Casting a Wider Net

Joseph Sevillo, creator of the all-Filipinx musical “Ma-Buhay! A New Musical”, and Julia Ulayok Davis, an Inuit performer and aspiring creator, are ushering in a new — more diverse — era for musical theatre in Manitoba.

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The dance studio booms with chatter and laughter as 13 performers warm up and begin rehearsing songs from the first ever all-Filipnx musical: Ma-Buhay! A New Musical, created by Joseph Sevillo.

“I am my own star / I can make it on my own,” they sing. 

The full musical is slated for its Canadian premiere at Rainbow Stage in June 2024. Today’s rehearsal is for a preview performance at the Winnipeg Jets Fillipino Heritage Night on Jan. 13, 2024, where they are also slated to sing the national anthems.

“In this huge space that we are performing in, I want you to maximize your performance qualities to reach the audience at the back of the room. This means huge smiles, and sharp and energetic movements from the tips of your toes to the ends of your fingertips,” says Joseph Sevillo, 40.

“I know that I’m not perfect,” the group sings in unison as the floor vibrates with music and energy.

The performers have followed Sevillo’s every word and direction, amplifying their movements and smiles, giving it their all. 

Sevillo’s influence goes beyond this rehearsal space and the cast he is directing. His musical is a good example of how Manitobans are making strides in diversifying the musical theatre landscape – a space that has traditionally been white and non-inclusive.  

One of the best ways to understand the lack of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) representation in the musical theatre industry is by looking at Broadway stages. In 2021, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) published a visibility report on racial representation on Broadway stages. The report tracks diversity in positions such as performers, writers, directors, and designers during the 2018-19 season. 

According to the report, Broadway musical performers were 58.9 per cent white, 6 per cent Asian American, and 0 per cent Indigenous that year. The only Indigenous representation was 2.7 per cent of writers. Asian Americans comprised 2.7 per cent of writers, 4.7 per cent of designers, and 0 per cent of directors. Although it is possible the numbers have increased since then, no new musicals by Filipinx or Indigenous creators have emerged. But things may be changing in Manitoba, where more racially diverse musical theatre creators and performers are making their mark. 

Rainbow Stage, situated in Winnipeg, is Canada’s largest and longest-running outdoor theatre. Sevillo has performed on the stage several times and was part of the creative team for the production of The Little Mermaid in the summer of 2023. The Little Mermaid cast featured several diverse performers including the lead Julia Ulayok Davis, 24, an Inuit performer. 

“[The Little Mermaid] had one of the most diverse casts I’ve ever seen,” says Sevillo. “The representation of Julia Davis playing Ariel was huge.”

The cast also included representation from Black artists as well as Filipinx artists. 

Julia Ulayok Davis. (Alicia Régnier)

Davis says she aims to share her culture through musical theatre just like Sevillo. In 2021, her second year in the Village Conservatory for Music Theatre program based in Winnipeg, Davis was given a task to either write a poem, a song, a scene, or anything she desired to present at a year-end performance.

While Davis was pondering her task, her biological grandmother was visiting from up north. At birth, Davis was adopted into a white family in Winnipeg. She is in contact with members of her biological family who live around the Baker Lake and Arviat regions in Nunavut. Davis remembers her grandmother sharing a story with her that she was told as a child.

“The legend was that if you go out onto the lands when the northern lights are out, and you whistle at the northern lights then they will come down and take you back up with them,” says Davis. “If they start coming down you can zip your coat or you can rub your fingernails together and they’ll go away, but it was just kind of one of those legends to try and scare kids into making good choices and being safe.”

About a week after the visit from her grandmother, Davis looked out the window of her house located in central Winnipeg and saw the northern lights. 

“I thought it was a super crazy sign, like maybe this is the sign that I’ve been looking for. I think I’m going to write about this,” says Davis. 

She began writing a song which she called Aqqaq, meaning northern lights in Inuktitut, her grandmother’s language. After working on it with her mentor at the Village Conservatory for Music Theatre, she presented the song at her end-of-year performance, but Davis didn’t stop there. Her new goal was not only to write one song, but an entire musical called Aqqaq.

