Broadway’s First Ethnic ‘Matilda’ is Filipina
I consider musicals the highest form of popular entertainment. The sales of show tickets will never equate the real value of what goes on in a musical – a perfect convergence of different elements such as the original written materials, the librettos ranging from rock to gospel genres, the musical compositions and arrangements, the intricate choreographies, the rhetoric of accents, the set designs and technology, and the standing-ovation-worthy live performances – all of which makes a musical theatre experience, priceless.
Although comparatively cheaper compared to your favorite artist’s or band’s concert, the value is found in the sophisticated exclusivity it offers. And as hard as the production tries to make it appealing for everybody, musicals are not meant for all to appreciate and understand. Although, it’s a different case when you put a Filipino into the mix – the gleaming sense of association and pride automatically runs through the Filipino people’s consciousness.
MATILDA THE MUSICAL
In the international musical theatre scene, the three most well-known avenues where production companies channel the musical theatre experience are: (1) West End in London, (2) Broadway in New York, and (3) Broadway National Tour in key American cities. The Royal Shakespeare Company produced a musical based on the classic children’s illustrated novel Matilda by Roald Dahl; a story best remembered by most because of the 1996 screen adaptation, directed by Danny DeVito and starring Mara Wilson, who played the eponymous Matilda role.
The musical adaptation had renowned British screenwriter Dennis Kelly and Australian comedian-musician Tim Minchin teamed up for the material. After trial staging at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the musical premiered at Cambridge Theatre at West End in 2011; and in 2013, it premiered in Broadway’s Shubert Theatre in New York. The musical has been awarded a Tony and an Olivier for Best Book for a Musical and Best New Musical respectively. Just this year, Matilda has started its Broadway Tour in the United States.
Among these three major leagues, the Royal Shakespeare Company has chosen a Filipino to play the lead role for the Broadway Tour. The role is the eponymous Matilda – and the actress, Gabrielle Alexa Gutierrez – the first ‘ethnic’ person to ever play Matilda in a major production.
WHAT MAKES GABBY DIFFERENT?
Although getting into a major musical production is as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack, it’s not necessarily new to have Filipinos in the international musical theatre scene. Rare, but definitely not new, considering the number of talented Filipinos scattered all over the planet. Also, it is not the first time a Filipino lands non-oriental-looking roles in the international musical theatre scene – we have had Lea Salonga and Rachelle Ann Go play French characters in Cameron Mackintosh’ Les Miserables; Catherine Ricafort as Cinderella and Adam Jacobs as Aladdin and Simba in the Disney on Broadway-produced shows. So, what makes it different for Gabby’s Matilda?
Gabby Gutierrez is a 9-year old girl from Springfield, New Jersey. When she was five, Gabby’s piano endeavor took a real big turn when she won a piano contest, giving her the opportunity to perform at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. Gabby’s piano instructor also discovered her vocal abilities when she was asked to sing the piano chords. Little Gabby was already starting to create a name within their immediate community. Gabby got into the church choir and continued on her piano lessons. Then, one day, Gabby’s mom Sisley saw an online call for auditions for a production of the hit classic Rodgers-Hammerstein musical ‘South Pacific’. She did not know that it was produced by Paper Mill Playhouse – a foremost professional regional theatre guild in New Jersey. Sisley thought it was more of a community workshop theatre instead, without realizing that it will serve as Gabby’s key to the musical theatre world. Gabby, who played Ngana in Paper Mill’s South Pacific, was discovered by a professional manager-handler, and since then, she have been casted for stage readings, and subsequently, casted at the Broadway Tour of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ where she played Annie Who from November to December of 2014
While she was playing Annie Who, she was serendipitously casted for the role of Matilda in November 2014 – she and her manager never planned on auditioning for the musical. It just happened that a stage reading (basically a trial for an unproduced musical) and the auditions for Matilda was being held in the same venue. She auditioned and got a call back – then, a call back, another one, and another, until they were down to a few. Out of 800 who auditioned, the Royal Shakespeare Company has to narrow it down to eight girls for the role of Matilda – four leads and four understudies. They ended up getting three leads (who are also each other’s understudies) for the Broadway tour, there was little Gabby.
Among the actresses who are currently acting in the role in West End, Broadway and Broadway Tour, she is, at first impression, an amateur (with the least experience in the industry compared to her peers), but she is wowing both audiences and those within the theatre circles as she performs like a dynamo in every show of the Broadway-on-tour Matilda – the biggest break of her life so far, coming at an early age of nine and within the shortest time span of a year since she started into musical theatre! This is a truly remarkable feat for a nine-year old girl of ethnic background in the highly selective industry of musical theatre.
