NEW YORK- When I was in New York City three years ago, I saw a performance of â€œThe 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,â€ the Tony Award-winning hit Broadway musical about a group of young lovable misfits competing in in a major spelling bee competiton. Our very own, Fil-Am actor Jose Llana, a native of Springfield, Va., was one of the cast members who essayed the role of spelling bee champ Chip Tolentino, the first Fil-Am character ever in a major Broadway musical.
The critics heaped much praise not only on the show but also on Jose. He gave an indelible performance as Chip and he lent his glorious vocals to the showâ€™s showtopping numbers. Jose, along with the rest of the impressive cast, won the 2005 Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble Jose is an inspiring example of a Fil-Am actor who has made it big on Broadway.
Besides â€œSpelling Bee,â€ he has also earned critical praise for â€œThe King And I”, in which he made his Broadway debut, â€œMartin Guerre,â€ â€œOn The Town,” and the revival of â€œFlower Drum Song.â€ He is the founding member of Asian-Americans On Broadway, an organization that presents concert events across the country starring some of Broadwayâ€™s most prominent Asian-American actors.
He took time out from his busy schedule to do this e-mail interview.
For more on Jose, you can visit his website, www.josellana.com.
Q: At what age did you develop a passion for the theater?
A: I started my love of theater in the grade when I would go see productions at The Kennedy Center in Washington DC, I grew up in nearby Virginia. I believe a touring production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF was one of the first I saw. Seeing the touring company of LES MISERABLES in middle school cemented my passion and was the first time I thought to myself, â€œMaybe I can do that.â€
Q: When did you move to New York from Springfield, Va. and what was the first Broadway production that you did?
A: I came to New York right after I graduated high school to attend the Manhattan School of Music as a classical voice major. During my freshman year I auditioned for the Broadway Revival of THE KING & I starring fellow Fil-Am, Lou Diamond Phillips. I played the role of â€œLun Tha” the young lover. I made my Broadway debut at 19 years old.
Q: â€œThe 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Beeâ€ is one of the best Broadway musicals that I have seen, what was the experience like of doing this Broadway hit and your thoughts on essaying the role of Fil-Am spelling bee champ Chip Tolentino?
A: SPELLING BEE is hands down the funnest time Iâ€™ve ever had on Broadway and with a cast. Everyone in the cast is a crazy comedian in person and every single minute of rehearsal was filled with laughter and silliness. SPELLING BEE was also the first time I was able to help create a character. When I auditioned for the part, only his song had been written but Bill Finn, the composer and the writers were open to name suggestions. I suggested â€œChip Tolentinoâ€, because â€œTolentinoâ€ is one of my family names. I also made him a Boy Scout because thatâ€™s what I was when I was fourteen. Iâ€™m very proud that CHIP TOLENTINO is the first Fil-Am character in a major Broadway Musical and that I had a part in making that happen.
Q: Your comments on the huge progress that Fil-Am actors have made on Broadway?
A: I think anyone who works on Broadway knows the level of singing that comes out of itâ€™s Filipino brothers and sisters. I believe itâ€™s not a surprise that Filipinos regard the entertainment industry with such respect and passion that we would produce such grea t talent. Iâ€™m always proud to be an Asian-American actor, Iâ€™m even more proud to be a Filipino-American actor.
Q: Any current and future projects that you would like to share?
A: Iâ€™m currently working on a musical adaptation of TALES OF THE CITY by Armisted Maupin. Jeff Whitty of AVENUE Q is writing the book and Jake Shears from the rock band, SCISSOR SISTERS, is writing the music. Jason Moore, from AVE Q and SHREK is directing. Weâ€™re workshopping it at the Oâ€™Neill Music Conference this summer and are looking to bring it in the Broadway by late next year.