Who is Jhett Tolentino?
My name is Jhett Tolentino, and I am a theatre producer. I've worked on about 30 productions on Broadway and I've also worked with productions regionally in Los Angeles, Portland, and London. Currently, I'm working on a short documentary about my life from the slums to Broadway; the film is entitled ‘Life is What You Make It.’ Theater wise, I'm working on the Filipino musical ‘Here Lies Love: The Rise and Fall of Imelda Marcos’. It's a disco musical written and composed by David Byrne of Talking Heads, and Fat Boy Slim. We're in Seattle right now.
The first Broadway show I worked on is a straight play ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’, written by Chris Durang. It starred Sigourney Weaver in 2013. That was my Broadway debut in March 2013 and three months later we won the Tony - that was my first. The year later I won two more Tony Awards with ‘A Raisin in The Sun’ with Denzel Washington, and the third one was ‘A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder: A New Musical’.
I describe myself as a go-getter. I do not stop until my goals or objectives are met – at the calculative parameters of course - the things along the way that are considered. I'm very inclusive, and I don't work on my own. It's always teamwork with the theater. Because it’s different when you’re onstage and you're off; I’m a behind the scenes kind of guy. So it's more effective when it's a collaborative work than on your own because these shows are multimillion-dollar shows and it's not easy. A lot of people have a lot of money. I call it politics. It's a collaborative work.
Tell us about your career journey.
My career journey did not really start in the United States. I didn't go to school to study theatre or any film or any production. I was born, raised and educated in Iloilo City in the Philippines, and I got my accounting degree from the University of Iloilo. I worked in Asia for about five years practicing as a private accountant; I wasn't licensed because after graduation I decided to find a job for economic reasons. I also worked in Hong Kong for two years before I moved to the United States in 2002.
Part of it is just trying to find myself – what I really wanted to do with my life. Early 20’s, accounting was not really my first love, but it was the only safe choice to take back then. I had an offer to move to the East Coast in 2004, which was another mortgage job. So I took that and I was in Jersey for a year in 2004. That was the first time I saw snow. And then, I was still not happy about the nine-to-five job, I struggled because there was something inside me that's just ‘what is this?’ So I tested out working as a personal assistant to the wealthy of New York and that's when I was exposed to high living. And I liked it because I owned my own hours. Wherever my bosses were, I had to be there – flying to the multiple homes and stuff like that. And mostly at night I went to the theater, and that's how it started.
I love the idea when I came in ‘lights out.’ I get entertained – I laugh, I cry, my thoughts are provoked, my emotions are evolved. I didn't know that that was the process I had to go through to get where I am now. So I would say that I was self-taught because I didn't have a mentor. Nobody just took me in and said ‘hey you know there's a stake for you here on Broadway.’ That you could be this, it could be that. Of course, I was just a regular theatergoer. And in mid 2008, probably after having seen over a thousand shows, I have to say I became jaded. And I had this mantra with me, ‘if you want to bother me with two hours of my life it better be worth it.’
So I put all incoming productions in such a standard, that it has to be worthy of my time, my money. You know because it's not easy – every show is a hundred dollars and every year there are almost about 400 shows all over in New York City. So it's a lot, and I crusaded for my friends and they told me why don't you put that in writing. Hence the birth of my blog ‘It's All About the Theater’. And at that time, blogs were just starting, and of course I just had it under my name, no pseudonym. I'm not thinking about if they'll find me or whatever; I was just being honest. I read some of them lately and I would say I was merciless because I had held them to such a standard. I was trying to protect my readers’ time and money.
Whatever I recommended, they’d go. And if I didn’t recommend a show, then it was a ‘no.’ And that's when I started getting invitations from Broadway to go to their opening nights, press releases, presentations, and workshops. And I thought that was fun. ‘Hey, look at me, I was just a regular theater goer and here are the invitations pouring in because of my blog.’ And I enjoyed it and I went and graced these invitations and then I met those people that I reviewed very poorly; and some of them really reminded me of what I wrote about them, about their craft, about their shows. And that was really very cold water poured over me, and I wanted to be Harry Potter. ‘Where's your cloak, I want to vanish right there.’
