Romeo Candido On The Highly Anticipated Musical Prison Dancer

Award-winning creator, writer and director Romeo Candido joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about his highly anticipated musical, Prison Dancer.

Your musical, Prison Dancer, will be making its debut in May. What was the inspiration for this show? 

The show’s inspiration originated from the viral YouTube video Dancing Inmates Of Cebu, which features a thousand orange-clad prisoners dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. As one of the first viral videos on YouTube, it caught the attention of many, including myself. However, I was disheartened by the American morning show hosts who laughed AT the inmates instead of WITH them, labeling them as “those crazy Filipinos.” It felt like an insult, as a proud Filipino-Canadian who comprehends the socio-economic and political circumstances in the Philippines. 

Though I am not an inmate in a correctional facility in Cebu Philippines, I felt the urge to explore the humanity behind the inmates and the way we Filipinos have utilized artistic expression as a means to surpass our struggles. I partnered with my long-time collaborator Carmen DeJesus, whom I worked with on Miss Saigon decades ago. Together, we set out to create a Filipino-focused musical centered on themes of forgiveness, redemption, and the power of community. 

Can you tell us about some of the characters we’ll encounter in Prison Dancer? 

The musical tells the story of a group of inmates, each with their own struggles and challenges, as they navigate life in prison. At the center of the group is Lola, a genderqueer character whose remarkable talent as a singer and dancer propels them into the spotlight. Inspired by real-life dancing inmate Wenjiel Resane, Lola must confront their past traumas and navigate newfound fame after going viral. Along the way, they must also navigate their relationships with other inmates, which can be fraught with tension. 

Christian is another inmate who has just discovered that he is a father. He is faced with a difficult decision: to isolate himself from the outside world in order to survive, or to find a way to make it work with his girlfriend, Cherish. Like many other inmates, Christian made poor choices to escape poverty, leading him to prison. Cherish, Christian’s girlfriend, is also an inmate who refuses to give up on him. Her song “Evermore” is a powerful anthem that we predict will become a centerpiece of the musical. 

Unfortunately, not everyone in the prison is supportive of the inmates’ efforts to rehabilitate themselves. The Warden, an antagonist in the show, is the son of a prominent political family who has been sent to the prison to rehabilitate his public image. Determined to reform the prison, he comes up with the idea to turn the rehabilitation exercises into a viral sensation, but his methods may not be as well-intentioned as they seem. 

What are some of the themes Prison Dancer explores? 

Prison Dancer explores several themes. It highlights the transformative power of art, redemption, second chances and the importance of community.

Can you tell us about your collaboration with Carmen De Jesus on the show? 

30 years ago, Carmen and I had the pleasure of meeting as original cast members of Miss Saigon. While we enjoyed our time on the show, we couldn’t help but have a critical eye towards the representation of Asian characters in the production. As a result, we always knew that we wanted to write our own stories that would showcase our unique experiences and perspectives. Twenty years later, we finally started working on our musical, Prison Dancer. I took on the role of composer and lyricist while Carmen and I co-wrote the book. It has been a labor of love, and the musical has gone through many iterations, from a musical in concert to a simple workshop, to a run at the New York Musical Festival, and even an interactive web series. 

We thought that the show had reached its limit, but the National Creation Fund saw its potential and awarded us funding to develop it into a commercial property. With the help of The Citadel Theatre and Nina Aquino, the artistic director of the National Arts Centre, we workshopped it again to prepare for our Canadian debut in Edmonton. 

Working with Carmen has been an amazing experience. We have an immediate shorthand that allows us to communicate effectively, while our different perspectives push us to find the best ideas always. We are excited to finally showcase our unique vision, with an ALL FILIPINO creative team to Canadian audiences this year. 

What can audiences expect from Prison Dancer? 

Our ultimate goal as creators of a musical theatre show is to deliver an experience that leaves a lasting impression on our audience. We strive to create characters and songs that stay with our audience long after they leave the theatre, and to foster a sense of community and shared experience that can only be found in a live show.

Most importantly, we want our audience to feel the complete range of emotions, from heart-wrenching sadness to unadulterated joy. There is nothing quite like the electricity of a live musical theatre show, where the story, music, dance, acting, and design all work together in perfect harmony for a one-time-only moment. Coming out of the pandemic, we have seen the transformative power of live theatre as a cathartic and life-affirming experience. Our hope is that our audiences will leave our show feeling “expanded” in both their soul and their body, having been moved and inspired by the power of the live performance. 

You’ve been nominated for multiple 2023 Canadian Screen Awards for your highly acclaimed series, Topline. What was your experience like working on the show? 

Topline is my true labor of love. From the inception of the idea, through to creating the music, writing the script, casting the actors, and managing the production, I poured my heart and soul into this project.  After losing my mom in 2016, there was a need to explore grief and find a way through it, and Topline was the project that helped me process it, and, like the main character, find a way to express it in music. Without the constraints of a big budget production, I was able to experiment and explore the ideas without a lot of input from the network and executives etc.   

As a result, Topline is my most personal project to date, and, to that point in my career, was the most complete expression of what I can do as a creator. I feel like Topline, alongside The Next Step, which I served as co-showrunner, really helps me carve out my place as a “song and dance” person in Canada.  

To work on The Next Step, one of the biggest Canadian exports around the world, has been a blessing. To work with the incredible dancers was eye opening and really brought me back to my days as a cast member of Miss Saigon. 

The fact that Topline has resonated with so many people and received CSA nominations is an amazing achievement, and I am excited to see where this project will take me next. I hope that even more people will fall in love with the characters and the world that was created, and that Topline will continue to touch people’s hearts moving forward. It will be having its US debut at the prestigious San Francisco Asian International Film Festival, the biggest Asian film fest in North America, and one where I premiered my debut feature film Lolo’s Child (also a musical) 20 years ago.

Prison Dancer will run at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton from May 6 – 28, 2023

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