Davis wrote another song inspired by identity and finding yourself, the type of song princesses tend to sing in Disney musicals. In 2022, she posted a clip of the song on her TikTok, and it quickly gained traction. She received many positive comments and Disney on Broadway commented on her video: “This is absolutely beautiful ✨” 

Davis says the musical will partially be inspired by her journey of being adopted and trying to reconnect with her culture. The story, which she sees as being similar to The Wizard of Oz, will take place in the region her biological family is from.

“The character gets swept up into the northern lights and has to find her way home by facing her fears or her anxieties that are manifested in these different characters,” she says. 

Davis aims to find a team to develop the songs and storyline of her musicalShe says she hopes to present it at Rainbow Stage someday, like Sevillo is doing with Ma-Buhay!

“[Sevillo] is all for giving new people a chance and giving people those opportunities, like he just really is changing the musical theatre industry in Winnipeg, and I just think the world of him, and I want to be Joseph Sevillo when I grow up,” says Davis with a laugh. 

Joseph Sevillo. (Alicia Régnier)

Sevillo’s path to becoming a performer was unconventional. He says he was poor and didn’t go to a post-secondary institution. It wasn’t easy for his family to afford singing, dancing, and acting lessons: the three things you need to be a musical theatre performer. Sevillo was able to get free training as a dancer through the Royal Winnipeg Ballet since they offered free training for boys, and his vocal teacher would subsidize the costs since she knew his family had trouble affording the lessons. Sevillo’s parents were very supportive of his dreams to perform, and he can’t imagine having the career he does without his parents’ support. 

“I was blessed with two parents that believed in everything that I did and loved the fact that I sang and danced and acted,” says Sevillo.

In the summer of 2024, Sevillo’s musical Ma-Buhay! will take center stage with a cast comprised of over 20 Filipinx performers. 

“Everyone always tells new creators to be economical and to make the cast sizes smaller because we need to save money, but this is about empowering a whole community,” says Sevillo.

Sevillo has been working on his musical since 2017. He says he first started writing after the second biggest breakup he had ever experienced. Sevillo acknowledged his pain and used it to motivate his project. 

“I knew I didn’t want to be depressed about being validated by someone outside of myself anymore,” says Sevillo. “I put all my anger, sadness, and feelings of betrayal into this project so I could become someone who was now investing in myself, and my own dreams as opposed to trying to find that in someone else to give to me.”

The idea to write an all-Filipinx musical had been simmering in Sevillo’s head since being a part of the musical web series Prison Dancer created by Filipinx Canadian Romeo Candido and Carmen De Jesus in 2011.

“I remember being on set and being like ‘What is going on? How is this even possible that I’m getting paid to sing and dance like on Glee with fellow Filipinos,’” says Sevillo.

He locked himself in his room and started writing. He began with a mind dump of some characters he wanted to write about and developed a story. Like Davis’s Aqqaq, Sevillo took inspirations from parts of his own experiences growing up for Ma-Buhay!

Tuklas Talino was a Filipinx singing competition that took place at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre in Winnipeg. At 17, Sevillo became the grand champion. The plot of Ma-Buhay! follows characters competing at the grand finals of a singing competition like the one Sevillo won as a teen.

The three main characters address subjects Sevillo says he wants to comment on in society as well as in his own community: fat shaming, colourism, sexuality, and shaming people for their financial situations.

“I wanted to comment on those things because those are things that when I grew up were so prevalent and may have changed over the years and improved, but it’s still there in different ways,” says Sevillo.

In 2018, the new artistic director at Rainbow Stage, Carson Nattrass, called a meeting for Manitoban artists to share their hopes for theatre in Manitoba. This meeting came after a Canada-wide call to action to give more opportunities for BIPOC in the theatre industry. At the meeting, Sevillo shared his thoughts on his experience in the industry and having to play roles of different ethnicities than his own. He also explained his idea for Ma-Buhay! to Nattrass, which eventually led to Nattrass investing in Sevillo’s project and now working in collaboration with Rainbow Stage to debut the musical. Sevillo recalls Nattrass telling him how intrigued he was by the project.

“He said that what excites him as an artistic director is to create new works, new musical works in Winnipeg, which excited me too,” says Sevillo.