So that's when I progressed to producing, because I did not know that I was hurting some individuals in the theatre industry because of what I'd written. I did not set out to be mean and to be damaging to someone's ego – you know apparently some people have that, especially in the theatre. So about four months later I stopped writing, and my readers were like, ‘where are your reviews? These shows have opened, should we be going to see it?’ And I would just say just pick up the phone and call me, I’m not going to put it in writing. And that was that and I struggled. I struggled because I just wanted to be a part of it. I love this community.
And I did not know about having a Filipino in the producing side. I know there have been a lot of actors on stage you know starting from Lea Salonga. We’ve been represented almost every year I did not know that there were no Filipino producers on Broadway. I did not know that. And then somebody just invited me. ‘I mean, if you really want to be a part of it try producing. You know you already have the network and it doesn't really take that much. You don’t have to have your own money, you know it's about networking.’ And I tried, and the rest is history.
What are your top accomplishments?
In all of my accomplishments, I consider the most important ones that are not seen. The intangible ones. I take most pride in discovering a talent. Like, for example, someone in Hamilton. He was hardly anybody before he joined that. I helped put out his first album; I invested so much in him. And he won the best lead actor in Hamilton.
So now he tells me I’m a VIP no matter what. Because I not just gambled – I knew he had it. And now you cannot reach him. (laughs.) You know, movie offers and everything coming in left and right. And I’m happy about that. So that, to me, is the most important thing in terms of producing and creating. The rest of the accolades, the trophies… For me, when I receive them, that’s the past. I’ve already done the work. They inspire me to get the next big things, but I don’t consider them as very fulfilling inside. Because to me it’s finding the talent and creating the stories and the impact I leave on the people. That they can relate to the stories or my work. They can find themselves in every character because that’s how I feel in the theater. So, that to me is the most important thing in my work.
How has your background influenced your success?
In my interviews, it's my favorite question actually – being asked about my process or how I got from the slums to Broadway. Because I never in a million years would ever think, being a kid from the slum who grew up with no running water, grew up around drugs and prostitution, and I'm here on Broadway. Of course I never thought that it would happen. But it came down to my determination.
I've set some goals, I would say. Not pressure on me, but it's where I came from. It became my drive to succeed. Because I always tell the kids who are growing up like how I grew up that ‘poverty is not a death sentence.’ It's actually a tool to strive for more, because the greater the pain the greater the triumph. And that's how giants are born.
At the 2013 Tony Awards when ‘Vanya and Sonia’ was announced, I was actually running backwards, waving to my friends in the balcony. I was still pinching myself because I started as just a regular theatergoer and I debuted March 2013. Three months later, I got my very first Tony. It took 22 years – before was Lea Salonga in 1991 and then the next one from the Philippines is me. So there was a 22-year gap. And I still could not believe it. I thought it would go someone – an actor, a director, a designer. So I did not know the magnitude of the impact of that night. But with all my journey, with the process that I went through, it boils down to the drive that I had. I took my background as an inspiration that anything is possible if you just set your mind to it. Forget about the white noise around you. Just focus.
What is it like to be a Filipino producer?
I always refer to myself as a Filipino first because I was born raised and educated there. Every time I would come into a board meeting with multi-million dollar deals, I do not look at my skin color because that just takes me to an inferiority space and I don't need that. I always think when I go into a boardroom for a meeting and I would say, ‘huh. They're here for the same reasons I am.’ Nobody starts as an expert; they're here to learn things about this particular show too. So that takes the pressure off me.
I never set out myself to project that I know things. I always ask. I don't assume things because coming from that I had a lot of reasons. It works in my favor, actually, and because I didn't go to NYU, I didn't go to Yale, I didn't go to Harvard, an Ivy League school – no. So that I take with me. I am proud to announce my humble beginnings, and I'm here to learn, and as long as the community is welcoming -which it is – and we're here for the same reasons. So it's a great community. I think that's all I can add to how I process or how I represent myself as a producer of color. Because up to this date I'm still the only Filipino producer on Broadway.
