Ang Huling El Bimbo: the musical

By Artchil B. Fernandez

Ang Huling El Bimbo, the hit musical streamed for free in Youtube and ABS-CBN Facebook pages for 48 hours last May 8-9 to provide the much-needed break to Filipinos struggling against the COVID-19 pandemic especially those living under lockdown. This is a fund-raising project of ABS-CBN Entertainment to raise money for families affected by the pandemic. Viewers are encouraged to donate to ABS-CBN Foundation Pantawid ng Pag-Ibig campaign. The streaming was an instant hit, generating more than 5 million views. It trended number one.

The musical is superb. Iconic songs of Eraserheads swept the audience with nostalgia. The choreography is fantastic and the cast, particularly the lead actors gave splendid performance. As far as the entertainment value, the musical delivered. It provided great relief amid the pandemic. It is also a certified tear-jerker and large portion of the viewers were emotionally affected by its tragic storyline.

Setting aside its entertainment value, the fatal flaw of the musical is the arc of the story. The main premise of the story, its main pillar is problematic and the decision of the major protagonists is unbelievable. Their action is so baffling in the context of the story that the audience has to let go of rationality to accept it.

The musical also did not do its research. Seemingly insignificant wrong information brought a key twist in the plot crashing down. It torpedoed the spiraling down of a chief character and cannot justify the circumstances of her wrong turn. The failure of the musical to verify an important fact sabotaged crucial turns of the story.

The context of the story is the life of three male UP Diliman students. Kalayaan Residence Hall where they met and formed bond is a freshie dormitory in the flagship campus of the premier state university. Let us first tackle the research failure.

In the musical, the life of Joy and her aunt, Tiya Dely unraveled when their food business ran into financial difficulties. Toyang Canteen was losing customers due to the change in their “taste.” Nutritious and delicious but cheap food of Tiya Dely no longer appeals to the students. Tiya Dely is forced to sell Toyang Canteen to ROTC Tactical Officer Banlaoi. To cater to the new taste of the customers, Banlaoi transformed Toyang Canteen into Toyang KTV Bar selling alcoholic drinks. The bar is also a front for prostitution and a drug den. This change drew Joy into the dark side of life. This critical turn of event (a pivotal moment) is not possible based on the location of the canteen.

The First Act identified the location of Toyang Canteen-Area 2 of Diliman campus. This part of Diliman is close to student dormitories and Kalayaan is only a few meters away. Students flock to Area 2, specifically at JP Laurel where food stalls line the street. Here students avail of cheap but nutritious and delicious food. (At present, Area 2 is still a place to go for this). The University Food Service (UFS) is also nearby.

Tiya Dely cannot sell her canteen to anybody at will (particularly to a university staff) without permission from UP Diliman administration since Area 2 is part of the campus and the land and buildings there belong to the university. Granting that Banlaoi acquired the rights to the canteen, he cannot change it into KTV Bar selling liquor for Diliman administration will never allow it. This twist is not rooted in reality.

Placing Toyang Canteen in Krus na Ligas, Maginhawa or adjacent streets is much credible. Instead of an ROTC Tactical Officer, it is more believable if Tiya Dely and Joy are victimized by a corrupt policeman or local politician. The corrupt preying on the hapless there is more plausible than an ROTC officer openly operating illegal activities in UP Diliman campus. This would have made the twist of the story realistic and factual.

The biggest letdown of the story is the silence of Emman, Hector and Anthony on the sexual assault on Joy they witnessed and avoiding her afterward victimized her twice. They are pictured as spineless cowards who have no empathy and are indifferent to the fate of their close friend.  It is incredulous that Iskos will do this. This is very unfair to Iskos, particularly to UP Diliman students and graduates.

No outrage on the crime and the Iskos are presented as cowering and scared kittens. The Iskos are depicted as useless and fake friends who have no qualm junking a friend in her most difficult moment. Their treatment of Joy like a COVID-19 plague make Emman, Hector and Anthony the most despicable and horrible human beings. Worst, one of them is an activist! This is very objectionable and most foul portrayal.

Honor and Excellence, that is the motto of UP and all Iskos and Iskas are enjoined to live up to this ideal. The musical made it appear Iskos are all excellence and no honor. There is no honor in staying silent much more cover-up sexual assault. Honor demands that Iskos should not ignore injustice, abuse, and oppression. It is unimaginable Iskos spit on or trample upon honor which is what the musical – intentional or not, made them do. Aside from “talino,” another trait of Iskos and Iskas is “tapang.” The musical obscured this to justify the illogical flow of the story. There is no honor on the creator/s of the musical to haphazardly tie up lose ends at the expense of Iskos.

While Ang Huling El Bimbo, the musical should be appreciated for its artistic merits, strong objection and protest must be raised on its distorted and unfair portrayal of Iskos.  Should it revive its theatrical run, it must fix the warped and deformed story arc. If it intends to deliver socially relevant messages, it must have the correct facts and present a balanced and accurate image of Iskos. Meanwhile, video showing or streaming of the musical must have a disclaimer on its unjust presentation of Iskos.

It is surprising the UP community is eerily silent on the highly inaccurate and erroneous depiction of Iskos in the musical. What happened to critical thinking? Blinded or carried away by the slick choreography, chic performance and the songs of Eraserheads?