By Marivir R. Montebon
“I take pride in attaching my name to quality shows. In this field, you are either a producer for commercial shows or high quality ones. I go for the latter.”
New York City — Producer Jhett Tolentino recently inspired everyone with the story of his life – especially at how, with the mix of the careful calculation of choosing musicals or plays and gut feel, he earned the reputation of producing top quality shows for the highly esteemed Broadway.
Although hundreds of Filipinos have etched their career as actors, Jhett, an accountant by profession, is by far the lone Filipino who has dipped his hands into the more decisive segment of the industry – that of producing. And he is producing shows quite successfully.
Jhett does a perfect balance, like how he perfects the science of debit and credit postings in the Accounting lingo. The indomitable child, youngest son of a Jeepney driver and beautician, has gone a long way from the rural village slums of Calumpang, Molo in Iloilo City in the Philippines to become an accountant on scholarship and now producer of Broadway shows. He said that he never even thought that racial discrimination would deter him from pursuing a career. “I have always thought of it as a craft and profession and did not think much of my color as a hindrance.”
Jhett visibly stirred Broadway with three of his productions winning the coveted Tony awards: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, A Raisin in the Sun, and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in 2013 and 2014.
At the well-attended Kapihan of the Filipino American Press Club of New York (FAPCNY) on September 22, 2015 at the Philippine Center in Manhattan, Jhett told members of the press and performing arts enthusiasts that his career as producer started with writing for his blog. “I wanted to make an honest opinion of the show that I watch, so that I will inform my readers to not waste two hours of watching something that is not worth it.” Since then, people would consult with him on which show to watch.
Together with his business partner Joan Raffe, he created the Joan Jhett Productions which prides itself with producing shows worth your time. “I take pride in attaching my name to quality shows. In this field, you are either a producer for commercial shows or high quality ones. I go for the latter.”
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2013. Jhett saw the play staged at the Lincoln Center in 2012 and found it unbelievable why the show, with its amazing cast and upbeat humor, was not going to staged anywhere after Lincoln Center. Actress Sigourney Weaver played Masha in this off-Broadway show.
Jhett made a vigorous effort to persuade his team to move the comedy, which lends inspiration from Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and produce it on Broadway. They would all soon share the rewards for such a bold, gut-feel decision.
A Raisin in the Sun was the 2014 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play and starred Denzel Washington. Jhett revealed that Mr. Washington was a personal favorite as an actor, for he had always been humble.
The Tony Award for Best Musical in 2014 went to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, a winner because of its witty script and superb acting cast, despite the absence of a celebrity in it.
Jhett produced Here Lies Love in 2014 which portrayed the life of then Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos. “There was a divided attitude towards it. I understand. But it happened so why can’t we stage a show about it. If there was Evita, we had an Imelda too,” he explained.
Asked if he ever had a show which flopped, he immediately pointed out to one show. This has caused him to go in hiding for months inside his cave. “It is overwhelming. But you have to learn and move on,” he said.
Currently, Jhett is producing Clever Little Lies which stars Marlo Thomas, a 90-minute comedy on love and marriage and secrets. It will tickle its audience non-stop about family matters at the Westside Theater when it opens in October. There will also be the upcoming Sylvia on Broadway, starring Matthew Broderick, and Hughies which stars Oscar winner Forest Whitaker. All these are making Jhett’s hands full enough.
Despite the success of the business, there is still a dent in Jhett’s career, and that is placing the Filipino story and actors on the limelight. “There has been no script written about the Filipino. And that is wanting, because we have a lot of fine actors.”
As a producer, he continues to dream to find that script and produce it. He said you only need one show that will make you sit back and relax while you are earning, citing for instance the longest running Broadway show Phantom of the Opera and the popular Wicked.
In his journey back home to native Iloilo in November, Jhett will roll his sleeves to talk about organizing a Philippine league of Filipino actors, producers, and directors that will create an institution of performing arts that would bridge actors to the international stage. This homecoming will be sentimental, as it will be the first after 13 years of not seeing his father and three siblings, and his friends.
Jhett will go back to his alma mater too, the University of Iloilo, to launch a scholarship program for the youth, as a way to pay back his dues. Just like how he stirred Broadway, he will be stirring and inspiring everybody at home. (Photos by Lumen Castaneda and Google.com)