What are your thoughts about the P.O.L.I.N.G.® principles?
I think of P.O.L.I.N.G.® when I think of this not-for-profit organization. I took on the task to raise funding for the Knights of Rizal, and I had an eye to make the community come together and support another Filipino actor who was the first woman of color to actually get the role of Christine in ‘Phantom of the Opera’. For 28 years of Broadway history, this character Christine has been played by Caucasian women. And at this time – first time in history that a woman of color is playing Christine – and she happens to be a Filipino. So I wanted to promote that.
The show is spectacular, but I wanted to promote her, and also make the community come together to support her, meet her; because she's not really familiar with the community. So that was my goal. My (P)riorities were to raise money for the Knights of Rizal, and to introduce Ali Ewoldt to the Filipino community because she’s never been to the Philippines. Her mother is Filipina but she doesn’t know how to speak Tagalog and things like that. (O)thers. I've included the community to be a part of it. (L)ead, of course I lead the event. I had about 120 community leaders from all over the United States and I brought them all in. That brought in the (N)etwork also. (G)row – because in every process you learn. You know, the ability of the mind to consume knowledge is limitless, so I am so happy to do these kinds of things. It's not to benefit me. There's nothing for me at the end of the day. But if the impact of that event is huge to every participant. So that I would say is my P.O.L.I.N.G.® - this is one of the instances.
Of course I've worked on so many events, but that would be my best example because it was a national event and everybody flew in to see the show in New York. That was a big event - very successful. With that event also, I inspired the community to learn about producing as well - as I'm trying to convince them that it's not about being on stage. Filipinos are keen towards performing; from the young kids, they already do karaoke and stuff like that. So I'm trying to open the business to them that there's so many things we could do in the theatre – there's design, there's direction, there's stage management, there's stagehand, playwriting, and composing. I graduated with a degree in accounting, but look where I am now – a producer. So anything that life takes you with a curve, don't be afraid. Just embrace it and see where it leads you. So that's the (I)nspiration part of the event.
Who have been your biggest influences?
I always looked up to women. Here, I always looked up to Maya Angelou, Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey. Those are the women I really looked up to professionally. Their lives were fascinating, what they went through, and where they are now. So, I refer to them as my big giants.
Personally, my former boss in the Philippines. He's very instrumental in my journey to the United States, because it was very hard for me to do that coming from slums. This is after 9/11. He made everything possible for me to be here, so I owe so much to him. And to my producing partner Joan Raffe also, because she believed in my choices. I remember when we started, she just told me to ‘pick the shows and I'll write the check.’ So that to me was very instrumental. We toured around the United States looking for shows to bring to Broadway. She believed in me and in my creative choices. I always put on my critical hat when picking shows and I think that that's where my talent lies – finding what works commercially. Well, not all of them. Nobody has cracked the code of commercial producing, but I have to say based on my record I have been successful in picking shows.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
My advice to my younger self is ‘be more patient.’ I always wanted to rush things I wanted results right away and now that I've been working for over the past 20 years, it takes time. So I think that would be my advice to my younger self.
There were so many instances that I wanted so many different things, like taking on a career that I wanted. I almost lost the scholarship because I wanted to take up tourism. I wanted to be a flight attendant, to go places for free. And I almost lost that because my scholarship was only exclusive to Iloilo city and it did not offer tourism – I had to go to Manila for that. So, I had to stay and study accounting just to have the education through a scholarship.
And I always had this thing to get things done right away. I rushed things. I even took advanced courses just to finish earlier because I wanted to see where the older me would be after 10 years. I graduated with less units because I took them in advance. I was so eager to get out into the world and along the way I kind of forgot my youth. So many things I missed out on that I know would have been fun. So that's what I mean when I advise myself to be patient, because I missed out on a lot of fun things as a young kid or youth would have enjoyed. And I couldn't take back the hands of time. It's done.
