Royal Blue Running in His Blood
Editor’s Note: Excerpts from this essay were taken from “Backstage Pass with Lia Chang.” The Interview of Mel Sagrado Maguhop was conducted by Lia with additional questions from Our Own Voice. (All photos by Lia Chang.)
The 2012 theater season in the U.S. saw a significant increase of Asian American artists on stage. Signature Theatre in New York City opened its season with the works of playwright, David Henry Hwang, beginning with Golden Child. Off Broadway offerings showcased, Joel de la Fuente’s portrayal of Gordon Hirabayashi in Hold These Truths, a one-person play by Jeanie Sakata. In San Diego, California, La Jolla Playhouse boldly featured a multicultural cast with Manu Narayan and Johnny Wu in David Mamet’s explosive Glengarry Glen Ross. Also in San Diego, Old Globe Theatre premiered a new musical, Allegiance, directed by Stafford Arima, music & lyrics by Jay Kuo, with Lea Salonga and George Takei leading an ensemble of actors. Allegiance is the story of Japanese internment during WW2. In late Fall, Velina Hasu Houston’s seminal play, Tea metamorphosed into Tea with Music (Nathan Wang composer) and had its world premiere at the David Henry Hwang Theater produced by East West Players. Back in the East Coast and defying the ravages of Sandy (the 2012 hurricane that visited the Big Apple), Harbor Lights Theater Company in Staten Island, New York staged Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical, The King & I with a cast ranging from children to adults, amateurs and professionals. A much-sought-after “King of Siam”, Mel Sagrado Maghuyop reprised the role opposite Mrs. Anna Leonowens played by Tamara Jenkins, Founding Director of Harbor Lights Theater Company.
This portrait focuses on a rising actor in musical theater, Mel Sagrado Maghuyop.
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I was inspired by the memoirs of Anna Harriet Leonowens, the real life author and teacher. Mrs. Leonowens was hired by King Mongkut of Siam to teach his 67 children at his royal palace in Bangkok. She stayed for several years, leaving Bangkok during the 1860’s and settling in Staten Island, New York. She lived on Tompkins Place for approximately three years. While on Staten Island she ran a private school for girls in West Brighton. Following that she settled in Canada where she lived until her death in 1914.
Leading the cast were Tamara Jenkins and Mel Sagrado Maghuyop under the direction of Alan Muraoka. The Harbor Lights production in Staten Island, New York also featured Christine Toy Johnson (The Music Man, Grease, Chu Chem) as Lady Thiang. Three other Filipinos were in the cast: OBIE Award winner and Staten Island resident Ron Domingo (The Romance of Magno Rubio) as The Kralahome. His daughter Autumn took the role of Princess Ying Yawolak, and Jon Viktor Corpuz played Prince Chulalonghorn. Other notable cast members include Hanzel Tan as Lun Tha, Yoon Jeong Seong as Tuptim. Visit http://www.theharborlightstheatercompany.org/.
Mel Sagrado Maghuyop was last seen as “The Engineer” in Miss Saigon at the Fulton Theatre, Lancaster PA. His recent turn as “The King” in The King and I was at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. He also appeared in the critically acclaimed production of Miss Saigon at Walnut Street first as “Thuy” and then as “The Engineer,” for which he received a nomination for The Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre – Garfield Refining Company Award for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Musical.
Besides 14 Miss Saigon productions, his other favorite roles include Godspell, The Gate of Heaven and The King and I (North Shore Music Theater). His New York theater credits include a reading of Stan Lai’s Bruce Lee: The Musical in the title role, featuring music by Tan Dun; Tokio Confidential (as Horiyoshi); Suites by Sondheim at Alice Tully Hall Lincoln Center (company member), Peony Pavilion (reading, as Lee), as Ferdinand Marcos in Pan Asian Repertory’s Imelda; and the Prospect Theater Company’s Honor (as Kenshin).
