Paulo Tirol’s ‘On This Side of the World’: From a school project to a full musical experience

Paulo Tirol started writing On This Side of the World in 2013, in his first year of his MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. It was for a class that started with the simple instruction: choose a community of people that you are interested in, that can inspire a song cycle — i.e., a collection of songs — which you will build over two years.

“For my community, I chose the Filipino immigrant community in the US. It was a community I was a part of and familiar with, being a Filipino immigrant myself, and had many Filipino immigrants for friends,” Tirol shared. “And also because it was something unique to me—something only I could write.”

The cast of On This Side of the World: Michael Protacio, Jaygee Macapugay, Diane Phelan, Kevin Schuering, Joanne Javien, and Albert Guerzon. | Photo © Lia Chang

Between then and now, the project has evolved but the idea has remained the same: songs inspired by the Filipino immigrant experience in the US.

That idea has taken on so much more depth and breadth than when he started because in the beginning stages of the project, Tirol’s Filipino immigrant community comprised of fellow grad students, medical professionals, and artists in Boston, where he had spent a year before moving to New York for grad school.

Over the years since 2013, his community has expanded dramatically.

“I lead music every Sunday for a predominantly Filipino parish in Jersey City, which includes Filipinos of all backgrounds, professions, and ages, and who speak different Filipino dialects and come from all parts of the Philippines,” Tirol said.

Jersey City, where he lives, has a huge Filipino community, served by a Jollibee, Max’s Fried Chicken, Red Ribbon Bakeshop, and local businesses like Philippine Bread House, Fil-Stop grocery, and Fiesta Grill.

“My husband, a high school science teacher, has Filipino colleagues and lots of first-generation Filipino students. And most recently, I’ve met and worked and become friends with a number Filipino-American actors, including some who have performed on Broadway, national tours, and at major regional theatres,” Tirol said.

As his community of Filipino immigrants has expanded, so has the array of stories and characters that have gripped, intrigued and inspired him.

“But my perspective and inspiration has not only shifted in terms of breadth, but in terms of depth as well. I now have a sense of mission, both for the theatre community and for the Filipino community at large,” he said.

Since the reading of On This Side of the World at Access Theatre last February, the theatre community has welcomed this piece with an excitement that Tirol said he honestly didn’t expect.

From Filipino-American actors who are excited to share their own culture and heritage, to tell their communities’ own stories, to play characters from their own lives to Asian-American actors who are excited for new roles, new stories, and opportunities to perform outside of Miss Saigon, The King and I, and Flower Drum Song.

The broader theatre community is excited for work that is about and created by an underrepresented minority.

“I am thrilled that for the production of On This Side of the World this month, we have a cast, production team, and design team from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and it is wonderful to be able to tell these stories all together,” Tirol said proudly.

And for the Filipino community at large, his mission is to share the community’s stories with pride, honesty and love.

For a long time, he was reluctant to really put this piece out there—which is why it took so long to finish—thinking that these were stories no one was really interested in hearing.

That was his thinking, until his collaborator, director Noam Shapiro—who isn’t Filipino—believed in it so much and pushed him to finish it and helped him present it.

The reaction he has been getting are all positive, convincing him that this is a piece worth sharing.

“The Filipino immigrant story is one of courage, sacrifice, searching for identity, struggling to belong, and ultimately, redefining home—and come to think of it, isn’t that every person’s story?—and I am happy to be telling it,” he said.

Next Step

It is Tirol’s dream for On This Side of the World to be seen by more people. The production at Access Theater in May is a next step—a big next step—but not an end-point.

“I would love for the show to have a future life in New York City’s theatre scene—and I feel it fits with many not-for-profit theatres’ mission of diversity and representation—and also for it to get produced in theaters around the country, particularly in places with large Filipino communities, like California (both San Francisco and Los Angeles), Las Vegas, Texas, and Hawaii. I would also love for the show to eventually be produced in the Philippines,” he shared.

At a recent reading, Tirol received feedback from a diverse group of audience who went to see it.

Asked about how he feels when someone tells him that he made them laugh or cry with his songs, Tirol said he feels relieved that his joke landed, and his tearjerker lines worked!

“Seriously, that is the greatest reward I can have as a writer—not to know that the audience laughed or cried, per se, but to know that your writing connected with and touched a listener in a very real, very deep way. My most fulfilling moments have not been being applauded or praised, but being told that my writing was uplifting, cathartic, inspiring, the answer to a prayer,” he said.

He remembers a professor who once told him that the problem with his writing was that it was too earnest. For a while, he decided to veer away from such earnestness, thinking that it was what it meant to be a dramatist in New York City—but it just wasn’t fulfilling.

“With On This Side of the World, I’ve decided to embrace this earnestness—but still keeping an eye on craft—and I like the artist I’ve become, and I’m grateful to have found artists to work with who view theatre the same way,” he admitted.

As a writer, Tirol loves being able to help people laugh at themselves and their circumstances, and in a way, help people feel less alone in their sadness, help people give words and sound to their thoughts and feelings, and help people feel seen and validated—which is why he is so grateful that he is able to do that through his writing.

Tirol’s Journey

Tirol was a corporate professional, liturgical musician, and super-fan of western musical theatre until he moved to Boston in 2012 to study at Berklee College of Music. A year later, he moved to NYU Tisch School of the Arts, when he was offered a full tuition scholarship to attend the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program as a composer, which he completed in 2015.

Tirol finished his two years at NYU as a composer, and met his husband-to-be Jeremy while he was there. He moved to Jersey City, where Jeremy lived, and in May 2015, his parents flew in from Manila to see him graduate from NYU and to be at their wedding.

Tirol says he is so grateful to be working with his director Noam Chomsky.

Though he isn’t Filipino, he’s the son of an immigrant, which Tirol believes, gives him some insight into the immigrant experience; but more than that, he has a genuine interest in and respect for the stories, and such a care for and understanding of the human experience at large, that enable them to make these stories meaningful and accessible to all people regardless of their immigrant and cultural backgrounds.

“Further, through Noam’s help, we’ve assembled a multicultural cast, production team, and design team, and I just feel so honored that we’re coming together to tell these stories through such a multinational lens, bringing them to the broadest audience we can,” he shared.

To cap the interview, we asked Tirol if there was anything else he wanted to share?

“Just that I’m really grateful. A lot of people ask if I’m proud of myself, or nervous, or excited,” he said. “I am all of those, but more than any of those, I’m grateful to have arrived at this point, for the gift of being able to write and share On This Side of the World, and for all the people I know who have been part of this journey and who will continue to be on this journey.”

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