Behind-the-scenes: The road to staging ‘Zsazsa Zaturnnah The Musikal...'Yun lang!’

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Ateneo Blue Repertory breathes new life into the queer cult classic “Zsazsa Zaturnnah Ze Muzikal.” Photo by JL JAVIER

When “Zsazsa Zaturnnah” first debuted onstage 17 years ago, it shook up the Philippine theater scene. First birthed by Carlo Vergara in 2002 as a National Book Award-winning graphic novel, “Zsazsa Zaturnnah” was adapted into a landmark musical by Tanghalang Pilipino in 2006, becoming an on-and-off staple until 2011. With a book by Chris Martinez, music and lyrics by Vincent de Jesus, and direction by Chris Millado, “Zsazsa Zaturnnah” made audiences chuckle and cheer while queering the dominant ideas of heroism, provincial life, the bakla, and our patriarchal roots during a time when such interrogations weren’t commonplace.

The epic tale finds Ada, a timid bakla, transforming into the titular bombastic redheaded superwoman after swallowing a glowing rock. While his best friend Didi initially plans to use these strengths to pull them out of poverty, Ada is forced to defend their barangay from Queen Femina and the Amazonistas of Planet XXX — colonizers from an all-female planet bent on destroying all male forms and grabbing land. While battling giant frogs and reanimated corpses, Ada wrestles not only with his one-sided attraction to the dreamboat Dodong, but also with familial traumas and inner saboteurs.

12 years since its closing show at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, “Zsazsa Zaturnnah” now finds itself in the hands of the collegiate musical theater organization Ateneo Blue Repertory in their first on-site production since the pandemic began, in what is likely the company’s most ambitious undertaking. “Doing student productions online was not easy. Transitioning back onsite was not easy,” says Missy Maramara, director of the new restaging. “Even the experienced ones seem to be back to zero. It’s really the learning curve that we’re up against. But what’s wonderful is everyone is learning from each other.”

Phi Palmos as Ada and Almond Bolante as Didi. Photo by JL JAVIER

The musical finds Ada (Phi Palmos), a timid bakla, transforming into redheaded superwoman Zsazsa Zaturnnah after swallowing a glowing rock. Photo by JL JAVIER

New treatment

Maramara, who serves as the organization’s moderator, previously directed Ateneo Blue Repertory’s critically acclaimed darlings “Spring Awakening” in 2019 and the short-lived “Next to Normal” in 2020 and is a long-time fan of the graphic novel and the staging directed by Chris Millado. Yet despite her reverence for the material and its various interpretations, she felt something was amiss when she first watched it at CCP. “I couldn’t understand it back then,” says Maramara. “Maybe because wala pang literature for what I was feeling.”

Thanks to the development of queer theory and conversations around LGBTQIA+ representation in the Philippines over the years, Maramara realized the core of her discomfort with the text. “Ang ayaw ko kasi nung babae versus bakla,” says Maramara. “I love so many gay men and have been loved by so many gay men that I do not see that sexuality as conflicting. So bakit masama yung mga Amazonista?” Knowing the only way to alleviate this pinch was to face it head-on, Maramara agreed to direct the production after a unanimous decision by the company core.

In search of an alternative, Maramara sat with transwomen and LGBTQIA+ advocates Mela Habijan and Janlee Dungca to talk to them about the possibility of having a trans woman portray the titular character, but Maramara ultimately felt like it wasn’t her story to tell yet. “[Instead,] they taught me the term ‘terf’ — trans exclusionary radical feminists,” says Maramara. “So [it’s] not women versus bakla. We’re against being exclusionary. Because terf is an extension of patriarchy and that’s exactly what the Amazonistas are. The violence by which they assert their femininity… I refuse that. I think we can choose love.”

Director Missy Maramara tapped production designer Tata Tuviera for the musical. In photo: A sketch of Femina's costume by Tuviera. Photo courtesy of TATA TUVIERA

A sketch of the set by Tata Tuviera. Photo courtesy of TATA TUVIERA

Opposing femininities

Maramara worked with production designer Tata Tuviera and choreographer Franco Ramos to arrive at a visual language to embody this conflict. “Femininity is a power that [Ada] finds in the rock, but it’s also the same power weaponized by the Amazonistas,” says Ramos, who contrasted the Amazonistas’ sharper, geometric, and canned movement with Zsazsa’s fluidity, playful, and kenkoy dance breaks, much of which was thanks to the collaboration with Kim Molina. “Her movement also has this energy about it that feels like it’s bursting at the seams, escaping her body any which way it likes.”