Maghuyop’s interest in musical theatre was sparked by a Miss Saigon production in Houston, Texas that included a serendipitous meeting with actor, Thom Sesma who played The Engineer. Mel’s conversation with the charismatic stage actor caused a seismic upheaval at that period in his life when he was more inclined towards opera theatre. In Sesma, Mel could see himself in the milieu of musical theatre. The turning point came when he auditioned for Miss Saigon and what followed was a series of roles in the production with various regional theatre companies.
Lia: When did you start acting?
Mel: I was originally a Music major and I was going to be a music teacher. I didn’t know anything about acting. The first show I did was actually an opera called Albert Herring. Albert Herring got me into doing musicals just for fun. I found that I was starting to enjoy it. The reason I got into theater was because of my mentors, Stewart and Anna Ostrow who found me at the University of Houston and started getting me into musical theater. I was late into the business, until 1993, 1994, I had never done an actual musical before.
Lia: How did you get cast for this production of The King and I, and what is your history with the show?
Mel: I auditioned for Alan Muraoka. That’s when I met Tamara, who’s playing Mrs. Anna. My first experience with The King and I was in 1994 or ’95 when I was in college going to the University of Houston, I played Lun Tha. (I had hair) That was kind of a nice change. Since then, I hadn’t done The King and I for a very long time, I was doing a lot of productions of Miss Saigon. I got cast as The Kralahome in The King and I at North Shore Music Theater, and was the understudy to The King, which was good since I had just been cast as The King for the Walnut Street Theater Production, after I did Miss Saigon. It was a good time for me to actually play the part.
Lia: What are the three favorite roles that you have had in your theater career?
Mel: The King, I really enjoy him. The Engineer and Thuy from Miss Saigon. I’d always focused on being Thuy. I really enjoyed that role. The Engineer is almost like the King.
Lia: What is your favorite part about playing The King?
Mel: The challenge of that connection with Anna and finding those great moments of being The King, and still finding the jokes within the book. After taking on the role and seeing the different jokes, that are really there which I never noticed before, it’s great. Finding that fine line without going too far, being human and being able to slowly unravel the role, showing the more human side, all that needs to be shown to Mrs. Anna.
Lia: You and Tamara really have great chemistry. Are you having fun?
Mel: Yes, I really am. It’s really great to build that connection with Tamara. Obviously, we had never really worked with each other before, but just jumping right into it, working on the blocking. Just this week, there’s been a nice vibe and flow that’s been happening between us. There’s new stuff that is coming up, so it’s been really exciting.
Lia: How long has New York been your home base?
Mel: I left Houston, TX in 2001 to do my second Miss Saigon in Chicago. I was born in Chicago. I lived there for about a year doing the show, and then I left to go on tour for about 2 1/2 years.
Lia: If you weren’t in the performing arts, what would you be doing?
Mel: Probably what I used to do, I would be a cop. I was an Auxiliary Police Officer here in New York with the rank of Sergeant for 6 years, and until last year, I was a volunteer police officer. Two extremes. I also have a business. I make pillows that look like sushi. A colleague and I created it while I was on tour with Miss Saigon, as a way of making extra money. I was only working two or three hours a day on the road. I had to actually stop acting at one point and lived off that in New York City for about 2 ½ years. But then the recession hit, so I went back into acting to make money. When I’m between gigs, I make pillows: theoriginalsushipillow.com.
OOV: Your name identifies you succinctly as Pinoy, is it easier in the industry to be a generic Asian American than to be known as Filipino American?
Mel: I have not had a problem with my name being more Pinoy sounding than a generic Asian American name. I have found that most of the Asian roles I have been contracted to play have been mostly non-Filipino! I have played Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Indonesian, Chinese, and Japanese. I have only played a Filipino less than five times in my professional career. I would have to attribute this to a smaller percentage of paying Filipino roles out there. And specifically in terms of what I have been right for or available for performing. On the other hand, there are certainly a higher percentage of paying (non-Filipino) Asian roles out there. My “bread and butter” so to speak have been the shows Miss Saigon and The King and I.
