Hey, Mr. Producer
Words by Lara Antonio | Photos by Bria Cardenas
Jhett Tolentino’s love affair with theater began in 2001. “I went to Manila to see Miss Saigon,’ Jhett recalls, “I didn’t even buy a hotel reservation. I just flew in to watch it and stayed at the airport and took the first flight [back to Iloilo] the next day.”
Back then, he was managing a finance company in Toilo, auditing a Japanese firm in Hong Kong, and was working part-time for Inside Fashion in Hong Kong. “I was juggling so many things. I needed a way to escape. It was Lea Salonga’s last performance—I had to see it. And I’m glad I did; look where it got me.”
Fifteen years later—Jhett Tolentino is now an internationally-acclaimed producer, having bagged three Tony awards for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which won Best Play, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which won Best Musical, and finally, A Raisin in the Sun (starring Denzel Washington), which won the Best Play Revival—and is currently the only Filipino who is a voting member for both the Tonys and the Grammys.
It may be on account of happenstance that Jhett ended up a producer on Broadway, but the eye for theater and the love for the performing arts is something he believes is inherent to all Filipinos. “It’s in every Filipino’s blood,” he says with finality. “We are entertainers no matter what.”
Because of this realization, he struggled to write for months. “It wasn’t my intention to harm or hurt somebody’s feelings,” he adds, “I just wanted to be part of the industry.’ And that was when another opportunity presented itself—Jhett Tolentino met with the producers of How to Succeed in Business and they told him, “If you really like theater so much, there’s another alternative.” The alternative? Producing shows.
Initially Jhett Tolentino was hesitant. “I thought it was going to take a lot,” he admits. But when he partnered with Joan Raffe, one of his avid readers, it occurred to him that maybe they could pull it off.
“After having seen 1200 shows at that time, J think I’d be in authority already to say that somehow I know what would fly or what would not fly.’
But it was not until he saw Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike Off-Broadway that he finally understood what that meant. “When I saw it,” he recalls, “I was like, oh my God, this show has to be on Broadway. So [had to fight for it because it was one piece that I know would work. And work, it did. One year later, he ended up producing two more Tony-award winning plays—and was, incidentally, nominated for two more.
When asked, Jhett Tolentino admits he doesn’t quite know how he knew which shows would work, and how he got from just watching to where he is now, but he’s happy it happened. “No, I did not study about theater,” he says without batting an eyelash. “I fell in love with it.”