“IF YOU don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.” This is the life mantra of international theater producer Jhett Tolentino that put him on Broadway.
His love for theater all started with a single question in a Social Studies quiz he encountered when he was still in first year high school: “Who is the first Filipino to win a Tony Award?” He got the correct answer: Lea Salonga for “Miss Saigon.” Little did he know that 23 years after that quiz, he will follow her footsteps.
Tolentino is the second Filipino to win the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre, or Tony Award, for achievement in live Broadway theater. He got it in two consecutive years — 2013 and 2014, all for producing “Vanya and Sonia” and “Masha and Spike” (Best Play), “A Raisin in the Sun” (Best Revival of a Play), and “A Gentleman’s Guode to Love and Murder” (Best Musical).
He says he never thought of winning such awards. As a matter of fact, the first Broadway show he ever saw was Lea Salonga’s last performance as Kim in “Miss Saigon” staged in Manila in 2000. He paid three times the value of the ticket just to watch the stage actress’ performance.
According to him, the show “changed his life.” He wanted so bad to be part of the show. But he cannot sing. So he decided to settle away from the limelight as theater producer.
Tolentino made the right decision. From listening to the cast album recordings of Broadway musicals such as “Miss Saigon,” “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera” that he borrowed from friends, his name now echoes in the international theater production arena.
Aside from three Tony Awards, Tolentino is also a recipient of three Outer Critics Circle Awards, two Drama Desk Awards, two Broadway League Awards, a Lucille Lortel Award, and an Off-Broadway Alliance Award. He was also named The Outstanding Filipino-American-New York for Entertainment in 2014. Recently he received the Ani ng Dangal Award from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. He was also nominated for this year’s Olivier Awards for Best New Comedy for one of the shows he produced.
This proud Ilonggo is now crossing his fingers to be in the Grammy Awards in February 2017 for “The Color Purple” cast album recording, which he coproduced with Jennifer Hudson.
The trophies and recognitions he received are just bonuses. For him, just being part of the theater industry is his greatest achievement.
FROM SLUM TO GLAM
Tolentino had his humble beginnings in a slum area in Barangay Calumpang, Molo, Iloilo City. He is the youngest of four children of a jeepney driver and a beautician. With positive outlook in life, self-discipline and focus, he was able to live his Broadway dream despite criticisms.
“I am proud of my background. I don’t hide it. It is the very core of my existence. From there, I go on to talking about self-discipline and focus. Be determined and don’t waver. Be positive,” he says.
The course he took up in college is far different from the field where he is now. But “education is very important,” he says. “It can take you anywhere. It might not be where you wanted right away, but it will lead you there.”
Tolentino finished a bachelor’s degree in accountancy at University of Iloilo. He considers himself “good in analysis and accounting.” Accountancy was not his first choice. He wanted to take up tourism, but there was no such course in Iloilo City at that time yet. He wanted to entertain people, work in the hospitality industry or be a flight attendant. But he still pursued accountancy because, for him, “changing degrees can lead to no degree at all.”
Tolentino started by critiquing theater productions through a blog. Later, he became the master of his own show.
Theater production is a complex and risky business but is also a continuing education for every producer: from budgeting and casting to design and sales, he says. “No one in the industry has cracked the code on theater producing. Some got close, but not quite.”
Despite the challenges, Tolentino remains driven to produce world-class shows. “The magic that happens only in theatre, [something that] changes people’s lives like it did to mine — I want to be a part of that. And discovering the amass talent in people, it feeds my soul,” he says./PN
Correction: A version of this article, which appeared in print on April 7, 2016, on page B22, misstated the number of Tony Awards Mr. Tolentino won. He got three, not two.