A “gut feeling” kicked off one of Rainbow Stage’s most ambitious projects to date. “It is exhilarating to witness the creation of something this big and wonder how our city will respond to it,” Carson Nattrass, artistic director at Rainbow Stage, says about Ma-Buhay!.
The musical follows three main characters as they compete to win a reality TV competition. The production marks the first time the company has developed an original musical – and the first-ever in Manitoba to feature an all-Filipino cast.
Nattrass joined Rainbow Stage in 2018 to support the development of Manitoba talent. He put out a call to meet one-on-one with local creatives to discuss their hopes and dreams in the theatre.
This included Winnipeg-based Filipino-Canadian dancer/actor/choreographer Joseph Sevillo.
Sevillo had never written, scored or produced a musical in his 20-plus years in theatre, but a chance mention of a project he was playing with piqued Nattrass’ interest.
“Just before he left the meeting, he mentioned he was writing a musical, and he played a few tracks for me,” Nattrass says in an email to The Uniter. “The songs were so fresh and so relevant. I knew right then that I wanted to share in the journey.”
“I never really had an intention to pitch Rainbow Stage at all,” Sevillo says. “This was kind of a ‘born to be’ moment.”
He first thought up Ma-Buhay! in 2011, when he performed in Prison Dancer. The musical web series was inspired by a 2007 viral video of Filipino inmates dancing to “Thriller” by Michael Jackson.
Written by his mentor Romeo Candido and his best friend Carmen De Jesus, the series featured an entirely Filipino cast and storyline.
“I was surrounded by other Filipinos singing in musical theatre and was really taken aback,” Sevillo says. “In my whole career, I’d never played a Filipino.”
Centring his story around a singing competition, Sevillo aims to capture snapshots of Filipino culture through his protagonists’ struggles and desires.
“Each character represents a part of the Filipino culture that I want to comment on,” he says, adding that singing competitions are a Filipino expression of national pride.
“There (are) so many Filipinos that are really representing us on the international stage,” Sevillo says, naming Jo Koy, Olivia Rodrigo and Bruno Mars. “We have a lot to prove. A lot (more) Filipinos are wanting to display their version of excellence and need to be seen.”
While Manitoba has the largest Filipino population per capita in Canada, Ma-Buhay! is the province’s first musical to feature a Filipino cast, storyline and team.
“That’s a huge motivation for this musical,” Sevillo says. “I want non-Filipinos alike to understand and participate in our culture and to see that there’s very few differences between everyone and the story of Ma-Buhay!.
Mabuhay, a Filipino greeting of welcome, is purposefully separated into two words: “ma” (mother), and “buhay” (life).
“My mother passed away in 2022, and she really was one of my soulmates in this world,” Sevillo says, adding that she cowrote one of Ma-Buhay’s songs before her death. “This whole show for me is an homage to parents who support their child’s love for the arts.”
“So that really encompasses it for me. Whatever anyone else takes away from it, that’s where this is coming from.”
Auditions for Ma-Buhay! begin on Jan. 18 for both youth and adults. Breakdowns are posted at rainbowstage.ca/ma-buhay_auditions. The show opens on June 27.
Published in Volume 78, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 10, 2024)