LOS ANGELES — When Paulo K Tiról decided to make the one-way move from Manila to Boston more than a decade ago, he contacted all of his friends who had traveled that same path before him. He had a lot of questions.
“What’s it like? What are your stories? What are your experiences?” he recalled asking. “I collected them, and I spent the flight from Manila to Tokyo to Boston, just replaying those stories in my mind as I psyched myself up for what’s in store as I start this life in a new place.”
Tiról didn’t know it then, but he was laying the groundwork for what would become his first fully produced musical, “On This Side of the World,” currently having its world premiere at East West Players in Los Angeles. The composer and lyricist was in the graduate musical theater program at New York University when the class was given the assignment of writing a set of songs about an immigrant community.
Not only had Tiról already done his homework, he realized he had a very rare opportunity.
“I did not know of any other Filipino immigrant composers writing Filipino immigrant stories,” he said.
In fact, there is such a lack of material out there that director and co-creator Noam Shapiro says this new work allowed the all-Filipino cast to play something none of them had never played before: contemporary Filipino characters.
“One of our actors said they’d been in the industry for 14 years. And this is their first Filipino role,” Shapiro said.
“On This Side of the World” is a song cycle that follows the journey of a woman who, like Tiról, has a one-way ticket and a collection of stories. Throughout the course of the flight, actors slide into different characters, each song its own complete individual arc.
Sitting on suitcases on the historic stage in Little Tokyo, the pair took a moment from the busy preps of tech week to try to take it all in.
“It hasn’t sunk in fully, to be honest,” Tiról admitted.
He had heard of East West Players before and is thrilled for the work to premiere at the longest running Asian American theater in the country, which has been run for the past seven years by producing artistic director Snehal Desai. During his tenure, he has made it a priority to champion new works.
“We’ve been really interested in stories of people of color by people of color,” Desai said. “Usually, we do one new play a year, if not two. And now, we’ve been trying to do one world-premiere musical a year as well.”
However, this is the last one he will help shepherd onto this stage. This summer, he will be stepping into a new role: artistic director of Center Theatre Group, just up the hill from EWP. He’ll be the first person of color to hold that position.
“Visibility matters. I think it just matters who we see on our stage, who we hear from, whose stories are getting permission to be told,” Desai said. “CTG has always tried to be inclusive, and so… what I hope is that the visibility of a person of color in this position opens up the doors… to be inclusive in different ways. And what I love is, I’m coming from East West and… what I think we won’t be leaving behind will be kind of the energy we’ve had. We’re going to try to bring that to CTG and to bring it to scale it in a citywide way.”
He didn’t plan it this way, but Desai thinks “On This Side of the World” is the perfect show to make his exit on — a funny, heartfelt, bittersweet, completely authentic new work.
“It feels really right,” he said. “It feels like the culmination of everything that I’ve been doing here during my time at East West and what we’ve been wanting for our community.”
Tiról and Shapiro, whose mother immigrated from the Middle East, have been working on this musical for years, but its premiere is very timely, coinciding with the expiration of Title 42, a COVID-era immigration policy. The show tells the stories of immigrants from all walks of life, why they came and what their lives are like, including one who is undocumented.
“Our goal was to just show the whole spectrum of immigrant experiences,” Shapiro explained. “So many of us have come from other places before we got to here, and so many more people will come. And that’s what makes this country so special.”
“The net effect that we’re going for is just hope and joy, and wonder and love,” Tiról said.