In bringing out the larger-than-life personalities of Zsazsa and the Amazonistas, Maramara and Tuviera used drag as a source of inspiration. “Before we even fully explored the material, sinabi na ni Missy: This has to be one big drag show!” These are most apparent with Queen Femina and the Amazonistas, whose looks veer away from the Spice Girls-esque inspirations in the graphic novel. Instead, Tuviera opted to externalize the values and the rigidity of their wearers — their hair hardened to become glittered helmets and their caged armor matching their caged, regressive ideals.

“It’s not just Zsazsa that transforms. The community transforms with her,” says Tuviera, who has the ensemble progressively exchanging their black, white, and brown clothing for a wardrobe and interior design with bursts of color and more daring patterns and prints. “They become more open to the queerness and I’m trying to do that with color, with their hairstyles, etc.”

In bringing out the larger-than-life personalities of Zsazsa and the Amazonistas, Maramara and Tuviera used drag as a source of inspiration. In photo: Kim Molina as Zsazsa, Almond Bolante as Didi, and Kakki Teodoro as Queen Feminas. Photo by JL JAVIER

“It’s not just Zsazsa that transforms. The community transforms with her,” says Tuviera. Photo by JL JAVIER

Love and transformation

Through these collaborations, Maramara zeroed in on the spine of the musical — transformation. “How does a queer person find love within this heteronormative world?” she asks. “They won’t. Unless we transform that world.” The new staging emphasizes how radical Vergara’s work is by never shying away from the flamboyance and shamelessness of Ada and Didi, rightfully celebrating them as crucial parts of the community, while also subverting their personas in the choice to humanize them.

Case in point: Ada’s first transformation into Zsazsa (“Babae Na Ako!”) is not played strictly for laughs, but is instead depicted as a genuine moment of discovery akin to one’s self-exploration in adolescence. Didi’s star moment in Act II (“Nakikita Ko Na Ang Nakakasilaw Na Ilaw”) becomes a chance to question how the audience perceives gays as mere human punchlines. And Dodong’s earnest act of confession becomes a balm after the chaos, challenging Ada’s invisibility, assuring that someone sees through his mask of strength.

In revisiting the music, de Jesus, who also serves as the production’s musical director, only altered the lyrics minimally after consulting with the actors, opting instead to rearrange and trim all 21 tracks for the new staging and adding three new ones. “It was meant to sound like karaoke even if it’s gospel, soul, and rhythm and blues kasi [nasa] probinsya,” says de Jesus. “It’s been 17 years… I feel like I had to redress this to give it a fresh take.” In the process, a new song emerged — “Wag Mong Itataboy” — which catalyzes the show’s thesis on love and transformation before the finale, sung not by the apple of Ada’s eye Dodong but by Aling Britney — the voice of experience, the closest thing Ada has to a parental figure, and a pillar of the community.

Similar struggles

Vergara, concerned that Ada may be lost in the shadows of his spectacular superhero alter ego, requested that the character be given more time onstage. Hoping to show how Ada and Zsazsa are not competing entities, Maramara weaves Ada in during crucial emotional moments as a specter, emphasizing how they are two sides of the same coin. “I see Zsazsa and Ada as one entity. None is more than the other. It’s just that Zsazsa has more avenue to be brave,” says Maramara. In one of the show’s most touching moments, Zsazsa protects Ada from the insults hurled at him by his reanimated father (“Multo Ng Nakaraan”), the two embracing as an act of self-love. But as the story progresses, Maramara also displays how Ada grows further from his identity, his kabaklaan, by choosing to hide beneath the protection of Zsazsa’s ideal female body.

“I see Zsazsa and Ada as one entity. None is more than the other. It’s just that Zsazsa has more avenue to be brave,” says Maramara. Photo by JL JAVIER

While not intended by Vergara, Zsazsa Zaturnnah’s emergence and reemergence as an icon of queer strength seems to parallel the battle for LGBTQIA+ rights in the Philippines. When “Zsazsa” was first staged by Tanghalang Pilipino, anti-discrimination bills were already being submitted to Congress to little progress. 17 years later, despite the mainstream popularity of LGBTQIA+ entertainers and shows, LGBTQIA+ representation has still not translated into legislative support — with not only recent pushback against the SOGIE Equality Bill in the Philippines but also a more disturbing crackdown against trans and gender non-conforming individuals, especially in the US.

“What makes this piece even more important now is that we’ve developed so much and yet we’re still staying in that old mindset. It’s ridiculous,” says Maramara. “So the young ones have to step up. And I see them stepping up.”


Erratum: The article has been edited to reflect the production’s full title, ‘Zsazsa Zaturnnah The Musical…’Yun Lang!” which is different from the original production by Tanghalang Pilipino. We apologize for this oversight.