As of writing, she just opened the Seattle leg of the Broadway tour, and it is not only the musical that she has opened. She has become a poster child for a more diverse musical theatre, an opportunity that not many Broadway and West End actors are given.
The world shall remember that Gabby Gutierrez is a symbol for every child of red, yellow, brown, and black ethnicities who has ever dreamed of playing Matilda on the musical stage. She now joins the rank of the people who broke the glass ceilings in casting such as Pattina Miller (First Female Lead Player in Pippin), Norm Lewis (First African-American Phantom in Phantom of the Opera), Bianca Marroquin (First Latina Roxie Hart in Chicago) and of course, our very own Lea Salonga (First Asian Fantine and Eponine in Les Miserables).
GABBY AND HER FILIPINO FAMILY
Gabby’s parents, Sisley and Dennis hail from Bukidnon. Laurianne, the couple’s eldest daughter, was already born when the family migrated to the US in 2001. Dennis, a nurse, was sponsored by a medical facility in Brooklyn, and since then, Sisley, a former banker in the Philippines, decided to be a fulltime mom and housewife. New York-born Gabby is the second and youngest child of Sisley and Dennis. Gabby is a daddy’s girl and just like Matilda, Gabby is considered a “miracle” – Baby Gabby survived a fire that destroyed their apartment in Queens, New York when she was three months old.
It is remarkable that the Filipino family bond is very strong. Although Gabby cannot speak fluent Filipino, she claims to understand Tagalog and Bisaya and her affinity to the Filipino extends to asking her friends to donate slippers, bags, and clothes to the Philippines instead of giving her gifts on her birthday. She has been doing it for two years now and she will do it again come her 10th birthday on September 29.
I asked Gabby if she would like to try her game in Philippine showbiz. Her face was teeming with enthusiasm that not enough words can fully describe. Of course, she said yes. But, her mom was showing a smirk of disapproval. “She’s too young,” Sisley said. “I’d rather see her live normally, picking up worms, climbing trees, reading, and playing the piano at home. I want her to be a child.”
Although Dennis is the one more enthralled sharing about her daughter’s achievements, Sisley is more hands-on with Gabby’s career – walking with her, carrying her costumes, coaching her with her acting, reminding her of the director’s calls. This is totally different from what she had thought she would do years ago. Never in her life had she thought to be a Carol to a Juday, an Annabelle to a Ruffa, a Dionisia to a Pacman, or a Mang Jerry to a Regine Velasquez.
Now, the timid “mommy-ger” (as Gabby puts it) has no choice but to serve as the little star’s chaperone. On a side note, Sisley has found herself comfortable in saying that she was so much of an introvert, sharing that when Gabby was casted and the other ‘mommy-gers’ were trying to engage her for a chat, her typical reaction was to do as minimal interaction as she could possibly could. It is a good realization that insomuch as this Broadway tour is a way for Gabby to advance her career, this is also an opportunity for the timid Filipina mom Sisley to get out of her comfort zone, explore cultures, get exposed to the world, and become a more global Filipino. This adds to the mystic of Gabby’s career and the ethnic identity that the kid already has.
WHAT’S IN STORE FOR GABBY?
The Matilda character actors, most of which are children, are following more stringent height and weight requirements. Once the characters reach a certain height and weight, they would have to retire from the role. Then, auditions will be held for their replacement.
“I would love to be casted for the New York production because it’s closer to home but they have just started with the new cast few weeks ago,” Gabby said about the possibility of playing Matilda in New York. However, regarding her Broadway tour, her contract will end this November. The Broadway Tour production will run until June 2016 but Sisley has already expressed their non-interest for a renewal with the Matilda production. “I think six months in enough. Gabby needs time to be a kid. She needs to give herself a break.”
Future endeavors do not seem a priority for Gabby right now for she is focused on Matilda. Her mom said that after the Broadway tour, they would be taking a rest back home in New Jersey, going back to normal life, and wait for another project that would fit the bill – but with such incredible precedent, fitting-the-bill must be less of an issue (if not a non-issue).
It is a thing to watch out for if Gabby will make it to another major role in New York or in London on a different musical – and with how things are running, it is very possible. This will make her kababayans ever more proud and more inspired – making them realize that with help from loved ones, there is nothing that can hinder a person who acts upon their dreams – much as a Filipino should, whatever they want to pursue, wherever they may be in this globe.