Music Heard in Hi-Fi
By Noel Alumit
The soundtrack of Maybe Someday was first heard in a small house on Vendome Avenue. It was eventually heard in homes on Council, Reno, Dillon, and Union. The music of this hit Broadway musical was heard in cars driving north on Rampart, turning right on Temple street, then stopping at a parking lot in Bahay Kubo, a popular hang out in Historic Filipinotown—Hi-Fi for short—in Los Angeles, Ca. At Bahay Kubo, the music of Maybe Someday was heard on the loudspeakers, a boot-legged video of the musical played on a large TV in the restaurant.
Filipino men and women sang along, including the old manongs and manangs who sang in cracked, weathered voices. Middle age women—who had lost their virginities decades before—sang the tunes of the musical about an innocent girl stuck in a horrible, senseless war.
They knew the songs because the story was told and told and told again. Jethro and Goldstein, the producers for this musical about the Vietnam War were on a worldwide search for a cast, especially the leading lady. Auditions were held on three continents. The lead and a good number of the supporting cast and chorus were found in the Philippines.
Bless Velasco knew the music also. She was in Manila when auditions happened the first time around. She was only eleven when the producers arrived—too young to audition. She stood on street corners singing then. Her parents collected money from the tourists visiting Manila Bay. A half hour of singing would garner enough food to feed her family that night.
The musical went onto to become a big hit in London and New York. They needed more girls to play the lead. They went to the Philippines again. She was 14, still too young. She strengthened her voice by singing in school productions and singing in front of malls. The producers came again when she was 18, but by then, Bless wasn’t in the Philippines, she was singing and dancing in Japan.
By the time she was twenty three, she had moved to Los Angeles, renting a room from a cousin of a cousin. She read in Filipino newspapers that the musical was coming to Los Angeles and they needed a cast. Bless knew this would be her chance. Living in the States had always been a dream—Oh, to be an American girl! The price to visit the states was steep, more money than she could ever save working in the Philippines. She knew other singers who traveled Asia making a living, with Japan as the big jackpot.
When she read that auditions for the musical were happening in her adopted city, she believed dreams do come true in America.
Bless stood in line, waiting to be seen. She had been standing there for an hour and a half. She looked at the men and women in line, some of whom looked like people she had known in the Philippines. She wanted to talk to them, speak to them in Tagalog. When she was in Japan, she liked talking to the other Filipino performers in Tagalog. It relaxed her, made her feel less lonely. She was about to talk to two girls in line, ask them where they were from. Manila? Cebu? She overhead their conversation. Their English was distinctly American and Bless decided against talking to them.
She knew they would ask her where she was from or inquire about how long she’d been in America. She didn’t want to deal with those questions. There were plenty of Filipino Americans in her neighborhood, many her age. Rather than speak to them, she’d rather converse with their parents who knew what it meant to come from the Philippines, knew the weather—hot!—and ate the food.
One of her most stable ways of earning an income was working as a food server at a restaurant on Temple Street. She stood behind a glass counter and served Filipino cuisine to customers. Most were families in the neighborhood or business people nearby. Every once and awhile, students from UCLA or USC came by to order food. They were studying Asian American studies or some such, often touring Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Tokyo to taste authentic ethnic food.
Filipino students would come to Hi-Fi and order in their broken Tagalog. Bless thought it charming that they were trying to be as Filipino as possible. She would correct their enunciation occasionally. She watched them turn red.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” Bless said. “It’s good that you’re trying to learn Tagalog.” Something Bless believed was that you couldn’t truly be Filipino if you couldn’t speak the language.
She watched these students eat, sturdy backpacks hanging on their chairs. She’d stop by and offer to take away their plates and she’d hear them talk about a final exam, a game, an essay. They always looked so clean and well mannered. These were the customers she preferred. She’d had it with drunken business men groping her, the way they did when she had entertained in Japan.
She stood in line for another hour waiting to audition. She had finally gotten into the waiting room. She looked around and saw posters for different musicals on the wall: A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, Chicago, Carousel. She sat back and couldn’t believe that she was actually auditioning in a casting office in Los Angeles. Her neighbors couldn’t believe it either. In addition to working at a restaurant, she also earned money singing at weddings, birthday parties, the dance club on Beverly Boulevard. Wherever she worked, serving food or belting out a ballad, employers were familiar with her plight and paid her cash for her work. She sought out jobs that didn’t require a social security number. Of course, living this way had its consequences. She sang at a birthday party, but her employer didn’t want to pay her. She would leave despondent, but know she had no recourse to collect her money.
