Indecision, indigestion: “Ang Huling El Bimbo” fails us (second of three parts)

by Katrina Stuart Santiago

Image from AHEL's press materials.

▶︎ Here’s the thing with using existing music, with its own history, its specific historical milieu, its own audience – really a whole generation defined by it, and then some: it’s no easy feat to transform that into a musical, or to transpose it to other cultural forms. And any production that tries would be faced with the major task of making choices.

That is, are we going to decontextualize all these songs from the period that cradled these? That is, Three Stars and the Sun, which did talk about nation, but also transposed FrancisM’s nationalism to a dystopic future? Or maybe do it ala Rak of Aegis, which successfully used the songs of the band Aegis to tell the story of a community with perennial floods, a statement on the state of the nation, but also a story – if not a fairytale – that is in Aegis songs as well. Or maybe like Sa Wakas, which used the love songs of Sugarfree to the hilt, playing only with the narrative structure of a love story and talking about its ending more than its beginning.

As with any creative endeavor, that first decision is crucial; for a musical using Eraserheads songs, even more so. After all, you’re talking about mainstream albums that spanned much of the 90’s (first album released in 1992 – post-Cory/democracy high), which – more importantly – evolved and matured as quickly as the band did. We all watched, or listened, as the songs changed, and by the time things fell apart it was really no surprise. We all probably knew it by the time we heard Natin99, where they sang about being tired and lost and ready to call it quits.

That shift in form and content – from heavily contextualized in the State U, to more general statements about a generation born into Martial Law and adulting into democracy – is something that is not only difficult to ignore, but also if acknowledged needs to be fleshed out, discussed, with as much nuance as the songs give us.

This is where the failure of Ang Huling El Bimbo lies. There was no clear decision made about whether or not they were going to use Eraserheads songs to do nostalgia, or talk about a whole generation’s unraveling. Were they doing the past, or the present? And if both, which songs would stand for that past, and this present?

That this production refused to make this decision made its use of Eraserheads songs clumsy at best. At most: a set of ill-conceptualized mash-ups and a strange amalgamation of songs – including a line or two plucked out of say, “Lightyears” or “Kailan” – that made certain parts seem like a badly-strung medley.

It is clear that Ang Huling El Bimbo’s failure is not just in terms of its narrative weakness, i.e., the lack of a clear story that needed to be told, but also of a mismanagement of the music. There was a refusal here to properly historicize and/or decontextualize the music, and the outcome was the unjustified – if not unjustifiable – decisions made about which songs to use and why.

Case in point: The Eraserheads do have an anti-ROTC song, that would have contextualized the whole narrative of the three lead characters versus their officer Labnaw, but it was not used. Instead “Pare Ko” was transformed into the play’s anti-ROTC song, which did not only make little sense: it also put the Eraserheads anthem – and that is what it is historically – in the precarious position of actually being in favor of the kind of abuse and senselessness that ROTC in 90’s State U stood for.

This would’ve been easy to justify if the rest of the songs were transformed in this same way, too, i.e., completely decontextualized from its historical milieu, torn apart and absolutely removed from the environment in which these were created. This could have worked, and might have allowed for a stronger narrative to boot. But this was not something that was consistently done throughout Ang Huling El Bimbo, and while one was shifting from past to present, one was also being forced to shift across a spectrum of songs familiar (yey nostalgia!) and defamiliarized to the point of what-the-f-did-you-do-with-that-song?!?

Here’s the thing with nostalgia: it can only take any production so far. Especially if one is not quite sure about whether you’re going to be true to the period, the collective memory – the imagined community – that these songs created. Here’s the other thing: with any other discography, a nostalgia trip would’ve been the easiest route. Just not with the Eraserheads. Not with albums dropped across a decade, intricately interwoven with the band’s own personal unraveling, and in the context of nation’s socio-political evolution. This is no easy nostalgia trip, unless one decided to skip the present and focus on the 90’s – and even then it would require serious research about the State U we all know of. Something this production, even for just the half of it that was about nostalgia, didn’t seem to have time for.

But of course nostalgia will sell tickets. Getting lines from the songs and putting it on PR materials and merchandise, having one member of a four-man band speak about your musical, not to mention just a marketing and PR blitz, will get you your audience. That is no surprise.

Yet we all know that a filled theater is not what makes a good production. That’s never been true, and never will be – no matter what your own PR says. ***