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Grammy and Tony award winning-producer Jhett Tolentino

By Louella Losinio


“Who the hell is Jhett Tolentino?”


The New York theater community and fans wondered when Tolentino bagged his first Tony as a producer for '"Vanya, Sonya, Masha and Spike"' in 2013.  


A decade later, the Guam community asked the same question when Tolentino announced he would make a film here.


Before going into filmmaking, he started in theater. Not even a year on Broadway, Tolentino proved it was more than luck when he won back-to-back awards as a producer for "A Raisin in the Sun" and "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder."


"The (Broadway) producing community is a very small group (of people). Some producers have been at it for years, and they have never won," he said.


Several years later, he would bag his first Grammy for producing the musical theater album for "The Color Purple." After being recognized by two prestigious award-giving bodies, Tolentino is two steps away from an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) as a producer.


From 2012 to 2018, Tolentino produced 13 Broadway shows and five off-Broadway shows. For some of his productions, he worked with Jennifer Hudson, Denzel Washington, Cynthia Erivo and Sigourney Weaver.


Despite these successes, he would soon find himself reassessing his theater-producing career after an epiphany:  "The economics of Broadway do not make sense to me anymore," Tolentino said. "In one season, I had five shows. These are live performances several times a week."


"The promotions, the marketing. It was a cutthroat business, and only a very few survived. Out of 40 to 45 Shows produced in a year (in Broadway), only 20 percent will make it to recoupment, only half of that will make a profit," he added.

Aside from the economics of theater production, he said the storytelling became too predictable for him, so he searched for another medium to create his own and support those with compelling stories to tell. 


Tolentino found one in filmmaking. His creative journey would eventually take him to Guam after reading the script for "Re-Live: A Tale of an American Island

 Cheerleader," a movie based on the life of Emmy-nominated actress Rain Valdez, who grew up in Dededo and attended Simon Sanchez High School.


He said there was something about the script that pulled him to Guam. 

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"Re-Live" is about Rowena (Valdez), a transgender Hollywood actress. She returns to Guam to attend her 10-year high school reunion. During the "Do Over Week," she plans to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a cheerleader. However, this journey also means confronting her Catholic family.


In 2022, GLAAD recognized "Re-Live" for its LGBTQ-inclusive script. It has attracted the attention of Hollywood actress Rosario Dawson, who signed up as executive producer.


"The storytelling aspect of a film is important," Tolentino said.


Tolentino believes that one's actions shape life. This personal philosophy is reflected in his autobiographical short documentary, "Life Is What You Make It."


Growing up in the slums of Iloilo City, Philippines, Tolentino knew what it was like to make a breakthrough out of a seemingly impossible situation. "I grew up around (an area) with drugs and prostitution; at a young age, I was telling myself, do I become part of my parents' burden, or do I become a part of the solution?"


At 12, he intuitively knew that a better life awaited outside his village. "I was just driven to get out of that place, knowing that something bigger awaits me," he said.


He landed a high school and college scholarship from Meguko Society, a Japanese-based student organization. After getting an accounting degree, he worked in business and finance in the Philippines.


He moved to California in 2002 and found himself in New York several years later. While he worked for the business and healthcare industry to pay the rent, he was nurturing a budding interest in the theater.


After work, he watched plays and wrote reviews on his blog, "All About the Theater." His reviews attracted the attention of Broadway producers, who started inviting him to their shows.


"So just like that, I tried to be in the entertainment industry because I was in New York. I was never exposed to any art form growing up in Iloilo City. Art is not accessible in the province. Art in the Philippines is just for wealthy "people," he said.


He later shut down his blog, ending his career as a theater critic and switching to theater production.


Now that he has moved to filmmaking, he has more control over storytelling. Predictable plotlines and tropes do not appeal to him. He likes to be on his toes. 


That's why he produced and directed "Asian Persuasion," starring Hollywood actor Dante Basco and Filipina actress KC Concepcion. Tolentino described it as a rom-com with a plot revolving around an unusual scheme concocted by one of the main characters to evade alimony obligations.


The film, which premiered on Guam last year, won the 2023 Audience Choice Award at the SOHO International Film Festival in New York City and received a Best Film nomination.

"Re-Live: A Tale of an American Island Cheerleader" follows "Asian Persuasion" in his lineup. While production for "Re-Live" has stalled for a while, Tolentino is pushing for the project to start soon. 


In preparation, Tolentino's team has started working with cultural and production consultants to represent the local culture accurately. Last year, the team scouted locations and held auditions for local talents. "I want to make it happen here on Guam. I believe that when we start that (movie), more opportunities will come here," he said.


Meanwhile, Tolentino has been actively pursuing his other advocacies. Among these is his push for a more inclusive Grammy nomination process, advocating for independent musicians to have a fair chance at being nominated. 


In addition to this, Tolentino also ensures that his film projects include Filipino and other Asian talents in the soundtrack. For "Asian Persuasion," he actively sought out talents and material.


He sees this as his way of giving back. "Who knew someone from the slums of Iloilo could be a Grammy voter and win a Grammy? Now that I am in this position, I am also extending that opportunity." 


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