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Jhett Tolentino: Life is what you make it

Virgilio A. Reyes, Jr., former Philippine Ambassador to Italy

Jhett Dizon Tolentino, Filipino winner of three Tony awards and one Grammy award by age 40, has defied all odds. At age 44, his glittering career would make one think he was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.

On the contrary.

Born and raised in an indigent family in Iloilo City, he grew up with no reassurance that he would finish high school, let alone college. His father Artur Tolentino whose father Antonio was originally from Bataan, a jeepney driver, and his homemaker mother Gloria Dizon from Sorsogon, informed him upon graduation from elementary school that as they were burdened with educating his older siblings, they did not have the means to send him to high school. Barangay Calumpang in Iloilo, where the family lived, was one of the most impoverished areas in the city.

Showing initiative and pluck that are hallmarks of his personality and career, Jhett at the young age of 12, found a way to finance his schooling. The Parish of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal received funding for needy students from the Meguko Society, a student organization of the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan. Admittedly only an average student, Tolentino nevertheless persisted in finishing high school, at which point the scholarship ended since it was only meant for that level. He was able to persuade the Meguko Society to sponsor him as well through college at the University of Iloilo.

Though wishing to major in Tourism and eventually to work as an airline crew member, Jhett chose to study Accounting since his proposed field was not offered at that university. But his accounting skills would propel him towards international jobs in Hong Kong and San Francisco after a five-year stint in the Philippines as bookkeeper, accountant and corporate secretary. He established his credentials first in these fields.

Doing double or even triple-time as sales and marketing man, waiter and babysitter in the San Francisco Bay Area, he then decided to move to the New York Tri-state area for a mortgage and finance job in 2004. It was here where he discovered his talent and affinity for the theatre profession. Ever the pragmatic person, he obtained training as a nursing assistant in 2006, which stood him in good stead when the market crashed in 2008; he entered the healthcare profession full time. To amuse himself, he began writing reviews of theatre shows in his blogs, his entrée into this vital area of New York entertainment. The rest is history.

In 2013, he won as producer the Tony for Best Play - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike with Sigourney Weaver; in 2014, he won the Best Musical with A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and the Best Play Revival of A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington. He produced the cast album of The Color Purple, which won the 59th Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album.

He then entered filmmaking with his own autobiographical Life Is What You Make It. In 2019, he produced Isabel Sandoval’s feature film, Lingua Franca which premiered at the 76th Venice Film Festival and was nominated for the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award.

Jhett Tolentino is making his feature directorial debut in the upcoming rom-com, Asian Persuasion starring Dante Basco and Toni Gonzaga.

As is his wont, Jhett Tolentino will surprise us all once more. Life, after all, is what you make of it.

From the Editor

Roots & Wings would like to congratulate Grammy and Tony award-winning producer Jhett Tolentino, who won Best Short Documentary for 'Life Is What You Make It at the 2019 New Vision International Film Festival (NVIFF ). 'This a prestigious film festival, with a strong emphasis on discovering and encouraging new independent talent, supporting visionary films and bringing together all elements of film-making and storytelling. '


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