In the casting office, she listened to girls enter the adjacent room and sing. They chose a pop song—a Whitney Houston ballad emanating from the closed doors—Bless chose to sing one of the songs from the actual musical. The BIG song that closes Act One. It spoke of wonder and despair, the future and the past converging. She knew it by heart because that was a song that she sang nightly in that bar in Tokyo.
She walked into the auditorium, and handed her music to a pianist sitting nearby. Several people sat at a desk, their heads lowered. They were visibly tired. How many people could they have seen today? A hundred? Some yawned, some were making notes. She could swear that some were actually sleeping.
The pianist began to play her music, and she sang. All of them looked up, then leaned forward. She knew they would do this, suddenly become interested. In all of the bars where she’d sung, she’d had to deal with distracted audiences, from drunks to fighting couples. She learned to work to get their attention. Singing with emotion, dramatic gestures, a florid dress, she had learned how to make them focus. This audition was no different.
She was asked back to meet with the producers.
At her callback, they asked her to sing again. They took her through the opening number, where she’s introduced as a sweet village girl trying to make it in the big city. She nailed it. I’d been rehearsing that song since I was eleven, she thought.
“How long have you been singing?”
“Since I was little girl.”
“Yes, it shows. It’s a little rough.”
“Your resume says you’d sung in Japan for several years. Tell us about that.”
It was the first time in this audition she felt queasy. On her resume, she’d listed productions that she’d acted in and theatres where she’d performed in Manila. For her four years in Japan, she simply wrote “touring”.
“I sang in different night clubs.” She couldn’t tell them that they were hostess bars. She wore tight dresses and was paid to drink with business men after work. She made good money because there was a karaoke machine in the bar and she’d sing some choice love songs that made her more valuable than the other girls who simply sat there and looked pretty.
“In Nagoya and Tokyo.” She felt moisture building on her forehead. “But I’m so glad to be here in Los Angeles and auditioning for you. This has always been my dream.”
“Let’s have you sing some songs in the second act. By this time in the musical, our heroine is asked to do some unsavory acts, like engage in prostitution. I know it’s difficult, but imagine having to do that when you sing this song.”
“I’ll try,” she said. No problem, she thought.
“In this part of the show, you have to say good-bye to your son. Take it slowly. Imagine having to let go of someone you love.”
Bless heard the few bars of the song, sad sounds coming from the piano. She closed her eyes and fell into the music. She didn’t have a son to say farewell to, but she had other people. She thought of her parents and sisters, her little brother Manny who was going to be the first in their family to attend college. She thought of her cousins Dom, Alberto, and Susan, who always believed in her talents as a singer. She remembered her dear childhood friend, Reza, who had recently gotten married. When she left, she told them that she looked forward to seeing them again. Something she thought would happen at the time. She didn’t intend on becoming Tago ng tago, TNT for short—or simply undocumented.
She sang all of her farewells into that song. When she was done, there was silence. She looked up and saw the men looking at her. She thought she had done something wrong. Until one, then two, then all of them started applauding.
“Bless, honey,” the director said, “can you wait outside? We have one other girl to see.”
Bless sat in the waiting room and knew she’d done a good job. The door slowly opened and a pretty girl popped her head in. She had long, wavy hair and a great big smile.
“Is this the place?” the girl asked. “I’m here to audition.”
“Oh, good,” she said. “I got lost on the freeway, then got confused with the parking.”
I took the bus, Bless thought.
Before Bless could introduce herself, Veronica pulled open a portfolio with three different shots of her. One was a close up of her face, another a full body shot dressed in a business suit, and the third a picture of her wearing glasses. They were shots showing her versatility as an actress.
“Hi, I’m Veronica.”
“Yes, I know. You told me already.”
“I’m sorry,” she said laughing. “Just nervous. Always get nervous. Lord knows how many auditions I’ve gone on and I still get nervous.”
“Oh, how long have you been doing this?”
“Since I was thirteen or so.”
“Me, too,” Bless said sitting up, inching toward this girl.
“Yeah, high school of the performing arts, then Julliard. But they never tell you in school how to get rid of nerves.”
“No, they don’t.”
“I can’t believe I’m auditioning for this show again.”
“You’ve done this musical before?”
“I did the Canadian tour, but I was the understudy. I just finished the national tour of the King and I. I understudied Tuptim. Before that I toured with Flower Drum. I understudied Linda Low. Always the understudy, never the bride. How ‘bout you?”
“I’ve done shows in Asia. I moved to the states a year ago. My name’s Bless.”
