Romeo Candido tells us how a viral video inspired his new musical Prison Dancer
The Emmy-nominated director has created Canada's first all-Filipino musical production
In 2007, a video of 1,500 inmates at a Filipino maximum security prison dancing to Michael Jackson's Thriller was uploaded to YouTube, creating one of the internet's first viral videos. The clip has since amassed more than 59 million views.
Inspired by the sense of community in the video, Canadian director Romeo Candido decided to adapt it into a musical with his friend and collaborator, Carmen De Jesus. The production, called Prison Dancer, is Canada's first all-Filipino musical.
Thanks to some grant funding, Candido and De Jesus were able to visit the prison in 2019. In an interview with Q guest host Talia Schlanger, Candido reflects on his feelings of personal responsibility after getting the chance to meet the real dancing inmates.
"It was very emotional because for about six years while working on the musical, all I knew of [the prison] was from the BBC documentaries, or just the documentaries that existed," he explains.
"Going in there — the smell, the sound, seeing the place that I'd only seen on screen — it was really profound because then I realized, 'Oh, we're not just making a musical for entertainment.' I just felt responsible. I didn't have that responsibility before, but then after meeting them, I was responsible."
While visiting the prison, Candido was on a quest to find one particular inmate. In the original video, this person was the only one dressed as a woman among the other dancing inmates. Candido was so inspired by their self-expression he based the protagonist of Prison Dancer — a genderqueer character named Lola — after them.
"In Thriller, there's Michael Jackson and then there's the woman that he's dancing with," he says. "I was looking for this inmate who played the woman…. There's this one person who's dressed as a female dancing with these inmates, expressing themselves. And so I wanted to find that person. I went on a quest to find the person, to thank them for inspiring me, to thank them for changing my life, to thank them for helping me create the musical."
We give the most aspirational, hopeful and joyful version of the origin story of [the] prison dancer, but not without skimming over the real dangers in prison.- Romeo Candido
But after speaking to the inmates' friends in the facility, Candido learned that they had died from a drug overdose.
"That moment really shook me," he tells Schlanger. "In my head, I had held this idea that I was going to be able to tell them that they're responsible for this thing that has given so many people joy, but then they're not here.
"I realized that these lives are real and it's not always happy endings. But in this musical, we give the most aspirational, hopeful and joyful version of the origin story of [the] prison dancer, but not without skimming over the real dangers in prison, like addiction."
Prison Dancer is on stage now at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa until Dec. 2. You can also stream some of the songs from the musical on Spotify.
The full interview with Romeo Candido is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Interview with Romeo Candido produced by Vanessa Greco.