'On This Side of the World' turns a one-way ticket to the U.S. into a unifying trip, one captivating song at a time
For the record:
10:22 a.m. May 26, 2023: An earlier version of this article reported that Paulo K Tiról graduated from Berklee College of Music. He left Berklee early after getting accepted to NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.
It was a rainy day in New York City in 2018. The gloomy weather persisted as Paulo K Tiról prepared to introduce one of his songs at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater as part of a group show. It was among the songs he was working on focused on the experiences of Filipino American immigrants.
Noam Shapiro lived uptown. He bought a ticket to the show, which was presented by Musical Theatre Factory, to support a friend who was also presenting there. As he watched the rain continue to fall, he hesitated to make his way downtown.
He went anyway.
As actors performed Tiról’s song “Light of the Home,” Shapiro was in awe of the rich harmonies and stories of Filipino women leaving their homes to care for others' residences, children and spouses.
“I wrote in my program that I got chills from Paulo’s music,” Shapiro recalled to The Times. “I’ve never seen these stories or these characters onstage.”
“I needed to hear more,” he added.
The next morning, Shapiro sent Tiról a cold email asking to meet up to learn more about the project. Tiról was skeptical, especially after experiencing apathy from others whom he’d sent material.
But he ultimately agreed.
On another rainy day in New York City, they met for coffee and talked for three hours. Shapiro said he wanted to help Tiról finish the musical and get it produced, coming on board as a co-creator. Plenty of workshops and readings later, “On This Side of the World” premiered at East West Players' David Henry Hwang Theater in downtown L.A. on May 14.
Tiról wrote the music and lyrics and Shapiro directed “On This Side of the World,” about a woman who flies from the Philippines to the U.S. with a one-way ticket and a book full of stories, helping her — and the other plane passengers — find strength in the journey ahead. The musical, produced in association with FilAm Arts and running until June 10, is an anthology of stories based on the real-life accounts of Filipino American immigrants.
Tiról's goal is to add a perspective to the musical genre that is rarely portrayed onstage, bringing together a community that he sought at the beginning of his own journey.
Tiról immigrated from Manila to Boston in 2012, leaving behind a corporate career to pursue one in music therapy. At 34, he returned to college. After four semesters at Berklee College of Music in Boston, he pivoted to musical theater writing at New York University on a full-tuition scholarship.
“On This Side of the World” was born as a class assignment at NYU. Tiról was tasked with picking a community and writing a collection of songs over two years. He chose the Filipino immigrant community in the U.S.
“I had a lot of Filipino immigrant friends whose stories I could borrow to turn into songs and I did not know at the time of any other Filipino immigrant composer-lyricists who were writing about the Filipino American immigrant experience,” he said.
He wrote six songs that later became part of “On This Side of the World.” He continued writing after completing his master of fine arts program, creating more songs and refining others.
After connecting with Shapiro, the duo traveled with the show to residencies and workshops. “On This Side of the World” was one of eight shows selected for the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Annual Festival of New Musicals in 2020. It was their first exposure to Southern California, Tiról said. The experience allowed them to meet Snehal Desai, East West Players' producing artistic director (recently appointed Center Theatre Group’s artistic director).
“I was really blown away by the songs and also Paulo’s story as an immigrant, as someone who was in music therapy, as someone who had this very nontraditional path into theater and into musical theater writing,” Desai said.
As Tiról and Shapiro moved forward, they had to give the show repertoire a shape. During a reading of the musical at Musical Theatre West in Long Beach in early 2022, they discovered the story setting: a plane trip to the U.S.
They made the opening number “One Way Ticket,” a song following six strangers boarding a plane in Manila to an unknown life in America. The character Jemmalyn (Zandi De Jesus) became the leading voice, carrying a book of stories she collected from other Filipino immigrants in America. As each character presents their worries about starting a new life, a new story unfolds. Tiról pulled from his own experience with a one-way ticket to Boston.
“One of the first things I did was contact all my Filipino immigrant friends who are already living in the U.S. and asked them what their lives were like and what stories they had to tell,” he said about moving to the U.S.
During the plane ride, he replayed the stories over and over in his head. The same goes for Jemmalyn and plenty of others who bought a one-way ticket to the U.S.
“The reason I added the Act II opener (‘Hold On/In Mid-Air’), which talks about being in midair, is because I feel it expands the show from being simply about the immigrant experience to seeing the immigrant experience as an experience of being in between,” Tiról said. “I think everyone has experienced being in between, whether it's facing the unknown or making a choice or waiting to commit to something or waiting for something to happen.”
The stories presented on the David Henry Hwang stage encouraged audiences, including Desai’s mother, to reflect on their own experiences.
“She opened up about her experience coming over at 23 in the ’70s and she hadn’t thought about it in decades,” Desai said.
Part of the reason Shapiro decided to help Tiról get the project to the stage was because he wanted to spotlight marginalized voices.
“I thought that the New York theater scene, in particular, was very insular,” he said. “It was really focusing on American and New York stories, primarily white and affluent stories, and I wanted to expand the range of stories that were available.”
The show arrived in L.A. just after “Here Lies Love,” the first Broadway musical with an all-Filipino cast, was announced on May 1. Tiról recalled a gathering in L.A. following the news, where “Here Lies Love” cast member Lea Salonga shared the watershed moment for Filipino American theater by also highlighting Tiról and “On This Side of the World.”
Tiról and Shapiro’s musical is not just about the daunting side of making a new home. It is also about the joys of community and a new life.
When Tiról got on his Japan Airlines flight in 2012, he never thought he would end up with a musical at the oldest Asian American theater group in the country. He didn’t think he’d find love and get married. His initial plan was to eventually return to Manila. Life had different plans.
In “Things I Don’t Know Yet,” Jemmalyn sings, “On my 82nd birthday, amid the speeches and champagne, I start to laugh. I’m just another Filipino who stepped aboard a plane.”
“When I think about that line these days, I wonder what did I do to deserve to be the one to write this musical and celebrate our stories and get the response it’s gotten,” Tiról said. “It’s astounding.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.