“Bless? What a cute name. Only Filipinos would name their child that.”
Bless noticed how the girl threw back her hair and applied the reddest lipstick onto her lips. Bless couldn’t help but notice that this girl was also lovely. Her skin was flawless and her brows perfectly plucked.
“How long have you been waiting?” Veronica asked.
“I sang already, but they asked me to stay.”
“Oh, they must really like you.”
“My auditions haven’t been so great. I haven’t booked anything in months. I’m here for pilot season, and I feel like I’m spinning my wheels.”
“You want to be a pilot?”
Veronica looked at her quizzically, then burst into laughter. “Aren’t you precious. No, I’m auditioning for television pilots. It’s that time of year. I live in New York, but live in LA in February and March, hoping to land a series.”
The door opened, and the casting director came out.
“Veronica!” the casting director said.
“Stewart, how are you?”
Bless noticed how Veronica ran toward Stewart and hugged him like an old friend.
“I’m good. You’re as lovely as always!”
“You’re being too kind.”
“Are you ready?”
“Sure,” Veronica said, entering the room. Bless took note of the round of hello’s she got from the producers. They obviously knew her. Bless heard the music begin. Through the doors, she could hear Veronica sing—oh, such a gorgeous voice. Bless knew it was an expensive voice, one that came from years of instruction and classes. Bless had learned to sing by imitating singers on the radio and countless attempts at karaoke.
Veronica was in there for a long time. She, like Bless, sang song after song from the show. Finally, Veronica emerged. She picked up her things and said, “Good luck, Caress. I have another audition in an hour, gotta run.”
Bless continued to sit in the waiting area, wondering if Stewart and the producers had forgotten about her.
The door opened, and Stewart asked Bless into the room.
She stood on stage, looking at the men.
Stewart smiled, “We’d be honored if you sang the lead in our musical. Congratulations!”
Bless stuffed her last blouse into her luggage. She’d said her good-byes, and arranged for a taxi for the airport. The idea of taking a taxi to the airport seemed so sophisticated. It would be a long plane ride, so she went to eat her favorite meal in Los Angeles, a big, chili burger from Tommy’s Hamburgers on Beverly Blvd. She would miss this!
She took a long walk around her neighborhood, and would remember the names of its beautiful streets: Beverly, Coronado, Dillon, Vendome. She watched the children walk home from school. Such nice children. Besides the Filipino kids, she’d miss the Mexican and Korean children with baseball caps covering their faces.
A breeze suddenly swept across her face, and she exhaled. It was cool and friendly. She would miss this Los Angeles weather—this climate. She finally understood what Spring meant. It may have gotten hot, but nothing like the tropical heat of the Philippines.
She pulled out the producer’s letter from her back pocket. She read it again. She’d read it a million times. She’d keep it with her, perhaps even frame it to show anyone who didn’t believe her that she had been cast in the musical. How many girls can actually say that?
She would always love this city, this America. She could honestly say that she had lived in the States, something anyone from the Philippines would have given an arm for. She believed in opportunities, and liked to think she had taken them as they came along. Like the chance to come to America. She’d obtained a tourist visa, and planned to stay for a month, using the money she earned entertaining in Japan. But she loved the city and decided not to return. She’d lived in Los Angeles for 18 months before she auditioned for the musical. And it took less than two weeks to get the letter from the producers. She’d memorized its contents:
Dear Ms. Velasco,
We were thrilled to have you star in our musical. Your voice has a quality that we’d always associated with the lead role: innocent, strong, hopeful. We’ve seen many girls audition for this part, and we believe that your voice was one of the strongest we’ve heard.
However, Actors Equity had informed us of your lack of documentation. If we had power over labor issues, we’d keep you right now. The state of immigration today is very touchy, and it wouldn’t be wise to maintain you in our show.
I suggest you go back to the Philippines, obtain the proper visas and try again.
Try again. Bless knew these words well, wondered if trying would be worth her time anymore. She would return to the Philippines, but didn’t think she’d return to the States. She had known that going against the stipulations of her tourist visa was a big gamble. She’d heard stories of those who did that, and never got the leniency to return to America again. They might audition in the Philippines again, but she didn’t know if she would audition. She had gotten the part already. She beat out a girl who’d sung the role already and been trained by the best in America and was even auditioning for pilots.
She folded the letter, and returned to the house. She gathered her luggage, deciding to wait for the taxi out front. She began to hum. It was a melody she’d never heard before, a song she improvised in her head. It was an upbeat number, one that led her to smile.