According to the 2021 Statistics Canada census, Winnipeg has 84,225 Filipinxs (the third largest Filipinx community in a Canadian city). Sevillo, in collaboration with Rainbow Stage, has already employed over 100 Filipinxs for his musical. That number will increase as the show goes live. His ultimate goal is to have the musical staged in many cities around the world, eventually landing on Broadway. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights inspired Sevillo when he first saw the musical during one of his annual trips to New York. The musical amplifies the Puerto Rican community and Sevillo says he hopes to do the same for Filipinxs. He says his wish would be to represent the different Filipinx communities around the world, to create opportunities for artists to have their professional debuts through his musical, and to improve the arts community. Sevillo has a mandate to hire Filipinx first, but he says he hopes he can inspire other cultures and communities to create their own musicals just like In the Heights inspired him.

While Sevillo is creating the first all-Filipinx musical, there have been other musicals with a focus on the Philippines. Here Lies Love — a musical that closed on Broadway Nov. 26, 2023 and had an all-Filipinx cast — is about Imelda Marcos, the first lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. The musical was performed by Filipinxs, but the authors, director, and the choreographer are Caucasian. The Here Lies Love creative team may have had Filipinxs consultants as well as producers, but Sevillo want to see a Filipinx musical created by Filipinxs on Broadway, whether his is first or follows another one.

Sevillo says he believes Here Lies Love and its all-Filipinx cast is progress, but he questions why Caucasian creators decided to tell that story in particular.

“Why can’t you write about something else, or why can’t you mentor someone to write that story?” says Sevillo. 

Davis has never had the chance to look up to Inuit creators and performers in the musical theatre industry.

“I don’t know of any other Inuk musical theatre performers, I don’t know of any other Inuk theatre performers,” says Davis. “I’ve had people message me like ‘I’m in high school and I love theatre so it’s cool to see’ and I’m like ‘stick with it because we need more of us out there.’ […] Hopefully in the coming years there will be lots of Inuit representation on Broadway.”

There has never been an Inuit protagonist lead in a musical and that’s why Davis is creating her own, but she doesn’t necessarily plan on playing the lead role. She says she hopes to give someone else the chance to have their moment. Davis thinks representation on the stage is important, but having it on the creative teams that work behind the scenes is just as important.

“If you don’t, then you get something like Disney’s Pocahontas, which was told in a very colonial way and […] very much from the white man’s perspective,” says Davis. “It could have been done so much better.”

Finding new audiences is crucial for theatres. According to the “Demographics of the Broadway Audience 2022-2023” research report by the Broadway League, 29 per cent of theatregoers identified themselves as BIPOC, the highest percentage reported so far. 

And while it seems audience demographics are shifting, Sevillo says he believes that no theatre in Winnipeg has been fully successful in engaging his community. During a reading of his musical hosted at Rainbow Stage he says he believes there was the most Filipinx representation in the audience he’s ever seen at a theatre.

“When I go to other theatres and I look at the audience it’s still predominantly Caucasian which is fine since theatre needs to survive and so I’m grateful for regular audience members that subscribe and that love theatre,” says Sevillo. “I think every audience around the world or theatre around the world wants new audiences whether they’re more Filipinos or more people of colour or more younger people.”

From what he is seeing, Sevillo thinks theatre companies are trying to program diverse shows to attract new audiences. Sevillo says he hopes that his musical might attract more Filipinxs to be interested in musical theatre.

“You need to have works where they see themselves in, that they feel welcome, that this facility that they’re walking into is for them,” says Sevillo.

Davis recalls telling a Filipinx friend about Sevillo’s musical, and they responded that they had never been to a musical, but they might go now and bring their mother since that story might interest her. 

Sevillo titled his musical Ma-Buhay! since it’s a Tagalog word that is used as a form of greeting with several meanings, including Long Live! Live Long! and welcome, but he chose to separate the word with a dash to separate the words that mean “mother” and “life” as an homage to his mother who passed away.

The reasons for a lack of BIPOC representation in musical theatre are complex. Musical theatre is not a popular art form in many communities and cultures. 

“When I was hiring BIPOC teachers there’s only a limited amount because it’s not a popular position,” says Sevillo. “I’d like to think that our community in Manitoba wants to diversify but you can’t if the people don’t have the skills and so I think it starts with opportunities and mentorship and training.”

For many other BIPOC, the lack of support from parents, lack of resources such as transportation and money, as well as lack of knowledge about the industry can be factors that prevent them from being part of the industry.

Davis remembers going to dance calls and being one of the very few people in the room who wasn’t white.

“Every year I feel a little less alone which is amazing, and it feels really great,” says Davis.

