By Ida Anita Q.del Mundo - When Leo Valdez gets into a role, he assumes the character completely, giving his full attention to the part. Throughout his career, he has played some of the most iconic Broadway characters – including the Engineer in Miss Saigon, with which he is most associated.

No less than his best has also gone into Valdez’s latest role – the formidable King in the King and I. “It’s like a crash course in showing what I have learned through the years,” says Valdez on preparing for the part. The actor dove fully into studying his character, doing what he calls the “Leo Valdez mode of dealing with anything” – he disconnected his Internet and cable TV connection, and focused fully on developing each facet of the complexity that is the King of Siam.

Though Valdez is now established in the international and local musical theater scene, he used to see himself more as a singer than an actor. “Initially I thought it was quite daunting,” says Valdez on first trying his hand at performing in Manila. The boy from Negros shares, “Manila seemed so big… It was like New York – ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’.” And, indeed, Valdez did make it in the big city.

Valdez became a household name when he interpreted “Magsimula Ka” in the Metropop festival song writing contest.

“It became, and still is, my ‘national anthem’,” Valdez says. Winning the contest led to invitations to perform and travel abroad. It also paved the way for Valdez to perform at the Metropolitan Theater, upon the invitation of the late Conching Sunico, where he headlined five musical extravaganzas. In one of these, he sang Sa Ugoy ng Duyan. “You could hear a pin drop,” he describes the performance, and how the hushed audience held on to every note.

“I thought, ‘This is magic,’” Valdez shares of the experience. It was a profound experience that touched both the singer and the audience. In fact, the song’s composer himself, the late National Artist for Music Lucio San Pedro, approached Valdez after the performance and told him, “Leo, pinaiyak mo ako (you made me cry).”

STAR photos by Val Rodriguez

It was then that he realized, “Something is waiting for me somewhere out there.”

Soon after, musical theater beckoned. “Rama Hari with Basil (Valdez) and Kuh (Ledesma) and Ballet Philippines was my baptism of fire in musical theater,” says Valdez, pointing out that the role still entailed more singing than acting. (Ballet Philippines is, incidentally, reviving the dance musical Nov. 30 to Dec. 9 at the CCP.) Nevertheless, he had his first experience in “playing a character and connecting with the audience.”

Performing in Rama Hari also afforded Valdez his first affirmations in pursuing musical theater, with positive reviews.

In 1993, Valdez played Jean Valjean in Repertory Philippines’ production of Les Miserables. “This was the real deal,” Valdez says of taking on the role. As he sang the poignant “Bring Him Home,” the singer-actor shares that was the moment he told himself, “I’m ready for something.”

Soon after, Valdez was given the role of the Engineer. “I’ve been doing Miss Saigon since 1994,” he says of the role that he has become famous for.

The role of the Engineer is very interesting, says Valdez. “He is clever and cannot be trusted. He is Machiavellian.” The multi-faceted character was not born overnight. It was developed through the years by Valdez and the directors of Miss Saigon.

“I was so new,” recalls Valdez of the first time he did the role. At that time, he had little experience in musical theater. But the directors told him, “What you lack, you make up for in your enthusiasm.” Valdez especially credits Lawrence Connor for his guidance in developing the Engineer.

Valdez also mentions Repertory Philippines’ Bibot Amador for a piece of advice that has guided him in his endeavors both on stage and off: “In anything – in any role that you come across – just give it the truth that it deserves.”

Getting to Know You

Valdez was invited by the president of Resorts World Manila to become part of the King and I. At that time, he was taking a break after completing a Miss Saigon tour. Valdez decided to join the production to be able to give his support to the local musical theater scene.

“I was impressed because I saw for myself how they supported musical theater,” he says of Resorts World Manila and its Newport Performing Arts Theater.

Valdez and Wilson perform “Shall We Dance“ from the King and I

Initially, Valdez expected the role of the King to be “lightweight.” After all, the King does not have many songs in the play. But, as Valdez started to study the character, he realized that it would not be as easy as he had thought. “It’s a challenge… how do you get the character across, get the audience to understand the King beyond his power, and his being almost like a deity.”

It is also a challenging role to take on because Yul Brynner, who played the King on screen, has made the role so iconic. Valdez further mentions Chow Yun Fat’s portrayal in Anna and the King as another performance that he studied when deciding on his own interpretation of the King. “Without copying or emulating what they did, their performances inspired me,” he says, adding that he admires the power in Yul Brynner’s version of the King, while Chow Yun Fat brings a certain human-ness to the character. “I will try to get the best of the two and incorporate myself as an actor.”

Valdez admits that up til now he still can’t relax – the character of the King is still developing and evolving with every show. “So far, so good,” Valdez assesses.

The production, which premiered on Sept. 14, is enjoying a successful run. The audience response has been very positive.

Valdez has only positive things to say about his co-actors. When asked about the youngest members of the cast – a highlight in any production of the King and I – Valdez breaks into song: “The children, I’ll not forget the children… Those little faces smiling back at me.” He adds, “These are amazing kids. When I heard them the first time, it blew me away.”

“I learn from the kids, the wives, the new actors involved, and of course the great Monique Wilson.” Wilson plays the strong-willed Anna, an English school teacher who captures the heart of the King and his kingdom.

Something Wonderful

“The King and I afforded me a great welcome back,” says Valdez, who has been touring with Miss Saigon. “It’s a wonderful feeling, a privilege,” he adds on being given the opportunity to perform in his own country.

On the local production he says, “We are not a multi-million dollar production. We have not been around long, but in a short time, the enthusiasm of the actors, the production team, and everyone involved is so impressive.” Valdez adds, “I love everyone’s desire to give all. It is an all-Filipino production that we can be proud of.”

After his reign as the King, Valdez says he may take a real break. He also hopes to do a concert – perhaps another edition of Broadway showstoppers, a concert he did previously, which was also mounted at Resorts World Manila.

“I want to record some of the most beautiful Filipino songs,” says Valdez on his dream project.

Though he has traveled and performed all over the world, he adds, “At the end of the day, iba pa rin ang Filipino songs – they dig deep into the soul.”

“My initial intention of supporting Philippine theater has more than gone beyond my expectations because of the success the King and I has been so far,” the singer-actor says.

As Valdez contemplates the success of the show, he once again breaks into song. Because, indeed, his journey in musical theater has been – and still is – “Something wonderful.”

The King and I runs until December at Resorts World Manila.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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