On September 15, 1994, 23 Filipino artists boarded a British Airways flight to Stuttgart, Germany. We formed the bulk of the Asian cast of the original German production of Miss Saigon, the hit musical composed by Claude-Michel Schonberg, written by Alain Boublil, and produced in Germany by Stella Musicals. At 21 years old, I was one of the “babies” of the cast. I learned on the job what it meant to be a professional musical theater actor from established Filipino theater actors as well as the international cast and crew. I tried to learn to be an adult, too, but I discovered pretty quick that there are just some things you can’t fake till you’re ready.
My experiences in the first 10 years of adulthood spent in musical theater were intense. There was plenty of drama on and off stage. There was also an abundance of love and laughter. Until now, visiting Stuttgart always makes me tingle, because this was where I began to shed my childhood. We were all children together, trying to figure out the the theater of life.
As Facebook and social media became an ubiquitous part of everyone’s life, we formed a private page for the Miss Saigon Stuttgart family, where cast, crew and management during the show’s run from 1994-1999 could keep in touch. Someone would pipe in once in a while and say we ought to organize a reunion, but being spread out all over the world, some of us with growing families, most of us with work commitments, it seemed an impossible dream.
On March 24, 2020, while camping out in his basement at home in Ottowa, Ontario, Canada, on a self-imposed 14-day quarantine, Shawn Kilpatrick (who had played alternate Chris in Toronto, Stuttgart, Manila and Hong Kong), sent a message to our private Facebook group, Miss Saigon Stuttgart. It read, “Man, I could really go for a Kantine party right about now.” During his stint in the Musical Hall where Miss Saigon played, the cast and crew would sometimes gather in the theater cantine after the show and sing songs for each other, sometimes to celebrate a departing cast member, sometimes just because. Parties would often go till the early morning hours.
Shawn’s wishful post became the “shot heard ‘round the world.” He was amazed at how many of us—also living in different variations of quarantine around the world—responded with the same wish, so he and a few others began to think about how they could make it happen.
Someone volunteered a corporate Zoom account that could accommodate up to 300 participants. Others took on the role of organization, contacting cast members who would want to perform. Mia Ongkiko Schiffman (who became the show’s first cast Gigi in 1996 and is now working at Johns Hopkins University), along with Sumita Dutt (understudy Ellen, now working for a German publishing company), helped with the development of the show and to bring in both the performers and the attendees. Sean Ghazi (the show’s resident director in 1994, now a producer, director and performer in Kuala Lumpur) played the role of advisor, focusing on the look and feel of the show.
Shawn took on the role of technical director, working with each performer to ensure that they had the best possible audio setup for their performance. Zoom is not designed to be used as a vocal performance platform, so a lot of adjustments needed to be made for each performer depending on their individual setups. Some had newer computers while some had older models, some had external microphones while some didn’t. Some were using iPads or just their cellphones, so almost everyone had completely different challenges to contend with. Shawn, always calm, pleasant and patient with each of us, found ways to help each person sound their best.
On April 26, 2020 the “Kantine Konzert Goes Virtual!” came together. 125 people from 45 cities in 15 countries met in the Zoom Kantine. 23 of us sang, while Joe Barnes had us in stitches with his impression of the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live. We were enthralled with each other’s performances, ecstatic to be in each other’s company again. For some reason, we found ourselves teary-eyed with each song. Being together again, even virtually, was bittersweet.
I had asked to be one of the first performers, because in order to accommodate all the time zones, the show began 11 p.m. Philippine time. Even though I was in the comfort of my own home, the dining room set up with a clamp lamp and my laptop balanced on a chair and several thick books, my heart started pounding fast in my chest as I began to sing. Because I left the show in 1996 to do another musical in Essen, I didn’t know half the people in that virtual room. But somehow, it felt familiar. It felt like home.
The nuns at Assumption Convent used to tell us that “A song is a prayer said twice.” And this certainly felt true that night. With song, we lifted each other up. With song, we filled one other’s wellspring of inspiration. With song, we let the tears flow to soothe each other’s breaking hearts. Love so real and palpable flowed between us, and in the darkness of my living room, our love glowed.
There was one particular song that night that spoke straight to my heart. “After the Last Tear Falls” was sung beautifully by Allan Green, and until now, when I feel I need a shot of liquid love in my veins, I think back to his performance that night.
After the last tear falls, after the last secret’s told
After the last bullet tears through flesh and bone
After the last child starves and the last girl walks the boulevard
After the last year that’s just too hard
There is love…
And in the end, the end is oceans and oceans of love and love again
We’ll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms of the Giver of love and the Lover of all
And we’ll look back on these tears as old tales
‘Cause after the last tear falls there is love
The song I sang for them was “Human Heart” from a musical called Once On This Island. While I was rehearsing, my son Kalinaw asked me, “What does ‘human heart’ mean, Mommy?” I thought for a moment. On a piece of paper, I spelled out the letters H E A R T. “This spells ‘heart’. When you move the letter ‘h’ to the end of the word, it spells E A R T H. The human heart is knowing we all belong to each other. The entire planet is the human heart.” That night, I learned that sometimes, all you have to do is say YES. Show up for one another, because you can, because you care, because loving one another is the only thing of importance we can do in this world. That night, the ever-changing, confounding world we live in grew a little brighter. Our hearts broke out in collective song to let the healing begin.