Nostalgia is one hell of a drug.
It was, Lourd de Veyra reminds us in a short essay in the souvenir program for Ang Huling El Bimbo, once classified as a medical condition. Etymology tells us that it comes from the Greek words nostos and algos—meaning “homecoming” and “ache.” Nostalgia meant a yearning to come back home—and it still does, though now “home” is less a physical space than an idea. Science also tells us that music is a powerful evocator of nostalgia because emotional memories are more robust than other memories, and emotion and music are intertwined so tightly.
And so, for Ang Huling El Bimbo, a musical based on the songs of the Eraserheads, nostalgia is hard-baked into the entire outing. It’s inescapable, and the showrunners know it; in fact, they bank on it: Audiences are asked to come in their best 90s getup, for one thing.
The entire setup is built for it: Half of the story is set in the mid-90s, a flashback to the main characters’ halcyon days of youth at UP, while the other half is set in the present day, twenty years after graduation. The dozen songs chosen for the musical are iconic to the era—some, like “Minsan,” even specific to 1990s UP student culture. Looking around the audience in attendance during one performance, it was no surprise to see fortysomething Gen-Xers making up the bulk of the audience, smiling dreamily at some of the more popular numbers.
The choice of Ang Huling El Bimbo for the musical’s title is very telling—among the Eheads’ discography, this is the one song that isn’t just powerfully nostalgic; it is itself about nostalgia and the rose-tinted glasses that we put on when we regard the past.
Ang Huling El Bimbo is not, as many people seemed to expect coming in, a dramatized version of the story told in Ely Buendia’s ballad about a lost childhood love. Playwright Dingdong Novenario hints in his notes that they did consider going down this path, but he downplays how brave a choice it was to set ready-made story templates aside in favor of going down his own path.
"[W]ith the award-winning song as a base, we set forth to tell a story about love, friendship, and second chances that never come," Novenario says.
"[W]ith the award-winning song as a base, we set forth to tell a story about love, friendship, and second chances that never come," Novenario says. And so Ang Huling El Bimbo the musical instead takes the song, along with a 11 others from the Eraserheads' considerable discography, to weave a story about a college barkada and a tragedy that broke them apart.
It's no spoiler to say that this is going to be a dark story—nostalgia noir, if you will; it's not so much Friends than it is Peter's Friends. The opening scene is set at a police station, where three of the main characters—college roommates Anthony, Emman, and Hector—are reunited after many years of estrangement for mysterious reasons. The tragedy that brings them there isn't revealed till the second act, by which time the revelation is no longer a surprise.
Admittedly, the musical's two acts feel unbalanced. The first half is bouncy, hopeful, and happy, even in the face of the mundane dramas everyone experiences as a teen coming of age in college. It’s also front-loaded with some of the most popular and catchy of the Eheads’ songs: “Minsan,” “Tindahan ni Aling Nena,” “Pare Ko,” “Alapaap.” Musical director Myke Salomon picked well, and still managed to step out from under the giant shadow of these songs by reimagining them in new contexts: "Pare Ko" is sung by a platoon of ROTC cadets, while "Shirley" is a jibe at a daydreaming young lady who answers her aunt's every request with an absentminded "Surely."
The college barkada—Topper Fabregas as Anthony, Boo Gabunada as Emman, Reb Atadero as Hector, and Tanya Manalang as Joy—play their parts with charm, enthusiasm, and skillful comic timing. Manalang in particular carries a great part of the load here, able to convey wide-eyed hopefulness and a wisdom beyond her years all in one go. It also helps that she gets to play off the amazing Sheila Francisco, as Joy’s Tiya Dely, who brings such depth and warmth to her character that it radiates to everyone who shares a scene with her. Francisco's "Balikbayan Box" is in a league of its own, an unexpected emotional highlight in the show.
It's no spoiler to say that this is going to be a dark story—nostalgia noir, if you will; it's not so much Friends than it is Peter's Friends.
The second act isn’t on such solid footing. Perhaps it’s because of the denouement that happens at the end of the first act, which derails the plot (as it should). Nothing feels right after graduation, as each of the youngsters go off into each of their lives of quiet desperation for the next twenty years.
Part of it is also casting. The present-day characters are all portrayed by excellent stage actors, and individually, they play their parts more than competently. Together and in the context of their younger selves, however, they don't make sense. I understand about suspension of disbelief and everything, but it's hard to ignore that present-day Anthony, as played by Jon Santos, seems to have shrunk by a whole foot since graduation, or that he and present-day Joy (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo) are clearly much older than their supposed batchmates. Likewise, OJ Mariano's Emman and Gian Magdangal's Hector bear absolutely no resemblance to their past selves. (I understand about casting limitations, but surely between judicious costume choices and makeup, this problem could've at least been helped a bit.)
Or perhaps the second act is hard to watch precisely because that's how life unfolds. Youth seems to stretch out forever, and it takes its time. Then all of a sudden, we're jolted out of it, and life passes by as a series of accidents punctuated by small victories and tragedies. It’s as Kenneth Branagh’s character sums up in the aforementioned Peter’s Friends: “You know, it's like...kindergarten, school, university, black hole.”
But such is the power of the Eraserheads' songs, and of nostalgia itself, that the ending will do little to dampen the mood of the audience. Hellbent on partying like it's 1999—or perhaps 1995—the audience will leave humming the songs they just heard, or counting the ones they didn't, and thinking about the twenty years they've each just lived. At the end, that's what the ticket really buys you: a chance and an excuse to relive your past.
Ang Huling El Bimbo runs at the Newport Performing Arts Theater at Resorts World Manila until September 2, with performances on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Tickets are available from Ticketworld and through the Resorts World Manila website.