Into A Writer’s Wits: Dingdong Novenario And The Guts It Took to Pen A Play About The Best- Loved Songs Of The '90s
Writing a play about an entire generation’s musical heroes and trying to bring to life the songs of the band that rocked the '90s takes guts, and playwright Dingdong Novenario was fierce enough to say yes to it.
An Electronics and Communications Engineering degree holder from the University of the Philippines Diliman, and an I.T. expert in one of the leading solutions companies in the country, Novenario’s fascination for theater began when he was a kid and Sound of Music took over TV sets across the globe during Christmas. And then it was Miss Saigon, and the popularity of our very own Lea Salonga that really got Novenario smitten. He started going to the theater as soon as he could afford it—he even acted for one-act plays. But when he found writing to be more interesting and a lot less distressing, his playwright instincts completely kicked in.
His debut effort at Virgin Labfest, Kafatiran.
He is known for his one-act plays in the annual Virgin Labfest, the venue CCP created especially for works “untried, untested, and unstaged.” His first ever gamble into the theater scene dates back to 2011 through his Kafatiran, a story of love and freedom set at the dawn of the Philippine Revolution. Highly acclaimed for his take on historical revisionism with a bold representation of coming out despite the odds, Novenario got the break he wanted and has since created several stories made for the Tanghalang Huseng Batute in CCP. His works include Digital Divide, Wendy Wants to be a Housewife, Daddy’s Girl and his latest, Nothing but Dreams directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna.
Hangover: Did a 3pm show of #NothingButDreams yesterday and decided to watch the 8pm showcase of Set A afterwards.. It was my first time to be on the "other side" of the stage.. As I was looking on that stage, I realized how small it was.. How fascinating that such a size can give so much life. I also learned that the first row seats were reserved for the National Artist of the country (amazing!!) and how you can sneak in front after the last beat of the second chime if no artist arrives. (Thanks Tito Audie for that tip). Show starts: I never tried watching a play that close to the actors performing. With the VLF style, you can really see all the units and movements of the actors on stage, if he's committed or not, his eyes and all. It was so intimate. If the actor is comfortable and natural, if he's projecting just right.. You can succumb to their journey if you commit yourself. Post: I had fun. It made me feel happy with what I'm doing and my chosen field. It adds fuel to my soul to be an actor. Thank you very much Theatre. ?? Danaraye Torres #Theatre #Actors #StrightPlay #VirginLabFest #VLFSetD #Play #VLF
A scene from Novenario’s “Nothing But Dreams.”
Considered to be one of many firsts for Novenario, “Ang Huling El Bimbo” is his maiden foray into full-length territory—it’s also his first ever musical. A true-blooded Eraserheads fan who grew up listening to their songs—he was a mere high school student when the band rose to fame—Novenario couldn’t possibly turn down an offer as generous as bringing to life a story inspired by one of the country’s favorite rock bands.
The surge of band-inspired musicals across the globe like Mamma Mia influenced producers Christine and Mark Manalang to start the project. The power couple behind the Philippine adaptations of internationally-acclaimed productions like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Annie, and homegrown efforts Noli Me Tangere: The Opera and Bituing Walang Ningning: The Musical, the Manalangs approached Novenario to write a then unnamed project for them, but initial plans didn’t take off. Fast forward to 2016, and he was again invited by the Manalangs to pen something they could produce. It was only then Novenario realized he was writing a play involving the songs of Eraserheads. “All the while na nagkaroon ng Rak of Aegis, and all other musicals about local bands, bakit walang gumagawa nito?,” he asked himself. From the time that he was approached, the producers had to work out the music rights—it roughly took around four years of waiting—and eventually got the whole production moving come 2016. That’s when the hard labor started, as did Novenario’s sleepless nights armed with caffeine, pumped up with excitement.
The cast of Huling El Bimbo.
For a playwright like him who is not really into writing song lyrics, to be able to write a musical was a childhood dream. It was in fact what got him interested in theater. Initially, he thought writing a musical was a whole lot easier given that lyrics are already provided. But he was fooled by that notion. His only consolation was that he didn’t have to create the songs, he just had to make the lyrics serve the purpose of the story—and that’s an entirely different kind of hard work. If there is one thing that challenged him most about writing this project, it was to find a common thread among the songs, and rise above his doubts that his creative imagination might not be good enough to stave off mass hysteria, should he fail to bring to life the most iconic Eraserheads songs. “I don’t think anyone is ever worthy of it. I’ve seen others do the same, for TV specials and musical theater workshops – so anyone can do it. I just consider myself honored to mix these songs in a certain way to bring a story to life on this particular stage,” he shares.
At the musical’s press conference.
With a touch of personal resonance, he wrote the entire thing for the fans of the band who cried and laughed along with their music, the obscure songs included, and those who have fallen head over heels in love with the band’s striking lyrical brilliance. “It’s something that crosses generations,” he mused.
His first draft was in fact a fantasy plot complete with dream sequences and portals that could transport one from an imagined world to the reality – indeed a long shot from what fans would expect from a musical featuring the songs of Eraserheads. A couple more revisions after, Novenario and the rest of the production elites including the Manalangs, director Dexter Santos and musical directors Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and Michael Williams, came up with a more relatable storyline that could easily send everyone on a nostalgic trip—a reunion story of old buddies, from the time they were still in college to what happens twenty years later.
So, if you ever find yourself wondering where he got the guts to write the musical everyone has been longing to see, Novenario has this to say, “Well, someone’s got to do it. I’m just lucky enough to be that one writer to write about it.”
Illustration by Luciano Ramirez