In 2007, Filipino warden Byron Garcia posted a video of 1500 inmates from the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller." The sight of 1500 bright orange uniforms getting jiggy to Jackon's biggest hit in a prison yard instantly went viral, with more than 50,000,000 views to date. The video was first uploaded to show the world how dance can be used as a rehabilitation tool to teach prisoners discipline, and fitness, and other clips of the inmates dancing to "Jai Ho" and Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" soon followed. Since then, other Philippine penitentiaries have established the unusual rehabilitation program. The maximum security prison is now a tourist attraction. They've been featured on international media outlets such as CNN, and the prisoners even have a part in Michael Jackson's posthumous movie This Is It, dancing to the "History" with Jackson's choreographers. Most recently, the viral videos inspired a musical that seeks to gain traction on the Internet.
Prison Dancer is an interactive, 12-part web series that explores the fictional lives of nine characters (six inmates, a guard, a girlfriend and a journalist) in a Philippine prison. Like most musicals, it's a slick, fast-paced production. The only difference? They're released every two weeks in 4-5 minute segments, for free, on YouTube. The choreography and the songs catchy pop ballads that wouldn't be out of place in a Chris Brown album are delivered with a "Glee-meets-Miss Saigon" panache. It's a fantastical take on what could've been happening behind the scenes if you swooped down on that prison yard and dissected the dancer's lives one by one.
Creators Romeo Candido and Carmen de Jesus originally wrote the musical for the stage in 2009. The pair had met on the Canadian cast of the musical Miss Saigon, and had most recently created the full-length feature Ang Pamana: The Inheritance together. While Prison Dancer is inspired by the dancing inmates of Cebu, it's not based on their story. "Musical theater is a fantastical art form," Candido says. "[Other Pinoys] were questioning whether we had a license to tell the story of prisoners in the Philippines... But we're not trying to tell their story. We're trying to tell a story, and each of the characters' journeys reflect our journeys about redemption and breaking through appearances and perceptions. And that's what we go through as Filipino artists."
The actors are all of Filipino ethnicity, most of whom were born and raised in Canada and the United States. Their idea of Filipino characters are drawn mostly from relatives who migrated to North America decades ago. Stand outs include Mikey Bustos, who plays Christian Escodero. Bustos, a former contestant of Canadian Idol is a viral Internet star in his own right (google his hilarious Filipino tutorials about the Filipino accent and eating crab). Jeigh Madjus plays Ruperto "Lola" Poblador's cross dressing character, and steals virtually every scene he's in with his angelic voice and onscreen charisma.
De Jesus, a San Fernando Valley native, says Prison Dancer was always conceived as a musical. But it morphed into various forms before it became a web series first as a screenplay, then a stage play. "Ultimately for a musical, stage is great," de Jesus says. "That's really where you want to be, because live ticket sales is where everyone's going to make their money," she adds. But after producer Ana Serrano saw a stage reading of the script, she urged Candido and de Jesus to transform Prison Dancer into a transmedia property. "It came out of the web, was inspired by the web, and has very specific, modern sensibilities and elements to it [that's] easily turned into a transmedia property," Serrano explained.
Trans wha? "Transmedia property" means the story of Prison Dancer is told on multiple mediums: online, via YouTube and social media platforms, and also via traditional arts avenues, such on film and onstage.
To do this, the writers truncated the 90-minute screenplay into 12 episodes, and re-imagined everything. "Four to five minutes long that's all the time we had to introduce our characters, build a performance of the songs and to tell the story," de Jesus says. They couldn't just film the series like a normal TV show and show it in chunks. "We had to think of how people consume media on the YouTube platform and why. [Prison Dancer] is very theatrical, it's very dramatic, but nobody's going to watch that stuff on a YouTube video, because that's not why people watch YouTube videos," she pauses. Then adds, "You want to either laugh, uplifted by something funny, or you want to see something awesome."
And because viewers can't have a catharsis in under five minutes, the Prison Dancer story that exists online right now is a filling taste of what could be. Some of the more dramatic story lines were cut. Song sequences were changed. De Jesus says, "We want [viewers] to care about our characters and have them come back, so we give them not quite enough."
The result is an ambitious conglomeration of content. Online, the web episodes share real estate with videos of the songs featured on the show. In the first episode, viewers are asked to explore the story further after the expository scene; to do it, you have to click on each character within the YouTube video. Episode 4's Lola-centric, Lady Gaga-inspired segment asked audiences to remix the song "Lose Your Way" and share it on their Facebook page (http://facebook.com/prisondancer). There are multiple platforms to access Prison Dancer; a 12-song album culminates the season. When Season 1 is finished, it will be released as an iPad package. Even the way Prison Dancer is presented transcends mediums; at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival last month, the creators presented the series without lead vocals so all the songs could be performed live.
Producer Serrano says the group decided to concentrate on the web series to develop a Prison Dancer singing culture. "Musical theater is a very unique form, and you need to really love that form to [be an aficionado]," Serrano says. Their hope is that the web series will create an audience who understands the story, knows the songs and characters that way, she says, "we'll then engender an interest in the actual screen play. So that's the experiment we're trying to conduct right now."
De Jesus says giving the whole world access to Prison Dancer for free, on the Internet makes it something that can be experienced on a universal level. "Anyone around the world can watch it," she says. And that definitely also speaks to the Filipino diaspora, and the project's appeal across national borders.
"Everything Romeo and I have done, from Ang Pamana to Prison Dancer, has tried to integrate and reconcile our North American identity and yearning to be connected to our kababayan (countrymen) in the Philippines. And we're really trying to build a bridge [between the two]," de Jesus says.
"Filipinos--if we're not in the Philippines we're always yearning and searching for ways to feel connected to our identity to express it, learn about it. The next step is to evolve it together. That's what's happening in Prison Dancer."
Top Image: Lola strikes a pose.