Davis remembers a conversation she had with a friend where they said that maybe the lack of diversity in musical theatre in Manitoba comes from the lack of access to a dance class if someone lives in a northern community. 

Davis recently did a school tour in northern Manitoba with Manitoba Theatre for Young People for a play called Frozen River, a show about Indigenous culture and being accepting of things you don’t know. Davis thinks it’s important to bring theatre to communities that might not know a lot about it since it may inspire someone. She says that while some of the kids might be yawning, there might be one kid that raises their hand and wants to know how they can be a part of the theatre industry.

“That’s what you do that for,” says Davis.

Davis says she believes the industry is entering an era where classics will still be loved, but people want to hear new stories – stories that represent them. During the summer of 2024, Rainbow Stage will be presenting Mary Poppins alongside Ma-Buhay! 

“I think that’s really exciting to be in this era, to be a composer in this era, to be a performer in this era,” says Davis.

When she was younger, Davis thought her darker hair and skin tone would prevent her from playing a lead role like Ariel in a big production of The Little Mermaid at a place like Rainbow Stage. But she remembers seeing Stephanie Sy, a Filipinx performer, play the role of Belle in Rainbow Stage’s production of Beauty and the Beast and feeling excited that someone with a similar skin tone and hair as her had a lead role. After seeing Sy, Davis felt like playing a lead role — like a Disney princess — was something she could achieve.

“Sometimes you do things, and you forget how impactful they can be, and you forget about the little four- or five-year-old Inuit girls in the audience and how you could be a role model for them,” says Davis. “I would just think that’s incredible, like that could be something that I could do when I grow up — and I wish that I had that growing up.” 

The Rainbow Stage production of Ma-Buhay! has just announced two Fillipinx leads for two Fillipinx roles: Andrea Macasaet and Ma-Anne Dionisio have been cast as Celina Davina Molina and Gloria Davina & Galinda Caballero respectively. More cast announcements will be coming later in March 2024. 

Dutchess Cayetano and Nathan Malolos, two performers from Ma-Buhay!’s preview at Filipino Heritage Night are excited for the opportunity to play a specifically Filipinx role. 

“Honestly it’s about time that something like this has come to our city,” says Cayetano. 

Cayetano, who was in Rainbow Stage’s production of The Little Mermaid as part of the ensemble alongside Davis, was involved in Sevillo’s musical from the very first workshop presentation.

Malolos, who was in the Rainbow Stage production of The Hockey Sweater in 2022 as Roch Carrier, joined Ma-Buhay! in the third workshop as the young version of one of the main characters. 

As a Filipino, I don’t think we’re as represented in the acting community and media and so I’m glad that we can all celebrate that in the show,” says Malolos.

Cayetano, like many Filipinxs, grew up singing karaoke and dancing at home, and so she’s glad that Ma-Buhay! is giving many Filipinxs the opportunity to be part of musical theatre. 

“Hopefully it inspires, whether you’re Filipino or not, just other artists in general to start creating opportunities for themselves or for other artists,” says Cayetano. “We’re very proud of Joseph and the work and everyone that’s been involved.”

Sevillo says he believes diversity in musical theatre is mandatory. 

“In friendly Manitoba, which we’ve garnered that reputation, I have a feeling that people do have good intentions, but conversations definitely still need to be had in regards to including people of diversity in power positions that have influence,” says Sevillo.

Davis also thinks it’s important for diverse stories to be told and for people to see themselves represented in the city they live in. She says since Manitoba’s so diverse, its theatre should reflect that. 

“People want to hear something new,” says Davis.

Backstage after the Ma-Buhay! performance at Filipino Heritage Night, the group rush to hug each other in a circle. It’s a big moment, but they are just getting warmed up. An even bigger moment is coming. 

This is the largest audience Sevillo’s work has ever been presented in front of. After this, he dreams of people worldwide being introduced to his culture and music, starting with the Canadian premiere at Rainbow Stage.

“It was a beautiful foreshadowing of a dream, and of what I hope it to be like forever,” says Sevillo.

Headshot of Alicia Régnier

Alicia Régnier

Alicia (pronounced A-lee-see-a) can spend hours curating her Spotify playlists and Pinterest boards. She loves making clothes, writing songs, watching musicals, and driving. She hopes to work in music and film all over the world in French and English.