancini, Andrew Lloyd Webber, George and Ira Gershwin, Barbra Streisand, classical music, opera, the music of the Boston Pops Orchestra. What’s funny is that I constantly complained about this music, I wanted to listen to Madonna, the soundtrack of Annie, and Alvin and the Chipmunks! But as an adult, it’s really this music that formed the foundations of my musical tastes.”

Of Lorna, he said, “The role Inay played in my musical story was that she’s a singer. One of our favorite things to do in the evenings was jam on the piano. Our favorites were Evergreen, Misty, Alfie. I think it was in playing these beautiful crafted songs over and over that the songwriting behind them found their way into my bones.”

More than musical influences, Tirol said his parents’ major hold on him lay in writing. “Their attention to detail, their love for language, the value they put on precision, their love for storytelling, their insistence on always going deeper and never being satisfied with the surface level of a story, and their relentlessness in rewriting until a sentence was perfect—these have all found their way into my lyric writing and composing.”

In 2012, at 34 years old, he moved from Manila to Boston to study music at Berklee College of Music. Before that, he had been a corporate professional for 12.5 years, working first at Globe Telecom, then at Procter & Gamble, mostly in communications and marketing.

He was also involved in liturgical music alongside acting as pianist, arranger, and composer for Hangad, a vocal group under the Jesuit Music Ministry. In 2011, he decided “to make music my full-time thing rather than just a side ministry/passion so I auditioned for Berklee, got accepted, and in 2012, I resigned from my corporate job, sold my condo, said goodbye to my family and friends, and got on a plane with a student visa and a one-way ticket to Boston.”

He said there have been “more twists and turns in my story since then.” His original plan in 2012 was to major in music therapy at Berklee, get certified, and build up his credentials as a professional music therapist in the US over 10 years, then return to the Philippines and pioneer in the field then.

What happened was, he instead became a musical theater writer and a professional liturgical musician and published composer who is married to an American, and naturalized as a US citizen. He said, “The journey has been anything but straightforward. But no, I have absolutely no regrets. It’s incredible that 12 years ago, I was writing business reviews. Now I’m writing musicals.”

The cast and creative team of the world premiere production of ‘On This Side of the World’ at East West Players during rehearsal in April 2023. Standing from left: music directors Jen Lin and Marc Macalintal, assistant director Vivi Le, production stage manager Edward Khris Fernandez, cast members Justine Rafael, Michael C. Palma, Melvin Biteng, and Zandi de Jesus. On the floor, same order: assistant stage manager Mikayla Bittner, choreographer Allen Lucky Weaver, cast members Andrea Somera, Steven-Adam Agdeppa, Cassie Simone, Shaun Tuazon, director and co-creator Noam Shapiro, and composer-lyricist Paulo K. Tirol

About author


She is a freelance journalist. The pandemic has turned her into a homebody.

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