I missed out on field trips, I missed out on the prom, I didn't have any experience of that. I know now that money can be found but the opportunities come very rarely. I missed out on the family times. When I graduated I didn't even take the review to be a CPA. I went on to find a job right away and probably because I saw my parents didn't have any clear way to advance their lives in terms of economics. Because my older siblings got married, my sister went up to get her diploma on stage and she was already pregnant. So in our culture we take care of our elders. We provide for them; we can't afford to put them in nursing homes. We take them in. It was clear that there was there's no chance for them to have that, so I took it upon myself to give them the life they deserve they never thought they could have.
That's why I had six jobs at the same time in Asia. I had two in Hong Kong, two in Iloilo City, two in Antique. So I traveled constantly. No rest. At age 23 I had my own house so I let my parents retire. The joy that I felt to see them enjoying their own mattress; my mom her own oven because she loved to cook. And I let my dad retire. And just to provide for them. They slept in an air-conditioned room, we had running water, we had a toilet - you know, things like that. Because I was rushing things, probably it was for the better for them, but personally it took a toll on me. I completely forgot about myself.
So that's what I mean when I say that to my younger age to ‘be patient.’ I probably did not have to take all the responsibility upon me. I'd forgotten about myself for about five years and it was all about them. Hence I moved to the United States to find myself.
Would you like to say anything about diversity?
I'd like to appeal to the diverse communities to come together, to support each other. You know, this country is built by immigrants and we have to make sure that we're a part of it. Our forefathers have done so much. They opened so many gates for us. It's time for us to stay at it. With me, I always make sure that I represent the business side of the theatre because there's hardly anybody of color. So whatever organization you are in, make sure that we are visible. Make sure that we make enough noise. Make sure that they always remember that immigrants get the job done.
Tell us something about yourself that no one would guess.
The misconception about me all the time is that that I have money. Funny right? They would see me on stage receiving awards and stuff like that, and then I would get a lot of messages. In as much as I wanted to help everybody, before they do that I want them to remember where I come from. I'm happy to double, triple my investors money; it's their money not mine. They have to think about that for a sec. So I'm happy to open the opportunities for my investors. It's not for me, it's not my money – I keep repeating that to them. That's the very first misconception.
Second is that I'm too reserved, because probably they just see my photos and they didn't have a chance to talk to me or hang out with me. I'm actually very open and I'm very inclusive and very welcoming to anybody. Some of my friends would tell me ‘oh my friend is coming to New York for the first time’ and I would always offer, ‘okay has he been to the theatre or has she been to the theatre?’ And I would take them to the theatre to extend the experience because I know just one experience in the theatre will change your life.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I actually have two advocacies – Education and the Performing Arts. These are my flagship projects with FYLPRO. I want, for education, my film to create a scholarship to provide an alternative opportunity for kids who are growing up like how I grew up. There are not enough opportunities. There are still 60 million uneducated children around the world – that's down from 150 million from 2000, but the G8 has been championing education for the past 15 years and they've been successful on that. I don't have to go through numbers, but one kid at a time. I'm dedicating my film for education and I'm teaming up with FYLPRO to come up with a scholarship for that. That’s my film, ‘Life is What You Make It.’ It’s my short documentary about my life from the slum to Broadway.
My second advocacy is the Performing Arts. So I'm making everything possible to move a specific show to Broadway, ‘Here Lies Love’, because it has 17 cast. Filipino artists have been telling stories of other nationalities like in ‘Miss Saigon’ that’s a Vietnamese story. ‘The King and I’ is Thai. ‘Allegiance’ is Japanese. ‘Les Miz’ is French, ‘Evita’ is Argentina. For over 100 years of Broadway history there has not been a show about the Philippines, so I believe it's time for a Filipino artist to tell the story of being a Filipino, on stage with a Filipino story. So I’m making everything possible for this show to move and hopefully open it to licensing all throughout the world, because I guarantee you there's quite a lot of Filipinos that can be on stage and finally realize their dream; not be afraid of being typecast, because this is our story. This is the Filipino story.