The truth is, in terms of my name, I made a conscious effort to make sure that I used my full name of Mel Sagrado Maghuyop. I not only wanted to honor my parents’ names, but I wanted to stick out. My name shows three ethnically diverse sides of me. All of which I embrace and all which show who I am. Mel, which is short for Melvin is Scotch Irish for “Sword Chief” and shows how my parents wanted me to be “American”. Sagrado, which is Spanish for “sacred” and shows the Spanish influence on the Philippines (as a note my Grandfather was actually half Spanish and Chinese). Finally, Maghuyop, which means the verb “to blow with wind” in Filipino and from what I understand is deep, deep Filipino.
So, thankfully I have been known for my work and taking on other Asian roles. I show full respect to the other Asian ethnicities that I am lucky enough to play. I do my best to understand their cultures and language. That has been my key, respecting the other Asian roles and never denying or dismissing that I am a proud Filipino. I always wear my Adobo shirt to rehearsals!
OOV: Are you the eldest in your family? Did your parents give you a lot of flack when you told them of your decision to pursue Theater Arts, to be in Opera, and end up in musical theater?
Mel: I am an only child. In terms of my parents giving me flack, well they did give me a hard time at first since almost all my friends were in the medical field. As I started successfully working as a performer, they have supported me and are very proud of my hard work. I started performing because of them. Both my parents sing and my father used to be a choir director at church. I in fact started singing at church.
OOV: How much of your Pinoy family traditions do you still keep up? Which ones have you left behind?
Mel: I have kept all of them, in fact I yearn for more. I am very proud to be a Filipino and specifically a Visayan. I have in fact taught myself to speak Visayan. I actually learned how to speak on tour with Miss Saigon, where I found several Filipino Visayan performers. Most of my life I have spent my free-time involved with promoting and supporting my Filipino community. When I was in college in Houston, Texas I was involved with organizations such as VISMIN (Visayas Mindanao) and FSA (Filipino Student Association). Most recently here in NYC, Broadway Barkada and PHILDEV.
OOV: Do you feel responsible to a younger generation as its role model?
Mel: Yes I do. I realize that being in the “public eye” so to speak, I have a responsibility to not only Filipinos but to all younger generations. I used to be a teacher back in Houston so I understand that duty. I want the younger generation to know that as long as you are driven, work hard and do not give up hope on your goal/dreams . . . you will achieve success. Just realize the difficulty and sacrifice of the journey. You will face the odds. The odds have been against me, and always will, but I have not nor will I stop working hard. I realize that I will never achieve a “final” successful goal. I can only be happy with my past achievements and realize that there are others that are following in my path. In that sense, my greatest achievement will be the knowledge that other younger artists will pursue this career.
Mel arriving for rehearsals
OOV: Where do you stand on the issue of assimilation into mainstream society as opposed to encouraging diversity to preserve cultural heritage? Is this a non-issue for you?
Mel: This is an issue with me in some respects. As a Fil-Am, I can personally say that I am still seeking my “identity” of being a Filipino. I mentioned earlier that I taught myself how to speak my dialect, Visayan. I did that because my parents knew it was more important for me to assimilate into the American culture. Like many other immigrants, my parents sacrificed a lot to come to this country. With me being the first American born Filipino in the family, they wanted to give me the best odds. So to give me the best chance, they balanced the fine line with assimilating themselves and myself into the American culture. Even though they never sat me down or gave me lessons in Pinoy language or history, they were HIGHLY involved with the Filipino community in Houston, Texas.
My parents are and were community leaders. Not a weekend went by when I was not involved with some Filipino party, mass or celebration. My teachings of “traditions” came from example. I think my history as a child and my hunger to learn more about my heritage has given me the tools to balance both worlds as I grew up as a Fil-Am. I think we simply have to respect other peoples’ heritage/history without forgetting or denying our own.
The beauty of being an actor is the fact that I can live my regular life of being an American/New Yorker, from working a regular job to volunteering at the NYPD; then at night play a person from some other ethnicity or tell my story on stage of being Filipino. I get the best of both worlds. I am an American who is extremely proud to be Filipino.
Mel's sushi pillow
© Lia Chang
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