On Global Filipinos: From the slums of Iloilo comes Broadway producer Jhett Tolentino

Tolentino arrives at the 40th Olivier Awards in London where his produced show ‘Hand to God’ was nominated for Best New Comedy in 2016.                 

By Loida Nicolas Lewis

When Jhett Tolentino debuted on Broadway in March 2013 for producing “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” that starred Sigourney Weaver, he received his first Tony Award. He was in a daze and had to pinch himself but was also aware that he was the first Filipino producer to receive a Tony Award in that category.

When Jessie Eisenberg announced the winner for Best Play, Tolentino ran towards the Radio City Music Hall stage, turned to the TV cameras and waved knowing that he was honoring the Filipinos and the Philippines at that moment. After all, it was 22 years prior since the first Filipino, actress Lea Salonga, won a Tony Award.

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As it turns out, two more Tony Awards followed him (both in one night) for producing the 2014 Best Play Revival “A Raisin in the Sun” with Denzel Washington, and the 2014 Best Musical “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

Not only that, he is also the first Filipino producer to win a Grammy Award  for the 2017 Best Musical Theater Album “The Color Purple,” featuring Cynthia Erivo, Danielle Brooks and Jennifer Hudson. That win made him the first Filipino citizen to win both Tony and Grammy Awards.

So when asked by Boy Abunda on The Bottomline on what Tolentino considers his highlight, he said, “my walking to school in flip flops in the heat of the sun.” His father is a jeepney driver, his mother was a beautician. 

Born in 1976, he is the youngest of four children. The family lived in the slums of Iloilo. “What nails me to the ground is my beginning. It molded me to what I am now,” he said.

Tolentino was told by his parents to stop after elementary school because his parents could afford to send only his three older siblings. When they finish school and would be working, they would be able to finance his schooling. With due diligence, he found the  Meguko Society, a student organization at the Sophia University in Tokyo, and it supported his high school and college education at the University of Iloilo where he finished his accounting degree.

A scene from ‘Life Is What You Make It,’ where Tolentino visits his beloved Alma mater Calumpang Elementary School during his first comeback to the Philippines after 13 years.

He worked in Hong Kong in 1999 before coming to the U.S. At the time he had six jobs at the same time: four in the Philippines and two moonlighting jobs in Hong Kong for American and Japanese companies.  

The path to Broadway was paved with many twists and turns and a crazy quilt of jobs that brought him across two coasts and three states.

He came to the U.S. in 2002 and worked in California in sales and marketing of consumer electronics. He was 25 years old. On the side, he babysat and waited tables. Two years later he moved to the East Coast and landed a home mortgage job in Hamburg, New Jersey followed by a position as an Accounting Manager for a high-end Persian rug company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When a friend invited him to come to the Big Apple, he did not think twice. He became a personal assistant to the Rich and Famous, managing several homes for his employers in Manhattan and the Hamptons, and riding their private jets.

He also became a licensed caregiver. One of his clients was a cantankerous man who had lung cancer. When he passed away in the Hamptons, the widow remained friends with Tolentino until her sudden death last year. 

At his high school graduation at the University of Iloilo High School Department in 1993.

He became a Broadway habitué, watching the latest musicals with friends. He was very articulate and truthful with his remarks that his friends encouraged him to write a blog. He did. As a blogger, he was known for being precise, candid and merciless in his reviews. He got invited to readings, rehearsals, and opening nights. When he realized how hurtful  his reviews were to some industry people, he decided to shut down his blog. And thus, began his life as a producer. 

He had a knack for identifying which shows would be viable to bring to Off-Broadway and to Broadway and discuss production possibilities with his employer and other well-heeled friends. “The financing of each play or musical is expensive. From $3 million for straight plays to $10 million at the very least for a musical because of live orchestra,” he said. “The fact is: Only 20 percent of all theater shows become profitable and able to recoup the investment; the other 80 percent are losses and are tax write-offs to the investors.”

In 2018, Tolentino wrote, produced, and directed his first film “Life Is What You Make It,” a documentary highlighting the importance of education in his life. The documentary has won multiple Best Documentary awards in 11 countries, including Russia, Netherlands, and Taiwan.

His advice to Filipinos who dream big: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

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© The FilAm 2020

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